The Mithraic Mysteries was a mystery religion that became popular among the military in the Roman Empire, from the 1st to 4th centuries AD. Information on the cult is based mainly on interpretations of monuments, which depict Mithras as born from a rock and sacrificing a bull. His worshippers had a complex system of seven grades of initiation, with ritual meals and they met in underground temples. Little else is known for certain.
Last week, the Archaeological Society of Malta organised a lecture by Dr Claudia Sagona, Honorary Senior Fellow, University of Melbourne (Australia), entitled Looking for Mithra in Malta. Dr Sagona is the author of The Archaeology of Punic Malta and her latest publication is Looking for Mithra in Malta. (The name of the god was certainly given as “Mithras” (with an ‘s’) on Latin monuments, although “Mithra” may have been used in Greek.)
Any indication of the presence of the cult in Roman Malta can only come from a close examination of the many symbols connected with the cult – the bull, typical Persian dress, symbols of fertility and the stars and the solar system.
Mithras is often portrayed as being on horseback and a statue found in a tomb in Rabat is quite clearly Mithraic. So too is a figure holding a torch, such as the one found in another tomb in Rabat. The Hal Resqun catacombs take on a new meaning if interpreted in relation to the Mithraic cult. So too do the catacombs at Ta’ Kandja, near Mqabba. The so-called Mithraic gem found in Marsa, an oval shaped jewel, has signs of the zodiac that may be Mithraic in origin, as do some coins found in Gozo. A plaque found in Mdina may also be referring to Mithraic symbolism.
Possibly the site most connected with the Mithraic cult is Ras il-Wardija in Gozo, with references to water and to a figure emerging from the rock. Similarly, a figure found at Xaghra ta’ Santa Duminka in Kalkara may have Mithraic connections.
At Salini, the hypogeum seems to have Mithraic symbols on it, while another hypogeum nearby could have been a Mithraeum, the small underground temple where devotees met.
Although there has been much talk and speculation about elements of the Mithraic cult that persist in the Christian religion, which followed and supplanted it in the Roman Empire, perhaps the most visible of these links is the way the Three Magi have been portrayed in Christian iconography – with their red bonnets, Persian attire, focus on astrological revelations and even the fact they are three in number.
In the early centuries of the Christian era, Mithraism succumbed to its own esotericism and exclusivity and to a more open and welcoming Christianity.