Practising Mithraic Beliefs Outdoors – A Concept

In the webpage Pict, Pictland and Pictish, it is suggested that in the first to fourth centuries CE followers of Mithras were typically in the Roman Army from locations across many parts of the Roman Empire including Britannia. Click here for examples of the Temples of Mithras. Based on the concept, construction and practical use of an “indoor” Mithraeum the alternative could be an “outdoors” type. These could be in any country that formed part of the Roman Empire, maybe elsewhere.

We have considered the statues and symbols to be found in the Temples of Mithras – the indoors Mithraea. Their iconography and, therefore, their meanings need to be translated into the structure of a hypothetical “Open-Air”, or outdoors, Mithraeum.

The first key difference between the typical Mithraeum used in the cult of the Mysteries of Mithras and the prospect of an “Open-Air Mithraeum” is that the former is constructed mainly underground or makes use of a natural cave and the latter needs neither. Specifically a building is not required.

The second key difference is that the indoor Mithraeum has iconography on its internal surfaces (floor, walls, ceiling) the Open-Air version cannot; but it does need a substitute for what usually is seen in an indoor Mithraeum, albeit with potentially different images.

The third key difference is that the access to the indoor Mithraeum is secured by a door or other barrier whilst an Open-Air one, from its name, is completely visible. Gaining an understanding of what is contained in, on or around the Open-Air Mithraeum needs to be “hidden” somehow – Mithraism is a “secret” religious belief. Despite having decided to concentrate on seeing if there is such a thing as an Open-Air Mithraeum in Pictland, the prospect of indoor ones in Pictland has not been dismissed. On the contrary looking at what arguably is an indoor Mithraeum in Burghead, Moray (the so-called Roman well) plus caves like Covesea give contrast to any outdoors variety.

The design, to include what can be seen in a typical indoor Mithraeum, can make use of physical surfaces outdoors on which images can be affixed (the terrestrial component) and, as it is outside, the view of everything “as far as the eye can see”. It is suggested that the latter may to an extent replace the “sky” elements of an indoor Mithraeum (for example the components of the Zodiac).

Description of the Mysteries of Mithras by word of mouth alone is unlikely. Nothing has been deduced from folklore and word of mouth alone would not follow the tradition of Mithraism which we know was, in part, communicated through the use of statues, pictures and iconography. Therefore some form of pictorial recording is expected.

To retain obscurity there is, arguably, a need to further encode or depict differently from the equivalent indoor image or symbol (which usually is rendered physically inaccessible except to those who are intended to see it).

Most indoor symbols are recognisable but their context and application is not – but, in any case, they are not seen by all. The outdoors version can be seen by all hence the suggestion for some more involved encryption. Physical privacy afforded by the indoor Mithraeum needs to be replaced by obscuring the images or symbols in the outdoors version.