#50 'A Song to Mithras' by R. Kipling
"A Song to Mithras"
MITHRAS, God of the Morning, our trumpets waken the Wall!
' Rome is above the Nations, but Thou art over all!'
Now as the names are answered, and the guards are marched away,
Mithras, also a soldier, give us strength for the day!
Mithras, God of the Noontide, the heather swims in the heat,
Our helmets scorch our foreheads ; our sandals burn our feet.
Now in the ungirt hour; now ere we blink and drowse,
Mithras, also a soldier, keep us true to our vows !
Mithras, God of the Sunset, low on the Western main,
Thou descending immortal, immortal to rise again !
Now when the watch is ended, now when the wine is drawn,
Mithras, also a soldier, keep us pure till the dawn!
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!
I came across this poem while searching the poem Gunga Din. I was surprised that Kipling wrote the poem “A Song to Mithras’ but it really makes sense since he did favor the theme of ‘soldier’. I knew about Mithras from a course I took eons ago in Comparative Religions. From the above poem arose the idea for this blog.
The Secret Cult of Mithras
Have you ever visited the Baths of Caracalla? Did you see an opera performance there? If so, you were walking or sitting on top of a Mithraeum, a temple dedicated to the god Mithras. While at Caracalla did you visualize the Baths hosting five thousand bathers per day? Well, in the temple below the Baths there was a very secret bath going on as well, a blood bath. Literally.
Mithraism flourished in Rome and throughout the Roman Empire, from the First Century to the end of the Fourth Century. Yes, Mithraism appeared about the same time as Christianity, and both grew side by side. Christian worship was legalized in the Fourth Century when Emperor Constantine the Great issued the Edict of Milan in 313. Around the time of the Edict, Constantine converted from Mithraism, the religion of his father, to Christianity, the religion of his mother.
Mithraism was a ‘mystery cult’ due to the fact that the liturgy and activities of the cult were a secret. To become a member, the person had to participate in a secret initiation ceremony. As a result of the secretive aspect of the cult there is no surviving text of the liturgy, in fact no one knows if there ever was a written text. There are a few written references about Mithraism from writers such as Statius, Plutarch, Porphyry, Tertullian, Origen.
Mithraeum in London
There is however plenty Mithraic Iconography, physical evidence from artifacts, dedicatory inscriptions, and hundreds of underground Mithraea, scattered across the territory of the Roman Empire, from Rome to Turkey to England (along the Hadrian Wall). The area of concentration of Mithraism is most dense in Rome and her port city of Ostia.
Mithraeum beneath the San Clement Church in Rome
Mithraea were located below the ground, in manmade structures or in natural caves. The structures were single rooms, longer than they were wide. Long rock dining benches lined the sides of the Mithraeum, leaving a narrow isle in between. At the end of the isle, opposite the entrance, was the image of Mithras sacrificing a bull (called tauroctony). The ceilings were frequently vaulted, at times with holes to let shafts of light in.
From the Vatican Museum
The bull-sacrificing scene is usually carved in stone relief or painted on stone and placed in the Mithraea in a central location. In addition to the central scene there can be smaller scenes representing episodes from Mithras’ life. The most common scene is Mithras being born from a rock, Mithras dragging the bull to a cave, Mithras and the sun god Sol banqueting on the flesh of the bull.
Most followers of Mithraism were Roman soldiers, state bureaucrats, and merchants. In the Fourth Century the cult included a few Emperors and aristocrats. The most notable feature was the exclusion of women. Membership was limited to those who had passed through a secret initiation ritual in the seven successive levels. A mosaic in the Ostia Mithraeum of Felicissimus depicts the seven grades, with heraldic emblems that are connected to the grades or are symbols of the planets. The grades have an inscription besides them commending each grade into the protection of the different planetary gods.
The seven grades were named for one of the planets, and were under the protection of the corresponding planet:
1. Raven (Mercury)
2. Nymphus (Venus)
3. Soldier (Mars)
4. Lion (Jupiter)
5. Persian (Moon)
6. Heliodromus (Sun)
7. Father (Saturn)
There are several theories as to what the tauroctony represents. The current theory held by several scholars is that it represents a star map. The 12 signs of the zodiac and symbols of the sun, moon, and planets often appear together with the tauroctony and elsewhere in Mithraic art. For an in-depth article on this theory please read an article written for Scientific American http://www.mysterium.com/sciam.html ,by David Ulansey. Also, please visit his site http://www.mysterium.com/mithras.html
If the interpretation of the bull-killing scene is that it is an astrological allegory, then according to this view, astrology was central to Mithraism and it provided the specifics of the soul’s celestial journey.
No, I did not forget to write about Caracalla and the ‘blood bath’!
In the Mithraeum underneath the Baths of Caracalla there is a very interesting feature. It is found in the tunnel that runs under the center of the main hall into an adjoining room, it is a fossa sanguinis, the ritual pit over which the bull at the center of the Mithraic cult was slaughtered. After the slaughter, initiates took a bath in the blood!
At least the blood bath was a ritual one and it did not involve human blood!
The Baths of Caracalla Mithraeum was found a hundred years ago. It became a tourist attraction and then it was closed for a while. A few days ago it was reopened and once again curious tourists can visit the place of a once secret mystery cult.
Suggested reading about the reopening of the Mithraeum is found here http://leapwithoutanet.blogspot.it/2013/01/the-se cret-cult-of-mithras.html
Museum in Palermo, Sicily
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Updated: 12:42 PM GMT on February 01, 2013
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