Christianity: A Borrowed Tradition
How Original is Christianity?
It is an interesting notion to consider the possibility that many current Christian holiday traditions have little (or nothing) to do with the Christian faith itself. In reality, how many symbols that are abundant at Christmas and Easter are actually Christian symbols? Why was the evergreen tree chosen to be a standard representation of Christmas, when there are other trees that seem to be much more important to Christian beliefs than this? Christ was said to have been crucified on a cross made from the dogwood tree, and the ark which the Christian God had instructed Noah to build was made from gopher wood.1 Why are the hare and egg so prominent in current Easter celebrations, when there is no real explanation for these two symbols having anything to do with Christ's resurrection? Christ is likened to the lion and the lamb; nowhere is he likened to a rabbit, and he certainly did not instruct his followers to decorate eggs in honor of his sacrifice.
The same could even be said for many of today's secular holidays that are widely observed, large and small, including everything from Groundhog Day to Thanksgiving. But what are the origins of these current traditions, both sacred and secular? Before delving too deep into any single ancient tradition, it should be said that before the coming of the Abrahamic religions2, there were dozens, if not hundreds, of pagan traditions around the world. Ironically, these traditions that were hundreds of miles apart were not always entirely unique. All of this pushes the question: Exactly how original is Christianity? There existed, even before Judaism, many stories of a great flood sent by a great god.3 Even the Christian's belief in a virgin birth of a son by God is not entirely original in its telling.
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Brief History of Christianity and Paganism
Christianity has always been, in a way, an eclectic sort of religion. With roots deeply ingrained in Judaism and Roman beliefs, Christianity defines itself with the same set of basic principles and has since its emergence, but in its earliest years was an evolving religion. One of the more interesting changes that may have occurred was when Christianity spread through parts of Europe in the mid-second century. Although Christianity first appeared in Middle Eastern Asia, it was in Europe where it met most of its more permanent changes.
Britain at this time, especially, had already been long influenced by Roman paganism, but the Druidism and Celtic paganism from surrounding peoples that dominated were far from dead. With the eventual downfall of the Roman Empire came the growth and expansion of Christianity, so that by the late fourth century, Christianity's hold on Britain was nearly, if not fully, complete. With this newfound power, Christian leaders began outlawing ancient pagan practices, and temples, idols, and altars, which were not safe from the new laws of the state, were destroyed.
The Germanic tribes of the north had always skirted on the edge of the Empire located in Britain; in the mid-fifth century these tribes were moving southward. "In 476, Emperor Romulus Augustus was deposed by Odavacar, a Germanic chieftain."4 These tribes brought with them their own pagan ways, which is generalized today as the Nordic or Heathen traditions in contemporary paganism, both of which are based on Norse mythology of ancient times. It is many of these ways that, alongside the native pagan traditions, were in part absorbed directly into Christianity.
Christmas Symbolism and its Roots
Then, and today, one of the most important religious observances was Christmas, or Christ's Mass, the celebration of the birth of Christ which takes place in the last days of December. Before Christianity, however, December was a time abundant with rites and rituals. Winter solstice celebrations had been practiced by many different pagan traditions for thousands of years. In Rome, the festival known as Saturnalia was observed in honor of Saturn, a Roman god, between December 17 and 24. Saturn was known as a god of agriculture mainly, but also was attributed with justice and strength. In Greece, Saturn's counterpart, Kronos, was worshipped with a harvest festival as well. In addition, December 25 was a day of celebration for the god Mithras, who was probably of Persian origin, and the concept of "Sol Invictus" may predate Roman rituals.5
Before Christianity grew in Britain, it had no official celebration for the birth of Jesus. However, the winter solstice was observed in Celtic paganism as the birth of the sun; the longest night and the shortest day. A dark time, but a time for celebration, for it mean that the sun would inevitably return, and with the sun's return, or rebirth, would come with it a flowering rebirth of the earth. In current Wicca practice, which is generally observed as an eclectic revival of ancient ways, including Celtic, Norse, and Roman alike, the solstice "marks the vanquishing of the Holly King, God of the Waning Year, by the Oak King, God of the Waxing Year. The Goddess...this is her moment for giving birth to the Child of Promise."6 Janet and Stewart Farrar, two well-respected and known faces in Wicca, go on to say that the story of the Nativity is simply the Christian version of the same theme of rebirth, a theme in place since well before the creation of Christianity itself.
Now that the basic idea of winter celebrations has been compared, albeit shortly, what about the symbols that dominate current Christmas traditions? When and where exactly did the use of the fir tree for Christmas observances come from? Jock Elliot writes, "The Christmas tree is the very emblem of Christmas today. Its roots run deep, to pagan times when evergreens were first used to decorate homes and places of worship in mid-winter."7 The evergreen tree is sacred to many pagan traditions, representing the immortality of life; it represents too that death is an illusion, as fir stays green even when the rest of the earth "dies" in the wintertime. Entirely pre-Christian in its own right, and it says in the Bible, "Learn not the way of the heathen...For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest...They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers."8 The Romans would, as well, during the celebration of the birth of Mithras, cut evergreen limbs and decorate their homes with them in honor of their sun god. On these boughs they would place bits of metal, candles, and various ornaments as offerings and representations of their gods.
Yet even still the evergreen tree is readily accepted as a predominant symbol of Christmas, and many Christians would argue that it is entirely Christian. Unfortunately, there is little evidence linking the tradition of Christmas tree decorating to the celebration of Christ's birth. Like the fir tree, other symbols abound as well- mistletoe, for one, is considered one of the most sacred plants to Druidic tradition. Holly is another, and even jolly Saint Nick and everything that accompanies his stories.
Holly is very obviously linked to the Druidic idea of the Holly King. The Holly King, who rules the waning, or dying, year, when summer is at its peak and fall descends into winter just as the earth descends into its sleep, until the god's rebirth at the solstice. In her book, Galina Krasskova says, "Yule is a celebration replete with feasting and gift-giving...It is a time when Woden is said to ride freely through the skies."9 Some also equate the number eight (remember there were originally eight reindeer who pull Santa's sleigh) with the eight holidays observed in most pagan cycles. The significance of the reindeer themselves as well cannot be dismissed, as they are quite possibly representations of the Celtic Horned God, Cernunnos. Cernunnos is the Horned God who dies at Samhain, today's Halloween, and is reborn at Yule, during the winter solstice. Furthermore, the Yule celebration of the Norse peoples lasted twelve days- and according to Krasskova is a time of resolutions and oaths. All of these beliefs and traditions concerning the birth, rebirth, or coming of the sun, and even more from other parts of the world10, pre-date Christmas and Christianity by hundreds of years at the least. Even the current, quite secular New Year holiday is a modern celebration of ancient religious observances.
Easter, the Vernal Equinox, and the Sacred Hare
The second of the two most important Christian observances is no less riddled with pagan traditions. Easter and Christmas define Christianity at its core; Easter is celebrated as the resurrection of Christ three days after his sacrifice. Traditionally, Easter is observed on the Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. This is generally accepted by Christians everywhere and followers of all Christian denominations around the world, despite the equinox itself having no real foundation or purpose in Christian myth otherwise.
In pre-Christian times, the vernal equinox was celebrated as part of what is known today as the wheel of the year, the ever-continuing path of the sun. In this case, the sun is growing in power, but is not yet at its full strength. Eostre, or Ostara in the Celtic tradition, is the name of a Saxon goddess, whose name literally means "spring," and is also known by Ostare, goddess of the dawn.11 Her Greek, Roman, Norse, and Indian counterparts (Eos, Aurora, Freya, and Usha respectively) are all associated with spring, fertility, and the dawn. In modern day Neo-pagan beliefs, it is the time when the Goddess awakens from her death-like sleep and takes on her maiden form. While feasts were held in her honor throughout the month, generally it was around the spring equinox when celebrations were at their most vibrant. Maia was another goddess of spring and rebirth, who brought fertility to the earth and caused flowers to grow. The legend of Persephone is yet another Greek myth of rebirth.
Resurrection stories and myths abound at this time, because it is the season when the earth wakes up from what seems like death. Pre-Christian myths include the rebirth of Osiris and the Feast of Isis in Ancient Egypt, where eggs were placed on gravestones in honor of rebirth. The egg has long been a symbol of the sun and fertility. After Christianity took hold in Europe, this time was used to explain the tale of the resurrection of Jesus, but generally there was no mention of rabbits and eggs in the telling of Christ's sacrifice. "One of the most prominent symbols of the vernal equinox is the egg. To many cultures, the egg represents the cyclical rebirth of nature...Some accounts [also] claim that rabbits were considered sacred to Eostre, and that she herself was known to take the form of a rabbit."12 Further explanation of the sacredness of eggs may be due to the fact that eggs were once highly prized as sources of nuitrition, as well as not being readily available all year. It is around springtime when eggs become quite a common sight.
Rabbits, too, have long been a sacred symbol of fertility that arises in spring. The hare was a sacred animal of many goddesses, particularly those associated with the moon. Both Chinese and Japanese cultures have myths surrounding rabbits and the moon (Tsuki no usagi) and the rabbit was sacred to Ostara. Likewise the goddess Freya had hares in attendance. During Christianity's spread, the Church warned of rabbits as the familiars of witches and pagans. They were then considered evil spirits, oftentimes a rabbit may have been a witch in animal form. Stories of rabbits leading men to their doom in forests and bogs were also abundant. One children's story even tells of a rabbit who is lucky enough to find a rare egg, but instead of eating it, he decorates it and offers it to Ostara, who is so pleased by his gift that she takes the hare into her attendance.
All of these have given way to the Christianized "Easter Bunny" that brings candy and gifts to children, and the tradition of colouring eggs is also a world-wide pre-Christian idea. Ostara is, and has always been, a time of quickening and fertility, slightly divergent from Christianity's specific resurrection myth, but not entirely unrelated. One can easily see this theme present throughout all springtime traditions. It is the theme of something precious being lost, and then restored to the people; the "sun," or "son" if you will.
The Christianized holidays of these ancient practices have indeed kept alive some of the important pagan rites of times long since passed. It is ironic to think that, despite Christianity's best attempts in the first centuries of its growth to eradicate pagan beliefs and practices that it has kept them more alive than any other religion. Unfortunately, even though the revival of ancient paganism is prominent now in Neo-pagan and Neo-druidic practices, one would be hard-pressed to find a practictioner of these ways that goes back more than just a few generations.
Gods and Goddesses, Archetypes and Scripture
Observing the same holidays is not the only way in which Christianity has kept many pagan beliefs alive. "While Christianity spread, many of the pagan gods were already a thousand years old."13 Because of Christian theology, these ancient gods had no place in the new society. They were considered false and evil, and in fact a few chief gods in particular bear a striking resemblance to the Christian concept of Satan.14 Likewise, the Norse goddess Hella, Goddess of the Dead, seems to be the origin from which Christianity's concept of Hell comes from, or perhaps this is coincidence; it seems unlikely. Like most polytheistic relgions, however, the concept of "hell" is not as horrid as Christians teach. It is simply a place where all but the most perfect of souls go when they die; a communal underworld that is neither good nor evil, and there is always a deity associated with the safe-keeping of this realm. Hades, for example, in Greek mythology. Hella, of course, in Norse mythology.
Hella was the daughter of Loki and Angurboda. "While some accounts present it as a rather silent, dank place, it is not in any way a place of torment as in Christian ideology. It was a resting place for the dead...Her realm was said to have nine levels."15 It is interesting that Hella's underworld consisted of nine levels; though it was referenced by Dante Alighieri, the levels of hell can sometimes be attributed to Catholic belief as well. In conforming to Christianity's claim to monotheism, Hella, like Cernunnos, were ultimately transformed into evil concepts. Yet one can plainly see that they have survived, for better or for worse.
Contemporary paganism typically teaches of a single deity- a creator of sorts who is everything and nothing at the same time. Further, within Wicca, there is both a goddess and a god duality to this oneness,16 who then take on different aspects for different reasons. In Druidic practice, as well as many other Neo-pagan traditions, the god and goddess are further divided, yet still the same One. This is a very common archetype throughout many polytheistic religions. The Hindu concept of Purusha, which is a very old concept but nevertheless important, is the same. Purusha is everything, everything is Purusha. However, it is not quite as common as the trinity archetype. The link between the Triple Goddess known to modern day Wiccans and the Trinity worshipped in Christianity is another theme that transcends religion itself.17
Delving deeper, and taking the Book of Proverbs as an example, which provides insight to the personification of Wisdom. Wisdom is generally understood in Wicca to be the Goddess herself.18 As well, the common "Tree of Life" symbol that is prominent among many pagans and non-pagans alike is an archetype of the Goddesss She is Mother Earth, she provides everything and therefore, a tree of life. Proverbs gives an obvious reference to both, "Wisdom crieth without; she uttereth her voice in the streets:...How long, ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity?" and again, later, "Her ways are the ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her."19
Skipping back for a moment to the creation myth of Wicca: There was a oneness, which both the god and goddess were born from, and together they created the world. "The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was. When there were no depths, I was brought forth...While as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields...When he prepared the heavens, I was there...Then I was by him as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him; Rejoicing in the habitable part of his earth;...Now therefore hearken unto me, O ye children: for blessed are they that keep my ways."20
However, the ancient goddess, or goddesses, had no place in Christian thought; if Christianity was to be a monotheistic system with a single, male, creator, then the idea of “goddess” was blasphemous. One look, though, at the central theme of Christianity proves otherwise. The Virgin Mary, deified in her own right, gives birth to the son of god. Interesting enough, it is the theme of yuletide; when the goddess gives birth to the god by the god, and Mary is not the only virgin mother in history or religion. Mary is simultaneously maiden and mother, at least two aspects of the Neo-pagan goddess herself. In Catholicism, she is more highly praised than in some other branches of Christianity, but she is present in all teachings, including Islam.
When one looks at Christianity side by side with Judaism and Islam alone, it is plain to see how interconnected the three Abrahamic religions are. Yet neither Judaism or Islam contain such an obvious relationship with the ancient religions of the world. Christianity, as a whole, is monistic in nature, guising itself with the idea of monotheism. Although Christianity is largely responsible for the disappearance and virtual death of many of the oldest pantheons, it is, ironically, also responsible for keeping the observances of them alive today. There are very few symbols used today for Christmas, Easter, and other holidays, secular and sacred, that have anything to do with Christianity or are entirely Christian in nature. Every symbol, every holiday, is borrowed from one ancient culture or another, conforming it to Christian ideals, and refusing to acknowledge its pre-Christian history.
Endnotes, Author's Notes, and Bibliography
1Holy Bible, King James ver. Genesis 6:14
2Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as all their sects; all of which recognize and serve the same God of Abraham
3The story of Noah's ark is preceded by several other flood myths, including the Babylonian tale of Utnapishtim, the Greecian story of Deucalion and Prometheus, and the flood myth of Egypt, to name just a few. J.F. Bierlein, Parallel Myths; 128-29, 135
4Tim Bond, "The Development of Christian Society in Early England" in the Britannica Encyclopedia Online
5Judy Ann Nock, The Wiccan Year, 37-38
6Janet and Stewart Farrar, The Witches Bible Compleat, 137
7Jock Elliot, Inventing Christmas: How Our Holiday Came to Be, 73
8Holy Bible, King James ver. Jeremiah 10:2-4
9Galina Krasskova, Exploring the Northern Tradition: A Guide to the Gods, Lore, Rites, and Celebrations from the Norse, German, and Anglo-Saxon Traditions, 182
10In Shinto. Amaterasu, the sun goddess, locks herself away for a short time, thus depriving the earth and heavens of the sun. The other deities throw parties and eventually trick her into returning. Donald Keene, Sources of Japanese Tradition volume I, 24-25
11Nock, The Wiccan Year, 96-97
12Nock, The Wiccan Year, 95-97
13Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, 11
14Cernunnos, the Celtic god of the harvest, wildlife, and fertility, is often depicted as a man with horns, either deer, goat or otherwise. Pan, the Grecian-Roman god of similar virtues, is half-man half-goat (a satyr), with horns and hoofed feet. In contemporary paganism, often these and other gods are brought together as simply The Horned God, who rules the waning, dying half of the year.
15Krasskova, Exploring the Northern Tradition, 107
16According to Scott Cunningham's Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, the creation myth generally accepted by Wiccans and Neo-pagans states that a single oneness was created, and then created both a goddess and a god together, who then go on to create the earth and populate it. Scott Cunningham, "Before Time Was" in Wicca: A Guide, 123 **SEE endnote (20)
17The Triple Goddess is called "Maiden, Mother, and Crone" and can be linked to the idea of "Father, Son, and Holy Ghost." This idea of a trinity is not kept simply to these two religions either- Hinduism teaches of the Trimurti- Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu.
18Maiden, the Seeker of Wisdom, Mother the Giver of Wisdom, and Crone, the Keeper of Wisdom. Alternately, Maiden/Mother/Crone is Understanding/Knowledge/Wisdom, other female personifications abundant within the Bible.
19Holy Bible, Book of Proverbs 1:20, 22; 3:17-18
20Holy Bible, Book of Proverbs 8:22-32
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