Winter has arrived, Christmas is approaching and, at the Sanctuary of Joy, we are busy both making the new place our own as well as exploring and discovering (or in some cases re-discovering) the surroundings.
Legend says that the ancient town of Sutri (just a few miles away from where we live) was founded by the God Saturn himself.
Whatever the actual story, we have evidence of people living in this spot since Bronze age, and the town was famous throughout history, starting with the Etrurians, then with the Romans, thru the Middle Ages (Charlemagne even stopped here on his way to Rome), Renaissance and so on.
A lot of the Etrurian tombs and houses were man-made caverns, dug directly in the (soft) stone, and many were later re-purposed and re-used by whatever folks lived ini the area, according to the needs and ways of those times: some became houses, shops or storage units (some are still used that way) or even stalls for animals.
Such is the case with a wonderfully-excavated space that currently bears the name of “Chiesa della Madonna del Parto” (in the photo): initially an Etrurian tomb, it eventually became a Christian church, initially dedicated to the Archangel Michael and later to Mary giving birth to Jesus. In between these two functions, starting around the 3rd century B.C. and for quite some time, the place was used as a temple of Mithra.
Who was Mithra, anyhow?
“[…] In Hellenistic-era Asia Minor, Avestan Mithra was conflated with various local and Greek figures leading to several different variants of Apollo-Helios-Mithras-Hermes-Stilbon. Via Greek and some Anatolian intermediate, the Avestan theonym also gave rise to Latin Mithras, the principal figure of the first century Roman Mysteries of Mithras (also known as ‘Mithraism’). […]” [source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitra ]
So Mithra was venerated by a fairly wide-spread cult during Roman times, and there are many examples of Mithraic temples that can be observed today in various Roman archeological sites (i.e. Ostia Antica, Pompeii).
There are even other examples deep within he heart of Rome: for example, the “Basilica” of San Clemente in Rome (just a short walk from the Colosseum) is built on top of three levels of pre-existing catacombs and older, pre-christian caves; there is a Mithreum right there, on the lowest level.
The origin of the cult of Mithra is also very interesting, as it likely evolved as it moved towards the west. Even before being known in the middle East, a god with the same name is found in the Vedas, the ancient scriptures from India:
“[…] Mitra (Sanskrit Mitrá) is a divinity of Indic culture […] A characteristic unique to Mitra is his ability to marshal the people […] In some of their aspects, Varuna is lord of the cosmic rhythm of the sun and other celestial spheres, while Mitra brings forth the light at dawn […]” [source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitra_(Vedic)#In_the_Vedas ]
Mithra was also associated with the values of fraternity, truth, honesty, righteousness and of nurturing and preserving good friendships and relationships with other people, I definitely can sense that this was a pre-existing symbol of all that can be good in human beings, that got slightly changed and adapted at every step along its road, as its stories traveled from mouth to mouth across the globe.
Maybe even more interesting, what we can infer about the way of worshiping this god talks of rituals where people were eating together:
“[…] it is clear from the archaeology of numerous Mithraea that most rituals were associated with feasting – as eating utensils and food residues are almost invariably found. These tend to include both animal bones and also very large quantities of fruit residues […] Burned residues of animal entrails are commonly found on the main altars indicating regular sacrificial use. However, Mithraea do not commonly appear to have been provided with facilities for ritual slaughter of sacrificial animals (a highly specialized function in Roman religion) […]” [source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mithraism ]
So, if you set aside the (unproven) horror stories of blood-thirsty cultists which might have been planted in your brain by horror movies than have no factual base, we can notice how the Christian ritual of repeating Jesus’s last supper – which the early (outlaw) Christians were performing in catacombs and caves – actually must have been influenced by these early underground suppers of the Mithraic cult to a great extent.
Some say that Mithra’s birthday – like Jesus – was also on December 25th. While this is not proven (and there are historians disagreeing with it: some are convinced the main Mithraic ceremonies were held in Summer, given the amount of cherry bones found in some sites – cherries being fruits which are ripe in summer!), we know that there was another pagan recurrence of the ‘official’ sun god (instituted by the Augustan emperors) that was celebrated on December 25th. We think it was more easy and practical for the later Roman Emperors – officially adopting Christianity towards the end of the 4th century A.D. – to confuse the masses and retain control of the ‘official’ story by blending popular elements of the already widespread rituals of both sides (Pagan and Christian), and deciding that the birth of Jesus must have been also celebrated on that day.
It does not matter what story you believe in and what date actually was – or would be – correct; too many people have been burned at the stake already and too many wars have been perpetrated across the centuries, just for petty disagreements over details such as this one, which are of little significance in the grand scheme of things. It does not matter if you call yourself a Christian, a Buddhist or a Hindu and what your ‘official’ books say. Those have been written, rewritten and manipulated by man over the course of many, many centuries – regardless of which religion’s sacred texts you are looking at.
What we think should matter is that the figure and the symbol of what a good human being does when it is in touch with the divine remains the same across centuries and across different religions, even if given many different names and forms. A good human being is someone who can be a mediator and a guide for other people by shining its light (bringing the sun forward), working for others to provide simple things that warm the heart and the body, like sharing a meal with friends and be an example of love, gratitude, compassion and humility. This is something that can be done every day of the year, without waiting for special occasions.
Life itself is the special occasion, each and every day.