Sol Invictus

Sol Invictus

by Dimo Dimov

The religion of Sol Invictus is an rare historical evidence of introducing a new cult into a whole state and society – as noone else the roman society was most proper to do so with the Roman Empire as the most important and mightiest empire and domain of europan culture, arts and military at this time. Even more interesting is the brief rise and fall of this phenomenon, erased from the depths of history together with its spiritual leaders, the emperors Elegabal, Aurelian and Hadrian, who widely introduced the cult of the sun god among the roman people in 129 A.D.

The body of beliefs subscribed to by the followers of Sol Invictus Elegabal cannot be described in detail. The available sources provide no direct information and we are thereforre restricted to what we can infer from similarities with related religions, especially the analogous cult of Mithras, and a few data yielded by other research. There had been a considerable evolution in the dogma of the Syrian sun god, and it had been enriched by elements taken from other, related religions in the 2-3th century A.D. In North Syria this is Astarte (asigned to Aphrodite-Urania) and in Arabia: Baal (as sun god).

For the divine marriage between Vesta and Sol Invictus, the emperor chose the symbol of the goddess Athena, the palladium, as a expression of the new situation. This symbolic unity was an attempt to build up a strong fundament of the cult in the roman society, as Vesta was the patron godess of Rome.

The cult of Sol Invictus was the most important cult in the Roman Empire through three centuries, due to the fact that it was established by the emperor Varius Avitus (Marcus Aurelius Antonius) who gave himself the nomenclature Elagabalus, as a high priest.

This religion was introduced in 218 AD and adopted from the Syrian religion, during the roman territorical achievments in the eastern lands. It replaced the old cults of the sun god existing in several regions of the Roman Empire. There had been a considerable evolution in the dogma of the Syrian sun god, and it had been enriched by elements taken from other, related religions. The cult of Sol Invictus Elagabal has to be distincted clearly from Mithraism, brought to Rome by soldiers and slaves from Persia in the 2nd century. Despite of the existing similarities, the similar nomenclature (Sol Invictus Elagabalus and Deus Sol Invictus Mithra) and the belief of a sun god in both cults, they are different.

  • Mithraism was brought to Rome by soldiers and slaves from the asiatic provinces in the 2nd century
  • The rituals are an alter form of Persian/Indo-aryan rituals, held in subterrenian caves
  • Mithras was a religion of private matter with no state obliges
  • The religious communities consisted of 50-60 people in secret chapels, mostly among soldiers and military officials
  • It was never an official cult and never included “die publici populi romani”

The basic features of SI comprise pure monotheism, promise of bliss in another life, spiritual experience and tumultuous celebrations. The sacrifices were performed by the pater familias or by a political personality with a priest. The god was adored with great fervour and many devoted themselves into his service. However, the cult of Sol Invictus did not survived through the centuries as was the case for the many very well preserved mithraea of Mithraism.

It appears, that the sun god was not so much an abstract supernatural god as a supreme being incarnated in the daily presence of the solar sphere.

Tha altar had to be placed in a well-defined direction, it was determined by the place at which the sun rose on an equally specific day. Sol Invictus was the unconquerable deity who seemed to be forced each evening to submit to the powers of darknes with which he did battle at dark, but who each morning appeared as the inimitable victor.

The sun god didn’t communicate directly with his followers. The eagle, the Syrian sun bird, acted as servant and messenger. It plays an important role in the cult: a marble altar found in Rome in the region Transtiberina carries an image of Sol Invictus born by an eagle.

The eagle however, carried the souls to the next world.

The ritual

Emperor Elagabalus, the crowned high priest of Sol Invictus sacrificed to the sun god every morning. During these daily rites, for which he stood in front a particular direction, the amplissimus sacerdos wore typically Syrian robes ornamented with precious stones. His face was decorated with red and his eyes were made up.

Accompanied by a group of women who danced and struck music from strange instruments, he proceeded from the imperial palace to the Elagabalium, around which the other altars had been placed in readiness. He made the round of the altars, performing sacred dances as he went, it may be that he himself examined the entrails of the young children, that had been sacrified, for he was preminently the sacra cognoscens of the mysteries of Sol Invictus and could therefore provice decisive elucidation and final pronouncement. He could function with complete assurance as augur, since he had had himself into their mysteries whenever he had the symbols of other deities transferred to the Elagabalium.

After his initiation into the secrets of the cult of the Magna Mater, he underwent the baptism by blood of the taurobolium, which he exploited as a means of obtaining the symbol of the goddess as well as the other symbols of the Phrygian religion.

The sacrificies made by the emperoro consisted of hecatombs of sheep and bulls, libations of rare perfumes and excellent old wines, mixed with the blood of the sacrificial animals. The presence of the roman senators was required and those had to wear Syrian robes (in the middle of Rome!) – military commanders and officials dressed in syrian fashion.

It has been mentioned that the young high priest had to exhibit himself on all occasions with certain specifically female external features and to play a female part as often as possible.

His silken eastern dress was worn in a feminine way (make up).

All these effects were intensified on the great festival of Sol Invictus in the middle of the summer, between June and September. Therefore the symbol of the sun god was carried in an elaborate procession from the Elagabalium to the temple in the lower city. The participants were on foot – only the symbol of SI, the conical stone was drawn from the first temple to the other on a huge chariot.

Sol Invictus and the Legions

No other non-roman cult with the exception of mithraism, was widely accepted by the troops as this cult. Epigraphic texts, monuments, reliefs and adornments are evidence of the worship by the SPQR troops (and even more specific – by highly official military members and those of a high rank, which is another evidence for the different levels of spirituality from common to transcendent people). Legionaries who came in contact with Emesa (land of origin) remained there for the rest of their lives.

The immortal and invincible Sol was a protector of the roman legions.

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