A Song to Mithras

(notes by Donald Mackenzie and Philip Holberton)



This poem was published in Puck of Pook’s Hill in 1906, in association with the story “On the Great Wall”, and reprinted in numerous subsequent editions of that collection, and in Songs from Books.

The Poem

Daniel Hadas writes: Kipling’s subtitle is “Hymn of the XXX  Legion” for which there is a good entry here: I suspect Kipling was well enough informed to know the legion is not recorded at Hadrian’s Wall, although the poem does seem to be set there. Note that the poem also is situated at “c. AD 350”, whereas Maximus of the story was active slightly later. The first of the three Roman stories in Puck of Pook’s Hill is about Parnesus, who is “A Centurion of the Thirtieth“.

There are at least two inscriptions from Xanten, an important Roman settlement in Westphalia in Germany, set up by soldiers of Legion XXX and dedicated to Mithras. The formal references for these inscriptions are CIL 13, 8640 and CIL 13, 8641. The former can be dated to AD 189, and there are pictures of it here.

I think this poem may be influenced by the four hymns of St Ambrose, usually known by their titles: ‘Aeterne rerum conditor’, ‘Splendor paternae gloriae’, ‘Iam surgit hora tertia’, ‘Deus creator omnium’. These are hymns to God, for times throughout the day: the first for daybreak, the second for the full sunrise, the third for noon, and the fourth for night. In this poem, Kipling has daybreak, noon, sunset, and night, so not quite the same, but close. The hymns also contain a great deal of imagery associating God with the sun, just as Kipling does for Mithras.  Ambrose’s hymns were extremely well-known in the early Church, and in subsequent centuries, so it would make sense for Kipling to imagine a Mithraic hymn from the same period that matched them. [D.H.]


Notes on the Text

[Verse 1, line 1]  Mithras: god of the sun, war, justice, and contract in the ancient Persian religion. Mithraism had a sudden flourishing in the Roman world from the early second century AD onwards. It was popular among soldiers (cf. Kipling’s story “The Church that was at Antioch” in Limits and Renewals); dedications and sanctuaries have been found along the military frontier in Britain and elsewhere.

Most of the adherents known from inscriptions are soldiers, officials in the service of the emperor, imperial slaves, and freedmen. See the background notes to “A Centurion of the Thirtieth” and “On the Great Wall” earlier in this volume.

[Verse 3, line 2] Thou descending immortal, immortal to rise again!:  Mithras was the god of the sun, so sunset and dawn represented his death and rebirth.

[Verse 4, line 1] here where the great bull dies: The slaying of a bull by Mithras is a key episode in the Mithraic mythology of creation and is often represented in reliefs or frescoes in Mithraic temples. (The statue above is in the British Museum.)  Modern scholarship does not, however, support the view that the sacrifice of a bull figured in the Mithraic rituals.


©Donald Mackenzie and Philip Holberton 2020 All rights reserved