A Song to Mithras

I was visiting my home in the north east of England last week, and spent the last day walking a section of Hadrian’s Wall with my dad. It was a curiously appropriate day to be walking the wall- everyone in Britain must have been talking about the same thing: that morning, poll’s had been published showing the pro-independence side in Scotland had pulled ahead for the first time, and the prospect of the end of the union was becoming more likely. The popular tabloid newspaper The Daily Mail, mocked up a picture of a border crossing between England and Scotland (I don’t think the artist gets up there very often, mind – where is there a road in this neck of the woods with so many lanes?)

I know that Hadrian’s Wall does not run along the England-Scotland border – of course, I know, I’m from up there. And I know too that the raiders that the wall was built to keep out were not really ‘Scots’ but ‘Picts’ and rebellious Britons (i.e. Welsh). But nevertheless, it was a boundary between two different provinces, forerunners of England and Scotland, that have at times been united and at times separate. It was built when the Romans cut their losses in Caledonia and built their wall across a narrow, relatively low-lying part of the north, just above the lucrative lead mines of Allendale and Weardale. And now our own political establishment is – perhaps – on the verge of relinquishing control of the northernmost half of our island, though the border has moved north-west somewhat.

Well, we’ll come back to The Scots and English in a near-future post, I think; the relationship between the two countries will continue to be topical, especially if Scotland does indeed secede. But the poem this week concerns neither – not Britons or Picts either, nor any peoples either side of the wall, but those on it, the Roman soldiers themselves. And also, incidentally, these fellas:

Black Bull White Bull Brown Bull Black Bull 2

We met these three bulls on our trip along the wall, and on the fields to the north of it by the Crag Lough. In his ‘A Walk Along the Wall’ the writer Hunter Davies wrote entertainingly about some of the tensions between farmers and landowners on the one hand, and heritage types, walkers and archaeologists on the other: they didn’t like each other much. But they seem to have worked things out. The first bull was actually chewing the cud right by the wall, up on the crag, though wouldn’t pose for a nice picture – we got a more dramatic, if distant, view on the way back round. The second was between two stiles on the corner of three fields, stood in fact right at the bottom of the first stile, so that one could not help but come into close contact with it. The last and largest was sitting on its haunches in an open field we were walking through. It got up and headed in our direction just after the photo was taken. Though not fast enough to cause any serious concern, he was big and muscular enough to make us quicken our step a little.

Driving home, we passed another of the wall’s landmarks, its Mithraic temple. Mithraism was a mystery religion of the late Roman empire, of mixed Persian and Roman origin and particularly popular among Roman soldiers. The Mithras religion involved bull imagery, its central image being the Mithras’s slaughter of a great bull. If this doesn’t seem terribly original, it probably wasn’t, being but the contemporary manifestation of the bull cult of the Mediterranean and middle east that stretches back at least to the sinister legend of the Minotaur, and forward to the bull runs of Pamplona. Before you get carried away, I should mention that not so much of the temple remains, though there are some gnarled statues there, as well as in museums in nearby Corbridge and Newcastle. The discomfort we modern town dwellers feel in the presence of the bull seems a quiet echo of the awe accorded to it by the inhabitants of the wall seventeen hundred years ago.

In ‘A Song to Mithras’ Rudyard Kipling shows us what these soldiers would have got out of their religion:

A Song to Mithras

Hymn of the XXX Legion: circa A.D. 350
“On the Great Wall” – Puck of Pook’s Hill

Mithras, God of the Morning, our trumpets waken the Wall!
“Rome is above the Nations, but thou art over all!”
Now as the names are answered, and the guards are marched away,
Mithras, also a soldier, give us strength for the day!

Mithras, God of the Noontide, the heather swims in the heat.
Our helmets scorch our foreheads, our sandals burn our feet.
Now in the ungirt hour – now lest we blink and drowse,
Mithras, also a soldier, keep us true to our vows!

Mithras, God of the Sunset, low on the Western main –
Thou descending immortal, immortal to rise again!
Now when the watch is ended, now when the wine is drawn,
Mithras, also a soldier, keep us pure till the dawn!

Mithras, God of the Midnight, here where the great Bull dies,
Look on Thy children in darkness. Oh, take our sacrifice!
Many roads Thou hast fashioned – all of them lead to Light!
Mithras, also a soldier, teach us to die aright.

Some might find the poem a little over the top – but how could a song addressed to a god be anything else? Kipling is unembarrassed in his evocation of martial values in a way which few modern poets would be comfortable with – although it is strangely reminiscent of some of the early poetry of Ezra Pound. It was included in the children’s book, Puck of Pook’s Hill, in which two children are given a tour of some of the wonder’s of British history by an age-old sprite. All good fun, really.

I wondered about that ‘sacrifice’ in the last stanza. At first I thought this referred to the sacrifice of the bull that would comprise an occasional part of the mysterious rituals of Mithraism. In fact, though, the ‘sacrifice’ in the song is the soldier’s own, their absolute dedication to their jobs, to their very possible deaths even, in the service of Rome and the God that, for them stands above it. Most soldiers were conscripted and served for the practical privileges that service would bring, a salary first of all and then citizenship. But I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to have a grander, more absolute reason to inspire them through those tough days in Britannica – the long marches through the Pennines, forays into hostile territory, tattooed Pictish warriors running at them with no clothes on…

Of course, I couldn’t let a poem relating to Northumbria (sort of) and bulls pass without reference to those other bulls of north eastern culture past, the bull of BriggFlatts, as referenced in this blog title, and the Chillingham Bull of Thomas Bewick’s famous woodcut. I have explained in a previous post what I thought the significance of the bull is in Bunting’s great poem. But it is interesting to speculate whether he was inspired at all by the Mithraic connection of the wall. Not directly, of course – he makes no reference to the wall in his poetry, and he is much less interested in the Roman history of the region than in the early middle ages, Eric Bloodaxe being the poem’s central recurring figure. But he must have been aware of the Mithraic link on the wall, which is a short walk away from his childhood home in Throckley, and he loved to take long walks: did he walk all the way to the temple at Carrawburgh, I wonder? Perhaps he was inspired by the Mithraic link a negative sense: Bunting after all rejected mysticism of any kind – he celebrates the bull of spring for what it is, not for what it stands for, nor what it emanates, but simply for what it is.

Sycamore Gap, Hadrian's Wall

I’m afraid I couldn’t let the more obvious contemporary reference point pass either… George R.R. Martin has admitted that a visit to Hadrian’s Wall inspired the great northern wall in A Game of Thrones. It is hard to visit the wall these days without at least thinking of that series. The remains of the Roman wall are low enough that you can walk over them without difficulty in most parts, and in fact the wall was never very high, it is the great outcrops of the Whin Sill, on which the wall perches, that most remind you of the wall in GoT – less so, perhaps on a sunny September day than in one of Northumberland’s snowy winters. Martin’s novels are full of invented religions, for which it is easy to find actual historical parallels – I suspect Martin has read around that kind of thing. In the latest novel, the religion of the red priestess finds a home on the wall – although it more closely represents heavily dualistic Manichaeism than Mithraism. Still, I imagine the obscure link between this Northern wall and an Eastern religion captured Martin’s imagination too… Kipling’s soldiers grumble about the heat on the wall – it was warmer back then, so I hear, but they must also have worried about the cold sometimes too, looked north and said ‘Winter is Coming…’

the Whin Sill



Filed under History, Literature, Long Form, Poetry

2 responses to “A Song to Mithras

  1. Amazing photos and story. Your description took me to good places. It is beautiful country.

  2. Thanks, John. It is indeed a lovely part of the world… it helps when the weather is obliging too.

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