The Temple of Mithras, London
Discovered accidentally during construction work beside the Walbrook, London, this temple to the Persian god of light and the sun was moved to a site in Temple Court, Queen Victoria Street, so the workers could get on with the job. In 2012, after 58 years at Temple Court, the London Mithraeum, as it is often called, was returned to its Wallbrook site and re-erected on its original foundations.
Mithraea were generally built partly or completely underground, representing the cave in which Mithras was said to have slain the primordial bull, thereby unleashing the powers of creativity and life into the world.
Mithraism rose to prominence in the 3rd century A.D., though its roots extend much further back. It emphasized courage, integrity, and moral behaviour, and became very popular with soldiers of the Roman army. With its focus on a saviour, sacrifice, and rebirth, it was also a serious threat to early Christianity. It was exclusive to males, who rose through its seven levels by means of fearsome initiation ceremonies.
Mithraic observances differed from traditional paganism in that services were held communally, followers sitting on benches either side of a narrow nave leading to an altar. As befits a religion springing from the slaying of a bull, sacrifices were common in mithraic observance, as were shared meals of wine and bread, particularly on the festival of the 25th of December. These latter two observances smacked of mockery to early Christians, who may well have sensed in Mithraism a serious rival. When Constantine the Great legitimized Christianity in 312 A.D. the Christians spent a good deal of energy knocking down everything mithraic in sight.
The Temple of Mithras was built some time in the middle of the 2nd century A.D. Within the temple were found likenesses of Minerva, Bacchus, and Serapis, imported from Italy. These are now to be seen at the Museum of London. One final note; the form of temple used by mithraism is the fore-runner of the traditional Christian church, with aisles flanking a long nave leading to an altar and an apse. The Christians may have been horrified, but architecturally, at least, they owed a debt of thanks to mithraism.