MOLA and the Temple of Mithras


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.