MOLA and the Temple of Mithras

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The head of Mithras, discovered in 1954

Yesterday I was invited to perform at a Museum of London Archeology (MOLA) event at Bloomberg to celebrate the discovery of the Temple of Mithras in London in 1954. I was kindly asked along by Clare Coyne, who is running the oral history project dedicated to finding and talking to people who experienced the unearthing of the site 60 years ago. There are some fascinating stories and photos, so do have a look on the MOLA site!

You may recall that I spent the first part of my Roman Road walk with David Walsh, who is just completing his Mithraism-focussed PhD (check out his blog here!). I wanted to write a poem about Mithraism, and came up with this – which I performed at the event yesterday to lots of the people who saw the newly-excavated Temple for the first time. Huge honour! Enjoy the poem – audio and text below!

Quick To Save, Quick To Help

It is said that time is the devourer of things
but whoever said that had not seen British rain
which seems to do the job just as well
so when Prefect Gaius told me about Mithras
one yet-again-wet, miserable-as-Luctus camp night
I was ready to listen to anything to distract me
from my damp tunic – and damper boots.

An intriguing god, this Mithras
and one I’d heard spoken about by the other lads.
Something about it spoke to my heart
which I had thought hardened to such things
so I find myself here
underground and alone.

The darkness is doubled as the blindfold is tightened
and this unfamiliar place becomes completely unknown to me
those quickly-glimpsed alter carvings hidden in the low-light
after-images: a bull figure with coiled snakes
flickering against my eyelids
half-formed impressions of half-understood icons.

No matter – no need to understand at this moment
more pressing matters, like these fleshy slimy cords
bound around my wrists
the chicken gut shackles I’ve been told about
and I almost choke – from the sensation and smell
but control myself in time
thank you, Marcus, for the warning about those!

I shuffle forward, sandals scraping against the floor
until it is indicated that I should stop.
So I stop.
No further, for I do not want to touch the tip of the sword
the father is undoubtedly pointing at me
today I enact death – I do not wish to become it.

I smell incense, perfumed smoke drifting around me
and my eyes water, nose tickled
but I must not sneeze
or I will disturb the still air
and the ritual happening around me.

The masked assembly I saw before blindfolded
begins to make sound
a cacophony of animal noises – raven and goat
horse and eagle – and the distinct clucking of a chicken
undoubtedly Marcus, who said he’d do something unorthodox.

With the roar of a lion, the father begins the catechism
and I respond with the words I’ve learned
language flowing through me like water from a rock
sudden and unexpected
miraculous yet right.

The silence falls thick, impenetrable
and I can almost hear the roiling of incense
feel the smoky tendrils pull at my arms
wrap themselves around my body
so now I fall to the floor as if struck
as instructed, yes, but also from the unbearable weight
the silence of expectation on my shoulders.

My blindfold slips and I see rays of light
streaming through the altar
making the dark understandable
the mysteries somewhat clearer
though I am left with questions:

Do I become the bull struck down by Mithras?
By rising from the ground, am I suddenly rock-born?
Or something else, hidden from my knowledge?

No matter
the sudden chill of the stone brings me to my senses
and I remember: today I join my brothers-in-arms
we have been united in battle
and now by handshake.

Gaius says that Mithras is quick to save
and quick to help
but salvation only comes to those who help themselves, I think
so if joining puts me in the Prefect’s good books
and hastens my promotion…
well – there’s a helpful thing too.

Road Walk Day 1: Bexleyheath to Dartford

Leaving David in Bexleyheath, I head towards Crayford. The road runs straight, though up and down little humps and bumps. Watling Streets gives way to London Road, and just behind is Bigs Hill Park – possibly where the Roman Road used to run. It’s full of grey squirrels and no people at this time of day. I wonder at these conjectures about where the road is really.

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I find the first road give a Roman name in Crayford – it is a ring road. Certainly not the Roman way, but it’s off and towards Dartford. The road inclines slightly till I reach the top of West Hill, and can see Dartford. It’s a good parallel to Shooters Hill earlier today, with its view of London. Here I can look out into Medway, having passed from the official outer suburbs of London and into Kent – though it’s simply a case of passing signs these days, rather than disparate settlements as it would have been in Roman times.

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I get to Dartford Museum and meet the Curator, Mike Still, who has opened his archives and display cabinets for Lloyd, who is busily scanning objects. I get to have a go on some tiles from a nearby villa – including one piece with Roman graffiti on it in vulgar Vulgar Latin. Poem idea there I think. Mike tells me about his excavations, local finds and shows me a stone Roman coffin. He tells me about a theory to do with the Road – that perhaps later builders used it as foundations for buildings, moving the road away from its original route.

Day 1 done – tomorrow a day in Rochester at the Guildhall. Now to write some of my own stuff. Another poem by and English poet – The Roman Road by Hardy. I’ll post some Roman poets tomorrow, and maybe something I write too.

The Roman Road

The Roman Road runs straight and bare
As the pale parting-line in hair
Across the heath. And thoughtful men
Contrast its days of Now and Then,
And delve, and measure, and compare;

Visioning on the vacant air
Helmed legionaries, who proudly rear
The Eagle, as they pace again
The Roman Road.

But no tall brass-helmed legionnaire
Haunts it for me. Uprises there
A mother’s form upon my ken,
Guiding my infant steps, as when
We walked that ancient thoroughfare,
The Roman Road.

-Dan

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Road Walk Day 1: Shooters Hill to Bexleyheath

It’s a murky day – not an auspicious start to my walk! I was hoping for a beautiful panoramic photo of London from the top of Shooters Hill, allowing us to imagine what a Roman traveller may have seen in their first glimpse of London from this pinnacle. Instead, this:

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Still, as David Walsh – my first walking companion – said: you can instead imagine what a Roman soldier being posted to Britain from the Mediterranean and experiencing our wet and grey weather may have felt. Probably damp resignation, and maybe foreboding gloom at the prospect of a longer march to Hadrian’s Wall.

Like me, David’s from Bexley so knows the area well – as well as a a lot about Mithraism. We walked and talked about this ancient cult down the hill and through to Bexleyheath, trying to figure out the route of the original Roman road – which may not be road as it is now. Simon Medden from Bexley Archeological Group sent me some places to look at, including the site where 300 odd funeral urns were found – some of which may now be in the Roman Museum in Canterbury.

I picked up this guide to Roman Welling, which I’ll have a read of tonight. Now, though, back to the (possibly not Roman) road.

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I’ll leave you with Kipling’s poem to Mithras, which David alerted me to.

A Song to Mithras
Hymn of the XXX Legion: circa A.D. 350
“On the Great Wall” – Puck of Pook’s Hill

Mithras, God of the Morning, our trumpets waken the Wall!
“Rome is above the Nations, but thou art over all!”
Now as the names are answered, and the guards are marched away,
Mithras, also a soldier, give us strength for the day!

Mithras, God of the Noontide, the heather swims in the heat.
Our helmets scorch our foreheads, our sandals burn our feet.
Now in the ungirt hour – now lest we blink and drowse,
Mithras, also a soldier, keep us true to our vows!

Mithras, God of the Sunset, low on the Western main –
Thou descending immortal, immortal to rise again!
Now when the watch is ended, now when the wine is drawn,
Mithras, also a soldier, keep us pure till the dawn!

Mithras, God of the Midnight, here where the great Bull dies,
Look on Thy children in darkness. Oh, take our sacrifice!
Many roads Thou hast fashioned – all of them lead to Light!
Mithras, also a soldier, teach us to die aright.

-Dan