An interesting online colour image of Mithras killing the bull

I was experimenting with the new Microsoft Bing image search, which gave me quite different results to Google image search.  One of these caught my eye, on a Dutch forum, here.  A better version of the image, this time with real data attached, here.  It looks as if both have been scanned from a book, the first not very well.   According to the second link, this is a relief from Sterzing in Austria, CIMRM 1400.  It says that the colours are modern restoration, based on coloured frescos from Italy. 

Sterzing Mithras Tauroctony
CIMRM 1400 Sterzing Mithras Tauroctony, modern colouring

The image is useful because it is a splendidly clear representation of the cult relief of Mithras, found in every Mithraeum.  These depictions of Mithras killing the bull — the tauroctony — vary in the details.  If you do a Google search on Mithras, you will find many images of the tauroctony, varying in what is included. 

This one contains almost a full set of all the features.

Mithras kneels on the bull and pulls back its head while looking to his right toward the view.  On either side stand the demi-god torchbearers, Cautes with torch held up, Cautopates with it down. 

Below the bull the snake and the dog reach for the blood of the bull.  There is a scorpion seizing the bull’s genitals.

The events take place in a cave; hence the roof above Mithras.  At the top left appears Sol with his flaming crown.  At the top right is Luna, with her horned moon. 

Note the raven next to Sol, and the single extra-long ray of light reaching down from Sol into the cavern and onto Mithras.

At the top there are other animals, and a tabula ansata, or ‘box with a triangle at each end’ which probably had an inscription, now lost. A larger one, again with a lost inscription, is at the bottom.

On either side are panels, showing other elements from the cult myth.  These are of great interest, since we have no literary description of them.

The left-hand column shows (from the top) Jupiter battling the giants; Mithras born from the rock; Mithras doing something unrecognisable; Mithras (or possibly Atlas) kneeling, and probably the bull.

The right-hand column shows at the bottom Mithras dragging the bull.  Above it is Mithras plus two other figures.  Then Mithras, with Sol kneeling before him; then Mithras and Sol shake hands; Mithras gets into the quadriga of the sun.  At the top the feast of Sol and Mithras which in other reliefs involves consuming parts of the bull.

Details of the relief may be found here: M.J. Vermaseren, Corpus inscriptionum et monumentorum religionis Mithriacae II (1960) 148ff. No. 1400 Abb. 360; R. Merkelbach, Mithras (1984) 368f. Abb. 132.- R. Vollkommer, s.v. Mithras, LIMC VI (1992) Nr. 156 Abb.

It is interesting that initiation into the rites of Mithras did feature a hand shake, as shown here.  Firmicus Maternus comments that they were “initiates of the theft of the bull, united by the handshake of the illustrious father (Pater).” (FM 5.2)


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