Traditional Winter Festivities
Midwinter festivities are far older than Christianity and have appeared in every culture of the northern hemisphere. When Christianity, on controlling Europe, first reached England, Northern Germany, and Scandinavia, its missionaries found Pagan rites already celebrated on Christmas day. The early Christians tried to convert Pagan celebrations to Christian ones but with only partial success. In the resulting tangle, Paganism has partially held its own and many objects associated with Christmas are explicable only as deep folk memories. So, Christians incorporated many of these rites into their Church festival.
The root of midwinter rituals is the winter solstice, the shortest day which falls on or around 21 December. In the days before the solstice, rituals were devised to prevent the sun getting any weaker. When they worked, with the day getting longer after the solstice, was the time for celebration. The date of 25 December was when the sun visibly began to rise again after three days at the lowest ebb. It was the Roman festival of the “unconquered sun”, Mithras, proving by his rising again that he was again unconquered. It was chosen deliberately to Christianize this traditional celebration. In Scotland, never subject to the Romans, the main midwinter festival is still the entirely non-Christian one of Hogmanay, the New Year, although the Christmas celebration has advanced in popularity in recent years.
Besides sun worship, today’s Christmas festivities reflect a complex of other Pagan rites, many distorted from their original purpose. The two chief ones are the Roman Saturnalia and the Germanic-Nordic festivities centering around Wotan and tree worship.
The Roman Saturnalia, held on 17 to 19 December, were days of public revelry in honour of the god Saturn, with much sexual licence. During the Saturnalia all business was suspended and many distinctions of rank were forgotten. Masters sometimes waited on their slaves—a custom reflected to this day in the military custom of officers serving Christmas dinner to their men. Saturn is one of the ancestors of Father Christmas.
Evergreens, the mistletoe of the Druids, the yule logs which had been brought in every year to blaze on the open hearths, the feasting and carousing, have all come down to us, often from northern Europe in Pagan days and from Pagan sources. The side boards of the well-to-do are still often graced by the head of a boar, the successor of the beast which slew Adonis. Various modern customs show that Christmas is still a developing institution. Father Christmas is the outstanding example, and so are some carols. The words of “Good King Wenceslas”, for example, were made up by a nineteenth-century clergyman, J M Neale, to go with an old tune.
People who attack the commercialisation of Christmas are missing the target. For uncountable centuries the midwinter festival has been a time for jollity in a most material way.
Christmas Before Christ
The nations of the north also had their greatest festival of the year in midwinter. To these northern barbarians, shuddering in the snow laden forests beyond the Danube, the return of the sun was the most desired event of the year, and they soon learned the time—the winter solstice—when the “wheel” turned. The sun was figured as a fiery wheel, and as late as the nineteenth century there were parts of France where a straw wheel was set on fire and rolled down a hill, to give an augury of the next harvest.
Hence “yule” (from the Teutonic word “hoel” or “wheel”) was the outstanding festival of the ancestors of the French and Germans, the English and Scandinavians. The sun was born, and fires (“Yule logs”, still traditionally symbols of Christmas, though usually in the form of a chocolate cake) flamed in the forest villages, the huts were decorated with holly and evergreens, Yule trees were laden with presents, and stores of solid food and strong drink were lavishly opened. This lasted until Twelfth Day, now Epiphany. The Scandinavians celebrated the 25 December as the birth day of their god Freyr, the son of their supreme god of the heavens, Odin.
Long before Christianity, as mid-winter approached, Rome was lit up with joy. It was the festival of the old vegetation-god Saturn who, as a god, died or was displaced by Jupiter, the sky-god, but had a fine temple on the Capitol. His festival lasted seven days, from 17 to 24 December, and was the most joyous time of the joyous Roman year. For the whole week, no work was done, the one law being good cheer and good nature, but the 25 December was the culmination of it all, the greatest festival in the Roman calendar—the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun…
There was great rejoicing, illuminations and public games, and all shops were closed. Presents were exchanged, and the slaves were indulged in special liberties—on this one day they were free. They donned the conical cap of the freedman—as frolickers continue at Christmas, and on other festive occasions today, to don caps of paper—and sit at table while masters wait on them.
On 25 December, crowds filled the streets and raised festive cries, and the women of Rome paraded, singing in a loud voice, “Unto us a child is born this day”. Stalls laden with presents lined the streets near the Forum, but the great present of the season was a doll, of wax or terracotta. Hundreds of thousands of these dolls were on sale on the stalls and held in the arms of passers by. Once human beings were sacrificed to Saturn, and, as human life grew more important than religion, the god or his priests had to be content with effigies of men or maids—dolls! It was a time of peace on earth, for by Roman law no war could begin during the Saturnalia, and of good-will toward all men.
The festival went back far into the mists of prehistoric times. It had been earlier a one-day festival, the feast of Saturn, an important magico-religious festival for insuring the harvest of the next year, rejoicing that the year’s work was over, and helping and propitiating the god of fecundity by generous indulgence in wine and love. The mysterious winter dying of the sun was also arrested.
The entire known world of two thousand years ago had its “Christmas without Christ”. The figure of Christ was drawn in all its chief features before a line of the gospels was written, unarguably in the details relevant to Christmas. The first symbol of the Christian religion, the manger or basket cradle of the divine child, the supposed unique exhortation to humility, was one of the most familiar religious emblems of the Pagan world. Had it been exhibited to a crowd in one of the cosmopolitan cities of the Empire, it would have been strange or new to few. One might pronounce it Horus, another Hermes, another Dionysos, but all would have shrugged their shoulders nonchalantly at the news that it was just another divine sun child in the great family of gods. The world flowed on. The names only were changed.
The identity of these old traditions with Christmas are no longer disputed by scholars. Only ignorant fundamentalist ministers and some barmy priests of other denominations deny it. The celebrations of the birthdays of Mithras and Horus are as certain as the Saturnalia. Legends of the miraculous birth of gods, demigods, and heroes in the ancient world were as certain as that the Chaldeans knew astronomy and the Romans built tenement buildings.
Christians never think it strange that the birth date of Jesus is also the birth date of many of the incarnated gods of antiquity. They never think it curious that it was for ancient astronomers when the old sun died and was re-born and a new sun began to climb again in the heavens. At the solstice, it seemed to hover at the same altitude in the sky for three days, the critical time in the slow decline and possible death of the sun. Then it began to rise on the 25 December, the great day of the sun’s rebirth. That Pagans venerated the birthday of Christ as the birthday of their gods is beyond coincidence.
Astronomically, the sun begins a new year of life at the winter solstice, and so the 25 December, or some day proximate to that date, was selected in remote antiquity for the celebration of God’s birthday, when sun gods were worshipped. At the first moment after midnight of 24 December the nations of the East would rise to celebrate the arrival of 25 December, the birthday of their gods.
At midnight on the twenty-fifth of the month, Savarana, which is our December, millions of Krishna’s disciples celebrated his birthday by decorating their houses with garlands and gilt paper, and giving presents to friends. The people of China also traditionally celebrated this day, closing their shops. Buddha is said to have been born on this day after the Holy Ghost had descended on his virgin mother Maya. The god of the Persians, Mithras, was born on the 25 December long before the coming of Jesus.
The Egyptians celebrated this day as the birth day of their great saviour Horus, the Egyptian god of light and son of a virgin mother, the queen of the heaven, Isis. Osiris, god of the dead and the underworld in Egypt, another son of a holy virgin, was born on the 25 December. Adonis, revered as a dying and rising god among the Phrygians then the Greeks, was born on the 25 December. His worshippers held him a yearly festival representing his death and resurrection, in midsummer. Even the temple at Jerusalem was used to celebrate the birthday of the god Adonis in the years when Jesus might have been born, Herod being no Jew by conviction. The cave in Bethlehem which is said to have been the birth place of Jesus was also previously a place in which the birthday of Adonis was celebrated.
The Greeks celebrated the 25 December as the birthday of Apollo, the great sun god, and it was also the day upon which were celebrated, by their respective worshippers, the births of Adonis and of Mithras. That day was the birthday of Hercules, the son of their supreme god, Zeus, through the mortal woman Alcmene. Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry among the Romans, known among the Greeks as Dionysos, was born on this day. The 25 December was so highly regarded as a day suitable for the birthday of a god that it was selected for the apotheosis of Alexander the Great when he was first acclaimed as God in the temple of Amon (Jupiter) in 322 BC.
A prosperous Asiatic sun religion dwelt on the Vatican hill before the Popes commandeered it for Christianity. Mithras was an Aryan sun god, called by the Romans “the Unconquerable Sun”. The reform of the Persian religion by Zoroaster (Zarathustra) had put the ethical deity Ahuramazda so high above the old nature gods that he was practically the one god. But Mithras stole upward, as gods do, and Persian kings of the fifth century BC put him on a level with Ahuramazda. The Persians conquered and blended with Babylon, and Mithras rose to the supreme position and became an intensely ethical deity. He was, like Aten and Christ, the sun of the world. He sacrificed the pleasures of life, like Christ, but unlike Zeus.
Mithraism spread rapidly, was respected, and was strikingly like Christianity. During the third and fourth centuries AD, Mithras had become the most important solar god in the Roman Empire. Drastic asceticism and purity were demanded of his worshippers. They were baptized in blood. They practiced the most severe austerities and fasts. They had a communion supper of bread and wine. They worshiped Mithras in underground temples, artificial caves called grottos, which blazed with the light of candles and reeked with incense.
They celebrated the epiphany of this god, saviour of the world, on 25 December. Aurelian adopted the 25 December in 274 AD as the day to celebrate “Natalis Solis Invicti”, the birthday of Sol Invictus. As that day approached, near midnight of the 24th, Christians might see the devotees of Mithras going to their temple on the Vatican, and at midnight it would shine with joy and light. The saviour of the world was born. He had been born in a cave, like so many other sun-gods, and some of the apocryphal gospels put the birth of Christ in a cave. He had had no earthly father.
F Cumont, the great authority on Mithras, who it is now fashionable to disparage, collected for us details about the Persian religion, and more than one of the Christian Fathers refers to the similarity of the two religions. Mithras had had 25 December as his birthday for ages. He was eternal—the unconquered and unconquerable sun—the sun god as a spiritual god, with light as his emblem and honesty his supreme command. What could the Christians do? Nothing, until Constantine. Then they took 25 December, and Mithraic garb, customs and ritual, and so zealously dissolved the Mithraic religion into Christianity that only scholars know anything about it.
A Roman writer of the fourth century, Macrobius, in a work called Saturnalia (1:18) discusses the practice of representing the gods in the temples as of different ages. He says:
These differences of age refer to the sun, which seems to be a babe at the winter solstice, as the Egyptians represent him in their temples on a certain day, that being the shortest day, he is then supposed to be small and an infant.
This is confirmed and elaborated by a Christian writer, the author of the “Paschal Chronicle”, who says:
Jeremiah gave a sign to the Egyptian priests, saying that their idols would be destroyed by a child-saviour, born of a virgin and lying in a manger. That is why they still worship, as a goddess, a virgin-mother, and adore an infant in a manger.
He wants to explain age old customs to which their god is indebted as imitations of their own much later god. The stories of Jesus and Horus, the god in question, are similar. Horus was a sun god of the Egyptians. In the adjustment of the rival Egyptian gods, when the tribes were amalgamated in one kingdom, about 3000 years before Jesus was born, Horus was made the son of Osiris and Isis.
In the Egyptian religion that emerged from the syncretism, Osiris, a supreme and transcendental god who had acquired the attributes of most other Egyptian gods, was the father of Horus. Among his many titles were Lord of Lords, King of Kings, God of Gods, the Resurrection and the Life, the Good Shepherd, Eternity and Everlastingness, the god who “made men and women to be born again.” He became Serapis in the Hellenistic period, a god much like the Christian concept of Yehouah. Horus and his Father, Osiris, were even interchangeable, reminding us that Jesus said:
I and my Father are one.
Osiris was a god who suffered at the hands of the evil Set—another Asiatic god conceived of as the brother of Osiris—died and rose again, to reign eternally over the souls of the righteous dead. He is depicted as dark in complexion, suggesting he is the sun of night or winter, the gentle sun of the ANE who is father of the sun of the horizon, the sun that daily passes from the eastern horizon to the western one. His worshippers believed that, like their god, they would inherit eternal life. Some say Osiris’s coming was announced by the “Three Kings” or the “Three Wise Men”—the three stars Mintaka, Anilam and Alnitak in the belt of Orion, which point directly to Osiris’s star in the east, Sirius (Sothis), the sign of his birth. Osiris typified the Christian idea of a messiah, a saviour god, rather than the Jewish idea of a conquering king. His flesh was also eaten in the form of communion cakes of wheat, the plant of truth, just as Christians devour wafers which are the body of their saviour god.
In the bible, Psalms 23 is an Egyptian appeal to Osiris. A hymn to Osiris as the Good Shepherd begs him to lead the deceased to the green pastures and still waters of Paradise, the nefer-nefer or most beautiful land, to restore the soul to the body and give protection in the valley of the shadow of death (the Tuat). Before the Lord’s Prayer, an Egyptian hymn to Osiris-Amun (Amen) began, “O Amen, O Amen, who art in heaven.” Amen was also invoked at the end of every prayer. It was later rationalized, in Judaism, into a nod of assent signifying “Truly” or “Verily”.
Horus was born of the virgin Isis-Meri, Isis the Beloved, on 25 December. Like his father, his birth was announced by that star in the east (Sothis) and attended by the three wise men. Isis was the sister and the lover of Osiris, but whether we should speak of her as “a virgin mother” is a matter of words. In one Egyptian myth she was fecundated by Osiris in their mother’s womb, in another and more popular, she was miraculously impregnated by contact with the false phallus of the dead Osiris. Virginity in goddesses is a mythical virtue not a practical one. It is as real as the eternal life that all of these speculative religions promise.
Why should Pagan beliefs have to be used to explain the Christian virgin birth myth? The Septuagint plainly, but in a false translation, said, “A virgin shall conceive”, and this was taken to refer to the Messiah. Moreover, if Jesus despised conjugal relations, as early Christians believed, they could not accept that he, as a god, would have chosen the vile union necessary to enter the world. The early Christians in whose circles the gospel stories developed, will have seen this as an implication their God was virgin born, like the equivalent Pagan legends. It would have seemed a necessity of any god in the Hellenistic world.
The birthday of Horus was annually celebrated in the temples, about 25 December. A figure of Horus as a baby was laid in a manger, in a scenic reconstruction of a stable, and a statue of Isis was placed beside it. In the catacombs at Rome are pictures of the baby Horus being held by the virgin mother Isis—the original Madonna and Child. Horus was the rising sun, the sun of the east. He was the daily saviour of mankind, saving us from perpetual darkness. He was the light of the world. His birth festival was a Christmas without Christ.
This spectacle is still presented in every church in the world on 25 December. Catholic priests have taught their flocks to believe S Francis of Assisi invented this touching scene of the humble birth of the redeemer. Francis of Assisi will never have read the obscure “Paschal Chronicle”, but some other Christian writer had seen and reproduced it, and it had come to the knowledge of S Francis. Christ’s crib is an exact reproduction of the scene exhibited in Egyptian temples centuries before Christ, and the Egyptian legend itself is thousands of years older than Jeremiah. On the analogy of the Christian practice, the Egyptian legend must have described Isis as having given birth to her divine son in a stable. In Alexandria, there was a similar Greek celebration on 25 December of the birth of a divine son to Kore (the “Virgin”).
And this is not the end. The Greeks had a similar celebration. The idea of a divine son being born in a cave was common, or there were actually several scenic representations of the birth of these gods in their festivals. J M Robertson gives some in Christianity and Mythology. Hermes, the Logos (like Jesus in John), the messenger of the gods, son of Zeus and the virgin Maia, was born in a cave, and he performed extraordinary prodigies a few hours after birth. He was represented as a “child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger”. Dionysos (Iacchos, Bacchus) was similarly represented. The image of him as a babe was laid in a basket cradle in the cave in which he was born.
Why was the “only true god” born on a Pagan date—25 December?
There is no reason to suppose that Jesus the Nazarene was born on Christmas Day. The birth date of Jesus is unknown. Both the year and the day of his birth are unknown. Neither the New Testament nor later tradition provide reliable evidence. The Christian world had no chronology. There is no clue in the gospels as to the date when Jesus was born, except Luke’s reference to shepherds watching their flocks by night, if that can be considered as evidence. Certainly, if shepherds were out at night watching their flocks, it could not have been in mid-winter that the birth took place. Winter is the rainy season, and even in Palestine flocks are folded at that time of the year, and not roaming about in the rain and sleet accompanied by cold and damp shepherds.
Mary forgot the date of a uniquely wonderful day or forgot to mention it. Admittedly, poor and illiterate parents in undeveloped societies do not remember the dates when their children were born and often do not even remember the year—simple people are not ruled by clocks and calendars as we are. But, if, as Acts claims, Mary, Jesus’s mother, lived with the disciples after the crucifixion, she never told them when her son was born, and this is surprising even for a poor person considering the interest shown by kings, shepherds and angels at the time.
Indeed, the traditional Christmas story stands in curious isolation from the rest of the New Testament. Neither Jesus himself, when grown up, nor his earliest followers claimed authority on the grounds of a special form of birth. The apostle Paul, in his extensive writings, discusses in detail the nature of Jesus without once mentioning a miraculous birth. It was only on later generations that the story of a miraculous baby adored in a stable by shepherds and kings began to make an impact. To this day it inspires art, poetry and a salutary humility in the lives of many, but Mary could have experienced none of it because the gospels indicate that she had no recollection of it.
Nor had the first Christians ever heard of it. Early Christians found themselves having to tell the world of the most tremendous birth there ever was on this planet not knowing when it happened. Christian scholars of the first two centuries even differed over the year Jesus was born, some believing that he was born fully twenty years before the currently accepted date. Centuries after the event, the year of Christ’s birth was determined but was determined wrongly. Nobody now holds that Jesus was born in the year 1 AD. Our calendar, which computes years supposedly from the birth of Jesus, was drawn up by a miscalculating monk in Italy in the sixth century. The miscalculation is obvious in that, on the basis of the New Testament story, Jesus must have been born by 4 BC, the year when Herod died.
Considering that an omnipotent God descended from heaven and performed astounding miracles to prove that people could now be saved in everlasting life, it seems odd that no one noted the year of his birth, even though many beings from shepherds to angels knew about it. The Holy Ghost was being his usual incompetent self. This should be sufficient to banish all faith in Christianity.
No event of Christian history was marked by justifiable dates for nearly four hundred years. For these first three or four hundred years, various Churches celebrated the birthday of Jesus on different dates. The day chosen as the birthday of Christ was the day which best fitted the doctrines of that Church, not the day upon which Jesus had actually been born. No one knew what day that was, but nobody cared. What was important was to select an auspicious and a suitable date. The eastern Churches kept it on 6 January, now the Epiphany. The Basilidians celebrated Christ’s birthday on the 24 or 25 April. Other Christian sects celebrated it, so Clement of Alexandria informs us, on the 25 May.
Perhaps they believed that Jesus’s birth date was irrelevant—only his divine life was relevant and that began at his baptism. Sadly, they did not know the date of the baptism either and arbitrarily chose 6 January. Why? Because that date had long been associated with people bathing in blessed water. Followers of the god Osiris, the deity of the Nile, had held a festival, the “Festival of the Immersion”, on the river on 6 January from time immemorial. Christian Copts celebrate it still. The Hierophant poured holy water into the river and blessed it, then people bathed in it. The Greeks identified Dionysos with Osiris and so on 6 January the sacred waters were blessed in both the religions of Osiris and Dionysos! Epiphany is a continuation of these Pagan rites.
The Egyptian Gnostics known as Basilidians, seeing the immersion ceremonies as a symbol of the baptism of Jesus, celebrated it on 6 January and gradually Christians elsewhere adopted this date as the anniversary of the Jesus’s baptism. By 386 AD the two great Christian festivals were Easter, the festival of the crucifixion, and Epiphany when rivers and springs were blessed and water was drawn and saved for baptisms throughout the year. Aristides Rhetor in about 160 AD tells us that water drawn from the Nile at the “Festival of the Immersion” is at its purest. Stored in wine jars, he says, it improves with time just like wine. And so does the myth! Two centuries later Epiphanius writes that the stored water actually changes into wine! In Dionysos worship, water turns to wine on 6 January. The miracle at Cana when Jesus turned water into wine is celebrated in the Christian calendar on 6 January!
Today the Epiphany celebration is most closely associated with the visit of the Magi at Jesus’s birth and has been since the fourth century AD. Magi were Persian priests so it seems likely that the legend was introduced from Mithras worship, originally a Persian religion. The Epiphany of Mithras was observed by shepherds who brought gifts, as in the Luke version of Jesus’s birth. Rather than merely equalling a rival, the editor who inserted the birth narrative into Matthew took a more positive tack. He aimed to show the superiority of Christianity over the other eastern religions—the divine baby Jesus is superior to the divine Mithras whose priests bring gifts to the new god. So the three Zadokites who officiated at Jesus’s rebirth were adapted into Magi from Persia appearing at his actual birth to prove that even the priests of Mithras worshipped the Christian God.
Cassian at about the beginning of the fifth century says the Egyptian provinces regarded Epiphany as being the birth date of Jesus. This was because Jesus was thought to be exactly 30 years old on his baptism. Note also that the Persian law-giver Zoroaster was exactly thirty when the spirit of god descended on him, and the Egyptian Pharaohs held a celebration called Sed exactly 30 years after the day they had been chosen by their father as his successor, their spiritual birthday. As many Churches commemorated the birth and the baptism of Christ on the same day, the festivals will have originated before any birth story was known, when the gospels began, like Mark, with the baptism of Jesus. On the day that Jesus was baptized, Christ was born.
The chief mythical constituents of the life of Jesus were known all over the cosmopolitan Græco-Roman world, most particularly in the overlapping fringe of the Græco-Roman and the Persian-Egyptian worlds—the eastern coast of the Mediterranean—where the gospels were certainly composed. Whatever city we may favour as the cradle of the gospels, Alexandria or Antioch, Smyrna or Ephesus, every myth and ritual representation mentioned was familiar there. Mithraism spread from Persia to Britain. Roman soldiers prayed to Mithras in the towers in which they guarded the north of England from the marauding Scots. The religion of Isis and Horus was even more familiar round the Mediterranean. The legend and ritual of Dionysos were hardly less familiar.
Romans had celebrated this festival for centuries as Pagans. Every Roman was familiar from childhood with the great midwinter festival, and in the earliest days of the Christian era the religions of Persia and Egypt, with similar festivals, had spread over the Empire. So, from end to end of the Roman Empire, 25 December was the birthday of the unconquered sun, of the saviour Mithras, and of the divine Horus, and they and the others were represented almost exactly as the birth of Christ was described in the gospels and is depicted in Catholic churches today.
The Roman emperor, Constantine—popularly considered the embodiment or incarnation of the supreme Roman sun god—Sol Invictus—later presided over the council of Nicea (325 AD) which lead to the official Christian recognition of the Trinity as the true nature of God. The importance of 25 December to Pagans made Christian converts think it must also be important to their newly adopted religion. They easily supposed it must have been the birthday of their messiah. Since his birth date had been forgotten, when Constantine made Jesus a god, 25 December was selected as his birthday, because it was the birthday of other gods, and particularly that of the chief rival to Christianity in the Roman Empire, Mithras. The bishops were typically opportunistic. By celebrating at the same time as Pagan religions they hoped to offer the same benefits and pull in some Pagan punters. Christmas remained the start of a new year up to the tenth century.
In 336 or 354 AD, hoping to counteract the Manichaean heresy—that Jesus was never born at all but was a phantasm—the Christians took the date of the solar birth as the birthday of Jesus. The solar celebration was so widespread and popular that the church could neither ban it, nor stop it being identified in the popular mind with Jesus’s birth anyway. Almost all religions have some root in primitive sun worship, and the Christians merely acknowledged a custom which the adherents of most of the contemporary religions had carried on for many centuries before that time. Jesus was identified with the sun by both Cyprian and Ambrose. Jesus and Mithras had become almost identical in the minds of the western populace.
Church leaders moved the date of Jesus’s birth “after the flesh” from 6 January to the birthday of the Unconquerable Sun. No evidence was quoted, nor any tradition appealed to, to show that the 25 December was the actual birthday. The only attempt made to show that Jesus was actually born upon 25 December, and that the origin of Christmas Day was not Pagan, was based on the Annunciation being the 25 March. From that date—itself selected upon doctrinal and not upon historical grounds—nine months leads to the 25 December, which would, if the Annunciation was a physiological process identical in its working with sexual conception, be the correct date for the birth. As the 25 March was itself a date inherited from Paganism, and not a date supported by evidence of any kind whatsoever, the theory has not gained acceptance even among theologians.
There was no universal agreement upon the 25 December as Christmas Day. The churches of the Eastern Empire accused the Western Church of idolatry and sun worship, and for long continued to observe Christmas Day on the 6 January. The Egyptians did the same until the year 431 AD. But even the 6 January was connected with the birthday of God. Epiphanius argued the birthday of Christ must be the 13th day after the 25 December, corresponding to days for the twelve apostles and Jesus himself, and bringing Christmas Day to the Epiphany, a day observed in Egypt as a festival of the Virgin, Kore Kosmou. 25 December was still listed as the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun” in the calendar of Philocalus in 336 AD, the year before Constantine died and a quarter of a century after he had supposedly made the empire Christian, and the Emperor Honorius (395 to 423) could still speak of 25 December as being a “new” festival, yet a text of about the same time says it was one of the three great Christian festivals so holy that theatres had to close by law.
Saint Augustine was one who did not approve of this particular concession to Paganism. Christians were never too keen on following the instructions of their holy texts though they usually made a great show of studying them. Had they taken notice they could not have taken these Pagan practices into the divine religion of Essenism. The scriptures warned against it quite explicitly:
Take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before thee; and that thou inquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise.Deut 12:30
It was hard for the gentile Christian converts though. They had lately been celebrating these festivals and all their friends still were. So they thought—“What does it matter?” New religions inherit or copy the doctrines and festivals of the old. The Moslem month of Haj is celebrated at the time of the year when pre-Moslem Pagan festivals had previously been held, and the ancient Pagan rites are still carried out during the Haj celebrations. The ritual remains, the explanation of it changes. The clergy tell us the explanation is a myth in Paganism, but the revealed truth in their patriarchal religion! Christian ministers have been so flexible in the face of serious rivalry as to be unprincipled. Yet in the face of weak or isolated rivals, it has applied the devil’s own punishments as if they were the guardians of hell not heaven.
For Christians, Christ was the real sun that had risen upon the world. Why not boldly pinch the birthday of the unconquered sun? The masses could then be told they were celebrating Jesus. The ribaldry, license and fooling were contrary to Essenic, now Christian, prudery, but despite attempts to stop it all, it thankfully persists until today.
When we celebrate Christmas we continue the practice of hundreds of generations of our remote ancestors, who held festivals at that season every year for many centuries before Christianity had ever been heard of. The harmless festivities of Christmastide, and the spirit of peace and goodwill with which they are traditionally associated, are customs and feelings which it would be sad to see forgotten or eradicated. Peace and goodwill reign more easily when the followers of all the religions join together and celebrate the return of the sun and the beginning of a new year, than when theologians assemble to decry the idolatry of others and to wrangle about which of the gods were really born on the 25 December.
Christmas is not the only Christian festival which ignored the warning of Deuteronomy, and was stolen from ancient Paganism and adapted to the Essenism of Jesus. There is also Easter. Easter, roughly corresponding with the vernal equinox was also a time of festival for the followers of many ancient religions, but the period of the year in which Easter is celebrated does correspond with the biblical story, as the crucifixion is said to have taken place at the time of the Passover, the two events being theologically parallel. Yet Christians spilt torrents of each other’s blood in quarrels about the fixing of the date of Easter, and accepted Christmas Day without much demur.
The Feast of S John, the Holy communion, the Annunciation of the virgin, the assumption of the virgin, and many others have their roots in ancient Pagan worship. Midsummer Day is the Feast of S John the Baptist and is dedicated also to saints Philip and James. Saints Peter, James, Andrew and Paul were given unimportant days even though we are told they were Christ’s Apostles.
How did it arise? One answer is that it was the work of an all-powerful God intervening in human affairs. For believers, in theological “logic”, such a statement is impregnable, but it is insufficient for those who demand natural explantions using standard historical methods. Recent scholarship, assisted by the Dead Sea Scrolls, has thrown much new light on the nature of the Judaism which produced the Christian “Jesus of Nazareth”. To understand the beginings of Christianity one must first understand the Jews of the first century AD.
Little in the New Testament is there by accident. Most of these writings has a purpose, but the authors of the New Testament had habits of thought which were alien to those of the twentieth century. They considered it legitimate to describe what ought to have happened without bothering too much about what did. They accepted the Jesus was the Messiah and so messianic things must have happened to him!
The sources for our Christmas story are the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke. The other two gospels, Mark and John, do not mention it at all, nor does any other part of the New Testament.
The authors of Matthew and Luke were evidently writing from different viewpoints—Matthew was aimed at a Jewish readership and Luke at a gentile one. Their accounts of what ought to have happened are also different and inconsistent.
In Matthew, the story is of a virgin, Mary, betrothed to a man called Joseph. Both, apparently, are residents of Bethlehem. Mary becomes pregnant and Joseph is assured in a dream that this is the work of the Holy Ghost and so he does not put her away. The baby is born in the ordinary way—with no mention of a stable or a manger—and soon afterwards the family is visited by wise men from the east who bring gifts. King Herod hears from the wise men of the birth of a royal pretender and orders all infants in Bethlehem to be slaughtered. But Joseph gets a warning in a dream of Herod’s intentions and escapes with his family to Egypt. Later, on the inspiration of another dream of Joseph’s, the family settles in Nazareth.
The Luke account, on the other hand, has no wise men, no slaughter of the innocents, no flight to Egypt and no dreams by Joseph. Here, a virgin, Mary, is betrothed to Joseph, both of them living in Nazareth. Mary becomes pregnant after a direct revelation to her from an angel. Joseph’s reaction is unrecorded. Because of a unique form of census, Joseph has to go from Nazareth to his ancestral town, Bethlehem, to be registered. There is no evidence, apart from Luke, that such a strange census ever took place. It would have been a chaotic affair, uncharacteristic of the Bomans. In Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary find the inn full up and the baby is born in a stable. Shepherds learn of the birth from an angel and go to the stable to be the first to adore Jesus.
Matthew tries to relate the circumstances of the birth of Jesus to traditions associated with the births of other Jewish holy men, notably Moses. These traditions are to be found both in the Old Testament and among non-scriptural Jewish legends. The Old Testament version of Moses is that he was born at a time when Pharaoh was slanghtering Jewish male babies. His mother saved him by hiding him among reeds on the edge of the river. Non-biblical writings supplemented this account by telling how both Pharaoh and Moses’s parents learnt through dreams of the future greatness of the infant. The parallel between the infancy stories is more than a coincidence.
Similarly, the star, the wise men, the placing of the birth at Bethlehem and Joseph’s descent from the royal House of David are all fitted to Jewish tradition and scriptural prophecies. The reasoning of the writer and the early editors of the script appears to have been that Jesus the Nazarene by his life has shown himself to be the Lord’s Messiah, so, his birth must have been in accordance with Old Testament prophecies. Individual Old Testament passages, collected together and interpreted in ways which then were normal, were picked out to form a birth story.
The Luke story is more consistent than that of Matthew and less related to Jewish requirements. It relies upon angels as messengers instead of upon dreams. It gives an active role to Mary and minimises Joseph. It also gives Joseph’s genealogy but with the names, even that of his father, completely different from Matthew’s version. The stable and the shepherds have little theological purpose except to copy other religions. The story creaks only in the census, which is a way of setting the birth in Bethlehem rather than Nazareth. Both the Matthew and Luke birth stories are apparently the newest part of the New Testament. Even after they were first written new material continued to be added.
However, the virgin birth was not to be found in Jewish tradition, but only in gentile Pagan mythology. Mainstream Jews, unlike some Pagan groups, attached no religious value to virginity, though one section of the Essene sect, described in the Dead Sea Scrolls, had introduced to Judaism the practice of celibacy. Some Jewish heroes had been born of mothers who had passed the ordinary age for child-bearing, as with Sarah and Isaac or Hannah and Samuel. There was a special divine providence to “open the womb” but no suggestion that a human father was unnecessary.
Matthew is far from clear on the “virgin” birth. What exactly was a “virgin” in those times? There were two definitions. The first corresponded to the modern one, that of a girl whose hymen remained intact, but a second appears in the earliest Jewish legal codes, the Tosephta and the Mishnah, both of which belong to the first two centuries AD. One rabbi quoted in the Tosephta is Eliezer, who was flourishing in the period 90-l30 AD. Eliezer is asked: “Who is a virgin?” His answer is: “She who has never seen blood, even if she is married and has had children”. The Mishnah, the main rabbinical work of the same period, fits in with this. A virgin is “she that has never yet suffered a flow, even though she was married”. These statements reflect the Jewish distaste for mensruation inherited from the Persian religion. In this period, if a man touched a menstruating woman, even accidentally, he was accounted defiled.
In Jesus’s time it was possible for a woman to bear children without ever having menstruated. A girl was counted marriageable when she was 12 years old and many girls were married at that age. Many such young wives would not have reached puberty in those times when food was harder to come by and everyday life harder than today. They could have been experiencing sex with their husbands without having yet ovulated. At their first ovulation they could have conceived a child. To be “born of a virgin” in this sense might have been not uncommon, but might have marked out sons as specially holy because they had been born of a woman who had never been defiled by menstruation.
How did the non-Jewish theme of a supernatural virgin birth take root in Matthew? The question is especially puzzling in view of the pains taken in the opening verses, before the virgin birth is mentioned, to set out Jesus’s genealogy, the purpose of which was to prove that Jesus was Joseph’s son and an heir of the House of David. The relevant passage ends: “…Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary. Of her was born Jesus”. This, in various translations, is the accepted, orthodox text of Matthew. But in one very early version, discovered during the nineteenth century, the relevant passage states specifically: “Joseph, to whom was betrothed the virgin Mary, begot Jesus”.
A possible clue to why the virgin birth got into the text can be found in Matthew’s quotation from Isaiah: “The virgin will conceive and bear a son”. This, at first sight, would appear to bring the idea of a virgin birth within the range of Jewish prophecy, but the quotation is based on a mistranslation. In the original Hebrew, the passage refers not to a “virgin” in any sense of the word but to a “young woman”. The word “virgin” crept in by error in the Greek translation, the Septuagint. The existence of this error is accepted today by all scholars, including the Roman Catholic ones who prepared the Jerusalem Bible. “Virgin” is no longer used in Isaiah, although necessarily it has to be retained in Matthew’s quotation of it.
But once the word “virgin” became part of the Greek version of Matthew, it is easy to imagine a non-Jewish person taking it literally, and erecting a theology upon it. The process would have been the more obvious because he was accustomed to myths of supernatural births. The Greek hero Hercules, to take only one example, was supposed to have been born of a union of Zeus with a mortal woman.
Astronomical Origin of the Virgin Birth
The tradition of divine saviours being born of undeflowered women has an astronomical aspect. It has been said:
The adventures of Jesus Christ are all depicted among the stars,
and this is why the Romans saw him as a sun god like Mithras with whom he eventually became identified.
The myth of the Star of Bethlehem comes from the prophecy of Numbers 24:17:
There shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Seth.
This is a text often quoted by Christian writers as having a prophetic reference to the Christian Messiah. The same text goes on to say, “It shall destroy the children of Seth”, a prophecy which is plainly false if it is meant, like the rest of it, to apply to Jesus Christ. This prophecy is obviously a prophecy of a traditional victorious messiah of Israel, modelled on king David.
The star of Jacob or Judah, both being the same, is shown on astronomical maps as prominent in the constellation Virgo, the Virgin, called by the Hebrews, Ephraim. It was known in the Syrian, Arabian and Persian Systems of astronomy as Messaeil and was considered the ruling genius of the constellation. Messaeil is “Messa El” (The Anointed or Son of God)—apparently the star, Spica. The star of Jacob was evidently a figure from astrology, in which the virgin is shown rising with an infant son of God in her arms.
The virgin, with her god-begotten child, the bright star, Spica, represented as an ear of corn (the meaning of the name of the star), was pictured in the heavens from time immemorial. They are present in the Hindu zodiac, at least three thousand years old, and in the ancient Egyptian one. Virgo commences rising at midnight, on the 25 December, with this star in the east in her arms—the star which piloted the wise men. According to Albertus Magnus, in his Book on the Universe:
The sign of the celestial virgin rises above the horizon, at the moment we find fixed for the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Sir William Drummond adds in Œdipus Judaicus:
The anointed of El, the male infant, who rises in the arms of Virgo, was called Jesus by the Hebrews… and was hailed as the anointed king or Messiah.
Now though the sun is annually reborn on the date chosen for Christ’s birth, 25 December, the midwinter solstice, for a period the sun was also born at the autumnal equinox as the infant son of God, the “bread of life”. This is the time of the original Jewish New Year, Rosh ha Shanah, 1 Tishri, the religious new year as opposed to the civil new year which began on 1 Nisan. Rosh ha Shanah was designated in Jewish religious law as a festival and a time of great rejoicing. Paradoxically it was also the Day of Judgement because it was an anniversary of the creation. This is the real date of the birth of Christ, if Christians want to celebrate it.
The reason is that in the centuries ending the first millenium BC the precession of the equinoxes led to a curious celestial event. The child of the cosmic virgin, Spica, rose on the Eastern horizon at the autumnal equinox at the same time as the sun. So after the constellation of the virgin had risen just before dawn in the east, the sun rose just when the bright star Spica was expected to rise. It seemed as if the son of the virgin, the ear of corn symbolising the bread of life (Rosh ha Shanah celebrated the beginning of the agricultural year), had risen as the glorious sun. The virgin had given birth to a god.
What was even more spectacular on some of these occasions was that the morning star, Venus, the Queen of Heaven, rose in the constellation of Virgo before the sun! So the sun rises as the child of the virgin Queen of Heaven over the eastern horizon, appearing out of the sea in many countries. In Latin, sea is “mare” whence Maria or Mary. The infant god arises as the light of the East in the arms of his mother, Mary or Venus, the morning star, which rises minutes before the child.
Also interesting is the fact that the Virgin in ancient zodiacs is associated with a tree, in which case the son would be an offshoot, a shoot or a branch, all of which were messianic names, and the word Nazarene comes from the word “neser” meaning a branch. The messianic name, Shiloh, which puzzled scholars for a long time also means branch and therefore means the star, Spica. When the branch or son of the virgin appears as the light of the east in all his glory then the messiah has been born. Whence:
We have seen his star in the east, and have come to worship him.Mt 2:8
This phenomenon occurred in 11 BC and 3 BC and either event might have been associated with Jesus, though the earlier one is the favourite. The Essenes who were astrologers trained in Babylonian exile would have seen all this. It later escaped into the empire as literal truth instead of the astrological signs it originally was.
The story of the slaughter of the innocents is also widespread because originally it was again part of the allegory of the sun’s journey through the heavens. When the sun passed through the constellation of Gemini in May, he was imagined to have destroyed them. The Greek word to destroy is “anaireo” which literally means “to pass through” or “withdraw from” as well as “to take away”. The sun takes on the characteristics of each constellation it proceeds through so here Hercules is an infant twin. In myth that is, of course, what he was, his brother being Iphicles. So Hercules was a sun god who in his journey through the heavens threatens to kill himself as an infant of the constellation, Gemini. His earthly, adopted father had to flee with him and his mother to Galem for protection from threatening danger. Herod’s name suggested a link with Hercules so he fitted appropriately into the legend. Jesus was, of course, supposed to have had a twin brother, Thomas.
Pharaoh’s slaughter of the children, Christians believe, is referred to in the bible when Rachel weeps for her children, a passage introduced by:
In Rama, there was a voice heard.
Note that “Rama” is the Indian and Phoenican name for the zodiac, and that Rachel had two children only—Joseph and Benjamin—equivalent to Castor and Pollux. Rachel then was the queen of heaven, Venus, because for the Assyrians and the Phoenicians she wept when the sun passed through the astronomical twins, the constellation of Gemini, doubtless fearing their destruction.
The stories of gods cohabiting with virgins, and begetting other gods, are of astronomical origin. Astronomy and religion were interwoven at an early period of time.
The whole story of Jesus cannot be reduced to solar mythology. Once the crucifixion legend of the historic Jesus had been carried into the Pagan empire he came to be understood as a sun god. He collected bits of sun god mythology, but some people today, strain to explain every element of the biography of Jesus in the gospels in terms of sun mythology. There is plainly a genuine story of a living human at the core of the gospels, most clearly seen unadorned in Mark’s gospel. This was its novelty—here was a sun god that had lived on earth recently! But the Christians, largely ignorant people at first, fell for the cosmic Christ completely. They believed the cosmic Christ, the sun god, had actually appeared on earth recently and sacrificed himself, like the gods of the mysteries. The Gnostics said to the Christians:
You poor ignoramuses (idiotai), you have mistaken the mysteries of old for modern history, and accepted literally all that was only meant mystically.
Addition by Larry Wright
Addition by Larry Wright who has written a monograph on Jesus as a sun god but it has been out of print for some time. He has sent us this summary…
The worship of the Virgin Mary is, in all relevant details, the same as the worship of all the other Goddesses that were prevalent in the ancient world. Mary is Isis, or Venus, or Aphrodite, or Semiramis, et al… She is the “Queen of Heaven” or the “Mother of God”, or the “Star of the Sea”, or the “Immaculate Virgin”. The Mother and Child were worshipped in Babylon, as were Isis and Horus in Egypt. In Greece there was Ceres as the Great Mother with a babe at her breast, or Irene with Plutus, and even in China there was Shing Moo, also with a babe. The ancient Etruscans and Italians worshipped the goddess Nutria, who also had a son in her arms, and the Virgin mother Devaki suckled the divine Krishna. Minerva was honoured by the title “Virgin Queen”, as was Juno who was called the “Virgin queen of Heaven”.
The Virgin Mary, the Grecian Venus, and the Egyptian Isis et al… are all Queens of the starry heavens, for they are all personifications of Virgo, the eternal virgin of the zodiac. The constellation Virgo is a Y shaped group, which the star at the foot is the well known Spica, a star of the first magnitude. The whole resembles more a cup than the human figure, but when we remember the symbolic meaning of the “cup”, that seems to be an obvious explanation of the name Virgo, which the constellation has borne since the earliest times. Virgo lies very nearly on the ecliptic, that is the imagined path of the sun.
In Egypt 3000 years ago, the birthday of the sun god was celebrated on the 25 December, the first day to noticeably lengthen after the day of the winter solstice—the 21 December. At the midnight hour on the first minutes of the 25 December the birthday of the sun was celebrated. The sun was then in the zodiacal sign of Capricorn, then known as the Stable of Augeus, so the infant sun god was said to have been born in a stable.
Brightly shining on the meridian was Sirius—the “Star from the East”, while rising in the east was Virgo the Virgin of the zodiac, with the horizon passing through the centre of the constellation. It is this astronomical fact that is the basis of the many legends of virgin born world saviours. To the right of Sirius was the constellation Orion, “The Great Hunter”, with three stars in his belt. These stars, in a straight line, point at Sirius and were anciently known as “The Three Kings”. Depicted in the Zodiac of the temple Denderah, the constellation Virgo was pictured as a woman with a spike of corn in one hand, and on the adjacent margin the Virgin was denoted by a figure of Isis with Horus in her arms. Carpenter remarks:
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 saviour, 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! A curious confirmation of the same astrological connection 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 15 August, while the festival of the birth of the Virgin is dated the 8 September… At the present day, the Zodiacal signs— owing to the precession of the Equinoxes—have shifted 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 signalise 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 signalise the reappearance of the constellation—or the birth of the Virgin.
The Jews held that the time of the messiah’s advent was to be astrologically indicated by the conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, in the constellation of the Fishes. The prophecy related to the entrance of the vernal equinox into the zodiacal sign of Pisces the Fishes—due to the precession of the equinoxes—in approximately 255 BC. Bethlehem means the “The house of the bread corn”, in the mansions of the zodiac, Virgo is the place of the seed for sowing, and the opposite sign Pisces, is the mansion of the “Bringer forth in fruitfulness”, first set in heaven in accordance with the seasons of Egypt. The Hebrew messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, because the birthplace above was localised in the city of Judea, the land of the solar birthplace in the sign of the Fishes.
The ancient starry drama was played out yet again. At midnight on the 24th of December Virgo rose in the east and a new infant saviour was stable born. All the sins committed on earth gradually drifted down to Capricorn, hence the filthy condition of the stable, whose cleansing was one of the twelve zodiacal labours of Hercules, himself a sun god. The second-century church father Justin Martyr remarked that Christ was born when the sun had its birth in the Augean stable, Jesus coming as a second Hercules to cleanse the foul world. There is another stable in the constellation Auriga on either side of which are Taurus the bull and Ursa Major, known in Egypt as the “Ass of Typhon”. Here we have the ox and ass of the traditional nativity scene. It is also worth noting that the stars of the Great Bear were known to the Arabians as “Martha and Mary”, and also the “Coffin of Lazarus”.
“The Three Kings”—the stars of Orion— the Magi from the east mentioned in the gospels (Mt 2:11), at the birth of the sun god, came to pay homage, and bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The reason for presenting these particular gifts is explained by the fact that of the seven metals dedicated to the genie of the planets, gold was the one consecrated to the sun god, and frankincense and myrrh were the gums burnt in censers, at his worship.
Despite their astral origins, Christians later “discovered” the bodies of Melchior, Gaspar and Balthassar; and placed them in their new cathedral in Constantinople. From Constantinople the bones of the three kings were, as a special favour to Milan, allowed to be moved to that city. When Milan was captured by Frederick Barbarossa in 1162 AD, the Archbishop of Cologne persuaded the Emperor to transfer these relics to his cathedral; and there for the last eight centuries the bones have rested. The shrine of the “Three Kings” thereafter became one of the greatest treasures of Cologne cathedral.
The Egyptian astrological elements in the stable myth are provided by Massey:
The manger is the celestial, zodiacal and the actual birthplace of the messiah in Egyptian mythology. The typical birthplace was designated Apt or Aptu, whence came the name of Abydus. Ap means to manifest and expose to view, also to guide; Apt is the place or person. Apt, as person, was the most ancient genitrix who first brought forth from the waters as the fish, dragon or hippopotamus, hence Aptu is the mythical fish. Apt as place was also the pool of two truths, the piscina of the beginning, which was made zodiacal at last in the sign of Pisces. The pool, fish, uterus and crib, are all types of the birthplace named apt, and the “apt” is also a manger. The manger, apt, is a sign of the birthplace in Thebes, as in Aptu (Abydus). Thus the hieroglyphics will explain why the divine child, as Ichthyus, was born in a manger. One position of the manger can be identified by the asterism called Proesepe, in the sign of Cancer, which was at one time the place of birth of the god at summer solstice. The manger at Bethlehem had been the birthplace of the divine babe in a far earlier cult. Hieronymus describes the Syrian Adonis, extant in his time 331-420 AD and says that in the place where the redeemer cried in the manger, the lament of the women mourning for Adonis had been heard even in later times, as it assuredly had been in the pre-Christian period.
According to the Chronicle Of Alexandria, the Egyptians not only consecrated the nativity of the new-born babe and the virgin mother, they had the symbolic custom of exposing a child in a crib to the adoration of the people. When Ptolemy asked why this was done, he was informed that it was an ancient mystery—the crib or Apt being identical to the manger, thus being the same babe in the manger—that was born in the Apt above.
It is clear that the worship of the virgin mother was a common practice in the ancient world. In the sixth or seventh century the Roman Pagan festival of Diana celebrated by torch light on August 13th, was adopted by the Christian cult as the “Dormition” or “Falling asleep of the Mother of God”. This later became known as the “Assumption of the Blessed Virgin”, and was celebrated two days later than the Pagan festival—on August 15th.
The worship of the Virgin, the Queen of Heaven, became one of the grand features of the Christian religion. Mary the mother of Jesus, was pronounced Theotokus— “Mother of God”— by the Council of Ephesus 431 AD, and a church on the site was made sacred to her. Twenty years later in 451 AD at the council of Chalcedon Mary was further likened to the many virgin mothers that had preceded her by being pronounced a Virgin. Ephesus was chosen, because here had stood the great temple of Artemis, the great Virgin mother of Asia minor—of whom Isis was the prototype.
Artemis was to the Greeks what Diana was to the Romans (Acts 19:27). Her temple had been rebuilt for the fourth time under the patronage of the fabulously rich Croesus. It took 140 years to complete and was dedicated in 430 BC. It was destroyed by fire, but was rebuilt to even greater magnificence by about 356 BC, and became known as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was finally destroyed by an edict of the Christian Emperor Theodosius in 381 AD. Her Assumption was decreed in 813 AD, her Immaculate Conception became dogma during the pontificate of Pope Pius IX in 1854. Although the former was not made official papal dogma until the pontificate of Pius XII in 1950 AD.
Regarding the elevation of Mary, Smith remarks:
Mary soon began to compete in popular affection with Isis, Cybele and Demeter. It required but slight and easy changes to transfer to her the stately ritual of the goddess Isis, with its shaven and tonsured priests, its matins and vespers, its tinkling music, its jewelled images of the mother of god; the ancient portrait of Isis and the child Horus was ultimately accepted not only in popular opinion, but by formal Episcopal sanction, as the portrait of the virgin and her child.
There can be little doubt that the Virgin Mary has been modelled directly upon the Egyptian Isis, for the two are virtually indistinguishable. The qualities which so endear Mary to the Catholics are the ones which made Isis so popular in Egypt. Both goddesses, gentle mothers that they were, could intercede with the all-powerful creator and stern judge far more effectively than their sons, and accordingly both have been styled Intercessor. Other titles of Isis include saviour of Souls and Immaculate Virgin, all appropriated by her Christian counterpart. Like Isis before her, Mary is portrayed standing on a crescent moon with an arch of stars above her head.
Certain images of Isis were celebrated for their miraculous movements, or the shedding of tears, and she was even said to have appeared to her worshippers on rare but special occasion. This miraculous work of “Our Lady” was naturally continued by the Christian church which gradually took over the cult of Isis. In fourth-century Alexandria, the Temple of Isis and the Church of Saint Mary stood side by side, the devotees of the mother goddesses indifferently frequenting either. The end came in the sixth century, when the last remaining Temple of Isis, on the Nile island of Philae, became a Christian church at the point of a sword under an edict of Justinian.
In the foregoing it has been argued that Mary the virgin mother of Jesus, like her counterparts in the many saviour cults of antiquity, had their origin in the starry heavens, patterned on Virgo the celestial world virgin of the zodiac. This symbolism of the birth of a new sun god, with its attendant message of hope and redemption at the winter solstice, originated in Egypt with the infant Horus and his mother Isis, the Egyptian Madonna. The doctrine of the Mother of God was brought in along with the worship of the Madonna by Bishop Cyril, and the monks of Alexandria, in the 5th century AD. Figures of Isis nursing the infant Horus were taken from the temples to serve as the Madonna and Child. The name Madonna is no more than a contraction of “Mater Domina” or Great or Lady Mother—in Roman times a title of mother goddesses in general.
As we have noted, Isis was also represented like Mary standing on the crescent moon with twelve stars surrounding her head, and with the infant saviour in her arms enclosed in a framework of the flowers of the Egyptian bean or lotus. The Virgin Mary was often depicted in this manner in medieval art; and she was represented in statuary as being black or dark skinned; black Madonnas exist today in many of the cathedrals of Europe. The most ancient pictures and statues in Italy and other parts of Europe, of what are supposed to be representations of the Christian Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus are black. The infant god, is depicted in the arms of his black mother, his eyes and drapery white, but he is himself is perfectly black. The reason why these early representations of the Virgin Mary and Jesus are black, crowned, and covered with jewels, is that they are of pre-Christian origin; as Isis the Egyptian “Queen of Heaven” was worshipped in Europe for centuries before the Christian Era.
Temples and statues were erected to her at Bologna in Italy, and the church of Notre Dame in Paris is built on the original site of a Temple of Isis. On the entrance to the north cloister is figured the signs of the Zodiac, except that the sign Virgo is replaced by the figure of the Madonna and Child. Finally, in many parts of Italy can be seen pictures of the Virgin with her infant in her arms, inscribed with the words, “Deo Soli” (Sun God). This betrays their Pagan origin.