Mithraic cult in Slovenian lands

A story of beliefs and ritual inscribed on stone

In the 2nd and 3rd centuries Ptuj was the centre of the Mithra cult, a new religion that started in Persia and spread throughout the empire during the 1st century AD. The religion became extremely popular with traders, imperial slaves and mercenaries of the Roman army and spread rapidly throughout the empire.

Initially a forbidden cult, it was later accepted and almost became a state religion in the 3rd century. Mithraism was the principal rival of Christianity, with which it shared some common elements, at a time when there was a strong move towards monotheism throughout the Roman empire.

At the beginning of the 4th century Christianity under emperor Constantine became the state religion and all other religions were outlawed. So the Mithraic images were smashed or burnt in limekilns, altars and temple walls knocked down and evened with the ground. In Slovenia, near Ptuj, were found the remains of a cult that the archeologists have uncovered during the last century or so, and some of them  were literally raised up from the ground to recreate a reality of worship and beliefs of almost two thousand years ago.

Mithraism was a mystery religion with devotees sworn to secrecy. Nothing could be spoken or written down. What little is known of Mithra, the god of justice and social contract, has been deduced from reliefs and icons found in temples.

Most of these portray Mithra clad in a Persian-style cap and tunic sacrificing a white bull in front of Sol, the sun god. From the bull's blood and semen, grain, grapes and living creatures sprout forth. Sol's wife ####, the moon, begins her cycle and time is born. The letters 'VSLM' that are inscribed on many Mithraic stones are part of a secret code thanking Mithra for his good deeds and are recognizable only to the faithful.

Mithraism and Christianity competed strongly because of the striking similarity in many of their rituals. Both involve shepherds, an ark built to escape a flood and a form of baptism. Devotees knelt when they worshipped and a common meal - a communion- was a regular feature of the liturgy.

Remnants of Mithra temples can be found everywhere in Slovenia as they are elsewhere in Europe, however by far the strongest of regional Mithraism centres in Europe was Poetovio. All the Mithra temples found in Slovenia have been transferred to museums, except for the three which can be viewed in the place where they had stood originally.

In the Lapidarium of the Regional Museum of Ptuj, exhibited in the Dominican Monastery below the Ptuj Castle is a huge collection of Roman statues, tombstones, funeral urns and sarcophagi, stone tablets and reliefs. The collection includes a complete Mithraic shrine with representations of the god Mithra killing the sacrificial bull.

On the outskirts of Ptuj, two Mithra shrines (Mitrej 1 & 3) are still standing in their original spot. Mitrej 1, dating from the 2nd century is the oldest Mithra shrine in central Europe. It stands in what used to be the business quarter of Poetovio. A simple building from the year 1900 protects it. In the space opposite the entrance there is a niche for the altarpiece. The temple is remarkably well preserved, but there is no trace of the altar image. Mitrej 3 is also protected with a hut built in 1913.

Archaeological work still goes on in the Ptuj area. New discoveries have been made, and in 2001 another Mithra shrine was opened to the public.