Mithraism, also known as the Mithraic mysteries, was a Roman mystery religion centered on the god Mithras. The religion was inspired by Iranian worship of the Zoroastrian god Mithra.

Mithras killing the bull, c. 150 AD, Louvre. (c) Serge Ottaviani

The mysteries were popular among the Roman military from about the 1st – 4th c. AD.

Worshippers of Mithras had a complex system of seven grades of initiation and communal ritual meals. Initiates called themselves syndexioi, those ‘united by the handshake’. They met in underground temples, now called mithraea (singular mithraeum), which survive in large numbers. The cult appears to have had its centre in Rome and was popular throughout the western half of the empire, as far south as the provinces of Africa and Numidia and as far north as Britain.


In every mithraeum the centrepiece was a representation of Mithras killing a sacred bull, an act called the tauroctony.

A Roman tauroctony relief from Aquileia, c. 175 AD, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. (c) Cristian Chirita

Mithras stands in the centre clothed in Anatolian costume and wearing a Phrygian cap; he is kneeling on the exhausted bull, holding it by the nostrils with his left hand and stabbing it with his right. As he does so, he looks over his shoulder towards the figure of Sol. A dog and a snake reach up towards the blood. A scorpion seizes the bull’s genitals. A raven is flying around or is sitting on the bull. Three ears of wheat are seen coming out from the bull’s tail, sometimes from the wound. The bull was often white. The god is sitting on the bull in an unnatural way with his right leg constraining the bull’s hoof and the left leg is bent and resting on the bull’s back or flank. The two torch-bearers are on either side, dressed like Mithras, Cautes with his torch pointing up and Cautopates with his torch pointing down.

The event takes place in a cave, into which Mithras has carried the bull, after having hunted it, ridden it and overwhelmed its strength. Sometimes the cavern is surrounded by a circle, on which the twelve signs of the zodiac appear. Outside the cavern, top left, is Sol Invictus the sun, with his flaming crown, often driving a quadriga. A ray of light often reaches down to touch Mithras. At the top right is Luna, with her crescent moon, who may be depicted driving a biga.

Tauroctony (reconstruction), Strasbourg Archaeological Museum.

In some depictions, the central tauroctony is framed by a series of subsidiary scenes to the left, top and right, illustrating events in the Mithras narrative; Mithras being born from the rock, the water miracle, the hunting and riding of the bull, meeting Sol Invictus who kneels to him, shaking hands with Sol Invictus and sharing a meal of bull-parts with him, and ascending to the heavens in a chariot.

The Mithraeum

Mithraea are sunk below ground, windowless and very distinctive. In cities, the basement of an apartment block might be converted; elsewhere they might be excavated and vaulted over or converted from a natural cave.

A mithraeum found in the ruins of Ostia Antica, Italy.

For the most part, mithraea tend to be small, externally undistinguished and cheaply constructed; the cult generally preferring to create a new centre rather than expand an existing one. The mithraeum represented the cave to which Mithras carried and then killed the bull; and where stone vaulting could not be afforded, the effect would be imitated with lath and plaster. They are commonly located close to springs or streams; fresh water appears to have been required for some Mithraic rituals, and a basin is often incorporated into the structure. 

The Seven Grades of Mithras

GradeSymbolsPlanet/tutelary deity
Corax, Corux or Corvex (raven or crow)beaker, caduceusMercury
Nymphus, Nymphobus (Bridegroom)lamp, hand bell, veil, circlet or diademVenus
Miles (soldier)pouch, helmet, lance, drum, belt, breastplateMars
Leo (lion)batillumsistrum, laurel wreath, thunderboltsJupiter
Perses (Persian)hooked sword (harpe), Phrygian cap, sickle, crescent moon, stars, sling, pouchLuna
Heliodromus (sun-runner)torch, images of the sun god Helios, whip, robesSol Invictus
Pater (father)patera, Mitre, shepherd’s staff, garnet or ruby ring, chasuble or cape, elaborate robes, jewel encrusted with metallic threadsSaturn
Double-faced Mithraic relief, Rome, 2nd-3rd c. AD, Louvre. (c) phgcom
Fresco from the Mithraeum at Marino, Italy, 3rd c. AD.
Roman mosaic depicting Mithras emerging from his cave and flanked by Cautes and Cautopates, 1st c. AD, Walters Art Museum.

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