Mithraism - a Roman mystery
in Andalucia, Spain
By Nick Nutter | 14 Nov 2020
The Romans worshipped a whole range of gods and goddesses and tolerated other religions and belief systems so long as they did not interfere with the good order and running of their Empire. What is less well known is that the Roman authorities had little tolerance for many of the ‘secret societies’ or ‘mysteries’ as they called them, taking the view that those societies were likely to be subversive. Two of the more notorious societies were the Eleusinian mysteries and the Dionysian mysteries.
The Eleusinian cults were abolished in the 4th Century BC by the Roman emperor, Theodosius the Great.
The Dionysian initiates worshipped Dionysus, the god of wine who represented the primitive nature of humans, which his followers believed was accessible through wine’s ability to lower inhibitions. One of their less salubrious rituals involved the dismembering of a person representing Dionysus to allow the god to be reborn. Dionysians went out of their way to be controversial. Some of their rituals were enacted in public; frenzied, drunken orgies, the playing of instruments called bullroarers and the sacrifice of animals using a double-headed axe followed by the drinking of the animal’s blood mixed with wine.
Banning a society only made it that much more attractive to certain people. The Roman emperors had a lot of trouble with these mysteries.
Many male Romans, particularly members of the military, were members of a mystery and one of the most mysterious was one called Mithraism, popular between the 1st and 4th centuries AD. Followers of Mithraism worshipped the Indo-Iranian deity Mithras, the god of friendship, contract and order. Mithraism was one of very few secret societies that were tolerated by the Roman Emperors because the group proclaimed support of imperial power.
Over 200 Mithras temples, or Mithraea, have been found stretching from Syria to Britain, with the majority in Italy, and along the Rhine and Danube rivers.
Only three Mithraea have been found in Spain, one at Lugo near Santiago de Compostella in Galicia another at Mérida in Extremadura province and the third at Cabra in Córdoba province.
In 1951, at a Roman site close to Cabra now called the Villa Mithra, a farmer found a statue of Mithras. Sometime later, after he was suitably rewarded by the church council, the statue became an exhibit at the Archaeological Museum of Córdoba. A replica was made in 1975 for the museum at Cabra. It was assumed that the villa was one location where members of this mystery met. The Cabra museum curators built a replica of a Mithraea, an underground vault in which the members met and practised their rites.
Members were expected to graduate through seven grades of initiation, each grade being commended to a different planetary god. Novices joined as Corax, their deity being Mercury and progressed to Nymphus (Venus), Miles (Mars), Leo (Jupiter), Perses (Luna), Heliodromus (Sol) and finally Pater (Saturn). Each grade had accompanying symbols that were displayed on a gown. The promotion to each level was witnessed by the other members and included an oath of secrecy and obedience and a catechism.
Not surprisingly, being so secret, there are not many of these catechisms around today, in fact, only one is known, and that was found on a fragment of papyrus in Egypt. It refers to the promotion to Leo grade and consists of several statements made by the Pater and responses by the initiate. Presumably, the initiate had to make correct responses to pass the test. There is no record of what happened to him if he failed.
The god Mithras was probably ‘borrowed’ by the Romans from the Persians who worshipped Mithra. He was supposedly born from a rock as a youth, naked and carrying a knife or dagger in one hand and a torch in the other. His claim to fame is his single handed killing of a bull, an image that always appears in a Mithraea in the most prominent position above an altar. The image could be a relief in stone or, as at Cabra, a statue. This depiction is called the tauroctony. Mithras’s second claim to fame is his banquet with Sol, both reclining on the hide of the slaughtered bull.
Of the Mithraea discovered, many in Rome, others in Numidia, Dalmatia, Egypt and Britain, all appeared to have two long stone benches large enough for about 30 men. It has been suggested that they were used by the members who lounged on them whilst they enjoyed a banquet. Food preparation rooms adjoined the vault. Mithraea, by the way, is a modern term; the Romans referred to their sacred cellars as speleum (from which our word speleology derives) or crypta.
Members of the cult recognised each other by a handshake. Now that sounds familiar.Return to History Articles series of articles
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About the Author
Nick has lived and worked in Andalucia for over 20 years. He and his partner, Julie Evans, have travelled extensively and dug deep into the history and culture, producing authoritative articles on all aspects of the region. Nick has written four books about Andalucia and writes articles for other websites and blogs.