Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Eastern Mystery Cults in Roman London

"Say all these things with fire and spirit, until completing the first utterance; then, similarly, begin the second, until you complete the seven immortal gods of the world. When you have said these things, you will hear thundering and shaking in the surrounding realm; and you will likewise feel yourself being agitated. Then say again: "Silence!" (the prayer) Then open your eyes and you will see the doors open and the world of the gods which is within the doors, so that from the pleasure and joy of the sight your spirit runs ahead and ascends." [1]

The Sacred Valley of the Walbrook
The legendary history of Geoffrey of Monmouth [2] claims that Brutus, a descendant of the Trojan Aeneas, founded London, his New Troy (Trinovantum), when he came to the shore of the Thames. After leaving Greece, Brutus came to the island of Loegecia where he experienced a vision at the Temple of Diana, the goddess of the woods, where a statue gave answers to those who consulted her. He was foretold to travel to an island in the west and build a second Troy. [3] If Brutus brought a religion with him it seems likely that it would have been a cult from the east.

According to Geoffrey, when Lud, brother of Cassibellaun, king of the Britons who made war against Julius Caesar, (Geoffrey's version of the historical British chieftain Cassivellaunus) obtained the government of the kingdom, he surrounded the city with walls and towers, and having abolished the name Troy, renamed it KaerLud, the city of Lud. He commanded the citizens to build houses and all kinds of structures within it so that no foreign country could show more beautiful palaces. [4] However, we know that the London Wall was built by the Romans during the Severan period, toward the end of the 2nd and early 3rd centuries, around the 'square mile' of the City of London. If Geoffrey's early temple to an eastern goddess of the woods exists at all, it must be within the Walls of the first city.

Running through the centre of the early Roman settlement of Londinium was the Walbrook river, probably named as such as it ran through the Wall, at the site of All-Hallows-on-the-Wall Church, Broad Street, which possibly started as a water shrine on the Wall. Feeding into the Thames at Dowgate, the Walbrook provided a source of clean water for the first inhabitants of the settlement, although now no longer visible the watercourse continues to exist beneath the city. Excavations in the 19th century by General Pitt Rivers uncovered 'many dozen skulls' reported from the bed of the Walbrook between Finsbury Circus and the south side of the London Wall.
Walbrook skulls

These skulls have been interpreted as evidence of of Geoffrey's account of a mass beheading on the banks of the Walbrook. Geoffrey has Asclepiodotus, Duke of Cornwall, march against the usurper Allectus at London. According to Geoffrey, after Allectus had been killed,  Asclepiodotus besieged Gallus and the rest of the Romans in the city.  Asclepiodotus is supported by Dimetians, Venedotians, Deirans, Albanians and all others of the British race who breached the walls and made a violent assault on the city. Witnessing the onslaught Gallus and his troops surrendered to Asclepiodotus, but a body of Venedotians rushed them and beheaded them upon a brook in the city, from which the name of the British commander was afterwards called, Nautgallim in the British tongue and in the Saxon Gallembourne[5] Geoffrey seems to have invented Gallus simply to provide the translation for the Walbrook (Gallobroc).

Perhaps there is the faintest glimmer of a true account within Geoffrey's story as the Celts were renown head hunters with classical historians recording the Celt's habit of displaying the heads of their enemies on walls or hanging them from their horse's necks on the battlefield. Is this evidence of a Celtic attack on the city as Geoffrey writes it? Perhaps, understandably some historians have interpreted the Walbrook skulls as evidence of the Boudiccan rebellion of 60 AD. [6] Tacitus tells us that 70,000 perished in the three cities of Camulodunum (Colchester), Verulamium (St Albans) and Londinium during the Boudiccan revolt. [7] Of these, as many as 30,000 were from an estimated population of 45,000 in London. The Walbrook skulls may have been so plentiful that they were manifest in the 12th century when Geoffrey wrote. Since the 19th century over one hundred skulls have been found in the upper Walbrook valley.

There was so much material deposited in the Walbrook, including metalwork, broken or bent miniature weapons, mutilated figures of deities, that it was at one time thought to have been a municipal rubbish dump. Excavations along the Walbrook in London during the 1920s produced several wooden and lead tablets, but these older discoveries have been largely ignored by scholars.  However, ritual deposition is now recognised as the source of this material and a lead curse tablet from the Walbrook stream has been identified at Princes Street, which had been fixed by a single nail bearing the same inscription scratched on both sides cursing two men.

Excavations in the Walbrook Valley in 1989 by the Museum of London at a tributary channel of the Walbrook was filled with waterlain deposits and a number of  human  skulls. Cut  into the  channel deposits were a number of pits found to contain scrap leather from Roman sandal manufacture. These pits, and contemporary drainage channels, also contained human skulls.

Today it is thought more likely that the Walbrook skulls reflect votive practices over a long period. Carbon dating of the skulls returned a date range from The Bronze Age and the Late Iron Age to the Roman period. Further, the skulls were mainly from young males, 25 -35 years at the time of death. Study of the skulls indicates that they had been deliberately deposited without their lower jaws and that the discolouration of the bone suggested that they had been exposed for some time after death, perhaps as curated relics. [8]

The practice of skull deposition appears to have its basis in a pre-Roman cult of the head that continued into the Roman period. The deposition of human skulls in watery contexts is an ancient custom that can be traced back to the late Bronze Age. The cult of the head is attested in Celtic written sources, such as the head of Bran from the Mabinogion.

We find the largest accumulation of deposits along the stretch of the Walbrook between Cannon Street and the Bank of England, considered with the presence of shrines along on the banks of the stream here. A votive tin plaque of three Celtic mother-goddesses and a mother-goddess figurine found in the Walbrook valley indicates this was an area of deep religious significance to the Romano-British inhabitants of Londinium. Further, at Budge Row, running east-west and once part of the Roman road of Watling Street, a marble plinth was found with an inscription stating that the district restored the shrine to a mother-goddess that stood nearby on the bank of the Walbrook. This was clearly a religious quarter.
Roman facepot (Potteries Museum)

The remains of over 100 ceramic face pots, one of the largest groups in the country, have been found in the Upper Walbrook valley reflecting the concentration human skulls in this area. Most of the complete face pots from London, mainly manufactured in the Verulamium (St Albans) area, have been found in the Walbrook valley and from local shrines as ritual deposits. It would appear they have nothing to do with food storage, but are connected to funerary activity as some have been found in cemeteries and with cremation burials. Some face pots from Italy have been interpreted as bearing the face of Charon, guide to the shades. Originating in the Rhineland these distinctive vessels can be found in most cultures all over the Roman empire, following in the footsteps of the army. However, their usage seems to have continued amongst the civilian population even after the military had left the area. The face pots appear to have been introduced to Britain by the Roman army who based in Londinium at the fort at Cripplegate, on the west bank of the Walbrook.

The Temple of Mithras
The Romans were a superstitious people and very conscious of indigenous religions. They brought much of their religion with them to Britain but debate goes on as to the depth they replaced the Celtic religious practices. Some scholars see a total replacements while others see continuation of Celtic beliefs and practices. However, the Romans were certainly responsible for bringing the Eastern Mystery Cults to London, yet only one temple of a mystery cult has been positively identified in London.

A Mithraeum had long been suspected in Londinium when a Tauroctony, a marble relief of Mithras sacrificing a bull, was found in Walbrook in 1889.  Excavations by W F Grimes in 1954 on the east bank of the Walbrook, revealed a basilican temple, built c.240 AD, architecturally very similar to an early christian church with central nave and side aisles, divided from the nave on each side by a row of seven columns with was a raised sanctuary within a rounded apse at the western end. The 1954 excavations also revealed a group of fine marble sculptures of pagan deities confirming it was anything but a Christian church. The high quality sculptures of Mithras, wearing his Phrygian cap, Minerva, Serapis and Mercury were all made from Carrara marble, carved in Italy and shipped to Britannia by civilian merchants. The sculptures had all been carefully buried within the floor of the temple that was in use in the early 4th century.
Walbrook Tauroctony
The Tauroctony found in Walbrook in 1889, is thought to have been carefully buried at the same time as the sculptures probably due to the threat of the advancing tide of Christianity in the later 4th century. An axe cut on the side of the neck of the Mithras sculpture and damage to the principal sculptures in London and the damage to the tauroctony at the Carrawburgh Mithraeum on Hadrian's Wall is suggestive of a violent end to this eastern mystery cult in Britain. [9] The Walbrook temple appears to have continued in use, although there is no evidence that it converted to a Christian church. Indeed, a marble sculpture of Bacchus, the wine god, combined with a satyr, a maenad, a panther and a serpent, lying on the temple's latest floor suggest its continued use as a pagan temple.

Roman Mithraism, a mystery religion that involved the subterranean worship of the ancient Persian god Mithras, the Indo-European god of heavenly light, through seven stages of initiation, was practised widely in the Roman Empire, from  the 1st to 3rd centuries AD, being particularly popular amongst the Roman military, officials and merchants.  It seems likely the London Mithraeum had a strong military contingent drawn from the nearby fort at Cripplegate.

Chillingly similar and Christianity's strongest rival in the Roman world: the sacrifice of the great bull, the scene depicted on the Tauroctony, with the shedding of the eternal blood hinting at a belief system not so far removed from the Christian concept of Judgement, Salvation and Pedition. Little of the liturgy has survived but at the Santa Prisca Mithraeum some painted texts have survived on the walls making reference to the 'eternal blood' and 'the blood which grants eternity.' [10]
Mithras, Walbrook

Perhaps the most enigmatic find at the Walbrook Mithraeum was a silver box found stashed in a secret hiding place within the temple. The scenes depicted on the outside of the box have been interpreted as depicting the dramatic ceremonies that were performed symbolising life and death, associated in some way in these initiation ceremonies with the initiate passing through death to resurrection in a new life must undergo a temporary burial. A coffin-like pit was found at the  Carrawburgh Mithraeum thought to be for this purpose. The concept is suggested on the lid of the silver box, where a man emerges from a coffin-like chest. The sculptures of both Serapis, Egyptian God of the Underworld, and the Roman god Mercury, guide to the souls of the dead, are associated with life after death and lend further support to this view. Within the box was a strainer or infuser, thought to have been used to strain the sacramental wine. The Walbrook strainer may have been used in this way but is unusually deep and may have been used to infuse a concoction of herbs, perhaps of a hallucinogenic trait. [11]

These temples were designed to imitate the cave in which the god Mithras slayed a mythical bull, being invariably low buildings often subterranean in part at least, with little natural light but sometimes with an aperture to admit the rays of the sun at an important sequence in the solar calendar; a ceiling in the vault of the mithraeum at Caesarea Maritima, on the Mediterranean coast of Israel, has an aperture that admits light onto an off-centred scuttle which throws sunlight onto the altar at midday at the summer solstice. [12]

Following the 1954 excavation, the Walbrook Mithareum was uprooted and moved down the road to Temple Court where the temple outline was recreated in Roman building materials in Queen Victoria Street. The Mithraeum is now due to be moved back to its original location with remains of the temple now been dismantled and in controlled storage ready to be showcased inside a new building. Ironically, it cannot be relocated in exactly in its original position because some of the foundations of the original Roman temple are still there, consequently the reconstruction will be moved to the original Roman level of the temple on the correct N-S position but shifted a few metres to the west to avoid the original foundations.

Isis at Southwark
Mithraism was not the only eastern mystery religion to be imported to Britain by the Romans. The discovery of a 1st century flagon found in Tooley Street, Southwark, bearing graffito LONDINI AD FANVM ISIDIS or "From London at the temple of Isis" indicating that a temple to the great Egyptian goddess Isis may have once stood on the south bank of the Thames opposite the Londinium settlement.

Numerous finds of small artefacts hinted at the presence of the worship of Isis in Roman London but it was not until the mid-1970's when two altars, bearing 3rd century inscriptions celebrating the restoration of the temple of Isis, were found amongst the building material of the riverside wall at Blackfriars that its existence was finally confirmed.

In 1996 excavations at a cemetery site parallel to the Watling Street Roman road in Great Dover Street in the Borough of Southwark revealed  three lamps in an unusual cremation burial which depicted the jackal headed Anubis, the Egyptian god of the underworld, closely associated with Isis. Maybe not Brutus's temple but evidence that the worship of eastern deities had spread from Asia and Egypt to the far western Empire.

Since the 19th century a mausoleum associated with a large Roman building is known to  have existed on part of the  site of Southwark Cathedral but it wasn't until excavations carried out in the  crypt in 1977 revealed traces of 1st century buildings and a square timber-lined well of probable late Roman date. The well contained an important group of  Roman funerary sculptures, perhaps the furnishings from the mausoleum. The sculpture had been broken in half and dumped into the well  with a large quantity of  building rubble that showed signs of  burning and damage, perhaps signifying a violent end for pagan worship at this temple.

The major sculpture is a free-standing limestone group of an eastern deity, usually identified as either Attis (Atys) or Mithras, flanked by a seated hound and a small hoofed beast, probably a stag. The god has a bow in his left hand, and a quiver on his back, and wears the Phrygian cap characteristic of  both deities. Attis was a Phrygian vegetation god and consort of Cybele, the Mother goddess.

Hunter god, Southwark
Alternatively, this deity may simply be a representation of a hunter god. Permitting this identification then the sculpture of the deity found in the well at Southwark Cathedral is a good parallel for the Romano-British deity known as Apollo Cunomaglos, attested by an altarstone at Nettleton Shrub, Wiltshire. 'Cunomaglos,' meaning 'hound lord' portraying associations with hunting, a native deity who the Romans equated with Apollo, one of the most important deities in ancient Greek and Roman religion. The son of Zeus and Leto, Apollo was the twin brother of the hunter goddess Artemis. To the Romans she was known as Diana, the goddess of the hunt.

In addition to the hunter god found at Southwark, figures wearing Phrygian caps and carrying hunting equipment have been found at Goldsmiths’ Hall, near Ludgate Hill, and in the east of the city at Bevis Marks, near Aldgate, on the line of the Roman Wall; evidence of a Hunter god cult in Roman London?

Copyright © 2012 Edward Watson

Notes & References
1. The Mithras Liturgy from the Paris Codex, Edited and Translated by Marvin W. Meyer.
2. "Historia Regum Britanniae" (History of the Kings of Britain) , Book I, Chp 17.
3.  Ibid. Book I, Chp 10.
4.  Ibid. Book III, Chp 20.
5.  Ibid. Book 5, Chp 4.
6. John Morris, Londinium: London in the Roman Empire, BCA, 1982, following Mortimer Wheeler.
7.  Tacitus, The Annals, Book XIV, 109 AD.
8.  R.Bradley and K.Gordon, Human skulls from the River Thames, their dating and significance, Antiquity, 1988.
9.  Martin Henig, Religion in Roman Britain, Batsford 1995.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12.  Roger B Beck, Beck on Mithraism, Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2004.

The Museum of London website is an invaluable resource for Roman London.


Mystery of 39 skulls found at London Wall is solved after 25 years
Skulls discovered within the boundaries of ancient London a quarter of a century ago are now believed to be those of gladiators, brutally killed for the amusement of Roman audiences.

The haul of 39 skulls, discovered beneath the site of the Guildhall in the City of London, were discovered in 1988 and were believed to have originated from human remains washed out of burial sites by the Walbrook, one of the area’s lost rivers. But now after 25 years in storage, the remains have been re-examined by an historian from the Museum of London, who believes they are the first evidence of gladiators in London.

Decapitated heads were 'gladiators' - Mail Online 15 January 2014
Gladiator Heads? Mystery of Trove of British Skulls Solved - Live Science 07 February 2014 (from Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 43)


60 years since the discovery of the Roman Temple of Mithras
In the summer of 1954, archaeologist WF Grimes and his team excavated the site in the City of London ahead of the construction on Bucklersbury House, Legenland. The archaeologists had no evidence for the function of the building until on the last day of the planned excavation, the 18th September, the head of the god Mithras was found by a workman.

In 1962 the Temple of Mithras was relocated approximately 100 metres from its original location.
The reconstruction was carefully dismantled again in 2011 ahead of construction of the current site owners, Bloomberg,  new European headquarters. The Mathraeum will be reinstated  back, where it originally sat, at the correct Roman ground level seven metres below current ground level, following Grimes’s original record drawings, in 2017.

Past Horizons 23 September 2014

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  1. The scene on the Tauroctony depicts Mithras slaying the cosmic bull surrounded by Cautes, with the burning torch, and Cautopates, with unflamed torch, both dressed in the same attire as the deity. Under the bull a dog laps at the blood dripping from the wound and a scorpion attacks the bull's testicles. Often a raven is perched on the bull's back. Scholars have interpreted the scene on the Tauroctony as having astrological symbolism as each figure and element correlates to specific constellations and the seven planets recognized by the ancient Romans.

    A remarkable cauldron was found in 1891 in a peat bog near Gundestrup, Himmerland, Denmark, typically dated to between 200 BC and 300 AD, placing it within the late La Tène period.

    At the bottom of the inside of the Gundestrup Cauldron is a dying bull sinking into the ground, and on a side panel we find the sacrifice of three bulls by three warriors(?), with a dog running beneath each bull. Bulls feature prominently in Celtic mythology, but the scene of the bull sacrifice is notably absent from their literature. The workmanship and scenes depicted on the Gundestrup Cauldron are often interpreted as Thracian in style rather than Celtic, although many of the cauldron's decorative motifs are manifestly Celtic.

    The origins of the Roman cult of Mithras remain controversial, but Roman worship of Mithras is thought to have began sometime during the early Roman empire, perhaps during the late first century AD. It is popularly believed that the Roman cult of Mithraism had Iranian (Persian) roots, as the Indo-Iranian god Mitra, or Mithra, originates in the Hindu and Zoroastrian pantheons.

    Many of the early theories on the origins of the Roman cult of Mithras have proved incorrect and remain unresolved. We find the largest quantity of evidence for mithraic worship comes from the western half of the empire. Does it not seem more likely that Mithraism evolved from the meeting of the Roman Empire with the Celtic world and can perhaps be best explained by the Roman custom of fusing indigenous with foriegn religious beliefs and may not be an Eastern Mystery cult at all.

    1. Hi Hornet, thank you for your very detailed comment. I must concede the origins of Mithraism are certainly beyond me.

      However, various attempts have been made to unravel the scenes on the Gundestrup Cauldron and identify the deities, none of them wholly convincing. For example, the antlered figure on inner plate A is claimed to be Cernunnos. To put this in perspective, the name Cernunnos is attested but once, and that is on the 1st-century Pillar of the Boatmen, where he is depicted somewhat differently to the figure on the Gundestrup Cauldron wearing long antlers. We cannot assume that all horned figures represent the same deity. Cernunnos appears on the Pillar of the Boatmen along with other Gallic deities such as Esus and Smertrios, who are consequently also identified amongst the other deities on the Cauldron.

      The presence of bull sacrifice is not exclusive to Mithraism. Bull sacrifice features in many mythologies and was very important to the Celts. It has been argued that the bull slaying scenes on the Gundestrup Cauldron represent The Tain (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) but this Irish epic features two bulls not three. The base certainly depicts a bull but can the three creatures on inner panel D positively be identified as bovine? They have a clear mane on their back and could equally be considered as equine. The Irish cattle raid interpretation has led to the deity on inner plate B being identified as Queen Medb (originally a sovereignty goddess?), who features prominently in the tale. Yet plate B also features elephants, griffons and a big cat? The three horned creatures are possibly some mythical beast and may not be bulls at all.

      A strong argument for a Mithraic interpretation of the cauldron is from the tail of the bull in the Tauroctony scene which typically terminates in an ear of wheat as does the bull at the base of the Gundestrup Cauldron. The base of the cauldron is thought to be a round medallion from a horse’s bridle decoration, perhaps of an Eastern cavalry man, soldered over a hole in the cauldron and unmistakably Oriental in both iconography and style.

      The iconography is so mixed it has been argued that the Gundestrup Cauldron is the work of silversmiths working in Thrace for a Celtic client.