A ray of light for Mithras at Hawarte on the 25th December?

I’ve been back working on the Mithras site in the evenings, and in particular looking at Mithraea found in recent years.   I’ve created a page for these, and I’m going through them.

Last night I was searching for material about the Hawarte Mithraeum in Syria.  The site was a 5th century church, excavated in the 1970′s.  The floor of the church was bowed near the altar, where a mosaic was removed.  Some time in the mid-90′s, the floor collapsed revealing a painted chamber underneath.  Robbers were quickly on the scene, and their attempts to sell fragments of painting came to the attention of the authorities.  Michal Gowlokowski happened to see photos of some of the paintings and realised that the chamber must be a Mithraeum. He the Polish Archaeological Mission reached an agreement with the Syrian authorities, and excavated the site.  Pleasingly, all their annual reports are online in English here!

The paintings are 4th century, which makes them some of the latest Mithraic monuments.  They are also rather spectacular, as this blog (in Polish – but try using Google Translate on it) indicates!  A sample image:

Mithras, his horse, and a chained demon.

Mithras, his horse, and a chained demon.

Here’s another image, of a fresco restored by the Polish conservation team.  The image seems to have been digitally enhanced for sale, but in the process has revealed additional data, especially the face of Luna at top left:

Travel Pictures Ltd

Here’s a picture of the inside of the Mithraeum from the conservators blog here:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I’m collecting images and data, and I need to write all this up.  But notice on the left of this image a city wall, surmounted by the heads of demons, each being struck by rays (of light?).  The detail at Hawarte is better than this photo may indicate.  It adds something to our knowledge of the myth of Mithras.  At Hawarte, it begins with the war of Zeus against the Giants, followed by the birth of Mithras and the usual story, and ending with a depiction of the city of demons and the demons being killed by the light of the (unconquered) sun.

More interestingly still, Dr Gowlikowski has managed to demonstrate a connection between Mithras and the winter solstice, the 25 December.  For it seems that the chamber was so arranged that a ray of light would shine on Mithras’ face a couple of hours before sunset on that day.[1]  However I need to read into this with some care, and make sure that I understand the argument!

One can only praise the Polish team for their exemplary work in preserving and restoring the site.  The paintings are today at the museum in Hama.  Let us hope that they are safe!

  1. [1] Michał Gawlikowski, Krzysztof Jakubiak, Wiesław Małkowski i Arkadiusz Sołtysiak (2011). A Ray of light for Mithras, Monografie di Mesopotamia XIV s. 169-175.  Thank heavens this is online!

11 Responses to “A ray of light for Mithras at Hawarte on the 25th December?”


  1. DW

    Thank you for this very interesting article!

    I will take a deeper dive into the numerical relations at a later moment.
    Concerning the constellation of Taurus, know that it is most prominently visible in the night sky during December-January, the period that the sun/Sun could reach the bull-slaying scene (as the article assumes). After that, Taurus slowly disappears (“dies”). Therefore, December-January is a good time to celebrate the Bull-slayer.

  2. Roger Pearse

    Hmm. Now that’s an interesting thought.

  3. Robert H. Consoli

    I worked on this picture which I’ve placed on Google Drive:

    https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B9YdgOKdbi4VVDhFNDQwUzFiTEE/edit?usp=sharing

    Any better?

  4. David Wilmshurst

    Whenever I wonder why I chose to study Literae Humaniores many years ago in preference to, say, Computer Studies, I need only remember the sheer joy I feel whenever discoveries like this are made available to the wider world. What a splendid tableau, and what superb colour quality! Experts on Mithraist iconography (including yourself, Roger) will have a field day discussing what all the symbolism means.

  5. Roger Pearse

    That’s very kind of you. I think it is clearer, isn’t it? May I use it?

  6. Roger Pearse

    It’s very cheering, I agree. I loved the depiction of the robes of Mithras in the one with the horse – very naturalistic!

  7. Robert H. Consoli

    Hello Roger,
    If you’re writing to me about whether you can use my picture the answer is ‘yes’ (not really mine actually).

    Best,
    Bob

  8. Roger Pearse

    Many thanks!

  9. Robert H. Consoli

    Hi Roger,
    I’ve worked on another of those images which I’ve shared on Google Drive here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B9YdgOKdbi4VRnJvaDRTRXZydUU/edit?usp=sharing

    In this one you can see that the demon is chained. I hadn’t quite noticed that before.
    You can use this image but, of course, it’s not really mine.

    Bob
    bob@squinchpix.com

  10. pakeha

    I’m looking forward to seeing that website when you’ve finished this latest update.
    As for the winter solstice’s beam of light idea:
    “More interestingly still, Dr Gowlikowski has managed to demonstrate a connection between Mithras and the winter solstice, the 25 December. For it seems that the chamber was so arranged that a ray of light would shine on Mithras’ face a couple of hours before sunset on that day.[1] However I need to read into this with some care, and make sure that I understand the argument!”

    Take care to double-check the dates and calendar used at the time of the construction of the chamber!

    We have examples from Egypt, medieval Spain and prehistoric GB of alignments with solticial and equinnoxial special effects which must have been most inspiring, so I’d not be surprised this chamber plays with the same idea.

  11. Roger Pearse

    Yes, there is many a devil in the detail. :-)