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 the story of King Herod’s slaughter of every child under two…
Massacre of the Innocents, Peter Paul Rubens
The story is familiar enough in the telling. The infant is put in danger by the ruler’s fear that the new baby will usurp his reign:
A heavenly voice whispered to the foster father … and told him to fly with the child across the river … which was immediately done. This was owing to the fact that the reigning monarch … sought the life of the infant Saviour, and to accomplish his purpose, he sent messengers to kill all the infants in the neighbouring places.
The story was just as familiar in the first, second and third centuries, when the authors of the Matthew gospel were pulling together their stories. It was familiar because it has been told and retold about virtually every pagan, eastern and Egyptian Saviour in mythological history.
The story told above actually describes the divine baby Crishna fleeing ahead of the messengers of King Kansa, who had heard a prophecy that his niece’s child would slay him. (I won’t give you spoilers on that one.)
In the story concocted by the authors of Matthew however (no other Biblical author wanted to put their name to this one, nor yet any historians) it was the “wise men” who dobbed in the infant to Herod when they stopped in, lost, on their way to the birthplace in Bethlehem. (None of which sounds very wise to me, really, especially since they were supposed to have been guided by a star. But then, no one ever said myth was supposed to make sense.)
Other than detail – and, to be sure, wise men appear in other versions too, only in slightly differing roles – it is the exact same story, right down to the many years spent out of the country in humble circumstances (Crishna in Mathura, where he was fostered by herdsmen; Jesus in Matarea,** near Cairo).
In fact, for the names Chrishna and Jesus, you could easily substitute all or any of the following Saviours, whose early biography is all but identical:
Salivahana, the virgin-born Saviour who fled from the southerly part of India with a tyrant in pursuit. (This tyrant was said to have been successful.)
The Buddha’s life was in danger when the whose wise men of King Bimbarasa told him that a youth newly-born to the north etc., whereupon messengers were sent etc.
The same story is told by the East Mongols, with the divine infant this time being pursued by a King Patsala. This boy was captured, thrown into the Ganges in a copper chest. whereupon he enjoyed a Moses-like resurrection and went back to avenge himself against the king.
In China, Hau-ki shared a similar story.
So too does the great Egyptian god Horus, with whom Jesus also shares a birthday (but more about that tomorrow), and the great Persian monarch Cyrus, whose grandfather was warned about him by his wise men (the word “wise” being used quite profligately in those times).
The great patriarch of three religions, Abraham, shared a similar fate according to all the legends when, in Babylon, King Nimrod ordered “all women in child guarded with great care, and all children born of them put to death.” Many children were slaughtered, according to legend, but not our hero.
The chief of the religion of the Magi himself, Zoroaster, was obliged for similar reasons to fell from Persia into Egypt,where his mother was sent the message by good spirits: “Fear nothing! [The supreme god] Ormuzd will protect this infant. He has sent him as a prophet to the people. The world is waiting for him.”
In Greek Myth, the story was shared by Perseus, son of the virgin Danae; Hercules, son of the virgin Leto; Telephos of Arcadius; the Trojan hero Paris; Jason, the hero of the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece; and Dionysus, the god of wine, who also shares a birthday with Iesus – to name just a few.
Indeed, the story of the Dangerous Child raised by outsiders who had to be killed by those he threatened was virtually universal, appearing in legends crafted around Roman emperors, Greek Saviours, Indian divinities, Chinese sages, Egyptian gods, English saints, Hebrew heroes … and anonymous Judean figures around whom later authors wove their own Christian myths.
When a marvellous occurrence is said to be have happened everywhere, we may feel sure that it never happened anywhere. Popular fancies propagate themselves indefinitely, but historical events, especially the striking and dramatic ones, are rarely repeated.
That it is only the authors of the Matthew gospel that choose to use the symbol is merely an oddity. (The authors of the only other gospel to mention the birth, those of Luke, talk instead of a leisurely journey home “full of wonder” at the events surrounding them, with no fear of Herod, no slaughter, no mourning for children slain.)
The symbolism of pursuit and slaughter is obvious enough. The mythic metaphor is clear— the representative of the status quo, the tyrant king, refuses to open to the new generative principle of the age, which returns to overcome the tyrant’s power and to bring something new to the world – which is why it’s been so well used by storytellers through the ages.
Perhaps the most celebrated literary example is that of the Theban Oedipus, made famous by Sophocles’s famous play and now known almost as widely as the myth put together by the authors of the Matthew gospel.
In the subsequent Massacre of the Innocents motif that follows on from the Infancy story, Joseph Campbell sees “a very familiar mythological narrative”: The whole theme of persecution, pursuit, the humble hiding place, the tyrant king, and the new saviour who eventually outwits him evokes the fearsome dangers the new generative principle needs to overcome to give a new voice to the people.
No wonder at least one of authors of the gospels decided to borrow it.
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
- #4: The Birthplace and Surroundings of the Little Baby Jesus
- #5: So, What’s With All That Frankincense?
Tomorrow: “Why December 25?”
* This and other 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.
** This is according to a local legend that causes them to still burn a lamp in remembrance of the visitation, and to the third-century figures Chemnitius of Stipulensis and Peter Martyr, Bishop of Alexandria, who have helped feed the Greek Orthodox belief in the legend.