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Latest Archaeological and Cultural News of Iran and the Iranian World

 

Angers' Mithraeum: Sanctuary dedicated to Persian god Mithra discovered in France

 

01 October 2010

 

 

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  The discovered Mithraeum at Angers, France

(Click to enlarge)

 

LONDON, (CAIS) -- Archaeologists excavating a 9,000 square metre area at Angers, in the Loire District, France, have discovered the remains of the first mithraeum – a sanctuary dedicated to the Indo-Iranian god Mithras – in the west of France. 

The cave sanctuary, a rectangular building, is dated to the third century CE.

The Mithraeum
The small, vaulted chapel in which worshippers hosted banquets and sacrifices dedicated to the god, is decorated with a starry sky.

The excavations revealed drums of columns – perhaps statue bases, but possibly altars. A sort of vestibule allowed worshippers to don their ceremonial robes before entering the sanctuary.

Who was Mithras?
Mithra, also Mithr, Mihr, Mithras (New Persian Mehr), was the most important Iranian god of pre-Zoroastrian era. For nearly 1000 years before Zoroaster (ca. 1700 BCE) Iranians worshiped him as the god of the sun and source of light as well as God of war and warriors. God Mithra, in human form, fought and killed a mythical bull (Gau), an embodiment of the moon god Soma, which was then sacrificed. The Sacrifice of Soma and shedding of his potent blood brought light to the world and made life possible for mankind. During the Zoroastrian era he continued to be venerated in the monolithic religion, not as a God but a deity. He is personification of many things, the symbol of contracts and law to whom oaths were sworn; a deity who stood for loyalty to the ruler; the deity of good relations between men and thus peace and also a deity who provided justice and demanded it from the actions his devotees.


Mithraism in Iran slowly died over when Sasanian imperial hegemony (224-651 CE) took over the power from the Parthian Dynasty (248 BCE-224 CE) and adopted Zoroastrian as the state religion. On the western fringes of the empire however, the Mithraic cult lived on since the time of Achaemenid Dynasty (550-330 BCE), although it never spread to Greece, which is unsurprising given the Greek animosity to all things Persian.  

 

It may have reached Rome at some point, as from 136CE onwards archaeological records begin to record a resurgence in the religion as attested to by the discovery of inscriptions and dedications to the god Mithras. Over generations, much as with Christianity, ownership of this religion from a far off eastern land shifted and it became recognised as Roman. It is a subject of debate amongst historians as to whether the Roman Mithraism was truly born of its Iranian counterpart or can be considered to have a separate identity. 

 

The Mithras seen as a bearded figure, set against bright light emanating from behind his head, on Persian relief sculpture morphed into the idealised and cloaked man, with a Phrygian cap on his youthful face, as seen in Hellenistic Roman sculpture. This Mithras appears most commonly astride the bull as he seemingly effortlessly plunges his dagger home in sacrifice at the moment known as the Mithraic epiphany.

The Tauroctony & Ex Voto Offerings
Mithraism was an initiation cult, its secrets passed through oral tradition. Today, the only written testimonies about the mysterious cult scholars have were written by early Christian authors, who concieved Mithras as the devil's representation on earth. This limited perception of the historical sources, makes the archaeological record relating to the cult all the more valuable.

At the sanctuary, a typical bas-relief of the god Mithras wearing his Phrygian cap shows him slaughtering a bull – the so-called tauroctony. The god's face was damaged in ancient times, possibly by early Christians trying to suppress the pagan cult.

The excavations further revealed scenes displaying dadophoroi (torch bearers), and miles (spearmen). Marble lion paws, as well as a pieces of a dog statue were unearthed from the cave, but are heavily fragmented. Likely these too were intentionally destroyed. Evidence of a fire was found, but it can not be confirmed if the fire was set on purpose, aimed at destroying the pagan sanctuary.

 

Among the finds in and around the Temple of Mithras is a unique zoomorph vase, probably used in purification rituals. Further artefacts discovered at the site include oil lamps, fragments of a lamp containing Nubian terracotta figures, a bronze 4th century crucifix fibula and about 200 coins.

Large quantities of cockerel bones (a favoured dish at the cultic banquets) were found spread inside and around the ancient temple.

ex-voto-to-god-mithras-detail-angers-france.jpg (161693 bytes)

   Detail of the dedication to the god Mithra on a Dechelette 72 vase, manufactured at Lezoux - - Image Copyright Hervé Paitier INRAP

(Click to enlarge)

 

A ceramic beaker – offered by a certain Genialis, in the first half of the 3rd century – reads:

“DEO [INVIC]TO MYTRH[AE].../...]VS GENIALIS CIVES MA [...]VS EXVOTO D[.../...]RIBVS OMNIS LOCO OMNIS (...)”

“To the unconquered god Mithras, Genialis, citizen of …, offers in ex voto (this vase).”

A cartouche containing four lines in Greek was found on a piece of carved limestone decorated with palm leaves. It was partially deciphered, and indicates a dedication was made by a man named Theophilos (of Eastern origin) for the benefit of Retituitos (a name of Gallic consonance).

An Antique Quarter
At the ancient settlement the INRAP archaeologists also unearthed the remains of two major urban roads; the cardo (north-south oriented street) and decumanus (east-west oriented) axes. The earliest evidence of occupation found so far is dated to the beginning of Emperor Augustus' reign, around 10 BCE.

 

At the end of the first century, one or two domus (Roman villas), complete with hypocaust (floor heating) were constructed on the site.

Angers in Roman times was a fairly small oppidum, a fortified settlement – probably no bigger than 80 hectares at its height – with some 3,000 inhabitants. Its name, Juliomagnus, means 'the market of Julius Caesar'.

The ancient city had its own amphitheatre, accommodating about 6,000 spectators, and Roman baths. In the fifth century CE, Angers became known as 'civitas Andecavorum' or 'Andecavis', after its Gaul inhabitants.

Mithraic temples are common in the Roman Empire; although very unevenly distributed, with considerable numbers found in Rome, Ostia, Numidia, Dalmatia, Britain (Londinium and Carrawburgh) and along the Rhine & Danube frontiers; while being much less common in Greece, Egypt, and Syria.


 

 

Original news bulletin published by Heritage Key rectified and edited by CAIS [*]

 

 

 

 

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