Lord of Wide Pastures
By Pattie Lawler
a recent holiday in England we somehow managed to see a lot of Roman occupied
Britain. While this was not by design, it was none the less pleasant. I
can now recommend the length of Hadrian's Wall (circa 122-130 B.C.E.,) all
the way from Gretna Green to the amazing ruins of Corbridge on the east.
We stopped at all the high points, like Vindolanda, now famous for its letters
home to Rome..."send socks, it's cold..." et al. But what we missed
on our Roman holiday were the original pieces that the information plaques
told us had been removed to the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Museum of Antiquities.
While we were disappointed, we were lucky enough to be able to visit the
museum less than a year later.
The big draw to the
museum, for us, is the reconstruction of the ruined Mithraeum from Carrawburgh.
There are three Mithraeums along the Wall, the other two are located at
Housesteads and Rudchester. The one at Carrawburgh, circa 300 C.E., is the
oldest. When it was originally built, the inhabitants quickly discovered
that the temple was too small. Its present incarnation is its final building
phase, circa 400 C.E.. We stopped at the site to see the hollow of land
that was the "cave," with its cement wattle-and-daub walls, and
the faux altar with its dedication and praise for Mithras. Typically, Mithraeums
were subterranean, mimicking the original cave where Mithras dragged the
primeval Bull. By slaying this Bull, Mithras released the creative force
of the Universe, causing plants to grow and animals to be born. But the
"slaying of the Bull" plaque, the tauroctony, was not present
at Carrawburgh, and the whole temple was open to the world, leaving us feeling
somewhat flat. We left offerings, but not of pine cones and cockerel. (Though
on the way back to the car we passed a dead bird near to the path which
I belatedly offered to Mithras in lieu of the usual fowl.)
Once we had found the
Museum of Antiquities (see NNJES1 Vol. 11) I could easily see it was worth
our time. What a fabulous collection! It's a shame that so many great and
important finds are so poorly displayed. But this is not meant as a critique
of the museum. The devotional "tombstone" stele which are on display
en situ (and in English) at Vindolanda are housed here in all their hand
carved (and Latin) glory. We wandered amidst the stele and altars at our
own pace and so I was the first to enter the Mithraeum, alone.
The first thing you
see are the three large front altars with the creation frieze, the tauroctony,
above them. All but one piece of the plaque is cast plaster. The relief
is a conglomeration of several existing stele, the best bits of each amalgamated
into a whole. A very effective whole.
Now, for those who
don't know me, I'm female.
I know I would not be, in my present incarnation, welcome into the mystery
cult of this Persian Sun Deity. I also know, however, that this is not my
first time around the Wheel and I am sure I have not always been this sex,
so it was with no hesitation that I touched the heel of the God on the relief
and immediately raised these fingers to my forehead.
The next room had two
display cases containing the finds made in and around the temple. It included
a Mother Goddess with her offering bowl, which was probably added to the
cave after the Roman occupation ended and Mithras withdrew with His followers.
Iron candle holders, as thin as tissue, a boar's tusk, oil lamps, pine cones,
part of the benches feasters would recline on, it was all here...including
bits of the wattle walls that served to separate the ranks of worshippers.
For one fleeting moment my heart raced as I offered the required silver
coin to the mechanical age and touched my fingernails to the glass to keep
myself from bumping my nose. Small, flame-shaped lights began to glow a
deep red around the walls and upon the altar, as a voice began explaining
what I was seeing.
"As you have not
been initiated you may not enter the sanctuary,...," Lucius Antonius
Proculus, prefect of the First Cohort of Batavians, Antoninus' Own explained.
My heart pounded...and knew he was right. There have been places in my past
that I have visited in my present and this was not one of them. I listened
to the dedication of the altar, the retelling of the birth of the Unconquered
Sun, to the creation myth, and was moved by it all.
The central altar bears
a lamp and an offering of pine cones. The one to its right bears a cockerel.
Typical of Romans, adapting to their environment, they offered what was
at hand. (A good lesson for us all.) The final altar is carved to show Mithras
as Sun God, whip in hand, with rays of light emanating from His head. A
lamp placed behind His head allows light to shine through the rays. To my
immediate left and right were statues of His torch bearers, Cautes and Cautopates,
in their customary garb and poses. On my right, Cautopates held his torch
and eyes down, mirroring the Moon above him as shown on the tauroctony.
On my left, Cautes stood, flame at shoulder height, and, like the Sun on
the plaque, gazing at the God.
There are painting
on the walls, which I cannot imagine in the cave, showing men in beast masks.
There were enough fragments of plaster found en situ to lead scholars to
believe the walls were once painted. The subject matter presented, although
derived from Mithraeums found at Dura, Santa Maria di Capua Vetere and others,
seemed unlikely. For visitors to the museum this is meant to illustrate
the seven levels of initiation, from Raven to Pater, a display those present
in the cave would not have needed.
To my eyes, the whole
was excellently done and presented the current knowledge of the cult in
a fair and favorable light. We left offerings before taking our leave, resisting
the urge to make another offering to the mechanical age and hear the dedication
once again. We came away with the knowledge that the Mithraeum is being
well tended by people who care about it, and is available for those seeking
it for its historical value, or for those, like myself, who come in pilgrimage.
1 Journal of the Northern NJ Egyptological Society