Mithraism in Northern Europe

Again an article about the time of the beginning of our era. Mithraism has been a subject of articles within these pages more often recently, every time in another context. This time I want to speak about the German and Celtic tribes and their lives with the Romans, working towards interesting similarities in symbology of different convictions.

The native peoples had strange relationships with the Roman empire. In 387 BCE the Celts managed to shortly conquer Rome. The Germans fought Rome a lot and the Bastarnae -for example- allied with the Cilician kings Perseus and later different kings Mithridates (I to IV) against Rome around 168 BCE. Teutons and Ambrones (German tribes) fought against Rome as well, but on the other hand Caesar writes in his ‘Bello Gallico’ that some German tribes helped him to fight the Celts. This friendly/hostile relationship-changes continued until the fall of the Roman empire.

It is known that German soldiers reached high ranks in the Roman armies. Also Celts often proved themselves good citizens under the Roman domination. On the other hand the Romans often let the submissive peoples do their own thing and keep their own religious practises. Caesar had an excursion through his conquered areas and wrote about the peoples habbits and convictions with interest. To make the information understandable to his readers, Caesar used Roman names for native gods. This wasn’t strange in his view, because the Romans of his time believed that all religions are the same, only the names of the gods are different. So a famous passage from the ‘Bello Gallico’ reads: “Of the gods they mostly worship Mercury. […] After him come Apollo, Jupiter, Mars and Minerva.” That Caesar nog only has interest, but also respect for the native beliefs is proved by an anecdote which tells that some Celtic tribe had been able to lay their hands on one of Caesars eating-daggers. In a good Celtic tradition, the dagger was offered to the Gods, in this case, hung up in a temple. Later Caesar accidentally saw his dagger hanging in the temple, but left it their, since you don’t take away offerings to the gods.

The Roman and native peoples lived alongside and with eachother and interesting archeological findings in for example Trier (Germany), Colchester (UK) or at the Hadrianswall in northern England, prove that also Roman and native cults existed alongside eachother! It is only natural that also the different convictions and habbits also influenced eachother. It would have been very strange if the native beliefs had not received the mark of their oppressors convictions. That this is the case is proven by widely spread inscriptions and temples where Roman and native gods are worshipped together or combined. You often see godnames like “Jupiter-Dolichenus”, “Apollo-Dysprus”, “Apollo-Grannus”, “Mercurius-Avernus” or “Mars Cicollvis”.

A very nice and well-documented example of this is the city of “Colonia Ulpia Traiana” (CUT). This was a large, Roman city near what is now Xanten in Germany, not too far from the Dutch border (from Nijmegen, downstream the Rijn/Rhine). Nowadays CUT is an archeological park where the city is slowly excavated. In CUT a great many beliefs could be found. Of course the typical Roman beliefs that were practised in the well-known gigantic pillar temples. CUT had a main temple called “Capitolium” and a harbour-temple, which was massive in size as well. Besides these there were so-called “Eastern” beliefs such as that of the earlier mentioned Jupiter-Dolichenus, Mithras, Dionysius/Bacchus and Jupiter-Ammon (strangely enough no Isis or Cybele cults in CUT). Interesting in this article are the “Matronen”-temple and the German place with holy trees around a small altar where local gods (“genii loci” the Romans called them in their own folk-beliefs) where worshipped in a quite authentic German way. The “Matronen” (or Matrae, Matronae, Matres) are a pre-Celtic, but very ‘romanised’ goddes-triplicity (sometimes male) that are comparable to the Nordic Norns, the Greek “Moiren” (and the ” Gorgons”?), the Slavic ” Zorya”. Also the Romans had their goddesses of fate: the Parcae. Especially in the lower-Rhine area the Matronen where very popular. In CUT also many privat inhouse altars have been found, many of which were native as well.

Bull worship

A particular habbit that can be found in both the Roman and the Nordic beliefs that I want to investigate further is the worship of the bull. The Celts had a special bull-god called Tarvos or Tarvus Triganarus which was depicted as a bull with three cranes/birds on his back. The bull would represent the earth-god, the partner of the goddess of the sky. The sacrifice of a bull was also part of the ceremony for the installment of a new Celtic king. On the well-known Gundestrup cauldron (a Celtic magical kettle) we can find an image with three bulls on the inside. The bulls are attacked by three human figures. According to the French archeologist Jean-Jacques Hatt these are the three Gaulic Dioscures in search for the bulls, others speak more directly about a bull-sacrifice. More interesting is the bottom of the kettle, where you can see a human figure attacking a bull. Hatt again explains this picture as “an offer of the bull by Smertrius”. Smertrius can also be found on the outside of the cauldron.

The Romans compared Smertrius to Hercule/Heracles and he is sometimes depicted with a dear, sometimes with a bull. Also Smertrius can be seen hacking off branches of a tree on an altar in the Notre Dame de Paris in France. The bull that Smertrius is fighting with is sent by Taranis, the Celtic thundergod.

Esus, who can also be seen on the outside of the cauldron, we can find on the same altar in Paris, together with Tarvus Triganarus and Smertrius. Esus has a connection with the crane, which is seen as the company of the souls of the deceased. In this aspect and Esus being the god of trade, he can be compared to the Greek Mercury/Hermes.

inside the Gundestrup cauldron

the bottom of the Gundestrup cauldron


Bull-killings we also find on Gallo-Roman pictures. There is a beautiful bronze-plate kept in Wiesbaden (Germany), but found in Heddernheim (left) which has a marvelous symbology. You can see a sun, thereunder a victorious man standing upright on a bull. The man is supposed to be (again) Jupiter-Dolichenus, Jupiter from Syria. Under Jupiter you can see three human-like figures, which I suggest are the “Gaulic Dioscures.
Almost the same picture of Jupiter on the bull can be seen in Vienna/Wien (Austria) (right) in the form of a statue of “Taranis-Jupiter” standing on the bull, waving a double axe, a well-known attribute of native peoples.


So what is it that I am talking about bulls all the time? Well, I think to see an obvious parallel between Nordic and ‘Eastern’ religions, one in particular. The Romans surely weren’t as tolerable as my little story suggest and I am sure that the Celts and Germans were forced underground here and there or felt forced to hide their beliefs under an accepted mantle (outwardly of course). According to Hatt the cult of Cybele was very popular in Gaul, but I have reasons to believe that (especially in Germany?) also the cult of Mithras appealed to the native masses. It is possible that first Cybele had much followers and that later these followers moved onto Mithras. Cybele is the ‘magna mater’ which would certainly have appealed to the German and Celtic tribes. The festivities of Cybele included an anual bull-offering, which may have led people to Mithraism. Also, Mithraism was a very flexible religion and Cybele seems to have been worshipped in Mithras-temples (“Mithraeums”) sometimes as well. Maybe this is how native cultmembers found out about Mithras.

Mithraism has more elements that may have appealed to Celts and Germans. The bull and the snake, for example, can be seen around Cernunnos, the dog is also visible on the Gundestrup cauldron under the bull. The raven is a known companion of Odin. The warrior-aspect may have been a point too and Mithras’ ‘split personality’ made it easy to adopt him. Mithras is often brought in connection with Mercury/Hermes/Atusmerius/Wodan, but as we have seen, also with the main-/thundergod Jupiter/Zeus/Taranis/Thor is closely connectedtorchbearer found in Syria to him.
Mithras’ warrior aspect of course links him to Mars/Camulos/Tyr. Mercury and Mars bring us to another popular Celtic deity: Teutates. Teutates is often compared with Mars, but just as often with Mercury (the Egyptian Hermes is also sometimes spelled as Teuth!).
The two torchbearers (who are Mithras too) are almost always depicted with crossed legs, just as Cernunnos and the torchbearers with double axes that were found in Syria remind of Jupiter/Dolichenus (also from Syria) with his double axe for some reason carry the symbol of thundergods of several cultures.
Jupiter/Taranis on the plate from Heddernheim is displayed with the sun and Heddernheim is a place where three Mithraeums have been discovered, so we have ‘real Mithraic’ and ‘pagan Mithraic’ images from the same place and the same time.
Both in the Nordic tradtions and in the Mithraic mysteries the cultic feast-meals with sacred drinks are common and (along with many other mysteries), both had death-and-rebirth rituals.
In the Geman village of Möhn (that is not in my atlast) a large Smertrius temple is said to be discovered. This temple was close a well, the perfect place for a Mithraeum. In Dorset (UK) a temple was discovered that outwardly and symbolically looked so much like a Mithraeum, that this disovery was regarded as such, until further investigation proved that it was actually a Gallo-Roman temple.
The tree that Smertrius is cutting branches off reminds me Mithraic paintings in which the torchbearers are displaced by trees. In one of them hangs the torch, but also a bulls-head. Trees can be found on more Mithraic images.
What strikes me as a good argument as well is the notion that with the embracement of Mithraism, the Germans and Celts didn’t have to move their own festivals. If the torchbearers represent the equinoxes, then Mithras can be found in the solstitiae, which is of course true, because the winter-solstitium is THE Mithraic feast. Mithras’ birth is the birth of light and at the same time the natives celebrated the returning light and the beginning of the ‘day-side of the year’.


That all this is not just my imagination is proved by information of Hatt about a temple in Donon. Donon is a small village in the high mountains of north-east France, about 50 kilometres from Strassbourgh. A temple was found there that used to be a Celtic temple. Of course the Celts originally didn’t have temples, but neither did the Romans. The Romans were influenced by the Greek and the Celts on their turn by the Romans. The temple of Donon looks very Roman, but is supposed to originally have been a temple for Cernunnos. According to Hatt in 1953 prove was found that the temple had a Mithraic period. Unfortunately I have not been able to find any more information about this fact, not even in Vermaseren’s Corpus Inscriptionum, but since Hatt is a well-known and respected archeologist, why doubt his statements? I can very well imagine this to be true, just as I can imagine Hatt’s further remarks that as soon as the Romans withdrew from the area, the temple was reinstated as a temple for Cernunnos. The Celts have temporary addopted a foreign cult to be more in accordance with their oppressors. They probably picked the cult that best resembled their own.
Like I said in the beginning German tribes fought against the Romans in Cilicia with the kings Perseus and Mithridates. According to David Ulansey, just in that time, area and people the origins of Mithraism should be sought. So maybe original Mithraism had a heavy Germanic stamp?

It would be something to give a Germanic/Celtic source to Mithraism, but I hope to have shown that the different cults were akin enough to suggest that Mithraism has been a (temporary) replacement for authentic native cults of the German and Celtic tribes.

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