The Romans were quick to add foreign deities to their pantheon of gods and goddesses. Two of the best known were Isis and Mithras. Isis was an ancient Egyptian goddess who was worshipped as the ideal mother and wife and the matron of nature and magic. Isis was the goddess of motherhood, magic and fertility and the friend of slaves, sinners, artisans, and the downtrodden. Her worship continued until the suppression of paganism in the Christian era. Isis was the first daughter of Geb, god of the Earth, and Nut, the goddess of the Sky. Osiris was Isis’ husband and the father of her child, Horus. When Osiris was murdered by Set,Isis used her magic to his body to life after she gathered the body parts that had been strewn about the earth by his murderer. Isis was also known as protector of the dead and goddess of children from whom all beginnings arose. The ancient Egyptians believed that the Nile River flooded every year because of her tears of sorrow for her dead husband, Osiris. This occurrence of his death and rebirth was relived each year through rituals.
Mithraism was a mystery religion from Persia that was practiced in the Roman Empire from about the 1st to 4th centuries AD. Romans called the religion Mysteries of Mithras or Mysteries of the Persians. Mithraism which was centered in Rome was popular with the Roman military. Worshippers of Mithras had a complex system of seven grades of initiation complete with ritual meals. Initiates called themselves syndexioi, those “united by the handshake.” They met in underground temples (called a mithraeum), which represented the cosmos and a cave. Images of Mithras show him being born from a rock, slaughtering a bull, and sharing a banquet with the god Sol (the Sun). No written narratives or theology from the religion survive and interpretation of the physical evidence remains problematic and contested. The images of death and rebirth may have competed with the Christian doctrines.
Personal note: The mithraeum pictured is underneath the Church of San Clemente in Rome, one of my favorite off-the-road places to visit. The new church (12th century) is juxtaposed with a fairly intact 1st century AD church with the tomb of St Cyril, 9th century frescoes, and (all from the 1st century AD) the mithraeum, a wealthy Roman home, a street, and a sewer – all in one place. Fascinating!!
Tomorrow, Mythic Heroes: Prometheus Rita Bay