Thursday 7 December 2017
For the second week running, we have seen just what money can do for 'heritage'. Linda and I, accompanied by the person formerly know as 63 regular, visited the London Mithraeum, beneath the Bloomberg building.
The spacious entrance area is enhanced by three art works. Blind to the rays of the returning sun, by Isabel Nolan, is an interpretation of the key Mithraic symbol, the bull that the god slays. And around the wall is her tapestry (or possibly carpet, since it is tufted, though by whom is not clear). It's called Barely Perceptible Vibration of Everything, and is a response to the site. We felt we could detect the curves of the river Walbrook, now buried beneath the building, as well as the fields which were once here, possibly the Tower of London. It is certainly a vibrant and beautiful work.
The stairs down have a simplified form on time line to help you travel though the years, while giving you some events to focus on: the Queen's Coronation, the birth of the tube, the Norman conquest and so on.
The stairs brought us to a large room, with sitting space and three interactive screens. The emollient tones of Joanna Lumley told us some of the ideas that archeologists and historians have about the cult of Mithras. Meanwhile, we looked at the screens about taurotony (the importance of the Bull in the religion; the shape of the temple and its history; and the head of the God himself. It seemed to us that it was probably similar to ,many mainly male organisations: hierarchy with arcane names for the different ranks, initiation ceremonies, and possibly dressing up. The Freemasons came to mind. What is not clear is what they actually believed: one suggestion is that it's a creation myth, with the blood of the bull providing the life force; Mithras looks away as he slits the bull's throat: perhaps he is making a sacrifice to the sun? Rudyard Kipling, in his story The Church that was at Antioch, suggests a religion with much in common with Christianity. You can read the story by going to the link.
Then it was our turn to go down one more storey, to the temple itself. At first it was dimly lit, then very dark, with mist swirling, and a certain amount of ritual shouting in Latin, purporting to be part of the worship. There were shafts of light where the pillars had once been.
Then the lights came up and we had plenty of time to walk round the excavations themselves. The central area was probably for the rituals, but may also have been for feasting and drinking. The two side aisles would have been for the different ranks of initiates to sit.
One programme showed where other Mithraic Temples have been found; another described how and why the temple had been abandoned, reused as a Temple of Bacchus and then abandoned again. We wondered if evidence of eating and particularly drinking might possibly have come from the Temple's Bacchic phase. Since many depictions of Mithras include the signs of the Zodiac (our signs of the zodiac, that is, I had not known they were that old) it's thought that Mithras was closely linked with the heavens.
All in all, we had had a fascinating experience, and one that we hotly recommend to all. You can book your visit here. The fact that admission is free is of course a bonus.
But as we stepped out into the rain to go back to Bank Station, I could not avoid thinking of all the museums we have visited which don't have the benefit of the generous structure and production values of this splendid addition to the London museum scene.