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The Mithraic Mysteries and the Underground Chamber of San Clemente

By Ḏḥwty

Prior to the adoption of Christianity as its official religion at the end of the 3rd century A.D., the Roman Empire’s religious policy was one of tolerance. Along with the official Roman religion, other religions were allowed to be practised. Moreover, some of the deities and religious practices of the people conquered by the Roman Empire were adopted by the Romans themselves. These include mystery cults such as that of the Dionysian Mysteries, Orphic Mysteries, and Mithraic Mysteries.

Mithra was a Zoroastrian deity who was in charge of covenants and oaths. The name of this god was adapted into Greek as Mithras. Nevertheless, it is unclear whether the Zoroastrian Mithra was the same as the Roman Mithras. Some scholars regarded Mithra and Mithras as one and the same, while others regarded Mithras as a completely new Roman product. Yet others suggest that whilst Mithras may not be as ‘Oriental’ as some suggest, the fact that a Persian name was used has some significance.

Our modern understanding of the Mithraic Mysteries is derived mainly from reliefs and sculptures. The most common imagery is that of Mithras slaying a sacred bull, an act known also as ‘tauroctony’. This scene can be seen in Mithraea (the plural form of the Mithraic place of worship, singular: Mithraeum) throughout the Roman Empire. A Mithraeum was either adapted from a natural cave or cavern, or a building built to imitate such a space. When using a building as a Mithraeum, it would usually be constructed within or under the said building. As the Mithraeum was used mainly for initiation ceremonies, the dark, enclosed areas functioned symbolically as a place where the initiate’s soul descended into and exited.

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