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Pagan & Christian creeds : their origin and meaning online

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must have done so; and to separate them out too rigidly,
or treat them as antagonistic, is a mistake. The Cave or
Underworld in which the New Year is born is not only
the place of the Sun's winter retirement, but also the hidden
chamber beneath the Earth to which the dying Vegetation
goes, and from which it re-arises in Spring. The amours
of Adonis with Venus and Proserpine, the lovely goddesses
of the upper and under worlds, or of Attis with Cybele, the
blooming Earth-mother, are obvious vegetation-symbols; but
they do not exclude the interpretation that Adonis
(Adonai) may also figure as a Sun-god. The Zodiacal
constellations of Aries and Taurus (to which I shall return
presently) rule in heaven just when the Lamb and the Bull
are in evidence on the earth; and the yearly sacrifice of
those two animals and of the growing Corn for the good
of mankind runs parallel with the drama of the sky, as it
affects not only the said constellations but also Virgo (the
Earth-mother who bears the sheaf of corn in her
hand ) .

I shall therefore continue (in the next chapter) to point
out these astronomical references — which are full of sig-
nificance and poetry; but with a recommendation at the
same time to the reader not to forget the poetry and sig-
nificance of the terrestrial interpretations.

Between Christmas Day and Easter there are several minor
festivals or holy days — such as the 28th December (the
Massacre of the Innocents), the 6th January (the
Epiphany), the 2nd February (Candlemas^ Day), the
period of Lent (German Lenz, the Spring), the Annunci-

1 This festival of the Purification of the Virgin corresponds with
the old Roman festival of Juno Februata (i. e. purified) which was
held in the last month (February) of the Roman year, and which
included a candle procession of Ceres, searching for Proserpine. (F.
Nork, Der Mystagog.)


ation of the Blessed Virgin, and so forth — which have been
commonly celebrated in the pagan cults before Chris-
tiamty, and in which elements of Star and Nature worship
can be traced; but to dwell on all these would take too
long; so let us pass at once to the period of Easter itself.



The Vernal Equinox has all over the ancient world, and
from the earliest times, been a period of rejoicing and of
festivals in honor of the Sungod. It is needless to labor
a point which is so well known. Everyone understands
and appreciates the joy of finding that the long darkness
is giving way, that the Sun is growing in strength, and
that the days are winning a victory over the nights. The
birds and flowers reappear, and the promise of Spring is
in the air. But it may be worth while to give an elemen-
tary explanation of the astronomical meaning of this period,
because this is not always understood, and yet it is very
important in its bearing on the rites and creeds of the early
religions. The priests who were, as I have said, the early
students and inquirers, had worked out this astronomi-
cal side, and in that way were able to fix dates and
to frame for the benefit of the populace myths and legends,
which were in a certain sense explanations of the order of
Nature, and a kind of "popular science."

The Equator, as everyone knows, is an imaginary line
or circle girdling the Earth half-way between the North
and South poles. If you imagine a transparent Earth with
a light at its very centre, and also imagine the shadow
of this equatorial line to be thrown on the vast concave
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coincide with the Equator of the Sky — forming an imaginary
circle half-way between the North and South celestial poles.

The Equator, then, may be pictured as cutting across the
sky either by day or by night, and always at the same
elevation — that is, as seen from any one place. But the
Ecliptic (the other important great circle of the heavens)
can only be thought of as a line traversing the constella-
tions as they are seen at night. It is in fact the Sun's path
among the fixed stars. For (really owing to the Earth's
motion in its orbit) the Sun appears to move round
the heavens once a year — travelling, always to the left,
from constellation to constellation. The exact path of
the sun is called the Ecliptic; and the band of sky on either
side of the Ecliptic which may be supposed to include
the said constellations is called the Zodiac. How then —
it will of course be asked — seeing that the Sun and the Stars
can never be seen together — were the Priests able to map
out the path of the former among the latter? Into that
question we need not go. Sufficient to say that they suc-
ceeded; and their success — even with the very primitive in-
struments they had — shows that their astronomical knowl-
edge and acuteness of reasoning were of no mean

To return to our Vernal Equinox. Let us suppose that
the Equator and Ecliptic of the sky, at the Spring season,
are represented by two lines Eg. and Ed. crossing each
other at the point P. The Sun, represented by the small
circle, is moving slowly and in its annual course along the
Ecliptic to the left. When it reaches the point P (the
dotted circle) it stands on the Equator of the sky, and then
for a day or two, being neither North nor South, it
shines on the two terrestrial hemispheres alike, and day and
night are equal. Before that time, when the sun is low
down in the heavens, night has the advantage, and the
days are short; afterwards, when the Sun has travelled more
to the left, the days triumph over the nights. It will be seen


then that this point P where the Sun's path crosses the Equa-
tor is a very critical point. It is the astronomical lo-
cation of the triumph of the Sungod and of the arrival of

How was this location defined? Among what stars was
the Sun moving at that critical moment? (For of course
it was understood, or supposed, that the Sun was deeply
influenced by the constellation through which it was, or
appeared to be, moving.) It seems then that at the
period when these questions were occupying men's minds
— say about three thousand years ago — the point where
the Ecliptic crossed the Equator was, as a matter of
fact, in the region of the constellation Aries or the he-


Lamb. The triumph of the Sungod was therefore, and quite
naturally, ascribed to the influence of Aries. The Lamb
became the symbol of the risen Savior, and of his passage
from the underworld into the height of heaven. At first such
an explanation sounds hazardous; but a thousand texts and
references confirm it; and it is only by the accumula-
tion of evidence in these cases that the student becomes con-
vinced of a theory's correctness. It must also be remembered
(what I have mentioned before) that these myths and legends
were commonly adopted not only for one strict reason but
because they represented in a general way the convergence of
various symbols and inferences.

Let me enumerate a few points with regard to the Vernal
Equinox. In the Bible the festival is called the Passover,


and its supposed institution by Moses is related in Exo-
dus, ch. xii. In every house a he-lamb was to be slain,
and its blood to be sprinkled on the doorposts of the
house. Then the Lord would pass over and not smite that
house. The Hebrew word is pasach, to pass.^ The lamb
slain was called the Paschal Lamb. But what was that
lamb? Evidently not an earthly lamb — (though certainly
the earthly lambs on the hillsides were just then ready
to be killed and eaten) — but the heavenly Lamb, which
was slain or sacrificed when the Lord "passed over" the
equator and obliterated the constellation Aries. This was
the Lamb of God which was slain each year, and "slain
since the foundation of the world." This period of the
Passover (about the 25th March) was to be- the beginning
of a new year. The sacrifice of the Lamb, and its blood,
were to be the promise of redemption. The door-frames of the
houses — symbols of the entrance into a new life — were
to be sprinkled with blood.^ Later, the imagery of the
saving power of the blood of the Lamb became more
popular, more highly colored. (See St. Paul's epistles, and
the early Fathers.) And we have the expression " washed
in the blood of the Lamb " adopted into the Christian

In order fully to understand this extraordinary expression
and its origin we must turn for a moment to the worship

1 It is said that pasach sometimes means not so much to pass over,
as to hover over and so protect. Possibly both meanings enter in
here. See Isaiah xxxi. $.

2 See Exodus xii. i.

3 It is even said (see The Golden Bough, vol. iii, 185) that the
doorways of houses and temples in Peru were at the Spring festival
daubed with blood of the first-born children — commuted afterwards
to the blood of the sacred animal, the Llama. And as to Mexico,
Sahagun, the great Spanish missionary, tells us that it was a custom
of the people there to "smear the outside of their houses and doors
with blood drawn from their own ears and ankles, in order to pro-
pitiate the god of Harvest" (Kingsborough's Mexican Antiquities, vol.
vi, p. 235),


both of Mithra, the Persian Sungod, and of Attis the Syrian
god, as throwing great light on the Christian cult and cere-
monies. It must be remembered that in the early centuries
of our era the Mithra-cult was spread over the whole West-
ern world. It has left many monuments of itself here
in Britain. At Rome the worship was extremely popu-
lar, and it may almost be said to have been a matter
of chance whether Mithraism should overwhelm Christianity,
or whether the younger religion by adopting many of the
rites of the older one should establish itself (as it did) in
the face of the latter.

Now we have already mentioned that in the Mithra
cult the slaying of a Bull by the Sungod occupies the same
sort of place as the slaying of the Lamb in the Christian
cult. It took place at the Vernal Equinox and the blood
of the Bull acquired in men's minds a magic virtue.
Mithraism was a greatly older religion than Christianity;
but its genesis was similar. In fact, owing to the Precession
of the Equinoxes, the crossing-place of the Ecliptic and
Equator was different at the time of the establishment
of Mithra-worship from what it was in the Christian period;
and the Sun instead of standing in the He-lamb, or Aries,
at the V^ernal Equinox stood, about two thousand years
earlier (as indicated by the dotted line in the diagram,
p. 39), in this very constellation of the Bull.^ The bull there-
fore became the symbol of the triumphant God, and the
sacrifice of the bull a holy mystery. (Nor must we

1 With regard to this point, see an article in the Nineteenth Century
for September 1900, by E. W. Maunder of the Greenwich Observatory
on "The Oldest Picture Book" (the Zodiac). Mr. Maunder calcu-
lates that the Vernal Equinox was in the centre of the Sign of the
Bull s,ooo years ago. [It would therefore be in the centre of Aries
2,84s years ago— allowing 2,155 years for the time occupied in passing
from one Sign to another.] At the earlier period the Summer solstice
was in the centre of Leo, the Autumnal equinox in the centre of
Scorpio, and the Winter solstice in the centre of Aquarius — corre-
sponding roughly, Mr. Maunder points out, to the positions of the
four "Royal Stars," Aldebaran, Regulus, Antares and Fomalhaut.


overlook here the agricultural appropriateness of the bull as
the emblem of Spring-plowings and of service to man.)

The sacrifice of the Bull became the image of redemption.
In a certain well-known Mithra-sculpture or group, the Sun-
god is represented as plunging his dagger into a bull, while
a scorpion, a serpent, and other animals are sucking the
latter's blood. From one point of view this may be taken as
symbolic of the Sun fertilizing the gross Earth by plunging
his rays into it and so drawing forth its blood for the sus-
tenance of all creatures; while from another more astronomi-
cal aspect it symbolizes the conquest of the Sun over winter
in the moment of "passing over" the sign of the Bull, and the
depletion of the generative power of the Bull by the Scorpion
— which of course is the autumnal sign of the Zodiac and
herald of winter. One such Mithraic group was found at
Ostia, where there was a large subterranean Temple "to the
invincible god Mithras."

In the worship of Attis there were (as I have already in-
dicated) many points of resemblance to the Christian
cult. On the 22nd March (the Vernal Equinox) a pine-
tree was cut in the woods and brought into the Temple of
Cybele. It was treated almost as a divinity, was decked
with violets, and the effigy of a young man tied to the stem
(cf. the Crucifixion). The 24th was called the "Day of
Blood"; the High Priest first drew blood from his own
arms; and then the others gashed and slashed themselves,
and spattered the altar and the sacred tree with blood; while
novices made themselves eunuchs "for the kingdom of
heaven's sake." The effigy was afterwards laid in a tomb.
But when night fell, says Dr. Frazer,^ sorrow was turned to
joy. A light was brought, and the tomb was found to
be empty. The next day, the 25th, was the festival of
the Resurrection; and ended in carnival and license (the
Hilaria). Further, says Dr. Frazer, these mysteries "seem

1 See Adonis, Attis and Osiris, Part IV of The Golden Bough, by
J. G. Frazer, p. 229.


to have included a sacramental meal and a baptism of

"In the baptism the devotee, crowned with gold and
wreathed with fillets, descended into a pit, the mouth of
which was covered with a wooden grating. A bull, adorned
with garlands of flowers, its forehead glittering with gold
leaf, was then driven on to the grating and there stabbed
to death with a consecrated spear. Its hot reeking blood
poured in torrents through the apertures, and was received
with devout eagerness by the worshiper on every part of
his person and garments, till he emerged from the pit,
drenched, dripping, and scarlet from head to foot, to
receive the homage, nay the adoration, of his fellows — as
one who had been born again to eternal life and had washed
away his sins in the blood of the bull."^ And Frazer con-
tinuing says: "That the bath of blood derived from slaughter
of the bull (tauro-bolium) was believed to regenerate
the devotee for eternity is proved by an inscription
found at Rome, which records that a certain Sextilius
Agesilaus Aedesius, who dedicated an altar to Attis and
the mother of the gods (Cybele) was tauroboUo criobolio que
in aeternum renatiis."^ "In the procedure of the Tauro-
bolia and Criobolia," says Mr. J. M. Robertson,^ "which
grew very popular in the Roman world, we have the literal
and original meaning of the phrase 'washed in the blood of
the lamb'; the doctrine being that resurrection and eternal
life were secured by drenching or sprinkling with the
actual blood of a sacrificial bull or ram." For the
popularity of the rite we may quote Franz Cumont, who
says: — "Cette douche sacree (taurobolium) parait avoir ete
administree en Cappadoce dans un grand nombre de sanctu-

1 Adonis, Attis and Osiris, p. 229. References to Prudentius, and
to Firmicus Maternus, De errore 28. 8.

2 That is, "By the slaughter of the bull and the slaughter of the ram
bom again into eternity."

^ Pagan Christs, p. 315.

•* Mysteres de Mithra, Bruxelles, 1902, p. 153.


aires, et en particulier dans ceux de Ma la grande divinite
indigene, et dans ceux de Anahita."

Whether Mr. Robertson is right in ascribing to the priests
(as he appears to do) so materialistic a view of the
potency of the actual blood is, I should say, doubtful. I
do not myself see that there is any reason for supposing that
the priests of Mithra or Attis regarded baptism by
blood very differently from the way in which the Christian
Church has generally regarded baptism by water — namely,
as a symbol of some inner regeneration. There may cer-
tainly have been a little more of the magical view and a little
less of the symbolic, in the older religions; but the differ-
ence was probably on the whole more one of degree
than of essential disparity. But however that may be,
we cannot but be struck by the extraordinary analogy
between the tombstone inscriptions of that period "born
again into eternity by the blood of the Bull or the Ram,"
and the corresponding texts in our graveyards to-day.
F. Cumont in his elaborate work, Textes et Monuments rela-
tifs aux Mysteres de Mithra (2 vols., Brussels, 1899) gives
a great number of texts and epitaphs of the same character
as that above-quoted,^ and they are well worth studying
by those interested in the subject. Cumont, it may be
noted (vol. i, p. 305), thinks that the story of Mithra and
the slaying of the Bull must have originated among some
pastoral people to whom the bull was the source of all life.
The Bull in heaven — the symbol of the triumphant Sungod —
and the earthly bull, sacrificed for the good of humanity
were one and the same; the god, in fact, sacrificed himself
or his representative. And Mithra was the hero who first
won this conception of divinity for mankind — though of
course it is in essence quite similar to the conception put
forward by the Christian Church.

As illustrating the belief that the Baptism by Blood was
accompanied by a real regeneration of the devotee, Frazer

1 See vol. i, pp. 334 ff.


quotes an ancient writer^ who says that for some time after
the ceremony the fiction of a new birth was kept up
by dieting the devotee on milk, Hke a new-born babe.
And it is interesting in that connection to find that even in
the present day a diet of absolutely nothing but milk for
six or eight weeks is by many doctors recommended as
the only means of getting rid of deep-seated illnesses
and enabling a patient's organism to make a completely new
start in life.

"At Rome," he further says (p. 230), "the new birth and
the remission of sins by the shedding of bull's blood appear
to have been carried out above all at the sanctuary of the
Phrygian Goddess (Cybele) on the Vatican Hill, at or near
the spot where the great basilica of St. Peter's now stands;
for many inscriptions relating to the rites were found when
the church was being enlarged in 1608 or 1609. From
the Vatican as a centre," he continues, "this barbarous sys-
tem of superstition seems to have spread to other parts of
the Roman empire. Inscriptions found in Gaul and Germany
prove that provincial sanctuaries modelled their ritual on that
of the Vatican."

It would appear then that at Rome in the quiet early
days of the Christian Church, the rites and ceremonials
of Mithra and Cybele, probably much intermingled and
blended, were exceedingly popular. Both religions had been
recognized by the Roman State, and the Christians, perse-
cuted and despised as they were, found it hard to make any
headway against them — the more so perhaps because the
Christian doctrines appeared in many respects to be merely
faint replicas and copies of the older creeds. Robert-
son maintains^ that a he-lamb was sacrificed in the
Mithraic mysteries, and he quotes Porphyry as saying*
that "a place near the equinoctial circle was assigned to
Mithra as an appropriate seat; and on this account he

1 Sallustius philosophus. See Adonis, Attis and Osiris, note, p. 229.

2 Pagan Christs, p. 336. ^ De Antra, xxiv.


bears the sword of the Ram [Aries] which is a sign of Mars
[Ares]." Similarly among the early Christians, it is said,
a ram or lamb was sacrificed in the Paschal mystery.

Many people think that the association of the Lamb-god
with the Cross arose from the fact that the constella-
tion Aries at that time was on the heavenly cross (the
crossways of the Ecliptic and Equator — see diagram, ch.
iii, p. 39 supra), and in the very place through which the Sun-
god had to pass just before his final triumph. And it is
curious to find that Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho^
(a Jew) alludes to an old Jewish practice of roasting a
Lamb on spits arranged in the form of a Cross. "The lamb,"
he says, meaning apparently the Paschal lamb, "is roasted
and dressed up in the form of a cross. For one spit is trans-
fixed right through the lower parts up to the head, and one
across the back, to which are attached the legs [forelegs] of
the lamb."

To-day in Morocco at the festival of Eid-el-Kebir, corre-
sponding to the Christian Easter, the ISIohammedans sacrifice
a young ram and hurry it still bleeding to the precincts
of the Mosque, while at the same time every household slays
a lamb, as in the Biblical institution, for its family

But it will perhaps be said, "You are going too fast and
proving too much. In the anxiety to show that the
Lamb-god and the sacrifice of the Lamb were honored
by the devotees of Mithra and Cybele in the Rome of the
Christian era, you are forgetting that the sacrifice of the
Bull and the baptism in bull's blood were the salient
features of the Persian and Phrygian ceremonials some cen-
turies earlier. How can you reconcile the existence side
by side of divinities belonging to such different periods, or
ascribe them both to an astronomical origin?" The answer
is simple enough. As I have explained before, the Pre-

1 Ch. xl.


cession of the Equinoxes caused the Sun, at its moment
of triumph over the powers of darkness, to stand at one period
in the constellation of the Bull, and at a period some
two thousand years later in the constellation of the Ram.
It was perfectly natural therefore that a change in the
sacred symbols should, in the course of time, take place;
yet perfectly natural also that these symbols, having once
been consecrated and adopted, should continue to be
honored and clung to long after the time of their astronomical
appropriateness had passed, and so to be found side by
side in later centuries. The devotee of Alithra or Attis
on the Vatican Hill at Rome in the year 200 a. d. probably
had as little notion or comprehension of the real origin of
the sacred Bull or Ram which he adored, as the Christian in
St. Peter's to-day has of the origin of the Lamb-god whose
vicegerent on earth is the Pope.

It is indeed easy to imagine that the change from the
worship of the Bull to the worship of the Lamb which
undoubtedly took place among various peoples as time
went on, was only a ritual change initiated by the priests
in order to put on record and harmonize with the astronomi-
cal alteration. Anyhow it is curious that while INIithra
in the early times was specially associated with the bull,
his association with the lamb belonged more to the Roman
period. Somewhat the same happened in the case of Attis.
In the Bible we read of the indignation of INIoses at the
setting up by the Israelites of a Golden Calf, alter the
sacrifice of the ram-lamb had been instituted — as if in-
deed the rebellious people were returning to the earlier
cult of Apis which they ought to have left behind them in
Egypt. In Egypt itself, too, we find the worship of
Apis, as time went on, yielding place to that of the Ram-
headed god Amun, or Jupiter Ammon.^ So that both

1 Tacitus {Hist. v. 4) speaks of ram-sacrifice by the Jews in honor
of Jupiter Ammon. See also Herodotus (ii. 42) on the same in


from the Bible and from Egyptian history we may con-
clude that the worship of the Lamb or Ram succeeded to

Online LibraryEdward CarpenterPagan & Christian creeds : their origin and meaning → online text (page 3 of 25)