Religious Place In Simonburn, Northumberland
A Roman Temple dedicated to the God Mithras near to Brocolitia Fort on Hadrian's Wall.
There are many forts and buildings along the 73 miles of Hadrian's Wall, but one of the least known, but possibly most interesting, is the Temple of Mithras near to Carrawburgh Fort. The temple is a 'Mithraeum' or temple dedicated to the Roman god Mithras, who was a sun god. The cult of Mithras was very popular among the soldiers of the Roman Legions, perhaps understandable for those who were stationed in the wilds of Northumbria!
The Temple can be found a short walk from the car park, near to the largely unexcavated fort of Carrawburgh. Carrawburgh was known as 'Brocolitia' to the Romans, which is nothing to do with Broccoli but possibly related to the original Celtic name for the areas which was 'Badger Holes'. In contrast to the fort, the temple has been well excavated and examined and the altars that are on display there are actually copies of the actual Mithraic altars found during those excavations.
The Temple was founded in the 3rd century, and went through three distinct phases of construction. The first phase began around AD 200, and involved the creation of a rectangular temple measuring about 5.6 by 7.9 metres. Following this in around AD 222 a second phase saw an extension added to the north. During the course of the 3rd century there was further rebuilding and interior redesigning and in AD 297 the temple was destroyed. It was reconstructed once again at the beginning of the 4th century before finally being destroyed for good in around AD 330, perhaps by Christians who saw Mithraism as a threat.
Other items found during the excavations of the temple include a large altar to the 'Genius Loci' or spirit of the place along with a shrine to the water nymph Coventina, although this can no longer be seen.
There is a full sized replica of the temple in the Great North Museum in Newcastle and it is shown as how it would roughly have looked in the 4th century with the original altars in-situ. The altars, statues and wooden posts found at the actual temple are all plaster casts of the originals.
Inside the temple entrance is a small lobby with a hearth and statue of a mother goddess. A wooden screen separates the lobby from the main temple, within which are statues of Mithras' attendants Cautopates and Cautes. A narrow central passage is flanked by two earthen benches. The far end of the temple housed three altars, one depicting Mithras with his crown. Rituals, including sacrifices, would be conducted in this altar area.
So who or what is Mithras / Mithraism? It was based on the story of Mithras, an Eastern sun god, who entered a dark cave in which lived a bull. The bull was, according to legend, the first creature created on earth. Mithras killed the bull within the cave and the bull's blood gave life to many creatures. This rather violent concept of new life from sacrifice was a bit much for some Christians who became highly opposed to Mithraism.
Mithraic temples were small, cramped places, meant to represent the bull's cave. At one end stood three altars, and before them a large sculpture or painting of Mithras. Mithraic ceremonies involved pulling back a curtain high in the wall so that sunlight shone on the depiction of Mithras slaying the bull, showing the power of light over darkness. If you look closely at the altar at the northern end of the temple you will notice that the Crown of Mithras is pierced by 3 holes, behind which a candle would be placed, so that light would shine through it into the darkness of the temple.
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Head south out of the car park and the Temple can be found to the south of Brocolitia Fort after around 100m.
Place contributed by Andrew Gardner
I love being outdoors, in nature, and experiencing the relaxation it brings. Wandering through the northern countryside seeing unexpected buildings, historic places and occasionally surprised wildlife is one of life's great pleasures.
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