Practising Mithraic Beliefs Outdoors – The Practicalities

The concept of an Outdoor Mithraeum will remain just that – a concept – unless any obstacles to realising it are overcome. The practicalities of suitability and availability of construction materials, what symbols need to be shown and physical location will turn concept into reality.

Construction Materials

Indoor symbols have the benefit of enclosure to protect them from the weather. Not so for Open-Air ones. If the intent was to have durable symbols then the material they were placed on or made from would need to be weather-resistant. This then would rule out most paints.

In selecting suitable surfaces, external attachment to buildings would not have seemed to be a first choice when a prospective alternative may be to use the inside of the building which, presumably, has been eliminated for one or more reasons. Space might be at a premium, the building has another specific or restricted use or other needs may have taken precedence. Attachment to buildings also reduces independence – there is a reliance on the longevity of the structure and there is a restriction in terms of privacy.

Faced with restrictions on material and location some form of carving springs to mind now and would have done so over 1500 years ago. In the context of Pictland (which we currently are considering) stone is bountiful, very bountiful. Some is freestanding in different shapes such as boulders and naturally occurring monoliths. Perhaps there was a re-use possibility for existing erected monoliths put in place for other purposes otherwise stone could be quarried (from locations of varying degrees of difficulty). Perhaps the location for the carved stone could determine what material should be used (e.g. immediately available), or vice-versa – the basic material might need to be moved. The carver and whoever is hiring the carver (although the carver could be the user) may need to compromise between desired location and availability but over-riding factors may come into play; planned later portability is unlikely to be one of them! Stone also is preferable to wood if longevity is an objective so carving on wood is not seen as a preferred option.

In Pict, Pictland and Pictish, mention is made of the stone material used for statues associated with the London Mithraeum – some sourced from as far away as Carrara in Italy. Maybe long distance importation cannot be eliminated for the source of Open-Air Mithraeum material.

Having determined that stone would be a desirable material for carving symbols, two essential and very practical ingredients are needed – the carver and the symbols. Keeping with the Pictland context, stone masons or carvers with the ability either to learn how to carve or, preferably, already with that ability would be needed. Even to achieve the first possibility – to learn how to carve – someone with the necessary skills would need to be the instructor. Who this person or these persons could be is explored later.

Components and Symbols

Prospectively there are two components to the Open-Air Mithraeum

  1. terrestrial and
  2. “as far as the eye can see”.

The latter can range from flora, fauna, fields, rivers, the sea, mountains, the sky and what can be seen in the sky – Planets, Constellations, the Zodiac etc. The indoor Mithraeum’s representation of Planets and Constellations typically painted on ceilings or walls is not required – they can be seen in the outdoor version but astronomical and astrological knowledge would be needed to identify them.

Regarding the symbols, representation of Enticement, Tauroctony and Initiation Grades plus inclusion of associated local customs / cults / religions or forms of adaptation, absorption or recognition (Mithraism with or to other religious beliefs and/or vice versa) would be a start point in designing the terrestrial part of an Open-Air Mithraeum. The adaptation category (taking one symbol and modifying it to become another) would be the least straightforward to decode requiring a knowledge of both Mithraism and the local item. However, indoor Mithraea did contain more than the Mithraic grouping (Mithras, Tauroctony, his companions) but also other Gods that were revered at the time of the Roman Empire plus, in some locations, Celtic deities and what started as very specific local cults such as that of the Dacian or Danubian Riders (followed in the area of modern day Romania) but which spread within the Roman Empire.

Constituent symbols could, therefore, include:-

  • Enticement – attracting a target audience, such as the military, to prospects of life after death, a hereafter, gaining “secret” knowledge etc.
  • Tauroctony – Mithras himself (or a representation of what Mithras stands for); animals – dog, snake, scorpion (or a representation of them in “sky” terms or otherwise); the zodiac & constellations (seen in the sky) but maybe needing a form of pointer and most certainly an explanation; Mithras’s companions (or what they represent); water container; bull; knife; winds; elements (earth, wind, fire, air) etc.
  • Grades – Planets (visible in the sky) but again maybe needing a form of pointer; grade names (raven, male bride, soldier, lion, Persian, courier of the sun, father) and their related symbols.
  • Local customs / cults / religions – Celtic Gods; symbols of local customs; non-Mithraic symbols etc.

Skywards View

On a clear day the Sun is the most visible Planet (it was considered to be a Planet in the time frame of Roman Mithraism) followed by the Moon (also considered to be a Planet) then, on occasion, other Planets (such as Venus) and brighter stars. During a clear night the Planets, the Zodiac and a much wider set of stars is visible – in fact, broadly a hemisphere of the universe.

This sky component can replace much of the iconography of the indoor Mithraeum quite simply as it is not needed. In the night sky the relevant Constellations can be seen – dependent on the time of year. Any star (indeed galaxy) forms, otherwise represented in the indoor Mithraeum – including the Milky Way – can be seen by the observer on Earth.

Therefore, in designing the terrestrial part of the Open-Air Mithraeum there is no need to include the Planets and stars as such – maybe just their relationship within the mystery and/or as locational pointers. An icon may not be needed when the real thing is visible. However, there may be aspects of the view skywards, otherwise depicted but obscured in the Mithraeum, which are visible to anyone (Mithraist or not) that in the context of Mithraism need to be further obscured.

The carved symbols might then need to obscure something that may be deduced directly from looking at the sky or, conversely, stone based symbols could rely on the sky view to complete the symbol. Nothing should be obvious to the uninitiated. Furthermore, a stone based symbol could be used as an indicator to use part of the sky view to decode the symbol or, simply, to be a pointer.

Orientation and Location

If the intent is to mimic the indoor Mithraeum then replication of layout, orientation and location is necessary. Some of the indoor Mithraea seem to have a specific East/West orientation; good examples are those in Ostia, Italy. The Tauroctony is at the East end; the inbuilt benches are set on the North side facing South and the South side facing North; the entrance is at the West end so anyone entering faces towards the Tauroctony. All this gives orientation along the Earth’s North-South axis and facilitates observing where the Sun and Moon rise and set plus gives a reference point for the equinox and solstice locations.

Indoor Mithraea are located close to running water – partly, probably, for practical purposes but maybe to ensure all elements are present and visible – earth, air, fire and water. Fire can be created by lighting candles for example. Outdoor versions could readily be erected near running water with fire being represented by a view of the Sun or by burning objects.

In some places several Mithraea are built in close proximity to one another – maybe providing different but complementary functions. Again this could be achieved, if wished, with the Open-Air Mithraeum.