Mithras, the church of Santa Prisca, and the perils of the imagination

The Mithraeum of Santa Prisca in Rome is of great importance to Mithraic studies because it contains striking wall paintings, with text against the images.  The scenes depict a procession of the seven grades of initiate, and other interesting items.  Among the verses is a statement that “you have saved us after the shedding of the eternal blood”, which has attracted attention.  The mithraeum will be open to visitors at 4pm on Sunday 24th August, and I intend to be in Rome and go and see it.  Apparently it stands on the Aventine Hill, just south of the Circus Maximus.

A long view of the Mithraeum of Santa Prisca
A long view of the Mithraeum of Santa Prisca

This week I have been collecting the literature about the place.  I have visited Cambridge University Library and stood over their photocopiers, not once but twice!

One item gave me especial difficulty: Krautheimer’s Corpus Basilicarum Christianarum Romae.  This contains an English-language article on the church of Santa Prisca, and a fine piece of work it is too.  But, quite unnecessarily, the series has been printed in double-size volumes, nearly impossible to handle or photocopy.  Each page requires an A3 photocopy; although, thanks to the miracles of modern technology, I was able to photocopy it down onto A4.  It’s worth being aware of this series, if you want solid scholarly material, oriented on primary data and with copious bibliography, on the churches of Rome.

The church stands 3 metres above ground level, because it stands atop a platform of Roman brick walls and arches.  This is, in fact, the basement level of a Roman house of imposing dimensions, dated by brick stamps to 95 AD.  It was possibly the private house of Trajan, but perhaps more likely that of his close friend L. Licinius Sura, whose baths stand immediately to the north of the church (as a fragment of the ancient map of Rome shows) and whose house was adjacent to this.  The mithraeum was erected ca. 190 AD in one of the cellars, and destroyed some time at the end of the 4th century (supposedly – it is hard to know exactly when).

I was going to photocopy the archaeological report also, which runs to 520+ pages, with more than a 100 plates, until I realised that this would cost me around $80!  Fortunately an interlibrary loan is promised, and my little scanner at home will do the deed.

One reason why I read Krautheimer was that I wanted to know about supposed Christian archaeology in the area.  There is a tremendous amount of false information on this point in circulation.  Web-pages confidently assert that an early Christian church was also based in the cellars!   Others say that a small building next door was “church-like”.  All these claims go unreferenced, of course.   Apparently the excavation report has a couple of pages making some claim of this sort, but I don’t know on what basis.  One writer, in a review of the archaeological report in 1965, went so far as to say:

Why, as stated by the authors, is the same physical proximity between Christians and devotees of Mithras found under San Clemente and at least once in Ostia? How or why did they live side by side rather peacefully for nearly 150 years? Are the similarities between the two cults in the early third century strong enough to postulate that the masculine worshipers of Mithras someway encouraged the female members of their families to attend the neighboring Christian mysteries? These questions might be partially answered if further excavations could be carried out under Santa Prisca

This perhaps tells us rather more about the cultural assumptions of an American man in the 1960’s, that churchgoing was “womens’ stuff”, than anything about the history of the site or the cult of Mithras.  Here, as ever, Mithraic studies is bedevilled by too much sheer imagination.

Krautheimer makes clear that there is pretty much no evidence of any Christian activity on the site before the erection of the church in the 5th century in the ruins of the house.  The construction of churches in Rome in this period is related to the devastation caused by the Goth and Vandal sacking of Rome, making use of high-status locations now conveniently vacant.  Perhaps the house of Sura was one such?  An oratory in the garden was discovered in the 18th century, with depictions of apostles, and dated by the finders to the 4th century; but this has since been demolished, and Krautheimer makes the point that frescos of the apostles are generally a medieval decorative feature.  The first literary reference is in a synod of 499 AD, to a single priest of the church – suggesting that it was a small and unimportant one.  And that seems to be all the data.  If there is more data, I have yet to see it.

I must say that I am unimpressed by the scholarly articles, on the whole.  Not that I can complain – at least the excavations were published!  But there is a vagueness about them, which is quite infuriating, when you want specifics.

What I did was go and find the reports of the original discovery in the 1930’s.  These, thankfully, have diagrams that make it MUCH clearer what is where!

It will be interesting to see what can be seen on the ground!


From my diary

It’s hotter than hell in the office in which I work, which is not helping me get anything done!  However I’m also close to Cambridge University Library, and I’ve made two trips there in the evening this week, in search of books and articles.

I’m still thinking about Severian of Gabala.  I’ve now obtained a copy of Sever J. Voicu, “Severien de Gabala,” Dictionnaire de spiritualite 14 (Paris, 1990), 752-63.  This article is essential for anyone interested in Severian.  It lists all his works and adds notes on each, over and above what is found in the Clavis Patrum Graecorum.   I must go through this and revise my own list of works accordingly.

My colleague Albocicade, who is collecting French translations of Severian, and OCR’d the Voicu article, has noticed that the Voicu article notes the existence of an unpublished French thesis, J. Kecskeméti, Sévérien de Gabala. Homélie inédite sur le Saint-Esprit, Paris, 1978 (Worldcat and IdRef), on CPG 4947.  It might be possible for a Frenchman like himself to access this.  Here’s hoping.

Bryson Sewell has sent me a couple of pages of his upcoming translation of Severian’s De Spiritu Sancto.  I think this is liable to contain theology: everybody hide now!  So far he’s started to talk about the difference between the Son being “begotten of the Father”, while the Spirit “proceeds from the Father”.  Good news that this is well underway.

My main other activity in the last couple of days has been obtaining some materials for the Mithras temples at Santa Prisca in Rome (quite amazing, this one), on the island of Ponza, and the one at Santa Capua Vetere.  A commenter on my Mithras website asked about the date of the Santa Prisca Mithraeum.  It seems to have been setup in the wine-cellar of an imperial property, which had once been the private house of Trajan before he became emperor.  The wine cellar even had a little water supply of its own, for cleaning the amphorae.  Somewhere else in the cellars is, perhaps, the origins of the church of Santa Prisca.  But I haven’t come across anything about that yet.


From my diary

Lately I’ve been taking an interest in the monuments of Mithras in Egypt.  Apparently some are in the museum in Alexandria, while others come from Memphis and are in the Graeco-Roman room in the Cairo museum.  I haven’t been very fortunate in finding images from either online.  Is it possible that one or both of these museums discourages tourist photographs?

I’m quite tempted to fly out there and take some photos myself.  It’s telling that a monument of the lion-headed god appears in various publications in the very same, low-grade, monochrome image!  Clearly nobody has access to anything better.  On the other hand all the flights that I could see, with British Airways and Egyptair, all fly out at the end of the day, to arrive near midnight.  What’s that about, I wonder?

The hour changed last weekend, so everybody is jet-lagged (which is why I am writing this at 7:45 am; no sleep).  But I intend to go over to Cambridge University Library late this afternoon, and photocopy an article in Mithras in Egypt, as well as a page from the CIMRM that was accidentally omitted from the PDF that I have.

Last night I managed to do a fix to the code behind the Mithras website, which should make image handling rather easier.  Always so much to do!

A note arrived from the typesetter on the Origen volume.  He’s working away on fixes to the footnoting, which went awry a revision or two back.  Being a publisher is very hard work, let me tell you!


From my diary

I’m very busy with the Mithras site, uploading more data about monuments.  Last night I worked on the page on the Caernarvon Mithraeum, adding information from the excavation report.  It was discovered in 1959, during preparatory work by a jerry-builder developer, and is now a set of rather dreary-looking 50’s houses.  Today I’ve been looking for images of the finds, and failing.

On my last visit to Wales – to Swansea – I stopped at Caerleon, and was very sad at the obvious poverty there.  Judging from Google Street View, north Wales is the same.  There used to be a purpose-built museum at the site of Segontium, the Roman fort at Caernarvon.  The council handed over responsibility for running it to a local trust, and then, a few years later, removed the council funding.  The museum is now closed.

I have been trying to find out what became of the finds from the dig.  This itself is not easy.  That the council anticipated the final outcome seems obvious to me; the trust was merely a patsy, to take the blame for the inevitable council-driven closure.  It is very sad to find a town with so little civic pride that it closes its museums.  Shame on the town council.  I doubt the cost was much.  Other councils are playing the same game and closing down public libraries.

I wonder how long the one in my own town will survive such maneouverings?  The running of the library has already been outsourced.  How long before the council funding is chopped?  A volume on Roman Koln awaits me there this weekend.

I’ve also been looking at an entry in the CIMRM, on a tauroctony from Fala castle, in what is now Slovenia.  No trace of this item, or of any museum in the area, to be found online!  It is remarkable how archaeology just disappears!

The National Library of Wales is digitising Welsh publications – well done.  Among these, according to Wikipedia, is Archaeologia Cambrensis, in which the Segontium Mithraeum was published.  But … it is not on the website.  I do hope that journal owners are not being obscurantist.

I have been impressed again today with how easy it is to find older publications online.  Despite the barriers of copyright!

The Origen book has a load of formatting errors, and needs rework.  I shall print it off on sheets of A4, and mark up the sheets in red ink, very precisely.  Otherwise we will be at this in a year’s time!


Mithras scholar Vermaseren on the Mithras cranks

wynne-tyson_mithras_the_fellow_in_the_capThere are endless crank books about Mithras, usually with an anti-Christian twist.  They go unnoticed by scholars, as a rule.

A correspondent drew my attention to some remarks made by Maarten Vermaseren on one of them.  The title is Mithras: the fellow in the cap, by a certain Mrs Wynne-Tyson, back in 1958 (but reprinted since).

The title is a reference to a curious passage in St. Augustine, in his  Tractatus in Joh. Evang. VII, 6.  This reads, in the ANF translation, thus:

“And this is a great thing to see in the whole world, the lion vanquished by  the blood of the Lamb: members of Christ delivered from the teeth of the  lions, and joined to the body of Christ.

“Therefore some spirit or other  contrived the counterfeit that His image should be bought for blood, because  he knew that the human race was at some time to be redeemed by the precious  blood.

“For evil spirits counterfeit certain shadows of honor to themselves,  that they may deceive those who follow Christ. So much so, my brethren, that  those who seduce by means of amulets, by incantations, by the devices of the  enemy, mingle the name of Christ with their incantations: because they are not  now able to seduce Christians, so as to give them poison they add some honey,  that by means of the sweet the bitter may be concealed, and be drunk to ruin.

“So much so, that I know that the priest of that Pilleatus was sometimes in the  habit of saying, ‘Pilleatus himself also is a Christian’. Why so, brethren,  unless that they were not able otherwise to seduce Christians?”

The word “pilleatus” is of less than certain meaning – it means the “god wearing a mitre” or wearing a peaked cap.  It could mean Mithras, but also Attis, and apparently a number of other gods accustomed to appear with a cap.[1]

Mrs Wynne-Tyson has chosen to render “pilleatus” as “the fellow in the cap”, which is fair enough.  But let us now see what professional Mithras scholar and archaeologist M. Vermaseren says, after himself referring to Mithras as “the fellow in the cap”[2].  (I will split this footnote into sections for easier reading).

4.  This is the dreadful title of a book by Mrs Wynne-Tyson published in 1972. The Times Literary Supplement said of this work : “The argument of this book, showing that the facts about Mithras reveal the basic pattern of Western civilisation and throw light into many of the darker comers of history, points disturbing conclusions for Christian orthodoxy”.

But reading the astonishing lines “To the Christian and others outside the Mithraic fold, Mithraism, with its bull-slaying God who was also identifiable as the Bull, in whose regenerative blood the Faithful bathed; with its animal masks of Lion and Bull, Horse, Eagle and Gryphon, and its eschatological teachings of metempsychosis, evidently seemed to be the worship of the Beast, even as Pure Christianity has always been the worship of the Perfect Man” etc., one would be tempted to think that Franz Cumont and his successors had all written in vain. I wonder what Stevie Smith in the Observer really meant when writing about this book “Most fascinating and apt to our times.”

Mithraism as the introduction to the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner is preached by Alfred Schütze, Mithras, Mysterien und Urchristentum, Stuttgart 1972(2). The petitio principii already is wrong.

The wildest opinions as well as unadulterated twaddle about the revealing excavations in the Mithraeum of Sa Prisca (M. J. Vermaseren – C. C. van Essen, The Excavations in the Mithraeum of the Church of Santa Prisca in Rome, Leiden 1965) can be found in the book by Father Geremia Sangiorgi O.S.A., S. Prisca e it suo Mitreo (Le Chiese di Roma illustrate 101), Roma 1968, which is now the official guide for visitors!

It becomes each year more necessary for scholars to waste their precious time in refuting the many pseudo-scholars = anti- scholars: read, for example, the exemplary review by Theodor Klauser in JAC 11/12, 1968/1969, 215-224 who rightly emphasizes:

“Wer die Wissenschaft wirklich fördern will, darf sich nicht damit begnügen, Einfälle und Lesefrüchte unkontrolliert zu einer verführerischen Synthese zu vereinigen und diese in gefälliger Form vorzutragen, die leiseste kritische Berührung bringt solche Konstruktionen zum Einsturz. Die bewährten Regeln der wissenschaftlichen Methode lassen sich nicht ungestraft ignorieren; auch der Begabteste kann langwierige Arbeitsprozesse, wenn sie nötig sind, nicht nach Belieben überspringen”.

A rough translation of Klauser’s words:

“Anyone who really wants to promote scholarship may not content themselves with uniting uncontrolled ideas and research into a seductive synthesis, written in an attractive form, for the slightest critical touch causes such constructs to collapse.  The established rules of scholarly method cannot be ignored with impunity; even the most gifted may not skip over the necessarily lengthy process.”

I think perhaps those words sound more impressive in German!

  1. [1]A.S. Geden states that Cumont believes this refers to Attis, and the blood to the criobolium.
  2. [2]M. Vermaseren, The Mithraeum at Ponza, Brill, 1974, p.12-13.  Google books preview here.

Finding archaeology online about Mithras

I’m extremely busy at the moment adding material to the Mithras site.  At the moment this is driven by a list of Mithraeums discovered since 1960.  I am attempting to research each of these online, grab some text, some images, and create a page for it.  This is, inevitably, a very time-consuming business.

Several things have struck me while doing this.

It’s often really hard to work out what is the formal publication of an excavation.  You can search the web as much as you like; you will only find the printed sources most commonly referred to.  In the case of an obscure site, you may not find this, and will have to be content with webpages.

It’s very hard to get even a site plan of the excavation.

It’s very hard to get a list of “finds”, never mind a list of minor finds which may be of critical importance.

It’s also very difficult to physically obtain publications, in many cases.  The Vulci Mithraeum (il Mitreo di Vulci, for the benefit of the search engines, since nearly everything is in Italian) seems to be documented in an exhibition catalogue published by a certain Dr. Anna M. Moretti Sgubini.  The exhibition was ephemeral, and no copies of it are present in any Anglophone country.  I am considering writing to the author, on the off-chance that she has a PDF of her own work.  More and more people do, these days, but it’s not satisfactory.

I have also found that material placed online, in the “Electronic Journal of Mithraic Studies”, in zip files, has gradually become corrupt over the last 10 years and will not open any more.  Being in zip format, it isn’t archived anywhere.

All of this seems remarkably unsatisfactory.  Archaeology is considered a scientific discipline; yet these are fundamental problems.

Of course it may be that the problem is with me.  Perhaps all the archaeologists are “in the know”.  Some may read this and say, “What? You mean you didn’t know that it’s all at  Haw haw!”  Well, if so, I don’t know.  Nor has such a resource come my way.

So I suspect that archaeologists need to consider how they use the web.  Indexes, catalogues, ways to find data — these are what the web is for.

There’s room for improvement here, chaps!


From my diary

I’m mainly busy with the Mithras site at the moment.

I’ve been working through a list of new finds since 1960 made by John W. Brandt, together with a list by Szabo Csaba.  In each case I do a web search for pictures or sites.  I did the Riegel Mithraeum on Friday night.  It’s slow, but useful.

I wish I could find a picture of the curious sword found at Riegel.  This had a semi-circle in the middle of the blade, as wide as a man’s neck.  If put on, it would look as if a sword had been driven through the neck.  Undoubtedly it featured in some initiation ceremony.

Today I collected a curious volume from the library – Al. N. Oikonomides, Mithraic art: a search for unpublished and unidentified monuments.  It’s only a little book, with monochrome photos of a few such.  But it’s still very interesting, if not very scholarly.  It’s basically a set of random notes typed up.

The Origen volume has come back from the typesetter with the latest set of corrections, and I have now produced a proof copy for the translator, and another for me.  I think that I will allow one set of corrections from this, and then go to print.  Somewhere there has to be an end to this task.  The typesetter, Simon Hartshorne, has been very good about this indeed, but I am embarassed to trespass on his generosity much more.

I’m probably doing some other things as well: just can’t think of them tonight!


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:


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!

From my diary

Regular readers will know that through an intermediary I have commissioned a lady in Syria to type up the Arabic text of Erpenius’ 1625 edition of the second part of al-Makin.  Al-Makin was a 13th century Coptic writer.  The first part runs from the creation to the 11th year of Heraclius; the second part (which alone has been printed) is abbreviated from the Islamic writer al-Tabari and runs down to his own time.

Today a further 8 chunks of transcription appeared – 80 pages of the Erpenius edition, which is 300 pages in all.  I now have 190 pages of text in electronic form!  Only 110 to go.

This transcriber is really good and swift and efficient.

I’ve also received a bunch of rather excellent photographs of the Barberini Mithraeum in Rome from a correspondent.  The basic versions can be found here, but the photographer has kindly sent me the high resolution copies.  I shall incorporate them into the Mithras site in due time.

I am still working on the Mithras materials from time to time.  It’s the only way to attack such a vast catalogue of material.  I daresay I shall still be working on it in a few years time.  But that doesn’t matter.  Whatever I put online is useful, and whatever I never get to … well, we’re no worse off.

A bunch of errata have been sent to the typesetter for the Origen book who, it turns out, has been in hospital.

I’m still full of cold, so not doing much on any of my projects however.