Slaughtered Bulls and Bloodied Priests
On Mithraism and its Discontents
Nestled among bath complexes and small residences in the western corner of Ostia Antica is an unassuming slope that conceals one of the ancient world’s mysteries. A shallow opening in the hill reveals a long corridor flanked by stone benches which immediately draw your eyes to the statue centered in the back of the tunnel. The statue, illuminated by a small skylight above it, shows a man standing over a kneeling bull. The bull’s neck is contorted, exposed, and ready to be slit by the knife that presumably would have been in the man’s raised hand. The dramatic scene is perhaps the best preserved of its kind, but such iconography would have graced all eighteen of the similar sites in Ostia and the hundreds scattered throughout the rest of the empire. This combination of a narrow hall lined by benches, featuring depictions of the man and bull, define the mithraea, the temples of the cult of Mithras.
While very little is actually known about the cult’s history and practices, the first attestation of the existence of the deity Mithras can be found in a treaty between the Mittani and Hittites that calls upon the god to bear witness to the agreement. This evidence, in addition to the Phrygian costume Mithras is frequently depicted wearing, suggests an ancient eastern origin to the myth, which is supported by its concentration in cosmopolitan trade and military centers in the empire. The cult was open only to men, and it is likely that the initiation/worship process involved some sort of banquet, as archaeologists frequently find food scrap remains and eating utensils in mithraea. However, aside from these meager facts, most of what we know about the Mithraic cult is mere supposition. In large part, this unfortunate fact is due to the near complete dearth of literary attestations to the cult, and the nature of the few that do exist. Part of the fascination and mystery with these mithraea, like the one shown here in Ostia Antica, is the surplus of material evidence coupled with the absence of literary remains from which such material can be evaluated and interpreted.
One of the greatest challenges to understanding the significance of the mithraeum is the fact that no sources from inside the cult exist. While we have a few scattered external sources, nobody who would have had a front row seat to the cult initiation and practices left behind any written description of what happened. This dynamic leaves us with the unfortunate task of untangling what from the descriptions we have is accurate and what is mere supposition on the part of an outsider as befuddled as we are. One such description comes from Prudentius’ Peristephanon:
“Respondit his Romanus: ‘eccum, praesto sum:
meus iste sanguis verus est, non bubulus.
agnoscis illum quem loquor, miserrime
pagane, vestri sanguinem sacrum bovis,
cuius litata caede permadescitis? …
huc taurus ingens fronte torva et hispida
sertis revinctus aut per armos floreis
aut inpeditis cornibus deducitur,
nec non et auro frons coruscat hostiae,
saetasque fulgor brattealis inficit.
hic ut statuta est inmolanda belua,
pectus sacrato dividunt venabulo;
eructat amplum vulnus undam sanguinis
ferventis, inque texta pontis subditi
fundit vaporum flumen et late aestuat.
tum per frequentes mille rimarum vias
inlapsus imber tabidum rorem pluit,
defossus intus quem sacerdos excipit
guttas ad omnes turpe subiectans caput
et veste et omni putrefactus corpore.
quin os supinat, obvias offert genas,
supponit aures, labra, nares obicit,
oculos et ipsos perluit liquoribus,
nec iam palato parcit et linguam rigat,
donec cruorem totus atrum conbibat.
postquam cadaver sanguine egesto rigens
conpage ab illa flamines retraxerint
procedit inde pontifex visu horridus,
ostentat udum verticem, barbam gravem,
vittas madentes atque amictus ebrios.”
Prudentius Peristephanon 10.1006–1010, 1021–1045
“To this Romanus responded: ‘Behold, here I am: that blood is really mine, not a bull’s. Do you not know that of which I speak, miserable pagan, the detestable blood of your bull, in whose sacrificed gore you soak yourselves? … Hither is led a huge bull with grim and shaggy forehead, wreathed with garlands or flowers on its shoulders or encumbered horns, the victim’s brow glitters with gold, and a metallic gleam is in its mane. Here when the sacrificial beast has been set up, they slash his breast with a sacred spear; the wound spews forth a current full with burning blood, and on the planks of a bridge set under the steaming river it pours and foams widely. Then through the frequent paths of the thousand cracks the fallen shower rains a splashing fluid, among which the priest, hidden, follows subjecting his vile head to all the stains putrefied in all his clothes and body. In fact he tilts back his mouth, he offers his cheeks, he places his ears, lips, under, he offers his nostrils, he bathes even his eyes themselves in the fluids, nor even sparing his palate he even wets his tongue, until he totally imbibes the bloody gore. Afterwards the priests drag away from that structure the body rigid with discharged blood thence the priest, horrifying to see, proceeds, shows his wetted hands, matted beard, his soggy fillets and soaked cloaks.”
In this passage, St. Romanus confronts the pagan Aristo about just one of the rites that took place in the cult of Mithras: the taurobolium. He describes in horrifying and gory detail the ritual bathing in the blood of a sacrificed bull in which the cultic priests engaged and emphasizes the madness and frenzy which formed the foundation of the ritual. He reinforces how disgusting the sacrifice would have been by using vivid descriptions of the blood and gore spilling over and soaking the priests, ensuring that we as the readers understand how bizarre this cult was and are primed to experience a visceral reaction towards it. This description would lead us to believe that some very weird stuff went down in the mithraea. However, before we wholesale accept the description that Prudentius gives us in his text, we have to remember its context. Prudentius’ Peristephanon was a series of lyric poems describing various martyrdoms, written from a Christian context for a Christian audience. Given the outsider perspective both of the author and audience, then, we have to consider just how much author and audience could have understood about a cult known specifically for its secretiveness, and what biases could have impacted their interpretations of the limited information at their disposal.
The chances that Prudentius would have such intimate knowledge of the secret rites of the Mithraic cult are slight at best, and the incentives for him to exaggerate what little information he did have were high. Early Christian writers attest to conflict between Christianity and Mithraism, sourced from the superficial similarities between the two religions. Justin Martyr claimed that the cult of Mithras deliberately mocked the communion supper in its own feasting rituals, and the confusion between the Mithraic bathing in bull’s blood and the Christian doctrine of being washed spiritually clean by the blood of Christ was common amongst outsiders to both groups. As such, Prudentius had good reason to make the Mithraic cult sound especially strange and foreign. If he could communicate to his audience how utterly bizarre the Mithraic cult and its practices were, he would have an easier time normalizing his own religion and placing Christianity in a desirable light. The stranger he made the Mithraic cult sound, the more distinct from Christianity it became.
So what does it mean for our interpretation of the cult of Mithras and its archaeological evidence in the physical mithraea scattered throughout the Roman empire that our literary evidence is primarily coming from biased sources? It means, if nothing else, that we should proceed with caution when re-imagining these eerie, cryptic sites. We shouldn’t walk into the mithraea and necessarily imagine rivers of frothing blood rushing through the corridor and frantic priests hurrying to get as much gore on their faces as they can before the blood runs out. But to the contrary, we also shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss such imaginations. Try as hard as we might, we can’t entirely shed the associations with gory bull sacrifices and blood soaked priests as we try to understand what exactly took place in these long, dark corridors, but neither could the ancient Romans. The nature of a cult ensures that outsiders are always left in part to their imaginations to understand what happens within, and in the case of the cult of Mithras, the dearth of literary evidence ensures that our imaginations are well primed to start filling in the story from the few, albeit possibly spurious accounts that we do have. And besides, as you walk into a low-ceilinged, dark, hole in the ground and see a perfectly preserved statue of a bull-sacrifice lit by a single skylight, it’s a lot more fun to let your mind run wild with imaginations of what possibly could have taken place in such a setting.