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

Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

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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Light and Dark Personal Mythology in Current Events

These days we ponder what should be the “new myths” in light of our modern-day reality, but upon reflection we can see that many already exist and are playing themselves out on the public stage, in the form of people’s “personal myths” that drive their words and actions. In our Internet age, “personal mythology” is not merely a private matter of each person’s individuation process. The manifestations and consequences of personal myths are often bizarre, tragic, and dangerous to society. We have seen this recently: in the minds of the shooters in the massacres in Charleston and elsewhere, the takeover of Oregon’s Malheur wildlife refuge by an armed self-styled militia, attitudes toward Muslims, the debate over immigration, race relations, and in much of the rhetoric of the current presidential campaign. In order to understand events and control our future, it has become more urgent than ever that we be able to recognize and understand myths when they see them, which is the first step both to controlling their dark side as well as to developing healthier new myths that will inspire individuals and society in a more positive way.

At the most basic and broadest level, a myth can be thought of as nothing less than our psyche’s construction of reality, or parts of it. As psychologists have shown, myths, like dreams, are essential to our psychic well-being; we can’t do without them. The challenge becomes how to tend them.

Historically, myths were developed, taught, and ritualized in a public manner, so that everyone in a community shared the same myths and therefore the same essential vision of reality. Myths thus bonded societies together and served to enforce society’s rules and control its members. But this is no longer the case in our modern world where the old myths have lost their hold on most people. Among other things, science now explains things formerly explained by religion and myths; globalization has taken hold, breaking down the cultural walls that supported traditional religions and mythologies; technology and media have a dominant role in culture; there has been unprecedented migration and intermixing of cultures and of people themselves; and the rise of women has been unsettling and threatening to many men. The pace of change in society and culture has accelerated, to the point where it has outpaced the possibility for the traditional kind of public myths to develop and take hold.

Many elements of this process have been going on in Europe for centuries, where the various nations with differing languages and cultural traditions and myths lived closely together and worked out and minimized their differences at the cost of many wars, followed by integration. But in the USA we were more isolated from this dynamic. Even after WWI when we emerged preeminent on the world stage, we imposed on others’ cultures rather than exchanged with them, and the Cold War rendered our relationship with the rest of the world rather one-dimensional. We have felt the shock more acutely since the end of the Cold War. Without a superpower enemy to unite us, we had to look more inward to find our identity. For this we needed new mythmaking, but in the new era the traditional public mythmaking could no longer work so well. Enter personal mythology, which when practiced at its best is what Joseph Campbell called “creative mythology” (see below).

“Personal mythology” is one way to describe the result of a person’s psychological individuation process (or failure in that process) as visualized by Carl Jung. As a mythologist, I like looking at individuation in terms of mythology, because it results in one’s own “story.” This perspective begins by recognizing that our view of the world, including ourselves, is shaped fundamentally by common unconscious patterns within our psyches called archetypes (together forming our collective unconscious), together with elements of the unconscious accumulated from our personal experience, especially from childhood. This is the ultimate source of mythological symbols and motifs. Our waking, ego consciousness, interacts with what wells up from the unconscious to produce a somewhat coherent (to ourselves) narrative or construction about ourselves and the world. In that process, our shadow asserts itself, with our ego rejecting what doesn’t match its image of our self (suppression/repression), resulting in corresponding projections of the same onto the external world (e.g., scapegoating). If this process is left to proceed on its own, we become passive prisoners of our archetypes and are carried through an unaware, unenlightened life, living according to corresponding myths, with pernicious, destructive consequences to our psychic balance and the outside world (in Star Wars terminology, going over to the dark side, which indeed has power). Historically, when myths were imposed by society, they served to control people’s individual actions, while resulting pernicious behavior was often collective (e.g., witch trials, the Inquisition), but when the controlling function of the old myths is lifted in society at large, anti-social individuals with their own destructive mythologies can more easily surface to wreak their damage directly, which we see increasingly today.

Not only Campbell (from the perspective of the mythologist) but also a number of psychologists including David Feinstein, Stephen Larsen, Stanley Krippner, Rollo May, and Jean Houston recognized the problem and developed methodologies for proactively developing one’s personal mythology along a more enlightened path. This is a centering/individuation process that involves identifying what one’s initial personal myth has been, as well as competing myths, integrating them, and then living out the new vision (Feinstein and Krippner). At bottom, this is an exercise in self-mastery. Such well-balanced, self-aware, integrated individuals in turn can help generate a healthier society. Campbell agreed. He wrote that creative mythology springs “from the insights, sentiments, thought, and vision of an adequate individual, loyal to his own experience” (pp. 6-7, emphasis mine). Such people are able “to relate to the wealth of mythological images and meanings in a creative and life-enhancing way” (Larsen, p. 15). In the end, argued Campbell, the new myths will come from such inspired individuals, who most commonly will be artists. Jung viewed this process as the most fundamental and important thing a person can do, and in fact described his whole lifelong journey as one of finding and developing his personal myth (Jung).

Don Quixote Windmill

Don Quixote following his errant personal myth.

Returning to the course of history, we can see how chaos in our public myths results, at least initially, in chaos in our personal myths. The roots of this unsettling process go back at least to the Renaissance, and it is interesting to compare today’s situation with the similar impact this chaos had on people’s psyches centuries ago. As an example, Joseph Campbell, in his book Creative Mythology, used Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote, as interpreted by him, with help from José Ortega y Gasset’s Meditations on Quixote. Campbell observed that by 1600 when Cervantes was writing, the Renaissance and science had just changed the world, but Quixote would not and could not recognize the cold facts of this new outer reality. Rather, he was a captive of old myths and his personal myth. Riding for the honor of his lady Dulcinea (a projected, imaginary form of his real-life farm-girl neighbor), he sees (projects) windmills as enemy giants to be overcome, but in the event he winds up in a heap. His aide Sancho Panza cries, “Anyone could have seen that these are windmills – not giants – unless he had windmills in his head!” But Quixote’s myth still drives him, creating a scapegoat shadow figure: “I am sure it was that necromancer Frestón who transformed these giants into mills, to deprive me of this victory. He has always been my enemy, this way. However, his evil arts will have little force, in the end, against the virtue of my sword” (my emphasis). Quixote’s will, remarked Campbell, had become “reality in itself” (p. 605).

Bundy Malheur

Modern-day Quixotes living out their errant myth.

Fast forward to the recent siege in Malheur, Oregon, where we have: a self-styled militia visualizing themselves as heroes and patriots, knights if you will, in cowboy hats instead of a knight’s helmet, fighting not for an imagined lady but for an imaginary version of the Constitution and against an imagined tyranny, attacking not a windmill but an empty federal wildlife sanctuary building, riding in pickup trucks and SUVs rather than on the imagined steed Rocinante, and wielding, instead of a lance, an American flag on a standard and automatic weapons. They imagined that ex-Navy Seals and other veterans would rally to their cause and join them, but no one came, and their self-perceived heroic exploit likewise ended up in a messy heap. While their actual motivations have been shown to be selfish economic ones, they were able to suppress that fact into the background and instead created and elevated for themselves and to the public their own dark myth, or more accurately became the prisoners of it. Their angst and that of like-minded people is an outcome the accelerated breakdown of their old myths and inability to adjust, prompting them to project enemies everywhere and construct new myths, which seem not to have been developed or held in a self-aware manner. Because the underlying process is psychological and largely unconscious, the manifestations are varied and in the end constellate into a whole complex of interchangeable vehicles that reflect the same underlying fears, leading such people to rally to multiple, interchangeable causes to vent them. Thus, for example, one of the Malheur militia protesting federal “tyranny,” Jon Ritzheimer, also maintains an anti-Muslim website and recently led an anti-Muslim rally in Arizona wearing a t-shirt saying “F**k Islam.” We can multiply the examples of (and vehicles for) tragic wayward personal and group myths, such as that in the mind of the crazed Charleston shooter, Christian (and Islamic, and Jewish) fundamentalism, Confederate flag lovers, extremist gun culture, the Tea Party, climate change denial, rising religious intolerance, and proposals to ban immigration by targeted ethnic and religious groups.

So looking ahead to the near future, it becomes important, for example, to evaluate the messages of the current presidential candidates in the above mythological terms, dysfunctional myths become more dangerous when held and promoted by those in power. What dysfunctional myths does Donald Trump hold and ask us to buy into when he wants to ban Muslim immigration (and throw them out of his political rallies), stereotypes unauthorized Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists and proposes sending them back to Mexico, characterizes various people as “losers” (and himself as a winner), and more vaguely vows to “make America great again”? (What mythological America is that?) And what about the evangelical Ted Cruz seeking to reinstate the old religious myths? But, then, what underlying myth has caused Trump (at least in some polls) to enjoy nearly as much or more support than Cruz among evangelicals? (Since seemingly competing manifestations derive from the same underlying myth, cognitive dissonance can be at work so that both of them can be held, even if one of them, well, trumps the other.) Hillary Clinton recently aptly reminded us of Mario Cuomo’s saying that while governing is done in prose, political campaigns are conducted in poetry. So beware not only of Greeks bearing gifts, but also of politicians bearing myths. And let’s do our myths the right way.

Sources and Bibliography

Campbell, Joseph. Creative Mythology. New York: Penguin, 1968.

Feinstein, David, and Krippner, Stanley. Personal Mythology. 3rd ed. Energy Psychology Press/Elite Books, 2008.

Jung, Carl. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York, Vintage Books, 1989.

Larsen, Stephen. The Mythic Imagination: The Quest for Meaning through Personal Mythology. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions International, 1990, 1996.

May, Rollo. The Cry for Myth. New York: W.W. Norton, 1991.

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Our Cosmic New Year’s Mythology and Rituals

Modern Christmas is family-oriented and religiously solemn, while New Year’s is more festive and we tend to spend it with friends rather than relatives. But it has become so festive that we have largely forgotten how serious a matter New Year’s was when the holiday first evolved. Nevertheless, much of this important and meaningful ancient mythology underlying New Year’s is still reflected in our New Year’s customs.

Ancient cultures set their New Year based either directly on astronomical phenomena (e.g., solstices, equinoxes) or on the cycles of human agricultural activities (e.g., before sowing, after the harvest) which likewise relate to the cycle of the solar year. Both approaches thus had a cosmic basis, as does our own New Year, set right after the winter solstice when the sun has reversed its decline and is becoming noticeably brighter.

Most ancient cultures tied the New Year to the original creation of the cosmos and celebrated it as such. These creation mythologies portrayed the ordered cosmos as emerging from some form of primordial chaos. The coming around of the sun and the stars each year to the same position marked an ending and a new beginning in cosmic terms. In the most ancient thinking and mythology, what ended and began again on New Year’s was nothing less than the cosmos itself, the idea being that if the same cosmos were continuing in linear fashion there would be no such repetition. The New Year was not simply a memorial to the creation but actually was an annual renewal of the cosmos. This scheme implies that the end of each old year is characterized by chaos, which was undesirable, even evil. People looked back at the year just ending in terms of all the bad things that had built up during its course, which must and will be eliminated when the New Year arrives.

Conceiving of this transition from the old year to the new in terms of the cosmogony enabled ancient peoples to locate themselves, during the holiday transition period, outside of everyday, profane earthly time and space and instead in a holy realm. During this holiday, they were in touch with the gods in another, higher reality during the most important and sacred event that has ever happened. New Year’s was the prime example of what Mircea Eliade called “the myth of the eternal return.” Thus, the New Year’s rituals did not so much memorialize or reenact the creation as replicate or repeat it in the experience of the participants.

Since the chaos of the old year had to be eliminated to make way for the New Year, the archetypal New Year’s rituals entailed various forms of purifications and purgations of the environment, holy sites, communities of people, and individuals, including:

  • Sweeping and cleaning temples and cleaning of cult statues of key deities.
  • Use of fire to burn away evil and frighten away evil spirits.
  • The use of incense or censers to produce smoke that purifies the air.
  • Sacrifices of animals to purify places and expiate evil, and also placate deities who could remove evil and keep it away.
  • Scapegoat rituals to carry away the evil that had settled on the community during the old year.
  • Raising a din (especially rattling and banging noises) to scare away evil spirits and ghosts.
  • Smearing doors and doorframes with particular substances, or hanging certain plants over them, kept evil spirits out.
  • In the case of individuals, confession of sins, washing, and undergoing deprivations such as fasting.

This sacred period of transition was a liminal time, when there was greater access to deities and more ability to see into and affect the future, so this was a time for augury and divination. Evil spirits and ghosts were also active at this time, and they had to be placated and/or driven out to make way for a successful New Year. In Europe, this was often ritualized by holding fights or other contests between opposing teams representing good and evil, with good always winning. Finally, the idea that the time immediately preceding the New Year was one of chaos was reenacted in pre-New Year’s festivals and rituals of “dissolution,” in which the social, political, and even religious order was symbolically broken down or reversed, entailing not only drunkenness but in particular role reversals (masters serving slaves, a political or religious ruler temporarily losing his powers, etc.).


The Roman God Janus was the god of all kinds of transitions, most importantly that of the New Year in January, named after him. His name means “door,” hence his holding a key to it, allowing entrance/transition from one reality to another. His staff was often one of a thorn plant, thought to ward off evil, for which purpose rituals were conducted to prepare for the New Year.

The above patterns can be seen in the New Year’s rituals and underlying in mythology of the ancient civilizations that preceded our medieval and modern world. Examples include:

Babylon. The Babylonians celebrated New Year’s near the spring equinox just before sowing, in the 11-day akitu (originally from the Sumerian meaning “barley sowing”) festival. The first few days were spent performing various purification and scapegoat rituals while the creator god, Marduk, was deemed to be incarcerated with criminals the underground realm of chaos, darkness, and death. Marduk was then liberated to fight and defeat the chaos monster Tiamat again, as in the Babylonian creation myth, after which he was restored to his throne and he decreed destinies for the New Year. The king also went through a humiliation and restoration ritual so that his reign was purified and renewed. The Babylonians considered that the cosmos really was being recreated during this sacred time, after which the sowing could begin.

Egypt. The Egyptians celebrated a religious, symbolic, and royal (as opposed to the civil) New Year at the end of the inundation of the Nile, when sowing of the fields could begin. This annual emergence of the land from the floodwaters was responsible for the Egyptian creation myth in which a primal mound emerged from the primordial waters of chaos; that day marked the creation, and so the end of the annual inundation and beginning of the sowing season (called prt, meaning “coming forth” in reference to the new sprouts of vegetation) became the religious New Year. In the days before New Year’s the Khoiak festival was held, in which Osiris was interred underground (likened to the planting of seeds), and then a djed pillar was raised symbolizing his resurrection and the growing forth of vegetation. This ritual ensured the well-being of Egypt during the coming year. New Year’s Day itself was a royal celebration called the Nehebkau feast, after the god whose magic had brought about this annual coming forth.

Israel. Israel’s Canaanite agricultural heritage produced a New Year’s festival after the autumn harvest called the Feast of the Ingathering where people built leafy booths in vineyards and celebrated there. When official, centralized Temple religion became dominant, this holiday was turned into the Feast of Booths (Sukkot) in Jerusalem; the booths now marked the Exodus and the Hebrews living in tents (booths) in the Wilderness. The festival featured various purification rituals over several days leading up to the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), culminating in the famous scapegoat ritual called for by Leviticus 16. The New Year was associated with the original creation, so there seems to have been a liturgy associated with the creation myth in Genesis 1, ending with the enthronement of Yahweh after the creation was complete (Walton 2009).

Greece. New Year’s in Athens was a festive, political event during the first new moon after the summer solstice deemed to be the city’s birthday, and featured athletic competitions. But leading up to that day were several preparatory festivals over several weeks that served to purify the community. These included a scapegoat ritual (Thargelia), ritual cleansing of the city’s statue of Athena (Plynteria), a ritual for placating evil spirits and ghosts for the coming year (Arrephoria), and two festivals of dissolution (Skirophoria and Kronia).

Rome. Rome had a traditional New Year on March 1, and a newer, civil New Year on January 1. January, and hence the new year, was named after Janus, an ancient Italic (perhaps Sabine) god who was a god of transitions, seeing into the future and past, hence his portrayal as having two faces looking forward and behind, signifying also awareness. According to Ovid (Fasti 1:102-114), Janus was a primordial force and the substance of what would become the cosmos, originally in “just one heap,” but which self-evolved into the cosmos and also into the god Janus himself, much as the Egyptian god Atum had done. Janus presided over New Year’s as well as other events of transition (marriage, births and deaths, journeys, exchanges, etc.), and was also a god of omens and auspices and served to ward off evil. His name meant “door,” and indeed he guarded the doors to heaven. The more traditional March 1 New Year transpired much like that in Greece, with a series of preparatory purification festivals over the preceding month, named February after items (called februa) used in these purification rituals. These festivals included the placation of the ghosts of ancestors (Parentalia), sacrifices and other rituals to chase away evil spirits (Lupercalia and Feralia), and cleansing of the community (Regifugium). New Year’s itself was a festival in honor of Mars, after whom March is named, featuring tending the Vestal fire, the hanging of laurels, a militaristic dance of priests, a procession through the city, and finally an elaborate banquet; rituals were also held in honor of Juno at her temple focusing on her role as goddess of childbirth, representing new life (the Matronalia).

Many of our own modern New Year’s festive traditions come from these more serious ancient rituals based on ancient mythology, including the following:

  • Our general notion of the New Year as a new beginning is ultimately grounded in ancient creation myths.
  • Our tradition of excessive drinking on New Year’s Eve reflects the ancient tradition of ritualizing a period of dissolution (chaos) at the end of the old year. While the festivities may continue on New Year’s Day, the idea is then different: It is no longer dissolution but a true welcoming and celebration of the successful beginning of the New Year.
  • Our traditions of blowing horns and other noisemakers on New Year’s Eve and ringing bells at midnight to welcome the New Year come from the ancient ritual of raising a din to scare away evil spirits and ghosts.
  • Our tradition of New Year’s resolutions comes from the ancient notion that New Year’s is a liminal time for augury and divination, which also makes it more possible to determine one’s future.
  • Our New Year’s tradition of football games comes from the old practice of staging contests between teams representing good and evil, in order to drive away evil for the New Year.
  • Our tradition of New Year’s babies has roots in ancient festivals such as the Roman Matronalia. Here Father Time representing the dying old year is succeeded by new life.

Happy New Year!

Sources Cited and Bibliography:

Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. John Raffan, trans. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press (1985).

Cohen, Mark. The Cultic Calendars of the Ancient Near East. Bethesda, Md.: CDL Press (1993).

Eliade, Mircea. The Myth of the Eternal Return. Princeton: Princeton University Press (1991).

Harrison, Jane. Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 3rd ed. (1922). Repr., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Lambert, W.G. “The Great Battle of the Mesopotamian Religious Year – The Conflict in the Akitu House (A Summary),” Iraq 25:189-90 (1963).

Ovid, Fasti.

Parker, Richard. The Calendars of Ancient Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1950).

Scullard, H.H. Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press (1981).

Shorter, Alan. “The God Nehebkau,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 21:41-48 (1935).

Spalinger, Anthony. Three Studies on Egyptian Feasts and their Chronological Implications. Baltimore: Halgo (1992).

Walton, John. The Lost World of Genesis One. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press (2009).

Wensinck, Arent. “The Semitic New Year and the Origin of Eschatology,” Acta Orientalia 1:158-99 (1922).

© Arthur George 2015

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Christmas Mythology I: Why We Celebrate Christ’s Birth, and How and Why We Came to Observe it on December 25

There is so much mythology behind Christmas and Winter Solstice holidays generally that it is hard to decide where to focus one’s attention, but for this Christmas season I’ve decided to write about the holiday’s ancient origins. Specifically, I’ll discuss the mythology underlying why our Christian ancestors decided to celebrate Christ’s physical birth (the Nativity), as opposed to other potentially more significant dates such as his miraculous conception (as told in Matthew and Luke), the visitation of the Magi (eventually celebrated as Epiphany), or his baptism, all of which were contenders in ancient times, and also the related question of why we settled on December 25 as the date of his birth.

Our oldest Gospel, that of Mark, contains no account of the birth of Jesus. Rather, it starts off with his baptism by John the Baptist. In that scene the Holy Spirit descends as a dove upon Jesus and a voice from heaven announces, “You are my Son” (Mark 1:10-11). Mark considered the baptism the key moment, because apparently in his view this was when Jesus became the Son of God, and possibly became divine as well (Ehrman, pp., 237-38). St. Paul too, in his epistles written several years before Mark, never mentions the birth of Jesus, saying only that he was descended from David according to the flesh (Rom 1:3-4, here saying that he was declared Son of God only upon his resurrection (rather than at baptism)). These earliest writings suggest no awareness of any story of Jesus’s birth; they did not consider this important. The sole concern was when Jesus became the Son of God and thus divine; but in no New Testament writing did this happen at his physical birth.

By the time Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels, however, the landscape had changed. These gospels were written approximately 10-15 years after the Jewish War of 66-70 CE, during which Jerusalem and its Temple were razed, after which most Jews had started to lose hope of restoring the kingdom of Israel and of the coming of the eschatological kingdom of God on earth that Jewish apocalypticists (including John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul) had in their time preached as being imminent. Even more than before, Christianity became oriented toward gentiles in the larger Greco-Roman world, and so Christians had to convince pagans that Jesus was an extraordinary and divine being worthy of their veneration, to the exclusion of all pagan gods.

For this purpose a baptism story was not good enough. In the Greco-Roman world, extraordinary humans who people considered divine or half-divine were thought to have had miraculous births and precocious childhoods. Such myths and legends were a stock motif in a genre of literature known as infancy narratives (Meier, p. 209). Such miraculous birth stories were circulated, for example, about humans such as Pythagoras, Plato, the Olympic champion Theagenes, Alexander the Great, Augustus Caesar, and Apollonius of Tyana, among others (Miller, pp. 133-53), as well as about legendary figures such as Aeneas (MacDonald, pp. 15-17), Theseus, and Heracles. If Christianity was to make headway in this kind of culture, it would be most helpful if the birth of Jesus were shown to be likewise miraculous. Matthew’s and Luke’s infancy narratives were thus designed chiefly to demonstrate the divine nature of Jesus, in order to establish him among gentiles as worthy of their exclusive veneration. This approach seems to have had an impact, because arguments subsequently arose between early Church fathers such as Origen and Justin Martyr on the one hand and pagans and Jews on the other about whether the Christian birth story imitated the pagan templates (Origen, Against Celsus,1.37; Justin Martyr, First Apology, 21.1; 60.1).

In the thinking of many early Christian groups, however, any attention to Jesus’s birth was misguided because such groups held the body in low esteem. The Docetists thought that Jesus was not human but pure spirit, so in their view his physical birth was a mere appearance, not a reality. The Gnostics considered the material world and the physical body profane, and therefore viewed Jesus’s physical birth as unimportant and focused instead on the manifestation of his divinity. Some proto-Orthodox Christian fathers such as Origen simply opposed the celebration of birthdays because it was a pagan practice (Origen, Commentary on Matthew, 10.22).

So if one should not celebrate Jesus’s birth, then what? Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist was a Jewish affair that would not gain traction as a holiday among gentiles; also, this event was often taken to imply that John was superior to Jesus, an idea which Christians resisted. So a doctrinally satisfying manifestation of his divinity directly to gentiles would be more important. The gospels are thus replete with stories of gentile conversions during Jesus’s ministry, but the story of the veneration of the Magi (Matt 2:1-12) fit this need especially well, including for proto-Orthodox Christians, because the Magi were gentile astrologers/magicians/wise men coming from afar in connection with Jesus’s birth to recognize Jesus’s nature and pay him homage. Making the holiday not about the birth itself but about recognition of the child Jesus’s divinity avoided both internal Christian doctrinal controversies and resemblances to paganism. As a result, by the 3rd century the veneration of the Magi became widely celebrated as the feast of the Epiphany, on January 6 (Kelly, pp. 15-16).

In parallel, however, St. Paul’s idea that Jesus was the new Adam who undid the original sin of the first Adam (the first Son of God) took hold. For many early Christians, this made the creation of Jesus important, and to them it made sense that Jesus came into being on the anniversary of the original creation of the world. Because of the traditional mythological symbolism of spring as a time of creation, the creation of the cosmos was thought to have occurred in the spring, with the first day in the Genesis 1 creation myth occurring on what would be the spring equinox (even though the sun did not exist until the 4th day!), then considered to be March 25 (Kelly, p. 16). But the Church father Sextus Julius Africanus (c. 160- c. 240 CE) argued that it was Jesus’s conception that occurred on March 25, which meant that he was born 9 months later on December 25. It was this idea which took hold and endured. But why?


Christ in a solar chariot wearing the radiate crown, visualizing him as the Sun in biblical scripture, but with parallels in Roman pagan religion. From Mausoleum M in the necropolis under St. Peter’s in the Vatican, pre-4th century.


This idea conveniently put Jesus’s birth right on the winter solstice (in the Roman world thought to be on December 25th). The ancients considered this day the birthday of the sun, because it is from that day that it grows stronger each year (Kelly, p. 17). Solar symbolism played a role in the nativity feast catching on, and on that date. Solar imagery of Jesus was fueled by scripture. For instance, Christians considered that he was the “sun of righteousness” referenced in Malachi 4:2 who would arrive to overthrow the forces of evil in the world, Matthew 17:2 said that Jesus’s transfigured face shone like the sun, and Revelation 1:13-16 said that the Son of Man’s (i.e., Christ’s) face was like the sun shining. Jesus had acquired the traits of a solar hero. A mosaic in the necropolis under St. Peter’s at the Vatican that antedates the emperor Constantine portrays Christ as Sol (or Apollo-Helios) wearing the radiate crown and driving a chariot, thus adopting the old mythological motif of the sun crossing the sky in a chariot (see Illustration).

Then there was a fortuitous development in the Roman empire itself: Sun worship became popular. The emperor Elagabalus (reigned 218-222 CE), a Syrian who had been a priest of the Syrian sun god, Sol Invictus, established this deity’s cult as the chief cult in Rome. After Elagabalus was assassinated, attempts were made to suppress the cult, but it survived. The emperor Aurelian (reigned 270-275 CE) furthered the cult of Sol Invictus, in 274 proclaiming Sol to be the single official divine protector of the empire and the emperor; Aurelian was also the first emperor to have declared himself a god while still alive, rendering himself a roi soleil (Roll, p. 113). Scholars traditionally have held that Aurelian formally established December 25 as the birthday of Sol Invictus and instituted a festival of the god on that day, but in fact there is no record of him doing so, and so some scholars challenge that notion (e.g., Hijmans, pp. 384-85). Be that as it may, on a Roman calendar from 354 CE we do see this god being celebrated by chariot races on December 25 of that year, which is also where and when we see the first mention of the Nativity also being celebrated on December 25, although it was probably celebrated well before then.

As Christianity grew and Rome declined, the feast of the Nativity took over as the December 25 winter solstice holiday in Europe, with the characteristics of the Roman and Christian celebrations becoming combined. While it is popularly claimed that the Christians simply took over a pagan holiday and there is some truth to this, the reality was more complex. As mentioned above, the Christians already had their own good theological/mythical reasons for celebrating the Nativity on December 25, including even their own solar symbolism based in scripture. What eventually brought about the syncretism seems to stem from the actions of the first Christian emperor, Constantine (reigned 306-337 CE). Whereas Aurelian had sought to unify the empire under a universal religion of the sun, Constantine now sought to achieve the same through Christianity. Thus, in a happy coincidence, it became easy for both the rulers and their Christian subjects to utilize solar religion and symbolism in the Christian cause. The Romans were embracing Christianity and its symbols as much as Christians were copying pagan themes. It also helped that the god Mithras was considered a son of the Sun and his holiday was also on the solstice, and that the Saturnalia festival was held on December 17-23, both of which the Christian Nativity festival also subsumed.

Our celebration of Jesus’s birth on December 25 thus came about as a result of ancient creation and solar mythologies rooted in both biblical and pagan traditions being affixed to the figure of Jesus.

Sources Cited and Bibliography

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

Freed, Edwin. The Stories of Jesus’ Birth: A Critical Introduction. Sheffield, United Kingdom: Sheffield Academic Press (2001).

Hijmans, Steven. “Sol Invictus, the Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas,” Mouseion, Series III, Vol. 3 (2003), pp. 377-98.

Kelly, Joseph. The Feast of Christmas. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press (2010).

MacDonald, Dennis. Mythologizing Jesus: From Jewish Teacher to Epic Hero. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield (2015).

Meier, John. A Marginal Jew, Volume 1: The Roots of the Problem and the Person. New York: Doubleday (1991).

Miller, Robert. Born Divine: The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God. Salem, Oregon: Polebridge Press (2003).

Roll, Susan. Toward the Origins of Christmas. Kampen, The Netherlands: Kok Pharos Publishing House (1995).

Copyright Arthur George 2015


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