Tuesday, 22 December 2015

The #ChristmasMyths #5: So, What’s With All That Frankincense?

Part of a continuing series looking at the pagan origins of the Christmas Myths,* one day at a time. Today, the story about all those gifts…

The Nativity story you hear today is a regular old mash-up. So the Magi arrive at the house (if you’re reading Matthew’s story of the Nativity) – or the shepherds arrive at the stable (if it’s Luke’s story of the Nativity you’re following) – or no one arrives anywhere at all (if you’re reading Mark or John’s story of the Nativity, because they don’t think any of this stuff is important enough to write down, which is weird) . . . so they arrive at this place, wherever it is and whoever they are, and they immediately start giving gifts.


How was it they were they instantly aware of the baby’s divinity—and why come to see him loaded down with all those thing to give him.

Fair question.

The story of the shepherds is unique in the canonical gospels to the narration in Luke, in which neither hide nor hair is seen of either wise men or any other kind appearing from the east.

The authors of Luke seem to have borrowed their story from a combination of The Gospel of the Egyptians, from eastern religions and myths, and from a panoply of pagan sources in which sheep, shepherds, gifts and baby feature highly.

The legends of Crishna’s birth, for example, sees him cradled among shepherds, the first to hear of his wondrous birth. The shepherd Nanda recognises Crishna as the promised Saviour, and he and his companions prostrate themselves before the divine child. The Indian prophet Nared examines the stars and he too declares his divinity, and his companions present the child with gifts. These gifts are aromatic: “sandalwood and perfumes.” ( So at least Luke’s authors used some imagination in their version of the story.)

The Chinese “Son of Heaven” How-tseih was delivered unto the world in miraculous fashion in a narrow lane, whereupon sheep and oxen “protected him with loving care.”
And the virgin-born saviour Aesculapius enjoyed almost instant protection from goatherds, who immediately grasped the young tyke’s divinity, and left his birthplace proclaiming the good news far and wide.

Other legendary divinities to enjoy being either fostered or worshipped by shepherds at their birth include Dionysus (who also shares a birthday with Jesus); Romulus the co-founder of Rome; Paris, son of Priam of Troy; and the Mycenaean Aegisthus—who, like Maui, was exposed by his mother and raised by the peasants who found him.

The story told by Matthew’s authors however features Magi, not shepherds (sorry, no shepherds at all in this one; or little drummer boys; note that the original word here is “magoi,” from which comes our word “magician”). These wandering astrologers visit the place in which the divine baby is laid and begin to shower him with great gifts. As you do.

As did the wise men who visited the Buddha at his birth (right) -- by day’s end they too had proclaimed him “god of gods,” and were giving him things to unwrap. Mostly “costly jewels and precious substances”—so here too, our authors have at least given some vent to their own creativity.
Rama—the seventh incarnation of Vishnu—also received at his birth a visitation of “aged saints.”
When Confucius was born, “"Five celestial sages [or wise men] from a distance came to the house, celestial music was heard in the skies, and angels attended the scene."

if the Roman
And not to miss out, in the stories of the birth of the Roman/Persian god Mithras, who was sent as “mediator between god and man” and whose worshippers were the Christian writers’ chief competition, he was said to have been visited at the time of his birth by “wise men” called Magi, and presented with … wait for it … gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Gold. Frankincense. Myrrh.


Mithras’ birthday, by the way was also celebrated around December 25 in Rome (although in Persia where his story originated they threw the pots around for him in September.)

But it doesn’t stop there.

Magi also appear at the births of the Egyptian Osiris and the Persian Zoroaster, as do all the now familiar hordes of angels and shepherds … and gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

So rather than the Nativity being a uniquely Christian story, it seems clear enough that in formulating their own myths about their new divinity, the authors of Luke and Matthew were drawing on mythic sources going back (in the case of the oldest of these, Osiris) several thousand years.

Perhaps that is why they continue to resonate, not because they have any historical truth, but because their truth has mythic power.  All these stories have great metaphorical power, and (it’s now forgotten) were told and re-told across all the great trading routes of the ancient world. That’s how they travelled. That they would become associated with a new world-historical saviour figure is not surprising, says Joseph Campbell. There is, he says
a certain basic saviour mythos that is in the atmosphere of human history making. This mythos is drawn on in all such cases … It becomes attached to the personality of the saviour-hero in the way legends become attached to great figures [or those whose biographers would make great]. To take an example, consider Abraham Lincoln, who was known as a great joke teller. Within two or three decades after his death, anybody who had a good joke to tell attributed it to Abe Lincoln.  So too the many anecdotes about George Washington’s honesty. [Was there ever really a cherry tree and an axe?]
    They stand as a cloud of [mythic] witnesses to the greatness of the man [in the eyes of his admirers]. Their historical accuracy is unimportant.
And untrue.

But the stories are powerful enough to continue being told and retold today—even if the stories’ protagonist has changed completely.

Tomorrow: “The Slaughter of the Innocents”

* 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.

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