Educating Young People About Myth: Interview with Author Tracey Barrett

One way to raise awareness of myths and enable people to benefit from them is to expose young people in junior high and high school to myths rather than wait until college. Classicist author Tracey Barrett has endeavored to do so in her new book, The Song of Orpheus, aimed at such a young audience. It tells 17 lesser-known Greek myths of interest rather than recycling the more famous ones, and includes a glossary and other helpful background information. I had the opportunity to interview her about her thinking behind this project, which is set out below. I hope my readers will find it interesting.

What do you consider generally to be the value of studying myths?

The main value of studying myths is the same as the main reason for reading anything: they’re enjoyable.

Greek myths can also shed a light on our own lives. These tales are close enough to our own experience to be understandable (well, usually—some are pretty puzzling!) but removed enough that they’re fresh and interesting. They can lead readers to question their assumptions about their own society from a distance, and gain a larger perspective on so many issues confronting us today. What is friendship? What is love? What are the most important qualities in a person? Can you be true to your society and true to yourself at the same time? Is it valid to say “all’s fair in love and war,” or should there be limits?

Why is it important that young people (e.g., in junior high or high school) learn about myths at that age, as opposed to waiting until college or later?

I think young people should be exposed to all kinds of art, including all kinds of literature, not just myths. They’ll find some genres/traditions more interesting than others and will stick with those that give them pleasure.

Why do you think so many children in our society grow up not learning much about myths? For example, is the dominance of our Judaeo-Christian culture a principal hindrance? Sensibilities about sex (because of the sexual content of many myths)? Generally, other than by writing books such as yours, how would you go about raising young people’s awareness and appreciation of myths?

I don’t know that I agree with that premise! When I do school visits, I often address all-school assemblies, not just small groups hand-picked because of an interest in the topic. I’ve yet to find a student who isn’t familiar (sometimes extremely familiar) with Greek myths. Look at the massive popularity of the Percy Jackson books!

The students I address are usually familiar with mythology of other cultures as well. And I live (and do most of my school visits) in the heart of the Bible Belt. If the Judaeo-Christian culture hasn’t impeded the study of myths here, I would doubt that it does so anywhere!

How did you go about selecting the particular lesser-known stories that you included in the book? What were your criteria?

First: They had to be interesting. I was amazed at the number of Greek myths that don’t really say anything, and just kind of peter out at the end. As I tell students in school visits, there’s often a good reason you’ve never heard of a particular myth, and this is one of the main ones!

Second: They had to be significantly different from the myths that are generally included in anthologies. I found many myths that were the same as a familiar one; for example, “A god falls in love with a girl and chases her. She flees, calling out for help, and is turned into something.” Once you’ve read Apollo and Daphne, you don’t also need Pan and Syrinx or any of the other myths with the same basic plot. I made sure that (while some motifs are repeated, as is inevitable) the stories themselves were not very similar to anything my readers would be likely to be familiar with.

Third: A bonus was a story that would lead a reader (young or old) to wonder about why we do things a certain way. For instance, most of us in the West are accustomed to people choosing their own spouses, whereas in many part of the world today, and in much of ancient Greece, parents (or someone else in authority) set up marriage for their children. Why do we do it this way? Is it necessarily better? Or, asking a goddess to reward your children for pious behavior turns out to mean that they’ll die in their sleep while they’re still young, strong, and beautiful. Why does that seem so horrifying today? Could it have seemed horrifying at the time? etc.

What specific benefits do you want young readers of your book to gain from your book, given your choice of myths included in the book?

The same benefits I want for any reader of any book. I don’t like overtly didactic books, and I don’t think readers do either. Of course, I hope they learn something, just as I hope I learn something when I read a book written for adults. I hope my readers learn something, grow as people, and are entertained.

Is it preferable that your book’s readers first familiarize themselves with some of the better-known Greek myths? Which books on the more famous Greek myths tailored to younger readers would you recommend for them?

While the intended audience for The Song of Orpheus is a reader who is already familiar with Greek myths, I made sure that even a novice will be able to enjoy it. There’s a glossary of all the characters (human, divine, in-between) and places mentioned in the book. In order not to bore someone who already knows who Zeus is (for example), I included at least one fact in each glossary entry that I’m pretty sure the average Greek-myth fan wouldn’t know.

There’s also at least one informational sidebar with each myth. I didn’t want to interrupt the “willing suspension of disbelief” that’s necessary for a reader to get immersed in a story, but I found many fascinating facts while doing my (extensive!) research that didn’t fit into a myth and hated to omit them. Sidebars seemed to me a good way to get these facts in the book.

I loved D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths when I was young, and I still do. I still mentally picture the deities and settings the way they’re portrayed in that book. For the slightly older reader, Donna Jo Napoli’s Treasury of Greek Mythology (National Geographic, 2011) is wonderful.

Was it your idea that your book could be used in school courses? If so, how would you recommend teaching the material? For example, how should teachers lead discussions of the myths? What kinds of questions should be asked? How should the students be tested?

Given the realities of school testing and scheduling, I doubt that The Song of Orpheus is well suited to regular coursework. I imagine it will be more used for pleasure reading or as a supplement to an ancient civilization curriculum—for doing reports, for example.

I’m not a teacher, so I don’t want to tell those highly-trained professionals how they should use the book. I do know, however, that teachers and librarians are overworked and might not have the time to come up with activities, quizzes, etc., so I’m trying to provide some supplemental materials on the “For Teachers” page of my website. I’m afraid I haven’t done as much with that as I’d have liked—shortly after Orpheus came out, I got contracts for four books with two different publishers, and I’ve been crazy busy!

In your book you give much attention to the Greek language, including the meanings of the names. Until about a century ago, some knowledge of Greek and Latin was a hallmark of an educated person, and so they were widely taught in curricula. Do you think there should be a renewed emphasis on this? It seems that you may be endeavoring to stimulate it.

I was a Classics major in college and loved learning Greek and Latin. I know, however, that it’s not for everyone. Language geeks will probably enjoy that appendix, and others might have fun using the Greek alphabet as a “secret code.” Of course, though, if any of my readers became inspired to study Greek or linguistics, I’d be thrilled!

What bodies of myths from other ancient cultures would be important for people (both young and old) to become familiar with?

Any and all. That sounds flippant, but there’s something enjoyable plus something to be learned in any culture’s mythology.

Norse mythology and Egyptian mythology both have a lot of fans among my readers. Personally, I’m most interested in the mythologies of civilizations around the Mediterranean (Greek, Egyptian, the little that’s known about Etruscan mythology, Cretan, etc.), but many African, Asian, and Western Hemisphere myths are enthralling. I wish I had the time to read from every culture!




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Living the Mythological Character of the Olympics

In ancient Greece the Olympics held at Olympia were not simply a set of athletic contests, but more fundamentally and broadly were a religious holiday festival observed in a sacred religious sanctuary (likewise the games at Delphi and elsewhere). They probably originated as a religious ritual (Cornford, pp. 212-59). Thus, like holidays in general, the Olympics had a sacred character that motivated people to set aside this period as sacred time in order to have a spiritual experience, both individually and collectively.

The sacred character of the Olympic Games was reflected in Greek myths about the foundation (creation) of the festival, the origins of which were said to have transpired before the advent of humankind. Thus, according to the Greek writer Pausanias, Zeus and the Titan Kronos wrestled at Olympia, symbolizing his victory over the Titans, and the Kouretes were the first to race there (8.2.2). Apollo outran Hermes there, and beat Ares at boxing (5.7.6, 10). This mythology reflects the coming into power of Zeus and the other 11 deities of his pantheon (who were called Olympians because they ruled from Mt. Olympus), and perhaps also reflecting the mythical struggles between fathers and sons. Apollo too was important, because among other things he represented excellence and perfection (reflected too in the separate games in his honor at Delphi). Another story said that Herakles founded the Games, while another gave this honor to a local hero of Olympia, Pelops (Cousineau, pp. 30-31).

The festival, at bottom religious in nature, was held in the name of Zeus, at his sacred sanctuary in Olympia. It was celebrated not only through more purely religious rituals (e.g., sacrifices), but also by means of the arts and athleticism. In ancient Greece, the lines between religion (including rituals), artistic competitions, and athletic competitions were not distinct as they are today. This was reflected in the fact that at Olympia the temple, theater, and stadium were aspects of the same architectural ensemble. The Greeks believed that the abilities of athletes were bestowed upon them by the gods, so that developing their talents to perfection and exhibiting them in public had the character of religious ritual and was thought to honor the gods. This was the essence of competition; it was a sacred drama. Accordingly, victorious athletes were venerated as heroes. In fact, their moment of victory was when their divine attributes most clearly showed through, so it is not surprising that victors were elevated to divine status (see Harrison, p. 221).

OLympics Running Race

The footrace (in the nude) was the original Olympic athletic event, and track and field remains the heart of the modern Olympic Games. When I run (in shorts), I experience it as a form of meditation.


Today much of the mythical nature of the ancient Olympic Games has been lost, but there are still traces of it in the modern Olympic rituals and in how we experience the Games. During these two weeks we suddenly pay attention to sports that most of us usually ignore (e.g., swimming and diving, gymnastics, and track and field, not to mention more obscure sports), we take interest in the personal stories and fates of American and foreign athletes that we may not have heard of before, and we take inspiration from the competition and the athletes, becoming emotional about it. Many of us (like myself) who don’t generally watch mass spectator sports nevertheless become engaged in these Games. We do set this time apart from our ordinary lives to some extent, because it does have a sacred nature, meaning that our experience of the games has a sacred character to it. As such, we can and do benefit spiritually from the experience. So it is worth considering exactly why, and how we could better approach our experience of the Games as a form of spiritual ritual or practice.

When we are inspired by Olympic athletes and their performances (even when they don’t win), it is because we identify with them and see in them part of ourselves: our better, higher part. They represent the excellence and achievement to which we aspire. The athletes and what they do are things of beauty. When we then consider what it takes to achieve such heights, we come to understand that the endeavor is ultimately a spiritual one. This, in fact, is how the Greeks conceived of the matter. In more contemporary spiritual and psychological parlance, it is an “integral” practice including mind, body, and spirit. Both training and the actual competition have to be approached as a form of meditation, in the right frame of mind. The Olympic idea represented a way of life, and it became mythologized.

In ancient Greece this way of life had several components. It begins with embracing the simple joy of play, into adulthood (although this concept was not formally among the Olympic ideals). In his Laws, Plato argued that engaging in play is a “supremely serious” matter: “Life must be lived in the playing of games . . . resulting in the ability to gain heaven’s grace” (7.803d-e). That is, when playing the gods are near, so play has a divine dimension. Today’s adults do not engage in enough play, which limits our consciousness. Of all sporting events, the Olympic Games best embody this spirit of play and inspire us in its direction.

More formally, the Olympic ideals included excellence (aretē), noble competition (hamilla), and honor (timē). When practiced together in a reverent, integrated fashion, living these ideals in training, in competition, and in life enabled the athlete to attain a transcendent experience, which was thought to be divine in nature. Viewed mythologically, the athlete’s journey is one form of the hero’s quest, and indeed the Greeks lauded such accomplished people as heroes upon their return home.

Today not all Olympic athletes (even medal winners) live up to these original ideals, but many or most do, and it is from them that we take inspiration. We can apply the Olympic motto of “faster, higher, stronger” to transcend our former selves. The founder of the modern Games, Pierre de Coubertin who introduced the motto explained that it its words “represent a programme of moral beauty. The aesthetics of sport are intangible.” Such an integral approach to engaging in sport really is not only preparation for life, but actually living it out. The vast majority of us who are not excellent or even active athletes can still be guided by and live according to the Olympic ideals. If we mindfully watch the Games, we are not only reminded of this, but are in part living in that spirit. From this perspective, it is both interesting and relevant that America’s foremost mythologist of the 20th century, Joseph Campbell, was a national-class runner in the half-mile and lived these ideals.

Sources and Bibliography

Cornford, F.M., “The Origin of the Olympic Games,” in Harrison, infra.

Cousineau, Phil. The Olympic Odyssey. Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books, 2003.

Harrison, Jane. Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion. Cleveland: World Publishing, 1969 (reprint of 1927 ed.)

Pausanias, Guide to Greece.

Plato, Laws.

Wolf, Richard. The Ancient Greek Olympics. London: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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Olympic Mythology I: Josh Bertetta’s Mythological Take on Olympic Sports Doping

(As the Olympics approach, I’ll be taking a mythological look at them in a series of posts. Recent scandals have made the problem of performance-enhancing drugs particularly topical for these Olympics. In the guest post below, my fellow mythologist Josh Bertetta discusses this problem from the interesting perspective of Greek mythology. See his other posts on his blog, e.g.,

The Clean-Sports Movement and Performance-Enhancing Drugs:

Mythological Interpretation

By Josh Bertetta Ph.D.

“Revealed: sport’s dirtiest secret; Third of medals won by athletes with suspicious blood tests.” So read a Sunday Times (London) headline on August 2, 2015.

American newspapers reported on the claims, but largely remained silent on the matter until November when a name was dropped: Russia.

Then the news poured in as almost daily new information made known one of the largest scandals to rock the world of international sport. Dominating the newsfeed was the Russian Track and Field team and their doping practices. The corruption in Russia ran so deep that in June 2016, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) decided to prevent the team from participating in this year’s Rio Olympics.

But it wasn’t just the Russians.

And it wasn’t just track and field.

This story first broke in August 2015 after a whistleblower gave The Sunday Times and German broadcaster ARD/WDR access to an immense database containing over 12,000 blood tests from over 5 thousand athletes between 2001 and 2012. The results were astonishing. Almost 1,500 blood tests from more than 800 athletes from 94 countries were found to contain abnormal levels of various substances banned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). 146 medals, including 55 gold and 46 silver, were awarded to athletes with suspicious blood tests.

Yet Olympic sport is not the only arena in which athletes have been suspended and/or banned for using performance-enhancing drugs. Almost a dozen Major League Baseball players received suspensions and one was banned for life in the past four months alone. So too did tennis star Maria Sharapova receive a four-year ban.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) first began testing for drugs in 1972. Four years later it began testing for anabolic steroids. The creation of WADA in 1999 hoped to put an end to drug use in international sport. But, the fact of the matter is this: There has never been a clean Olympics, and if this most recent scandal is any indication, there likely never will be.

In April 2015, I began speaking with former British powerlifting champion Richard Anthony (Tony) Fitton. After moving to America in 1979, Tony soon became one of the country’s first and largest anabolic steroid dealers. He sold to police officers, U.S. military, gym owners, professional and college football players, professional wrestlers and Hollywood stars. Then, in November 1984, he was arrested at the Tecate Port of Entry after an inspection revealed thousands of doses of various steroids. While such occurred prior to steroids being named Controlled Substances, Tony would be the first person to ever be federally prosecuted and serve time for selling steroids. His life and his story is the topic of my most recent work for which I currently seek publication.

In speaking to Tony, conducting numerous interviews, and spending several hundred hours poring over primary and secondary documents, I think it’s safe to say I’ve almost seen it all—from the desire of your normal every day Joe who hits the gym and uses steroids for cosmetic purposes to widespread government (including America) corruption and cover-ups at the highest levels of international sport.

An alumnus of Pacifica Graduate Institute who holds a Ph.D. in Mythological Studies, I bring my book to a close with an examination of a wide array of themes present throughout the text from an archetypal, or mythological, perspective and it is through the kindness of Arthur George that I compose this guest post.

Now when it comes to the topic of anabolic steroids as seen through the perspective of archetypal psychology, I could here as a guest author discuss the use of steroids (or other performance-enhancing drugs) in relationship to the athlete as hero. (Arthur will post shortly on the hero.) I could write about steroids in relationship to changes in gender norms and gender ideals. I could write about the government’s attempts to control steroids. Or the desire for victory as a search for the sacred, for the numinous.

But I choose rather to write here about the clean-sports movement itself. As mentioned, there has never been a clean Olympics. Athletes have always used drugs in one form or the other. Historically, when the IOC or WADA banned a substance, athletes had already moved on to something else. They are most typically (at least) one step ahead of the governing bodies.

When it comes to viewing the clean-sports movement from an archetypal perspective, I discern a particular Athena-Apollo-Hermes mythic configuration. As such, this post will examine the clean-sports movement as enacting, as it were, this triadic constellation.

Let us being with a simple statement, a simple premise: “Drugs have no place in sport.” This notion is fundamental to the clean-sports movement and is, most likely, self-evident.

Here I would like to draw attention to the word “in.”

According to UC Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff and professor of liberal arts and sciences Mark Johnson, authors of the now classic Metaphors We Live By, “in” betrays the metaphorical concept of a container and with containers “we impose boundaries—marking of territory so that it has an inside and a bounding surface” (31) Activities themselves, say the authors, may be conceived of in terms of containers. In the present case, such activity is sport.

This notion of sport as a container offers segue into a mythological perspective and brings us first to Athena, goddess of justice, wisdom, foresight, and the standards, writes James Hillman, of “science, trades, professions, and government and their unavoidable norms of inclusion and exclusion” (1994, 29).

According to noted mythologist, Karl Kerényi Athena’s name refers a “kind of vessel” (1978, 29). In Hillman’s words, her name refers to “a containing receptacle.” (1994, 27). So too did the clear-eyed goddess invent instruments of containment, limitation, and measurement (op. cit. 19). As the goddess who invents such instruments, she is also responsible for the edges, the boundaries—that which defines the container itself. What does in, what must stay out. Or, in Hillman’s words, “inclusion and exclusion.”

I.e., drugs don’t belong in sports.

Much as Athena is responsible for the creation of containers, and thereby limits, so too does she “appeal to objective norms” as “normalizing belongs to Athenian consciousness” (op. cit. 29). Such normalizing is essential to Athena, goddess of the polis, of civilization, for it is only through the normalizing process, or the process of establishing norms, can civilization be constructed. In contrast, “that which is excessive does not belong in the Athenian polis” (op. cit. 29) since excess, by virtue of being excess, implies that which spreads beyond the limits, the boundaries. That which is excess is outside the container.

In terms of sports, such norms are the rules. The rules define the boundaries of the container that is any given sport. By virtue of being banned, that is, outside the rules that define sports, using drugs is to break the rules. Drug users are cheaters.

The fundamental rhetoric concerning drug use in sports is instructive here. Those who do not take drugs are called “clean.” Those who do are called “dirty.”

In his examination of metaphors that enact the clean/dirty dichotomy, Omar Lizardo understands “clean” in terms of “ordered arrangement.” Dirt, on the other hand, is “matter out of place.” When dirt is transported into that which is supposed to be clean, the ordered arrangement is disturbed. In such metaphorical constructions, when dirt comes into contact with a domain that should be free from dirt, the domain (in this case sport) itself becomes dirty. Thus said domain requires cleaning, for in the process of cleaning order is restored.

This process of cleaning up sport brings the discussion to Apollo, god of light, of reason, rationality, purity. The calm and rational god who rejects, writes Christine Downing, “entanglement in things,” the god who, like Athena, avoids excess (Downing 1993, 85). Also like Athena, Apollo is a god of clearly defined boundaries, is associated with justice, and is concerned with “order and moderation” (88, 89).

The two share yet another trait for where Athenian consciousness can be tyrannical (Hillman 1994, 30) so is Apollo’s purism “tyranny over life itself” (Hillman 1995, 200).

Apollo is a god of healing and a god who brings disease. Let us look here a little more closely. Throughout the history of drug use in sport, those found guilty of using drugs are banned or suspended from participation. Those who bring the dirt into that which is supposed to be clean are sacrificed, or scapegoated, for the sake of the sport. Such is tantamount to removing the dirt, to cleaning up and restoring order.

The Greek term for medicine was pharmakon. The word could also mean drug. The word was cognate to pharmakos, which meant “scapegoat.” And to whom were the pharmakoi sacrificed in Greek ritual?


As Christine Downing defines it, the pharmakos ritual was a “riddance of pollution understood as posing a real threat of contagion” (91). Through the sacrifice of the scapegoat was the dirt removed, or expelled, in order to restore innocence and purity.

Such is the clean-sports movement. Threatening athletes with sanctions is an attempt to keep the container that is sport free from that which is not supposed to belong.


So Apollo and Athena avoid excess. They have no place for that which is more.

Herein lies the rub. The Olympic motto is citius, altius, fortius.

Faster, Higher, Stronger.

The suffix “-er” implies more.

More fast, more high, more strong.

The Olympic motto itself, then, necessitates excess and, as a matter of fact, contrary to those who would define the essence of sport in terms of fair play (itself a social construction with a history going back to Industrial Revolution England and a whole other story), founder of the modern Olympic movement Pierre de Coubertin had this to say: “We know that (sport) tends inevitably toward excess, and that this is its essence, its indelible mark.”

The “-er,” the “more,” is excess.

Athletes, whether Olympic or professional, seek to break records. Spectators want to see records broken.

Come the late 90s, professional baseball was in the tank until Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa batted their way closer and closer to Roger Maris’s home run mark. Then Barry Bonds came along. Home runs filled the seats. Fans loved the long ball. As did the owners, for the more the fans filled the seats or sat on their couches watching the game on TV, the more full their wallets.

We as spectators want to see a performance. Athletes perform. Yet taking a substance to enhance a performance is deemed cheating and immoral.

Again, for reasons already discussed, drugs have no place in sport.

Or do they?

Coubertin’s notion that excess is the essence of sport suggest maybe they do.

Here then we come to Hermes, the trickster, the liar, that swift and invisible god.

That drug use in sport is immoral is comprehensible when sport is viewed as a container in terms described. Hermes, says Kerényi, is questionable “from a moral point of view.” (3) On the one hand, we find Hermes present in attempts to catch drug using athletes. As mentioned, such attempts are historically reactive in that the governing body attempts to catch an athlete after s/he used a drug, But athletes are usually steps ahead of the testing. Hermes, the swift-footed can’t be caught, much like sports governing bodies are always trying to catch up to the athletes.

Hermes is also a god of boundaries, but whereas Apollo and Athena create and defend them, Hermes crosses them. Hermes breaks taboos. He disturbs the norms, the order of things. Hermes, the liar, the cheater.

And what else belongs to Hermes?

One of his epithets was agônios, “presider over the games.” (Doty 121) To this we add Kerényi who says the world of winning and losing belong to Hermes, as do fame, happiness, and riches. (23)

Using performance-enhancing drugs, then, may also “belong” to Hermes, for in taking such, an athlete crosses boundaries, breaks taboos, and has a better chance at winning. And who gets the big bucks? Who gets the lucrative sponsorship deals? The fame and the riches?

The winners.

The modern celebration of winning and those who win is to celebrate the gods on high, says David L. Miller. Gods like Zeus, Apollo, Athena. Standing before a group of scholars during the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, he said, “All the gods and goddesses, not only the bright and shining ones, people the soul of sport. Their presences, too, are experienced by the athlete, however dimly, however silent, however hidden” (158).

In the context of performance-enhancement we find Hermes as paramount.

Celebrating only the “victorious heroism” of the winners is to remain stuck in a tyrannical one-sidedness of an Athenian-Apollonian mode of consciousness. So too does such ignore, said Miller, the “chthonic modes of athleticism” and gods like Hermes.

The clean-sports movement is one in which sport is defined from within the mode of an Athenian-Apollonian configuration wherein sport is conceived of as a container constructed, as it were, by a series of ordered arrangements, or norms—that is rules. That which disturbs such norms breaks the rules and those who do so are cheaters. Since that which is understood in terms of an ordered arrangement is conceived metaphorically as being clean, that which disturbs such order is dirty. In defending their clean, ordered arrangements of things, Apollo and Athena must stand on guard against that which would disturb such, that which is dirty. In the case of sports, that which is dirty is Hermes.

It is an eternal battle and one that may never be won. Sports never has been clean. While I cannot say with any certainty that sports never will be totally clean, as those within the clean-sports movement hope to achieve, I can at least ask a question:

Should sports be clean?

To rid sports completely of performance-enhancing drugs is to deny Hermes.

Attempting to rid sports of performance-enhancing drugs is an attempt to rid sport of the god of winning and losing himself.

It is to rid sports of the very god who presides over the games themselves.

Works Cited

Calvert, Jonathan. “Revealed: sport’s dirtiest secret; Third of medals won by athletes with suspicious blood tests.” The Sunday Times (London) 2 August 2015.

Doty, William. “Hermes’ Heteronymous Appellations.” Facing the Gods. Dallas: Spring Publications, Inc. 1994. 115-134

Downing, Christine. Gods in Our Midst. New York: Crossroad, 1993.

Hillman, James. “On the Necessity of Abnormal Psychology.” Facing the Gods. Dallas: Spring Publications, Inc., 1994. 1-38.

–. Kinds of Power. New York: Currency Doubleday, 1995.

Kerényi, Karl. Hermes. Dallas: Spring Publications, Inc, 1990.

–. Athene: Virgin and Mother in Greek Religion.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 2003.

Lizardo, Omar. “The conceptual basis of metaphors of dirt and cleanliness in moral and non-moral reasoning.” Cognitive Linguistics (2012): 367-393.

Miller, David L. “Alienation, Liberation and Sport.” Landry, Fernand and William A.R. Orban. Philosophy, Theology, and History of Sport and Physical Activity. Quebec: Symposia Specialists, 1978. 153-159.

The Sunday Times. The Doping Scandal. 1 August 2015.

[Image added by Art]


The Greek Olympic Games included an event called Pankration (meaning “all (forms of) strength”), a form of no-holds-barred submission fighting that illustrates what today we would consider the kind of excess that Josh speaks of. Here one fighter is twisting the other’s arm while getting ready to punch him.




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May Day, Beltane, Easter, and their Fires

This year in Russia and other Orthodox Christian countries, both Easter and May Day fall on this Sunday, May 1st. This coincidence calls us to consider the similarities in mythological, religious, and psychological meanings behind these spring seasonal holidays.

Easter and May Day form links in a longer a chain of seasonal holidays reflecting the ending of winter and the return of the sun and vegetation. In our times, it begins in February with Groundhog Day, Valentine’s Day, and Carnival (as described in my blog posts on these holidays), continues through Easter and May Day, and ends with Midsummer Night at the summer solstice. The remaining seasonal holidays in the calendar year reflect the waning of the sun and death of vegetation, until the winter solstice holidays which introduce the new seasonal cycle (creation of a new year). As this winter-to-summer period proceeds, the meaning of the holidays shifts from anticipating and ensuring the coming of the spring season to celebrating and maintaining the full-blown forces of late spring and summer. Easter and May Day begin the latter half of this sequence.

An interesting way of understanding the similarities between Easter and May Day is to observe how they handle fire rituals. After Christianity became solidly established in the 4th century CE largely due to the Emperor Constantine, Christian Easter rituals were held during the night between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, and featured the lighting of a paschal candle inside the church. This light penetrating the darkness until the sun rose symbolized Christ and his resurrection, who in the Gospel of John is described as the “light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (8:12). John 1:5 also declares that Christ is “the light [that] shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.” In this respect, the early Christian liturgy’s use of fire did have an independent theological basis and was mostly unaffected by pagan traditions, although we also must remember that fire by nature has archetypal aspects including its association with the divine. Later, however, Christians began lighting sizeable Easter bonfires outdoors, which is where pagan traditions entered the Easter picture.


Modern Easter fire in Germany. The Cross is a modern addition.

In my blog post of last year about May Day/Beltane bonfires, I mentioned how the fires symbolized the sun as an agent of transformation, and acted as a purgative and apotropaic agency to eliminate and keep away evil spirits and disease that might harm crops, livestock, and people and their households. Typically, fires in all households of the community were first extinguished, the communal village bonfire was kindled anew by rubbing sticks together or from flint, and then household fires were rekindled from the communal fire so as to receive a “new fire.” In the British Isles, these fires were long associated with Beltane, and they continued to be celebrated on or about May 1 and not formally in connection with Easter (which did not typically feature such fires). In northern continental Europe, however, including in Germany, Austria, The Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, and Sweden, the springtime bonfire rituals became part of the celebration of Easter.

At first, the Church, as far back as at least the 8th century CE, formally opposed Easter fires as being tainted with paganism, issuing edicts in an attempt to suppress them. But this strategy largely failed, so the fires were then Christianized. Thus, the fires, now typically kindled on the eve of Easter Sunday, came to be understood as representing the fiery column in the desert (Exodus 13:21ff) as well as the resurrection of Christ. Other details from the pagan and Christianized fire rituals also correspond:

  • The tradition of kindling the fire anew with flint was now thought to refer to Christ’s resurrecting from the tomb closed by a stone (CE).
  • In the pagan rituals, a straw figure representing winter was thrown into the fire, symbolizing the death of winter. In the Christianized version in many locations, a figure was still thrown into the fire, but he was viewed as Judas (CE; Frazer, pp. 713-14).

Other pagan aspects of the bonfire rituals continued, without any apparent attempt to Christianize them. For example, in pagan tradition cattle were often driven past the bonfire (or between two bonfires) to purge and protect them, while ashes from the fire were later spread on the home, over the fields, on ploughs, etc., for protection. Sometimes bones were burned in the fire, as a purgative agent. Youths, including couples, leaped over the Easter fire as it died down.

The picture that emerges from these rituals is that the underlying seasonal mythological bases of the holiday shine through the Christian veneer. Some but not all aspects of the rituals were Christianized, and those which were not nevertheless remained. On the other hand, holding such a fire ritual can indeed authentically reflect the Christian meaning of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, as suggested in the illustration above. If we are to connect and identify with the divine within us, we too must be willing, so to speak, to leave our body and the material world on the cross (see Campbell, pp. 169-70), which purgative, transformative process (crucifixion) can be symbolized by the fire, even quite literally as in the illustration.

Today the fires and their rituals have mostly fallen by the wayside, but in some areas of The Netherlands and Germany they have been revived, mainly as social occasions. (Fire continues to have a hold on the human psyche, whatever the ostensible occasion for it.) An Easter fire is also made each Easter in Fredricksburg, Texas, a tradition that began soon after the area’s settlement by German farmers in the mid-19th century, a mix of German Easter bonfire traditions and marking a treaty with local Comanches that had been celebrated with bonfires.

Sources and Bibliography

Osbon, Diane, ed. A Joseph Campbell Companion. New York: HarperCollins, 1991 (cited as “Campbell”).

Frazer, James. The Golden Bough, one-volume abridged edition. New York: Touchstone, 1922.

The Catholic Encyclopedia, entry for Easter (cited as “CE”).

Ronnberg, Ami, ed. The Book of Symbols. Cologne, Germany: Taschen.

See also my 2015 posts on May Day/Beltane and Midsummer bonfire rituals containing related discussion which I mostly do not repeat above.


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The Mythology of Easter III: The Mythical Meaning of the Resurrection

In yesterday’s post I first concluded that the story of Christ’s resurrection would not have originated by transferring the earlier motif of dying and rising gods to form the epilogue to Christ’s death, but in the end concluded that they, together with the transformations of initiates in mystery cults, share an essential common psychological underpinning showing that they each are variations rooted in the same archetypal source. The mythic associations that springtime and its renewal of vegetation, the vernal equinox and return of the sun’s light, and dying and rising gods have with renewal and rebirth are really varying expressions of the same inner psychic conditions (CW 6, pp. 193-94). In this post I pursue this idea further to explore the full meaning of the Easter experience, not as a matter of Christian doctrine or interpretation of scripture, but in mytho-psychological terms.

Since belief in Christ’s Resurrection arose quickly in a particular time and place, it is helpful to begin with some historical background. Although Christianity is rooted in Judaism, its spread and its success occurred not in Jewish Palestine itself but in the greater Roman Mediterranean world among gentiles, for whose benefit some of the traditional Jewish elements (circumcision, obeying Mosaic Law) were jettisoned while new features were added. In that society, the old pagan Roman and Greek gods were in disrepute and no longer had a hold on most people. The new Emperor’s cult, in which the Emperors (at least the good ones) were exalted into the status of immortal gods upon their death (hmmm…), did not resonate either, because it was too politically oriented.

Psychologically speaking, this problem is called the “loss of soul,” because individuals and the society at large come to operate at the level of everyday ego consciousness, at the expense of inner spiritual life (CW 9.1, pp. 119-20, 139). This loss is the result of depleted psychic energy, which comes from the unconscious (whereas ego consciousness only sucks it up). Experiences of renewal and rebirth come from a new infusion of psychic energy emanating from the unconscious (CW 6, p. 179; 9.1, pp. 141-42). This psychological “loss of soul” problem is commonly reflected in myths, such as where Wolfram’s Grail hero Parzival encounters a “wasteland” kingdom, and proceeds to heal it (Campbell 2015, pp. 149-69), much as the apocalyptic Jesus thought would happen when the spiritual wasteland of Roman Palestine (and beyond) would be transformed into the coming Kingdom of God. Likewise, quite apart from Jewish apocalypticism (including that of Jesus), in the broader Roman religious world something inevitably had to change along these lines.

Given this environment, it is therefore of interest that mystery cults, in which initiates experienced transformation (rebirth) grew increasingly popular. In these rituals an initiate was transformed indirectly through participation in the fate of the deity, as also would be the case with Christ in Christianity. And at this point in time the increasingly popular deities in these mysteries were not Greek or Roman but were imports from Egypt and the Near East (e.g., Mithras, Osiris, Isis), as would also be the case with the Jewish god and Christ. Gnosticism, focused upon the inner divine spirit (“spark”) trapped within the physical body, also became popular among select sophisticated, sometimes ascetically-inclined groups, and it is significant that once Christianity appeared much of Gnosticism readily morphed into Christian forms. These developments evidenced a yearning for a more individualized spirituality of transformation that would provide a more meaningful experience of the sacred, but the mysteries and Gnosticism were confined to a small, sophisticated part of the population, and mostly to men. The situation was ripe for a break-out religion that would answer the spiritual needs of more people.

In order for a new religion to take hold, it must resonate with our inner being, not just our rational ego consciousness. This is because religious experience (also any religious statement) is not rational, but is highly psychological, being rooted in the depths of our unconscious. It is when we dip into that realm, where there are no limits of space or time (CW 9.1, p. 142; 18, p. 695), that we feel not subject to annihilation, sense immortality, encounter God, and can feel at one with the cosmos. Depth psychology holds that the totality of our self is composed of the conscious and unconscious parts of our psyche, and that it is the unconscious portion which gives us the affective feeling of a totality and of being part of it, of relating to something greater than what we normally perceive of as our selves. Psychologically speaking, this is an experience of what we perceive as the divine (God), and the intersection of the unconscious and conscious parts of the self are perceived as the God-man (sometimes also perceived as and called our inner voice, higher self, etc., that endeavors to reach out to our conscious mind). In myths and their symbols, this intersection is personified (projected), sometimes being a pair, such as the Greek Dioscuri (one mortal and the other immortal); alternatively, it can be fused in one figure such as Christ (CW 9.1, p. 121). In any case, the God-man lives within each of us (i.e., the divine being incarnate) as a mediating force between the human and divine (conscious and unconscious), and gets expressed by corresponding mythological symbols. The God-man must be projected in order to be visible and comprehensible to our ego consciousness (CW 18, p. 695). The more we can let the unconscious come forth (though not to excess) and provide psychic energy, the more we will feel renewal (resurrection), our spiritual lives will be deeper and more satisfying, and we will avoid loss of soul. Depth psychologists call this process individuation, which leads to wholeness. The whole self has its corresponding symbols of totality and wholeness, which include the mandala, the circle, and the cross.

The Christ figure is thus an archetypal symbol of the self (CW 9.2). Psychologically speaking, this means that encountering and letting “him” into one’s life really can lead to a better spiritual life, enable one to regain (or avoid losing) one’s soul, and also experience transcending time and death (i.e., immortality). We thus find our “divine” nature and are resurrected with Christ; the idea of Christ’s own Resurrection is a projection of the resurrection of the self indirectly through the Christ figure (CW 18, pp. 694-95). Looking at the spread of early Christianity and the evolution of the nature of the Christ figure (Christology), we can see that this is indeed what happened: The early Christian communities were indeed generally more spiritual than the surrounding population, having a new inner spirituality rather than a religion characterized by rote cultic rituals (principally sacrifices) as in paganism at the time.

Resurrection meditation

Resurrection is an internal affair.

That the Christ figure is archetypal is demonstrated by the rapid mythologization of the historical Jesus, who for that very reason became both nearly unrecognizable and actually unimportant. Thus, “the apparition of Christ came to St. Paul not from the historical Jesus but from the depths of his own unconscious,” according to Jung (CW 9.1, p. 121), and Paul had almost nothing to say about the historical Jesus, focusing instead on the crucifixion and Resurrection. The stories about Jesus’s birth, acts, death, and Resurrection became more mythical and legendary over time, his biography in many ways taking on the archetypal features of other mythical heroes (e.g., miraculous birth with divine parent, little information about childhood, mythologically significant death) (Dundes; Jung, CW 9.1, p. 141). The Resurrection became the focal point, yet for a long time (including in all four canonical Gospels and in Paul) there was no narration of the resurrection event itself, which is natural since the notion of resurrection is irrational and derived from the unconscious, and thus is difficult to express in narration, except symbolically and mythically. Thus, when the Resurrection was finally narrated in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter (late 2nd century CE), the reported events themselves defied any rationality: The heavens opened in a great brightness and two angels descended to the tomb and escorted Jesus out of it between them. As they came out, the height of the angels reached to heaven, while Jesus stood still higher. They were followed by a walking, talking cross affirming to a voice from heaven that Jesus had “preached to those who sleep” (NTA, pp. 224-25). Finally, the sayings of Jesus that were preserved (or created and put on his lips) in the canonical Gospels tended to be teachings that focused on one’s inner life and would encourage (in psychological terms) the individuation process (Edinger, pp. 135-38, listing examples). Likewise in the Gospel of Thomas: “The kingdom is within you, . . . When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will know that you are the sons of the living Father” (saying 3); and, “When you give rise to that which is within you, what you have will save you” (saying 70). This Jesus was demanding a commitment to and a transcendent relationship with the self (Edinger, pp. 135, 143). The susceptibility of the Christ figure to mythologization, made possible by his archetypal nature, accounts in large part for why Christianity spread (and in its many forms) and eventually succeeded. And at the heart of it was the Resurrection story, an experience that already lay within our own hearts.

In light of the above, we can see that actually any religion that hits the right archetypal notes in our psyche will work to achieve essentially the same spiritual results, a fact borne out by history. In this essential sense the various religions really are alike. But this is equally why a non-religious approach to one’s spirituality and “resurrection” will also work. This, in fact, is becoming more important in the modern world as the old Christian (and Jewish, and Islamic, and other) symbols and mythology have become stale and are losing their hold on individuals and in our cultures. The original psychic energy in early Christianity has been lost. While the traditional approach may indeed still work best for some people, others will prefer to be more self-aware, recognizing who the God-man really is rather than being carried off by projections that constellate him as an outside being and interpreting mythological metaphors as historical events (Campbell 2001, pp. 111-12), and instead managing one’s resurrection directly and mindfully. Thus, Eastern spiritual traditions have long utilized forms of introversion (e.g., meditation) to realize the godhead within (Campbell 1964, p. 114). From the objective standpoint, at least, brain studies show that the psychic experience from deep non-religious meditation in the Eastern tradition and the experiences of Christian and Islamic mystics are essentially the same. As the mythologist  Joseph Campbell always stressed, each of us has Buddha consciousness, and “I am that” (e.g., Campbell 2001). In the last analysis, that’s Christ consciousness too.

We can work on our own resurrection any day of the year, but holidays offer us an important reminder to focus on the meaning that they carry. Celebrating Easter in the spring is entirely appropriate. We all want and need to be resurrected, and nature in spring reminds us to do so. Let’s each celebrate and benefit from this holiday in our own way, because there are many paths…. Happy Easter!

Sources and Bibliography

Campbell, Joseph. 1964. The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology. New York: Penguin.

Campbell, Joseph. 2001. Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor. Novato, California: New World Library.

Campbell, Joseph. 2015. Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth. Novato, California: New World Library.

Dundes, Alan. “The Hero Pattern and the Life of Jesus,” in Robert Segal, ed., In Quest of the Hero. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990, pp. 179-223.

Edinger, Edward. Ego and Archetype: Individuation and the Religious Function of the Psyche. Boston & London: Shambhala, 1972, 1992.

Jung, Carl. “The Type Problem in Poetry,” in Psychological Types. Collected Works (“CW”), vol. 6, pp. 166-272.

Jung, Carl. “Concerning Rebirth,” in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Collected Works (“CW”), vol. 9.1, pp. 111-47.

Jung, Carl. “Christ, a Symbol of the Self,” in Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self. Collected Works (“CW”), vol. 9.2, pp. 36-71.

Jung, Carl. “A Psychological Approach to the Trinity,” in Psychology and Religion: East and West. Collected Works (“CW”), vol. 11, pp. 107-200.

Jung, Carl. “On Resurrection,” in The Symbolic Life. Collected Works (“CW”), vol. 18, pp. 692-96.

Wilson, R., ed. and trans. The New Testament Apocrypha, vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990 (cited as “NTA”).

© Arthur George 2016

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The Mythology of Easter II: Was Christ a “Dying and Rising God”?

In yesterday’s post I discussed what part of the Easter Resurrection story is history and what part is myth. Insofar as the Resurrection story is myth, it becomes important to distinguish which aspects of the myth partake of motifs common to other myths and which elements are more unique to the Christ Resurrection story. We can then see which aspects may be archetypal and which are more particular to the culture in which the myth emerged and developed. In this regard, we often hear claims that the crucified and resurrected Christ was just another “dying and rising god” of the ancient Near East and Mediterranean, among whom usually figure Tammuz, Osiris, Attis, and others. This post analyzes this claim in order to clarify what kind of myth we really have in the Resurrection story, and the underlying basis of that myth.

We must begin by acknowledging that in recent years some scholars have questioned the very validity of the category of dying and rising gods, a claim that I discussed in some detail in my post of August 29 of last year, so I’ll not elaborate again here except to say that the category remains valid, so long as we understand clearly what the similarities and differences are and why. One potential explanation is that there was diffusion of the motif throughout the region; in Israel’s case, after all, one of the abominations that Ezekiel mentioned was women weeping for Tammuz at the north gate of the Temple (Ez 8:14), which would have been on September 17, 592 BCE, when Babylon (featuring that mythical/religious motif) was threatening. If such outside influence were the hypothesis for how the Resurrection story arose almost 700 years later, the question must not merely be whether the dying and rising god motif made some inroads into the thinking of some Jews at the time, but whether it was influential specifically on the followers of Jesus who after his death were the people who became convinced of his resurrection and started circulating the story.

In this regard, it is important to distinguish the content of the Christ Resurrection story from that of the usual dying and rising god motif in at least five respects:

  • First, the dying and rising god myths are based on the agricultural cycle. The god is dead for a considerable portion of the year before coming back to life, and the cycle repeats each year. And he comes to life on earth (and even in the earth); he is never borne up to heaven. He is always a god, at no stage a human. Dying and rising gods also were associated with goddesses (e.g., Inanna/Ishtar, Cybele, Isis). Jesus differs from these gods in all of these respects: no relationship to vegetation; no goddess companion; no repeated yearly cycle but was resurrected just once and for all time; no long period of being dead but rose on the third day; he was human (at least partly) while on earth; when he resurrected he left the earth for heaven; and he was not associated with any goddess but was borne of a human woman and thought of as the son of the Jewish god Yahweh.
  • Second, myths are closely related to accompanying rituals, and the rituals in Christianity and the cases of rising and dying agricultural gods are very different and unrelated. The difference in the ritual illustrates how the underlying myths are dissimilar. Further, Christianity quickly became a religion of creeds and beliefs based on the Christ Resurrection story, whereas creeds were lacking in dying and rising god religion and paganism generally.
  • Third, the dying and rising god myths have nothing to do with morals, individual spirituality, or salvation, whereas Christ’s own teachings and the story of his sacrifice and Resurrection embraced in Christianity are entirely focused on these matters, though in an apocalyptic context. And apocalypticism was not a feature of the dying and rising god myths.
  • Fourth, it is important to remember that Christ was a Jew, and that the belief that Christ was resurrected originated within a small group of his Jewish followers. Late Second Temple Judaism was solidly monotheistic, no dying and rising gods existed in it, and its mythology was not concerned with agricultural cycles. To the Jews, Yahweh himself provided all agricultural bounty, he never disappeared for part of the year, and there were no subsidiary agricultural/seasonal deities. Jews would never have viewed Jesus, or whomever the Messiah would be, as a typical dying and rising god. Rather, the Jewish literature shows that the Messiah was supposed to be a powerful figure who would play a political and/or priestly (never agricultural) role, principally to drive out the forces of evil from the land and restore the kingdom of Israel. According to Jesus’s own apocalyptic teachings, God would soon intervene in human history to establish the Kingdom of God on earth (Ehrman 1999). His followers among whom the Resurrection story originated embraced this belief, as also evidenced by the fact that the earliest Christian communities were apocalyptic communities (Ehrman 1999, p. 139). Agricultural cycles and associated gods were simply not on their radar screens, because the world was about to come to an end anyway! In the Kingdom of God there would be no hunger, so agricultural fertility would not be a concern.
  • Fifth, by Jesus’s time the notion of the bodily resurrection of humans had become established among certain communities of Jews. This notion had become prominent during the Maccabean revolt when martyrs died defending the Law, and it was believed that these heroes would be recompensed by enjoying bodily resurrection (Vermes, pp. 29-38). The Pharisees also believed in bodily resurrection, and the apocalyptic tradition embraced by Jesus held that there would be a general resurrection of the dead at the end of times. In none of these developments is there any evidence of influence from the older dying and rising god myths. Since belief in human bodily resurrection already featured in the cultural context of Jesus and his followers, there is no need to appeal to ancient notions of dying and rising agricultural gods to establish how his followers got the notion of Christ’s resurrection.

Therefore, I do not see how the Resurrection story could have originated as a “dying and rising god” story. Rather, as discussed in yesterday’s post, I agree with the many biblical scholars who believe that it probably arose when his bereaved followers perceived that they were seeing visions of him (e.g., Ehrman 2014, pp. 183-210), which has nothing to do with vegetation gods. As history has shown, historical humans can be mythologized.

Pierro della Francesca resurrection painting

The Resurrection motif links the dark and murky unconscious with the light of ego consciousness and life, leading to individuation of the self and wholeness, according to Jung. In this way Christ’s resurrection, older dying and rebirth myths, and the experiences of initiates in mystery cults (who die to their old selves and are reborn) are archetypically related.

Nevertheless, the dying and rising god motif does seem to have played a popularizing role in the subsequent spread of Christianity through the gentile Roman world. The cults of Osiris and of Magna Mater (Cybele) and Attis, at least, were popular including in Rome itself (Beard et al, pp. 384-88). Such gentile Romans, who would have known nothing of the Jewish background, could have uncritically associated Christ’s resurrection story with dying and rising gods, even if they converted and came to believe in the one true Christian god. On the other hand, more sophisticated and philosophical people in the Greco-Roman world held the belief popularized by Plato that during life the soul is imprisoned in the body but upon death is freed (resurrected), which belief had nothing to do with dying and rising vegetation gods. As a separate matter, Greek and Roman mystery cults involved initiates experiencing a form of dying (to one’s prior self) and rebirth even during the present life, while Christianity offered an alternative (in respect of both the present life and eternity) through the initiation of baptism and the promise of personal resurrection modeled on that of Christ.

This latter point leads into an important sense in which the Resurrection myth does appear to correspond with the motif of dying and rising gods, on the mytho-psychological plane. Specifically, dying and rising god myths, the Christ Resurrection myth, and the mysteries experience all may be expressions of the same archetypal process within the human psyche, only being revealed in somewhat different ways according to the differing cultures. In discussing the psychology of the notion of rebirth, Carl Jung argued that the similarities of dying and rising gods derive from archetypes of the collective unconscious and represent an effort of the psyche to experience a “permanence and continuity of life which outlasts all changes of form,” which helps develop the wholeness of the self (CW 9.1, p. 117, describing in this case Osiris), and he viewed the Christ figure as a symbol of the self (CW 9.2). Some ancient Near East scholars have acknowledged the explanatory value of a psychological approach to such myths (e.g., Frankfort, pp. 20-22). From this perspective, the point is that the Christ Resurrection myth did not copy the dying and rising god motif, but rather that both emerged from the same structures of the human psyche. It is this aspect of the Resurrection myth, which I believe helps explain the appeal and ultimate success of Christianity in the Roman world, that I will take up in tomorrow’s final Easter post.

Sources and Bibliography

Beard, Mary, John North and Simon Price. Religions of Rome, vol.1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Ehrman, Bart. How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. New York: HarperOne, 2014.

Ehrman, Bart. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Frankfort, Henri. The Problem of Similarity in Ancient Near Eastern Religions. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951.

Jung, Carl. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Collected Works (“CW”), vol. 9.1.

Jung, Carl. “Christ, a Symbol of the Self,” in Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self. Collected Works (“CW”), vol. 9.2, pp. 36-71.

Vermes, Geza. The Resurrection: History and Myth. New York: Doubleday, 2008.

© Arthur George 2016

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The Mythology of Easter I: What Actually Happened and What is Myth?

Easter is perhaps the most mythological of our holidays, but in the Christian tradition the Resurrection of Christ is considered a historical event, without belief in which there would be no Christianity. As St. Paul put it, “if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain” (1 Cor 15:14). In order to be able to analyze the mythological content of Easter, we must first decide what part of the Easter tradition is actual history and what part is myth and legend. This first of three Easter blog posts addresses this issue, while the other two will discuss the mythological aspects that I will have identified.

Historians determine the historicity of an event based on its probability after having examined the relevant sources, taking into account their reliability. The evidence can be physical (archaeological discoveries), eyewitness accounts, writings of contemporary or near-contemporary scholars, and so forth. In New Testament studies, scholars consider factors such as whether the reported event (an act or saying of Jesus) is multiply attested by independent sources, whether it fits credibly within the contemporary historical context, and whether it suspiciously appears to be made up later by the Christian author to suit his theological agenda (as opposed to something “embarrassing” or “dissimilar” that does not fit that agenda). Thus, for example, historians discount the several Gospel passages in which Jesus is said to predict his execution and his resurrection on the third day (e.g., Mt 12:40; Mk 8:31) (Vermes, p. 82), while they tend to accept as factual his baptism by John the Baptist (because that report tends to show that, at least as of the moment, John was the superior while the Gospel writers of course regard Jesus as superior; hence the Gospels added accompanying language aimed at explaining that Jesus was nevertheless superior). Having such a methodology is important since no physical evidence of Jesus exists and because the Gospels are not eyewitness accounts but were written a generation or more after the events they narrated and on the basis of traditions that had already developed, and are not meant to be historically objective but rather make theological arguments which the adduced facts are meant to serve.

These methods/criteria are not infallible and must be used judiciously, but they work reasonably well for most events narrated in the New Testament. When, however, a historian tries to verify the historicity of miraculous events such as the miracles and Resurrection of Christ, he or she faces a conundrum. By their very nature, such reported supernatural miracles have close to a zero probability of occurring. That’s why they are called miracles! No historian using normal historical methods has access to the kind of information that would enable him or her to establish whether an ancient “miracle” happened. Almost any alternative non-supernatural explanation has a greater likelihood of being true (in this case, for example, that Jesus survived the crucifixion, or that the body had been moved, or that the women went to the wrong tomb); from a historian’s perspective, these explanations would first have to be eliminated before accepting a supernatural explanation that is by definition less probable.

Be that as it may, now let’s look at what evidence we do have. The best evidence, and indeed almost all of it, is contained in the four canonical Gospels and certain epistles of St. Paul. It falls into two separate categories, the first known as the “empty tomb” tradition, according to which the women discover that Jesus’s tomb is empty, and the second being the “appearances” tradition, according to which various disciples, St. Paul, and some others claimed to have seen Jesus after the crucifixion and, in some cases, watched him ascend to heaven. Although historically an empty tomb would have to precede any appearances, many scholars believe that the appearances tradition arose first. (Interestingly, Paul, who wrote well before the Gospels were composed, never mentions the empty tomb.) The empty tomb stories seem to have arisen as part of an argument to prove that Christ was resurrected bodily, not merely in spirit, in order to combat Greek beliefs prevailing among the gentiles that during life the spirit is imprisoned in the body and is released upon death and goes to the Elysian Fields. Hence 1 Corinthians 15:12 (“how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?”) and Paul’s unsuccessful speech to the Athenians (Acts 17:32: “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed”). Empty Tomb

The empty tomb stories face a threshold problem because the notion of there being an empty tomb for someone crucified by Rome as a criminal contradicts standard Roman practice, which was let the corpses of crucified criminals remain on the cross for a while in order to further humiliate the offenders and deter other people from committing such crimes. The corpses would decompose and be eaten upon by scavengers, and eventually what was left would be tossed into a common grave.(See Hengel, p. 87.) (To make the point, the eminent Catholic New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan (ch. 6) colorfully argued that Jesus’s corpse was probably eaten by dogs.) The only exception to this practice that we know of is that reported by Philo of Alexandria, who noted that if the criminal was executed on the Emperor’s birthday then the body might be given back to family members at their request. But Easter was not the Emperor’s birthday, nor do the Gospels report that family members of Jesus (who were from Galilee) requested and were given the body. So it is not likely that there was a tomb to be empty in the first place. Ehrman 2014, pp. 156-68.

But if there was a tomb, the story becomes more fantastic. In all three Synoptic Gospels, when the women come to the empty tomb, they encounter one or two angelic beings dressed in white, one of whom reports that Jesus is no longer there and has been raised (Mt 28:5-6; Mk 16:5-6; Lk 24:4-5); in John the notion that the body was not moved but had been resurrected is implied by the neatly folded burial head cloth found in the tomb (Jn 20:7), which presumably would not be the case had the body simply been moved. New Testament scholars generally view the Synoptic Gospels as historically more reliable than John, but what is a historian to do when the idea that Jesus was resurrected is grounded solely on a statement by an angelic being? According to historical methods, he or she cannot accept this kind of report.

Nor did the people featured in the empty tomb stories accept it. No one in those stories believed that Jesus had risen based on the angelic being’s testimony. Rather, they came to believe this only as a result of subsequent appearances of Jesus. As reported, these too are supernatural events that a historian cannot verify (or disprove). Logically, a vision of a deceased person does not necessarily imply the kind of resurrection attributed to Jesus. Thus, according to the Hebrew Bible, in pre-exilic times, when all Jews adhered to what is known as the “annihilationist” position that there is no resurrection and no afterlife, Saul through a medium was able to call up and see and recognize the spirit of the dead Samuel (1 Sam 28:8-19), but no Jews considered this a resurrection in the way that we understand it.

One might dismiss the appearance stories in the Gospels and Acts simply as legendary traditions, but in Paul’s case we have a report of a first-hand witness who claims to have had a vision of the crucified Christ (1 Cor 15:8; Gal 1:11-12), so scholars must address this differently. Paul could have made it up, of course, which I consider plausible because he was competing for apostolic status with Jesus’s disciples in Jerusalem who had previously claimed to have seen the risen Christ, and he wanted and needed something not derived from those apostles to give him that status, and voilà he gets a direct revelation from Christ himself. But as an alternative to both that and a supernatural explanation, scholars and other commentators have evaluated Paul’s report, and so too the other reports of appearances, on the basis of modern psychology.

St. Paul's vision on road to Damascus

Depiction of St. Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus, Acts 9:3-9, during which he reportedly heard Jesus say, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

According to the psychological approach, these visionary experiences of Paul and others, assuming they were not made up entirely, were most likely visions or hallucinations resulting from psychological factors. In the case of Jesus’s original followers, it could have been a case of bereavement, in which case even modern people have visions of recently deceased people close to them. And in Jesus’s case, he appears to have taught his disciples (at least privately) that he was the prophetic Son of Man who would descend from heaven to establish the Kingdom of God on earth (Ehrman 1999), which meant that after his crucifixion (expected or not) he would have had to have been transported to heaven first. So the power of suggestion may have been at work. Alternatively, to the extent that the disciples did not expect Jesus’s death or resurrection, the visions could have been a case of cognitive dissonance reduction, in which the shock of the crucifixion and seeming shameful end of the Messiah was compensated for by convincing oneself that Jesus had been resurrected and seen again. This is indeed the kind of thing that has happened when the prophecies of modern messiahs have not worked out and when they have unexpectedly died, as was recently the case in the Jewish Lubavitch cult when their messianic leader died (Komarnitsky; Dein). In the case of Paul, there would be a different twist: Having violently persecuted Christians (Gal 1:13) while presumably being familiar with their beliefs, at some point he became sympathetic to them and experienced not only guilt but outright fear that he would be among the condemned on judgment day as predicted by Jesus, so he did an about-face and repented, in which case a vision-experience of the crucified Christ is perfectly explainable according to modern psychology. According to the account in Acts, after all, out of all things that Jesus could have told Paul (i.e., what Paul perceived he had heard), Jesus said, “why do you persecute me? . . . I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:4-5). Thus, Carl Jung concluded, “the apparition of Christ came to St. Paul not from the historical Jesus but from the depths of his own unconscious” (Jung, p. 121). This explanation is admittedly speculation to some extent since the story is ancient and Paul is not available for examination, but it is an educated one based on Paul’s own report and modern knowledge, and from the historian’s standpoint this explanation has a much greater probability of being correct than a supernatural explanation, and from that  perspective seems to be the best one.

In sum, from the historian’s standpoint, while the crucifixion is generally regarded as historical, the subsequent story of the Resurrection cannot be viewed as historically authentic. Outside the peculiar field of biblical studies, I am not aware of a single instance in which any modern historian has concluded that an event is historical on the basis of a supernatural explanation. If someone believes that the Resurrection occurred, it is not because of what any historian would consider to be solid historical evidence, but because of his or her theological beliefs and faith. The mythologist must then examine what myth people are living by, and why, which I will do in the next two Easter posts.

In any event, historically the resurrection story took on a life of its own, gaining an emotional, spiritual hold on people. Indeed, as time went on, the stories (as reported in the timeline of the canonical Gospels as well as in later non-canonical accounts) became magnified and more legendary and mythical. This in itself suggests that something mythological and, hence, psychological was going on. So in order to understand our Easter holiday, it is essential to examine the story of the Resurrection from the perspective of myth, so stay tuned for the next two posts.

Sources and Bibliography

Crossan, John Dominic. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. San Francisco, HarperOne, 1994.

Dein, Simon. “What Really Happens When Prophecy Fails: The Case of Lubavitch,” Sociology of Religion 62:383-401 (2001).

Ehrman, Bart. How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. New York: HarperOne, 2014.

Ehrman, Bart. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Festinger, Leon. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1957, 1985.

Hengel, Martin. Crucifixion. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977.

Jung, Carl. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Collected Works, vol. 9.1.

Komarnitsky, Kris. “Cognitive Dissonance and the Resurrection of Jesus,” The Fourth R 27.5:7-10, 20-22 (2014). (The Fourth R is the journal of The Westar Institute, which among other things held The Jesus Seminar.)

Sheppard, Beth. The Craft of History and the Study of the New Testament. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012.

Vermes, Geza. The Resurrection: History and Myth. New York: Doubleday, 2008.

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February Holidays III: Unmasking the Mythology behind Carnival

Last year at this time I was living for about a month in Nice, France, during its annual Carnival (see photo). The festival’s inventive costumes, float parades, and jovial and irreverent atmosphere was not only great fun but also piqued my interest in the holiday. As it turns out, a lot of myth underlies Carnival’s rituals, and also explains why this holiday originated in southern Europe. Carnival is usually thought of as a last chance to feast and make merry before the privations of Lent, but the roots of the holiday’s rituals are deeper and older. Like the other two February holidays covered in my prior two posts, Groundhog Day and Valentine’s Day, Carnival also has to do with the seasonal transition from winter to spring.

Carnivals typically include such rituals as an irreverent parade/procession, excessive feasting and drunkenness, masks and costumes (masquerade), contests, sexual license, and role reversals in which people of lower social rank gain stature and authority and are free to speak their mind and are served by their usual masters who now must obey them. This reversal also typically includes the temporary removal of the ruler and appointment of a temporary mock ruler, who is then ousted at Carnival’s end (in some ancient cultures he actually may have been killed as a sacrifice).

Holidays having such rituals are known as festivals of dissolution (or of reversal or inversion). They normally occur during a seasonal transition from one state of being into another, whether astronomical in nature (e.g., solstice, equinox) or in terms of human activity (e.g., sowing, harvest). The biggest and most important of these festivals of transition and dissolution is the New Year’s period, but they also occur at other times of year, including the transition from winter to spring, when we witness the rebirth of nature and the increased light of the sun.

The concept behind festivals of dissolution derives from ancient creation myths. The ancients conceived of the creation process as one of instilling order and structure to the cosmos, which features pairs of opposites, multiplicity, and hierarchy. In the human sphere this meant, among other things, social distinctions and stratification, and in particular the institution of kingship, thought of as a form of order that keeps order. Before the creation existed chaos, which was eliminated as a result of the creation. Thus, for example, Genesis 1:2 depicts a formless and dark void existing before God begins the creative process. The annual progression through the seasons and astronomical alignments was thought of as a journey through distinctive stages and modes of being. The coming into being of a new stage (e.g., a new year, spring) also was viewed as a new creation, though a more modest one in terms of the particular seasonal changes that occur. But in order for such a new creation to be possible, the prior stage (e.g., the old year, winter) had to be dismantled and reduced to chaos. This recurring pattern of a reversion to primordial chaos and new creation in mythic rituals/holidays is known as “the myth of the eternal return” (Eliade). Such are festivals of dissolution.

Version 2

Carnival in Nice, France, 2015. Personal photo, by my wife Elena George.

The most fundamental holiday ritual is that of New Year’s, which in many ancient cultures was literally considered to involve the re-creation of the entire cosmos. The classic case was the New Year’s festival in ancient Babylon, celebrated near the spring equinox. Its rituals featured elements of dissolution, including the confining of the creator god Marduk in the underworld among criminals, resulting human chaos in which the populace roamed the streets looking for him, the temporary humiliation and removal of the king, the eventual battle for creation in which Marduk defeats the chaos monster Tiamat, and finally a triumphal procession and the restoration of Marduk’s and royal power (i.e., order). Other seasonal transitions constitute miniature versions of re-creation, so their festivals also feature elements of dissolution.

Carnival has its origins in the ancient Greek and Roman world. In Greece the principal festival of dissolution was the Kronia, held after the summer harvest and thus representing the transition into the post-harvest regime of life heading towards winter. It is named after the Titan Cronos, who according to myth ruled the universe during the Golden Age of mankind, where there was no hunger, death, sickness, or social distinctions or oppression. But then Zeus established the later order of the cosmos by defeating Cronos in battle. Zeus imprisoned Cronos for a while in the underworld realm of Tartarus, but eventually let him out and assigned him to rule over the Elysian Islands, a paradise of the dead where, among other things, again there was a primordial equality with no social distinctions, and other features of the Golden Age. Kronia reflects this legacy of Cronos (as well as perhaps his originally being a harvest god – he did, after all, wield a sickle). During the festival the usual order of society was suspended. Among other things, slaves banqueted and played games with their owners, who waited on their slaves, who ran riot through the streets making noise. This represented a reversion to the Golden Age of Cronus when oppression and social distinctions did not exist (Burkert, pp. 231-32). At the end of the festival, a criminal who had previously been condemned to death (a mark of chaos and disorder) was led out, given wine, and slain (Harrison, p. 110). This marked the end of dissolution and the moment of transition into the next seasonal modality of being.

The Romans identified their god Saturn with Cronus (an exile after being defeated by Zeus, landing in Italy (Virgil, 8.320-25)), who as a historical matter may have landed in Rome through Greek influence on Etruria, where he may originally have been an agricultural deity, especially of sowing. Saturn’s festival, called the Saturnalia, was traditionally December 17-23, which was both just after the winter sowing and at the winter solstice. After 153 BCE, when the civil New Year was transferred from March 1 to January 1, the Saturnalia also served as the winding down of the old year. As a result, the holiday became the classic Roman festival of dissolution. At the start of the festival in Rome, the cult statue of Saturn, who was bound by woolen fetters all year, was released, signifying a time of liberation. After a sacrifice to him and a banquet open to all people on December 17, the celebrations became a festival of reversal, which like in the Kronia was a reversion to the Golden Age. Masters waited on their slaves, who ate before their masters did. The formal toga was shunned in favor of colored Greek-style clothing (the synthesis), and both master and slave wore the conical felt cap (pilleus) which was the mark of a freedman (i.e., slaves, being not free, could not normally wear it, meaning that he was “free” for the period of the festival). Slaves were also entitled to free speech, and they could disrespect their masters. Slaves and masters played gambling games together, and there was also gambling on the streets. Women played a more prominent role than usual. People also wore masks and costumes. Overeating and drunkenness was the rule. In the imperial period (though not before), a mock “king” (actually princeps, perhaps in response to this informal title adopted by Augustus) was appointed for the duration of the festival, whose orders had to be followed.


Portrayal of Roman Saturnalia

Rome also had another old festival in late-February, the Regifugium (“flight of the king”), tied to the coming of the traditional March 1 New Year and the coming of spring. There the real king (this was the ancient time of the kingship) temporarily abdicated in favor of a mock king, who at the end of the festival fled (or originally might have been sacrificed). During the festival people held costumed celebrations and dances (Aveni, p. 74). This was also the time of year when epagomenal days were inserted after the end of the year in order to readjust the calendar, thus creating a liminal period out of normal time (York, pp. 229-42). (Originally, the Romans had no months between December and March.) This period of the Roman calendar, the same time as European Carnival, appears to be the true Roman source of the Carnival-type rituals that later appeared in the Saturnalia after January became the beginning of the civil New Year.

The European Carnival originated in Italy and harks back to these local traditions. When Christianity took hold, the Lenten season leading into Easter matched the transition into spring in timing and in spirit. Carnival became an institutionalized pre-Lenten festival of dissolution. At the practical level, it was an opportunity to eat up the last winter stores of meat which would soon be spoiling. (The word Carnival probably comes from the Italian carne levare, meaning to take away meat (OCY, p. 603)). Likewise, it was a last chance to eat cheese, milk, and eggs, which were forbidden during Lent. This was accomplished by making pancakes for the occasion, which also symbolized the spring sun.

Carnival spread form Italy into southern France (of which the Nice Carnival is a legacy) and the Iberian Peninsula. From France it spread to New Orleans (Mardi Gras) and from Iberia to Rio. On Mardi Gras, we still have a mock king who rules the French Quarter of New Orleans until midnight on Ash Wednesday. In the north of Europe, Carnival as such did not become such a typical tradition, but equivalent rituals of dissolution, including masquerades, developed on Shrove Tuesday, especially in the British Isles. The Jewish festival of Purim gained its masquerading and general dissolution tradition among Jews in 15th-century Italy, influenced by Carnival there.

So as we don our Carnival masks, it is instructive to remember that the mask entails not only our own personal temporary transformation into another archetypal being in sacred time, but also that doing so sets the stage for (and according to older mythical thinking, assists in) a more fundamental transformation of the season and stage in our normal life.

Sources and Bibliography

Aveni, Anthony. The Book of the Year. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Blackburn, Bonnie, and Holford-Strevens, Leofranc. The Oxford Companion to the Year. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999 (cited as “OCY”).

Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Eliade, Mircea. The Myth of the Eternal Return: Or Cosmos and History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954.

Hansen, William. Ariadne’s Thread: A Guide to International Tales Found in Classical Literature. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2002.

Harrison, Jane. Prologomena to the Study of Greek Religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press, (1922) 1991.

Macrobius, Saturnalia.

Virgil, The Aeneid.

York, Michael. The Roman Festival Calendar of Numa Pompilius. New York: Peter Lang, 1986.

© Arthur George 2016

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February Holidays Mythology II: How St. Valentine Became Eros

The most original and enduring symbol of Valentine’s Day is a heart pierced by the arrow of Cupid, Eros in ancient Greece. It is not obvious, however, what this pagan image and the mythology that lies behind it should have to do with the third-century CE Christian martyr St. Valentine. The road from Eros to the Saint and then on to our holiday that bears his name is as tortuous as it is fascinating. As we shall see, at all points along the road – except for Valentine himself! – the ultimate idea has been about celebrating the spring season and the various themes that it has evoked in myth, literature, philosophy, and art, love being not the only such theme.

In Greek myth Eros was not originally the cute cherub that people visualize today. In fact, originally he could not be visualized at all because he was not even a deity, and so at first was represented simply by a herm (Harrison, p. 630). According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Eros self-generated into existence once Chaos and Earth came into being (lines 116-23). Eros was the driving force behind the universe responsible for every other created thing, the motor of generation and procreation. Eros is usually translated as “Love” because Eros as a force manifests itself in humans as the passionate desire that drives physical love, and hence procreation. Eros was thought to strike our hearts because in the ancient world the heart was considered the repository of thought as well as of the affective powers (e.g., emotions, intuition, wisdom), as evidenced by our heart pounding when we are excited and inspired. The primal power of Eros was overwhelming and could not be resisted by humans, gods or goddesses, or anything else. The result is what we see in nature: fertility, life, and the seasons.

Eventually Eros came to be represented as an Erote, a type of winged sprite (ker) that both symbolizes and mediates the coming of life, and so also spring. Hence Theognis (Eleg. 1275) wrote:

            Love [Eros] comes at this hour, comes with the flowers of spring, . .
            Love comes, scattering seed for man upon earth.

Indeed, Eros as an Erote was usually depicted holding sprigs of foliage or sprays of flowers, and also could be seen watering flowers in a garden (Harrison, pp. 633-35). Eros later evolved from an Erote into a fully formed, handsome youth (ephebos) with golden wings, and his power was then represented by the arrows that he sent into the hearts of humans and gods alike.


Eros portrayed on a red-figured cylix, holding a spray of flowers, as the creative spirit moving upon the waters. Cf. Genesis 1:2, and so likewise Sophocles (Ant. 781): “O rover of the seas, O terrible one/In wastes and wildwood caves,/None may escape thee, none.”

The Greek philosophers also got ahold of Eros, making him the inspiration of lofty philosophical ideas. The most famous example is the discussion about the nature of Love (Eros) in Plato’s Symposium. To understand that dialogue properly we must put aside our contemporary notions of love and appreciate that Plato’s symposiasts were debating the question against the traditional mythological background of Love as Eros; Hesiod’s above-mentioned creation myth is even quoted at near the beginning (178b). At the end of the dialogue, the prevailing idea emerged that the primal power of Eros can serve as a starting point to inspire and guide a person in realizing beauty in earthly nature, and from there shed these illusions and eventually realize pure, heavenly beauty – “beauty’s very self” – so that when such person “has brought forth and reared this perfect virtue, he shall be called the friend of god, and, and if ever it is given to man to put on immortality, it shall be given to him” (211e-212a). Somewhat analogously, in the Orphic tradition (where Eros had similarly self-generated, but from the cosmic egg), Eros as a fertility figure played a key role in Orphic mysteries, mediating the initiations (Harrison, pp. 640-45).

Having discussed Eros as leading to an experience of God, we can turn to that man of God said to lead to love, St. Valentine. In fact we know almost nothing reliable about this murky figure. Most probably he was a bishop in Terni, Italy, who was martyred about 269 CE, supposedly on February 14. Catholic tradition also posits a second St. Valentine, a priest in Rome who also was martyred the same year, also on February 14. The prevailing view among scholars today is that the bishop of Terni is the real historical personage, but that his figure was then cloned in Rome and mythologized onto that of the nonexistent Roman priest. The stories about this priest were then attributed back to the bishop, which explains why the oldest stories about them are so similar (Kelly; Oruch; OCY, p. 77). (Both were said to heal people, whom they converted, thus arousing the ire of Roman authorities, as a result of which they were beheaded, both on February 14, which became the Saint’s feast day.) But none of the earliest stories, nor those of the next thousand years or so, contained or even prefigured any of the love and matchmaking themes and customs that we now associate with Valentine’s Day. We had to await the genius of Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400), who has been called “the original mythmaker” in this instance (Oruch, p. 565), to make the connection and put us back on the path to Eros.

Chaucer put Valentine’s Day on the map in his poem, Parliament of Fowls, in which birds gather on February 14 to choose their mates:

           You well know how on Saint Valentine’s day,
           By my statute and through my ordinance,
           You come to choose your mates,
           As I prick you with sweet pain,
           And then fly on your way. [Lines 386-90]

Scholars over the centuries have tried long and hard to figure out how Chaucer got the idea to link the Saint with the coming of spring, but they have never been able to find an earlier tradition that he could have relied upon (Kelly; Oruch). The troubadours, for instance, wrote about love, birds, and the spring, but never mentioned or made a connection with St. Valentine. Rather, it seems that Chaucer’s creative genius simply combined existing bird lore and traditions of spring with the coincidence of St. Valentine’s feast day falling on the appropriate date of February 14. As mentioned in my last post, there was already a tradition of spring beginning on February 1, while other medieval calendars and sources marked the beginning of spring in mid-February when the sun moved into Pisces (Oruch, p. 550). Indeed, by then signs of spring were appearing, not only birds singing and mating but also some spring flowers, and some farming activity such as the pruning and grafting of trees. An observant poet like Chaucer would not miss this.

Once Chaucer had penned his poem, a cascade of other literature followed connecting the Saint with love. John Gower (1330-1408) and John Lydgate (1370-1451) both wrote that birds choose their mates on Valentine’s Day, Lydgate also making Valentine a type of poem. Sir John Clanvowe (1341-91) wrote The Book of Cupid. Soon members of the aristocracy in England and France started writing love notes on Valentine’s Day, and the custom had reached the commoners by the mid-to late 17th century. From the outset these valentines were decorated, most commonly with hearts and cupids.

Once Valentine’s Day had become a holiday and tradition, further mythmaking about the Saint followed. For example, while an old 5th or 6th century account told that the Saint had healed the blind daughter of his jailer and then converted the whole family to Christianity, now a detail was added that on the eve of his martyrdom the Saint wrote a farewell note to the young lady (implying that he was in love with her), thus accounting for the origin of Valentine notes (Kelly, pp. 49-50, 59). As another example, the idea of connecting the origin of some Valentine’s Day traditions (matchmaking and love-notes) with the Roman pagan mid-February festival of Lupercalia also surfaced, beginning in a 1756 century book by Alban Butler and embellished in 1807 by Francis Douce, a notion that scholars disproved long ago (Kelly, pp. 59-62; Oruch, p. 539-40) but which nevertheless persists in contemporary books and on the Internet (e.g., Aveni, p. 39-40; Santino, p. 70).

Quite apart from what Saint Valentine really did, today we have an image and dynamic of Valentine’s Day that harks back in important ways to the Greek concept of Eros. The occasion of this holiday can encourage us not only to celebrate our bond with our beloved but also to turn the force of our love and compassion toward the highest spiritual ends. At the same time, and quite apart from themes of romance, history shows us that the holiday is also a celebration of the coming of spring, like Groundhog Day and (as we shall see in my next post) Carnival.

Having said these things, this post would not be complete without my paying tribute to my own Valentine, my own lovely wife Elena. Below are some vintage photos from about 30 years ago. We are still going strong!

Sources and Bibliography

Aveni, Anthony. The Book of the Year. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Blackburn, Bonnie and Holford-Strevens, Leofranc, eds. The Oxford Companion to the Year. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999 (cited as “OCY”).

Calame, Claude. The Poetics of Eros in Ancient Greece. Trans. Janet Lloyd. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Hesiod. Theogony.

Kelly, Henry. Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1986

Oruch, Jack. “St. Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February,” Speculum 56.3:534-65 (1981).

Plato. The Symposium.

Most, Glenn. “Eros in Hesiod,” in Sanders, Ed, et al, eds., Erôs in Ancient Greece. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Santino, Jack. All Around the Year. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1995.


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February Holidays I: The Mythology and Ritual Behind Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day is our first holiday that formally looks forward to spring weather, optimistically reminding us that it will come sooner or later, the interesting question being which it will be. The equivalent holiday worked likewise for our ancestors centuries ago, with one difference: Technically the date actually was the beginning of spring. Today we regard this holiday as quaint and secular, but in centuries past it was mythological and religious, featuring rituals that were taken seriously. This holiday, Carnival, and Valentine’s Day are actually related, as we shall see, so this is just the first in a trilogy of posts about our interrelated February holidays.

The importance of what is now the beginning of February goes back even to Neolithic times. In Ireland we find in Neolithic monuments alignments for the rising sun on this date, which became the festival of Imbolc. According to the Irish myth Tochmarc Emire (“The Wooing of Emer”), the maiden Emer named the calendar points of the year, including Imbolc, when setting up a challenge to her half-divine suitor, the hero Cú Chulainn, to remain awake for an entire year in order to win her. She divided the seasons of the year according to the four days which fall roughly halfway between the solstices and equinoxes (called cross-quarter days), now the first days of February, May, August, and November. Emer called the opening of spring Imbolc, after the lactation and milking of ewes which began at that time of year (Hutton, p. 134). Thus, for Ireland anyway, was created what is commonly called the Celtic calendar. Our practice of dividing the seasons at the equinoxes and solstices is relatively recent, coming to full fruition only in the 20th century, following the lead of America (Hutton, p. 145; Aveni, p. 38). But even today in America, we still have at least three holidays marking the old seasonal divisions: Groundhog Day, May Day, and Halloween. (The first-fruits or harvest festival of August 1 is not observed here in our industrialized society, but it continues in some places, such as Lughnasa in Ireland.) Before the advent of the Gregorian calendar, this beginning of spring occurred on February 14, which is now assigned to Valentine’s Day (more about that in a subsequent post).

All four cross-quarter days were considered days of transition, when the veils between the normal and supernatural worlds were thin. So it was natural that people practiced divination on these holidays, which pertained not just to when the warm weather would arrive, but also more generally to the season’s crops, prospects for marriage, and other matters of concern. People also sought supernatural blessings for protection against sickness, blight, evil spirits, and other nasty things. For this purpose, protective fires, in the form of bonfires, torches, and candles were also part of rituals. In Christian times the Irish thought that St. Brigit traveled around Ireland on the eve of her holiday (Christianized Imbolc, called St. Brigit’s Day, thought of as her birthday, appropriately at the start of spring), conferring blessings on people and their livestock, and visiting their homes. Accordingly, the Irish had home rituals designed to welcome her into their homes and receive her blessings (Danaher, pp. 14-37; Dames, pp. 252-54).

When it came to divining the weather, people used various mediums to determine what was coming, including animals, which is natural: Any farmer or herdsman can predict the weather by watching the animals. Most important were hibernating animals, which emerge from their winter sleep in the spring. In Ireland, just to see a hedgehog (the European holiday equivalent of our groundhog) on February 1 was a good sign (Danaher, p. 14); not surprisingly, the hedgehog came to be connected with St. Brigit, and its behavior on her day was thought to predict the weather (Santino, pp. 59, 79-80; Aveni, p. 37). The focus on the hedgehog (or badger) for divining the weather was most pronounced in Germany, however, which is how this holiday ritual made it to America via the so-called Pennsylvania “Dutch,” which was originally “Deutsch” since these immigrants were really Germans (who then used the American groundhog as the oracular animal). It was from Germany that the idea spread that the animal seeing his shadow on February 1 meant a continuation of winter for several weeks, whereas seeing no shadow meant that the warm weather was about to come, in which case the animal should remain out of hibernation.

People are often puzzled why a sunny Groundhog’s Day, when the groundhog sees its shadow, means that winter will continue, but cloudy or bad weather portends that spring weather is nearly upon us. Doesn’t this seem backwards? The answer, I suspect, lies in the original mythology lying behind the holiday ritual.

Originally in Europe, the animal associated with this holiday was not a hedgehog, but the bear. Only when the population of bears in Europe was diminished did people resort to hedgehogs as a substitute for divination on this day. Bears were the largest, most powerful and magnificent creatures in Europe, the king of beasts, like lions in the more southern climes. Venerated since prehistoric times, the bear was the oldest zoomorphic deity (Campbell, p. 127), and they have figured prominently in myths, folktales, and art. Some of their traits are similar to humans, so they were viewed in anthropomorphic (including totemic) terms, often viewed as the ancestors of humans. They also could move between worlds, and thus were thought even to instruct shamans (Edwards). Importantly, they also were considered spirit or soul animals (Edwards), and their shadow was thought of as their soul.

The process of hibernating in the winter and emerging back into the world in the spring was thought of in terms of death and rebirth (Ronnberg, p. 272), much like the seasonal death and rebirth of plants. In the winter, life goes back into the womb of the earth (death), only to be reborn. When the bear “dies” and for so long as it is dead before it is ready to be reborn, its soul must remain in the underworld. So, if it emerges from hibernation (its “little death” (Ronnberg, p. 272)) on February 1 and sees its shadow (soul) on earth, this emergence is premature: It must return for a few weeks because it has not yet completed the sleep of death and rebirth, so spring weather must await. On the other hand, if he sees no shadow, then he has truly completed the full cycle of death and rebirth, so spring can begin and he can remain above ground. Such seasonal, cyclic processes of nature also resulted in spiritual analogues in the form of ancient mystery rites such as the Eleusinian and Mithraic mysteries, where candidates were initiated in underground caverns and experienced (spiritual) rebirth.


In the Film Groundhog Day, the “dead” Phil undergoes rebirth like the holiday animal and the season according to the original mythology of the holiday, but not before he/the groundhog (literally together, and “driving” the point home) enter into the abyss.

This mythology helps us to understand the plot ideas in the famous and insightful Bill Murray film, Groundhog Day. There Murray’s character is equated with the groundhog: He is named Phil, like the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil, and like the groundhog he is a weatherman. At the outset of the film it is winter, so Phil is figuratively in hibernation, a state of (for him, spiritual) death. So Phil re-lives days over and over again, because he is like the bear/groundhog whose soul has not yet undergone transformation and who must return to hibernate more until he gets it right and is ready, like any prospective initiate. In the end, by eventually learning to love and be authentic, he is reborn, spiritually, into a new day (at last!) and a new life.

Today, Groundhog Day is but a shadow (so to speak) of its former self: It is not observed at the beginning of spring, there is no bear, and the original mythology has been lost. But at least we have a fine film to remind us of what (in part) this date originally meant to people.

Sources and Bibliography

Aveni, Anthony. The Book of the Year. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Campbell, Joseph. Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth. Novato, California: New World Library, 2015.

Dames, Michael. Mythic Ireland. London: Thames and Hudson, 1992.

Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland. Cork, Ireland: The Mercier Press, 1972.

Edwards, Eric. “Bear Worship and Bear Cults” (2014), available at

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Ronnberg, Ami, ed. The Book of Symbols. Cologne, Germany: Taschen, 2010.

Santino, Jack. All Around the Year. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

Yoder, Don. Groundhog Day. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2003.

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