Sunday, October 9, 2011

On the Altar of the Gods

Temple of Capitoline Triad
Jupiter, Juno and Minerva
Thugga, Tunisia
One of the most fascinating aspects of ancient history for me is religion. I’m particularly interested in the smaller day-to-day religious practices of people. Ancient warfare holds the most interest for me and so, naturally, the beliefs and superstitions of soldiers are some things that I can’t read enough about.
Soldiers in the ancient world often dealt with and faced death on a daily basis. How did they find the strength and courage to get up in the morning for another march to another battle? The horrors witnessed, and committed by, soldiers of every rank must have been terrible, even to men who (let’s face it) were of much sterner stuff than we are today.

Mithras Slaying the Bull
Louvre Museum Collection
Soldiers were notoriously superstitious, as were most people in the ancient world. I say ‘superstitious’ but really, I suppose that is just another way of saying that people’s faith in the ancient world was worn more on their sleeve, so to speak, than beneath their shirts. Devotion to certain gods was lauded openly from small household shrines and larger-than-life statuary to magnificent temples that make up some of the wonders of the ancient world. Today, most people are more embarrassed than proud of their religious or spiritual beliefs, whatever they might be.

If one thing can be said of religion in the ancient (and medieval) worlds, it is that it inspired magnificent art, much of which is the source of our historical, architectural and social knowledge. For soldiers in the Roman Empire, the religion of choice was Mithraism. Mithras was originally a middle-eastern god that was adopted by the men of Rome. Rome may have been violent but it certainly was open to, and embraced, other religions – so long as the believers of other faiths did not stir up trouble (Christians certainly had a hard time in the beginning!).

Recently Discovered altar at
Musselburgh, Scotland
The cult of Mithras is shrouded in mystery, just as the Elefsinian mystery religion of ancient Greece. Why did soldiers in particular gravitate to this eastern god? As a god of light, Mithras shone through the darkness in which they often found themselves. Mithraism was a close brotherhood as well with varying grades of initiation. Initiates shared a very close bond and one in which all arguments were to be set aside, perhaps similar to the Masonic brotherhood as it later developed. A temple to Mithras was called a Mithraeum and was usually located underground or in a cave. Ceremonies were carried out in near-darkness.

Through ancient art, two of the most well-known scenes of Mithraism are the image of Mithras slaying the bull in a cave (in darkness) and, Mithras at banquet with the god Sol. Anyone who has seen the HBO series ROME will remember the first episode when Attia, Octavian’s mother, is drenched in the blood of a bull that is sacrificed above her. In this scene, Attia is praying to Magna Mater (the Great Mother) but in reality, the practice of sacrificing a bull (called tauroctony) and letting the blood pour over oneself was a key part of Mithraism. The scene in ROME, dramatic as it was, was a bit of dramatic license on the part of the director and writer.

Relief carving of Sol with hollowed-out
eyes, mouth and sun rays
Musselburgh altar
I read an article not long ago about the discovery of two Mithraic altars found in Musselburgh, Scotland. The altars are extremely well-preserved with bits of paint yet remaining on the relief. They are the most northern discovery related to the cult of Mithras and the first Mithraic discoveries in Scotland. Side panels on the first altar depict items involved in offerings to the god such as a jug and a bowl for pouring libations. The panels also show a lyre and a griffin. On the front is a dedication to the god Mithras by a centurion. This discovery sheds light on the Roman occupation of Inveresk. The second altar stone bears a depiction of the god Sol, surrounded by female faces depicting the four seasons each wearing ornate headdresses. The fascinating thing about the depiction of Sol is that the eyes, mouth and rays of the solar crown are all hollowed out so that lamplight from behind could illuminate the face of the god. What a fantastic find!

The Four Seasons on
the Musselburgh altar
I used to despair from time to time in my studies (especially archaeology class) that there really was not any more left to discover. Happily, I was wrong. There is a lot more to discover about the ancient world.
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