Vatican Museums

Star map. The figures in this 3-foot by 4-foot marble relief from Rome symbolize specific constellations located on a continuous band in the sky. The bull killed by Mithras stands for Taurus; the dog attacking the bull, lower right, for Canis Minor; the snake and scorpion beneath the bull, for Hydra and Scorpio respectively; and the raven, upper left, for Corvus. In the era before the rise of Mithraism these constellations all lay on a particular circle in the heavens the ancients called the celestial equator. Combined with the other prominent images associated with Mithraic temples—the signs of the zodiac—these astrological figures point to the celestial event that was at the heart of Mithraic symbolism—the slow shifting of the point in the heavens where the equinoxes occur.

More astral imagery abounds in the scene shown here. Around Mithras’s head seven stars suggest the seven planets. Busts symbolizing the sun and moon appear in the upper corners, the sun identified by rays of light shining from the head, and the moon by a crescent.