Temple of Mithras. London Sightseeing Tour. Roman London.


Exit the church and cross over Walbrook, keeping ahead into Bucklesbury. Keep straight ahead to bear left along Queen Victoria Street. A little further along turn left up the steps that lead to the railings which surround:-


The Temple of Mithras. Every day thousands people making their way to and from work in the City of London pass the nondescript set of steps you have ascended. Some of them might glance upwards at a pile of old stones that seem to be laid out in the manner of ruined chapel, but few of them take the time to explore further and so do not realise that on an ugly concrete platform, just a stones throw away from St Paul’s Cathedral, there stands a relic of the very first City of London, a mysterious temple where followers of what was once one of the most popular cults in the Roman Empire once worshipped.

Discovered quite by accident in the aftermath of the Second World War, during building work beside nearby Walbrook to rebuild the bomb shattered heart of the capital, this temple to the Persian god of light and the sun was moved to its present site in Temple Court, Queen Victoria Street, to enable construction to continue uninterrupted. As a result the re-constructed temple is now on an elevated platform some six feet above street level and thus much of the mysticism it would have possessed when it was largely a subterranean place of worship has undoubtedly been lost. Yet the way it has been put back together enables us to gain a remarkable insight into the rights and rituals of the cult of Mithras and to see how it had a definite influence on the development of Christianity, the religion whose ascendancy would ultimately sound the death knell for Mithraism.

The Roman legions first came across the cult of Mithras in Persia (modern day Iran) during the reign of the emperor Nero. It was one of many religious cults that the Romans brought back from the east, and initially it appealed to slaves and freedmen. However, the cult's emphasis on truth, honour and courage, coupled with its demand for discipline soon made its central deity a popular god with soldiers and traders.



The basic tenet of Mithraic belief was that Mithras had been born from a rock, and that his early life was one of extreme hardship and ordeal. Eventually he was forced to pit his wits against the primordial bull, and having dragged the struggling creature to a cave, he slew it. In so doing he released its life force for the benefit of mankind. All valuable plants and herbs on the planet were meant to have grown from its body; from its blood came forth the vine; whilst its semen was the source of all useful animals on earth.

In an attempt to recreate the surroundings of the cave where the slaying of the bull took place, Mithraic temples were always built either partially or totally underground. Worshippers were divided into seven grades, each of them marking a stage of knowledge in the cult's mysteries. An initiate started as Corax (the Raven), then progressed through the stages of Nymphus (bridegroom), Miles (soldier), Leo (lion), Perses (Persian), Heliodromus (Runner of the Sun) before reaching the ultimate grade of Pater (Father). Each rank was denoted by a specific costume and head-mask exclusive to that particular grade and initiation into the various degrees was by way of a series of demanding tests of stamina and courage.

The scores made in the stone by the continual opening of the temple doors to admit worshippers are still evident in this London Temple, as is the nave which led to an apse or altar, traces of which are still visible at the north end of the temple. Followers would have sat on benches on either side of this nave and the bases of the columns between which followers would sit can also still be seen.

Because the slaying of a bull was an integral part of the religions foundation, sacrifices were a common part of Mithraic worship as were shared meals of bread and wine, particularly around the festival that celebrated Mithras’s springing from the rock, traditionally held on 25th December. But when in AD312 Constantine the Great legitimised Christianity in the Roman Empire, Mithraism was seen as a major rival. Consequently pagan temples began to be stamped out and the one in London appears to have been hastily abandoned at some stage in the 4th century. However, early Christianity was not above borrowing certain useful elements of the religion it was attempting to quash, and the design of Mithraic temple’s, such as the one now stranded above the streets of modern London, became the blue print on which Christian chapels were later based.