Gnosticism and Modern Spirituality: A Mythological and Depth Psychological Approach

Gnosticism has enjoyed a certain romantic vogue in our culture as a road to spirituality ever since the publication of the Nag Hammadi codices, and even more so since the publication of Carl Jung’s Red Book, which includes his “Seven Sermons to the Dead” featuring the Gnostic Basilides as a figure, together with Jung’s comments on them (Jung 2009). Part of this modern appeal is a result of some misimpressions about the ancient Gnostics in comparison to Jung’s own position and that of depth psychology generally (see Segal, pp. 43-52). Still, the authentic ancient Gnostic myth does have much to offer us in our spirituality today. This post examines the ancient Gnostic myth, contrasts it with some aspects of the position of depth psychology, and outlines genuine parallels with depth psychology which show how ancient Gnosticism can still be inspirational in our own spiritual life.

The Gnostic Myth

The Gnostic myth is a fascinating and complicated combination of Hebrew Bible material used for the plot, and an adaptation of Greek Platonic philosophy used for its ideas, teachings which Gnostics claimed Christ embodies and make him our savior. Several Gnostic texts contain differing versions of the Gnostic creation myth, but the most central and earliest one that we know of is the one told in The Secret Book (or Apocryphon) of John, dating to the first half of the 2nd century CE. It seems to have been very popular since we have 4 complete copies of it in Coptic and since the heresiologist Irenaeus relied on it in describing Gnosticism in his Against Heresies (ca. 182-88 CE). The Secret Book purports to describe an encounter between Christ and John the Evangelist, the author of the canonical Gospel of John. In it, Christ, well after his resurrection and ascension, visits earth again to give John gnosis, as contained in the Gnostic myth. By conveying this truth to John, who will then relate it to the other apostles, and they to other people, Christ is functioning as humankind’s savior. That is, Christ is the savior not because he died for our sins on the cross (which the Gnostics hardly talked about), but by teaching us the most essential religious truths.

According to the myth, in the beginning there was only a single god called the Invisible Spirit (“God”), who is indefinable and unknowable. At some point he had a first thought, which was about himself since at that point there was nothing else to think about. This thought was called Forethought (also the Barbelo), which amounted to God’s self-knowledge and was an image of him. At this point, God came to be thought of as masculine and Forethought as feminine.

Forethought then proceeded to create 4 aeons, which were further aspects of God representing other thoughts or categories of mind (namely: Prior Acquaintance, Incorruptibility, Eternal Life, and Truth). Each aeon was thought of as a balanced male-female pair, and was created by Forethought with the consent of God, meaning that these creations represented his will. God and Forethought also created a being viewed as their son, the Self-Originate, who was the divine Christ. With God’s consent, Christ then created 4 Luminaries, each in charge of 3 more male-female aeons plus divine forms of 4 future prominent future humans (Adam, Seth) and groups of humans (Seth’s descendants (Gnostics), and repentant humans). The aggregate of the aeons, the Luminaries, Christ, and divine humans was called the Pleroma in Greek, usually translated as the Fullness or the Entirety, and represented God in all his aspects.

Then the female half of the aeon Wisdom (Sophia) decided to create without the consent of God or her male half. The result was a defective divine being. Mortified and ashamed, she threw it out of the Pleroma and named it Yaldabaoth. In due course, Sophia repented and was restored to the Pleroma. For his part, Yaldabaoth created a group of subordinate rulers as well as the material universe.


Yaldabaoth was said to have the body of a snake, the head of a lion, and eyes that blazed like lightning.

When he was excluded from the Pleroma, Yaldabaoth took with him an amount of power (or spirit) from Sophia, and therefore from the Pleroma, which had to be restored. Sophia and Forethought now plotted to get it back in order to restore the Pleroma to balance. Once that happened, they would destroy Yaldabaoth and all his creations. So they tricked Yaldabaoth into creating Adam in the image of the divine Adam and breathing his spirit into Adam, thus losing it himself. Adam was now greater than Yaldabaoth. Adam and subsequent humans thus consisted of body and psyche on the one hand and spirit (sometimes called the “divine spark”) on the other. If humans become aware of their true spiritual essence (achieve gnosis), then when their bodies die their immortal spirit will rejoin the Pleroma. When a critical mass of humans does this, the Pleroma will be restored.

The myth then details a long cosmic struggle in which Yaldabaoth tries to keep humans ignorant of their spiritual essence, while Sophia and Forethought help them to rediscover it. Eventually, they have the divine Christ incarnate as Jesus, who teaches people to rediscover this and who thus becomes our savior.

Gnostic Rituals

The Gnostic rituals included several initiatory steps, including baptism, Chrism (anointing), Eucharist, Redemption, and the Bridal Chamber (see the Gospel of Philip, in Barnstone and Meyer, pp. 298, 304, 318). They also read aloud sacred texts, chanted vowel sounds, and sang uplifting hymns. Some texts were in the form of apocalypses, such as Zostrianos (Layton, pp. 121-40), where a traveler journeyed up through the chain of being in the Pleroma and reported back on what he saw. Many of the hymns similarly tell about the chain of creations in the Pleroma and appear designed to provide the singers with an approximate experience of journeying through the Pleroma. Some of the texts read like typical descriptions of mystical experiences, such as in The Foreigner (Layton pp. 145).

Differences with Depth Psychology

From the myth, several differences between the approaches of ancient Gnosticism and depth psychology become apparent. These include:

  • The Gnostics had a complicated metaphysics that extended into the makeup of our selves. Depth psychology has no metaphysics, and the part of us to be “rediscovered” is simply the unconscious, nothing metaphysical about it.
  • The Gnostics were dualists who rejected the earthly world; thus, the spirit was not supposed to integrate with body and psyche. Depth psychology is not dualist, does not reject the world, and calls for integration (individuation) of the Self, which has its biological aspects.
  • The Gnostics believed in immortality of the spirit and in reincarnation; depth psychology takes no position on these ideas, but generally considers them unnecessary.
  • Some Gnostics appear to have believed in predestination for an elect (themselves); again, depth psychology does not get into this notion, which falls outside its approach and thus is unnecessary.
  • The Gnostic religious experience had a strong intellectual/knowledge component and relied on the Gnostic myth and ritual, whereas depth psychology has no myth or ritual and focuses on experiencing material from the unconscious, including what we call the “divine” or “God” (according to Jung mainly from the Self (or “God”) archetype). It is thus also apparent that Jung himself cannot fairly be called a Gnostic. While he was inspired by Gnosticism (as seen, e.g., in the Red Book) and saw parallels between it and the processes of the psyche (much as he did with alchemy and the alchemists), the theoretical basis of depth psychology is quite different, as explained above.

Parallels with Depth Psychology that Can Help in Modern Spirituality

A number of parallels exist between Gnosticism and depth psychology that can help us enhance our spiritual lives. These include:

  •  In both Gnosticism and depth psychology we seek to discover (or rediscover) who we really are. The Gnostics stressed the need to reconnect with our inner selves, with spirit. We see this in Sophia’s repentance and reacceptance into the Pleroma, in the apocalypses, and in the inner journey depicted in The Foreigner. According to depth psychology, it is the unconscious that is largely ignored (and suppressed/repressed) by our ego consciousness and needs to become conscious and therefore known. Depth psychology holds that the unconscious is indeed the source of what we term “the divine” or “God,” and that the individuation process will integrate this into our psyche and ourselves.
  • In Gnosticism, at our real center is the divine spirit or spark. According to Jung, at the center of our psyche is the Self archetype, also called the God archetype because psychologically it is indistinguishable from “God.” It provides a window into our psyche, and a door to into spiritual practice.
  • The Gnostics believed that symbols and images reflect a higher reality and could be used to access the truth about ourselves (e.g., Gospel of Philip, in Barnstone and Meyer, p. 297). Depth psychology likewise considers symbols important, in this case because they emerge from the unconscious and can tell us a lot about our psyche, so we should work with them.
  • Depth psychology holds that creation myths are really about the emergence of ego consciousness in humanity (Franz, p. 5), typically depicting the emergence of distinctions, order, multiplicity and opposites (all products of ego consciousness) from formless chaos (representative of the unconscious). The Gnostic myth reflects this too: In the beginning was only an undefined, vague, deity, and then thoughts emerged reflecting categories of mind, and finally the material world with its distinctions. Yaldabaoth was ego consciousness run rampant.
  • The Gnostics held that Christ incarnated in Jesus in order to teach humanity the truth about ourselves, and was a savior in this sense. According to Jung, Christ is a symbol of the Self (Jung 1969). Most importantly from the psychological perspective, the incarnation in Jesus symbolizes the bridging of ego consciousness and the unconscious. Further, Christ is a mediating figure who also symbolizes the operation of the Self as it individuates. Here his birth as the Divine Child, his Passion, and his Resurrection are also important symbols, respectively of the potential for individuation, of the suffering of the ego during individuation, and of the resulting individuation.


Despite the differences between ancient Gnosticism and the approach of depth psychology which we must remain aware of, Gnosticism can still symbolize and convey much of what should transpire within us in order to lead to a more spiritual life. It is therefore a rewarding exercise to read the Gnostic myth and the other Gnostic texts.


Barnstone, William and Marvin Meyer, eds. 2009. The Gnostic Bible, rev. ed. Boston: Shambhala.

Franz, Marie-Louise von. 1995. Creation Myths, rev. ed. Boston: Shambhala.

Hoeller, Stephan. 2002. Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing. Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books.

______. 1982. The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead. Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books.

Jonas, Hans. 2001. The Gnostic Religion. Boston: Beacon Press.

Jung, Carl. 2009. The Red Book. New York: W.W. Norton.

______. 1969. “Christ, a Symbol of the Self,” in Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, 2nd ed., Collected Works of C.G. Jung, vol. 9.2. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Layton, Bentley, ed. and trans. 1987. The Gnostic Scriptures. New York: Doubleday.

Rudolph, Kurt. 1987. Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism. New York: HarperSanFrancisco.

Segal, Robert, ed. 1992. The Gnostic Jung. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

© Arthur George 2018

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The Nature of Religious Truth: A Mythological and Depth Psychological Perspective – Class February 16-18, 2018

Over the weekend of February 16 (Friday evening) through 18 (Sunday morning) at the Krotona Institute in Ojai, California, I’ll be giving a class entitled The Nature of Religious Truth: A Mythological and Depth Psychological Perspective. The cost is minimal ($50). I would love to see my friends there and have interesting conversations! See program description on Krotona’s website.

Sistine Chapel Creation of Man

Among other things, the class will trace the history of the God-image (as Jung conceived of that) in our Judeo-Christian culture and how that relates to our Self and spiritual life.

On the following Tuesday evening, the 20th, I’ll also be giving a lecture at Krotona on Gnosticism and to what extent its original concepts can be applied in present-day spiritual life.

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May Day Myth and Ritual: The Virgin Mary as the May Queen

Since May 1 lies about halfway between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice, our ancestors considered it a good time to mark the transition into summer. Indeed, in most of medieval northern Europe, which observed the Celtic calendar, May 1 was considered the beginning of summer, hence for example the Beltane festival. At the same time, importantly, May Day falls within the 50-day Easter liturgical season. As noted in my May Day post of April 29, 2015, about the goddess traditions of May Day, the Virgin Mary too is venerated on May Day, but I did not elaborate in that post. Now I will, detailing the mythology, ritual, and archetypal psychology behind the “Crowning of Mary” ritual.

Goddess Mythology and May Day

The Goddess of the festival that became May Day goes back to ancient times, in Anatolia, Greece, and Rome. The Roman Empire is important here because it took over much of Europe and the British Isles. Its mythology, associated rituals, and holidays spread there and were assimilated into local religion, mythology, holidays, and customs.

The Greeks held an annual spring festival for Rhea, the Titaness who was considered the mother of the first gods, including several Olympians, and thus was the great Mother called Queen of Heaven. We don’t know much about her festival, but she became identified with the Phrygian goddess Cybele, whose mythology and spring festival is well known from after she entered Rome, to which we can now turn.

Cybele and her son-lover Attis, a dying and rising god, were at the center of the Roman Hilaria festival (from Greek hilareia/hilaria (“rejoicing”) and Latin hilaris (“cheerful”), held between the vernal equinox and April 1. In this festival, a pine tree (that of Attis) was cut and stripped of its branches, wrapped in linen like a mummy and decorated with violets (Cybele’s flower, because in the myth violets were said to have sprung from the blood of Attis). It was then brought before Cybele’s temple on wagons in what resembled a funeral cortege, since Attis was “dead” inside the tree. This was followed by days of frenzied grief and mourning (including scourging) known as the “blood days,” when the tree was symbolically buried in a “tomb.” Attis then resurrected (rose out of the tree) on the day of Hilaria and was reunited with Cybele, symbolizing spring. The tree was then erected before Cybele’s temple, and the people celebrated around it (a “hilarious” celebration). This has obvious parallels with the Maypole and May Day celebrations.

The second of these holidays was the Floralia, named after Flora (Greek Chloris), goddess of flowers and spring. When she married Zephryos, the West Wind, as a wedding gift he filled her fields (her dowry in the marriage) with a flower garden, the flowers in which were said to spring from the wounds of Attis and Adonis. Zephyros, as the West Wind, brings the spring rains that grow the flowers. They had a son, Karpos (“fruit” or “crop’). Flora/Chloris became the goddess having jurisdiction over flowers, which she spread (by spreading their seeds) all over the earth, which until then was monochrome. More generally she became goddess of spring. In Rome, in the late 3rd century BCE a festival was instituted in her honor that lasted from April 28 to May 2. It included theater, a sacrifice to Flora, a procession in which a statue of Flora was carried, as well as competitive events and other spectacles at the Circus Maximus. One of these involved releasing captured hares and goats (both noted for their fertility) into the Circus, and scattering beans, vetches, and lupins (all fertility symbols) into the crowd. The celebrants wore multi-colored clothing symbolizing flowers and spring, as later was customary on May Day in Europe.

May Day also took on Christian trimmings. In Germany, on May Day Eve (April 30), called Hexennacht (”Witches Night”), famously dramatized by Goethe in Faust, witches were said to gather on the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains, to foment their evil plans. After the advent of Christianity, the witches were said to meet with the Devil. Their plans were then foiled through apotropaic May Day rituals. Eventually that Eve became known instead as Walpurgis Night, named after the abbess St. Walpurga (ca. 710-778), who is said to have been instrumental in bringing Christianity to Germany in the 8th century. Most importantly, the Catholic Church developed its May Day “Crowning of Mary” ritual. To understand how Mary’s ritual fits in, we must first summarize May Day rituals in general.

May crowning3

May Day Rituals

May Day rituals began with apotropaic bonfires on May Day eve, as described in my post of May 1, 2015. Then during the night youths of both sexes would go into the forest and gather flowers to be made into garlands for May Day decorations, and also procure a tree trunk to be used for the Maypole, which was erected in town the next morning. In the morning the youths would go house-to-house around town, singing songs and decorating the outside of houses and thorn bushes with the flowers that they had gathered. (Thorns represent suffering (cf. Christ’s crown of thorns) and thus winter; covering them with flowers represents the end of the suffering of winter.) Sometimes they also carried a doll or a small statue of the May Queen. The festivities around the Maypole later in the day typically included a mock contest where the May Queen defeats the Queen of Winter and marries the May King, a Green Man figure covered with foliage. Then the pair would be crowned, followed by dancing and singing around the Maypole.

May Day and the Crowning of Mary Ritual

In the Catholic Church’s liturgical year the entire month of May became devoted to the veneration of the Virgin Mary. The high point has always been the ritual known as “The Crowning of Mary,” said to have been instituted by St. Philip Neri in 16th century Italy, after which it quickly gained widespread grass-roots popularity. This ritual is usually performed on May Day, but alternatively on another early day of the month including Mother’s Day (always the second Sunday of May), and remains popular in Catholic congregations today. Ever since its inception, the ritual has involved a group of young boys and girls proceeding to a statue of Mary and placing a crown of flowers on her head to the accompaniment of singing. After Mary is crowned, a litany is sung or recited in which she is praised and called the Queen of Earth, Queen of Heaven, and Queen of the Universe, among other titles and epithets. (Order; Marian Year) (In the ritual in some places there is also a figure of her son Christ, who also is crowned.) Some Marian hymns also call her the “Queen of May.” In light of these traditions, in 1954 Pope Pius XII officially proclaimed the Queenship of Mary. To be sure, no official Catholic Church documents ever deem Mary quite divine, but the actual popular veneration of her tells a different story. It is not possible to detail the full scope of Mary veneration and Mariology here, so I’ll focus on just the May Day example.

In Catholic thinking, Mary is called Queen “because she is the perfect follower of Christ, who is the absolute crown of creation. She is the Mother of the Son of God, who is the messianic King. . . . Thus, in an eminent way, she won the ‘crown of righteousness’ ‘the crown of life,’ ‘the crown of glory’ promised to those who follow Christ.” (quoted from Order) Indeed, the crown symbolizes such things in New Testament scripture (Jas 1:12 (“crown of life”); 2 Tim 4:8 (“crown of righteousness”); 1 Pet 5:4 (“crown of glory”); Rev 2:10 (“crown of life”); see also Rev 12:1 (“a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars”). Thus, in Christian art Mary was sometimes depicted with a regal crown as early as the 4th century CE. The flowers in her crown are said to represent Mary’s virtues, and the ritual is held in spring because she brought life into the world. Venerating Mary in May also makes sense to Christians because much of May falls within the 50-day Easter season ending with Pentecost –the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles and other followers of Christ – and Mary was with the apostles waiting for the Spirit to descend (Acts 1:12-14).

As a matter of psychology and religious history, however, the May crowning ritual emerged organically as one of popular devotion on the date of more traditional May Day celebrations, to which the Church reacted with formal declarations in order to more formally Christianize and legitimize it. This ritual also has non-Christian roots in traditional May Day mythology, floral rituals of spring, goddess veneration, and the crowning of the May Queen described above. In particular, psychologically speaking, in part it is a later iteration of the perennial early-May goddess traditions in which elements of the mother archetype are expressed in terms of the fertility and fruitfulness of springtime in full swing (see Jung, pp. 81-82), which accounts for why this ritual and the Mary figure in general have stood the test of time: She touches something deep inside our psyche. Calling Mary “our mother” reflects an instinctive and universal identification with her as an archetypal figure, even though it is inevitably difficult for us to consciously articulate the particulars of what this epithet means. Mary is in all of us, which is to say she is important and deserves our attention, whatever one’s religious position. Interestingly, the Catholic manual Book of Blessings, in explaining why the veneration of images of Mary and other Christian figures is not idolatry, states that such images are venerated “because the honor shown them is directed to the prototypes that they represent.” Well, there we have it.

Sources and Bibliography

Ad Caeli Reginam, Encyclical of Pope Pius XII on Proclaiming the Queenship of Mary. Available on the Vatican website at:

Jung, Carl. “Psychological Aspects of the Mother Archetype,” in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Collected Works, Collected Works vol. 9.1, pp. 73-110.

National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Order of Crowning an Image of the Blessed Virgin Mary (here cited as “Order”), part of the aforementioned Book of Blessings.

National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Celebrating the Marian Year (here cited as “Marian Year”).

See also my 2015 May Day posts:

The Mythology of May Day I: The Goddess of May Day

The Mythology of May Day II: The Bonfire Rituals of May Day Eve

The Mythology of May Day III: Maypoles and their Rituals

© Arthur George 2017

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Christ’s Resurrection and our Redemption: A Mytho-Psychological View of Easter

In the last of my Easter posts from last year about the mythological aspects of the holiday, I focused on the meaning of Christ’s resurrection in mytho-psychological terms and what this means for our own spirituality, concluding that our resurrection “is an internal affair.” This year I go at Easter from a somewhat different angle, focusing on the meaning of the “incarnation” and the resulting passion and resurrection of Christ in light of a more detailed historical evolutionary background showing how we and God got to the crossroads of Easter, so that we can better understand what this holiday can mean for us.

To get right to the point, from the mytho-psychological and spiritual perspectives, the life and teachings of Jesus together with his suffering and resurrection can be understood as portraying the integration of our total psyche (the “Self”), specifically the integration of the unconscious part of our psyche with the conscious part (ego consciousness, here called the “self” (uncapitalized)). (Corbett; Jung AJ) Carl Jung called this the “individuation” process, which results in a person reaching a higher level of consciousness and self-awareness, and being more advanced spiritually. Psychologically, this endeavor can be termed “religious” because at the deepest and most basic level of our collective (transpersonal) unconscious lies an archetype of unity and totality that Jung calls the “God” (or Self) archetype, which produces a “God-image” in ego consciousness that is comprehensible to us and is the closest we can get to comprehending God. The God archetype is the most fundamental source of our numinous experiences of “divinity” that have a lasting emotional impact on us and drive much of our thinking and behavior, including in the individuation process. This happens in everyone, atheists included, and it is this unconscious realm that mystics from various religious and non-religious traditions access during their sacred experiences.

Jung held that there was a long historical period of evolution and preparation before ancient Mediterranean culture could reach the point where the Christ figure could emerge in myth to represent the individuation process and resonate with people’s psyches so that Christianity could emerge, become viable, and even dominate that culture. As Jung observed, “If ever anything had been historically prepared, and sustained and supported by the existing Weltanschauung, Christianity would be a classic example.” (Jung AJ, 687) It is important to outline these developments here.

The process actually begins with the creation of the cosmos as depicted in myths. Myths typically depict the creation as a process of formless, unordered chaos being transformed into order, resulting in differentiation, multiplicity, and opposites (dark/light, heaven/earth, god/human, good/evil, male/female, etc.). This motif is actually a reflection in myths of the evolution of human consciousness to a higher stage of being, i.e., to a developed ego consciousness (self) that enables us to make distinctions and see opposites. (Neumann, 2-38) As the psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz put it, such myths “describe not the origin of our cosmos, but the origin of man’s conscious awareness of the world.” (Franz, 5) This process of rising consciousness is evident in the biblical Garden of Eden creation myth in which Adam and Eve gained the “knowledge of good and evil,” meaning that they became able to distinguish opposites (good/evil, male/female, naked/clothed) and therefore were ready to function outside the Garden in civilization. (George & George, 83-84, 245-80) As Joseph Campbell put it, “The Garden is a metaphor for the following: our minds.” (Campbell, 50) We must bear this in mind when we see St. Paul and other early Christian writers describe Christ as the “second Adam” who symbolized a second transformation of human consciousness.

Jesus Exiting Tomb

At the end of the “incarnation” (integration) process symbolized by the Christ figure is light. According to saying 61 of the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus taught, “I say that if one is integrated one will be filled with light, but if one is divided one will be filled with darkness.”


While humans were gaining in consciousness, however, Israel’s god Yahweh was temperamental, impulsive, and unpredictable. While sometimes loving and merciful, he was just as easily unjust and cruel and often changed his mind, reflecting a lack of self-awareness and a failure to consult his own omniscience. He violated many of the Ten Commandments. And he broke his Davidic Covenant in which he had promised that a descendant of David would forever be king over Israel; instead came the Babylonian captivity. Accordingly, Jung described Yahweh as “unconscious,” and specifically as having a dark, shadow side that was not integrated into his consciousness. He was not meaningfully aware of the opposites within him and they were not integrated, so he lacked control. Yahweh needed to better himself. Eventually many people grew tired of this and started to doubt Yahweh, because their own consciousness had outgrown that of their own god. Yet Yahweh needed humankind (its consciousness) to uphold his identity, to the point where he would need and want to share in being human. (Jung, AJ, 574) This represented our own restless unconscious seeking to make itself more conscious.

The turning point came when Yahweh let his shadow side (Satan) mistreat Job, who then protested Yahweh’s injustice, inflicting moral defeat on Yahweh from which he would never recover his old form. (Jung, AJ) His wisdom became personified as feminine Sophia, needed by Yahweh for self-reflection and to accommodate to some extent the feminine side of the psyche. (Jung AJ, 617) Also, in the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, and 1 Enoch, Yahweh drew closer to humanity as his consciousness developed, being represented in each of these books by quaternity symbolism of the Self, and each of these books featured the “Son of Man” figure, an outgrowth of Yahweh embodying wisdom and righteousness, an intimation that Yahweh’s incarnation lies in the future (Jung AJ, 665-86); the gospels later would call Jesus the Son of Man. The figure of Satan became distanced from Yahweh, which mytho-psychologically speaking would inevitably require a counterpoising mythical figure of goodness, justice, and love. In short, Yahweh’s divine qualities were becoming differentiated, changing from an unconscious totality of all divinity into distinct conscious opposites represented by corresponding mythical figures.

Meanwhile, in the everyday human world, by the time of Jesus people in Palestine were dominated by the Roman military and governmental machine on the one hand, and by a strict and dry Jewish legalism managed by an aloof and corrupt priesthood on the other. People were taxed by both, monetarily and spiritually. Both trends were manifestations of ego consciousness run rampant, to the point where too many people’s lives had lost touch with the unconscious psychic energy that is the source of spirituality (in Christianity symbolized and carried by the Holy Spirit) and ultimately with the archetypal God-image; consciousness and the unconscious had become dissociated. The result was what psychologists term a “loss of soul” (Jung AJ, 688; Jung CR, 213-14, 244-45), which is the initial reaction to the unconscious reaching out to make itself felt by ego consciousness. Hopefully the end result of the process would be the integration of the Self. In 1st century Palestine, this process manifested itself mythologically as Yahweh inserting himself into humanity, resulting in the mythical figure of the God-man.

Thus, as Jung observed, the Christ figure is a symbol of the Self. (Jung CSS) But we must be careful here. As Jung also recognized, Christ is not a “snapshot” of anyone’s entire Self at any point in time. The deity now having split into various aspects, the Christ of the gospels represented only light, consciousness, goodness, love, and justice, lacking both the feminine element and any dark side, elements carried by Mary (in part) and Satan respectively. Rather, Christ was a mediating figure who represented the Self as it goes through the dynamic process of the incarnation of “God” coming from the unconscious into consciousness, spirit into body, as the Self becomes integrated and a person individuates. (Corbett, 128-30; Jung AJ) While in Christian tradition Christ’s appearance was literalized as a one-time historical event, mythologically and psychologically the implication is that incarnation can occur in any and all of us. Indeed, we see other versions of incarnation in other religious traditions, which suggests that the process of incarnation of the “divine” is an archetypal psychic process. Thus, in ancient Egypt the king was the god Horus born to a mortal woman, and in India Vishnu incarnated at times of need, while a Bodhisattva incarnated in order to liberate humanity. (Corbett, 128)

Take, for example, Jesus’s saying in Matthew 18:4, that “unless you change and become as little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (likewise Mark 10:15; Luke 18:17; Gospel of Thomas 22, 46.2). Mark’s gospel provides a larger narrative context for this metaphor of integration. The enacted parable of “the child amongst” in Mark 9:33-37 can be read according to this psychological framework. In verse 34 the disciples’ egos seeking greatness and preeminence are driving their behavior and hindering their spiritual growth. So Jesus teaches them that if anyone would be first, he first must be last and be a humble servant. (In the ancient household, where this scene takes place, a child has the lowest status; also, in a young child the ego is not dominant and so is more integrated with the unconscious, so the child archetype represents the potential for wholeness of the Self.) So as Jesus the God-man visually embraces a child in a house, he teaches that a person first must identify oneself with a child and in an important sense become mentally like one, with the ego having no pretensions to greatness. Being a good and humble servant means being faithful to one’s principal, which in this case is Jesus and ultimately God, who originates in the God-image. Psychologically, the story shows the need to tame ego consciousness by becoming like a child, which through incarnation enables the divine (God, unconscious content) to integrate with the self so that self-aware individuation can occur. This can establish a new pattern for human relationships that will leave no occasion for strife, which is what at the beginning of this story had been occurring among the disciples.

The inevitable consequence of unconscious content confronting ego consciousness in the integration (incarnation) process is suffering, suffering of our ego consciousness (the self) as it cedes some of its position of preeminence and is transformed by unconscious content. The old self is “crucified” and then, as it transforms, it is “resurrected” into higher level of consciousness, resulting in a more integrated and “redeemed” Self. Easter. Springtime.

May we all celebrate a fruitful and happy Easter!

Sources and Bibliography

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

Corbett, Lionel. The Religious Function of the Psyche. Routledge: New York (1996).

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

1 Enoch, in Charlesworth, James, ed., The Old Testament Pseudapigrapha,vol. 1, pp. 5-89. Peabody, Massachusetts (1983).

Franz, Marie-Louise von. Creation Myths. Boston: Shambhala (rev. ed. 1995).

George, Arthur, and Elena George. The Mythology of Eden. Lanham, Maryland: Hamilton Books (2014).

Jung, Carl. “Christ, a Symbol of the Self,” in Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self. Collected Works, vol. 9.2, paras. 68-126 (cited as “Jung CSS”). Cites to Jung in this and other works listed below are to the numbered paragraphs, not pages.

Jung. Carl. “Answer to Job,” in Psychology and Religion: West and East, Collected Works, vol. 11, paras. 553-758 (cited as “Jung AJ”). This essay is also available as a separate book published by Princeton University Press.

Jung, Carl. “On Resurrection,” in The Symbolic Life. Collected Works, vol. 18, paras. 1558-74 (cited as “Jung OR”).

Jung, Carl. “Concerning Rebirth,” in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Collected Works, vol. 9.1, paras. 199-258 (cited as “Jung CR”).

Neumann, Erich. The Origins and History of Consciousness. Princeton: Princeton University Press (1954).

© Arthur George 2017.

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Christmas Mythology V: Luke’s Christmas Story

Yesterday’s post covered the mythological elements of the Christmas story unique to Matthew, so today I’m doing the same for Luke.

The Story of the Shepherds and Jesus in the Manger

In Luke’s story the adoration scene features shepherds rather than magi, and it occurs on the night of Jesus’s birth rather than several months afterwards as in Matthew. Biblical scholars generally agree that Luke’s story is myth (Freed 136), but there is no consensus around why Luke chose shepherds for the adoration role and the meaning of such choice. In my view, first understanding Luke’s overall message in the scene makes it easier to understand why choosing shepherds for this role makes sense.

The scene opens with shepherds tending their flock at night when they see an angel standing before them, who announces that he is bringing “to you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” After this announcement, the angel together with a multitude of the heavenly host break out into song, singing “glory to God in the highest [heaven], and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” This rings of the apocalyptic thinking with which Jesus, and John the Baptist before him and Paul after him, were associated. According to that view, the unrepentant people and more generally the evil forces in the current world would be overthrown, and the kingdom of God would be established on earth in which the good people who follow God and believe in Christ as their savior will live in peace (Ehrman). Under this approach, while potentially all people are eligible to be elected on judgment day, only the repentant and humble who love God with all their heart will enter the kingdom, while the rich and the Romans will be excluded. In this story, Luke seems to be drawing a contrast between the pax Romana imposed by force by the Roman emperor (at this point Augustus Caesar, who was mentioned in Luke’s lead-up to this story (2:1)) vs. the coming kingdom of God in which the people whom God has favored will live in true peace (Freed 141-43).

So how do shepherds fit into this scheme? Shepherds typically were ordinary people of modest means, but they also had a dubious reputation for being tricky and dishonest and hence were viewed as sinners (Freed 137-38). Jesus attracted both such kinds of people to his flock during his ministry, and upon repenting they became poised to enter the kingdom of God. In Luke’s story, the shepherds hearing a revelation and then recognizing and venerating the baby Jesus as their savior and Messiah symbolizes this.

The other connection with shepherds lies with David. Luke first has Mary and Joseph travel to “the city of David called Bethlehem, because he [Joseph] was descended from the house and family of David” (2:4). The angel then announces to the shepherds that Jesus has just been born “in the city of David,” without having to mention that it is Bethlehem. David was a shepherd in Bethlehem. In fact, it is only as a shepherd that the Hebrew Bible connects David to Bethlehem, and this happens in the scene where he was chosen and anointed as king, at which moment the spirit of God came upon him and remained with him from that day forward (1 Sam 16:1-13). So Luke’s shepherd story as told serves to identify Jesus with David and supports the notion of Jesus both being born in Bethlehem and being recognized as the Messiah.

As mentioned in Sunday’s post, most biblical scholars view the whole notion of Jesus being born in Bethlehem as unhistorical, so the manger scene is myth. As mentioned in Monday’s post, Jesus’s parents being unable to secure accommodations in Bethlehem, his being placed in a manger (presumably among animals), and the adoration by shepherds, all serve to emphasize his humble beginnings, which is a typical element of the “birth of the hero” motif. Interestingly, in the apocryphal second-century Protoevangelicum of James, the place of the nativity was changed to a cave, a parallel tradition that has survived through the centuries and carries much the same meaning.

Luke has thus composed a beautiful mythological scene in which ordinary people come into contact with the sacred in the form of an angel, the heavenly host, and the Christ child, accompanied by music and with remembrance of the heroic King David, all designed to promise salvation to the actors and the audience of the story.

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

The next event that Luke describes (2:22-38) is the presentation of the infant Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple 40 days after his birth and the recognition of his status as Son of God there. The vast majority of Biblical scholars do not consider this story historical, and as noted in Sunday’s post the story contains inaccuracies in terms of Jewish law and ritual. Luke’s goal, though, was not to write accurate history but to develop the myth further by reconfirming and amplifying Jesus’s status. Having fulfilled prophecy by being born in Bethlehem and being recognized as the Messiah there, now Jesus must get to Jerusalem and be similarly recognized as the Son of God in the Temple itself, his Father’s house, which as a literary matter also anticipates the story of his long journey to Jerusalem and the Temple that occupies the whole second half of Luke’s Gospel.

This story is modeled on the Hebrew Bible story of Elkanah and Hannah and their son Samuel (1 Sam 1:1-2:26). There the formerly barren Hannah conceives and bears Samuel through Yahweh’s intervention (in answer to her prayer), and once the boy is weaned he is taken up to the temple in Shiloh (then the main temple in Israel) during the family’s annual trip there for sacrifice. While there Hannah prays and breaks into a song of praise and thanks, which was probably Luke’s model for Mary’s Magnificat. As the firstborn, Samuel is offered into the service of the Lord, as a nazirite, and his parents leave him there. The boy is then said to grow up in the presence of the Lord, and to grow in stature and favor with the Lord (2:21, 26). The similarities with Luke’s presentation scene, his descriptions of Jesus maturing, and with the subsequent scene of the young Jesus staying at the Temple when his parents leave for home, are obvious.

Luke’s purpose in Jesus’s case is similar but magnified. At the Temple Jesus encounters the prophets Simeon and Anna, who recognize him as the Messiah and savior of both Jews and gentiles. Simeon paints an apocalyptic picture, prophesizing that Jesus will divide Israelites and be opposed by some, that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed, that some will rise while others will fall, and that a sword will pierce even Mary’s soul, all of which foreshadows the end times.



The presentation of Jesus in the Temple to Simeon (Jan Joest, early 16th cen.), portraying the extension of Hebrew Bible mythology to Jesus. In the background are Adam and Eve committing the transgression by the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and overlapping it is a menorah, also a tree symbol that supplanted the sacred trees originally venerated by Canaanites/Israelites (George & George 175-76) but which here is simply a symbol of the stage of Judaism, which Christianity superseded. St. Paul taught that Jesus offered humanity the way to overcome original sin, the doctrine that he invented.

Jesus in the Temple at Age Twelve

Luke’s final story in his infancy narrative (2:41-51) presents Jesus again at the Temple, this time during the family’s annual pilgrimage there during Passover. At the tender age of 12, he stays behind when his parents depart Jerusalem for Nazareth in order to engage in discussions with teachers of the Law at the Temple, who are amazed by his understanding. When Mary and Joseph come back and find him and ask why he did this, he answers, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Part of Luke’s purpose in this story is to show that Jesus had remarkable abilities at a young age, especially when it came to understanding the Law. Under Jewish law, a boy assumes certain adult responsibilities at age 13, signified in modern Judaism by the bar mitzvah; before then the parents are responsible for the boy’s actions. So by having Jesus break away from his parents and show remarkable understanding of the Law, Luke was showing that Jesus was ahead of the norm and indeed extraordinary.

As mentioned in Monday’s post, having remarkable abilities and qualities at a young age is an element of the “birth of the hero” mythological motif, and Luke’s story is no exception (see Jung, p. 406). Other examples at this or a similar young age include Pythagoras, the Olympic champion Theagenes, Cyrus, Epicurus, Alexander the Great, Apollonius of Tyana, and the biblical figures of Samuel, Moses, Solomon, and Daniel (for Apollonius see Philostratus, Vit. Apoll 5; for Theagenes: Pausanias, Descr. 6.11.2-3; for the others see Nolland 129).

Luke’s ultimate purpose in this story, however, was to show that Jesus, as the Son of God, must do the work of his real Father at the expense of even his own earthly family obligations, just as later during his ministry he would expect much the same from his followers. This is the first time that we see Jesus understand his purpose, his calling. Whereas in the previous presentation scene at the Temple the reader is told (again) who Jesus is, now we see Jesus himself coming to understand this. Here again, Luke may have had the Samuel example in mind, for Josephus reported what probably had become a tradition, namely that at age 12 Samuel began to prophecy and, together with the high priest, realized that God had called him (Ant. 5.2.4, §§ 348-49).

This event corresponds to the stage in the mythological hero cycle when the budding hero hears “the call” to his hero’s journey (Campbell 49-58). In this stage, the protagonist, still in the everyday world of everyday people, is stimulated and perceives the call to adventure that promises to take him out of that world and onto his hero’s journey. In Luke, this story marks the beginning of the call phase but Jesus is still too young to act upon it. This phase ends and the next two typical stages, which Joseph Campbell calls “supernatural aid” and “the crossing of the threshold” (Campbell 69-89), transpire together in the very next event that Luke narrates, Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist, at which moment the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus in the form of a dove, activating him to begin his hero’s journey, in the form of his ministry and beyond.


What we celebrate each Christmas is the birth of a mythologized Christ figure, in that he was built up by Matthew and Luke to be larger than life using a number of standard motifs in mythological narrative, molding or making up facts to fit them. By the end of the events that we celebrate at Christmas, the figure of Jesus is developing into a hero in much the normal manner. Looking at Christmas merely from a mythological standpoint, Christians are celebrating the birth and life of their hero, including his death, and resurrection; and the first Christians also included in their veneration his expected imminent return to establish the kingdom of God. Since mythological narratives are designed to convey sacred truths, Christmas (in its ideal pristine form) is also a celebration and reaffirmation of the sacred truths that Jesus taught, stood for, and (quite literally) embodied. As history has shown, Matthew and Luke achieved their aims spectacularly.

There is much more I could write about the mythological aspects of the Christmas story (e.g., the virgin birth), but I will save that for my next book. In the meantime, Happy Holidays to everyone!

Sources and Bibliography      

Brown, Raymond. The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke. Garden City/New York: Doubleday (1977).

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York: MJF Books (1949).

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

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

George, Arthur, and Elena George. The Mythology of Eden. Lanham, Maryland: Hamilton Books (2014).

Jung, Carl. Answer to Job,” in Psychology and Religion: West and East, Collected Works, vol.11. Princeton: Princeton University Press (1969).

Nolland, John. 1989. Luke 1-9:20. Dallas: Word Books.

Vermes, Geza. The Nativity: History and Legend. New York: Doubleday (2006).


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Christmas Mythology IV: Matthew’s Christmas Story

Matthew 2’s Christmas story, no part of which is found elsewhere in the New Testament, contains some of our most dramatic and enduring Christmas images: the magi following a moving star to visit and venerate the young child and future king Jesus, the ensuing Massacre of the Innocents, and the Flight to Egypt. This is because the stories and their symbols have resonated in people’s minds down through the ages, traveling through different cultures, countries, and languages. When mythologists see this happen, they begin to look for myth. So here goes!

The Star

As we saw in yesterday’s post, one element of the “birth of the hero” mythological motif is omens or other divine portents marking the hero’s birth. In the ancient Greco-Roman world, stars and comets were commonly viewed as broadcasting messages from heaven, and in particular as portending the coming of a new king (sometimes connected with the death of the old one) (Miller 102; Davies & Allison 233). Pliny the Elder, for example, wrote that the birth of an important man was heralded by the apparition of a star (Nat. Hist. 2.28). Seutonius wrote that a star marked the impending birth of a king, who would be Caesar Augustus. In response to that sign, the Senate forbade the rearing of infants, but the boy was saved from those who sought his life (reminiscent of Matthew’s account) (Augustus 94). Similarly, the death of Nero and coming of a new emperor were said to have been portended by a comet (Tacitus, Annals 14.22). Plutarch also reported strange astral phenomena at the birth of Alexander the Great (Alex. 3). A star also was said to have marked the ascension of Caesar into heaven (Seutonius, Jul. 88). In Virgil’s Aeneid, Jupiter sent a “star” (probably a meteor) to show the way of travelers, Aeneas and his father, so they could escape Troy when it was overrun by the Greeks (2.680-705). One suspects that, in the case of the star as elsewhere, Matthew was aware of and felt a need to compete with Mediterranean mythical traditions, and so he made sure that Jesus more than measured up against these Roman emperors and heroes by including an amplified version of the motif.

Matthew as usual also drew on Hebrew Bible prophecy in writing this account. New Testament scholars believe that he drew from the story of Balaam in Numbers 22-24 (e.g., Brown 190-96; Davies & Allison 234-35), which itself was probably another myth. In that story, the king of Moab retained a foreign pagan seer, Balaam, to pronounce a curse on the Israelites who were about to invade the land. Balaam, however, encountered Yahweh, who led him instead to pronounce a blessing on Israel and also prophesize, “A star will come forth from Jacob, and a scepter will rise from Israel” (24:17). The original story was about a particular military situation in its own day and had nothing to do with a messiah centuries later, but the Qumran community nevertheless used this episode to refer to the expected messiah (Davies & Allison 234), and apparently so did others. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, writing about a generation after Matthew (ca.107-08 CE) while being taken under guard to Rome to be martyred, wrote his Letter to the Ephesians, in which he included the star which he had presumably learned about at some earlier point:

How was Jesus revealed to the ages? A star shone in heaven brighter than all the stars, and its light was indescribable, and its novelty caused astonishment. All the other stars together with the sun and moon formed a ring around it, and yet it outshone them all with its light (19.2).

This is interesting for several reasons. First, biblical scholars find no evidence that Ignatius was aware of or using Matthew’s Gospel (Miller 103), which indicates that there was an independent tradition of the star story that may have predated Matthew and which both used. Second, here the star’s “novelty” echoes Matthew’s portrayal of the star as unique. Third, making it brighter than everything else in the sky and having the sun, moon, and the other stars move to form a ring about it in a way that defies observation and natural law (as did Matthew), made the event sacred and signaled the star’s (and thus Jesus’s) superiority. A typically mythical approach.

Matthew also may have been inspired and aided by reports of certain historical celestial phenomena that occurred roughly within the time period of Jesus’s birth. Halley’s comet appeared in 12-11 BCE, and there was an alignment of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars in 7 BCE, although the planets would not have been close enough to appear as a single star. Matthew, however, wanted to describe something truly miraculous and unique. Thus, the magi moved westward toward Jerusalem following the star, it apparently stopped while they were meeting with Herod in Jerusalem, and after the meeting it started moving south to Bethlehem (only about 6 miles), and then stopped and hovered over the house where Jesus was born (Matt 2:2, 9). No one sees heavenly bodies moving in such a way, thus giving the story the aura of myth.


Our imagery of Matthew’s story reflects both the original myth as well as how it was mythologized further. The star hovers over Jesus’s house in Bethlehem, pointing it out. Matthew does not says how many magi there were, what they looked like, what were their names, or what was their means of transport, but this information was supplied in later centuries and now forms part of our Christmas tradition. They also became kings.

The Magi, The Massacre of the Innocents, and the Flight to Egypt

New Testament scholars do not regard Matthew’s stories of the magi, the Massacre of the Innocents, and the Flight to Egypt as historical (Miller 100), but, as in the case of the star, historical events might have inspired the part about the magi. In 66 CE, probably a few years before Matthew wrote, the Armenian King Tiridates I, who was also a Zoroastrian priest and magus, traveled from the east to Rome accompanied by other magi to pay homage to Nero and vow fidelity to him, and Nero held a coronation ceremony for him (Brown 174, 192; Davies & Allison 252). Here again Matthew may be setting up a contrast and competition between the Roman emperors and Jesus, part of his portrayal of Jesus as the true king. The hint here may arise from the fact that Tiridates and his magi were known to take a different route home, because Matthew likewise specifies that his magi did the same (2:12), a detail that otherwise seems spurious.

Since Matthew’s largest audience was gentiles, it was important that his Gospel resonate with them and embrace them in the good news. One way in which he did so was to place gentiles (the magi) at the center of his adoration story, in order to show how gentiles “from the east” had recognized Jesus as savior at the outset, and how any gentile could be saved by belief in him.

In order to effect this outreach, Matthew structured this story using rich mythological traditions from the Hebrew Bible. First, from the very beginning of his Gospel, (1:1-2) Matthew is keen to portray Jesus as the son (descendant) of Abraham and to connect Abrahamic traditions with Jesus, including in his infancy story and especially in 2:1-12 (Brown 181, 184). After Abraham had shown willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac to Yahweh, Yahweh told Abraham, “by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice” (Gen 22:18). Thus Matthew can have Abraham’s “son” Jesus similarly promise, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (8:11).

Matthew’s introduction of magi from the east bearing gifts for Jesus carries this idea forward. Here he made use of Isaiah 60:3, 6, 10, which prophesized that gentile nations shall come to Zion bearing gold and frankincense, praise Yahweh, and submit to its king, much as foreign royalty had given gifts (including gold and myrrh) and honors to Solomon. Similarly, Psalm 72:11 said, “May all kings all fall down before him [the Israelite king], all nations give him service.” Matthew’s adoration story thus shows that this prophecy has been realized, with Jesus as king. By implication too, since the submitters were magi, eastern religions were being superseded by Christianity. Further, this event constituted what Davies and Allison called “an inaugurated eschatology” because the above-mentioned movement of nations had commenced, implying that the promise of Micah 5:2 has been fulfilled and that the end times have dawned (Davies & Allison 253). Interesting in this regard too is an analogous detail from a pagan source, Plutarch’s account of Alexander the Great’s birth. On the day of Alexander’s birth, the magnificent temple to Artemis in Ephesus (then within the Persian Empire) burned to the ground. Magi were there that day, who interpreted the event as portending the end of the empire and the coming of a new kingdom, which turned out to be Alexander’s (Alex. 3.5-7). For Matthew too, magi saw Jesus as the newborn future king who would overturn the existing order.

A third Hebrew Bible tradition that inspired the magi story was the story of Balaam, already mentioned above in connection with the star. Balaam, considered a magus (Philo, Moses I, § 276), also traveled from the east at the invitation of the Moabite king Balak to destroy Moses, and ended up embracing Yahweh and blessing the Israelites, thus saving Moses and his people. This is important because Matthew’s story of the Massacre of the Innocents and Flight to Egypt are meant to parallel the story in Exodus where Moses is saved by spiriting him away after Pharaoh had ordered the murder of all Hebrew baby boys. Moses eventually leads the Hebrews out of Egypt, and Hosea 11:1 had said, “out of Egypt I have called my son” (Matt 2:15). Matthew thus portrayed the evil Herod as Pharaoh, and Jesus the Son of God in parallel with Moses. In the story of the Flight to Egypt, Matthew gets Jesus to Egypt so that he can come out of Egypt in fulfilment of scripture. As we have seen, in mythological terms, the attempt to kill the newly born hero and then spiriting him away is a standard element in “the birth of the hero” motif.

The gifts that the magi presented to Jesus also have been taken to hold symbolism. For a long time Christians told that the gold represented Jesus’s kingship, incense represented his divinity since it is used in worship, and myrrh represented his death and resurrection since it is used to embalm the dead (as intended in John 19:39), but biblical scholars do not accept this theory. For one thing, Matthew has no myrrh in his death and resurrection account; in fact, he changed Mark’s “wine mixed with myrrh” (15:23) to “wine mixed with gall” (27:34). Davies and Allison instead adopt an apocalyptic interpretation, viewing the gifts as the culmination of the magi’s trip representing the “first fruits” of the eschatological pilgrimage of the nations and their submission to Yahweh as foreseen in Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72 above (249-50).

The magi story was further mythologized over the centuries. Matthew did not say how many there were, but they became three to match the number of gifts. They became kings, again through reliance on Isaiah 60:3, 6 and Psalm 72:10-11 above. And they acquired names and descriptions: the young and shaven Caspar, the bearded old Melchior, and the black Balthasar. The tradition arose that they rode camels, though Matthew does not mention the means of transport.

Matthew’s Christmas story is artfully constructed both as literature and as myth because of how well it conveys sacred truths. It is the place where the Hebrew Bible and New Testament meet, so that the most important story in human history can begin. The story incorporates perennially resonant characters and motifs: the star; mysterious magicians from the east bearing fabulous gifts; the threat to the newborn hero and saving him; warnings in dreams; and appearances of angels in dreams. These figures and symbols serve as the vehicles of sacred truths. It is no wonder that this story remains popular and central to our culture, and that it inspired and still provides trimmings to our Christmas holiday.

Sources and Bibliography      

Brown, Raymond. The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke. Garden City/New York: Doubleday (1977).

Davies, W., and Allison, D. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, vol. 1, Matthew 1-7. New York: T&T Clark (1988).

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

Vermes, Geza. The Nativity: History and Legend. New York: Doubleday (2006).

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Christmas Mythology III: Jesus and the “Birth of the Hero” Mythological Motif

Myths and legends feature countless hero figures, and even real history features many people whose lives have been mythologized, being elevated into larger-than-life figures. Scholars have long recognized that Jesus as portrayed in the New Testament and its apocrypha is one of these heroic figures (Rank; Dundes; Campbell; Funk). In Jesus’s case, like many others, this process begins with his parentage, conception, and birth. In the field of mythological studies this initial phase of a hero’s life is known as “the birth of the hero” motif. This motif provides a framework into which many elements of Jesus’s infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke fit.

Scholars have studied this motif, breaking it down into a formal pattern with several elements based on parallel events in the myths. The most famous patterns identified are those of the psychologist Otto Rank and of Lord Raglan; Joseph Campbell also treated the birth and childhood of heroes as part of his hero cycle (318-34). No two scholars have come up with exactly the same pattern and number of elements, nor does any single story match all elements of any one such pattern. Nevertheless, the birth stories of many hero figures, including Jesus, do hit most of the data points identified by scholars, so it is worth examining this motif in some detail in relation to Jesus. There are parallels worldwide, but I will confine the discussion to those from the ancient Greco-Roman Mediterranean world up through the time when Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels were written.

Several key elements of the archetypal “birth of the hero” pattern appear in Jesus’s infancy narratives (Rank 39-43; Dundes; Funk 498-5-7; Miller 133-53; Jung, p. 406), including:

  • An earthly biological or adoptive father who is either a king or in a royal line, as in both Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies of Jesus. Other examples include Plato (descended from Solon), Aeneas (son of prince Anchises of Troy), Perseus, Theseus, Asclepius, Oedipus, Telephus, Heracles, Jason, and Romulus.
  • A miraculous conception through divine intervention, as in both Matthew and Luke, and reputed to be the son of a god (sometimes a goddess), as in all of the Gospels. Other examples include Romulus (fathered by Mars), Aeneas (son of Aphrodite), Heracles (Zeus) Alexander the Great (Zeus), Augustus Caesar (Apollo), Plato (Apollo, also descended from Poseidon), Apollonius of Tyana (Proteus), Pythagoras (Apollo), Asclepius (Apollo), and Perseus (Zeus).
  • His mother is a virgin (sometimes royal) as of just before such miraculous conception. Examples include Danae (mother of Perseus), Rhea Silva (mother of Romulus and Remus), Koronis (mother of Asclepius), Aethra (mother of Theseus), Alcemene (mother of Heracles); similarly among divinities Leto (mother of Apollo) and Semele (mother of Dionysus). Such classical examples, however, feature conception through sex (expressly or impliedly). Mary’s case goes a step further, making her conception by the Holy Spirit asexual and retaining her virginity afterwards.
  • Prophecies, dreams, omens, or other portents of his coming and future greatness, as in Matthew 2:5-6 and Luke 2:10, 29-38. Other examples include Augustus Caesar, Apollonius of Tyana, Pythagoras, Plato, Alexander the Great (by magi), Aeneas (annunciation by Aphrodite), Cyrus, and Zoroaster.
  • Soon after birth the child is abandoned or spirited away, or an attempt is made to kill him, as in Matthew’s account of the Massacre of the Innocents. Other examples include Heracles (once by his mother and again by Hera), Sargon I, Moses, Jason, Ion, Paris, Jason, Augustus Caesar, Zoroaster, Cyrus, Romulus, and Asclepius.
  • He is born into and grows up living in modest/primitive and obscure conditions as in all of the Gospels; often he is raised by foster parents (Joseph was Jesus’s adoptive father) and sometimes even animals; in some cases nothing is said or known of his childhood. Other examples include Perseus, Paris, Jason, Romulus, and Cyrus. In Luke, Jesus’s humble beginnings are emphasized by his parents being unable to secure accommodations in Bethlehem, his being placed in a manger (presumably among animals), and the adoration by shepherds.
  • Although his early childhood is obscure, later in childhood he displays exceptional qualities, as in Luke 2:46-47, 52. Other examples include Pythagoras, Epicurus, Alexander the Great, Apollonius of Tyana, the Olympic champion Theagenes, Cyrus, and the biblical figures of Moses, Samuel, Solomon, and Daniel.
  • He is said to be divine or semi-divine, as in all Gospels. Other examples include Heracles, Pythagoras, Plato, Asclepius, Epicurus, Augustus Caesar, Apollonius of Tyana.

These characteristics are what people in the ancient Greco-Roman Mediterranean world came to expect of their heroes, so inevitably myths and legends of heroes developed using these stereotypes to satisfy these expectations. These elements were often attributed to historical persons; it is these common elements in their biographies conforming to the hero pattern that are historically suspect and are the material of myth (Dundes 180).


Jesus is sometimes depicted explicitly in hero form. The first Christians had an apocalyptic outlook, according to which the recently crucified and resurrected Christ would imminently return to render judgment, destroy the enemy and the forces of evil, set up the Kingdom of God on earth, and reign over it. That makes for a good hero!


New Testament scholarship has shown that early Christians were striving competitively to prove to skeptical pagans and Jews that Jesus shared in these marks of divinity and hero status, and that he even exceeded and was superior to the pagan gods in these respects. For example, the early Church father Justin Martyr famously wrote, “When, indeed, we assert that the Word, our Teacher Jesus Christ, who is the first-begotten of God the Father, was not born as the result of sexual relations, and that he was crucified, died, arose from the dead, and ascended into Heaven, we propose nothing new or different from that which you say about the so-called sons of Jupiter” (First Apology 21).

As M. David Litwa stressed in his valuable study of Jesus’s depiction as a Mediterranean god, the point here is not to argue for genetic, direct influence on Matthew and/or Luke from particular Greco-Roman myths and legends (although this seems plausible in some cases such as the birth of Aeneas (MacDonald 13-17)). Rather, the takeaway should be that the motifs through which the birth of Jesus was mythologized were part and parcel of Greco-Roman Mediterranean culture and thus available, and could be and were applied to Jesus, as was recognized and argued in the patristic literature (Litwa 20, 37-67; Ehrman 2012, p. 215). It was this audience, after all, to which Matthew and Luke were directed, in order to win converts and grow Christian communities in the face of pagan beliefs and Roman imperial propaganda increasingly concerned with the Emperor cult.

How well Jesus’s later life, death, and resurrection fit into the hero pattern is more subject to debate, and is important for how to interpret his mythologization. He is certainly a hero in terms of being the savior of individuals and all of humanity, and, as I discussed in last year’s Christmas post, Christ was viewed as a solar hero in ways similar to other solar heroes. What bears stressing here, however, is that, while in our times we think of a humble Christ with a more purely spiritual (as we define that these days) message rather than being a classic powerful warrior figure, the scenario during his life and among the first Christians was broader than that because of Jewish and Christian apocalypticism. John the Baptist, Jesus, and St. Paul were all apocalypticists, and the earliest Christian communities were apocalyptic in nature: They were awaiting the imminent end of the world. Jewish apocalypticists such as John the Baptist and Jesus believed that God would soon intervene in history to destroy the enemy and the forces of evil, and set up the Kingdom of God on earth. God would accomplish this through the Son of Man, who would then reign over the Kingdom. St. Paul and other early Christians believed that Christ was this figure, and that he would imminently return to accomplish this (Ehrman 1999). Now that’s a hero! Jesus’s mythologization reflected this perspective.

Sources and Bibliography      

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York: MJF Books (1949).

Dundes, Alan. “The Hero Pattern and the Life of Jesus,” in Segal 1990, pp. 179-223.

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

Ehrman, Bart. Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne (2012).

Funk, Robert. The Acts of Jesus. New York: HarperSanFrancisco (1998). This volume reports the results of the study of the historicity of the events of Jesus’s by the Jesus Seminar of the Westar Institute.

Jung, Carl. Answer to Job,” in Psychology and Religion: West and East, Collected Works, vol.11. Princeton: Princeton University Press (1969).

Litwa, M. David. Jesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2014).

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

Miller, Robert. Born Divine: The Births of Jesus & Other Sons of God. Salem, Oregon: Polebridge Press (2003), pp. 133-53.

Raglan, Lord. 1990. The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama, Part II, in Segal, pp. 89-175.

Rank, Otto. The Myth of the Birth of the Hero: A Psychological Interpretation of Mythology, in Segal, pp. 3-86 (originally published in 1914).

Segal, Robert, ed. In Quest of the Hero. Princeton: Princeton University Press (1990).

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Christmas Mythology II: What is History and What is Myth in the Nativity Stories?

This post is the first of several leading up to this Christmas dealing with the mythology lurking behind our Christmas stories, rituals, and holiday celebrations, starting with the stories of Jesus’s birth and leading up to our modern day. It will be something of a sleigh ride, and I hope you come along and enjoy it. (Head’s up: The other posts will be much shorter than this one! Also, my first Christmas mythology post was on December 23 last year and fits in here, so you’ll want to check that too.

In respect of the stories of Jesus’s birth, we are concerned with their “mythology” in two main respects. The first is to separate out how much of the Christmas story is historical and how much is myth (in the sense of not being true), so that we can be as clear as possible about the extent to which we are dealing with mythological material. The second is to consider the mythological motifs in the story, focusing on why they are there and what is their meaning. In this second aspect, we are dealing with myth in its more proper definition as a narrated story designed to convey profound, sacred truths. This post concentrates on the first and just begins on the second.

Is Christmas Based on a Myth?

Did the Christmas event that we celebrate ever happen? Virtually all biblical scholars agree that Jesus was born and lived, but what about the spectacular elements of the story that enhance its sacredness and have made it more special and memorable?

The stories of Jesus’s birth abound with extraordinary or miraculous elements having the ring of myth: A royal genealogy. Intervention by God (through the Holy Spirit) causing a virgin to conceive. Revelatory angelic appearances, including in dreams. The presence and actions of the Holy Spirit. A new star moving westward across the sky to Jerusalem, then south to Bethlehem, and stopping over the house of Jesus’s birth (Mt 2:2-10). Adorations of the wonder child by magi (in Matthew) and shepherds (in Luke). Prophecies about his nature and wondrous future. A chorus of angels singing in celebration of his birth, and then rising up into heaven (Lk 2:13-15). An evil king (Herod) out to kill the wonder child who could oust him. And much more.

Infancy stories appear only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. There is no mention of Jesus’s birth in Mark or John, nor in the writings of St. Paul, the rest of the New Testament, or the Q source that most biblical scholars believe served as a principal source of material for Matthew and Luke. In fact, the circumstances of the nativity, once told, are not referred to in the remainder of either Matthew or Luke. They are self-contained literary units composed and dropped into the rest of Matthew and Luke, probably at a late stage of composition according to biblical scholars. These Gospels might have done well enough without them, as in the case of Mark and John, but Matthew and Luke included them in order to make theological points. I’ll consider in the next post why Matthew and Luke wanted to drop them in, but in this post I’ll focus on whether and to what extent these accounts have historical value.

The Christmas story as portrayed in our modern culture in stories, Christmas carols, Christmas cards, and art, is usually a combination and conflation of elements from Matthew and Luke. In fact, virtually all of these elements belong exclusively to either Matthew or Luke, and are absent from or contradicted by the other. We can count on our fingers the elements that Matthew and Luke have in common: virginal conception through the Holy Spirit, rather than Joseph being Jesus’s biological father; Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem, late in the reign of Herod, after his parents have started living together; Joseph’s Davidic descent; angels predict his birth, say to name the child Jesus, and predict that he will be the Savior; and Jesus is then brought up in Nazareth (Brown 34-35; Miller 13).

Otherwise Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts vary, either in focus or in outright contradiction with each other. (Brown 36). In fact, the two stories don’t have a single scene in common (Miller 11). A Hebrew Bible prophecy (Micah 5:2) had predicted that the Messiah will be from Bethlehem, but everyone knew that Jesus had grown up in Nazareth. According to Matthew, Joseph and Mary’s home was in Bethlehem, Jesus was born there, and they moved to Nazareth after returning from Egypt. But in Luke Joseph and Mary always live in Nazareth, and they visit Bethlehem only once to register for tax purposes, when Jesus was born. Matthew features the star, Luke does not. In Matthew Jesus is born in the family house, in Luke in a stranger’s outbuilding where there is a manger. In Matthew magi visit Jesus, probably several months after his birth, but in Luke it is humble shepherds from near Bethlehem, on the night of his birth. In Matthew, the family flees Bethlehem for Egypt to escape Herod’s massacre of the innocents. Luke reports no such thing. Rather, soon after Jesus’s birth, the family travels to the Temple in Jerusalem (not far from Herod’s palace) to present Jesus there, after which they return home to Nazareth. Matthew and Luke also each give genealogies of Jesus, but they are inconsistent with each other. These contradictions are irreconcilable (Miller 12-13), meaning that in each case one of them can’t be true, most likely neither. As the eminent biblical scholar Geza Vermes put it, “To attempt a full reconciliation of the two Infancy Gospels is a patently lost cause: squaring the circle would be easier than reducing the two into a single coherent unity” (12).


Representations of the Nativity commonly conflate elements of Matthew’s story (star, magi) with Luke’s (manger (and perhaps by implication animals), and  angels (who talked with shepherds (absent here) and then disappeared before they went to see Jesus).













The narratives in many respects also run counter to known historical facts. For example, Luke’s account of the empire-wide Roman census during Herod’s reign which brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem cannot be true. There would be a record of such an ecumenical census, and there is none; there is no instance of this being done at any time, because it would have been impractical. In fact, Judea was not subject to direct Roman taxation during the reign of Herod (and his son Archelaus). Rome set up its own taxation system in Judea only in 6 CE when it came under direct Roman rule through a prefect who reported to the governor of Syria. This governor, Quirinus, did initiate a census as part of setting up that new system, but this was in 6 CE. So if Jesus was born during this census it could not have been during Herod’s rule, which had ended some 10 years earlier. But this census did not cover Galilee, so Joseph and Mary would not have been subject to it anyway (Meier 213). And even if they were, by law the registration would have been in the district where Joseph was resident rather than where his ancestor David was born, meaning in this case in the nearby Roman center of Sepphoris; nor would Mary have been required to go and appear with her husband to register (Meier 213; Vermes 86).

Another example of historical inaccuracy is Matthew’s story of the massacre of the innocents, which (at least as portrayed) would have been such a prominent and infamous event that, in the view of historians, there would have been some historical record of it (Brown 36). (Likewise for the account of the star (Brown 36).) Rather, Matthew invented the story in order to get Jesus to Egypt so he could be a new Moses to the people with a new Law, for Hosea 11:1 said, “out of Egypt I have called my son.” Matthew equated this episode with Pharaoh’s massacre of the Hebrews’ sons (Exod 1:15-22). Jesus’s family, however, did not return to Bethlehem, because Herod’s son was now ruling Judea, but inexplicably they then went to Nazareth in Galilee where Herod’s other son (Herod Antipas, who later beheaded John the Baptist) was ruling. From the frying pan into the fire!

A third example is Luke’s account of Jesus’s presentation at the Temple (2:21-40). Whereas in Matthew Jesus must be rushed out of Judea once Herod finds out about him, in Luke his parents take him to Jerusalem 40 days after his birth, where Temple prophets proclaim him the future savior of Israel and tell about it to all who will listen, this occurring a short walk from Herod’s palace! This episode as reported also contains significant mistakes in Jewish Law and ritual: Luke says that both Mary and Joseph went for purification, whereas only the mother had to do this. Also, purification of the mother and the presentation (and redemption) of the firstborn child were two separate rituals, but are combined and conflated by Luke here. Finally, presentation and redemption of the child did not require bringing the child to the Temple and “presenting” him there; rather, the parents would go and just pay five shekels (Meier 210; Freed 145-46).

Matthew and Luke could not have based their accounts upon taking testimony by eyewitnesses, because almost certainly they would have been dead by the time they wrote, and both authors are thought to have lived and wrote far from Jerusalem and Bethlehem. If a uniform and possibly reliable tradition of Jesus’s infancy had developed, then their accounts would not have been so vastly inconsistent. No two parallel narratives in the Gospels have a higher rate of contradiction, and the various attempts to reconcile them have proved to be hopeless contrivances (Miller 12-13). The vast majority of modern critical biblical scholars outside the fundamentalist/evangelical orbit regard these infancy narratives as unhistorical. Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts were written based on a combination of differing local traditions and the authors’ own creative imaginations for the purpose of creating a suitable myth to make their own theological points, as I will discuss in the next few posts.

For now, however, we can summarize the historical information that we can draw from these infancy stories, which is fairly limited: Jesus was born sometime late in King Herod’s reign, probably between 6 and 4 BCE. His parents were Mary and (less certain) Joseph, people of modest means. And as we shall see, the place of his birth was almost certainly Nazareth rather than Bethlehem. That’s about it.

Why Were the Infancy Myths Created?

Since no infancy stories or even references to the extraordinary events of Jesus’s birth appear in Mark, John, or elsewhere the New Testament, it is appropriate to ask why Matthew and Luke decided to include such stories. One reason was simple curiosity among early Christians (Brown 28). There was an insatiable appetite for more details about Jesus’s miraculous life, starting from its beginning, and such demand created the supply. In the resulting stories, the extraordinary, miraculous character of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection was projected backwards to his conception and birth. This curiosity continued, resulting in the later (2nd century) appearances of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which described Jesus’s childhood up through his appearance at the Temple at age 12, about which Luke had written, and the Protoevangelium of James, mainly providing details of Mary’s background.

But Matthew and Luke had more specific theological reasons for writing their infancy stories. First, Mark, who had no infancy narrative, wrote that Jesus was declared the son of god at the time of his baptism (1:11) (Ehrman 236-39). Matthew and Luke, however, wanted to make a Christological point: to show that Jesus’s divine nature existed even earlier, at the time of his conception, which accordingly occurred through divine means (Brown 29-32, 311-16; Meier 213; Ehrman 236-46). (Later, John pushed Jesus’s existence and divine nature back to before the creation (1:1-4)). Second, early Christians were competing with followers of John the Baptist, so the infancy stories (especially the virginal conception) were designed to make Jesus look superior to John (Kelly 2008, pp. 16-17). A third reason was to connect the very appearance of Jesus to the traditions of the Hebrew Bible (Brown 37). For a Jewish audience, it was useful to show how Jesus as the Messiah had been prophesized in the scriptures, while for a gentile audience it helped to show that the religious background and lead-up to the appearance of Jesus had an old, venerable, and documented history, because gentiles were skeptical of the newfangled Christian religion and its novel divine figure. Biblical scholars believe that a fourth reason for these infancy stories (and in particular the virginal conception) was to combat rumors, reflected in the Gospels, that Jesus was an illegitimate child (Brown 28-29, 534-42; Freed 32-37). A final reason was to explain that Jesus was really born in Bethlehem, given that everyone regarded him as being from Nazareth (Brown 28). This was necessary because, in order to be the Messiah, Jesus had to be born in Bethlehem in accordance with Micah’s prophecy.

Thus we see at work here what mythologists call the functionalist character of myths, according to which myths function to reinforce and further an existing belief system in a community, especially its religion. Beyond this, but along the same lines, the infancy stories were designed to attract converts from both the Jewish and Gentile communities and bring them into the Christian communities. This purpose was advanced by using a sacred narrative containing miraculous events, appealing to divine sanction. More broadly, as we shall see in subsequent posts, the mythical aspects of these stories echoed general mythological motifs from the Mediterranean world that the intended audiences would have recognized, thus giving the stories maximum persuasive power.

Sources and Bibliography      

Brown, Raymond. The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke. Garden City/New York: Doubleday (1977).

Davies, W., and Allison, D. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, vol. 1, Matthew 1-7. New York: T&T Clark (1988).

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: Sheffield Academic Press (2001).

Kelly, Joseph. The Birth of Jesus According to the Gospels. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press (2008).

Nolland, John. Luke 1-9:20. Dallas: Word Books (1989).

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 & Other Sons of God. Salem, Oregon: Polebridge Press (2003).

Vermes, Geza. The Nativity: History and Legend. New York: Doubleday (2006).

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Educating Young People About Myth: Interview with Author Tracey Barrett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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Living the Mythological Character of the Olympics

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

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

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

OLympics Running Race

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


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

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

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

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

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

Sources and Bibliography

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

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

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

Pausanias, Guide to Greece.

Plato, Laws.

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

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