An Eastern Sun-god on Hadrian’s Wall

The ancient god Mithras was popular with Roman soldiers and minor officials. His cult probably developed from Zoroastrianism, in the area that is now Iran. There is a lot of evidence for his worship along the western Roman frontier, from Hadrian’s Wall to the Danube. Worshippers had to be initiated into (exclusively male) groups, who met in a distinctive type of building called a ‘cave’, which we now describe as a ‘Mithraeum’.

Mithras was often identified as ‘the invincible sun-god’. The altar on the left of the picture is from a Mithraeum (a temple to Mithras) on Hadrian’s Wall and shows him in this guise. The altar has a niche cut into its back, so that the light from a lamp could have shone through the openings cut around the god’s head, giving the impression of the sun’s rays in the gloom of the Mithraeum.

gnm mithras altars

If you come to our free workshops at the Great North Museum on 9 or 10 May, you can see this altar and handle the examples on the right of the picture. One is a small altar to Mithras from a Roman fort by Dere Street, and the other is a fragment of a relief from Vindolanda showing the sun-god’s face and the rays around his head. Why might people have worshipped the sun in ancient Northumberland? Come and be inspired by these objects to draw, photograph, or write down your thoughts, helped by our experts. Just let us know which date suits you best: rememberingromans@gmail.com

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