Part of a continuing series looking at the pagan origins of the Christmas Myths, one day at a time.* Today, the story and pagan origins of where Jesus was said to be born…
Jesus was born in a manger and visited by shepherds, say the authors of Luke.** No, say the authors of Matthew, he was born in a house in which he and Mary were visited by an unconfirmed number of Magi from the East (three being a later gloss).
There were no little drummer boys.
The authors of Mark and John don’t bother with any of this carry on. To them, it clearly doesn’t matter a hoot who visited where or when how or in what he was born, and didn’t consider the events important enough to either document or dream up. Justin Martyr in 150AD or so, reckons “the actual place of Jesus’ birth was a cave.” Agreeing with him is Eusebius, the first true ecclesiastical historian, writing at the council of Nice in 327AD and clearly wholly unaware of the stories yet to be grafted to the narrations that appear in Luke and Matthew: Jesus was born in a cave, agreed Eusebius.
Tertullian, Jerome and other early Christian Fathers agreed (as much they could every agree on anything). That Christian ceremonies have been celebrated for centuries in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, in a cave, support this idea.
So, where was he born? Well, who knows, frankly. So let’s check out the pagan and eastern myths associated with the birth of gods—since it was these myths our authors were responding to, borrowing from, and hoping their man to receive credit thereby.
The idea of there being “no room at the inn” or being born as an outsider is virtually a cliché—the idea in myth that the Hero’s journey begins with him being an outsider, who eventually takes over. Who could resist that drama.
And the stable is mentioned nowhere at all (other than by implication as being where you might find a trough), and neither are the animals supposedly milling around, but the humble origins associated with birth in either a cave or stable or other humble circumstances is associated with other great virgin-born gods in the great myths, from Zeus to Chrishna to Abraham to Mithra to Apollo to Hermes to Dionysus.
So there’s nothing new here in the use of the myth, simply the association with great gods--and the symbols, associated especially with the cave, of being a scene of initiation; of an association with the winter solstice, and (in the first three centuries of the Common Era), with the god Mithra, Christianity’s great competitor in the marketplace, who was also, coincidentally, born on December 25.
Perhaps the greatest symbolic association with the cave is as a place in which the emergence of light happens, a powerful theme with which to associate this new sect’s great man, and a theme that still appears in virtually every Christmas card depiction of the Nativity.
Early second century carvings and reliefs, indicating how early Christians were already reworking their stories to fit the market, show a child in a crib with an ass, an ox and the Magi – which, by their headdress, are clearly priests of the Lord Mithra. In marketing terms, that’s like showing Pepsi bending the knee to Coke.
A similar message is given by the use of the ox and ass, who appear nowhere in the Christian account. Where they come from is Egypt: the ass is associated with the god Set, and the ox with the god Osiris (for whom Mozart wrote some pretty gorgeous music).
Now as everyone in the Middle East knew back then, Set and Osiris were at war with each other. Always, So to see them reconciled at the birth of this infant, and bending their knees as well, was a powerful hint that these Gods (representing a union of light and dark) were handing over their powers to him too.
So in that little Christmas scene, Osiris and his brother Set, as well as Mithra, are recognising Christ.
Not a bad way to use the symbolism of myth to introduce your own man as the new power. (Set, by the way, was eventually crucified in the Egyptian myths. Just thought you’d like to know.)
Carefully done, because as Joseph Campbell points out,
In that very earliest depiction, we already find the Catholic idea that the older myth are prefigurements of the new. That particular arrangement [of ox and ass and Magi huddled around the Christ figure] could not in the second and third centuries have been mistaken by anybody as meaning anything else.”
This does myth become propaganda. But the original metaphors behind the myths remain.
READ THE WHOLE #CHRISTMAS MYTHS SERIES HERE:
- #1: Introduction, and The Miraculous Birth
- #2: The Star of Bethlehem
- #3: The Song of the Heavenly Host
Tomorrow: “The Divine Child Recognised & Presented With Gifts.”
* This and later posts in the series rely heavily on Thomas William Doane’s Bible Myths and Their Parallels in Other Religions, and Joseph Campbell’s Occidental Mythology and Thou Art That.
** Note that Luke has the shepherds visit, but only mentions a manger — not a stable or animals. The entire setting for the manger, a trough or open box, is inserted into the story not because of anything in the gospels but because of a loaded passage from Isaiah (1:3), and the marketing gimmick alluded to above. The trough itself could have been anywhere, of course, from a stable to a house to an inn to (as Justin Martyr and the the so-called Infancy Gospel ascribed to Jesus’ brother James assert) a cave outside Bethlehem.