Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Cult of Mithras – the British Connection

by Adam Alexander Haviaras

Carrawburgh Mithreaum
I wasn’t sure if I would be able to write this post for you today.

You see, my father passed away suddenly this past January, and I’ve been reeling ever since. In my books, I often write about violence, death, and dying, but I do feel hamstrung now that it has hit so close to home.

As ever, history has been my refuge these past weeks, the crucible in which I am able to withstand the most difficult things which life has to throw at me.

Oddly enough, the most recent book I finished writing is called Thanatos (that’s Greek for ‘Death’). This is the third and final instalment in my historical horror series, The Carpathian Interlude. The book is set during the reign of Emperor Augustus along the Danube frontier.

London Mithraeum
by Wikimedia user Solar
I know, that’s not Britannia, but there is a connection. The main character in the book is a devotee of Mithras, and this eastern god plays a large role in the life he and his fellow troops lead, as Mithras did among the men of the Legions, from the Middle East all the way to northern Britannia.

My research into the cult of Mithras over the course of three books has been fascinating, and yet the details elusive. This was a ‘mystery religion’, which means the devotees were sworn to secrecy as to the specifics of their rituals and beliefs. Nothing was written down, and so, because of this secrecy, guessing is about as good as things can get, which is not necessarily a bad thing for a novelist!

In Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Persia, Mithras was one of the Kazads, a god of light and truth beneath the high god, Ahura Mazda. Beneath the Kazads were the Daevas, cruel divinities, and then below them the Usij, false priests of the Daevas.

When Romans began adopting Mithras as a god, and Mithraism as a religion, they put their own unique spin on the belief system, making Roman Mithraism something quite different from the beliefs of Zoroastrianism.

As we know, the Romans were expert at adopting other societies’ inventions, weapons, gods and accompanying beliefs, and then making them their own.

Ruins in ancient Ostia
The cult of Mithras took hold some time during the first century A.D. Initiates were men only (though some believe there may have been female initiates in specific parts of the Empire), and mainly soldiers, merchants and lesser administrative officials. Aristocrats were not initiates, and so it seems that Mithraism was a sort of religion of the people.

Most of what we know of Roman Mithraism comes from archaeological evidence and inscriptions on altars. Initiates would meet underground, or in caves (or buildings designed to imitate caves) where they would gather for a sacred meal which they ate while reclining on benches located either side of an aisle.

In Britain, the best known examples of mithraea are located in London, and then along Hadrian’s Wall at Carrawburgh (Brocolita) and Rudchester (Vindobala). There was also one at Caernarfon (Roman Segontium). Where there were fighting men, there was often a mithraeum.

Always, the centrepiece of the mithraeum was the image of the tauroctony in which Mithras can be seen slaying the primordial bull, in a cave, flanked by his torch bearers, Cautes and Cautopates, the one holding the torch up, the other down, the one representing Light, the other Dark.

In truth, the tauroctony has many images that have kept scholars guessing about their meaning and how they relate to Mithraism – there are sheaves of wheat, a snake, a dog, a scorpion and other images to add to the mystery.

Relief of Tauroctony scene
Photo by Jean-Pol Grandmont*
Mithraism has been said to be a pre-cursor of Christianity, but it also appears to be something of a society similar to the Masonic Order, with secret meetings, handshakes and ritual trials that initiates had to undergo.

There were seven grades of initiates with accompanying tools or symbols, and deities for each level. They were, from lowest to highest: Corax (Mercury), Nymphus (Venus), Miles (Mars), Leo (Jupiter), Perses (Luna), Heliodromus (Sol), and Pater (Saturn).

Of all the altars found in mithraea, it is shown that many of the altars were dedicated by the Pater of the group.

In The Carpathian Interlude, my main character, an optio, is the Heliodromus, or ‘Sun Runner’, of his congregation. When the Pater of the group, his centurion, goes missing in the mountains beyond the frontier, the Heliodromus goes looking for him and so the adventure begins.

It was wonderful delving into Mithraism, even if I only scratched the surface. However, I wanted to view this mystery religion as more than just a social club with fancy meals and secret handshakes. Why did Roman troops gravitate so to the cult of Mithras when they had other gods like Mars, Jupiter and the rest of the Pantheon? What was it about Mithras that appealed to the men of the Legions?

This is just my personal thought on the matter, but I suspect that it has something to do with Light vs. Dark, and the fact that many of the troops, especially those living on frontiers such as Hadrian’s Wall, lived in Death’s shadow on a regular basis when they were at war.

Religion and faith help humans to face down the things they fear most. It is not surprising then that a lone trooper posted to Hadrian’s Wall, waiting for a Caledonian attack, might find strength in knowing that Mithras, a god of light, truth, and creation, had his back, as did his brothers-in-arms along that same frontier.

With the death of my father, I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, and it seems to me that when faced with death, or the constant threat of it, a little divine help and inspiration can help one to weather the storm.

Thank you for reading.

*"0 Relief représentant Mithra - Louvre-Lens (2)" by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT - Self-photographed. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:0_Relief_repr%C3%A9sentant_Mithra_-_Louvre-Lens_(2).JPG#mediaviewer/File:0_Relief_repr%C3%A9sentant_Mithra_-_Louvre-Lens_(2).JPG

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Adam Alexander Haviaras is an author/entrepreneur, blogger and historian. He is the author of the Eagles and Dragons historical fantasy series, The Carpathian Interlude historical horror series, and the new Mythologia series of mythological retellings.

Adam has studied ancient and medieval history and archaeology at the University of Toronto, Canada, and St. Andrews University, Scotland. He lives with his wife and children in Toronto, where he runs Eagles and Dragons Publishing with the goal of bringing the ancient and medieval worlds to life through quality historical fiction.

Adam is always happy to connect with readers, writers and those who love history in general. Connect with Adam at www.eaglesanddragonspublishing.com , on Twitter (@AdamHaviaras), on Google+ or on the Eagles and Dragons Facebook page.

Most of all, be sure to sign-up for e-mail updates at http://eaglesanddragonspublishing.com/newsletter-join-the-legions/ so that you can be the first to read new posts, and find out about new releases, contests, products and more.

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10 comments:

  1. Sorry for your loss. Funny how real life can change the way you think about things or write a character. Until I became a sudden widow, I had been writing a woman a certain way. She was a widow during WW II in occupied Norway. All of a sudden, I approached her feelings in an entirely different way, one that I felt was closer to what really one feels with the loss of someone you loved very much. Hope to go to England next year. Want to know more about Roman England.

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    1. Thank you, historywriter. I'm sorry to hear of your loss as well. It is 'funny' how our experiences can change our perspectives all of a sudden. I guess that is just part of the deal. I don't know about you, but writing through all of that emotion was very helpful and healing, though very difficult. Thank you for reading.

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  2. My Celtic Fervour historical adventures are set in northern Britannia- my soldiers of Rome engaged in fort building as much as in guerrilla fighting with the Brigante Celts during the campaigns of Cerialis, Frontinus and Agricola. I strove for as authentic a portrayal of daily life as possible at a time when the Roman Empire was extending its grip, and included religious adherence - though not specifically the cult of Mithras. Like you, I found the research for this era was fascinating but the written evidence scant. During the writing process, I learned of new archaeological interpretations between the years 2000-2012 (especially dendrochronology findings) which altered 1970s perceptions, and I found myself changing parts of my manuscripts. New information is being uncovered at a fast rate, today, and we can hope that more will be divulged on the cult of Mithras as time goes on.

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    1. Sounds like a great series, Nancy! I'll check it out. Absolutely, I think new findings are always coming to the fore, and that is part of the adventure of writing historical fiction. Even one small shred of evidence can be turned into a story that explores a whole new way of looking at things. I'm curious what dendrochronology revealed for you.
      As for the mystery religions, I enjoy that there is so little known. That way I can use my imagination (in as accurate a way as possible) to fill in the gaps. It makes for some very fun, fascinating writing. Cheers!

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    1. Thank you, Elizabeth. He was only 66. Strange days indeed...

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  4. I found your post very interesting Adam. Thank you for all the intriquing details about the Mithras cult. Very sorry to hear of your loss.

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    1. Thank you, Donna, for the kind words. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Cheers to you.

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  5. I'm sorry for your loss, Adam. I enjoyed your discussion of the Mithras cult. It is fun to delve into these mystery religion via fiction given how much must be left to the imagination. Hard to flesh them out in scholarly discussion, after all.

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    1. Thank you, Judith. I'm glad you enjoyed it. It certainly is fun to look at these. One example of a mystery religion in fiction that I enjoyed was Margaret Doody's Aristotle Detective series' Mysteries of Eleufsis. She delved into the Eleusinian Mysteries in a very unique, interesting way. Having been to that site, I found it even more interesting. Fiction, I find, can explore areas where academia cannot (and I say that as a former academic ;)

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