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 the “mythology” of Christmas 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 of elements from Matthew and Luke, but virtually all of these elements belong exclusively to either Matthew or Luke, and are absent from or contradicted in 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 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 ushered 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 same curiosity factor was also at work 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)). A second goal 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 third 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 and thus would have had 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).

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

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

The Clean-Sports Movement and Performance-Enhancing Drugs:

Mythological Interpretation

By Josh Bertetta Ph.D.

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

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

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

But it wasn’t just the Russians.

And it wasn’t just track and field.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I.e., drugs don’t belong in sports.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

Faster, Higher, Stronger.

The suffix “-er” implies more.

More fast, more high, more strong.

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

The “-er,” the “more,” is excess.

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

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

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

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

Or do they?

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

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

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

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

And what else belongs to Hermes?

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

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

The winners.

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

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

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

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

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

Should sports be clean?

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

–. Athene: Virgin and Mother in Greek Religion.

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

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

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

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

[Image added by Art]


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




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May Day, Beltane, Easter, and their Fires

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources and Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resurrection meditation

Resurrection is an internal affair.

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

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

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

Sources and Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Arthur George 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pierro della Francesca resurrection painting

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

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

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

Sources and Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Arthur George 2016

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