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Pagan Perspectives

Today’s column comes from your humble Weekend Editor, Eric O. Scott, who has written for The Wild Hunt since 2012. He has a PhD in English from the University of Missouri and his first novel, The Lives of the Apostates, was published by Moon Books in 2013.

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I was in London on midwinter’s day in 2016, and at 4:30 PM it had already gone dark. I stepped off the #17 bus from Islington and found myself in the extravagance of the City of London, the section of the metropolis that had once been a medieval village and now stood astride the globe as one of its major hubs of world capitalism. The City of London carried a strange, alienating ambience, and I did not much like it – not compared to the rest of the city, anyway, where I spent the rest of that week sauntering from one curiosity to another. The City hummed with fluorescent lights from office suites housed in tall unlovely towers that rose into the night. There was energy there, to be sure, but a jittery, uncomfortable energy, like caffeine on an empty stomach. The country felt like that all over that winter, six months after the Brexit vote, and in the interregnum between Donald Trump’s election and his inauguration back home in America. Nobody really knew what was coming, and maybe we still don’t. Still, I had come with a purpose, and I aimed to see it through.

City of London [E. Scott].

I checked my map and frowned. I looked forward and saw a great green barricade ahead of me, a fence-and-tarpaulin wall surrounding the base of a skyscraper. According to my map, this was the corner of Cannon Street and Walbrook, which is where I wanted to be – that is, the London Mithraeum, a temple to the Roman god Mithras. But looking around I saw only more office blocks set at Pret a Mangers, and, at the end of a far alley, St. Stephen Walbrook’s Church, which dated back to the Great Fire of 1666. I saw no sign, however, of Mithras’s temple, whose stones were a thousand years older than St. Stephen’s.

I walked around the block and came to a disheartening conclusion. I entered a Little Waitrose grocery store across the lane and bought a Coke. While standing in line, I saw a fire marshal open a door in the barricade and come over to the grocery. I caught his attention. “Pardon me,” I asked, aware as always of my American accent, of how easily my voice marked me as being out of place. “I was looking for the old Roman temple. Is it around here? Is it inside the construction area?”

I went back outside and stared up at the office tower. It was a Bloomberg project. The green barricade went the whole way around, without so much as a porthole to look inside. The temple, I read later, was excavated at this spot back in 1954, and moved haphazardly to a different site so as to not interfere with the previous office building project. The reconstructed temple bore little resemblance to the historical one; the historical Mithraeum had been built partially underground, and featured a descent towards the altar representing the seven degrees of initiation into the mysteries of the Mithras cult. The reconstruction was all above-ground and on one level. Now that Bloomberg had taken over the site of the office block, he had begun arranging for the temple to relocate again, back to the original site. Today, two years after my visit, the reconstruction of the reconstruction sits as a tourist attraction at the base of Bloomberg London.

Bloomberg Square, City of London [E. Scott].

In some ways, I suppose this is a good thing. From what I gather now, the reconstruction is certainly better than the old one, if still not reflective of the whole history of the temple. It is good that the temple has been restored to being closer to what it was when it belonged to Mithras’s faithful. But as I stood there on that December evening in 2016, I felt disappointed, and not just because the Mithraeum was hidden from me behind a Kelly Green wall.

No – I thought to myself that Mithras was a god of soldiers, which meant he was a god of the poor. Now his temple survives due to the largesse of a billionaire like Michael Bloomberg. So many things that we should value for what they are and of themselves, things that should belong to all of us, and instead are playthings of the rich. I read that the reconstituted temple is today a tourist attraction, complete with, as the website explains, “haze, light and the sound of footsteps, chanting and secret whispers.” They cannot imagine that there will be enough magic in the stones themselves; special effects are required instead.

Mithras, in the latter days of the Roman Empire, held much of the Roman army in his sway. His was a mystery cult; our knowledge of it now depends entirely on archaeology, as the Mithraic adherents left behind no mythological texts to clarify its meaning. Like many of the other late-period cults – those of Isis, Jupiter Dolichenus, and even Christ – he seems to have come from the east, an offspring of Persia brought to Rome and remade in the Empire’s image. Several images dominate his excavated temples: Mithras being born from a stone, Mithras dining with Sol Invictus, and most famously, Mithras slaying a bull, whose blood consecrated the grounds of every Mithraic altar.

As a deity, Mithras has never particularly spoken to me: I don’t like wars or armies, and the Mithraic mysteries lack any reference to women at all, quite alien to my upbringing as a Goddess worshiper. Nonetheless, I feel the obligation to pay my respects at any god’s shrine, even if the god is not one I’d usually honor at my own altar. Once, these gods inspired multitudes to worship, but that awe has been forgotten. I feel the duty to remember.

Later that midwinter’s evening, in the Museum of London, I found myself standing in front of a glass case filled with items excavated from the Mithraeum. Many were carved heads of deities: Mithras, Minerva, Serapis, a river-god with no name – the plaque tells me he might be the spirit of the Walbrook or even of the Thames itself. Set into the bottom of the case is the bull-slaying scene at the crux of the Mithraic faith.

Mithras and the Bull, Museum of London [E. Scott].

Mithras had his birthday, I was always told, on December 25th, the same as Christ. (Perhaps this is not strictly true; the “birthday” element could have been drawn by analogy with Christianity. I suspect both took the date from the sun festival Natalis Invicti, and more generally from the winter solstice.) But while outside London buzzes with Christmas cheer, silence reigns in the atrium before Mithras. The pale stone heads of the gods look out from behind glass, eyes that have seen decades of worship and centuries of dirt before finding their way here to this museum.

I had no bull to sacrifice to Mithras, nor the desire to do so if I had one; yet a god remains a god. Even if his empire has long faded and his armies are long gone, still: date obolum Belisario. I murmured a winter prayer to Mithras and waited for the museum to announce it was time to close.