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He was born of a Virgin.- He traveled far and wide as
a teacher and illuminator of men. He slew the Bull
(symbol of the gross Earth which the sunlight fructifies).
His great festivals were the winter solstice and the Spring
equinox (Christmas and Easter). He had twelve compan-
ions or disciples (the twelve months). He was buried
in a tomb, from which however he rose again; and his
resurrection was celebrated yearly with great rejoicings. He
was called Savior and Mediator, and sometimes figured as
a Lamb; and sacramental feasts in remembrance of him were
held by his followers. This legend is apparently partly astro-

1 The birthfeast of Mithra was held in Rome on the 8th day before
the Kalends of Januan.-, being also the day of the Circassian games,
which were sacred to the Sun. (See F. Xork, Der Mystagrg, Leipzig.)

- This at any rate was reported by his later disciples (see Robertson's
Pagan Christs, p. 338).


nomical and partly vegetational ; and the same may be said
of the following about Osiris.

Osiris was born (Plutarch tells us) on the 361st day of
the year, say the 27th December. He too, like Mithra and
Dionysus, was a great traveler. As King of Egypt he
taught men civil arts, and "tamed them by music and
gentleness, not by force of arms";^ he was the discoverer
of corn and wine. But he was betrayed by Typhon, the
power of darkness, and slain and dismembered. "This hap-
p>ened," says Plutarch, "on the 17th of the month Athyr,
when the sun enters into the Scorpion" (the sign of the
Zodiac which indicates the oncoming of Winter). His body
was placed in a box, but afterwards, on the 19th, came again
to life, and, as in the cults of Mithra, Dionysus, Adonis and
others, so in the cult of Osiris, an image placed in a coffin
was brought out before the worshipers and saluted with
glad cries of "Osiris is risen. "^ "His sufferings, his death
and his resurrection were enacted year by year in a great
mystery-play at Abydos.""

The two following legends have more distinctly the char-
acter of Vegetation myths.

Adonis or Tammuz, the Syrian god of vegetation, was
a very beautiful youth, born of a Virgin (Nature), and so
beautiful that V^enus and Proserpine (the goddesses of the
Upper and Underworlds) both fell in love with him.
To reconcile their claims it was agreed that he should
spend half the year (summer) in the upper world, and the
winter half with Proserpine below. He was killed by a
boar (Typhon) in the autumn. And every year the maidens
"wept for Adonis" (see Ezekiel viii. 14). In the spring
a festival of his resurrection was held — the women set out
to seek him, and having found the supposed corpse
placed it (a wooden image) in a coffin or hollow tree, and
performed wild rites and lamentations, followed by even

1 See Plutarch on his and Osiris.

2 Ancient Art and Ritual, by Jane E. Harrison, chap. i.


wilder rejoicings over his supposed resurrection. At Aphaca
in the North of Syria, and halfway between Byblus and
Baalbec, there was a famous grove and temple of Astarte,
near which was a wild romantic gorge full of trees, the
birthplace of a certain river Adonis — the water rushing from
a Cavern, under lofty cliffs. Here (it was said) every year
the youth Adonis was again wounded to death, and the
river ran red with his blood,^ while the scarlet anemone
bloomed among the cedars and walnuts.

The story of Attis is very similar. He was a fair young
shepherd or herdsman of Phrygia, beloved by Cybele (or
Demeter), the Mother of the gods. He was born of a Virgin
— Nana — who conceived by putting a ripe almond or
pomegranate in her bosom. He died, either killed by a
boar, the symbol of winter, like Adonis, or self-castrated
(like his own priests) ; and he bled to death at the foot of
a pine tree (the pine and pine-cone being symbols of fer-
tility). The sacrifice of his blood renewed the fertility of
the earth, and in the ritual celebration of his death and
resurrection his image was fastened to the trunk of a pine-
tree (compare the Crucifixion). But I shall return to this
legend presently. The worship of Attis became very wide-
spread and much honored, and was ultimately incorporated
with the established religion at Rome somewhere about the
commencement of our Era.

The following two legends (dealing with Hercules and
with Krishna) have rather more of the character of the
solar, and less of the vegetational myth about them. Both
heroes were regarded as great benefactors of humanity; but
the former more on the material plane, and the latter on the

Hercules or Heracles was, like other Sun-gods and bene-

1 A discoloration caused by red earth washed by rain from the

mountains, and which has been observed by modern travelers. For

the whole story of Adonis and of Attis see Frazer's Golden Bough,
part iv.


factors of mankind, a great Traveler. He was known in
many lands, and everywhere he was invoked as Saviour.
He was miraculously conceived from a divine Father; even
in the cradle he strangled two serpents sent to destroy him.
His many labors for the good of the world were ultimately
epitomized into twelve, symbolized by the signs of the Zo-
diac. He slew the Nemaean Lion and the Hydra (offspring
of Typhon) and the Boar. He overcame the Cretan Bull,
and cleaned out the Stables of Augeas; he conquered Death
and, descending into Hades, brought Cerberus thence and
ascended into Heaven. On all sides he was followed by the
gratitude and the prayers of mortals.

As to Krishna, the Indian god, the points of agreement
with the general divine career indicated above are too salient
to be overlooked, and too numerous to be fully recorded.
He also was born of a Virgin (Devaki) and in a Cave,^
and his birth announced by a Star. It was sought to destroy
him, and for that purpose a massacre of infants was ordered.
Everywhere he performed miracles, raising the dead, healing
lepers, and the deaf and the blind, and championing the
poor and oppressed. He had a beloved disciple, Arjuna, (cf.
John) before whom he was transfigured.^ His death is dif-
ferently related — as being shot by an arrow, or crucified on
a tree. He descended into hell; and rose again from the
dead, ascending into heaven in the sight of many people.
He will return at the last day to be the judge of the quick
and the dead.

Such are some of the legends concerning the pagan and
pre-Christian deities — only briefly sketched now, in order
that we may get something like a true perspective of the
whole subject; but to most of them, and more in detail,
I shall return as the argument proceeds.

What we chiefly notice so far are two points; on the
one hand the general similarity of these stories with that

1 Cox's Myths of the Aryan Nations, p. 107.

2 Bhagavat Gita, ch. xi.


of Jesus Christ; on the other their analogy with the yearly
phenomena of Nature as illustrated by the course of the
Sun in heaven and the changes of Vegetation on the earth,
(i) The similarity of these ancient pagan legends and
beliefs with Christian traditions was indeed so great that
it excited the attention and the undisguised wrath of the
early Christian fathers. They felt no doubt about the sim-
ilarity, but not knowing how to explain it fell back upon the
innocent theory that the Devil — in order to confound the
Christians — had, centuries before, caused the pagans to
adopt certain beliefs and practices! (Very crafty, we
may say, of the Devil, but also very innocent of the
Fathers to believe it ! ) Justin Martyr for instance
describes'^ the institution of the Lord's Supper as narrated
in the Gospels, and then goes on to say: "Which the wicked
devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithra, command-
ing the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup
of water are placed with certain incantations in the
mystic rites of one who is being initiated you either know
or can learn." Tertullian also says- that "the devil by the
mysteries of his idols imitates even the main part of the
divine mysteries." . . . "He baptizes his worshippers in
water and makes them believe that this purifies them from
their crimes." . . . "Mithra sets his mark on the fore-
head of his soldiers; he celebrates the oblation of bread;
he offers an image of the resurrection, and presents at once
the crown and the sword; he limits his chief priest to a
single marriage; he even has his virgins and ascetics."^ Cor-
tez, too, it will be remembered complained that the Devil
had positively taught to the Mexicans the same things which
God had taught to Christendom.

1 I Apol. c. 66.

2 De PrcBscriptione Hereticorum, c. 40 ; De Bapt. C 3 ; De Corona,
C. 15.

3 For reference to botli these examples see J. M. Robertson's Pagan
Christs, pp. 321, 322.


Justin Martyr again, in the Dialogue with Trypho says
that the Birth in the Stable was the prototype (!) of the
birth of Mithra in the Cave of Zoroastrianism ; and boasts
that Christ was born when the Sun takes its birth in the
Augean Stable/ coming as a second Hercules to cleanse
a foul world; and St. Augustine says "we hold this
(Christmas) day holy, not like the pagans because of the
birth of the Sun, but because of the birth of him who made
it." There are plenty of other instances in the Early Fathers
of their indignant ascription of these similarities to the work
of devils; but we need not dwell over them. There is no
need for us to be indignant. On the contrary we can now
see that these animadversions of the Christian writers are
the evidence of how and to what extent in the spread of
Christianity over the world it had become fused with the
Pagan cults previously existing.

It was not till the year a.d. 530 or so — five centuries after
the supposed birth of Christ — that a Scythian Monk, Diony-
sius Exiguus, an abbot and astronomer of Rome, was
commissioned to fix the day and the year of that birth.
A nice problem, considering the historical science of the
period! For year he assigned the date which we now adopt, ^
and for day and month he adopted the 25th December
— a date which had been in popular use since about
350 B.C., and the very date, within a day or two, of the
supposed birth of the previous Sungods.^ From that

1 The Zodiacal sign of Capricornus, see infra (iii. 49).

2 See Encycl. Brit. art. "Chronology."

3 "There is however a difficulty in accepting the 2Sth December
as the real date of the Nativity, December being the height of the
rainy season in Judaea, when neither flocks nor shepherds could have
been at night in the fields of Bethlehem" (I). Encycl. Brit. art.
"Christmas Day." According to Hastings's Encyclopcedia, art. "Christ-
mas," "Usener says that the Feast of the Nativity was held originally
on the 6th January (the Epiphany), but in 353-4 the Pope Liberius dis-
placed it to the 2Sth December . . . but there is no evidence of a
Feast of the Nativity taking place at all, before the fourth century
A.D." It was not till 534 a.d. that Christmas Day and Epiphany
were reckoned by the law-courts as dies non.


fact alone we may fairly conclude that by the year 530
or earlier the existing Nature-worships had become largely
fused into Christianity. In fact the dates of the main
pagan religious festivals had by that time become so
popular that Christianity was obliged to accommodate itself
to them.^

This brings us to the second point mentioned a few
pages back — the analogy between the Christian festivals
and the yearly phenomena of Nature in the Sun and the

Let us take Christmas Day first. Mithra, as we have
seen, was reported to have been born on the 25th December
(which in the Julian Calendar was reckoned as the day
of the Winter Solstice ajid of the Nativity of the Sun) ;
Plutarch says (Isis and Osiris, c. 12) that Osiris was born
on the 361st day of the year, when a Voice rang out pro-
claiming the Lord of All. Horus, he says, was born on the
362nd day. Apollo on the same.

Why was all this? Why did tlie Druids at Yule Tide
light roaring fires? Why was the cock supposed to crow all
Christmas Eve ("The bird of dawning singeth all night
long")? Why was Apollo born with only one hair (the
young Sun with only one feeble ray)? Why did Samson
(name derived from Shemesh, the sun) lose all his strength
when he lost his hair? Why were so many of these gods
— Mithra, Apollo, Krishna, Jesus, and others, born in
caves or underground chambers?^ Why, at the Easter

1 As, for instance, the festival of John the Baptist in June took
the place of the pagan midsummer festival of water and bathing;
the Assumption of the Virgin in August the place of that of Diana
in the same month ; and the festival of All Souls early in November,
that of the world-wide pagan feasts of the dead and their ghosts at
the same season.

2 This same legend of gods (or idols) being bom in caves has,
curiously enough, been reported from Mexico, Guatemala, the Antilles,
and other places in Central America. See C. F. P. von Martius,
Ethnographic Amerika, etc. (Leipzig, 1867), vol. i, p. 758.


Eve festival of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem is a light
brought from the grave and communicated to the candles
of thousands who wait outside, and who rush forth rejoicing
to carry the new glory over the world ?^ Why indeed?
except that older than all history and all written records
has been the fear and wonderment of the children of men
over the failure of the Sun's strength in Autumn — the decay
of their God; and the anxiety lest by any means he should
not revive or reappear?

Think for a moment of a time far back when there were
absolutely no Almanacs or Calendars, either nicely printed
or otherwise, when all that timid mortals could see was that
their great source of Light and Warmth was daily failing,
daily sinking lower in the sky. As everyone now knows
there are about three weeks at the fag end of the
year when the days are at their shortest and there is very
little change. What was happening? Evidently the god
had fallen upon evil times. Typhon, the prince of dark-
ness, had betrayed him; Delilah, the queen of Night, had
shorn his hair; the dreadful Boar had wounded him;
Hercules was struggling with Death itself; he had fallen
under the influence of those malign constellations — the Ser-
pent and the Scorpion. Would the god grow weaker
and weaker, and finally succumb, or would he conquer after
all? We can imagine the anxiety with which those early
men and women watched for the first indication of a length-
ening day; and the universal joy when the Priest (the rep-
resentative of primitive science) having made some simple
observations, announced from the Temple steps that the
day was lengthening — that the Sun was really born again
to a new and glorious career.^

1 Compare the Aztec ceremonial of lighting; a holy fire and com-
municating it to the multitude from the wounded breast of a human
victim, celebrated every 52 years at the end of one cycle and the
beginning of another — the constellation of the Pleiades being in the
Zenith (Prescott's Conquest of Mexico, Bk. I, ch. 4).

2 It was such things as these which doubtless gave the Priesthood
its power.


Let us look at the elementary science of those days a
little closer. How without Almanacs or Calendars could
the day, or probable day, of the Sun's rebirth be fixed?
Go out next Christmas Evening, and at midnight you will
see the brightest of the fixed stars, Sirius, blazing in the
southern sky — not however due south from you, but some-
what to the left of the Meridian line. Some three thousand
years ago (owing to the Precession of the Equinoxes) that
star at the winter solstice did not stand at midnight where
you now see it, but almost exactly on the meridian line.
The coming of Sirius therefore to the meridian at midnight
became the sign and assurance of the Sun having reached
the very lowest point of his course, and therefore of having
arrived at the moment of his re-birth. Where then was
the Sun at that moment? Obviously in the underworld
beneath our feet. Whatever views the ancients may have
had about the shape of the earth, it was evident to the
mass of people that the Sungod, after illuminating the
world during the day, plunged down in the West, and
remained there during the hours of darkness in some cavern
under the earth. Here he rested and after bathing in the
great ocean renewed his garments before reappearing in the
East next morning.

But in this long night of his greatest winter weakness,
when all the world was hoping and praying for the renewal
of his strength, it is evident that the new birth would come
— if it came at all — at midnight. This then was the sacred
hour when in the underworld (the Stable or the Cave or
whatever it might be called) the child was born who was
destined to be the Savior of men. At that moment Sirius
stood on the southern meridian (and in more southern lands
than ours this would be more nearly overhead); and that
star — there is little doubt — is the Star in the East mentioned
in the Gospels.

To the right, as the supposed observer looks at Sirius on
the midnight of Christmas Eve, stands the magnificent


Orion, the mighty hunter. There are three stars in his belt
which, as is well known, lie in a straight line pointing to
Sirius. They are not so bright as Sirius, but they are
sufficiently bright to attract attention. A long tradition
gives them the name of the Three Kings. Dupuis^ says:
"Orion a trois belles etoiles vers le milieu, qui sont de
seconde grandeur et posees en ligne droite. Tune pres de
I'autre, le peuple les appelle les trois rots. On donne aux
trois rois Magis les noms de Magalat, Galgalat, Saraim;
et Athos, Satos, Paratoras. Les Catholiques les appellent
Gaspard, Melchior, et Balthasar." The last-mentioned
group of names comes in the Catholic Calendar in con-
nection with the feast of the Epiphany (6th January); and
the name "Trois Rois" is commonly to-day given to these
stars by the French and Swiss peasants.

Immediately after Midnight then, on the 25th December,
the Beloved Son (or Sun-god) is born. If we go back in
thought to the period, some three thousand years ago, when
at that moment of the heavenly birth Sirius, coming from
the East, did actually stand on the Meridian, we shall
come into touch with another curious astronomical coin-
cidence. For at the same moment we shall see the Zodiacal
constellation of the Virgin in the act of rising, and becoming
visible in the East divided through the middle by the line
of the horizon.

The constellation Virgo is a Y-shaped group, of which a,
the star at the foot, is the well-known Spica, a star of
the first magnitude. The other principal stars, y at the
centre, and /8 and c at the extremities, are of the second
magnitude. The whole resembles more a cup than the hu-
man figure; but when we remember the symbolic mean-
ing of the cup, that seems to be an obvious explanation of
the name Virgo, which the constellation has borne since

1 Charles F. Dupuis (Orighte de Tons les Cultes, Paris, 1822) was
one of the earliest modem writers on these subjects.


the earliest times. [The three stars /8, y and a, lie very
nearly on the Ecliptic, that is, the Sun's path — a fact to
which we shall return presently.]

At the moment then when Sirius, the star from the East,
by coming to the Meridian at midnight signalled the Sun's
new birth, the Virgin was seen just rising on the Eastern
sky — the horizon line passing through her centre. And
many people think that this astronomical fact is the explan-
ation of the very widespread legend of the Virgin-birth. I

do not think that it is the sole explanation — for indeed in
all or nearly all these cases the acceptance of a myth seems
to depend not upon a single argument but upon the con-
vergence of a number of meanings and reasons in the same
symbol. But certainly the fact mentioned above is curious,
and its importance is accentuated by the following con-

In the Temple of Denderah in Egj^t, and on the inside
of the dome, there is or was an elaborate circular repre-
sentation of the Northern hemisphere of the sky and the


Zodiac.^ Here Virgo the constellation is represented, as
in our star-maps, by a woman with a spike of corn in her
hand (Spica). But on the margin close by there is an an-
notating and explicatory figure — a figure of Isis with
the infant Horus in her arms, and quite resembling in style
the Christian Madonna and Child, except that she is
sitting and the child is on her knee. This seems to show
that — whatever other nations may have done in associating
Virgo with Demeter, Ceres, Diana,^ etc. — the Egyptians
made no doubt of the constellation's connection with Isis
and Horus. But it is well known as a matter of history
that the worship of Isis and Horus descended in the early
Christian centuries to Alexandria, where it took the form
of the worship of the Virgin Mary and the infant Savior,
and so passed into the European ceremonial. We have
therefore the Virgin Mary connected by linear succession and
descent with that remote Zodiacal cluster in the sky! Also
it may be mentioned that on the Arabian and Persian globes
of Abenezra and Abuazar a Virgin and Child are figured in
connection with the same constellation.^

A curious confirmation of the same astronomical con-
nection is afforded by the Roman Catholic Calendar. For
if this be consulted it will be found that the festival of the
Assumption of the Virgin is placed on the 15th August,
while the festival of the Birth of the Virgin is dated the
8th September. I have already pointed out that the stars,
a, /3 and y of Virgo are almost exactly on the Ecliptic, or
Sun's path through the sky; and a brief reference to the
Zodiacal signs and the star-maps will show that the Sun
each year enters the sign of Virgo about the first-mentioned
date, and leaves it about the second date. At the present
day the Zodiacal signs (owing to precession) have shifted

1 Carefully described and mapped by Dupuis, see op. cit.

2 For the harvest-festival of Diana, the Virgin, and her parallelism
with the Virgin Mary, see The Golden Bough, vol. i, 14 and ii, 121.

3 See F. Nork, Der Mystagog (Leipzig, 1838).


some distance from the constellations of the same name.
But at the time when the Zodiac was constituted and
these names were given, the first date obviously would
signalize the actual disappearance of the cluster Virgo
in the Sun's rays — i. e. the Assumption of the Virgin into
the glory of the God — while the second date would signalize
the reappearance of the constellation or the Birth of the
Virgin. The Church of Notre Dame at Paris is supposed
to be on the original site of a Temple of Isis; and it is said
(but I have not been able to verify this myself) that one of
the side entrances — that, namely, on the left in entering
from the North (cloister) side — is figured with the signs of
the Zodiac except that the sign Virgo is replaced by the
figure of the Madonna and Child.

So strange is the scripture of the sky! Innumerable
legends and customs connect the rebirth of the Sun with
a Virgin parturition. Dr. J. G. Frazer in his Part IV of
The Golden Bough^ says: "If we may trust the evidence
of an obscure scholiast the Greeks [in the worship of
Mithras at Rome] used to celebrate the birth of the lumi-
nary by a midnight service, coming out of the inner
shrines and crying, 'The Virgin has brought forth! The light
is waxing! ' ('H ■jrap9evo<i TeVoKev, aiiei <f)!j)<;.) " In
Elie Reclus' little book Primitive Folkr it is said of the
Esquimaux that "On the longest night of the year two
angakout (priests), of whom one is disguised as a woman,
go from hut to hut extinguishing all the lights, rekindling
them from a vestal flame, and crying out, 'From the new sun
Cometh a new light!'"

All this above-written on the Solar or Astronomical origins
of the myths does not of course imply that the Vege-
tational origins must be denied or ignored. These latter
were doubtless the earliest, but there is no reason —
as said in the Introduction (ch. i) — why the two elements

1 Book II, ch. vi.

2 In the Contemporary Science Series, i. 92.


should not to some extent have run side by side, or been
fused with each other. In fact it is quite clear that they

Online LibraryEdward CarpenterPagan & Christian creeds : their origin and meaning → online text (page 2 of 25)