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The article proposes a discussion concerning the astronomical orientation of the Mithraea, that is, of the temples of the Roman god Mithras.
On the Astronomical Orientation of Mithraea
Amelia Carolina Sparavigna
Politecnico di Torino
The article proposes a discussion concerning the astronomical orientation of the Mithraea, that is, of the temples of the Roman god Mithras.
In a recent paper , I discussed the orientation of the Mithraeum at Brocolitia, Carrawburgh, one of the Roman auxiliary forts on the Hadrian's Wall. Using software giving the sunrise and sunset directions on satellite maps, I found that the orientation of the temple and the direction of the sunrise on winter solstice are in good agreement (figure 1). It means that, probably, the orientation of the temple was chosen to recall the birth of Mithras on December 25. In fact, the cult of Mithras, such as that of the Sol Invictus who was the patron of the soldiers, was very popular in the Roman army. Both Sol Invictus and Mithras, who were often identified in the same god , are linked to the winter solstice [3-5]. Moreover, the followers of Mithras worshipped the New Year on December 25, celebrating the birth of the god .
For these reasons, in , I concluded a possible deliberate choice of the orientation of the Mithraeum at Brocolitia, towards the sunrise on the day of the birth of Mithras. I concluded also that an investigation concerning the orientation of other Mithraea could be interesting to understand if the orientation of the nave along the sunrise on the winter solstice is common to these temples or is a special feature of the Mithraeum at Brocolitia.
Figure 1: Left - thanks to SunCalc.net, we can see the direction of sunrise and sunset on any day of the year. The yellow line gives the direction of the sunrise and the red line that of the sunset. The orange curve is representing the apparent motion of the sun in the sky. In this image, we can see that the direction of the building of the Mithraeum at Brocolitia is in good agreement to that of the sunrise on December 25. Right - thanks to Google Earth, Street View mode, we can also explore the site and the horizon towards the sunrise on the winter solstice. The light of sunrise had the possibility to enter the Mithraeum and reach its western end, where there was the Tauroctony, that is, the central cult relief of the Roman Mithraic Mysteries.
In fact, a remarkable investigation of this kind exists for the Mithraea in Ostia Antica . The location of these temples is given in , and at the web site . In , it is told that “Gli scavi archeologici di Ostia Antica hanno portato alla luce numerosi luoghi di culto pre-cristiano, tra cui non mancano, naturalmente, i mitrei. Nell'area archeologica ne sono stati trovati ben 16. Di essi, uno soltanto, il Mitreo Aldobrandini, non è accessibile trovandosi in una tenuta privata” . The archaeological excavations of Ostia Antica have revealed several sites of pre-Christian worship, of course including the Mithraea. In the archaeological area sixteen Mithraea have been found. Of them, only one, the Mitreo Aldobrandini, is not accessible by being in a private estate. Let us note that in , we can find extensive lists of Mithraea in Italy and Europe.
In , the authors tell that they conducted an investigation on the orientations and geometrical content of the Mithraea of Ostia, identifying the axes of these temples. The conclusion after this work was that the distribution of their measured azimuths follows the topography of the city. However, the Decumanus, that is the main street of the town, “presents an indubitable orientation toward the Winter Solstice Sunset. … The exceptional density of Mithraea in Ostia led us to suppose that a symbolic cosmic-solar value is to be searched in the orientation as a whole of the town itself, founded half a millennium before the first presence of Mithraism in Rome”. In , we read also that the “Decumanus (of Ostia) could be considered the very holder of this symbolic value with its orientation toward the Winter Solstice Sunset, possibly making of Ostia a very special place for Mithraicism.” As observed in the article, “The winter solstice night was of particular importance in the Republican era, being the central point of the festivities dedicated to Sol Indiges, the archaic solar god” [7,9].
In , we can find references about previous studies on the orientation of Mithraea too. We find that it “has been reported that Mithraea in the northernmost regions of the Empire are generally East-West oriented” [7,10,11]. The orientation of two Roman mausoleums at Gamzigrad and Šarkamen in Dacia was related “to Orion, to the Winter Solstice and in turn to Mithras” [7,12]. In the case of the mithraeum in Ponza, the researchers in  remark that Ref.13 is stressing the role of the East-West orientation of it “to understand the symbolism of the zodiac represented on the ceiling of the cult niche”.
It seems therefore that the Mithraea had, in general, an astronomical orientation, but that the local environment conditioned it. As observed in , in Rome and Ostia, the followers of Mithras had not portions of free land for constructing Mithraea ex novo. Therefore, they had to adapt their temples to the local street system. However, “the Mithra believers found in Ostia a solar orientation”, because the town was founded with the Decumanus oriented along the sunrise/sunset on solstices. The authors in  concluded: “it should also be possible that placing” a Mithraeum in Ostia, independently of the specific orientation, “could have had a symbolic value just for the symbolic orientation of the whole town”.
Let us investigate the orientation of Ostia Decumanus, using an approach different from that followed in . We can use SunCal.net as we did for the Figure 1. Here the result is given in the Figure 2. Like Ostia, several other Roman towns exist having the Decumanus oriented along the direction of sunrise/sunset on solstices [14-22]. However, only Ostia has a very large concentration of Mithraea. Probably this concentration is not linked to the orientation of the Decumanus, but to the fact that the town was an intermodal “hub” of the Roman network of transportation . Another fact that is necessary to note is the following: on the winter solstice, the Decumanus is oriented along the sunset, not along the sunrise. Since the birth of Mithras is December 25, it means that the worshippers were concerned of the return of the light, and therefore were observing the displacement of the points on the horizon where the sun was rising, not where it was setting.
Figure 2: Using SunCalc.net, we can see that the direction of Ostia Decumanus is along the sunset on winter solstice.
After discussing Ref.7, let us consider another very important work, that in Ref.24. A. Joanne Greig is reporting on a project, which examined “how the layout and orientation of cult sanctuaries (Mithraea) dedicated to the mysteries of the Roman god Mithras reflect the perceptions of the sky of the participants, in the context of archaeoastronomy”. Four Mithraea sites are examined, two in Carnuntum, Austria and two in situ in Ptuj, Slovenia.
Here the data that the author obtained. Mithraeum I at Ptuj (Pettau in German, Poetovio in Latin), Slovenia, dating middle of the II century AD. Alignment of the altar: 271 degrees West, entrance in the East. As told in , “the main axis runs east to west, with the cult niche at the west end” (if we use Sollumis.com, we can easily see that for the vernal equinox, March 21, the sunset azimuth at Ptuj is 272 degrees West). Mithraeum III at Ptuj, “the altar is located almost exactly in the North, with the entrance in the South” . Mithraeum I at Carnuntum Petronell, Austria. The “original excavation indicated that the cave sanctuary was built in a natural crevice, facing east and decorated with wall paintings. … the cult niche probably lay in the apse to the North”. Therefore, the altar was probably in the North, and the entrance in the East. Mithraeum III: the main cult icon was in the West. “An important Emperors' conference was held at Carnuntum in 308 AD, and a commemorative altar was found in the fore room, showing the high level of support for the cult at that time. … on 25 December 308 AD (Sol Invictus birth celebration). The rising sun on that date could have illuminated through an aperture the statues to the left of the altar, notably Cautopates, torch held downwards perhaps signifying midwinter, and the shell water basin that could have suggested rebirth of the sun” .
Very interesting are also the conclusions of . Let us examine them. “Particularly since the rise of mystery cults in the first and second centuries AD with a greater emphasis on astrology, it is possible that Mithraea took account of astronomical factors, including the movement of the sun in a solar cult” . Greig continues telling that, in the orientation of Mithraea, there are two facts to consider. One is their symbolic orientation and the other their actual orientation. “Of the four Mithraea sites examined, two had the main altars with Tauroctonies in the West facing East, and two had their main altars in the North facing South”. Greig tells that, according to Roger Beck, the Tauroctony “is symbolically located with the vernal equinox in the East. However, the actual orientation of the shrines would have admitted light to shine on important images” . And also, “While all Mithraea reflect the same cosmic template, they are also unique, being set in different landscapes” .
Before concluding, some notes are necessary. Both  and  are referring to Beck’s works for the orientation of the Mithraea. However, we have to tell that, about the cosmic orientation - different from the geographic orientation - of the Mithraea, Roger Beck is writing the following, at page 110 in . “It follows that trying to correlate the cosmic orientation of the mithraeum, …, with terrestrial north, south, east, and west is a pointless endeavor – pointless because the universe and the place on the earth’s surface are incommensurable”. And in fact, Maarten Jozef Vermaseren is arguing in  at page 58 that “one of the general traits we can just derive from the Mithraic sanctuaries is the fact that many of them were directed towards the East; for various reasons many of them however were not oriented”. Therefore, let us conclude that the Mithraea had, when possible, an astronomical orientation towards the rising sun. The Mithraeum at Brocolitia seems to be the only survived example of a sanctuary having an orientation along the sunrise on the winter solstice.
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Sparavigna, A. (2017). On the Astronomical Orientation of Mithraea. PHILICA.COM Article number 1055.