At the Roman necropolis in Carmona, Spain, visitors are led to the popular “Elephant’s Tomb,” a large underground chamber that gets its name from a crude sculpture of an elephant found there.
Now archaeologists are saying it may not be a tomb at all, but rather a temple to one of the ancient world’s most mysterious religions. A team from the University of Pablo de Olavide, Seville, has analyzed the structure and says it was once a mithraeum, an underground temple for the god Mithras.
Mithraism centered on secret rites centered on the mystical slaying of a bull was one of the most popular faiths in the last years of paganism. Several mithraeums are scattered about Europe, including in London, Mérida, and along Hadrian’s Wall.
The archaeologists point out that its general shape, with a columned, three-chambered room leading to an area for altars, is the same as other mithraeums. They also found astronomical alignments. Sunlight would hit the center of the chamber during the equinoxes, and during the winter and summer solstices, the sun would light up the north and south walls respectively. As the sun shines through the window during the spring equinox, Taurus rises to the East and Scorpio hides to the West. The opposite occurred during the autumn equinox. Taurus and Scorpio figure prominently in the religion’s astrological symbolism, with the God Mithras slaying a bull as a scorpion stings the animal’s testicles.
It was only later that the temple was turned into a burial chamber, researchers say.
Carmona is less than 20 miles from Seville and is a popular day trip from there.
[Top photo courtesy Daniel Villafruela. Bottom photo courtesy Henri de Boisgelin.]
London got its start as the Roman city of Londinium in the first century AD. Back then the so-called “mystery religions” were very popular in the Roman Empire. These cults, with their personal connections to the divine and secret rites, gave believers a more personal experience than the giant temples to Jupiter, Mars, and the rest of the standard pantheon. One of the most popular mystery religions was that of Mithras, an eastern deity whose worship appears to have been open only to men, mainly soldiers.
Since Mithraic rites were secret, not much is known about their beliefs, but there are many similarities between Mithraism and Christianity, such as Mithras being born on December 25 to a virgin, and having died and been resurrected for the salvation of mankind. Both faiths practiced baptism and communal meals. The similarities were so numerous that early Christian writers claimed the older religion was invented by the Devil as a cheap imitation of Christianity before Jesus was even born!
Temples to Mithras, called mithraea, have been found all over the Roman Empire, including one in the heart of London. The mithraeum in Roman London was discovered in 1952 and moved 90 meters away and set up on Queen Victoria St. The restoration wasn’t a completely accurate one. One major problem was that it was put on a podium when mithraea were generally underground.
Now the site has been bought by Bloomberg LP, which plans to build its European headquarters there. Bloomberg LP is going to dismantle the temple and put it back in its original location, according to a press release from the Museum of London Archaeology. The temple will be dismantled starting on November 21 and the corporation says the new reconstruction will be much more accurate. There’s no word yet on when this whole project will be completed. Such a large and delicate process will probably take several years.