Part of a continuing series1 looking at the pagan origins of the Christmas Myths, one day at a time. Today, the cunning tale and the pagan origins of where Jesus was said to be born…
JESUS WAS BORN IN a manger (a trough or a box) and visited by shepherds, say the authors of Luke.2
No, say the authors of Matthew, he was born in a house in which he and Mary were visited by an unconfirmed number of wandering vagrants from the East (three being a later gloss). And there were no little drummer boys. (Although Grace Jones almost manages to make you wish there were!)
But note that the authors of Mark and John (whoever they might be, since they assuredly weren’t either Mark or John) don’t bother with any of this old carry on. To them, it clearly didn’t matter a hoot who visited where or when or how, or in what manner of receptacle he was born--they simply didn’t consider the events important enough to either document or dream up.
Others followed them.
And others just made up their own stories to suit themselves.
JUSTIN MARTYR WRITING IN 150AD or so reckons “the actual place of Jesus’ birth was a cave.” Yes, Jesus was born in a cave, agreed 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 later in Luke and Matthew:
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 actually born? Well, who knows, frankly.
Who even knows, quite frankly, if He was even born at all, since all we’re really celebrating is the myth made up by Matthew and Luke based on borrowings of legends from abroad.
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.
And the story they actually hatched was riven with weasel-like cunning. You see, 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.
And the stable itself that everyone seems to know abouut is mentioned nowhere at all (other than by implication as being where you might find a trough or be if you're not in an inn); and neither are the animals mentioned who are milling around on stage at every decent school Nativity.
So from where and whence do schoolrooms around the world get that part of their nativity pastorale? Astonishingly, the humble origins associated with birth in either a cave or stable or other humble circumstances is first associated with all those other great virgin-born gods in the great myths, from Zeus to Chrishna to Abraham to Mithra toApollo to Hermes to Dionysus --and it is from them that the tales of stables truly derive.
SO ONCE AGAIN WE find there’s nothing new here in the use of the myth and the association with earlier greater gods, though with this tale the earlier myths show through even beyond the tales told in the Christian book.
There's one god of particular interest however, and he was the Roman god Mithra, Christianity’s great competitor in the marketplace at the time the Christian myythology was being written, who was said to born on December 25. And the two symbols most associated with old Mithra were the cave, being a scene of initiation, and an association with the winter solstice. (Just one of the reasons you're singing songs and giving presents this week, when the northern hemisphere celebrates the solstice.)
The cave is an interesting one. 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 everywhere in carols and nativity scenes, but nowhere in the Christian account. Where they do come from is actually Egypt: the ass is associated with the god Set, and the ox with the god Osiris (for whom Mozart wrote some pretty damned gorgeous music).
The appearance of Set and Osiris in these carefully-crafted tales was no accident, and once again would have been obvious to every man and his acolyte back in the day. As everyone in the Middle East knew back then, the gods Set (the ass) and Osiris (the ox) were always at war with each other. Always. So to see them reconciled at the birth of this infant, both of them bending their knees to boot, was a powerful mythological hint that these two Gods (representing a union of light and dark) were handing over their powers to him too --and their supporters should think of following suit.
SO IN THAT LITTLE Christmas scene concocted by our two sets of early Christian authors, Osiris and his brother Set, as well as Mithra, are all to be found recognising the 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.)
All very cunningly and carefully done, because as Joseph Campbell points out,
In that very earliest depiction, we already find the Catholic idea that the older myths 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.
Thus does myth become propaganda. But the original metaphors behind the myths still 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.”
1. 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.
2. Note that Luke has the shepherds visit, but only mentions a “manger” — not a stable or animals. The entire setting for the manger, which as ‘everyone’ knows, is simply 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 or even (as Justin Martyr and the the so-called Infancy Gospel ascribed to Jesus’ brother James assert) to a cave outside Bethlehem.
Take your pick. The original authors of the Biblical mythology certainly did.