Here’s a riddle for the season:
What centuries-old religion celebrates the birth of its spiritual leader on December 25th?
Here’s another hint: it has rituals that include baptism and breaking of the bread.
Yes, it’s Christianity. But this also describes Mithraism — a mysterious Ancient Roman cult that predated Christianity.
In Rome, there are thought to be dozens of remains of temples to the God Mithras (pronounced MITH’-russ). The largest one, in Rome, just reopened to the public after years of restoration work. It lies underneath Rome’s sprawling Caracalla baths.
It’s no ordinary house of Mithrean worship, according to Teresa di Iorio, a guide here.
“This is the biggest, largest Mithraeum that they found in Rome and the only one where they found the “fossa sanguinis.”
More on that in a moment.
Di Iorio stands under the vaulted ceiling of a cold marble room that was once accessed through a secret side-entrance in the baths above. A delicate black-and-white mosaic spreads across the floor. Along the walls are raised platforms for the men who once reclined here while taking part in banquets.
Archeologists say this was one of Rome’s most important temples of Mithras, the ancient Persian god worshiped in Rome between the second and forth centuries.
Mithraism was a male-only fertility cult that stressed secrecy and loyalty. It was a kind of ancient, macho version of a Masonic cult — or a frat.
In the middle of the room is the fossa sanguinis that our guide mentioned. It’s a large pit that, along with a sacrificed bull, was gruesomely central to a new member’s initiation. Di Iorio says the initiate, who would have been naked, would first step into a bath of icy water, then he would walk over a very hot piece of marble.
“After this, he would go down into this hole that was covered with a grill. And on top of the grill, they killed the bull,” she says.
That’s when the cult’s new member would be showered by the bull’s dripping blood.
Not far from the bull pit is an ancient sculpture of Mithras holding a globe. His head is missing, likely lopped off later by Christians who were no fans of his cult.
Olivia Ercoli, a historian, says Mithras is always depicted looking up toward the sun. But below, things get a little unpleasant.
“Below him are different animals, usually a dog and a snake licking up the blood of the bull and a scorpion clutching at the bull’s testicles,” Ercoli says. “So that would be how Mithraism explained the passage of evil into the world.”
The issue of where evil comes from was one that early Christians grappled with as well. The jury is out on whether Christianity snuffed out Mithraism or whether the cult simply faded away on its own.
But Ercoli says many rites and rituals of Mithraism were likely folded into Christianity – among them December 25th as the birth of its leader, and the Eucharist.
“Mithraism with its idea of a communal meal seems to have some similarities with Christianity,” she says. “Early Christians used to meet up for an Agape, a sort of banquet of love. This has something in common with the idea of sharing of food that the Mithraic followers observed.”
Among other things to be thankful for this December 25th is the fact that a shared meal — rather than a shower of bull’s blood — is the tradition that’s withstood the test of time.