Thanksgiving as Mythmaking in Action

Just about every people has had its etiological creation myth explaining how their society came about and why it is special and favored by the gods. The ancient Greeks had a variety of them. In a lesser-known one, contained in Plato’s Menexenus, Socrates explains how the goddess Athena had brought mankind forth from the land of Attica, which gave the Athenians a special nobility and closeness to the gods (237a-238b). The Romans traced their ancestry back to the noble Trojans through Aeneas, and also through Romulus and Remus. Israel traces its origin as the chosen people to the appearance of Abraham and the Exodus from Egypt, guided by God. So after a brand new society was established in North America by people who had abandoned Europe, one could expect our own mythical account of America’s cultural and social origins to appear, and that’s what we got.

Thanksgiving commemorates in mythical, idealized terms the cultural conception of our nation eventually leading to its political birth in 1776. Other than July 4th, it is the only holiday that is uniquely our own and provides a sense of national communitas (see Turner), and so holds a special place in the American psyche. It is our biggest holiday for travel, traditionally to the home of our family elders where each of us individually too was conceived.

We have reshaped this holiday over the centuries according to our self-perception, a mix of our higher ideals and our national shadow. In his most famous book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, Albert Schweitzer showed how each generation of scholars portrayed Jesus in its own image. Thus, during the Enlightenment when human reason was most valued and being exercised, scholars focused on how Jesus could not have performed miracles, and naturalistic explanations were proposed for these biblical events. In progressive times when educated people had a strong social agenda, Jesus’s own social agenda and ethics were highlighted. More recently some scholars have even argued that he was gay – a sure sign of our changing times. The story is much the same with how Thanksgiving evolved.

To understand the real origins of Thanksgiving, we must look back across the Atlantic to the Puritans in England and Holland. They had revolted against the Catholic and Church of England’s many annual holidays, which they viewed as either pagan in nature or popish inventions. Instead, they developed the twin practices of holding days of fasting and of thanksgiving, always on weekdays rather than on Sundays, and officially declared by the congregation. When something bad happened and people concluded that they had offended God, or when God’s help was particularly needed, the Puritans held a day of fasting, penitence, humiliation, and prayer. When good things happened, they would hold a day of thanksgiving to give thanks to God’s providence, which day started in church and ended with a communal meal indoors but without other festivities. These days were occasional in nature because the exercises of God’s providence could not be predicted, so there might be several such days each year, or none.

The Puritans, including the Pilgrims, brought this tradition to America. What became known as the “first Thanksgiving” in 1621, however, was an entirely different kind of affair, and so at the time it was not even called a thanksgiving. Specifically: It was not officially declared, it did not have a particularly religious orientation, the invited guests (and majority of participants) were heathen (in the technical not pejorative sense), it was held over three days, the feast was outdoors, and it included recreations. Held probably at the end of September, it rather resembled the traditional annual secular harvest festival observed by non-Puritans in England. (Baker 6, 26; Love 69.)

The event itself actually happened more or less as we have traditionally understood it, except for minor inaccuracies (e.g., no log cabins, the Pilgrims did dress in colors, turkey was not the center of the menu), so there is hardly any myth in this respect. Fortunately, we have a written eyewitness account, by the Pilgrim Edward Winslow, which is worth quoting:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, so that we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. . . . At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation . . . . And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you [Englishmen] partakers of our plenty. We have found the Indians very faithful in their Covenant of Peace with us; very loving and ready to pleasure us: we often go to them, and they come to us. (Winslow, p. 61 (spelling modernized).)

The trouble was that this information was in Winslow’s letter to people in England published in a collection of Pilgrim letters in London known as Mourt’s Relation. Only a few copies were brought back to New England, and they soon disappeared. Fortunately, a copy was discovered in a Philadelphia library in 1820, but it was published in full only in 1841, in which edition an editor, Rev. Alexander Young, everlastingly termed the event the “first Thanksgiving,” without regard for what that term originally meant. In the interim of over two centuries, there had been no published account of the Pilgrims or this event. (That of another Pilgrim, Of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford, which did not actually describe this feast, was published only in the 1850s.) This meant that for all that time the Thanksgiving holiday evolved in a tortuous fashion and without commemorating the Pilgrims’ 1621 feast. There being no solid historical accounts to rely upon to anchor the holiday, the mythmaking began.

Thanksgiving Indian Violence Image

One of many 19th-century portrayals of Native-colonial violence against a Thanksgiving background. Here arrows fly through the door as one settler grabs his musket. “Thanksgiving Day in New England Two Hundred Years Ago,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, November 27, 1869.

As the colonial population grew beyond the Puritan strongholds and became more diverse, fasts and thanksgivings did not die out but rather changed in character. People began to anticipate and aggregate providential events, and by the end of the 17th century a pattern emerged of regular fasts in the spring (when the fate of the crops was uncertain and God’s grace was sought) and thanksgivings in the autumn, which became more like traditional secular harvest festivals, and people tended to believe that thanksgivings had always been customary and in this form. The dates were proclaimed by individual colonies, and they differed.

The first national Thanksgiving day was proclaimed by George Washington in 1777, and it had both a religious and military flavor. It was held in December that year in thanks for the Colonial Army’s victory at Saratoga, which Washington (at least in the proclamation) attributed to God’s providence. The proclamation also implored God for further blessings, especially to inspire our military commanders with wisdom and fortitude, and also for economic prosperity; it also called upon the people for penitence and confession of sins, thus also reflecting fast day traditions. After another national Thanksgiving in 1789, although many individual states held thanksgiving days on various dates, no further national Thanksgivings were held until the close of the War of 1812: one in 1814 and two in 1815. All were similarly military in character, and were not associated with autumn. After that no national Thanksgiving day was proclaimed until the Civil War. Ironically, the first of these was proclaimed by the Confederacy for July 28, 1861, in thanks for its victory at Bull Run. President Lincoln later proclaimed one for April 13, 1863, in thanks for the Union’s victories at Forts Henry and Donelson, and at Shiloh. It was in 1863 that Lincoln proclaimed a Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November, which finally began our unbroken succession of national November Thanksgiving holidays, although that could not be foreseen at the time.

Although a regular national Thanksgiving holiday came late in our history, autumn thanksgivings on various dates had long been traditional on the state level. The meanings given to the holiday, however, changed over time with the fashions and politics of the times. Thus:

  • During the 19th century for so long as warfare with Native Americans in the West continued, early colonial thanksgivings were portrayed (see first illustration) as giving thanks in part for defeating this enemy (which purpose actually was sometimes expressly the case, as in a 1723 thanksgiving proclamation of Massachusetts). No sign of the first Thanksgiving’s camaraderie here!
  • But late in the 19th century, in the era of reconstruction and national reconciliation and into the Progressive Era, when America had become a melting pot, the theme of national unity in diversity became a prominent, and Thanksgiving became an occasion to celebrate our immigrant, African American, and Native American components (see second illustration).
  • Thanksgiving, wherever celebrated, was consistently tied, if not to the Pilgrims themselves, to an idyllic vision of colonial New England. The American Revolution, our victory in it, and also the victory of the Union in the Civil War, were attributed to traditional Yankee values and fortitude, which Thanksgiving came to celebrate.
  • Although thanksgivings originally were community (eventually nationally) oriented, by the end of the 19th century the national Thanksgivings had become family-oriented. The rapid change and instabilities in outer society caused people to focus more on the family and less on the larger community as a source of sustenance.
  • As industrialization took over our national economy and work life, nostalgia for a lost agrarian past developed, and Thanksgiving became a locus for celebrating and vicariously experiencing that idyll. This is when the harvest theme along with autumn colors became a lasting element of the holiday.
  • Nevertheless, Thanksgiving did not evolve primarily into a harvest festival. Rather, it was an occasion for an end-of-year summing up and thanks for the year’s blessings, of which the harvest was only one part. This explains the late November date. In those days well before climate change, the snows had usually come by then, and so Thanksgiving recreations included sleighing and skating. Jingle Bells was originally a Thanksgiving song!
Thomas Nast Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner

Thomas Nast’s “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner,” Harper’s Weekly, November 20, 1869, featuring various nationalities of immigrants, as well as a Native American and a former slave seated in harmony around the Thanksgiving table. Uncle Sam carves the turkey while Columbia is seated at the far left. It was designed to promote ratification of the 15th amendment to the Constitution prohibiting denial of voting rights on the basis of race.

All the elements of contemporary Thanksgiving were in place by the early 20th century, but they did not come together until after WWII. The patriotic sentiments that arose during that war to preserve the American way of life caused Americans to look to the Pilgrims as our national parents and as a source of the American values thought to have made victory possible, as the Pilgrims were perceived as the most pure and spiritual of the colonists. The “first” idyllic Thanksgiving, which had been on the fringe of public knowledge for about a century, now rose in prominence and came to stand for the first time at the core of our concept of Thanksgiving, as a commemoration of our national origins.

The story of Thanksgiving could now serve as a myth of creation, with its turkey dinner as a national civil eucharist. It did not matter that through most of our history there was no such tradition. It is an example of what some anthropologists call the “invention of tradition.” (See Hobsbwawm and Ranger.) A holiday, by definition, is a “holy day” when one retreats from everyday life and profane time into sacred time and space (here the home of the elders of our families) in order to share a sacred experience with those to whom we feel close and share communitas. The most fundamental kind of holiday celebrates the creation, which inevitably is tied to the creation of one’s society. This is what Mircia Eliade called “The Myth of the Eternal Return,” through which each year a community of people holds a festival that takes them back to a mythical golden beginning, in illo tempore. (Eliade 1991.) And inevitably our vision of our own creation will mirror our mythical, ideal vision of our society at each point in time as it evolves.

Sources and Bibliography

Baker, James. 2009. Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday. Durham, N.H.: University of New Hampshire Press.

Bradford, William. 1984. Of Plymouth Plantation. New York: Knopf.

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

Hobsbawm, Eric, and Ranger, Terence, eds. 1983. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge, United Kingdom: University of Cambridge Press.

Love, William. 1895. Fast and Thanksgiving Days of New England. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin. Available on Google Books:

Santino, Jack. 1995. All around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, pp. 167-78.

Turner, Edith. 2012. Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Journall of the English Plantation at Plimoth. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1966. This is a facsimile of the original of Mourt’s Relation containing Edward Winslow’s account of the first Thanksgiving, at p. 61 (cited as “Winslow”).

Copyright Arthur George 2015

Posted in Holidays, Mythology | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Myths Underlying Halloween and Myths about It

Halloween is full of ritual, and behind rituals lurk myths. Understanding this holiday is a challenge because it has both Christian and pagan roots in myth and ritual. Also, as is the case with myths themselves, festivals and rituals concerning the spirits of the dead have been fairly archetypal around the world and over time, making it difficult (and not always necessary) to pin down actual cross-cultural influences. When it comes to Halloween, our imagination runs a bit wild and plays tricks on us. As a result of these factors, while real myth underlies Halloween, a number of myths (in the sense of falsehoods) have arisen about Halloween that color our understanding of this holiday.

In terms of its Christian heritage, Halloween must be understood in relation to All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, celebrated on November 1 and 2 respectively. The Catholic Church established All Saints’ Day to honor all saints, to whom people directed prayers seeking their intercession on behalf of the souls of the recently deceased, to ensure that they would move from purgatory to heaven. All Souls’ Day is meant to honor and come to terms with the souls of dead friends and relatives, especially the recently deceased. What we now call Halloween emerged formally as a church vigil and fast kept on the eve of All Saints’ Day, and so was known as All Saint’s Eve or All Hallows Eve (“hallow” could also mean saint). Since the saints were seen as interceding for the souls who were at stake on All Souls’ Day, over time the meanings and rituals of the two holidays and the preceding vigil became intermingled. The three days formally formed a tridium known as Allhallowtide.

Today the Allhallowtide holidays are often traced to pagan Celtic festivals, which the Christian holidays are commonly said to have replaced, especially the November 1 festival of Samhain centered in Ireland. These holidays, however, also have more ancient precedents in the classical Mediterranean world, so that is where we must begin so that we can understand the Christian Allhallowtide and the extent to which it is related to Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”).

The ancient Greeks held a three-day festival at the beginning of spring (around our March 1), called the Anthesteria, which modern scholars consider the equivalent of our All Souls’ Day. Over time, once the god Dionysus had become prominent, it also became a wine festival because the second fermentation of the wine was completed and the new vintage was ready to drink. But the actual rituals of the Anthesteria reveal that the festival was more ancient and was concerned with underworld spirits, specifically those of the dead (keres).

On the first day of the festival, wine jars were opened and the drinking and feasting began, but originally the vessels were probably burial urns, from which the spirits flew out when the lids were taken off (similar to Pandora’s jar from which sprites emerged). Originally the presiding god who was honored was Hermes, who in Greek myth was the messenger to the underworld and an intermediary to the keres, whom he could enchant and control with his wand (rhabdos, later the caduceus). Thus, on the second day an offering of cooked grain and seeds was made to Hermes; through him the Athenians were really feasting and placating the keres. To further keep the keres at bay, people chewed buckthorn (a purgative), pitch was smeared on the doorposts of homes, and buckthorn was fastened to the doors. On the third day, the keres were summarily dismissed with the formula, “Begone you keres! The Anthesteria is over.” The streets and homes were thus cleansed from the taint of death and all attendant perils, and life could return to normal.

The Romans had a similar festival devoted to the dead called Lemuria. Like the Greek Anthesteria (and Allhallowtide), it was celebrated over three days, in this case May 9, 11, and 13 (skipping the even days, which the Romans considered unlucky). According to the etiological myth told (and perhaps invented) by Ovid in his Fasti, after Romulus laid the remains of Remus in his tomb, the latter’s ghost visited Faustulus and Acca (who had adopted and raised the brothers) and asked them to have Romulus set aside a holiday in his honor. Romulus so appeased his brother’s spirit and called the holiday Remuria. The name was later changed to Lemuria, says Ovid, because “L” is a “smooth” letter that is easier to pronounce (Fasti, 5:451-84). But this account is nothing but a myth. In fact, the holiday is named after the shades of the restless dead, called lemures.

Lemuria originally had both public and private rituals, but the public aspects have been lost to us. The private ritual practiced at home, however, is described by Ovid. In the middle of the night the head of the household would get out of bed and, standing barefoot, throw black beans over his shoulder. He would do this nine times never looking back, each time reciting, “These I send. With these beans I redeem me and mine.” The spirit(s) of the dead were thought to collect or partake of them, thus being appeased; otherwise, they might make off with a living member of the family out of envy or loneliness. Having so appeased them, he sends them on their way with the second part of the ritual, in which he touches water and then clatters bronze implements, which was thought to drive them away. As he does this, nine times he recites, “Ghosts of my fathers, be gone!” Only then, having duly performed the ritual, may he look back (Fasti, 5:419-43). Because of this festival and its attendant ghosts, Romans were cautious about doing anything important during May, and in particular it was considered an unlucky month for marriages, which generated our tradition of June brides.

It is sometimes claimed, even in some fairly recent writings about Halloween that, insofar as the holiday relates to the harvest, the ancient precedent for Halloween is a Roman festival dedicated to Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruits and orchards (e.g., Bannatyne, pp. 6-7). Some argue that it was part of a festival dedicated to Vertumnus (god of the turning seasons) called the Vertumnalia. In his Metamorphoses, Ovid tells a lovely myth about the romance between Vertumnus and Pomona (14:326-771), but in none of his works does he refer to a festival to her. In fact, there is no evidence for a Pomona festival, and it probably never existed. The error goes back at least to the 18th century English topographer William Hutchinson, who in 1776 wrote, “The first day of November seems to retain the celebration of a festival to Pomona.” This statement was then uncritically repeated going forward. One modern writer suggests that Hutchinson was simply inspired by Ovid’s myth (Morton, pp. 17-18), but more likely the error can be traced to a misreading of a passage in Varro Reatinus in his De Lingua Latina (Wikipedia Italy, “Vertumnalia”). My readers know that I like to post about goddesses in relation to holidays, but no chance of that here! The Pomona festival and its connection to Halloween is a myth.

Scriven Robert Burns Halloween

By the 19th century, in urban settings Halloween had become more a social occasion that involved games such as divination and apple bobbing. Robert Burns’ famous poem Halloween was largely about divination games in connection with romance. Formerly, Samhain divination rituals took place at the outdoor bonfire and involved stones and nuts, but as shown in this illustration of Burns’ poem it had been taken indoors. This is one continuity between Samhain and Halloween that is not a myth. Engraving by Edward Scriven after J.M. Wright’s illustration to the poem (ca. 1841).

When in 609 or 610 the Roman Catholic Church established what became known as All Saints Day (on the occasion of converting the formerly pagan Roman Pantheon to Christian use), it was set on May 13, the last day of Lemuria. In 837 Pope Gregory IV officially and mandatorily changed the date to November 1. The explanation for later given by the 12th-century theologian Jean Beleth was that Rome could not support the large numbers of pilgrims arriving for the feast in May; better in the autumn after the harvest had come in. In reality, churches to the north in Germany and England were already celebrating the holiday on November 1, perhaps as an effort to Christianize Samhain, and the Vatican followed suit. In any event, the November 1 date gradually took hold through Western Europe in the ensuing centuries, and by the 12th century May 13 was no longer used. Notably, in Ireland the earliest evidence, from the Martyrology of Oengus dated around 800, states that All Saints’ Day was celebrated there on April 20, shortly before the May 1 Beltane festival. This belies the notion that Halloween in Ireland was derived directly from Irish Samhain or a pan-Celtic holiday (Hutton, p. 364; Rogers, p. 22; NCE, p. 289). Apparently, the Irish wanted to keep the two holidays separate. Eventually, however, Ireland too shifted to the mandated November 1, possibly also in response to Samhain, at which point it became aligned with Samhain, and the rituals in the two holidays could become intermixed.

Much about Samhain remains unclear and we should be cautious when talking about it, but sometimes our imaginations get the best of us. We do know for sure that Samhain, which means “summer’s end,” marked the first day of the winter season. Beyond that, it has often been claimed that it was also a pan-Celtic New Year’s Day. This notion was first inferred in modern, flawed folkloric accounts not based on older primary evidence, and was then popularized by John Rhŷs and James Frazer over a century ago and continues to be repeated. However, the earliest (medieval) Irish sources show the opening of the year either on January 1 (due to indirect Roman influence) or March 25, and likewise in England, Wales, and Scotland (Hutton, pp. 410-11). The leading scholarly authority on the seasonal holidays of the British Isles, Professor Ronald Hutton at the University of Bristol, has surveyed the scholarship and evidence on this point, and he found no evidence that Samhain marked the beginning of the New Year, at least in the British Isles. Rather, he suggested, “the notion of a distinctive ‘Celtic’ ritual year, with four festivals at the quarter-days and an opening at Samhain, is a scholastic construction of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which should now be considerably revised or even abandoned altogether” (p. 411).

Another uncertainty about Samhain is whether originally it was really concerned with ghosts of dead ancestors, like All Souls’ Day and Halloween. The time of Samhain was indeed thought of as a liminal moment, when the border between the ordinary and supernatural worlds was at its thinnest and the supernatural could penetrate our world and be experienced. So people did think that at that time evil spirits emerged and threatened people’s well-being and that of their crops and animals, and that these spirits had to be propitiated and warded off, for which there were rituals. Hutton found no evidence, however, that Samhain in pre-Christian times was specifically associated with ghosts of the dead. Rather, the reverse was more likely the case, with the Christian All Saints’ and Souls’ Days influencing traditional Samhain and being the source of many of the Samhain rituals that we know of (Hutton, pp. 365-70; Rogers, p. 22). Samhain did, however, originally include rituals of divination and bonfire rites, which became typical of Halloween. The holiday, observed after the cattle were brought home from pasture and the war season had ended, was also the occasion for an annual tribal assemblies, most notably at the Hill of Tara, which, in addition to the business that was conducted then, were festive occasions where myths and legends were told. Indeed, the key events in many Irish myths take place on Samhain. The tradition of guising, originally designed to ward off evil spirits, might originally have been part of Samhain, but there is no evidence for it until the Christian Allhallowtide.

The consistency of this kind of holiday across Greek, Roman, Celtic, and Christian cultures bears witness to how the holiday’s content is archetypal, reflecting the structures deep within our psyches which underlie our spiritual life (see Campbell). The numinous content of the occasion stimulates our imaginations, resulting in myths about the holiday in addition to those which underlie it.

Bibliography and Sources Cited

Bannatyne, Lesley. Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History. Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican (1990).

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

Campbell, Joseph. “Trick or Treat,” lecture delivered at Fountain Street Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan, on October 21, 1981, available at Last accessed October 28, 2015.

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

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

James, Edwin. Seasonal Feasts and Festivals. London: Thames and Hudson (1961).

Morton, Lisa. trick or treat: a history of halloween. London: Reaction Books (2012).

New Catholic Encyclopedia (cited as “NCE”), entries “All Saints, Solemnity of,” and “All Souls’ Day”.

Ovid, Fasti.

Ovid, Metamorphoses.

Rogers, Nicholas. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. New York: Oxford University Press (2002).

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

Wikipedia Italy (in Italian), “Vertumnalia” Available at Last accessed October 28, 2015.

Copyright Arthur George 2015

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Speaking at the Theosophical Society on Thursday, October 29

For those of you within striking distance of Wheaton, Illinois, this Thursday I’ll be giving a lecture at the national headquarters of the Theosophical Society in America. My topic will be the esoteric aspects and meanings of the biblical Garden of Eden story. For details, check the Society’s website.

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Mythology’s Rightful Place in Biblical Criticism

While watching the address of Pope Francis to our lawmakers in Congress yesterday, I was impressed by how deftly he invoked the figure of Moses to point out that, as a lawgiver at the earthly level he brought justice to people, while at a higher level he led them to God “and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being.” Later in the day, at St. Patrick’s before lunching with the homeless, he also reminded us that the Son of God came into this world as homeless (see Luke 2:7). In pointing to these stories, he reminded us of how Bible stories still resonate with people across the world after so many centuries. His speech touched us all, most visibly with House Speaker John Boehner, who was brought to tears (see photo). Yet the scholarly literature recognizes that the story of Moses and the infancy narratives of Jesus are largely mythical, like much else in the Bible. Is this combination of historical non-fact and psychic reality incongruous?

No, actually. In my view, much of the Bible’s power comes because so much of its message is conveyed as myth. As my fellow mythologist Phil Cousineau once observed, “myths are lies that tell the truth” (p. 10). Myths are stories that convey sacred truths, which is precisely what the Bible does. It conveys its truths through the telling of myth because that is the most natural and effective way to do so. Myths resonate with the human psyche, which, as scholars recognize, has a naturally “religious” component, and so are a product of it. As Thomas Mann wrote, “Myth is the foundation of life. It is the timeless pattern, the religious formula to which life shapes itself.” This is because, as Alan Watts (who for some time was an ordained Episcopal priest) explained, “myths are not the deliberate inventions of individuals. They arise in the mind of man as spontaneously and naturally as his dreams, to represent, as psychoanalysis has shown us, things that are going on in the very depths of his psychic life” (pp. 10-11). Myth and religion have a natural and essential connection. As Joseph Campbell observed, unfortunately mythology is often defined as “other people’s religion,” but at the same time he stressed that “religion may, in a sense, be understood as a popular misunderstanding of mythology” (p. 8). In pointing out that popularizations are typically degraded forms (a rather obvious fact visible in many areas of life), he was still attesting to the fundamental link between myth and religion, and we can see this at work in the Bible.

Pope Francis speech at Congress

House Speaker John Boehner is emotionally overwhelmed by the Pope’s words, which he told as stories. Did this impact the timing of his resignation, and thus the course of our country?

In light of this, we should expect that mythological studies will have taken its natural place within the discipline of biblical studies, much as the Bible has long had its natural place in the field of mythological studies. But in figuring out how to read and analyze the Bible, the discipline of biblical studies has had trouble grappling with the fact of biblical myth: Its presence is like the proverbial elephant in the room that nobody wants to acknowledge and talk about. Instead, biblical criticism is divided into other traditional categories such as historical criticism, form criticism, source criticism, as well as some newer ones such as rhetorical criticism, reader-response criticism, and (a favorite of mine) psychological biblical criticism. As a separate and additional overlay, biblical scholars analyze the texts in terms of their many genres (e.g., historical narrative, epistles, poetry, wisdom literature, law, prophecy, apocalypse, etc.), because knowing how a genre generally works can indeed be a key to understanding texts with particular genres. But myth is a genre too.

In none of the above approaches (except for psychological biblical criticism) have myths been recognized and mythological studies been given a place, even though some biblical scholars have recognized this incongruity. For example, the leading biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan called for biblical studies to become a “field of disciplines” into which the traditional methods of the discipline of biblical studies should be incorporated, and observed that, for example, a study of biblical texts should entail much use of Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (Crossan, pp. 42, 45).

Crossan made that plea almost 40 years ago. The time has come to include myth among the recognized genres in the Bible (just as it is so recognized in literary criticism), and to engage the relevant texts through what I call “mythological biblical criticism.” Religious conservatives need not fear this: This approach takes no view on whether the stories are factually true or not. Rather, it looks at how these stories are told, which is in the manner of myth, using mythological symbols as their building blocks in order to tell truths. This inevitably entails looking at how the symbols are derived from and resonate with the human psyche, and so considers the perspectives of both the biblical writers (and earlier oral tradition) and the reader. It also entails a comparative approach to the Bible in which we engage with similar myths and motifs from other relevant cultures. Religious conservatives as well as regional specialists often resist a comparative method, usually citing differences in the host cultures and warning against “parallelomania,” but their argument is conceptually flawed because it fails to recognize the common source of mythological motifs in the archetypes of the human psyche. Thus, of the existing forms of biblical criticism, psychological biblical criticism comes closest to what is needed here (see, e.g., Rollins and Kille).

I can illustrate what I mean by reference to three Bible stories:

The first is the Garden of Eden story (Genesis 2:4b-3:24), which I analyzed in my own recent book, The Mythology of Eden, using this mythological approach. This story employs archetypal mythological symbols (serpent, sacred trees, the garden itself, sword, etc.) as its central building blocks. Thus, the biblical scholar James Charlesworth recognized, “The archetypal symbols are the [Eden] story, not its embellishment” (p. 282). Reverend John Sanford, who also had the distinction of being a certified Jungian analyst, went further to emphasize the psychological dimensions: “A myth is the product of the unconscious mind…. When the symbolism of the myth is understood, meanings that were hidden become conscious. The story of Adam and Eve partakes of the genre of myth and so must be approached symbolically” (p. 116). Consequently, Joseph Campbell could observe, “This story yields its meaning only to a psychological interpretation. . . . The Garden is a metaphor for the following: our minds” (p. 50). As Campbell explained, the garden was an undifferentiated unity of which Adam and Eve were a part, but once they acquired the knowledge of good and evil they could differentiate and see opposites (i.e., gained a fully developed ego consciousness), and thus were ready to leave the garden and live in the real world. Notwithstanding the dramatics of their “expulsion,” effectively they walked out on their own. As Jung, Erich Neumann, and Marie Louise von Franz have all explained, creation myths are ultimately linked to the coming into prominence of ego consciousness.

The second is the story of Jacob wrestling with … himself.  Jacob’s conscience was haunted by his having tricked his brother Esau out of his inheritance, and in consequence he had fled for his life. Years later, Esau is on his way to meet Jacob, who does not know what to expect. At night Jacob encountered a “man” (ish), with whom he wrestled until dawn, at which point that figure blessed him and departed. Esau arrives, forgives Jacob, and the brothers are reconciled. The surface interpretation set out in the text is that Jacob encountered God (perhaps through an angel), did well, and thus earned the name Israel, as a worthy patriarch of the people. A psychological approach recognizes that Jacob was struggling inwardly with his internalized brother Esau and his own shadow, which blesses him and leaves as the sun dawns (Wink; Sanford). This internal reconciliation is symbolized through that with Esau. If the God-Image lies at the center of the unconscious Self as Jungian psychology holds, then in psychic terms Jacob indeed encountered God, and his internal reconciliation and spiritual development were what enabled him (his ego) to trust himself and lead the people. While on the surface this approach is somewhat at odds with authorial intent (which is to say what the author understood without the benefit of modern psychology), at a deeper level it sheds light on what in fact is happening in such situations, which is important for readers to understand.

The third is the figure of Christ as developed in the four gospels and by St. Paul. Jung recognized that the Christ figure exemplifies and symbolizes the archetype of the Self and of wholeness (and thus the God-Image at its center) (CW, vol. 9.2, pp. 36-71), which gives a new perspective on many of the concepts, parables, discourses, and episodes in the New Testament, for example the Holy Spirit entering a person, the Kingdom of God (which Luke 17:21 says is within us), and the very idea of the God-Man. To my mind, the resonance of such a Christ image within the human psyche also helps explain the appeal and growth of the new Christian religion among people living in the Roman Empire, and the continued vitality of the religion over the ensuing centuries.

As a final point, we also must recognize that we never encounter pure myth. To quote John Sanford again in the case of the Eden story, that story “is not pure myth because [the author] . . . had a conscious intention in mind when he used it. Therefore, to do justice to the story we must keep in mind not only its symbolic structure, but also [the author’s] intention” (p. 116). Biblical authors have conscious agendas tied to contemporary questions and controversies, so their writings have a polemical character. As part of their effort, the writers deploy existing mythological symbols that will have meaning to their audience and persuasive value, because the symbols are experienced at a subconscious level. In my view, for such texts the field of biblical studies and biblical criticism in particular need to develop a greater understanding of what I call “mythopolemics,” and use that framework of analysis when interpreting polemical biblical texts that deploy symbolic mythological content.

In making this plea, I don’t mean to claim that mythological biblical criticism and an understanding of mythopolemics should be dominant in the field of biblical studies, but only that they should take their natural, rightful places among the other methodologies used in the discipline when mythological material in the Bible is being interpreted.

Sources Referenced:

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

Charlesworth, James. The Good and Evil Serpent: How a Universal Symbol Became Christianized. New Haven: Yale University Press (2010).

Cousineau, Phil. Once and Future Myths: The Power of Ancient Stories in our Lives. Boston: Conari Press (2001).

Crossan, John Dominic. “Perspectives and Methods in Contemporary Biblical Criticism,” Biblical Research 22:39-49 (1977).

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

Jung, Carl. Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, 2nd ed., Collected Works 9.2. Princeton: Princeton University Press (1969) (cited above as “CW”).

Kille, D. Andrew. Psychological Biblical Criticism. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2001).

Rollins, Wayne. Jung and the Bible. Atlanta: John Knox Press (1983).

Sandmel, Samuel. “Parallelomania,” Journal of Biblical Literature 81:1-13 (1962).

Sanford, John. The Man Who Wrestled with God: Light from the Old Testament on the Psychology of Individuation. New York: Paulist Press (1987).

Watts, Alan. Easter: Its Story and Meaning. New York: Henry Schuman (1950).

Wink, Walter. “On Wrestling with God: Using Psychological Insights in Biblical Study,” Religion in Life 47:136-47 (1978).

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Are “Dying and Rising Gods” Dead?

Recently I’ve been researching the mythology behind Easter (see my April 3 post) and thus also that behind Christ’s resurrection. When reading the literature on the subject, one inevitably comes across claims that Christ was just another “dying and rising god” of the ancient Near East and Mediterranean. Further, the Christ Myth theory (which I have been following with interest for quite a while, although I am yet to be convinced) embraces this idea to argue against the historicity of Jesus. Since I have had this recent opportunity to update and refine my thinking on the notion of dying and rising gods, I decided to share that here. It is not feasible to cover the vast body of evidence in question in a blog post, so my main purpose here is to chart a framework for thinking about the subject, which I hope will be helpful to my readers. The sources that I reference in this post are listed at the end.

The notion of a category of “dying and rising gods” is most famously traceable to James Frazer, who in The Golden Bough wrote at length about Adonis, Attis, Osiris, and Dionysus in particular as exemplars of this category. According to Frazer, the dying and rising god was closely connected with the seasonal cycle of vegetation, so that the god’s death marked the onset of the barren season and his resurrection marked the coming of the fertility of spring (or analogous season depending on the climate). Since this seasonal pattern is ubiquitous, Frazer thought, it is not surprising that this mythological motif was so common.

Beginning with an article in 1933 by Roland de Vaux and through to the end of the 20th century and beyond, various scholars have attacked the notion of “dying and rising gods.” In my reading of this literature, the criticism has come mainly from two camps. One has been from regional specialists generally hostile to comparative approaches to religion and myth (e.g., de Vaux; Mark S. Smith in respect of Ugaritic studies and the god Baal), who were keen to point out how the gods in question from Mesopotamia, Canaan, and Egypt did not fit completely into the alleged category. The other has been from Christian apologists, who in principle oppose the idea of Christ being viewed as a “dying and rising god,” and so have been inclined to deny the category itself (e.g., Eddy & Boyd, pp. 142-46). This trend reached a high point in 1987 when Jonathan Z. Smith published his entry, “Dying and Rising Gods,” in The Encyclopedia of Religion, opposing the concept. Although in such a short (6-page) essay it was impossible for Smith to detail the evidence supporting his views, the piece resonated widely and found a welcoming audience well out of proportion to the essay’s value (not that it was badly written; it was just too short and conclusory to be of much consequence). Thereafter, the essay was frequently cited as if it were a definitive refutation of the notion of dying and rising gods, and commentators began to speak of a scholarly consensus disfavoring the idea. When I see this kind of thing happening, alarm bells go off in my mind: It is a sign that the pendulum may have swung too far based on too little, that groupthink may have taken hold, and that the truth may lie somewhere in the middle.

Indeed, the Swedish biblical and ancient Near East scholar Tryggve Mettinger seems to have thought so too, and in 2001 published the most thorough study on the topic to date, The Riddle of Resurrection: “Dying and Rising Gods” in the Ancient Near East. Mettinger adopts a middle position, concluding after an exhaustive review of the evidence that, while it is not wise to hypostasize the gods in question into a “type” (p. 218), the fact remains that, despite the differences in each case, most of the gods under review did die in one manner or other (or were represented metaphorically as doing so) and were revived after the experience of death. Moreover, this motif was typically tied to seasonal cycles, and in most cases there was some accompanying associated ritual. To my thinking, this situation is analogous to the hero-cycle in myths, in respect of which mythologists point to a series of typical events in the hero’s birth and adventure (though mythologists – Joseph Campbell and others – differ somewhat over what the elements are). No single myth hits all the data points (itself a moving target), but it would be wrong to deny that there is a hero-cycle present among world myths.

If one looks for an underlying reason for the similarities in dying and rising god myths and rituals, Frazier, though he oversimplified and overstated his case, does seem to have made a real contribution here in pointing to seasonal cycles, which surely have influenced people’s minds and their activities for eternity (Mettinger, p. 219). Beyond that, the similarities seem to arise from psychological factors. In discussing the psychology of the notion of rebirth, Carl Jung argued that the similarities in myths 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). Some ancient Near East scholars have acknowledged the explanatory value of a psychological approach to the symbolism (e.g., Frankfort, pp. 20-22).


Osiris as generating the corn, as portrayed in a Bas-relief from the temple at Philae. Egyptians in fact made similar “Osiris beds” (also called “corn mummies”) in a funerary context by heaping earth in the shape of a mummy on a bier and planting seeds in it. Once the seeds germinated, the bed/mummy was placed in the tomb, serving as a spell for resurrection. The bier here is supported by the ankh and was scepter symbols, which respectively symbolize life and welfare (among other things).

Much of the case against dying and rising gods has been based on the argument that most evidence supporting the category is from Greco-Roman times and from within that culture complex (rather than the earlier Mesopotamian, Anatolian, and Egyptian cultures in which the gods arose). The opponents of the category recognize that in Greece, Rome, and Alexandria the deities had become conflated, and that in that late environment it was indeed possible to speak of dying and rising gods; their point, though, has been that the category did not exist earlier in these gods’ places of origin. Thus, for example, although there is little information about Attis from his original home in Asia Minor, once he and his consort Cybele had migrated to Rome, his death and rebirth were ritualized each spring during the Hilaria festival. Yet it is surely this later situation that is most relevant to whether the category can be applied to Christ, because that was the period and geography in which Christianity originated and grew. Nevertheless, commentators writing from a Christian perspective who deny the existence of dying and rising gods usually miss this point, conveniently focusing instead on the situation in earlier centuries and other geographies.

When examining whether Christ was viewed as a dying and rising god, it is important to distinguish between (a) the origin of the notion of Christ’s resurrection in Judea and (b) the subsequent reception and expansion of Christianity in the Roman Mediterranean world. As to the latter, it is certainly possible that Gentiles were making this kind of comparison; we even see early Church fathers such as Origen and Jerome writing about these dying and rising gods. (Some scholars have even argued the reverse, i.e., that it was Christianity’s Christ story that inspired the contemporary reworkings of the dying and rising god myths.) An influence of the dying and rising god myths on the reception and growth of Christianity is thus entirely plausible, though it has proved difficult to pin this down.

The origin of the Christ resurrection story, however, is quite another matter. The notion that Christ resurrected must have originated right after his death, among the people who knew and followed him, who were pious, monotheistic Jews. There is no evidence that notions of dying and rising gods were entertained in late Second Temple Judaism when and where Jesus lived and died. Rather, the relevant existing belief seems to have been late Second Temple Jewish apocalypticism, which the majority of New Testament scholars now agree Jesus himself espoused (also John the Baptist, the Qumran community, and St. Paul). According to this belief, the Jewish God was about to intervene in history to overthrow the forces of evil (the Romans in particular), resurrect the dead and render judgment on all people who have ever lived, select the just and good people, and establish for them a kingdom of God on earth. Jesus (and John and Paul) taught that this would happen imminently, within the current generation, and that the first signs of this were already appearing. If one takes Jesus’s own sayings as authentic, he predicted to his disciples his own death and resurrection on the third day (e.g., Matt. 12:40; 16:21; 17:22-23; 20:18-19; Luke 9:22; 18:33), in which case they would believe and expect that this would happen. But even if one leaves aside these sayings as inauthentic, it would still have been logical for Jesus’s followers to expect that he would be resurrected as the first fruits of the coming of the new kingdom (since he would be its king and his 12 disciples the leaders of the 12 tribes of Israel), so it is not at all surprising that they would experience visions of him. To my mind, this scenario for the origin of the resurrection story has greater explanatory power. (I consider the eventual  gospel stories of the empty tomb to be not credible evidence because the notion of burying him in a tomb runs contrary to Roman crucifixion practices, in which the bodies were left on the cross to be exposed to the elements and scavengers and to decompose, as part of the humiliation intended through such punishment.)

To the above I’d add other factors mitigating against the earliest Christians seeing in Christ a “dying and rising god”:

  • The accounts of Jesus’s life, teachings, death, and resurrection have nothing to do with vegetation or seasonal cycles, and everything to do with Second Temple apocalyptic Judaism. This resurrection was a one-time event, expected to be ushering in the end of the world. In God’s new kingdom, fertility and hunger would not be concerns.
  • Christ’s death and resurrection was linked to his humanity (God having become human, or adopting this human as his son), whereas none of the dying and rising gods had this human factor, at least in the later era when Christianity arose.
  • In the Christian understanding, the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection was tied to his vicarious suffering for the sins of the world, rewarding the virtuous, and ushering in the kingdom of God. No such moral concerns are evident in the dying and rising god myths.
  • Myths are normally reflected in rituals, and Christianity has a lot of rituals. The early Christian rituals did not resemble the rituals connected with rising-and-dying god myths (which reflected seasonal cycles and vegetation), nor do they have any logical conceptual connection with such myths.

Finally, it is worth noting that even if the Christ resurrection story as it developed were to be found to conform to a dying and rising god motif, this would be technically irrelevant to the question whether Christ actually existed. A historical figure could be mythologized in such a way, and indeed many historical figures have been mythologized. The question of Christ’s historicity, however, is one of history that must be analyzed by historians using proper historical methods.

Sources and Further Reading:

Eddy, Paul Rhodes, and Boyd, Gregory A. The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2007.

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.

Mettinger, Tryggve. The Riddle of Resurrection: “Dying and Rising Gods” in the Ancient Near East. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 2001.

Smith, Jonathan Z. “Dying and Rising Gods,” in The Encyclopedia of Religion 4:521-27 (1987).

Smith, Mark S. “The Death of ‘Dying and Rising Gods’ in the Biblical World: An Update, with Special Reference to Baal in the Baal Cycle,” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 12: 257-313 (1998).

© Arthur George, 2015

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Speaking in Milwaukee September 27th

I’ll be speaking at the Mythinformation Conference in Milwaukee on Sunday, September 27th, giving a talk entitled “What Really Happened in Eden”? based on my recent book about the subject, The Mythology of Eden. Most of us realize that the biblical garden of Eden story is mythical, but what do the myth and its mythological symbols mean? If you will be in striking distance of Milwaukee on that day, you are welcome to drop by and hear about it, and listen to my co-speakers as well. Details about the conference are here.

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Book Review: The Myth and Ritual School: J.G. Frazer and the Cambridge Ritualists, by Robert Ackerman (Routledge, 1991/2002)

As my readers can tell from the nature of my latest posts, much of my recent research pertains to the mythology underlying our holidays and festivals and, starting in ancient times. Holiday celebrations first and foremost feature rituals. Hence, in such an inquiry the ideas of the ritual school of myth inevitably demand consideration. Of the books and articles on my shelf that I’ve revisited in this regard, The Myth and Ritual School: J.G. Frazer and the Cambridge Ritualists by Robert Ackerman stands out as especially worthy. When I read it (well, most of it) long ago, I had not yet absorbed much of the writings of the figures that the book discusses, especially Jane Harrison, James Frazer, Gilbert Murray, and S.H. Hooke, but re-reading Ackerman’s analysis after having become more familiar with these other scholars gave me a valuable, deeper understanding of what these scholars were about, how they collaborated in thinking through the issues over the years, and how their works fit together. With this fresh experience behind me, although Ackerman’s book is not a new publication, I decided to post here a short book review of it, structured with a view to pointing out how my mythie readers could be similarly helped in connection with this subject.

This book is a valuable resource for anyone seeking to deepen one’s understanding about the relationship between myth and ritual in general and the ritual theory of myth (or “myth-ritualist” theory) in particular. This theory holds that myth and ritual are intimately linked. Originally (beginning with William Robertson Smith), and more commonly, its adherents have held that, as a historical matter, ritual came first, and that any associated myth came later to explain the ritual and so is secondary; others hold that myth came first because one must believe in or have a concept of something sacred in order to construct a ritual around it; others simply say that the two normally go together without giving either precedence. Whatever the case, the lesson for us is that we can understand myth better by studying any accompanying rituals, and vice versa. Just think, for example, of the relationship between the Christian liturgy and Christian holiday rituals and the underlying beliefs and scriptures (as well explained, for example, by Alan Watts in his book, Myth and Ritual in Christianity).

As the book’s title indicates, Ackerman focuses on a particular group of British scholars associated with myth and ritual theory active mainly in Cambridge in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, principally James Frazer, Jane Harrison, A.B. Cook, Gilbert Murray, and F.M. Cornford, and on the aftermath of their efforts. Except for Frazer, they were principally classicists seeking to uncover the origins of Greek drama in ritual and myth, and so their work generally did not extend beyond Greece into the myths and rituals of other cultures. Accordingly, other than to provide helpful background (see below), the book too does not discuss myth and ritual theory from a broader, non-Greek perspective, and it accords generally short attention to other scholars who from that period forward have been associated with myth and ritual theory, for example Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown. From this perspective, this narrow focus limits the utility of Ackerman’s book as a tool for understanding the issues in myth and ritual theory more generally. Likewise, the book’s final chapter, an account of the aftermath of the Cambridge group’s work, also focuses on subsequent scholars’ evaluations of the Cambridge group’s own efforts rather than providing Ackerman’s own evaluation of the Cambridge group’s role in later myth and ritual theory. For a broader perspective readers should turn to other works, for example the anthology of essays edited by Robert Segal entitled The Myth and Ritual Theory (Blackwell, 1998) and Segal’s own writings on the subject.

Nevertheless, the book does develop two areas of general interest in connection with the theory. First, Ackerman traces the relevant preceding general developments in myth theory that influenced the Cambridge group, in particular those stemming from the rise of anthropology, archaeology, sociology, psychology as relevant disciplines, which challenged the assumptions and scholarship of older disciplines, most directly that of Classics in the Cambridge case. Second, as a result of the above the book contains enlightening discussions of cross-disciplinary issues and the relevance of the above disciplines to myth theory in general. The book also ends up showing the important role of “myth criticism” in analyzing literary and religious texts, an approach which I consider essential but which disciplinary specialists generally fail to (and are unable to) take up, and which was the approach I took in my recent book analyzing the biblical Eden story from the mythological perspective.

What is lost as a result of the book’s lack of breadth is gained through the depth of its central inquiry. Whereas most discussions of myth and ritual theory are rather general and are weak on the application of the theory to the particulars, by focusing on the Cambridge group’s own scholarly treatment of Greek drama, mythology, and ritual, Ackerman leads the reader through the nitty-gritty of the issues and the argumentation in relation to that case, and one emerges from the read with a deeper knowledge and appreciation of the complexity of the particular problems involved in myth and ritual theory.

Ackerman displays a deep understanding of this subject, his writing is lucid and he avoids rambling and tangents, and the analysis is thoughtful and persuasive. The book’s discussion is well supported by endnotes with citations and further explanations and it has an adequate bibliography, but I would have liked to have a subject index and not merely an author index. Unfortunately, the book, even in paperback, is rather expensive ($43.95 list price; $37.87 on Amazon), so obtaining it through a library may be a preferable option for many.

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Independence Day Mythology: Our Goddess Liberty

Not many of us know that a goddess stood behind our founding fathers in America’s struggle for independence. And she has served as a national symbol ever since then, which continues to irritate some religious conservatives. These days when questions about the role of religion in our society have become especially acute, on this July 4th it is timely to remember the mythology of our nation’s goddess.

Lady Liberty’s name comes from the Roman goddess Libertas, but she had a Greek precursor, the goddess Eleutheria (meaning “freedom” or “liberty” in Greek). Zeus in his role as protector of political freedom also was known as Zeus Eleutherios (“Zeus the Liberator”), in whose name a stoa at the Agora in Athens was built after deliverance from the Persians. Eleutheria was actually an epithet of Artemis, for whom we have much mythology, but no mythology in her aspect as Eleutheria survives, only her face on some coins.

The mythology of Libertas is richer. She rose to national prominence in connection with the establishment of the Roman Republic in 509 BCE. She was venerated by and was a symbol of the Junia family, which was instrumental in overthrowing Rome’s last king, the tyrannical Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. After the overthrow of the kingship, resentful nobles hatched a plot to regain power, but it was foiled by Vindicus, a slave of one of these noble families (the Vitellii) who reported the plot to the Senate, and so the new Republic was saved. In due course several temples were built in honor of Libertas and her face appeared on coins, but unfortunately none of the temples or any statues to her have survived.

Having escorted the Republic into being, her role then evolved into one of overseeing the manumission of slaves. In the city of Rome, the master would take his slave before the Temple of Liberty, where a Roman official pronounced the slave free while touching him with a rod called the vindicta, in honor of Vindicus. The freedman then cut his hair and received from his former master a white robe and a cap of white wool resembling a beehive. Accordingly, the symbols of Libertas became a rod (or pole) surmounted by the cap, a broken scepter (symbolizing the overthrow of monarchy), and a cat (symbolizing watchfulness).

The continents and many countries are represented by allegorical female figures. After North America was discovered and was being settled by Europeans, it came to be symbolized by a mythical Native-American figure known as the Indian Queen. In the early portrayals, she was a portly, matronly figure depicted in the abundant nature of America, which reflected the European fascination with the exotic New World. As tensions between Great Britain and her American colonies grew, the Queen morphed into the younger, thinner, Indian Princess, who sported a feathered headdress and skirt, whose complexion was lighter, and who took on a martial profile as both representation and protector of the colonists against the King and his own female protector, Britannia (see illustration immediately below).

Indian Princess

(Above: Engraving from 1774, from Britain but pro-American, entitled Liberty Triumphant. It shows the Indian Princess leading the Sons of Liberty, crying “Aid me, and prevent my being fetter’d.” Clements Library, Univ. of Michigan.)

Over the course of the American Revolution and its aftermath Liberty came to supersede the Indian Princess in her role. This was made possible because Liberty had enjoyed a revival in Europe (especially during the Dutch struggle against Spain and their assuming a republican form of government) and crossed the Atlantic. Thus, when the Stamp Act was repealed, people in New York celebrated by erecting a ship’s mast as a Liberty Pole, which was an outgrowth of Libertas’s vindicta. In Boston, Paul Revere struck a coin portraying Liberty seated on a globe holding her rod in one hand and scales on the other, with her cat at her feet, and around the edge the words “Goddess Liberty”; on the reverse side was Janus (his two faces representing Whigs and Tories) the Roman god of beginnings and transitions, the future and the past, doors and passages. She was also featured on early designs of our Great Seal.

Pr. B.13 L'Amérique IndépendanteBorel J.C. le Vasseur Clements Library, University of Michigan Permission must be received in advance, in writing, from the Director of the Clements before publication, duplication, or other use of this image.

French engraving from 1778, when France entered the war.  Liberty stands holding her rod surmounted by the liberty cap while the Indian Princess embraces her feet. Benjamin Franklin (then our Ambassador to France), dressed in Roman garb, is protected by Minerva, and points to the Indian Princess with his own version of the rod, signifying that she (America) should be freed.  On the right, Mars, backed up by Minerva,  drives Britain (the naval power, hence with Neptune) back into the sea. On the left Commerce (Mercury) and Agriculture look on. Clements Library, Univ. of Michigan.

The female figure of Columbia also became a nickname for America, starting even before the revolution. She was an evolution from Lady Liberty, likewise holding the rod with cap, but by the end of the 18th century the only evidence of the link with Liberty was the Phrygian cap, a symbol in the French Revolution (by which time Liberty’s own cap had changed to this as well). She appeared in names, such as the District of Columbia, Columbia University, Columbia the capital of South Carolina, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, and Columbia Pictures. After the erection of the Statue of Liberty, that image gradually superseded Columbia (look at the symbol of Columbia Pictures!), and she had all but disappeared by the 1920s.

Statue of Freedom2

Statue of Freedom 1863, with sheathed sword in one hand the laurel in the other, representing readiness to fight to protect freedom and the homeland.

In the mid-19th century when the U.S. Capitol was being rebuilt, a statue was needed atop its new dome. For this the sculptor Thomas Crawford designed a bronze statue of a female allegorical figure largely the same as Liberty/Columbia, called the Statue of Freedom (or Armed Freedom, or Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace), which is nearly 20 feet tall. In Crawford’s original design she held a rod reminiscent of the vindicta and wore the liberty cap, originally that of liberated slaves in Rome and which had been adopted with alternations by American and French revolutionaries. But in charge of the Capitol’s reconstruction was the southerner Jefferson Davis, who would later become President of the Confederacy. He rejected the cap as an affront to slaveholders, although in his official explanation his argument was that such a symbol was “inappropriate to a people who were born free and would not be enslaved.” In Crawford’s revised design, she became more martial in appearance, holding a sheathed sword instead of a rod and wearing a military helmet reminiscent of Minerva (see illustration left). The helmet, which featured an eagle’s head and a feather arrangement, and also her robe fringed with fur, were also designed to recall Native American motifs. When the statue was ready to be installed in 1863, it was symbolically hoisted (in pieces) by former slaves.

The goddess most famously appears in the statute entitled Liberty Enlightening the World, now known simply as the Statue of Liberty. The idea was hatched in 1865 as the American Civil War was ending. At a dinner party in Paris two Freemasons and abolitionists, the law professor and historian of America Édouard René de Laboulaye and the sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, together floated the idea of providing a gift to the American people on the centennial of American independence, to which France’s friendship had been key. But what shape this gift would take and when it would be created was delayed by two events. One was the Franco-Prussian war, but in the end its result was the downfall of the repressive regime of Napoleon III (who supported the Confederacy), followed by efforts to establish a stable new republic, which might benefit from American support. The other was Bartholdi’s project to build a lighthouse in Egypt at the entrance to the Suez Canal, which was nearing completion. For that he designed a statue of a woman holding a torch aloft, much like the Statue of Liberty. But when that project fell through in 1869 Bartholdi turned his attention to providing a similar monument for America. In 1871 he traveled here to drum up support, and he succeeded. Freemasons were active on both sides of the ocean in funding and organizing the project.

Bartholdi’s design was a reworking of his earlier Suez vision, but this time the lady was Liberty, who by then had long been staple symbol in both America and France. Also, her traditional connection with the freeing of slaves was especially fitting in the aftermath of the Civil War. She was dedicated on October 28, 1886, in a Masonic ceremony. Some religious conservatives at the time objected to a pagan goddess serving in such a role. One commentator, writing in the American Catholic Quarterly Review in 1880 (vol. 5, pp. 587-97), objected to the erection of this “idol of a heathen goddess . . . holding her torch to proclaim that mankind receives true light, not from Christ and Christianity, but from heathenism and its gods.”

Our embracing the goddess Liberty, however, stems not from religious motives (pagan or otherwise), but from a neoclassicist revival and our embracing classical ideals of civil liberty and the freeing of slaves that she best represented. She deserves a place in the symbolism of our nation and its holiday, and as we celebrate it we should be thinking about the ideals that she embodies. And if you happen to visit Paris, stop by the replica of the Statue of Liberty on the Ile aux Cygnes. It is one of many replicas in Paris and around the world.

I wish to thank my wife Elena (my own goddess) for inspiring and helping with this post.

© Arthur George 2015

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Myths and National Holidays: Our July 4th

Virtually every country has a holiday celebrating its national identity. Each year when it rolls around, we have a special collective opportunity not only to take pride in the accomplishments of our national past, but also to reflect on who we now are, what our nation stands for these days, how we are measuring up against our ideals, and what we must do together to live up to them and build a better future. In that way, it is like New Year’s Day, only for our country. In light of developments in our country over the past several weeks, on this July 4th in particular we have a lot to think about.

Most national holidays fall into one of several categories, including anniversaries of independence from foreign powers, important military victories, socio-political revolutions (the USSR, Iran, also the abolition of slavery as in Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Mayotte), constitutional changes (India), the birthday or accession of a monarch (The Netherlands, Monaco), or the day of a national saint (Scotland, Wales, Hungary).

In the instances of struggles for independence and revolutions, as in the USA’s case, the original events of these struggles have become mythologized. For example, the actual facts of Paul Revere’s ride, the “Boston Massacre,” the Boston Tea Party were turned into myth, and many untrue stories grew up around the figure of George Washington (not to mention the painting of his apotheosis on the ceiling of the dome of our nation’s Capitol). Likewise in France with the storming of the Bastille. The Soviet Union on its national holiday, the anniversary of the October Revolution, fondly remembered the Bolsheviks’ storming of the Winter Palace (as depicted in many films), even though no such storming ever happened (it was a gradual infiltration through various entrances and windows of the Palace, which had been abandoned, as shown in my book on the history of St. Petersburg).

Beyond such events themselves, the ideals that we fight for and establish through such successful struggles also have a sacred quality about them to which we are emotionally attached, which makes them larger than real life. Most often, as in the American case, the ideals are worthy ones. Our collective task is to find a way to live up to them so that they are a reality, to make sure we are not just living an illusory myth.

In the case of independence struggles and revolutions there is always an enemy, whether foreign or domestic, who is defeated. In the process, the enemy is demonized, and the victors then write the histories of the events, which are in part myth driving from our projected image of the “other.” One of our national tasks must be to be aware of our collective shadow self, so as not to let it gain control over our thoughts and deeds. Otherwise we are operating based on illusions, myths. It has been over 200 years since Britain was an enemy, and we were able to align quickly with Germany and Japan some 70 years ago after a terrible war against them, but new perceived enemies, both foreign and domestic, seem to arise as quickly as the old ones disappear. In order to devise and implement workable policies and achieve a more perfect union we must first make sure our understanding and portrayal of both foreigners and of groups within our own population are free of myth, not a reflection of our collective shadow self.

Unfortunately, however, this problem exists and has become more acute, though in many cases it exists within particular demographic groups rather than being nationwide. Leaving aside perceived foreign enemies, just consider what we have seen over the past few weeks here at home:

  • One myth, repeated daily by most Republican presidential candidates, is that our national identity and legal and political system is (or should be) based on the Bible and the Christian God, and that our legislation and court decisions must align with this religious understanding. A simple fact check of the Constitution, of course, shows that religion and God appear nowhere in it, except in Article 6 prohibiting religious prerequisites for holding public office and in the Establishment Clause which instructs that religion must be kept out of our government and laws (other than to ensure its free exercise).
  • Donald Trump characterized Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists, a xenophobic appeal to another shadow element within a portion of our nation of former immigrants and their descendants.
  • Another demographic lives the myth that allowing gay marriage as per last week’s Supreme Court decision will destroy our national social fabric and even provoke God’s wrath, although it has had no such effects in the many advanced democratic countries where it has been legal for years.
  • Denial of the climate change that is destroying our nation’s environment is attaining mythic proportions, as the deniers refuse to examine the facts established by sound science that disprove their myth.
  • The myth of another demographic insists that our national identity and security depends on our being legally entitled to buy and carry assault rifles, which identity would somehow be threatened if guns are regulated as in all other democratic countries. A quick fact check shows that the 2nd Amendment was intended to allow citizens to have muskets so that they could form a militia when needed, since in those days we had no standing army or even strong police forces. Now we have such armed forces, which possess tanks, drones, fighter jets, warships, and nuclear weapons; meanwhile, armed citizens shoot each other with weapons no longer needed to do a militia’s job.
  • The myth of the shooter in Charleston was that African-Americans are somehow taking over the country, and that our national identity should somehow be realized under white supremacy and the Confederate flag

All these myths about our national identity are the product of collective shadows within the demographic communities that embrace them. A fundamental part of addressing them must entail examining and understanding the psychology that generates these myths in the first place, and engaging in a public dialogue about it.

We have much work to do in order to come to grips with our myths. Our ideas of our national identity and values should not be based on myths. We cannot get our minds around and solve difficult social and political issues based on myths. We should not be electing our President based on myths. We cannot let moneyed and other special interests help perpetuate these myths. Our nation’s original values should be remembered and used to help combat these myths. As we enter into the next election cycle this July 4th, we have plenty to think about. We must recognize and understand our myths when they appear.


An Independence Day parade celebrating America as it is and always has been, with people of all stripes and colors.

I’ll write again tomorrow on Independence Day mythology, in connection with its goddess….

© Arthur George 2015

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Summer Solstice Mythology: Midsummer Night

We all have heard of the ancient summer solstice observances held at holy places like Stonehenge and Chichen Itza, and we have read or watched a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but few of us know the meanings of Midsummer Eve and Day and their rituals, or what beliefs and mythology lay behind them. This post explores these questions, from the perspective of the old summer solstice celebrations that we do know about.

The summer solstice, around which the Midsummer festival was celebrated (the evening-night of June 23 and the day of the 24th), is the flip side of the winter solstice and Christmas. The sun was at its height, the day was at its longest, the season was warm, and vegetation was full and still green. The season seemed magical. But this time also marked the beginning of the slow and inevitable weakening of the sun over the next half year. According to James Frazer and Robert Graves, in the mythology of ancient Britain the Oak King ruled when the sun was waxing, while the Holly King who ruled over the waning sun began his rule on the summer solstice, the Oak King withdrawing to the circumpolar stars, which never disappear below the horizon even in winter. On the winter solstice, people celebrated the beginning of the return of the sun. Logically, we might expect one or the other of these times to be viewed negatively, but we always make our holidays into something positive. A happy thought.

Such major transitions in nature never fail to kindle human emotions and imaginations, hence producing myths and rituals. Midsummer Eve was one of the spirit nights of the year, when the boundaries between the worlds were thin and porous. Evil spirits and witches were active. Men were proverbially subject to fairy tricks and queer fancies, as portrayed by Shakespeare. In fact, during this season farmers’ animals and crops were particularly exposed to disease; farmers also needed continued sun together with enough rain to ensure a successful crop. It is therefore not surprising that the Midsummer festival, even in Christian times, was one marked by agrarian paganism, centering around the sun (fire) and water. This festival was most important in the north of Europe – the Nordic lands, Russia, and the British Isles and Ireland – where the sun is weakest and the growing season the shortest. In these climes Midsummer was the most important festival of the year.


Modern reenactment of the Russian Kupala Night ritual of girls placing lit wreaths into the river, which would tell their fortunes. This is still done in some parts of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and elsewhere in the Slavic region.

The Church converted this occasion into the festival of the nativity of St. John the Baptist (June 24), which nicely bracketed Christmas, since according to the Gospel of Luke the Baptist was born six months before Jesus. This adaptation fit both the solar and water themes of the pagan festival. Like the summer solstice sun and the Oak King, John was destined to decrease (and was even decapitated), while Jesus was to increase (John 3:30). John worked in water (the Jordan) and baptized people with water, whereas Jesus would baptize with fire and the holy spirit (Matt. 3:11; Luke 3:16).

The main Midsummer Eve rituals centered around fires, which had a private household side and a communal village side. In both cases the idea was that the fire, smoke, and ashes would purify the environment, driving away evil spirits and protecting homes, families, livestock, and crops. At home, farmers would light one or more fires at one or more locations where the smoke would drift over their fields, where the livestock were also temporarily pastured so as to receive the same benefit. Farmers might also drive the cattle through the smoke next to the fires or between fires, or over their embers or ashes, and also singe the cattle and horses with burning branches or torches. After that, farmers with their families would head off to the large communal Midsummer bonfire of the village.

The communal bonfire was lit at nightfall, which at that time in northern Europe was quite late in the evening. It had a dual role. One was that of purifying the local environment from evil spirits and disease, an ancient tradition that went back at least to Rome, where this procedure was recommended by Pliny the Elder. The second purpose was to stimulate the now waning sun to remain as strong as possible through the rest of the growing and pasturing season, which was a ritual of sympathetic magic since the fire was looked upon as a miniature version of the sun. Part of the ritual involved jumping over the fire, several times (repetition is important in magic) and both forward and backwards (which imitated the sun oscillating through the seasons). The leapers thus secured protection and good fortune for themselves. When the flames were still rather high, the leapers were the strapping youths of the village, competing with one another. As the flames died down, women and couples also did it, to secure a good marriage, ensure that they would have children, and so on.

JULY 6: Belarusians dance around a campfire on Ivan Kupala Day, an ancient night-long celebration marking the Summer Solstice, the shortest night of the year, in the town of Stolbtsy. Ivan Kupala, or St. John's Day or Midsummer Day, is a traditional carnival which centers around a bonfire with plenty of food and dancing. (Sergei Grits/Associated Press)

Contemporary celebration of the communal midsummer bonfire ritual in Belarus.

Another solar-fire ritual was to roll a flaming wheel down a hill and into a river or lake at the bottom, if there was one. The wheel symbolized the wheel (circle) of the seasons, as well as the sun-disk. The sun as a  wheel is an ancient symbol, often depicted in the form of a wheeled chariot being driven across the sky; the swastika is another version of the sun-wheel in motion. In this ritual, the wheel was stuffed with straw or hay (the yellowish color of which resembled the sun) so that the wheel itself was barely visible, and in many cases an axle protruded a meter or so on each side, which people used to guide it down the hill. The idea was for it to roll all the way to the bottom, into the water if any; if it did not roll all the way down, the harvest would be bad. This rite was dramatically depicted in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Andrei Rublev, showing the ancient pagan Russian Midsummer Eve known as Kupala Night.


Modern reenactment of rolling the flaming sun-wheel down the hill on Midsummer Eve. Note the burning hay or straw within the wheel and the protruding axle.

The water aspect of the celebrations related to the fertility that water fosters, and to water’s vital role in the heat of summer. People would dress wells, springs, and fountains with flowers, and inevitably St. John became considered the patron of various holy wells, to which pilgrimages were made on Midsummer Day. On Kupala Night Russian girls would float wreaths of flowers (often lit with candles) into rivers, and then endeavor to divine their romantic fortunes from the fate of the floating wreaths. Young men might try to capture them in an effort to win the heart of the maiden who floated it. People also might bathe at midnight on Midsummer Eve. In fact, in Russia, the name for the midsummer festival, Kupala, after a midsummer goddess of that name, comes from the Russian verb kupat, meaning “to bathe.”

Actually, many if not most Midsummer Day rituals had more to do with women (or families) than men. Women performed various rites and uttered spells to help them get married, have children, and so forth. (It is perhaps not irrelevant that our own family holidays (Mother’s and Father’s Day) lead up to the solstice.) Midsummer Eve was a natural occasion for romance, and many a couple retreated to the forest. As an old Swedish proverb went, “Midsummer Night is not long but it sets many cradles rocking.”

Midsummer Eve was also known as Herb Evening, because it was thought to be the most potent night of the year for gathering herbs, especially St. John’s Wort. It was named after St. John because it blooms around that time. It was thought to keep demons at bay and to disempower witches. St. John himself was thought to be a protector against witches. One poem ran:

     St. John’s wort doth charm all witches away
     If gathered at midnight on the saint’s holy day.
     Any devils and witches have no power to harm
     Those that gather the plant for a charm . . .

Another feature of Midsummer Day in some locations, especially in Wales but also in England, was the erection of a decorated pole in town similar to a May Pole but called the “summer birch.” This was often in connection with fairs held in towns on that day. Villages competed to have the best pole, and often stole them from one another.

As we have already seen in the cases of the flaming wheel rolling down the hill and Russian girls floating wreaths in water, Midsummer Eve, when the divine was omnipresent, was an auspicious time for divination, which was practiced on that occasion far into the modern period. It was also thought that divining rods should be cut on Midsummer Day.

The old Midsummer rites suffered a blow during the Protestant Reformation and again later when people simply stopped believing in the efficacy of the magical rites practiced on the occasion. In the British Isles and Ireland some of the festivities continued through the 19th century mainly as amusements, while the traditions remain strong in the Nordic countries, especially Sweden. In recent decades they have been taken up again in Neopagan circles, and also as public and tourist attractions. In America, our July 4th effectively serves as our solstice holiday. Think about that next time you are at the fireworks and see the revolving fiery Catherine wheel.

© Arthur George 2015

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