Taurobolium

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Sacrificial Procession in front of the Temple of Magna Mater. Relief from the Ara Pacis Augustae.

Contents

History

The Taurobolium, according to historical evidence, first appears in an inscription from Puteoli, Italy in 134 CE in connection to Venus Caelestis, otherwise known as the Syrio-Phoenician Astarte [1] . Later in 160 CE we find a reference from Lugdunum, Britain that commemorates a Taurobolium in connection to the Magna Mater. However, it has been agreed by scholars that Taurobolia were performed every 20 years, so our estimated earliest possibility for Taurobolia to be performed is 124 CE [2] .

The origins of this sacrifice, we can speculate, take root in Asia Minor and the Middle East. Mesopotamian priests known as kalu were known to have taken part in bull sacrifice, in Crete and Asia Minor we know of various bull-hunting rites [3] . In Asia Minor, specifically, it was considered a rite of fertility to cut the throat of a bull in times of drought to bring forth rain [4] .

On the basis that the deities who are typically associated with the Taurobolium originate from Asia Minor, Persia and the Middle East, it is a fair theory to understand the introduction of this sacrifice via those deities entrance into the Roman State.

The Sacrifice

The Taurobolium is, at the most basic level, a bloody sacrificial rite involving a bull being killed with a hooked-sword variously defined as a venabulum (hunting spear) [5] , ensis hamatus (hooked sword)[6] , and harpe (sickle or scimitar)[7] . This tool features the straight point of a typical blade and it has a second curved-blade that emerges just before the end. This tool was used to firstly stun the bull with the straight point, after which the wound would be ripped open further using the secondary curved-blade [8] .

Unique to the Taurobolium is the fact that, unlike traditional Roman sacrifices, the bull was often not given the moment to give its consent, but was rather forced into submission [9] . This aspect may very well take origin in some type of archaic hunting ritual from Anatolia. Another unique quality of the Taurobolium is the fact that the sacrificial animal was male, instead of the traditional Roman formula where female victims are sacrificed for female divinities [10] .

According to the evidence, the Taurobolium appears to have been a sacrificial ritual that evolved over time. Periods of overlap indicate the transitional period of the Taurobolium’s evolution. [11]


  • 134-early half of the 3rd Century CE: the Taurobolium, being qualified by the verb “facere” (to do), implies the typical sacrifice of a bull.
  • Ca. 250-319 CE: the Taurobolium, being qualified by the verbs “accipere” (to receive) and “tradere” (to hand or pass) in connection with the “vires” and the “cernus”, has a new theory behind the rite.
  • 305-390 CE: the Taurobolium, being qualified by the verb “percipere” (to take in), specifies a new innovation in the rite itself.

Soteriology

The rite of the Taurobolium conferred upon the recipient the blessings of purification, preservation, health, and well-being.

The date of an individual’s taurobolization was referred to as ‘natalicium’, or birthday. It was typical to describe the individual as being “in aeternum renatus”, or in other words being reborn/restored for eternity. According to Robert Turcan, the Latin ‘’aeternum’’ does not imply the Christian concept of transcendental life, but rather the idea of lasting durability. Thus, the bull’s blood renewed the individual and bestowed upon them lasting health and well-being, preserving them for up to 20 years. [12]


As we know, in Asia Minor the bull’s blood was thought to bring forth rain during a drought (see History above), and in Mithraism the bull’s blood gave life to grain and flowers (see On Mithraism below). Therefore, the blood of the bull is known to have regenerative and life-giving properties.

The Taurobolium was not only performed for select individuals, but was also performed on behalf of the Emperor, the Imperial Family, the Senate, the army, the city and the people of Rome.

The Rites

Below are detailed descriptions of the Taurobolium at each level of its periodic evolution.

  • Taurobolium 1:
The bull was previously washed and decorated with red and white wool fillets (februa), a disc was placed between its horns, and a dorsuale (fringed blanket) was placed over its back [13]

. The Archigallus scatters grains of wheat over the bull’s head and follows this with drops of water upon its brow [14] , consecrating the animal as a worthy sacrifice. The Archigallus would then pluck or cut hairs from the bull’s head and scatter them into the fire on the altar.

Once ready, the victimarius was given the sign, and the bull was stunned, and after a moment the wound was further slit open for the warm blood to flow out of the animal’s neck. This fresh blood was caught in an offertory bowl which was then presented to the altar, and thus to the Gods, after which it was splattered upon the altar to sanctify the sacrifice that had taken place as typical to any animal sacrifice.
  • Taurobolium 2:
This version is exactly the same as the first, however new meaning was applied to the old ritual actions.
By this time, the typical offertory bowl that caught the flowing blood became the cernus [15]

(Vermaseren 106). The cernus is a ritual instrument found in Greek religion (Vermaseren 105) and especially utilized in the mystery cult of Eleusis in regards to Demeter and Persephone [16] . The cernus (Greek kernos) is a small pot with little cups that circle the edge of the opening [17] . The cernus is believed to have held a central fire in its main opening where incense and offerings were burnt while the cups about the edge held various objects understood to be the blessings from the Gods, such things may be herbs, seeds, resins, salt, water, wine, etc…

The use of the cernus provides for us the understanding that it was the blood of the bull that was perceived of as being inherently sacred and blessed as a gift from the Goddess Herself. With this understanding of the power of the bull’s blood, a new word appeared in the rite, vires, which is translated to mean ‘powers’.
Into the cernus, one received (accipere) the blood which was then passed (tradere) to the altar to sanctify the sacrifice.
  • Taurobolium 3:
This version is similar to its predecessors yet is the one that has gain the most notoriety. [18]


The bull was previously washed and decorated with red and white wool fillets (februa), a disc was placed between its horns, and a dorsuale (fringed blanket) was placed over its back.
The individual who was to receive the rite was washed clean, dressed in a clean-white toga and descended into a pit (the fossa sanguinis) where a punctured wooden plank was drawn over the opening of the pit, enclosing the individual into the earthen pit.
The bull was drawn over the plank where the Archigallus scatters grains of wheat over the bull’s head and follows this with drops of water upon its brow, consecrating the animal as a worthy sacrifice. The Archigallus would then pluck or cut hairs from the bull’s head and scatter them into the fire on the altar.
Once ready, the victimarius was given the sign, and the bull was stunned, and after a moment the wound was further slit open for the warm blood to flow out of the animal’s neck. The initial blood was caught in the cernus, whereas the full flood then poured down upon the plank which then dripped into the pit to drench the individual in the warm blood.
The carcass of the bled bull was removed from the plank, and then the pit was opened up to allow the individual to rise up in their bloodied state. In keeping with traditional sacrifice, the cernus was taken to the altar to sanctify the sacrifice and complete the rite.
In this newer version, the rite takes place as a type of bloody baptism where the vires, or bloody powers, were taken into (percipere) the individual, thus conferring the bull’s life-energy to the individual, making him blessed.

On the Criobolium

Many times the Taurobolium has been said to be performed in conjunction with the Criobolium, the sacrifice of a goat or ram. The Criobolium is typically considered by modern scholars to be performed for Attis, whereas the Taurobolium was performed for the Magna Mater [19] .

It is interesting to note that the combination of the Taurobolium and Criobolium nearly mimics the Suovetaurilia, which entailed the sacrifice of a bull, goat and pig. The Suovetaurilia was used in rites of lustration. Being that the Taurobolium and Criobolium oringinate from Asia Minor, the Galatian peoples of Pessinus abstained from the consumption or association with pork for their mythology concerning Attis stated He was killed by a boar [20] .

Thus, it is a plausible theory to see the Taurobolium and Criobolium rites as an Orientalization of the Roman Suovetaurilia, with the pig being absent since it was absent from the religious life of Pessinus.

Of course, this association is nothing but modern speculation.


On the Vires and Substitution

Scholars have always been unsure of the true nature of the Taurobolium, but have seemingly all been convinced of its function as a type of ritual substitution for castration utilized by Roman men, on the basis that the Magna Mater’s most infamous priesthood was that of the Galli. Scholars believe that the Taurobolium took the “vires” or genitals of the bull in substitution for those of the actual man.

The ancient, as well as modern, reference to the meaning of this rite is told to us by Clement of Alexandria, derived from a Greek myth where Zeus had thrown the genitals of a ram into the lap of His mother Deo to demonstrate His remorse, making Her believe that they were His own [21] . However, like other aspects of Roman religion, we must understand that such associations with Greek myth comes from a late date, as well as the fact that Roman religion is independent from Greek religion and myth.

Though the idea of ritual substitution is a sound one at first, few scholars have taken the time to immerse their study in the surrounding environment of which the Taurobolium took place, that of the Cultus Deorum Romanorum. As far as sacrifice goes in the Religio Romana, sacrificial bulls were always castrated [22] . Hence, the individual could not offer up the genitals of the bull in place of their own for the genitals that would theoretically be offered are not even present to begin with. In addition, we cannot begin to assume that at such a late date, this castrated status took on a new meaning in Roman religion as a whole.

Women have been known to serve as priestesses of the Magna Mater since Her inception at Rome, typically being freedwomen and foreigners until the Claudian reforms of the Magna Mater’s cultus. The reforms of Claudius allowed Roman citizens to actively take part in the Magna Mater’s cultus and thus become a part of the priesthood.

In 384 CE, Aconia Fabia Paulina eulogized her husband, Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, by saying:

“Under your eyes I have been initiated into all the mysteries; you, my pious partner in life, honor in me the priestess of the Goddess of Mount Dindymus and of Attis, while you ordained me with the bull’s blood.”[23] .

If women prior to the Claudian reforms had long been priestesses of the Magna Mater, we have a very unique situation here. For well obvious reasons, a woman would have no need to undergo the Taurobolium if it was indeed a ritual substitution for castration. By this evidence alone, in tandem with the Roman sacrificial etiquette for bulls, we can 100% denounce the idea of the Taurobolium serving as a ritual substitution for castration.

On the Fossa Sanguinis

Based upon archaeology, no pit has ever been discovered where the baptismal Taurobolium could have taken place [24] . In all sources that make references to the Taurobolium, only two make mention of the pit: Prudentius and the unknown author of “Contra Paganos”, who scholars believe inspired the words of Prudentius [25] . Because of this, scholars argue that the term fossa sanguinis was used by Christians as a metaphoric hyperbole to confer the idea of the vast amount of blood the individual bathed in, to further make horror out of Pagan rites.

Because of this, it is more than likely that after the cernus had caught the bull’s blood, the Archigallus raised the cernus above the individual’s head and then proceeded to pour it over his head.

On Mithraism and the Taurobolium

Many have come to confuse the Taurobolium with the rites of Mithraism. First and foremost, the image of Mithras the Bull-Slayer is known as the Tauroctony. The Taurobolium and the Tauroctony are two very different things. The Tauroctony is a mystical image that represents and conveys the Mysteries of Mithras. It was never an actual rite that was performed nor was there a Mithraic festival or ritual that was open to the public, Mithraism was a highly secretive cult [26] . Mithraic rituals took place in small narrow caverns beneath the land, thus it would be near impossible to fit a bull into the cavern, let alone sacrifice it in the manner of the Taurobolium. Mithraic caverns have only yielded the bones of pigs, goats, and birds [27] .

Because of the similar imagery of the sacrificed bull, modern speculation has brought many to believe that the cults of the Magna Mater and Mithras were related and interconnected, even so much to say that priestesses of the Magna Mater cult performed the Taurobolium sacrifice so as to initiate new members into the Mithraic cult. First of all, scholarship has clearly yielded the fact that the Taurobolium was performed only by the hand of the Archigallus and no one else, male or female [28] .

If we were to accept the idea that the Taurobolium was used as a rite to initiate men into Mithraism that would then assume Mithraism was a State-sanctioned cult with a templum, which it was not. Secondly, it would then assume that every Tauroboliatus was then by default a Mithraist as well, which then leads us to the fact that female Tauroboliatii would then also be Mithraists, which is not possible being that Mithraism was a male-only cult.

Ultimately, it would be odd for the Magna Mater to have any influence in who becomes a Mithraic initiate, for She alone gave the sign that a person is worthy of the Taurobolium, which gives the Roman citizen entrance into Her cult.

There is no historical source or reference that in any way connects the Magna Mater to Mithras, nor the Taurobolium to Mithras. However, being that both deities and the Taurobolium have roots in the Orient, it does aid in further extrapolation of the Taurobolium. In Mithraism, the Tauroctony depicts Mithras perched over a slain bull, who's gashed throat pours forth blood that flows upon the earth where grain, flowers and greenery sprign forth. This image firmly shows the life-giving properties that the bull's blood offers.

References

  1. See Vermaseren, Cybele and Attis, p. 102.
  2. See Vermaseren, Cybele and Attis, p. 134.
  3. See Borgeaud, Mother of the Gods, p. 48.
  4. See Turcan, Cults of the Roman Empire, p. 228.
  5. See Turcan, Cults of the Roman Empire, p. 50. See Vermaseren, Cybele and Attis, p. 101
  6. See Vermaseren, Cybele and Attis, p. 101.
  7. See Turcan, Cults of the Roman Empire, p. 50.
  8. See Turcan, Cults of the Roman Empire, p. 50.
  9. See Scheid, Introduction to Roman Religion, p. 94.
  10. See Scheid, Introduction to Roman Religion, p. 80.
  11. See Vermaseren, Cybele and Attis, p. 106.
  12. See Turcan, Cults of the Roman Empire, p. 52. Vermaseren, Cybele and Attis, p. 106
  13. See Scheid, Introduction to Roman Religion, p. 80.
  14. See Scheid, Introduction to Roman Religion, p. 83.
  15. See Vermaseren, Cybele and Attis, p. 106.
  16. See Vermaseren, Cybele and Attis, p. 49.
  17. See Vermaseren, Cybele and Attis, p. 49, 105. See Reif, Mysteries of Demeter, p. 314
  18. See Adkins & Adkins, Dictionary of Roman Religion, p. 216. See Turcan, Cults of the Roman Empire, p. 49-51. See Vermaseren, Cybele and Attis, p. 102-103
  19. See Turcan, Cults of the Roman Empire, p. 52.
  20. See Roller, In Search of God the Mother, p. 245n 25.
  21. See Vermaseren, Cybele and Attis, p. 105.
  22. See Scheid, Introduction to Roman Religion, p. 80.
  23. See Vermaseren, Cybele and Attis, p. 110.
  24. See Borgeaud, Mother of the Gods, p. 118-119.
  25. See Borgeaud, Mother of the Gods, p. 119.
  26. See Turcan, Cults of the Roman Empire, p. 216.
  27. See Turcan, Cults of the Roman Empire, p. 234.
  28. See Archigallus

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