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The Unconquerable Sun

If we consider the god Ra of late Prehistoric Egypt (pre-3150 BC), or 2000 years later, Helios; a god of ancient Greece; or even the medieval Viking god Sunna, it is clear that our local star has featured in the world's religions and cults for a very long time.

The sunburst of Sol Invictus on a third century Roman disc brooch. In the collection of the Timeless Galleries.

Surprisingly, though, while the sun often featured as a motif (or minor deity) in early religions, it was rarely worshipped. In fact, only a handful of cultures have developed solar religions (Egyptian, Indo-European and Meso-American) and even then, only once a robust urban civilisation had developed within those cultures.

And perhaps the best known 'robust urban civilisation' of ancient times is that of the Roman Empire. In fact, Rome's population reached a million people by the second century AD. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, Europe would not see another million-person city until Victorian London, 1700 years later.

The Roman cult of the god Sol came into existence in the earliest days of Rome's foundation and continued right up until the institution of Christianity as the state religion in AD 313. However, it was during the principate - a period which lasted around 200 years from the 1st to the 3rd centuries AD - that Sol became associated with the military cult of Mithraism, and worship of the deity (now named Sol Invictus, or the 'Unconquerable Sun') really took hold.

This is the Tauroctony: Mithras kneels on the back of a bull, having cut its throat. A dog and snake drink the bull's blood, while on either side, dadophoroi (torch-bearers) point their torches up and down. In the top left corner, Sol Invictus shines a ray of light onto Mithras, while in the other corner, Luna watches on.

Mithraism, or the Mithraic Mysteries, was a cult that became extremely popular with the Roman military during the principate (a period of extraordinary peace and stability, often termed Pax Romana), and into the later period of the Roman Empire. In many respects, Mithraism was reminiscent of modern-day Freemasonry, in that worshippers of Mithras were male-only and had a complex system of initiation and rituals - even calling themselves syndexioi, or 'those united by the handshake'.

Followers of the cult of Mithras would meet in subterranean temples called mithraea (singular: mithraeum). Many mithraea have been discovered, and from the hundreds of reliefs and frescos recovered from these sites, certain iconic scenes occur time and again: Mithras being born of a rock, Mithras sharing a banquet with the god Sol Invictus, and Mithras slaughtering a bull.

The latter of these scenes, the bull slaughtering, forms the centrepiece in every mithraeum, and is known as the tauroctony. This almost certainly represents symbolic sacrifice (rather than depicting actual ritual sacrifices) as the mithraea were often far too small to accommodate a grown bull. Furthermore, ritual bull slaughter (and 'showering' in the bull's blood, as seen in this well-known scene from the HBO series 'Rome') was associated with an entirely different cult: the Mysteries of the Magna Mater (practised around 200 years after the events in the HBO mini-series.)

By the third century AD, the mysterious cult of Mithras had become wholly conflated with the god Sol Invictus. As the patron of soldiers, both Sol Invictus and Mithras would appear on military phalera (disks of gold, silver or bronze that were awarded to legionaries and worn on their breastplates, very much like medals) or as sunbursts on disc brooches.

The sunburst of Sol Invictus on a third century Roman disc brooch. In the collection of the Timeless Galleries.

By AD 274, the enigmatic emperor, Aurelean, made the cult of Sol Invictus an official 'state cult' (perhaps, in part, due to his family line - the gens Aurelia - being associated with the cult of Sol). In fact, the cult of Sol Invictus became so popular that by the fifth century AD, it rivalled Christianity in number of devotees - so much so that the Christian theologian Augustine was forced to preach against it.

Eventually, the Unconquerable Sun would be conquered by the pagan cult of Christianity, which was made the official and exclusive cult of the Roman Empire by the Emperor Constantine I in the 4th century AD. But even then, Sol Invictus was not wholly abandoned. On March 7th, AD 321, the emperor Constantine decreed that the Roman day of rest be named in honour of the old sun god, Sol Invictus: dies Solis.


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