Candles in the Dark and Spice from the Orient: Mystery Cults
‘But what a small part of our dregs Is Greek! Long ago the wide Orontes of Syria poured into the Tiber And brought With its lingo and morals its flutes And harps...’
Rome did not sit entirely happily with the East. In the 1st century AD, the memories of the notorious Egyptian queen Cleopatra, whose seduction of both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony had such a devastating effect upon Roman politics late in the previous century, were still fresh and raw. There was prejudice against the perceived effeteness and decadence of the painted and perfumed ‘Oriental’.
In his Satires, Juvenal poked fun at Eastern customs and religion. In the particularly scornful verse quoted at the beginning of this article he probably echoed the prejudices of many of his contemporaries. But the traditions of the East did undoubtedly penetrate the Roman Empire, even as far to the north as Britain. These exotic religions arrived there with army units recruited in the eastern provinces, like Anatolia and Syria, and with merchants, oriental entrepreneurs who sought new markets for their wares. So it is unsurprising that archaeological evidence for these cults is clustered in large entrepôts like London and, above all, on military sites, particularly on Hadrian’s Wall.
The view along Hadrian's Wall towards Housesteads Roman Fort. (CC BY NC 2.0)
Only good men allowed: Mithras the Persian God
‘Mithras, God of the Midnight, here where the great bull dies, Look on thy children in darkness. Oh take our sacrifice! Many roads Thou hast fashioned, all of them lead to the Light, Mithras, also a soldier, teach us to die aright.’
Rudyard Kipling’s poem is about the most prominent of the new oriental religious movements to be established in Britain, the cult of the Persian god Mithras, an exclusively male cult. Not only that, his followers had to be of good character.
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Mithras and the bull, fresco from Temple of Mithras, Marino, Italy, dated 2nd AD. (Public Domain)
Mithraism was an exacting religion that accepted only those capable of the kind of physical stamina and endurance that Mithras himself demonstrated in his wrestle with a great bull. Mithras was sent to earth as the emissary of the great Iranian creator-god, Ahura Mazda, to hunt and slay the divine bull so that its life-blood would revitalize the earth and humankind; he was a guider of souls, teaching people the right path, that of goodness.
So, unlike most other religions in the Roman Empire, it was a cult whose adherents were required to live a life of merit, and furthermore to undergo a complicated series of seven initiation rites. The Christian leader and writer Saint Jerome wrote in the early 4th century AD of ‘the monstrous images there by which worshippers were initiated as Raven, Bridegroom, Soldier, Lion, Perseus, Sun Runner and Father’. Jerome was born in c. 348 AD in Dalmatia, but taken to Rome early in his life, to be taught by the greatest theologians of the time. As an ardent and outspoken Christian leader, he was both appalled by and scornful of Mithraism, which seemed to him to represent a twisted and wicked travesty of monotheism that set itself up to rival Christianity.
‘Saint Jerome Reading in the Countryside’ (1505) by Giovanni Bellini. (Public Domain)
The fundamental basis of the Mithraic cult was dualism, the ceaseless struggle between right and wrong, light and darkness; but the dark forces were perceived as necessary for the existence of good, to enable it to triumph and flourish. Central to the ‘dark side’ was Ahriman, lord of chaos and the clouds of disorder, and even Mithras himself contains contradictory aspects. He represented the great Persian god of light and the cosmos, but was born deep in a lightless cave, as if sprung from the forces of primeval chaos.
Mithraea (sanctuaries to Mithras) were generally sunk into the ground, in acknowledgment of Mithras’s subterranean birth, and worship took place in the dark, the shrines lit only by oil-lamps, torches and candles flickering in the blackness. The most visible focus in Mithraic temples was the tauroctony, the bull-slaying scene that formed the reredos, or high altar, of the sanctuary, which would have been specially lit for dramatic and theatrical effect.
Mithraeum of the Baths of Mithras (Mitreo delle Terme del Mitra) viewed from the north (regio I, insula XVII). Ostia Antica, Italy. (Public Domain)
Wealth may have been a factor in the acceptance of novices for training and initiation, for it was a cult whose devotees came mostly from the officer ranks of the army and prosperous merchants, and they gave generously to the upkeep of their temples and to the honor of the god.
Fertility and Castration: Cybele and Atys
‘Of Cybele it is a shame to speak: unable to satisfy the affections of her luckless lover – for mothering of many gods had made her plain and old – she could not allure him to lust and castrated him, so as to make a god, no less, a eunuch, and in deference to this fable her galli priests worship her by in inflicting the same mutilation on their own bodies. Such practices are not sacred rites but tortures.’
Cybele enthroned, with lion, cornucopia and Mural crown. Roman marble. ( Public Domain)
Sometime during the earlier 3rd century AD, the North African Christian writer Minucius Felix constructed a fictitious dialogue between a Christian whom he called Octavius and a man called Caecilius Natalis from Cirta (in what is now Libya) in the province of Numidia. This ‘dialogue’ presented arguments that held up pagan rites to ridicule, while at the same time defending Christians from allegations that their Eucharistic rituals involved cannibalism.
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In this passage, Felix is poking fun at the cult of the Magna Mater, the Great Mother goddess of Phrygia in Anatolia (today part of Turkey). She was, in origin, a nature-goddess, sometimes known as ‘Our Lady of the Animals’, and in many of her images, she is depicted flanked by lions or panthers. Hers was one of the earliest and most enduring of the oriental cults to be absorbed into mainstream Roman religion. It was imported to Rome around 205 BC, in response to a prophecy that the Carthaginian armies under Hannibal would be defeated only if Cybele’s sacred stone from Ida in Anatolia was brought into the city. The worship of Cybele lasted until finally ousted by Christianity in the late 4th century AD under the emperor Theodosius.
Cybele and Attis (seated right, with Phrygian cap and shepherd's crook) in a chariot drawn by four lions, surrounded by dancing Corybantes (detail from the Parabiago plate.) ( Public Domain )
‘Eunuchs will march and thump their hollow drums, and cymbals clashed on cymbals will give out their tinkling notes; seated on the unmanly necks of her attendants, the goddess herself will be borne with howls through the streets in the city’s midst.’
‘The Virgin in her heavenly place rides upon the Lion; bearer of corn, inventor of law, founder of cities, by whose gifts it is mans’ good lot to know the gods...’
The first passage quoted comes from the Augustan poet Ovid’s poetical calendar of the Roman religious year, the Fasti (or ‘correct days’). Like his compatriot Juvenal, Ovid shows scant respect for this exotic, and somewhat unrestrained and over-emotional cult, whose flamboyant processions probably rather shocked the senate fathers, particularly at a time when Augustus was trying so hard to impose an austerity regime on Rome.
Ovid by Anton von Werner. (Public Domain)
The second quote is part of a stone panel dedicated to Cybele in the late 2nd or early 3rd century AD by the military tribune Marcus Caecilius Donatianus at Carvoran on Hadrian’s Wall. It is the opening of a poem or hymn in honor of the goddess, and the paean goes on to link her with the cult of Julia Domna, the Syrian wife of the African emperor Septimius Severus (r. 193–211 AD), who was often referred to with the honorific title ‘The Virgin’.
The myth underpinning the cult of Cybele was based upon jealousy and infidelity. Cybele was in love with a young shepherd called Atys (Attis) and, catching him in flagrante delicto, she drove him insane, bending his mind so that he castrated himself beneath a pine tree and bled to death. Built upon this myth was a cult founded upon the rhythm of the year: the winter of mourning for Cybele’s dead lover (the ceremony of the tristitia) was followed by the joy of the spring of his rebirth and the renewal of the earth’s fecundity (the hilaria).
Roman Imperial Attis wearing a Phrygian cap and performing a cult dance. ( Public Domain)
In the annual re-enactment of Atys’s funeral ceremony, cult officials known as dendrophori (‘tree-bearers’) paraded through the towns and cities carrying pine trees, in deference to the tree under which the young god died. Felix was correct in his description of the Great Mother’s religious attendants, for initiates to the priesthood had, like Atys, to undergo castration, and ceremonies involved the ingestion of mind-altering substances, trance-dancing in ecstasy, self-flagellation and the enactment of the taurobolium, the bull-sacrifice, in which the blood of the animal poured through a grille set into the ground into an excavated space where initiates were bathed in the gore, as part of their trial-rites.
Because of its reputation for orgiastic rites and general wildness, the cult was strictly controlled in the Roman Republic - no Roman citizen was originally allowed near it, but the emperor Claudius relaxed the rule and the cult of Cybele and Atys became ‘respectable’ and even a Roman State Religion, with the eunuch celebrants ( galli) and their high priest (the archigallus) fully absorbed as Romans, with Latin names.
Statue of an Archigallus (high priest of Cybele) 2nd-3rd century AD (Archaeological Museum of Cherchell). (Public Domain)
Cybele and her unfortunate consort, Atys, were – like Mithras – worshipped in cities, where foreign merchants plied their wares, and on army bases, such as Carvoran and Corbridge on or near Hadrian’s Wall, where regiments from the eastern provinces were stationed. The specialist auxiliary cohort of Syrian archers, Cohors I Hamiorum, was deployed from Carvoran, and here the Anatolian Cybele seems to have been merged with the Syrian goddess Caelestis or Dea Syria. There must have been a temple (called a Metroon) to Cybele at Corbridge, just south of the Wall, for here, in the 3rd century AD, army personnel set up an altar to the Anatolian goddess under the name Dea Panthea; on each lateral surface of the stone an image of Atys in mourning is depicted, wearing a Phrygian cap and cloak. A disembodied head of Atys from here may have belonged to the same temple.
London was clearly an important center for the cult of Cybele, for several small figurines of Atys have been found in the city, as well as two more significant objects: an altar (alas now lost) and a curious piece of liturgical equipment. The altar was rich in iconographical detail: on one surface was carved the figure of Cybele holding pomegranates and a small wine flask, flanked by two of her galli (priests); another face depicts the funeral of Atys, with his bier carried in procession by clergy (with a basket and pine branches said to represent the dedication of the unfortunate youth’s genitals to the jealous goddess).
Stone figure of a hunter-god, possibly Attis or Apollo Cunomaglos. (CC BY NC SA 4.0)
The ceremonial bronze object mentioned earlier has gained much notoriety for its identification as a ‘castration clamp’ for gelding the would-be priests of Cybele. It comes from the river Thames near London Bridge and comprises a hinged pair of ‘forceps’, serrated on the inside and decorated on the outer surfaces with busts of Cybele, Atys and other deities, with the terminals ending in the heads of lions. The object may have been thrown into the water as a sacrificial act or, perhaps just as likely, to avoid its despoliation by a rival cult, maybe that of Christ. It wasn’t intentionally broken, for the hinges seem to have decayed naturally, and the two arms, though separate, were found close together. It may have been a purely ceremonial object, symbolizing Atys’s own castration, but it is not impossible that such an instrument was actually used in the initiation rituals for Cybele’s eunuch priests, a rather gruesome thought.
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The Appeal of the Oriental Cults
The oriental religions offered something that those of ‘undiluted’ romanitas did not. Their exoticness, their secrecy and their fraternities brought with them a flavor of the mysterious East; demanding passion, emotion, stamina, and loyalty (to each other as well as to the divine). These cults involved the initiation of the chosen, based on physical and psychological tests of endurance, on fasting and feasting, and on secret formulae of prayer and ritual.
Mithraism offered worshippers a discipline, a rule of conduct that, if followed faithfully, promised rewards based on merit. The myths and rituals that underpinned these foreign religions offered the excitement of theater: dramatic lighting in dark sacred spaces, the offering of their manhood by priests of Cybele, the ordeals of sensory deprivation, the initiation ceremonies and pledges of faith, all of which meant that worshippers felt truly and actively involved in their chosen cult. Isis beckoned with the hope of rebirth.
For the most part, the cults that came out of Asia were ‘thinking’ religions that attracted the educated classes and satisfied their intellectual curiosity. But in saying that, we should remember the girl from Welwyn, perhaps an immigrant eastern slave, homesick for her sunny homeland, whose most precious possession might have been the little amulet that she wore so that Isis would protect her from harm.
Top Image: Detail of ‘The Introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Rome’ (1505-1506) by Andrea Mantegna. Source: Public Domain
This article is a compilation of extracts from the chapter ‘Candles in the Dark and Spice from the Orient: Mystery cults’ in ‘Sacred Britannia’ by Miranda Aldhouse-Green.