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Tauroctonia del Mithräum de Osterburken
18 Jul 2009


This entry was originally  only available in French.

Translation below:



Large bas-relief in a   reddish sandstone.   It was found in 1861 and is kept in the Great Ducal Museum of Antiquities at Garlsruhe.


At the centre is Mithras tauroctonous (as bull killer) in a curved niche (grotto), with the dog (disfigured) which is licking the blood from the wound.  The scorpion is suspended from the testicles of the bull, and the raven is perched on the right, on the rocks near the edge of the niche.  Under the belly of the victim there is a  crater, where a snake has come to drink. Facing it a lion is crouching.  To the right and left the two torchbearers are situated.  The second, (Cautopates), who is lowering his torch, holds in his left hand the stem of a small twisted shrub bearing flowers with large petals or a bunch of leaves.

The curved strip which forms a kind of vault for the central niche is divided by mouldings in twelve keystones.  On these are sculpted the signs of the zodiac in their natural order:  Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces.


The upper part of the bas-relief is divided by frames in three parts:


1. In the centre, you can see gathered a group of twelve gods placed in two lines.  In the middle is a bearded man (Zeus) on a throne.  He has a naked torso. In his right hand he is holding a thunderbolt; his hand is resting on his thigh.  In the meantime his left hand is raised and must be resting on the sceptre. This is broken or indicated only by colour.  To the left of Zeus three male figures are standing.  The first, Apollo, is dressed only in a chlamys which falls from his right shoulder. 


His left hand is resting  on a cithara placed on an altar, whilst his right hand no doubt holds the plectrum.


The second person (Aries) is wearing a tunic covered with a breastplate. With his left hand he is seizing a shield placed on the ground; with his right hand he is putting on a helmet with a raised crest.


The third person (Hercules) whose strong physique is not hidden by his garment (possibly a lion's skin) which he is wearing over his left arm.  In his right hand he holds an apple and in his left, without doubt, a club (disfigured).  To the right of Zeus are ranged three goddesses.   The one at his side (Hera) is totally wrapped in a large garment which covers

her head and hangs like a veil behind her shoulders.  In her left hand she holds a casket.


In the middle you can see another figure (Athena) She is totally clothed but helmeted, and with her left  hand, which is lowered, she holds a shield.  Her right hand is raised and holds a spear.


At the end there is a woman who is totally naked (Aphrodite).  She is arranging her hair with her right hand, whilst she raises a mirror in front of her face with her left hand. 


The figures in the second row are less distinct: in the centre  a winged woman is in flight (Nike).  With her right hand she is placing a crown on the head of Zeus; in her left hand she holds a large palm.  On the right a bearded man  (Poseidon), his large stomach naked, lifts his left hand to seize his trident (disfigured).  The right hand is hidden by the helmet of Mars.


At the other end of this row a young woman (Artemis)  takes her right hand back to the quiver which she carries on her back.  Further along, a bearded man (Hades) with his body totally clothed, holds a sceptre in his right hand. Finally, on the right, a woman (Kora or Cybele?) wrapped in  long garments,  wears on her head a veil which falls behind her shoulders.  Sol and Luna, as is usual, occupy the upper corners of the stone. On the left, the god dressed in a simple chlamys  attached on the right shoulder, goes up into the heavens in his quadriga.  With his right hand he is raising the whip, whilst with his left hand he is holding the reins of the team of horses, who are hurling themselves at a gallop.  Above the chariot a naked child (Phosphorus) is flying, whilst holding out his two arms, and raising in each hand a lit torch.  On the right is Luna, with a large crescent on her head.  Her floating garment exposes her torso, and she is standing in her biga, which is drawn by two bulls, who descending into the  abyss, disappear behind the rocks.


Behind, a child (Hesperus) hurls himself, head first, whilst lowering before him the two torches he has in his hands.


The extreme angles of the stone are occupied by the busts of the winds: two frizzy  heads, with wings in their hair, one clean shaven, the other bearded, with puffed up cheeks.  One blows upwards, the other down.  In front of each of them are pictured some leaves. The other figures who fill these divisions are connected to the scenes which decorate the pillars flanking the central niche.


On the left, below:


1.  A simple head of hair, surrounded by a kind of circular strip,  irregularly divided into eight parts.  The two lower and thicker parts may possibly be the shoulders of this person. 


2. A woman (Gaia) is asleep on the ground.  Her garment only covers the lower part of her body, leaving her stomach naked; her left hand rests on a calathos (a flared fruit basket).  Her right hand goes over her head.  Near her is a man, visible only from the waist up, carrying on his shoulders a large sphere (Atlas with the heavens).


3.  A group of three women, all standing.  All three are dressed in long garments. The one on the left is holding a rolled item in her right hand.  The one in the centre is holding scales (the Fates).


4.  A very disfigured tableau.  Two men are standing either side of an altar above which they are holding an elongated object. (Zeus and Chronos).


5.  A bearded god (Zeus) naked, or dressed in a simple chlamys, is seizing with   his left hand the hair of serpent-footed person (Giant) whilst with his right hand he lifts the thunderbolt that he is about to throw. This opponent is attempting with his two hands to separate the arms which are holding him.


6.  A man with a strong physique, with a head of hair and bearded, is asleep on a rock, and is supporting his left elbow on a confusing object which seems to be his chlamys. In his right hand he is holding an elongated object (a reed?).


Above, in the higher division, starts the legend of Mithras. All the following scenes are linked to this.


1.  A naked child, wearing a Phrygian cap, is sunk up to the waist in a pile of rocks.  He is lifting both arms and in his left hand he is holding a knife(?). In his right hand he holds a torch.  This is the birth of Mithras.


2.  A young man (Mithras) entirely naked but still wearing a Phrygian cap, is standing in front of a tree (a fig?) Its winding branches stretch the length of the upper edge of the stone.  With the help of a cutlass he is stripping a  branch of  its large leaves and oblong fruit, which he gathers. Above the top of the tree appears the top of a body with a similar face, wearing a Phrygian cap, but dressed in a tunic.


In the division on the right we find two scenes from the legend of Mithras and the bull.


3.  The solitary animal moves peacefully along the lower edge, lowering its head as it passes.


4. Mithras is in  eastern clothing (which he will  be wearing everywhere from now on).  He is carrying the bull on his back by its back hooves so that  its front limbs touch the ground.


On the right of the central niche are superimposed six scenes.  The first is more complicated than the others.  It was placed above the pillar and was inserted this way into the legend of the bull.


5.  Mithras is standing in front of a rock against which he is drawing a bow.  One of the arrows is still in the bowstring, another has hit the target.  In front of him two persons in eastern clothing are crouching humbly with one knee on the ground.  One is holding out his hands to Mithras, whilst the other, who is turning his back to him, holds them against the rock towards which he lifts his eyes as though astonished. 


6.  A very disfigured scene.  The bull is galloping towards the right. Mithras appears to have seized one horn with his left hand and is stopping it in its flight, its legs grazing the ground.


7.  Sol, his head surrounded by a halo, is standing in a chariot which is being pulled by four leaping horses. Behind the chariot stands Mithras who is raising his hand towards the head of his companion.  (One does not see, as is usual, Mithras preparing to get into the chariot, or perhaps seizing the crown of Sol.)



8. Mithras is proudly planted in front of a  person (Sol), who is dressed in a simple chlamys  and bending down in front of him with one knee on the ground, and holding out his hands as if imploring him.  Mithras has his left hand on his glaive and with his right hand he is holding above his head the head of the supplicant an oblong object with a short handle.  A crown with rays has fallen to the ground between the two divinities.


9.  Mithras, in the same attitude as before, still holding his glaive, is standing opposite the same person, shown as Sol by his narrow halo which surrounds his head. They are stretching out their hands above an altar as though to enter into an alliance. 


10.  Mithras, with his cloak floating in the wind, is mounted on a horse which is leaping towards the right, and he is drawing a bow in front of him.  A person in eastern dress, without doubt a servant, is following him and has on his shoulder a lengthened mass  ( a bunch of arrows).  Under the belly of the horse, a lion is moving forward.


11. In front of a table, on a bed covered with a cloth,  two persons are resting.   The one on the right, (Mithras), leans on his left elbow, and is raising a rhyton with his right hand.   The other (Sol), whose head is surrounded by  a halo, is turning towards him.  He is holding out his right arm; in his right hand he holds a goblet. His left hand is placed on the bed and supports his body.



On the plinth of the monument you can read the inscription number 426.




Chlamys: A mantle worn only by men.  It was mainly worn by young men and riders. Its use was passed from Greece to the Roman Empire.



Cithara/ kithara : An ancient Greek instrument of the lyre family.  It was the professional version of the two stringed lyre and they are usually show as having seven strings.



Calathos:  A flared fruit basket.



Glaive: A polearm weapon consisting of a single edged blade on the end of a pole.



Rhyton: An ancient drinking vessel.  It was sometimes shaped like an animal's head. They were common in ancient Persia and were also sometimes used for libations.



These are Frank Cumont's comments about this monument (trans from French)




This bas relief from Osterburken is, without contradiction, the most remarkable of all the monuments of the cult of Mithras found up to now.  Not only does it exceed most of the other sculptures by its size, but by the number of images and characters which are depicted on it.  Nothing like it has been found anywhere else.  Nowhere has the complexity of the religion of Mithraism been shown more clearly than in this major piece.  Even from an artistic point of view this work is one of the most interesting left to us by Roman Germany.  


Time has disfigured it; it has scarred the face, broken the leg and one hand of the bull-killing god.  It has maimed the torchbearers; cut the snake into two pieces; removed part of the dog and the hind paws of the lion and damaged the main group in a thousand places.  But in spite of the state to which it has been reduced, you are struck by the strength of its execution.   The suffering of the bull in its dying spasm is created with great expression. Everywhere – in the shape of the animals, the bearing of the characters, the folds of the garments – you are aware of a skilful and practise hand.


These qualities are not shown to the same extent in the secondary scenes arranged symmetrically around the central niche.  Because they are so numerous it has been necessary to scale them down and squeeze them in to such an extent that it causes some confusion.  But although the porous stone lends itself badly to delicate work, and its surface is now eroded almost everywhere, the tiny figures are so finely depicted that most of them are still recognisable without difficulty.  Whoever designed and  carried out this great composition was indeed no commonplace artist.


Trans S Jessup

Main inscription

D[eo] S[oli] I[nvicto] M[ithrae] M[er?]catorius Castrensis in suo cons[ituit]


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