By Will Heisey
(To see more about more Will and his interests, look at our guest bloggers page!)
Mithraism was an ancient Roman “mystery religion” that worshipped the Indo-Iranian God Mithras and flourished across the Roman Empire over the 1st to early 4th centuries AD. Such “mystery religions” emphasized secrecy and initiation, and there are few surviving historical records of their activities. For modern archaeologists, information about this cult is therefore reliant upon their archaeological remains.
Within Mithraism, eating was of fundamental ritual importance. The subterranean temple sites (called Mithraea) were designed like a Greco-Roman dining room, where two parallel benches provided a space for the congregants to recline and face each other whilst dining. The shared meals – a regular occurrence of cult practice – are thought by some scholars to have been references to an episode in cult mythology, where Mithras, after sacrificing a “cosmic” bull, subsequently feasted upon its remains with the sun god Sol. Though, as I will demonstrate later, cattle were actually not eaten regularly in Mithraea.
The archaeological remains of these common meals, excavated at Mithraea across the Roman world, are comprised primarily of animal bones and pottery. These remains are found scattered across the interior of the temple sites and also in specially excavated pits found both within and outside Mithraea. These remains have been the focus of my recent research and have shown numerous interesting aspects of eating and drinking in Mithraea.
Interestingly enough, Mithraea of the Roman Empire shared remarkably similar dining habits in both the particular domesticated animals that were preferred as well as the specific ages at which they were slaughtered. In the northwestern provinces, chicken and pig were overwhelmingly popular at Mithraic temples, whereas cattle were dramatically underrepresented. The preference for pig in particular might have influences from similar Roman military consumption patterns, as the cult is known to have been popular within this community. The absence of cattle in Mithraea is remarkable when considering that it was otherwise a popular species in the general diet of the northwestern provinces, and it may relate to a possible “ritual taboo” upon their consumption – not unlike modern Hinduism – given the importance of the “cosmic” bull in Mithraic mythology.
The slaughter ages of certain species, inferred from studying certain diagnostic bones, also share similarities across a variety of Mithraea. While chickens where usually of adult ages when they were slaughtered for Mithraic feasts, pigs were almost always juvenile ages. These similarities could reflect unknown culinary or religious preferences (possibly prearranged) that were shared across Mithraea.
Substantial assemblages of pottery vessels have also been excavated from many Mithraea. Pottery vessels could have been used for a variety of cooking, storage, or dining roles, and are therefore more difficult to interpret than animal bones, but they can indicate certain broad characteristics of Mithraic dining behavior. Across many Mithraea, bowls and dishes with high rims were favoured above more flat vessels such as plates. This might indicate that certain types of meals were preferred in Mithraic banquets, namely, semi-solid dishes like stews. Preparation and storage vessels, such as amphorae (storage and transport vessels) and mortaria (grinding bowls), were also commonly found at Mithraea and can indicate that cooking and meal preparation also took place within the temples or their enclosures.
Drinking vessels, which could have been used for wine, beer, or water, were a popular feature of many Mithraea. This popularity can imply that drinking had an important role to play in Mithraic ritual activities, such as in libations or in the sharing of vessels and their contents between congregants during the all-important communal meals.
Overall, dining was a fundamental aspect of the religious experience in the cult of Mithras. The presence of specific culinary preferences, shared across Mithraea of the northwestern provinces of the Roman Empire, can indicate that this cult placed an emphasis upon what specifically was to be consumed in Mithraic meals. The evidence of the pottery vessels can also further specify this consumption: stews might have been a popular menu item, and drinking was of the utmost importance.
1) The Mithraeum plan. Wiblé, F., 2004. Les petits objets du mithraeum de Martigny/Forum Claudii Vallensium. In: Martens, M., and De Boe, G., (eds.) 2004. Roman Mithraism: the Evidence of the Small Finds. Brussels: Museum Het Toreke, p. 137, Figure 3.
2) Scene depicting Sol and Luna. Vermaseren, M.J., 1982. Mithriaca III: The Mithraeum at Marino. Leiden: E.J. Brill. Plate VII.
3) Beaker from Martigny. Cusanelli-Bressenel, L., 2003. La céramique du Mithraeum de Martigny. Lausanne: Université de Lausanne, p. 74, Plate 7.