TIME FOR A SHORT STORY.
A story about the Christian Christmas stories,
A story about where that some of that stuff of legend and mythology came from – what the myths really mean, why early Christian authors wanted to borrow them, and why in some form or other they are told and retold. So …
Q: What’s mythology?
A: Someone else’s religion
Q: What’s the Christian Christmas story based on?
A: Someone else’s stories.
The Christian Christmas story is based on Mythology borrowed from elsewhere. I’m going to look at the pagan origin of each of these myths and legends one day at a time: the miraculous birth; in a humble place; of a youngster of impressive genealogy; accompanied by a tremendous star; and (in Luke) a heavenly choir; recognition of the divine child by
passing vagrants wise men; their presentation of gifts; and the slaughter of innocents by a king fearing the child might displace his crown.
The early Christian writers did well in writing their story but, rather than being made up out of whole cloth, it was woven together from earlier myths and legends and the stories of other religions, with most of which they and their readers would have been familiar, to tell the bigger tale those writers wanted their readers to embrace.
Stay with me as I tell the stories.
Today, the Myth of the Miraculous Birth . . .
Far from being unique to the Christian Christmas story, the Virgin Birth Myth is so common in world mythology as to have been the leitmotif of any god anywhere--it's almost like it's a prerequisite for any god that the story appear in his biography if he (or she) is to be taken in any way seriously. So no wonder those early Christian authors wanted it for their own.
The tale appears in American Indian mythologies; in Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology; in Asian and Indian mythologies of every kind -- and even in Maori mythology here in New Zealand. It’s ubiquitous—and not just because everyone copied, but because, like all mythology, it reveals some fundamental truth.
LOOK AT SOME OF the places and times that share the tale.
It appears in ancient Indian myth in the figure of Heri Chrishna, or Crishna the Saviour, who is born of the chaste virgin Devaki, selected on account of her purity, begotten by the deity Vishnu, and said to be “the very person of Vishnu himself in human form.”
Thai mythology has a virgin-born god and saviour called Codon, his mother, a beautiful young virgin, was “impregnated with sunbeams” while out praying one day.
In Buddhist mythology, The Buddha was born of the Virgin Maya, or Mary, after the divine power called “The Holy Ghost” was said to have descended on her in the form of a white elephant! (A little like the session with a white bull enjoyed by Pasiphae, the mother of the Minotaur, but with seemingly more pleasant results.)
Like someone else we could mention, it was said of the Buddha, “He in mercy left paradise, and came down to earth because he was filled with compassion for the sins and miseries of mankind.” From the time of his birth however, Maya’s womb was sealed up “like a casket in which a relic is placed” and she lived thereafter as a perpetual virgin. So it didn’t all end well for her.
The Hindus have a Lord and Saviour call Salivahana, a “divine child born of a Virgin, in face an incarnation of the Supreme Vishnu.”
China too has the demi-god Fo-hi, conceived when a virgin tasted the divine lotus, and at whose birth a rainbow appeared.
Laotse too, the founder of Taoism, was said to have been “a divine emanation incarnate in human form,” born of a virgin out of his mother’s side. The sages Yu, Hau-ki, Xaca, Confucius were also said to all be god-begotten and virgin-born.
Stop me if any of this is sounding at all familiar.
NOW IT MIGHT BE argued that all this was a bit distant to early Middle Eastern authors. Maybe. But the Middle East of the time was one vast trade route. In any case, there was plenty of virgin-born action closer to home.
In Egypt there was the Saviour Horus, god of vengeance, sky and protection and the second emanation of Ammon, conceived in bizarre fashion out of the virgin Isis and said to be born on December 25; the god Ra, “born from the side of his mother, but was not engendered,” and the sons he himself divinely “engendered”; the god-king Menes likewise.
By the rivers of Babylon (where they sat down) they told stories of how their god-king Nebuchadnezzar was created by the god Bel, engendered by the god Marduk, “and deposited himself the germ of [his] life in the womb of [his] mother.”
Zoroaster in Persia too—who Plato says the Persians considered to be the son of the Supreme God Orasmasdes--was “born in innocence, of an immaculate conception, of a ray of the Divine Reason.”
As was the Indian/Persian angelic divinity Mithras, said to have enjoyed a virgin birth, 12 companions and an ascension into heaven, and around whom the Romans built a religion that at the time of the Gospels’ creation was among the most popular going around—the Pagan Christ—the sun-god ‘Sol Invictus Mithras’ said to be the “favourite deity” of Asia Minor whose “mysteries” had “permeated the Roman Empire and extended from India to Scotland”—and whose birthday just happened to be on December 25.
If they were to be successful, this last was the main religion the early Christians either had to knock off or usurp—or absorb.
Justin Martyr to Emperor Adrian: “The story of Jesus’ divine birth ‘says no more that what you
Pagans say of those whom you style the sons of Jove.’” Picture shows birth of Dionysus-Zagreus,
first son of Jove to a mortal woman, who was was torn apart by the Titans
before being resurrected and ascending to heaven. Nice story. But who would ever believe it?
THE EARLY CHRISTIAN WRITER who revelled in the unlikely name of Justin Martyr relied on all this and more when he wrote to Emperor Adrian arguing that the just-written story of Jesus’ divine birth “says no more that what you Pagans say of those whom you style the sons of Jove.” True enough. Jove aka Jupiter aka Zeus was, if you recall your cursing properly (“By Jove!) not only “omnipotent” but also the first and the last; the head and the midst; the giver of all things; the foundation of the earth, and the starry heavens.”
So he was a divine and all-powerful fellow. And so were Jove’s sons, by Jove!
Among the divine sons of Jove aka Zeus we can find Hercules, the son of Jupiter by a mortal mother Alcmene;Bacchus (aka Dionysus), delivered by the mortal mother Semele “by a lightning-bearing flame” (which must have hurt the poor woman); Amphion, by the mortal mother Antoiope; Prometheus, the deliverer of fire to humans, and a deity uniting divine and human nature; Perseus, by the mortal virgin Danae; Mercury, by the mortal mother Maia; Aeolus, by the mortal mother Acasta; Apollo, delivered under a tree to the mortal mother Latona; Aethlius, by the mortal mother Protogenia; Arcas, by a mortal mother; Aroclus, by another mortal mother.
|The legendary founder of Rome Romulus was said to have been the son of God by the “pure virgin” Rhea-Sylvia|
That’s a lot of begatting going on. So it seems that if any bogus Messiah were to be taken at all seriously around these parts, he needed as a minimum some kind of supreme being in his bloodlines and maybe a bit of virgin-birthing to kick his story off.
Roman and Greek rulers themselves were not immune to having their stories so embroidered. The legendary founder of Rome Romulus was said to have been the son of God by the pure virgin Rhea-Sylvia. Julius Caesar was supposed to have a God for a father, as was Augustus. Alexander the Great was said to have been the son of either Jupiter/Zeus or Ammon (depending on who was telling the story) by the mortal mother Olympias, who was impregnated by a divine snake, all of which no doubt amused his warrior father Philip. His general and partial successor Ptolemy Soter (Ptolemy Saviour) was also said to carry the divine afflatus, as was Cyrus, King of Persia.
Alexander the Great was said to have been the son of the mortal mother Olympias, who was impregnated by a divine snake
Plato too was believed by many to have been the son of God by the pure virgin Perictione, and his father Aris was said to have been admonished in a dream to leave her bits alone because she was pregnant to a god. Plato’s story, and Aris’s, is shared by the mother of Apollonius, and the father ofPythagoras. Aesculapius, “the great performer of miracles, was supposed to be the son of a god and the worldly mother Coronis.” She supposedly -gave birth on a mountain (it’s a long story), with the help of a passing goat-herd, to a child whose head was “encircled with fiery rays.”
Even closer to the Middle Eastern home was Simon Magus, a Hebrew hero contemporary with Jesus who performed miracles and was believed to be the son of a god.
And that’s not to mention the various offspring of Odin (who, because of his predilection for wandering the skies delivering gifts, was said to be one of the forebears of the Santa story), including Baldur and Thor; or the various virgin-born gods in the ancient South America that helped the Spanish so much in selling their own version of the virgin-born story to a fearful population—god-king-saviours like the MexicanQuetzalcoatl, the Mayan Zama, Bochica of Colombia, Manco Capac (offspring of of the god Peru), Votan of Guatemala, and Zome of Brazil. Meanwhile, North American Indians celebrated the divine birth of Wasi, if you were Cherokee; of Qaagagp if you were an Edue of California; of Tarengawagan if you were Iroquois; and Michabou if you were Algonquin.
Not to forget the miraculous birth of the trickster
and miracle-worker Maui, conceived
here in New Zealand to the divine
Tama-nui-te-ra and the mortal mother Taranga
Not to forget the miraculous birth of the trickster and miracle-worker Maui, conceived here in New Zealand to the divine Tama-nui-te-ra and the mortal mother Taranga, and the hero of many delightfully tall tales.
NOW, IT’S FAIRLY OBVIOUS that not one of these stories relate actual historical events. In each of them, the story is intended either to be taken as the sort of exaggerated boasting Arabs still enjoy today, or to be taken as a metaphor—a symbol in the most basic sense. According to mythologist Joseph Campbell, the symbol embodied here is that of “the birth of spiritual man out of animal man.” A symbol, in other words, of an important transformation in human affairs --- the coming into maturity of mankind.
This relates strongly to what Campbell calls "the Hero Myth," universal in so many cultures, in which the son is born to a father who is, let’s say, a hero warrior gone off to the wars after conception never to return. The son’s first quest as a man—his first spiritual journey—is the quest to find his father. In other words, to find himself.
There is then [says Campbell] a whole tradition of mythologies involving the spiritual begetter and the son who must go in quest of his father.
This is not always a Virgin Birth in the physical sense…
But important to the tale that his thought-to-be father is often revealed not to be his real birth-father – his origins, like mankind’s, being lost in the mists of time.
No surprise then in the Jesus story that his parents fail to understand him when, in the story, the twelve-tear-old Jesus tells his parents “he must be about his Father’s business.”
And note that even in the Synoptic Gospels themselves, when the Jesus stories first appear, we never find Jesus from his own mouth (as told by his take-tellers) declaring himself to be either a god or God, or to be worshipped as one.2
So if you do take these as Gospel, then you’d surely have to believe him.
Understanding the myths is far more interesting than arguing for them being literal or historical fact. Isn’t it odd that instead of enjoying the metaphorical meaning of these myths and stories, so many folk get hung up instead on the literal fiction.
1. This and later posts in the series rely heavily on Thomas William Doane’s Bible Myths and Their Parallels in Other Religions. Unless otherwise attributed, all quotes are sourced from there.
2. “If we seek in the first three Gospels to know what his [later] biographers thought of Jesus, we find his true humanity plainly stated, and if we possessed only the Gospel of Mark, and the discourses of the Apostles in Acts, the whole Christology of the New Testament would be reduced to this: that Jesus of Nazareth of was ‘a prophet mighty in deeds and in words, made by God Christ and Lord.’ ” – Albert Réville
And check out the Question ‘Is Jesus God?’ at the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible site.