“Random encounters with the unusual” is a repository for the oddities that me and Mrs J have encountered on our travels, which we find interesting or amusing in some way. Have a look, maybe you will find something interesting or amusing herein.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Secrets of Mithras in London

The above picture shows the remains of London’s Mithraeum, or Temple of Mithras. Although the temple dates from the 3rd century, and was rediscovered by archaeologists in 1954, the careful restoration that can be seen today is only a year or so old. It can be viewed, after obtaining a free but timed-entry ticket, in the basement of the new Bloomberg headquarters near the Bank of England. You might assume its subterranean location is due to the change in ground level since Roman times, but actually the Mithraeum was always underground.

Basically Mithraism was an “underground” religion. It emerged around the same time as Christianity, but it was much more secretive. At first glance the layout of the Mithraeum looks like a small Christian church, but being built underground it didn’t have any windows, and would have had a much spookier feel to it. The current reconstruction captures the atmosphere very well (there is also chanting in Latin, and other audiovisual effects).

Here is another picture, showing the viewing platform from which the first photograph was taken:

And here is a reverse-angle view, showing the carefully reconstructed stonework:

Unlike Bible-based Christianity, Mithraism seems to have revolved around visual symbols – which recur with remarkable consistency in archaeological remains from all over the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, in the absence of written records, no one knows what all this symbolism was supposed mean!

The most important symbol seems to have been the Tauroctony, which appears at the far end of the Mithraeum, where the altar would be in a Christian church. The Tauroctony shows Mithras slaying a bull – Taurus in the astrological zodiac – while enigmatically gazing at something in the opposite direction. The Tauroctony in the London Mithraeum is a modern replica – the original is now in the Museum of London. Here is a picture of it, photographed from one of the touchscreen displays in the Mithraeum:

The British Museum also has a very nice statue of Mithras slaying the bull. This one didn’t come from some hick provincial town like Londinium, but from the Emperor Hadrian’s villa near Rome:

Just as Mithraism was a secretive cult in Roman times, London’s Mithraeum seems to be something of a secret today. It’s one of the most impressive archaeological sites in the city – both visually and in terms of its intriguing back-story – yet it’s barely known to most tourists. That’s not just because it’s “new” – a poorer quality restoration was on show at street level prior to its current incarnation.

As an example of the Mithraeum’s obscurity, take the 2014 video game Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments. This includes an episode called “The Blood Bath”, which pits Holmes against Victorian-era followers of Mithras – without once mentioning London’s real-world Mithraeum. Of course, it hadn’t been discovered in Victorian times, but the game developers could have twisted the facts to fit it in. Instead, they twisted them in quite a different way, creating a fictional Mithraeum 20 miles away in St Albans, and focusing the London scenes around the so-called “Roman Bath” in Strand Lane (which, as described in a previous post on this blog, probably isn’t Roman at all).

The Strand Lane complex depicted in Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments is much larger and more extravagant than its real-world counterpart, and hidden beneath it there’s an underground burial chamber – complete with Mithraic Tauroctony, as the following screenshot shows:

Pictures by Andrew May, September 2013 (British Museum) and February 2018 (Mithraeum)

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