Dazzling Temple to Cult God Mithras Uncovered in Italy
A 1600-year-old temple in which the ancient god Mithras was worshipped has been discovered beneath Roman ruins in Ostia, Italy. A magnificent ancient building, which is being described as the ‘Mithraeum (or Temple) of Colored Marbles’ is officially known as the ‘spelaeum’ and it’s the most important room in the Mithraeum, located on its bottom level. According to archaeologists, inscriptions found in the Mithraeum suggest that Roman worshippers venerated not only Mithras but also other gods at this spiritual hub of ancient mysteries in Italy.
Psychotropic Plants Will Get You There
A report on Live Science says the research team led by Dr Max Victor David, a professor of history and cultures at the University of Bologna, describes the colorful ‘spelaeum’ with its stone marble floor as “dazzling.” Archaeologists also found a bench, a ritual well and a flower bed which are all detailed in a paper published in the journal Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae .
Laser scanning shows the ‘spelaeum’, the most important room in the Mithraeum of Colored Marbles, which has a marble floor decorated in a variety of colors. A ritual well can also be seen in the room. (D. Abate / Live Science )
The Mithraeum would have been a center of rituals, which included grand banquets and secret initiation ceremonies involving “animal sacrifices,” Dr David told Live Science . He also explained that the candidates partaking in these rituals were probably in “altered states of consciousness” brought on through the controlled consumption of psychotropic plants.
The Rise and Fall of Mithras
The god Mithras was first worshiped by Persians in the late 1st century AD, where he was known as ‘Mithra’, and he was associated with the light and sun. His cult following spread rapidly across the Roman Empire , and worship of this Indo-Iranian deity was greatly focused on the deity as being the god of friendship, contract and order. What were known as the ‘Mithraic Mysteries’ were a series of teachings taught by the mystery cult and its followers spread from the Italian Peninsula and border regions across the whole of the Roman Empire.
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Marble carving of the god Mithras, slaying a mystic bull. ( Reimar / Adobe Stock)
An Ancient Encyclopedia article says the cult of Mithras “was a secret one” in which Votaries (followers) worshipped Mithras in caves and “hidden away” temples. This was to create the feeling of being part of a special group. The cult’s secrecy was tolerated by the authorities and especially by the Roman emperors, because it was generally in favor of imperial power.
While over 200 Mithras temples have been found between Syria and Britain, they have mostly been found in Italy along the Rhine and the Danube rivers. It is known that after the ‘crisis’ of the 3rd century AD, and the subsequent establishment of Christianity, the Mithras cult soon vanished, and its temples were walled up and destroyed. However, some of the temples, like the ‘spelaeum’, continued to be used up to the early 5th century AD.
The Arrow of Time
According to legend, Mithras was a great archer who travelled with his torchbearers, Cautes and Cautopates . Archaeologists have discovered the ‘Mithraeum's rooms’, which have paintings of tridents and arrows alluding to this action. According to Dr David, in Mithraic theology, the three-pronged trident could refer to Mithras’ two torchbearers, whereas the arrows represent his legendary archery skills.
The team of researchers also think the worshipers who visited the Mithraeum in ancient Rome may have also worshipped the god Kronos, an ancient Greek god associated with harvests and the passing of time. This became evident on one of the inscriptions found in the Mithraeum. Furthermore, the archaeological researchers discovered an Egyptian ivory handle, which leads them to believe that that the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis may also have been venerated within this Mithraeum. This artifact was likely used as a ritual instrument bridging between the followers of Mithras and those of Isis, Dr David wrote in the journal article.
The Day the Mysteries Died
Before this building was fully converted to a Mithraeum, archaeologists found that much of the structure used to be a caupona, which is a tavern or restaurant, and evidence suggests its life as a place for the worship of gods had been short lived. Christianity had spread widely in Ostia by the early fifth century, and Roman authorities were becoming less tolerant of the worship of Mithras and other gods. Therefore, at some point in the fifth century the Mithraeum's ritual was shut down as well, and the Mithraeum finally closed its doors.
Top image: Reconstruction of the “Mithraeum of Colored Marbles.” The ‘spelaeum’, the most important room in the Mithraeum, is shown on the bottom level. Source: G Albertini / Live Science
By Ashley Cowie