For a list of all of my digital books click here
To the ordinary public—notwithstanding the immense amount of work which has of late been done on this subject—the connection between Paganism and Christianity still seems rather remote. Indeed the common notion is that Christianity was really a miraculous interposition into and dislocation of the old order of the world; and that the pagan gods (as in Milton's Hymn on the Nativity) fled away in dismay before the sign of the Cross, and at the sound of the name of Jesus. Doubtless this was a view much encouraged by the early Church itself—if only to enhance its own authority and importance; yet, as is well known to every student, it is quite misleading and contrary to fact. The main Christian doctrines and festivals, besides a great mass of affiliated legend and ceremonial, are really quite directly derived from, and related to, preceding Nature worships; and it has only been by a good deal of deliberate mystification and falsification that this derivation has been kept out of sight.
In these Nature-worships there may be discerned three fairly independent streams of religious or quasi-religious enthusiasm: (1) that connected with the phenomena of the heavens, the movements of the Sun, planets and stars, and the awe and wonderment they excited; (2) that connected with the seasons and the very important matter of the growth of vegetation and food on the Earth; and (3) that connected with the mysteries of Sex and reproduction. It is obvious that these three streams would mingle and interfuse with each other a good deal; but as far as they were separable the first would tend to create Solar heroes and Sun-myths; the second Vegetation-gods and personifications of Nature and the earth-life; while the third would throw its glamour over the other two and contribute to the projection of deities or demons worshipped with all sorts of sexual and phallic rites. All three systems of course have their special rites and times and ceremonies; but, as, I say, the rites and ceremonies of one system would rarely be found pure and unmixed with those belonging to the two others. The whole subject is a very large one; but for reasons given in the Introduction I shall in this and the following chapter—while not ignoring phases (2) and (3)—lay most stress on phase (1) of the question before us.
At the time of the life or recorded appearance of Jesus of Nazareth, and for some centuries before, the Mediterranean and neighboring world had been the scene of a vast number of pagan creeds and rituals. There were Temples without end dedicated to gods like Apollo or Dionysus among the Greeks, Hercules among the Romans, Mithra among the Persians, Adonis and Attis in Syria and Phrygia, Osiris and Isis and Horus in Egypt, Baal and Astarte among the Babylonians and Carthaginians, and so forth. Societies, large or small, united believers and the devout in the service or ceremonials connected with their respective deities, and in the creeds which they confessed concerning these deities. And an extraordinarily interesting fact, for us, is that notwithstanding great geographical distances and racial differences between the adherents of these various cults, as well as differences in the details of their services, the general outlines of their creeds and ceremonials were—if not identical—so markedly similar as we find them.
I cannot of course go at length into these different cults, but I may say roughly that of all or nearly all the deities above-mentioned it was said and believed that:
(1) They were born on or very near our Christmas Day.
(2) They were born of a Virgin-Mother.
(3) And in a Cave or Underground Chamber.
(4) They led a life of toil for Mankind.
(5) And were called by the names of Light-bringer, Healer, Mediator, Savior, Deliverer.
(6) They were however vanquished by the Powers of Darkness.
(7) And descended into Hell or the Underworld.
(8) They rose again from the dead, and became the pioneers of mankind to the Heavenly world.
(9) They founded Communions of Saints, and Churches into which disciples were received by Baptism.
(10) And they were commemorated by Eucharistic meals.
Let me give a few brief examples.
Mithra was born in a cave, and on the 25th December. He was born of a Virgin. He traveled far and wide as a teacher and illuminator of men. He slew the Bull (symbol of the gross Earth which the sunlight fructifies). His great festivals were the winter solstice and the Spring equinox (Christmas and Easter). He had twelve companions or disciples (the twelve months). He was buried in a tomb, from which however he rose again; and his resurrection was celebrated yearly with great rejoicings. He was called Savior and Mediator, and sometimes figured as a Lamb; and sacramental feasts in remembrance of him were held by his followers. This legend is apparently partly astronomical and partly vegetational; and the same may be said of the following about Osiris.
Osiris was born (Plutarch tells us) on the 361st day of the year, say the 27th December. He too, like Mithra and Dionysus, was a great traveler. As King of Egypt he taught men civil arts, and "tamed them by music and gentleness, not by force of arms"; he was the discoverer of corn and wine. But he was betrayed by Typhon, the power of darkness, and slain and dismembered. "This happened," says Plutarch, "on the 17th of the month Athyr, when the sun enters into the Scorpion" (the sign of the Zodiac which indicates the oncoming of Winter). His body was placed in a box, but afterwards, on the 19th, came again to life, and, as in the cults of Mithra, Dionysus, Adonis and others, so in the cult of Osiris, an image placed in a coffin was brought out before the worshipers and saluted with glad cries of "Osiris is risen." "His sufferings, his death and his resurrection were enacted year by year in a great mystery-play at Abydos."
The two following legends have more distinctly the character of Vegetation myths.
Adonis or Tammuz, the Syrian god of vegetation, was a very beautiful youth, born of a Virgin (Nature), and so beautiful that Venus and Proserpine (the goddesses of the Upper and Underworlds) both fell in love with him. To reconcile their claims it was agreed that he should spend half the year (summer) in the upper world, and the winter half with Proserpine below. He was killed by a boar (Typhon) in the autumn. And every year the maidens "wept for Adonis" (see Ezekiel viii. 14). In the spring a festival of his resurrection was held—the women set out to seek him, and having found the supposed corpse placed it (a wooden image) in a coffin or hollow tree, and performed wild rites and lamentations, followed by even wilder rejoicings over his supposed resurrection. At Aphaca in the North of Syria, and halfway between Byblus and Baalbec, there was a famous grove and temple of Astarte, near which was a wild romantic gorge full of trees, the birthplace of a certain river Adonis—the water rushing from a Cavern, under lofty cliffs. Here (it was said) every year the youth Adonis was again wounded to death, and the river ran red with his blood, while the scarlet anemone bloomed among the cedars and walnuts.
The story of Attis is very similar. He was a fair young shepherd or herdsman of Phrygia, beloved by Cybele (or Demeter), the Mother of the gods. He was born of a Virgin—Nana—who conceived by putting a ripe almond or pomegranate in her bosom. He died, either killed by a boar, the symbol of winter, like Adonis, or self-castrated (like his own priests); and he bled to death at the foot of a pine tree (the pine and pine-cone being symbols of fertility). The sacrifice of his blood renewed the fertility of the earth, and in the ritual celebration of his death and resurrection his image was fastened to the trunk of a pine-tree (compare the Crucifixion). But I shall return to this legend presently. The worship of Attis became very widespread and much honored, and was ultimately incorporated with the established religion at Rome somewhere about the commencement of our Era.
The following two legends (dealing with Hercules and with Krishna) have rather more of the character of the solar, and less of the vegetational myth about them. Both heroes were regarded as great benefactors of humanity; but the former more on the material plane, and the latter on the spiritual.
Hercules or Heracles was, like other Sun-gods and benefactors of mankind, a great Traveler. He was known in many lands, and everywhere he was invoked as Saviour. He was miraculously conceived from a divine Father; even in the cradle he strangled two serpents sent to destroy him. His many labors for the good of the world were ultimately epitomized into twelve, symbolized by the signs of the Zodiac. He slew the Nemxan Lion and the Hydra (offspring of Typhon) and the Boar. He overcame the Cretan Bull, and cleaned out the Stables of Augeas; he conquered Death and, descending into Hades, brought Cerberus thence and ascended into Heaven. On all sides he was followed by the gratitude and the prayers of mortals.
As to Krishna, the Indian god, the points of agreement with the general divine career indicated above are too salient to be overlooked, and too numerous to be fully recorded. He also was born of a Virgin (Devaki) and in a Cave, and his birth announced by a Star. It was sought to destroy him, and for that purpose a massacre of infants was ordered. Everywhere he performed miracles, raising the dead, healing lepers, and the deaf and the blind, and championing the poor and oppressed. He had a beloved disciple, Arjuna, (cf. John) before whom he was transfigured. His death is differently related—as being shot by an arrow, or crucified on a tree. He descended into hell; and rose again from the dead, ascending into heaven in the sight of many people. He will return at the last day to be the judge of the quick and the dead.
Such are some of the legends concerning the pagan and pre-Christian deities—only briefly sketched now, in order that we may get something like a true perspective of the whole subject; but to most of them, and more in detail, I shall return as the argument proceeds.
What we chiefly notice so far are two points; on the one hand the general similarity of these stories with that of Jesus Christ; on the other their analogy with the yearly phenomena of Nature as illustrated by the course of the Sun in heaven and the changes of Vegetation on the earth.
The similarity of these ancient pagan legends and beliefs with Christian traditions was indeed so great that it excited the attention and the undisguised wrath of the early Christian fathers. They felt no doubt about the similarity, but not knowing how to explain it fell back upon the innocent theory that the Devil—in order to confound the Christians—had, CENTURIES BEFORE, caused the pagans to adopt certain beliefs and practices! (Very crafty, we may say, of the Devil, but also very innocent of the Fathers to believe it!) Justin Martyr for instance describes (1) the institution of the Lord's Supper as narrated in the Gospels, and then goes on to say: "Which the wicked devils have IMITATED in the mysteries of Mithra, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated you either know or can learn." Tertullian also says that "the devil by the mysteries of his idols imitates even the main part of the divine mysteries."... "He baptizes his worshippers in water and makes them believe that this purifies them from their crimes."... "Mithra sets his mark on the forehead of his soldiers; he celebrates the oblation of bread; he offers an image of the resurrection, and presents at once the crown and the sword; he limits his chief priest to a single marriage; he even has his virgins and ascetics." Cortez, too, it will be remembered complained that the Devil had positively taught to the Mexicans the same things which God had taught to Christendom.
It was not till the year A.D. 530 or so—five centuries after the supposed birth of Christ—that a Scythian Monk, Dionysius Exiguus, an abbot and astronomer of Rome, was commissioned to fix the day and the year of that birth. A nice problem, considering the historical science of the period! For year he assigned the date which we now adopt, and for day and month he adopted the 25th December—a date which had been in popular use since about 350 B.C., and the very date, within a day or two, of the supposed birth of the previous Sungods. ["There is however a difficulty in accepting the 25th December as the real date of the Nativity, December being the height of the rainy season in Judaea, when neither flocks nor shepherds could have been at night in the fields of Bethlehem" (!). Encycl. Brit. art. "Christmas Day." According to Hastings's Encyclopaedia, art. "Christmas," "Usener says that the Feast of the Nativity was held originally on the 6th January (the Epiphany), but in 353-4 the Pope Liberius displaced it to the 25th December... but there is no evidence of a Feast of the Nativity taking place at all, before the fourth century A.D." It was not till 534 A.D. that Christmas Day and Epiphany were reckoned by the law-courts as dies non.] From that fact alone we may fairly conclude that by the year 530 or earlier the existing Nature-worships had become largely fused into Christianity. In fact the dates of the main pagan religious festivals had by that time become so popular that Christianity was OBLIGED to accommodate itself to them.
This brings us to the second point mentioned a few pages back—the analogy between the Christian festivals and the yearly phenomena of Nature in the Sun and the Vegetation.
Let us take Christmas Day first. Mithra, as we have seen, was reported to have been born on the 25th December (which in the Julian Calendar was reckoned as the day of the Winter Solstice AND of the Nativity of the Sun); Plutarch says (Isis and Osiris, c. 12) that Osiris was born on the 361st day of the year, when a Voice rang out proclaiming the Lord of All. Horus, he says, was born on the 362nd day. Apollo on the same.
Why was all this? Why did the Druids at Yule Tide light roaring fires? Why was the cock supposed to crow all Christmas Eve ("The bird of dawning singeth all night long")? Why was Apollo born with only one hair (the young Sun with only one feeble ray)? Why did Samson (name derived from Shemesh, the sun) lose all his strength when he lost his hair? Why were so many of these gods—Mithra, Apollo, Krishna, Jesus, and others, born in caves or underground chambers? Why, at the Easter Eve festival of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem is a light brought from the grave and communicated to the candles of thousands who wait outside, and who rush forth rejoicing to carry the new glory over the world? Why indeed? except that older than all history and all written records has been the fear and wonderment of the children of men over the failure of the Sun's strength in Autumn—the decay of their God; and the anxiety lest by any means he should not revive or reappear?
Think for a moment of a time far back when there were absolutely NO Almanacs or Calendars, either nicely printed or otherwise, when all that timid mortals could see was that their great source of Light and Warmth was daily failing, daily sinking lower in the sky. As everyone now knows there are about three weeks at the fag end of the year when the days are at their shortest and there is very little change. What was happening? Evidently the god had fallen upon evil times. Typhon, the prince of darkness, had betrayed him; Delilah, the queen of Night, had shorn his hair; the dreadful Boar had wounded him; Hercules was struggling with Death itself; he had fallen under the influence of those malign constellations—the Serpent and the Scorpion. Would the god grow weaker and weaker, and finally succumb, or would he conquer after all? We can imagine the anxiety with which those early men and women watched for the first indication of a lengthening day; and the universal joy when the Priest (the representative of primitive science) having made some simple observations, announced from the Temple steps that the day WAS lengthening—that the Sun was really born again to a new and glorious career.
Let us look at the elementary science of those days a little closer. How without Almanacs or Calendars could the day, or probable day, of the Sun's rebirth be fixed? Go out next Christmas Evening, and at midnight you will see the brightest of the fixed stars, Sirius, blazing in the southern sky—not however due south from you, but somewhat to the left of the Meridian line. Some three thousand years ago (owing to the Precession of the Equinoxes) that star at the winter solstice did not stand at midnight where you now see it, but almost exactly ON the meridian line. The coming of Sirius therefore to the meridian at midnight became the sign and assurance of the Sun having reached the very lowest point of his course, and therefore of having arrived at the moment of his re-birth. Where then was the Sun at that moment? Obviously in the underworld beneath our feet. Whatever views the ancients may have had about the shape of the earth, it was evident to the mass of people that the Sungod, after illuminating the world during the day, plunged down in the West, and remained there during the hours of darkness in some cavern under the earth. Here he rested and after bathing in the great ocean renewed his garments before reappearing in the East next morning.
But in this long night of his greatest winter weakness, when all the world was hoping and praying for the renewal of his strength, it is evident that the new birth would come—if it came at all—at midnight. This then was the sacred hour when in the underworld (the Stable or the Cave or whatever it might be called) the child was born who was destined to be the Savior of men. At that moment Sirius stood on the southern meridian (and in more southern lands than ours this would be more nearly overhead); and that star—there is little doubt—is the Star in the East mentioned in the Gospels.
To the right, as the supposed observer looks at Sirius on the midnight of Christmas Eve, stands the magnificent Orion, the mighty hunter. There are three stars in his belt which, as is well known, lie in a straight line pointing to Sirius. They are not so bright as Sirius, but they are sufficiently bright to attract attention. A long tradition gives them the name of the Three Kings. Dupuis says: "Orion a trois belles etoiles vers le milieu, qui sont de seconde grandeur et posees en ligne droite, l'une pres de l'autre, le peuple les appelle les trois rois. On donne aux trois rois Magis les noms de Magalat, Galgalat, Saraim; et Athos, Satos, Paratoras. Les Catholiques les appellent Gaspard, Melchior, et Balthasar." The last-mentioned group of names comes in the Catholic Calendar in connection with the feast of the Epiphany (6th January); and the name "Trois Rois" is commonly to-day given to these stars by the French and Swiss peasants.
Immediately after Midnight then, on the 25th December, the Beloved Son (or Sun-god) is born. If we go back in thought to the period, some three thousand years ago, when at that moment of the heavenly birth Sirius, coming from the East, did actually stand on the Meridian, we shall come into touch with another curious astronomical coincidence. For at the same moment we shall see the Zodiacal constellation of the Virgin in the act of rising, and becoming visible in the East divided through the middle by the line of the horizon.
The constellation Virgo is a Y-shaped group, of which [gr a], the star at the foot, is the well-known Spica, a star of the first magnitude. The other principal stars, [gr g] at the centre, and [gr b] and [gr e] at the extremities, are of the second magnitude. The whole resembles more a cup than the human figure; but when we remember the symbolic meaning of the cup, that seems to be an obvious explanation of the name Virgo, which the constellation has borne since the earliest times. (The three stars [gr b], [gr g] and [gr a], lie very nearly on the Ecliptic, that is, the Sun's path—a fact to which we shall return presently.)
At the moment then when Sirius, the star from the East, by coming to the Meridian at midnight signalled the Sun's new birth, the Virgin was seen just rising on the Eastern sky—the horizon line passing through her centre. And many people think that this astronomical fact is the explanation of the very widespread legend of the Virgin-birth. I do not think that it is the sole explanation—for indeed in all or nearly all these cases the acceptance of a myth seems to depend not upon a single argument but upon the convergence of a number of meanings and reasons in the same symbol. But certainly the fact mentioned above is curious, and its importance is accentuated by the following considerations.
In the Temple of Denderah in Egypt, and on the inside of the dome, there is or WAS an elaborate circular representation of the Northern hemisphere of the sky and the Zodiac. Here Virgo the constellation is represented, as in our star-maps, by a woman with a spike of corn in her hand (Spica). But on the margin close by there is an annotating and explicatory figure—a figure of Isis with the infant Horus in her arms, and quite resembling in style the Christian Madonna and Child, except that she is sitting and the child is on her knee. This seems to show that—whatever other nations may have done in associating Virgo with Demeter, Ceres, Diana etc.—the Egyptians made no doubt of the constellation's connection with Isis and Horus. But it is well known as a matter of history that the worship of Isis and Horus descended in the early Christian centuries to Alexandria, where it took the form of the worship of the Virgin Mary and the infant Savior, and so passed into the European ceremonial. We have therefore the Virgin Mary connected by linear succession and descent with that remote Zodiacal cluster in the sky! Also it may be mentioned that on the Arabian and Persian globes of Abenezra and Abuazar a Virgin and Child are figured in connection with the same constellation.
A curious confirmation of the same astronomical connection is afforded by the Roman Catholic Calendar. For if this be consulted it will be found that the festival of the Assumption of the Virgin is placed on the 15th August, while the festival of the Birth of the Virgin is dated the 8th September. I have already pointed out that the stars, [gr a], [gr b] and [gr g] of Virgo are almost exactly on the Ecliptic, or Sun's path through the sky; and a brief reference to the Zodiacal signs and the star-maps will show that the Sun each year enters the sign of Virgo about the first-mentioned date, and leaves it about the second date. At the present day the Zodiacal signs (owing to precession) have shifted some distance from the constellations of the same name. But at the time when the Zodiac was constituted and these names were given, the first date obviously would signalize the actual disappearance of the cluster Virgo in the Sun's rays—i. e. the Assumption of the Virgin into the glory of the God—while the second date would signalize the reappearance of the constellation or the Birth of the Virgin. The Church of Notre Dame at Paris is supposed to be on the original site of a Temple of Isis; and it is said (but I have not been able to verify this myself) that one of the side entrances—that, namely, on the left in entering from the North (cloister) side—is figured with the signs of the Zodiac EXCEPT that the sign Virgo is replaced by the figure of the Madonna and Child.
So strange is the scripture of the sky! Innumerable legends and customs connect the rebirth of the Sun with a Virgin parturition. Dr. J. G. Frazer in his Part IV of The Golden Bough says: "If we may trust the evidence of an obscure scholiast the Greeks (in the worship of Mithras at Rome) used to celebrate the birth of the luminary by a midnight service, coming out of the inner shrines and crying, 'The Virgin has brought forth! The light is waxing!' ([gr 'H parhenos tetoken, auzei pws].)" In Elie Reclus' little book Primitive Folk it is said of the Esquimaux that "On the longest night of the year two angakout (priests), of whom one is disguised as a WOMAN, go from hut to hut extinguishing all the lights, rekindling them from a vestal flame, and crying out, 'From the new sun cometh a new light!'"
All this above-written on the Solar or Astronomical origins of the myths does not of course imply that the Vegetational origins must be denied or ignored. These latter were doubtless the earliest, but there is no reason—as said in the Introduction (ch. i)—why the two elements should not to some extent have run side by side, or been fused with each other. In fact it is quite clear that they must have done so; and to separate them out too rigidly, or treat them as antagonistic, is a mistake. The Cave or Underworld in which the New Year is born is not only the place of the Sun's winter retirement, but also the hidden chamber beneath the Earth to which the dying Vegetation goes, and from which it re-arises in Spring. The amours of Adonis with Venus and Proserpine, the lovely goddesses of the upper and under worlds, or of Attis with Cybele, the blooming Earth-mother, are obvious vegetation-symbols; but they do not exclude the interpretation that Adonis (Adonai) may also figure as a Sun-god. The Zodiacal constellations of Aries and Taurus (to which I shall return presently) rule in heaven just when the Lamb and the Bull are in evidence on the earth; and the yearly sacrifice of those two animals and of the growing Corn for the good of mankind runs parallel with the drama of the sky, as it affects not only the said constellations but also Virgo (the Earth-mother who bears the sheaf of corn in her hand).
I shall therefore continue (in the next chapter) to point out these astronomical references—which are full of significance and poetry; but with a recommendation at the same time to the reader not to forget the poetry and significance of the terrestrial interpretations.
Between Christmas Day and Easter there are several minor festivals or holy days—such as the 28th December (the Massacre of the Innocents), the 6th January (the Epiphany), the 2nd February (Candlemas Day), the period of Lent (German Lenz, the Spring), the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin, and so forth—which have been commonly celebrated in the pagan cults before Christianity, and in which elements of Star and Nature worship can be traced; but to dwell on all these would take too long; so let us pass at once to the period of Easter itself.
Visit: The Dark History of Christmas - An Anthology: The Pagan Origins of our Winter Festival