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 King Herod’s weapons-grade infanticide …
|Massacre of the Innocents, Peter Paul Rubens|
The story is familiar enough as a postscript to the whole Nativity. The life of the infant just born and celebrated in a manger is immediately under threat by the evil king, put in danger by the ruler’s fear that the new baby (who he’s been told is a Messiah) will come to usurp his reign. So the new parents immediately make plans to get out of Dodge:
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 barbaric story was just as familiar to listeners in the first, second and third centuries when the authors of the Matthew gospel were pulling together their stories, but the protagonist when the story was told and retold was always very different – and diverse! The story was so familiar because it has been told and retold about virtually every pagan, eastern and Egyptian Saviour in all of mythological history.
The story told in quote above is not from the Christian Bible, but is actually a description of the divine baby Crishna fleeing ahead of the messengers of the evil King Kansa, who had heard a prophecy that his niece’s child would slay him. (I won’t give you spoilers on that one.)
No Biblical author but one wanted to put his name to this story, nor yet any historians -- who unanimously agree that the mass infanticide never happened. In the story concocted by the authors of Matthew however (it appears nowhere else in the not-so-Good Book) 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 they were supposed to be accomplished astrologers supposed to have been guided by a star. But then, no one ever said myth was supposed to make sense.)
So other than detail – and, to be sure, wise men appear in other versions of the story too, only in slightly differing roles – it is the exact same story, right down to the many years that the new infant then spends 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:
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 heroes as diverse as 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.
- 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.
As mythologist Joseph Campbell says of this trope (and his observation may be taken as representative of every single one of the #Christmas Myths posted in recent days):
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 point of all myth is the metaphor. So what’s our metaphor in this otherwise barbaric story?
The symbolism of pursuit and slaughter is obvious enough. And the mythic metaphor is clear enough: 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. A clear and powerful metaphor which is why it’s been so well used by storytellers through the ages. (Just a shame so many children under two had to die, fictionally, to tell it.)
Outside theology, perhaps the most celebrated literary example of the Dangerous Child myth 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.
So to summarise: In the the Infancy story and its subsequent Massacre of the Innocents motif, Joseph Campbell sees “a very familiar mythological narrative”: Taken together, the whole theme of persecution, pursuit, the humble hiding place, the tyrant king, and the new saviour who eventually outwits him all evoke the fearsome dangers that 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?
* 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.