The Pagan Roots of Jesus and Mary

This lecture is concerned with the pagan origins of the Christian Jesus Christ and of his mother, Mary.  Mary has been linked to pagan goddesses, such as the Great Mother, Cybele.  Mary has also been associated with Greek, Roman, and Egyptian goddesses, such as Isis, Athena, Venus and Diana.  We shall see how some of her epithets, as well as her pictorial images, were based on earlier sculptures and depictions of pagan deities.  In the last lecture, we discussed the various manifestations of the Virgin Mary’s image with the changing tenets of the Catholic Church over the centuries.  In this lecture, we shall concentrate on the Virgin’s origins in the mythology of pagan cultures.

The relationship of the Jesus myth with much earlier dying-and-rising god worship, has been discussed, disputed and reaffirmed many times during the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.  The Church Fathers of the 2nd century responded angrily concerning the resemblance of the Jesus tales with pagan mythology and the debate has been ongoing since the early years of the Church. The Mediterranean world was replete with such tales of dying and resurrected gods.  The great social anthropologist, James G. Frazer’s 1890 Golden Bough, developed the theory fully and it has been attacked by Christian apologists ever since.  Unfortunately, the concept has also been under attack by an important and well-respected scholar, Jonathan Z. Smith, and my lecture will discuss and refute his peremptory objections.

The dying-and-rising god theory, as elaborated by Frazer, was that many ancient religions of the Mediterranean and elsewhere were based on the vegetative cycle of the earth.  The vegetation of our world flourished and grew in the spring and summer, came to fruition and withered in the fall, and became dormant, or seemed to die, in the winter.  The entire cycle was repeated every year.  The daylight also waned with the Winter solstice and then waxed after that period.  In the agricultural era, the crops were seen as dead, or dormant, when planted in the ground, and then they sprouted once again, or became resurrected once more.  In a moment, we shall explain how the early religions developed into the Mystery Religions, or cults of the classical world, and then increased in popularity during the first few centuries of the Common Era.

According to the scholar, Robert Price, there were several different Christ cults in the early years of the Church.  The one this lecture will take up is the Kyrios Christos Cult.  Price’s 2000 volume, Deconstructing Jesus, contains an excellent explanation and description of the various Christ cults current during the formation of the earliest Christian Church.  Burton Mack’s 1991, Myth of Innocence, also throws light on the Christ cults.  Both volumes are in the Bibliography at the end of the written lecture, “An Atheist Perspective on Jesus and Mary’s Pagan Roots,” at  Time does not permit a discussion of the other Jesus cults, but the topic is a fascinating one for the scholar who wants to know more about the Jesus myth and the roots of its formation.

Christos meant “Lord” at the time of the formation of the Mystery cults. 

The earliest manifestations in the form of rites were likely to have been in honor of the seasonal changes and/or perhaps for the purpose of bringing them about.  At some stage the king of his group would be put to death and a new king would be “raised” in his place, and be the new consort of the queen.  There would have often been the use of a surrogate for the king, someone who would be the “King for a Day,” and then be sacrificed, with the old king resuming his throne for another year.  The early rituals were likely to have been very satisfying for people for a long while, particularly when humans were tied to the land. But at some point the more thoughtful among them would think about raising the spiritual level of the rite and also the level of the reward.  They would puzzle over the means to share in the nature of their king, or god, and in the resurrection rite themselves.  In this manner, the Mystery cults were born and developed.

Let us keep in mind that the Hellenistic Era, which was from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE to 31 BCE, ending with the emergence of Rome, was a time of prosperity and global trade.  Expatriate Greek culture flourished, and there was an upsurge of prosperity and global trade.  Some saw it as a period of decadence, and others of flourishing, with new developments in art, literature, philosophy, science and theatre.  The increased social mobility brought sizable social dislocation.  With the growing travel due to trade, émigrés experienced exposure to different cultures and their value systems.  People found themselves in a pluralist society; and some of them desperately searched for some sort of cultural and ethnic identity to replace the ones they had been forced to leave behind.

As Robert Price explains, “…the older Mystery cults would be the esoteric core of a traditional religion whose exoteric concern was the renewal of the fields in the spring.” But the exoteric purpose of the Mystery cults fell away during the Hellenistic era, leaving the core worship of the resurrected god, the Kyrios, or Lord.  The dislocated Hellenistic citizens did not share the same social concerns with each other, but they could gather together with the esoteric core of their religions, that included their eventual sharing in their god’s resurrection.  The rites were kept a secret from outsiders, but anyone could join and undergo initiation. 

Members could also belong to one or more of the cults at the same time, attending their various rituals at different times.  People were seeking redemption and finding it, or rather, the illusion of it, in the similarity between the diverse deities.  Rather like some of the people in the loose spirituality movement of the present day, the Hellenistic members of the various cults might have believed that the names of the gods could all be different appellations of the same god.

This is an appropriate point to discuss some of the gods and their stories.  My listeners will be able to discern the elements from them that drifted into the Christ myth and Christian cult, particularly the Kyrios Christos sect, our focus for this lecture.  Then I shall go on to discuss some of the rituals of the Mystery Religions. Part of the difficulty with describing their rituals is the injuncti0n their devotees had to keep them secret.  They did so well with their vows of silence, that we have merely fragments of what the rites consisted of. 

They became, as Earl Doherty says: “washed away,” as Christianity swept through the known world of the time, leaving many gaps for contemporary scholars to try to puzzle out.

One of the earliest risen gods was the Aleyan Baal. His title was of Northwest Semitic origin.  He was a warrior god who went into battle with Mot, a formidable monster who devoured him.  His consort and sister, Anath, descended into the netherworld, the land of death, and rescued him from there. Some variants of the myth describe Anath as a virgin.  Thus resurrected, the tale narrates, he reigned on the divine throne with his father.  He was then known as Lord, or Baal, of both gods and mortals.

The Babylonians worshipped a counterpart to Baal, a god called Tammuz, or Dumizi.  His consort, Ishtar, apparently rescued him from the land of the dead and was resurrected herself. There is an interesting footnote to this tale of the two risen deities, Ishtar and Tammuz.  H. Pope’s contention is that the “Song of Songs” in the Old Testament has been most naturally taken from the liturgies of the two gods.  They were apparently scandalously worshipped in Israel, and the prophets inveighed against them.  Jeremiah (12:11) and Ezekiel (8:14) were very distressed by the Israelites’ worship of Ishtar and Tammuz.

Osiris, the ancient Egyptian god, brought agriculture to the Egyptian people, according to the myth.  But he was murdered by his brother, Set.  Isis, his sister, queen, and possibly mother, mourned, looked for, and found the body.  Set found Osiris’s corpse, as well, even though Isis had hidden it, and dismembered the body, scattering the pieces far and wide.  Isis put the pieces back together, but could not find the dead god’s penis, so she reconstructed one.  

Osiris impregnated her with a son, Horus, who brought order back to Egypt. Horus killed Set and became Egypt’s pharaoh. Much of the Christian iconography depicting Mary nursing the infant Jesus is influenced by sculptures of Isis nursing Horus.  Osiris went back to the netherworld to rule, and to judge the souls of the dead.

Orpheus was the son of a Muse, a goddess, and a Thracian prince.  He was the greatest and best loved musician of his time.  When his wife, Eurydice died, he descended to Hades.  Hades was both the name of the Greek afterlife and of its ruler.  Hades consented to permit Orpheus’ wife return to life.  As they were leaving, Orpheus looked back, which had been forbidden, and she faded into a shade.  He wandered the earth, grieving, until Dionysius’ crazed followers came upon him and tore him apart. We shall be speaking of the god, Dionysius, very shortly.  Orpheus was not resurrected, but his cult helped give rise to a sense of sin in ancient Greece.  As the myth developed, it was changed into the notion of a virtuous, ascetic life leading to eternal bliss in the Isles of the Blessed, while evil persons were punished in Hell.  Interestingly enough, the Orphic cult stressed that souls had to be reborn many times before reaching reward or punishment.  This was, and remains, an Eastern belief.  There was no resurrection of the body in Orphism. 

Mithras was an Eastern god whose worship spread to Rome and took hold.  A few variant versions of his myth claimed he was born of a virgin. His cult was a serious challenge to the other Mystery Religions.  The rites were very attractive to soldiers and they joined the religion of Mithras in great numbers. 

There is a version of his story that claimed he died on the shortest day of each year, but was reborn the next day.  Hmm, the shortest day would be the equinox, always near the Western calendar holiday of Christmas, December 25th.  He was originally a Persian god of light, a mediator between the Persian high god and man.  Mithras aided the ascent of the human soul to heaven after death.  His possible December 25th birthday celebrated his birth from a rock, or in a cave, and shepherds came to worship him.  It was believed that he would raise the dead and judge mankind at the end of the world.  The cult of Mithras was a serious challenge to Christianity during the 2nd and 3rd Centuries CE.

Let us continue to keep in mind as we go over the tales of the pagan gods, the resemblance of certain portions of their stories to those belonging to the Jesus myth, particularly the notion of the deities’ resurrection.  A most important forerunner of Jesus was the Greek god, Dionysius, or Bacchus.  There are so many versions of his tale that it is impossible to go over all of them here.  His mother was seduced by Zeus, the foremost god of the Greeks.  Zeus made his lover a promise that he would do anything she asked.  Once such a promise was made, he was not able to rescind it.  Either because Zeus’ jealous wife, Hera, prompted her, or because she was foolish, his mistress asked to see Zeus in all his glory.  When he appeared to her, his blinding light killed the pregnant woman.  But Zeus snatched the baby from her body before he was born, some say, putting Dionysius into his own thigh until the time of his birth.  Zeus gave him to the nymphs of Nysa to nurture and bring up.  Some versions claim the nymphs were turned into stars, the ones that bring rain when they come near the horizon.  One can see the fecundity symbolism in this variant.

Dionysius, born of Zeus’s fire and nurtured by rain, became the god of wine.  He traveled everywhere, teaching men the culture of the grapevine and the mystery of his worship.  An important version concerning his childhood was that he was torn to bits by the Titans, the giants, and eaten by them.  Zeus killed the Titans, and ate the baby Dionysius’ heart.  He then gave birth to a resurrected Dionysius.  Bacchus’s worship ceremonies were very interesting.  We shall get to them in a while.

In some versions of the Dionysius myth, the god of wine died some sort of death every year and was resurrected.  The ashes of the Titans Zeus had destroyed gave rise to the race of men. According to this variant, we humans therefore possess divinity within ourselves because we, too, ingested Dionysius.  This divinity, the soul, longs to be free of the prison of the flesh and unite with the Divine Source, the resurrected Dionysius.  By the time of the Hellenistic Mystery cults, the body and the world had become devalued; redemption from the flesh became life’s goal.  There were many devotees of Dionysius in the Hellenistic era.  One opened coffin of a wealthy woman showed that her gown possessed two large gold brooches, both engraved with prayers for, and faith in, the deceased’s resurrection by Dionysius.  It is ironic that the classical Greek god, most given to the pleasures of the flesh, the grape and the world, would be worshipped in later times as a savior.

Later in the lecture, after I have discussed the Mystery cults of the Hellenistic world and their rituals, I am going to go into hero legends and tales, which are different from myths of dying-and-rising gods, but which share many aspects with them. 

There are many similarities with the legendary pre-Christian heroes, some of whom were taken into the home of the gods, Mt. Olympus, and the Christian Jesus, who ascended to heaven.

But first, the Mystery cults and their relation to Christianity, is important to establish, because some of their practices relate to Christian rites.  Many scholars have written concerning the relationship of Pauline Christianity with earlier Jewish scripture and Jewish cultural beliefs.  But there are aspects of Christianity which reveal that it was also very dependent on the Hellenistic religions circulating at the same time the early Church was growing and developing its doctrines.  Christianity’s emphasis on the salvation it offered, its sacramental rites and its type of savior resemble the Mystery Religions, or cults, which had a large circulation and many members in Rome and elsewhere. 

It seems impossible that there are theologians and scholars who can maintain that there is no similarity between Christianity and the Mystery cults, no resemblance between Jesus and the other dying- and-rising gods.  The Catholic Church was a master of syncretism.  The Church took various beliefs and practices from the past and from its contemporary rivals and forged them into something new and viable.  Jesus resembled the savior gods of the Graeco-Roman Mystery Religions too closely to negate any claim that the Jesus story had no relation to them.  We shall take up the objections made by some scholars and Christian advocates in a while, but for now I would like to concentrate on the rites of the Mystery cults of the Hellenistic period.

The Graeco-Roman cults had little to do with ethical matters or questions. 

Rather, they promised their initiates rebirth, some sort of immunity from evil spirits and/or fate, and some type of afterlife.  Let us keep in mind that by the Hellenistic era, most Greek thinkers did not envision some type of bodily resurrection, but rather of immortality of the soul in some kind of joyful region or blissful spiritual state.  The cult of Cybele, which also involved the story of her lover, Attis, was one of the most important Mystery Religions in Rome. We shall be discussing Cybele when we come to the Virgin Mary and her pagan roots.  The Isis cult, which involved Osiris, was verging on a universal religion by the 2nd Century CE.  We shall also see the connection of Isis to the Virgin Mary in this lecture.

 Finally, the Mithras cult became virtually a state religion in Rome, although it did not permit women to join and was most popular with the military.  Mithras worship flourished just before Constantine promoted Christianity to an informal state religion in the 4th Century.  The Mystery Religions had more importance to many people in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries than the old religion of the Romans. Spiritually seeking people were no longer interested in the Roman pantheon of the gods and goddesses, many of which had been borrowed from the religion of the classical Greeks.  Until Constantine, the Mystery cults were much more influential than the Christian sect, which was less well known and less popular.

Earl Doherty maintains: “The word Paul used for supper (deipnon) in his account of the Lord’s Supper in I Corinthians was the same word commonly used for the cultic meals in the Mysteries.”  Nearly all the cults had a celebratory meal as part of their rituals. 

The communal meal celebrated the god the members worshipped, their union with him and their participation in his saving nature and act. The saving act was usually the overcoming of death in some manner.  It is clear that the members saw themselves as sharing in their god in some way.

Here are some descriptions of just a few of the sacred meals celebrated by some of the Mystery cults.  The Thracian/Phrygian Sabazios cult participated in a communal meal meant to symbolize the heavenly banquet believers would share in the afterlife.  Isis was claimed to have personally initiated her sacred rites, one of which was a communal meal.  The Mithraic followers believed that Mithras had killed a bull, and that he and the sun god celebrated by dining on bread and wine afterwards, although some variants said they had dined on the meat of the bull.  I am going into some detail about the pagan communal meals because I would like to emphasize their connection to the Christian Eucharist, which is striking.

The Mithras initiate took a ritual shower in the blood of a disemboweled bull.  If he couldn’t afford a bull, a lamb could be substituted.  Robert Price, in connection with this ritual, mentions a wonderfully illuminating phrase still used in a Christian song: “Brother, have you been washed in the blood of the lamb?” The lamb, of course, for the Christians, is Jesus.

Attis initiates were swept up in the orgiastic rites of Cybele worship.  There was ecstatic dancing and music.  The most fervent among the men would castrate themselves, often tossing their testicles into the lap of a silver statue of the goddess.  Of that, more later, including their practices of scouring themselves, fasting, and cutting themselves with their swords. 

I would like to note that although Attis’ resurrection is disputed by some scholars, the myths are very clear that Attis was revived in some manner. 

The ancient Phrygian/Greek version of the myth was that Cybele fell in love with Attis, a mortal.  He decided to marry a princess, putting Cybele into a rage.  She showed up at his wedding, and Attis became fearful and remorseful.  He ran out of the wedding hall, castrated himself, and died.  Cybele resurrected him.  As I have said, some scholars dispute Attis’ resurrection.  The ancient story ended with Attis either crucified to a pine tree or dying under it.  The Greek Mystery rite concluded with the effigy of Attis crucified to a pine trunk, and then his triumphant rising from the dead on the third day.  Here is a quotation from the celebratory ceremony for Attis: “Rejoice, you of the mystery! For your god is saved!  And we too shall be saved.”  It is obvious that Attis was believed to have undergone some manner of rebirth. 

The early Christian fathers did not deny that followers of the Cybele/Attis cult celebrated the resurrection of Attis.  The above quotation from its Mystery rite is from Firmicus Maternus’ The Error of the Pagan Religion, written about the middle of the 4th Century.  Here is the standard burial inscription for followers of the Isis/Osiris cult of Egypt: “As Osiris has died, so has N- (the individual believer) died; and as Osiris rose, so shall N- rise.”

The cult of Dionysius, particularly in the days of classical Greece, took its ceremonies to the outskirts of cities.  The devotees were frequently banned by the authorities from meeting in towns.  The cults of Dionysius were made up of mainly female worshippers, the Maenads. 

They commemorated their god’s death by ripping apart live animals, drinking the blood and eating the raw flesh of their sacrificial victims.  They were half crazed when they performed their sacred rites, probably with the wine they drank, but particularly by the orgiastic ceremonies and music they shared. 

The commemoration was likely somewhat more staid by Hellenistic times.  We have some very well preserved frescoes from the so-called Villa of the Mysteries.  Mt. Vesuvius erupted and destroyed the city of Pompeii in 79 CE. The walls of a villa depicting a Dionysian Mystery initiation rite were almost perfectly preserved.  I have seen full-sized reproductions of the walls and the rituals seem to have retained some of their ecstatic nature.  One of the most startling frescoes depicts the woman initiate being whipped by a female winged figure.  There are many interpretations of the ceremony, but its exact meaning is likely to remain unknown.

According to Robert Price concerning Mystery rituals: “Most of the rites and communal meals initiated the process of an inner, spiritual transformation {of the believer} into a divine and immortal being.”  Ecstatic worship as the members celebrated their Lord was not uncommon.  The Lord was the Kyrios, and the female divinity was called the Kuria, the Lady.  Both Isis and Cybele, the Magna Mater, were addressed in this manner.  Robert Price quotes some of the copies of written invitations to the sacramental banquets in honor of the various divinities during the Hellenistic era. Here is one: “Pray come dine with me today at the table of the Kyrios Serapis.”

There is little doubt that the Christian Paul was familiar with the rites of the Mystery Religions.  He was a Jew of the Diaspora, and would necessarily have been exposed to various cross cultural influences.  Let us keep in mind that it was Paul, the putative founder of the Christian religion, who reached out and proselytized pagan Gentiles to join the early Christian churches.  He was said to be from Tarsus, and was often identified as ‘Saul of Tarsus.’ According to Earl Doherty, Tarsus happened to be the center of the Mithras cult from as early as the 2nd Century BCE.

 Doherty also argues that even though Paul borrowed from the Jewish religion, he could not have borrowed a Lord’s Supper from it.  As Hyam Maccoby contends in Paul and Hellenism, the ritual of eating and drinking god’s flesh and blood would have been viewed as disgusting and even idolatrous by Jewish believers.  The Christian Eucharist meal would have been impossible to borrow from the Jewish religion.  But the Eucharist that Paul refers to in his writings, the taking and eating of bread and wine, symbolizing Jesus’ body and blood, is unmistakably similar to the sacred meals of the diverse Mystery cults.  We do not have time to go into the all the Lord’s and Lady’s Suppers practiced by so many Mystery cults.  But this lecture has had the time to describe the ancient rites to Dionysius, where the partaking of the god’s death was celebrated, literally and graphically; and we have also seen the more symbolic forms, as in the worship of Sabazios, Mithras and others.

To deny the striking similarity of the Christian Eucharist to the various sacred meals of the Mystery cults is disingenuous.  So is the denial of the correspondence of the Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection with the dying-and-rising god myths.

There is a story told by a Christian scholar, Robert Lawson, about a trip he took to modern Greece.  He had the chance to observe a Passion play about Christ’s suffering and resurrection.  He noticed that an old peasant woman next to him became extremely anxious as Jesus was put into the tomb on Good Friday evening.  He asked her why and she explained: “Of course I am anxious, because if Christ does not arise tomorrow, we shall have no corn this year.”

My Greek mother told me of a story about one of her teachers in Canton, Ohio, around 1910.  The teacher had attended a Greek Orthodox funeral and was shocked by one rite.  The family mourners were filling their relative’s coffin with food, nuts, fruit and bottles of wine.  They believed the deceased would need nourishment in heaven, or at least, on the journey there.  The rest of the service was Christian, but the priest made no move to forbid the pagan custom.  The old peasant woman of Lawson’s story and the bereaved family in Canton understood the death and rebirth concept much better than many scholars, at least how it related to ancient rites.

Paul was disturbed with the communal meals dedicated to pagan deities and attempted to denigrate them in I Corinthians, 5-11.  He said: “…there are gods aplenty and Kyrioi aplenty (I Cor. 8-15,) but he insisted to his Corinthian Christians: “…for us there is but one God, the Father, who created all things, and one Kyrios, through whom all things were made.” (I Cor. 8:6.) His words seem to combine the Jewish monotheism of one god and the Kyrios of the Mystery Religions into one god with two aspects, a sort of super deity.

The attempts of Christian theologians and apologists to dismiss the theory of the dying–and-rising god, and particularly its similarity to the myth of Jesus Christ, are disingenuous and incorrect.  I would like to take some time to refute their protestations.  Indeed, given the amount of scholarly ink spilled on denying the Christ story’s similarity to the Mystery cults’ gods, one is struck by the thought that the scholars given to this type of negation protest too much.

Some of the most striking refutations of the modern scholars are the statements of the early Church Fathers.  Justin Martyr, in the 2nd Century and Firmicus Maternus, in the 4th Century, among other theologians, denounced stories of such parallels as the invention and the work of the devil.  They maintained that Satan foresaw the Jesus story and tried to prejudice pagans in advance by counterfeiting it, so that pagans would see Christ as an alternative, and not a very original one. Their indignant explanations make obvious that such comparisons were already being established between the Christ myth and diverse Kyrios’ myths in the days of the early Church.

 Much more intelligent, but still wrong, were the Christian apologists who made the argument that such stories of deities and rites from the ancient world were god’s way of preparing mankind’s minds for the appearance of his true and only Son, who would redeem mankind from original sin.  They, too, did not deny the early tales or the similarities of Jesus’ story to the gods of other Mystery cults.  One may hear the same argument from Christian apologists in the present day.

During the 1980’s, a respected scholar mounted a more serious attack on the concept of the parallels between the Mystery Religions with Christianity.  Jonathan D. Smith wrote an article called “Dying and Rising Gods” for the Encyclopedia of Religion, seeking to discredit not only the concept of Jesus’ connection to the Mystery Religions, but also to cast doubt on the entire concept of the dying-and-rising god.  He dismissed the theory “as an artificial composite of elements taken out of context from the religions in question.” Robert Price states that he suspects Smith has taken up the stance of Christian apologists, as and I quote: “…part of his root and branch campaign to undo the theories of his great predecessor, James G. Frazer, the author of the Golden Bough.”

At any rate, whatever his motives, Smith is wrong.  The theory of the Jesus’ myths resemblance to those of the other Mystery Religions stands.  First, we have just seen how the early Christian Fathers tried to explain such similarities as the work of the devil or of god.  But they did not deny the stories or their similarity.  That in itself is very telling.

Smith seems to misunderstand the text book explanation of an ideal type.  An ideal type is a definition of some phenomenon under study.  But Bryan Wilson points out: “An ideal type is not some box into which all the various instances of the phenomenon must fit snugly.  If that were the nature of an ideal type, the scholar would find himself trimming away the rough edges of a particular phenomenon, in this case, redeemer myths, or building his box big enough to fit everything in it.”

Smith makes the outrageous claim that since there are significant differences in each dying-and-rising god myth, there is not a dying-and-rising paradigm.  None of the tales of Attis, Osiris, Dionysius and so on are really alike enough to fit into the box, so he concludes, the box needs to be discarded.  Here is Bryan Wilson once more on ideal types.  He explains: “It is a yardstick abstracted from the admittedly diverse phenomena; it represents a general family resemblance without demanding or implying any absolute or comprehensive conformity.”

Both Smith and Raymond Brown have committed the same reasoning error.  This god was crucified; that one was pulled apart; this god did not have a virgin mother; we don’t believe that god was truly resurrected.  In other words, they would like to take disparate items in each myth and claim that since they don’t match at all significant points, there is no connection between them in the least.

Both scholars try to claim certain gods died and did not return to life.  They take some variant versions of the god Baal’s death and state that he wasn’t really dead.  But one could then respond that the same holds true for Jesus story variants.  The Nag Hammadi and other texts differ as to whether Jesus took on physical flesh or not, whether he was really dead or not, and whether his body died but his spirit immediately fled to heaven.

Smith attacks more variants of the dying-and- rising god myths when he assaults the Tammuz and Ishtar tales.  He attempts to discredit new evidence that Tammuz not only died and rose again, in the telling of the myth, but that Ishtar was resurrected also.  Smith ignores Ishtar’s rising and dismisses Tammuz’ as well.  It was only for half a year, Smith sniffs. 

Death is inexorable, so for the dead Tammuz, it is not a resurrection but a half year furlough each year.   I concur with Robert Price who maintains that the dying-and-rising god mytheme remains unimpeached.

After discrediting the resurrection myths that were the forerunners of the Hellenistic Mystery Religions, Smith moves on more awkward speculation. His theory is disingenuous.  He does not deny the general paradigm from Hellenistic times, but asks if it really existed before Jesus and early Christianity.  If it did not, he argues, might the borrowing of instances be the other way around?  Might the Hellenistic Mystery Religions have picked up elements from the Christ story?  Smith tries to pair his weak theory with the story of Attis.  He states that the only explicit mentions of Attis’ resurrection are from the Christian era.  But he fails to say that there was no mention that the resurrection story was an innovation in the extant Attis literature from Hellenistic times. The scholar, Vermaseren, has shown that we do have a pre-Christian pottery shard that depicts Attis dancing, the traditional pose of his resurrected self.

This notion of Smith’s, that the Mystery Religions borrowed from the Christian myth, is fatuous.  The Mystery cults’ resurrection stories preceded the Christian one and were borrowed by the Christians.  If not, then why did the Christian fathers not deny the claim?  Instead, if you remember, they admitted the assertion concerning the resemblance between the resurrection tales but argued that it was Satan’s doing to deceive mankind, or god’s to prepare mankind for the true redeemer.

Several scholars have reached the common sense conclusion that once the Jesus story touched Hellenistic soil, it took on many elements of the dying-and-rising god religions that were so common in that syncretic era.  As people who were members of other Mystery cults came to be attracted to the Christian one, it must have been impossible not to present Christ as a god with most of the elements of the other Kyrioi. What would have been the advantage to the Church to deny people who wanted to share in their Kyrois’ resurrection? Why would people join a cult that paid homage to a suffering and then finally dead god?  Would Jesus even been considered a Lord without a resurrection, considering the zeitgeist of the times?

Let us also keep in mind that, at first, converts did not have to leave their various Mystery Religions when they joined the Christian one.  There was no necessity at the very beginning.  Robert Price states that in Refutation of All Heresies (V, 7:13- 10:2), Hippolytus preserved the Gnostic Naassene exegesis of a still-earlier “Hymn to Attis,” in which the Savior Jesus is the same as Adam or Attis or Adonis.

It was Paul who determined to establish Jesus as the only deity that Christians could worship.  He saw that what he called a “brother weaker in faith” might not grasp that Jesus was, according to the Christian faith, the only real Kyrios.  There was a general kathenotheism at the time, as Max Muller termed it.  One could worship several gods, but one at time.

With such coming and going, how could the earlier Mystery Religion concepts not drift into Christianity, transforming it into a cosmopolitan cosmic redemption story attractive to people whose cultural identity was adrift?  The adherents to the Mystery cults were those seeking identity and salvation from them.

Neither Paul, nor our contemporary deniers of what is under their noses, can stamp out the Bible’s references to Dionysus and other Mystery deities.  As Robert Price points out, the following scriptural passages bear Dionysius’ influence unmistakably.  Jesus bequeathed his followers a sacrament of his body, the body of grain, and his blood, the blood of the grape (Mark 14: 22-25).  Only so is he the True Vine, giving vitality to his branches (John 15: 1-6.) Jesus turns water into wine. (John 2: 1-10.)  As Jesus, the Corn King, his winnowing fan is in his hand (Matt 3: 12,).  He is slain while the world is still green (Luke 23- 31), yields up his life like the planted seed (John 12-24), and is buried in a garden. (John 19:41.)

Jesus’ story can also be seen to parallel with traditional, as well as legendary, fictional heroes.  Our lecture will now move from mythology to folklore.  This portion of the lecture is very dependent on Alan Dundes’ article, “The Hero Pattern and the Life of Jesus,” in the book In Quest of the Hero. Lord Raglan, whose important essay is in the Hero volume, was one of the foremost proponents of the hero pattern in folkloric stories.  Yet Raglan never undertook the New Testament.  He is on the record as stating that “the compilers of the historical books of the Old Testament were not historians writing for students, but theologians writing for the faithful.”

 Obviously one could say the same for the writers of the New Testament, but Lord Raglan never did.  In 1966, he told Professor Albert B. Friedman that of course he thought of Jesus in connection with the hero pattern, but that he had no wish to risk upsetting anyone and therefore he elected to avoid even as much as mentioning the issue. 

Alan Dundes states that “the hero pattern articulated by Raglan and a number of other scholars, is part of folktale and legend, not myth.” He goes on to maintain: “I would argue that the lives of Joseph, Moses, Elijah and Jesus would, from the folklorist point of view, be considered legends.  The terms, myth and legend, are often used interchangeably and when I relate the Hercules legend, you will see that many aspects of the legend cross over into the definition of myth.  That is the case with many hero legends and deity myths as well.

 But a myth is generally a story that relates a religious explanation for something, for example, how the world or a custom began.  It is generally written rather than oral.  A myth has an element of timelessness, outside of history, and the events narrated are of a symbolic nature.  It has been noted by many historians that certain Christian stories share many features of myths.  A legend is a story told as if it were a genuine historical event rather than an explanation or symbolic narrative.  It can be oral or written.  Folktales and fairy tales are usually oral and fairy tales use magic in the narration.  I would like to add that all these forms were oral at one time and then written down. 

The attempt to reach a point of ascertaining which portions of the New Testament are historically accurate is very old. 

Celsus (circa 178 CE), who if you remember from an earlier lecture, The Early Christian Church and Its War on Reason at, asked why “if other stories are myths, should the Christian account be regarded as noble and convincing?” Gunkel stated the issue of why one narrative should be considered true and the others as false very well.  Here is what he said: “…it should not be forgotten that many of the legends of the Old Testament are not only similar to those of other nations, but are actually related to them by origin and culture.  Now we cannot regard Genesis as history and that of the Babylonians as legend.”

 A scholar, or an interested lay person, faced with so many variants of the tales in the Bible, and particularly, for the purposes of this lecture, in the New Testament, has three choices.  If one is a Christian, one can say that the version he or she believes, the Jesus legend, is true and the other versions from diverse belief systems and legends are false.  One can also say that all versions are true and acceptable.  The most objective approach for the secular scholar is to say that all the versions are legends, are fictions, and therefore the secular thinker will accept none of them as truth.  To approach scripture in this manner is to desacralize it.

In this portion of the lecture, I shall continue to treat Jesus as neither a teacher, magician nor healer, but rather as a fictional figure, one whose life and story fits into the hero pattern as determined by folklorists.  I am agnostic on the issue of Jesus’ historicity.  Fitting significant aspects of a life into the hero pattern does not mean that the person never existed. 

It does mean that there are certain stories that have gathered around a figure that have commonalities and parallels with stories that have accrued with many other figures. 

Dundes explains that Jesus’ story corresponds to some of the twenty two aspects of Lord Raglan’s incidents pattern.  I will skip numbers as I read that do not apply to the Jesus legend.  Dundes includes these incidents as applicable to Jesus.  His legend contains: (1) a virgin mother, (4) an unusual conception, (5) hero reported to be son of god, (6) attempt to kill hero, (7) spirited away (flight into Egypt), (8) reared by foster parents (Joseph), (9) no details of childhood, (10) goes to future kingdom, (13) becomes king (the mock title, “King of the Jews), (14) reigns uneventfully for a while, (15) prescribes laws, (16) loses favor with some of his subjects ( Judas), (17) driven from home and city, (18) meets with mysterious death, (19) at the top of a hill, (20) body is not buried and (22) has a holy sepulcher. I might disagree with one or two of these designations, but as Dundes points out, Jesus scores about 17, which places him more firmly in the legend pattern than other famous heroes of history and legend, such as Apollo, Zeus and Siegfried.

I would like to glance at the legend of Hercules, the ancient Greek champion, for comparison’s sake, and as an example of a hero.  I have chosen Hercules specifically, because in the words of that consummate historian, Michael Grant, “the supreme rescuer to the Greeks was Hercules, whose “Lives” came to resemble the Gospel portraits of Christ.”  I do not fully agree with Grant but his statement is worth considering.  This being a Greek legend, it was not unusual that Hercules had a fatal flaw in the midst of his dazzling qualities. 

The fatal flaw theme is seen in Greek myths and tragedies as a constant reminder that one may be undone by one’s character. Hercules went into rages that did great harm, and so he was rather continuously expiating wrongs committed during his anger by performing difficult deeds. Otherwise he was a sterling character.

He was the son of a god, Zeus, and a mortal woman.  As a child he killed two serpents that Hera, Zeus’ jealous wife, sent to slay him.  As an adult, he performed great deeds of strength and courage, rescuing people and cities from dangers.  Then Hera sent madness upon him and he killed his own wife and children.  When he recovered, he went to a king to expiate his crimes.  The king ordered him to carry out twelve labors considered impossible, but Hercules accomplished them all.  His legend usually includes the narration of those twelve labors.  The last task was to bring Cerberus back from Hades.  The famous three-headed dog guarded the Gates of Hell.  Hercules harrowed Hell and brought Cerberus back.  If you recall, Jesus also harrowed Hell.  Hercules also later descended to Hell to bring back a Queen who had elected to die in place of her husband.

Hercules’ next wife sent him a robe she believed was filled with a love potion, but it was actually a deadly poison which had been put in by an enemy.  After putting on the robe, Hercules was overcome with painful agony and knew he must die; so he ordered a great funeral pyre built, commanded it to be lit and laid down on it.  When the Greek gods on Mount Olympus saw him dying, they were distraught.  
But Zeus explained the fire was merely destroying Hercules’ mortal portion; when that burned away, Hercules’ divine spirit would be left and he could then join the gods in heaven.  Hercules entered Heaven, married the goddess, Hebe, and apparently dwelt there in peace and happiness.  I am relating one hero story; there are many other hero legends, of which some aspects correspond to the Jesus tale.

After this segue into a typical hero story, we can return to the Jesus legend.  Some heroes whose stories correspond to the ideal type mentioned earlier were actual historical personages, such as Augustus Caesar and Cyrus of Persia.  As Robert Price maintains: “A basically historical figure will be tied into the history of his time by well-documented events.”  Jesus is not.  Here are just a few examples.  The story of Herod trying to kill the Messiah by ordering all the babies and toddlers born in a particular town is not true.  Herod was a wicked man, but even he never gave such an order as narrated in the New Testament.  The end of Jesus’ life suggests that it, too, is a legendary story.  Trials were not held on Passover Eve.  There is suspicion on the part of some scholars that the claim that Jews were involved in Jesus’ sentence of death was actually a creation propagated by those who also tried to whitewash the Romans, particular the historically brutal Pontius Pilate.  If you recall I have mentioned this idea in earlier lectures.

Here is Price on the issue “… it is a chain of very weak links that binds Jesus to the historical circumstances of the first century.” Time does not permit during this lecture to discuss the extent to which the Christians attempted to anchor Jesus into their recent history.  Why was this attempt made, however? 

The insightful historian, Elaine Pagels, sums up the likely reason very elegantly: “…the urgency for historicizing Jesus was the need of a consolidating institution for an authoritative figurehead who had appointed successors and set policy.”

So scholars who make the statement that it is useless to look for a historical Jesus might be correct.  Was there ever a real person who has been lost in the miasma created by those who had reason to magnify Christ to a divine status?  It is possible.  But as I mentioned in an earlier lecture (please see Biblical Criticism- The Historicity of Jesus at there have already been two searches for the historical Jesus that yielded no solid results.  The third has been underway for some time now and is barely mentioned any longer.  The possibly historical Jesus is lost in the mists of legend.  Let those scholars and theologians who profess his historicity produce some tangible proof of it.  The rest of us, the secular community, have rested our case.  There is very little likelihood of a historical person named Jesus any more than there was a historical person named Hercules.  In the place of history vis-à-vis Jesus, we have only legend and myth.

Since the Jesus story is likely a myth, we may also assume that his mother, Mary, is a mythological character, as there is very little evidence that she was a historical person. Mary’s cult has often been compared to the worship of Cybele, an Anatolian goddess.  At Catal Hyuk, a Neolithic site discovered in the 1950’s, the goddess is seated on a throne of black rock.  Legend says that she was born from black rock.  Cybele is usually accompanied by two lions, often under her arms.  She is pictured with large, drooping breasts suspended over a hefty stomach and enormous arms, thighs and legs.  She is clearly powerful and threatening.  Eventually the worship of Cybele drifted to ancient Greece, where it likely received the addition of Attis, her lover/follower. In some variants, it is unclear whether Attis was human or a lesser god at the beginning.

I have related the myth that Cybele fell in love with Attis but that he married a human princess.  Cybele showed up at the wedding in a fury and Attis ran out and castrated himself.  It is uncertain whether he had gone mad or was remorseful.  Cybele was also associated with the Greek goddess, Rhea, who gave birth to Zeus, the king of all the gods.  The Cybele cult moved slowly into Rome where by the 2nd Century CE, it was one of the most popular of the Mystery Religions. She was often called the Magna Mater, the Great Mother.  There is a scholarly dispute over whether or not the Great Goddess, the mother of the gods, was chaste or a virgin.  Her festival, which was originally March 24, became extended from about March 15 to nearly the end of April, which is also close to the Christian Lenten and Easter Season.  From March 22 to March 25, rites were held for her lover, Attis, whose passing was said to have come about from being crucified to a pine tree or having died under one, depending on which myth one reads.  Attis’ resurrection was celebrated in Rome. 

Cybele’s priests were called Galli, and as I mentioned, castrated themselves in honor of the goddess and of Attis.  At first Rome forbade the practice, but by the 2nd Century, the restriction was lifted.  The priests not only castrated themselves, they scourged themselves, bit into their own flesh and cut themselves with their own swords. 

This practice brings to mind the scourging and self-mutilating acts of Christian monks and devout lay people, both in honor of Christ’s suffering and to fend off their recurrent sexual desires.  The Great Mother’s connection to the Virgin Mary cult is frequently discussed by scholars. 

I find the jealousy theme attributed to Cybele is most interesting in that one may discern that it has a strong connection to the Virgin Mary in one of her many aspects- that of her role as Madonna.  The Virgin’s offer to chaste monks to take her as their wife parallels that of her son, Jesus, being taken by chaste nuns as their bridegroom.

However, by the 14th Century, the Virgin Mary made claims on her lovers that were most exacting, as Marina Warner points out, and even fatal at times.  A young canon in a Miracle Play pledged his chaste love to Mary forever.  His uncle insisted, however, that since the canon had inherited wealth, he had a duty to marry the young woman chosen for him.  She had wealth and connections and beauty.  The canon resisted but finally gave in.  On his wedding night, the Virgin took John the Evangelist and seven angels with her to the canon’s bedroom.  She said: “How can this be, since I am who I am, that you are leaving me for another woman? “ She told the young man he would burn in hell.  He finally left his new wife, writing to his family that the Virgin was so jealous because she had made him a bed in heaven and he had unmade it by his great crime.  His deserted wife took the nun’s veil.  The Virgin then was appeased, reappeared and took the young canon to Heaven. 

I find that this strange play has resonance with the Cybele/Attis tale.  The young canon’s castration is psychological rather than physical, but disabling nevertheless.  He fears Mary and rejects sleeping with his wife.  There are more tales from the 13th and 14th Centuries, depicting the jealous Virgin Mary punishing unfaithful lovers.  I refer people who are interested to Marina Warner’s volume, listed in the Bibliography.

The Minoan snake goddess of Crete, Greece, is slender and charming looking.  The Minoans were a graceful and naturalistic people whose civilization flourished around 1600 BCE.   The goddess’ statue depicts her proudly baring her breasts, which was the Minoan style of dress, and in her hands are two snakes.  The snake was a symbol of wisdom and cynthonic power.  The Minoan goddess confidently possesses the snakes and all their powerful attributes.  There has been speculation that she was a virgin, but it is impossible to know the truth of that claim with any surety.

By the time of 5th Century Greece, patriarchy had taken a firm hold.  Athena was a powerful goddess of wisdom and protectoress of cities, particularly Athens.  She was not born, as Mary was, by an immaculate conception, but from her father, Zeus’ brain or head.  He was angry at Athena’s mother and snatched the unborn baby from her.  Athena was later said to have been born from the thought of Zeus.  Mary, too, was immaculately conceived by the intervention of a god.  Athena was a virgin.  On her shield is a coiled snake.  Occasionally the snake is placed next to her.  A god tried to rape her, the myth said, but she resisted and he spilled his semen on her thigh.  She wiped it off on a piece of cotton cloth and tossed it into the sea.  The story relates that her snake son, Erichthonius, was born from that semen and the sea. 

He is the snake, it was said, by her side in some sculptures.  The snake was still a symbol of wisdom and occult power in classical Greece, as it had been in earlier cultures.  Athena’s birthing of Erichthonius was a virgin birth. Variants of the myth and paintings depict him as a human.

In medieval times and up to the present, a well known copy of a statue of the Virgin Mary presents her as a Queen of Heaven.  The serpent, now degraded to a symbol of evil and corruption, and often associated with Satan, is under Mary’s foot, and clearly in her power.  Who, seeing the dramatic snake symbolism reflected in goddess statues over many centuries, can deny the Virgin’s connection to the earlier goddesses worshipped by people? The story of the Virgin Mary is a fine example of the syncretism practiced by the Catholic Church. We learned in the last lecture how the image of Mary changed with each shift of Church concern and dogma.  Each manifestation of the serpent through pagan mythology, the Old Testament, and finally the New Testament, underwent a shift through time and culture as well.

Now I would like to turn to pagan goddesses and the topic of their marriages, sometimes to brothers, sometimes to sons.  Five thousand years ago, in Sumer, southeastern Mesopotamia, during the scorched and dry earth season that culminated in August, priests chanted a hymn to the new season and its life-giving powers, according to Marina Warner.  This was the season to offer liturgies to the god, Dumuzi, or Tammuz, and his mother/bride, Inanna.

Innana was the “Lady of Heaven,” who presided over the earth, and Dumuzi was the guardian of the flocks, god of sap and spring waters.  His name meant “true son.” 

Innana gave Dumuzi up to the powers of the underworld.  He escaped twice, but the demons finally tortured and subdued him, in what has been called “The Sumerian Way of the Cross.” Innana wept for him; the sculpture inspired by the tale of this event has been described as an ancient Pieta, with the god laid out on his grieving mother/wife’s knees.  The Christian sculpture of Mary with her dead son appears to have been influenced by the ancient statue.  Innana wept though she had delivered Dumuzi to his fate.  Mary lamented although she consented to Jesus’ passion and death by her acceptance of giving virgin birth to him.  Many of the liturgies from Sumer have been preserved in copies.  How remarkable it is to be able to trace back from the Christian myth of Mary and Jesus over 5000 years and find such a striking parallel to the suffering and dying Jesus in the Dumuzi myth.

Ishtar was the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of fertility, love, war and sex. Her priestesses practiced ritual prostitution.  Ishtar is the counterpart of Inanna and her myth is a confusing one.  I discussed it earlier but I would like to review it once more. Originally scholars believed that she had descended into hell to bring back Tammuz, her dead lover, who is the counterpart of Dumuzi.  According to one variant, Tammuz was the Corn King, who perished annually.  There was a yearly weeping ceremony for him that was connected with agricultural rites.  The seed was planted in the soil to die and moistened by the weeping tears, would spring up again as corn.  This myth connects to Christ as Corn King.  There were a few areas in the Middle Ages whose inhabitants worshipped the Virgin Mary as a Corn Queen, her gown bedecked with ears of corn.

The Tammuz/Ishtar myth made its way to the Israelites.  Their god, Yahweh, thundered angrily at Ezekiel after Jerusalem fell in 587 BCE, and he included among the chief abominations abhorred by him: “… the women weeping for Tamar.” (Ezekiel 8:14)The practice of mourners endured as a custom of the Middle East during Biblical times.  I know it was a Greek custom at some funerals up to about the turn of the 20th Century. 

We have already discussed Isis and Osiris, the major Egyptian gods.  Isis, if you remember, resurrected Osiris and had a son by him. Their son, Horus, went on to be the Pharaoh of Egypt.  There are examples in the British Museum of Isis holding a miniature mummy of Osiris on her knees and mourning him, just as there are other depictions of her nursing Horus, Osiris’s son.  Warner points out how in the countless sculptural treatments in European Gothic and Renaissance art of the Pieta, Christ is very small, out of proportion and the Virgin’s face too young.  It reminds viewers and art historians of Mary holding the infant Jesus to nurse him.  There are scholars who are convinced that the Pieta theme may have been influenced by the Isis and dead Osiris sculpture.  In Egypt the cult of Isis lasted into the Christian period, when Justinian closed her last temple at Philae, in the 6th Century CE.

We have talked about the ancient marriages, but there was a Church tradition concerning the Christian marriage of Jesus and Mary.  There were many implicit mosaics and icons depicting the mother and son’s divine marriage, but during the 12th Century, at the Church of St. Maria, the image became explicit. 

Warner explains: “Mary, triumphantly assumed into heaven and embraced by Christ, prefigures the Church’s future glory and the soul’s promised union with Christ in terms of the mystical love song, “The Song of Songs.”  Mary is depicted as youthfully lovely, and she continued to be depicted so by later Christian artists.  Her beauty in the painting is theological: the Virgin is the beloved bride of Christ.  Of course, the Bride of Christ metaphor was meant to be a spiritual union- Mary often stood for the Church when such imagery was used. 

But here is Warner again on these mystical marriages: “God and his earthly bride dance around one another… the practice belongs not only to the Canaanite cult of Baal, but to the other Mystery Religions of the Near East: the Syrian rites of the shepherd Tammuz, lover of the sky goddess, Ishtar, the Phrygian cult of Cybele and Attis, who died castrated under a tree, of Isis and Osiris in Egypt.”

The polyvalent figure of the Virgin Mary was seen in yet another aspect, as the ultimate fertility symbol and an aid to women bearing children.  Somehow the irony of a woman who was not impregnated by sexual intercourse and bore her child with no pain did not dawn on her devotees.  Let us remember the tradition that claimed Mary had died at Ephesus.  The Virgin was said to have unloosed her sash from her waist and drop it to the earth to convince Doubting Thomas she was in Heaven.  The story of the girdle, or waist tie, featured prominently at Ephesus, where the Amazons were killed by Hercules.  Hercules captured the Queen’s girdle, robbing her of her power.  The warrior Amazons took the vow of chastity.  The goddess, Diana, was worshipped at Ephesus up to Christian times.

 Diana was originally the Greek Artemis, who a virgin herself, helped women with child bearing.  The fertility role of Mary may be found in many churches, paintings and in the Miracle Plays.

Warner maintains that: “The absorption of this fertility role by the Virgin represents yet another late but successful attempt to draw the teeth of secular and originally pagan rites by incorporating them into Christian worship.”  May was the traditional month to celebrate Mary, and the practice of honoring her in May became semi-official in the 18th Century.  There are inscriptions all over Europe thanking the Virgin for helping her followers conceive children.  May had originally been the month dedicated to the pagan goddess, Maia.  Her name was associated with growth; and she was thought of together, or corresponded with, Demeter, the earth or corn goddess of the ancient Greeks.

Another of the Virgin’s important aspects was that of nursing mother.  It is interesting that as the Mother of God, she was exempt from the necessities other women had to submit to, such as frequently brutal intercourse and painful labor when bearing children.  But Mary was not exempt from nursing her child.  The milk of the Virgin shifted over the years in its symbolic function as well the image of the woman herself. In a corner of the catacombs of St. Priscilla in Rome is an inconspicuous ochre painting.  It contains the image of a prophet pointing to a star, and a mother who offers her child her breast.  It was painted sometime before the 3rd Century, and is likely the first known image of the Madonna nursing her child.

We find the goddesses of the pre-Christian world nursing their children, too, as far back as discovered civilization.

Two thousand years before the worship of Christ, there were statues of the goddess of Ur offering her son her breast.  Around 1000 BCE, there were Mexican statues, Liberian statues, statues from the lower Congo, Ivory Coast and Gold Coast- all of them depicting goddesses nursing their babies.

In the later period of Classical Greece, Zeus was suckled by Amalthea.  His father provided him with honey.  A variant of the Dionysius myth states a nymph raised him on milk and honey.  Diana, the virgin goddess, was a moon deity in one of her aspects.  The ancients frequently connected the moon with milk.  Diana, the moon and mother’s milk were all pristine.  The Romans associated the eternity of the heavens with mother’s milk.  When Juno was nursing Hercules, the story went, her milk sprayed across the sky, creating the Milky Way.

 In the poetry of the early middle ages and later, the highest life was often expressed as an astral light and the astral life was symbolized by mother’s milk- gleaming, moist, and pure white.  Many Church Fathers wrote about the connection between the Virgin Mary and the moon. Pope Innocent III said: “Towards the Moon he should look, who is buried in the shades of iniquity and sin.  Having lost grace, the day disappears and there is no more sun for him, but the Moon is still on the horizon.  Let him address himself to Mary; under her influence thousands every day find their way to God.”  He wrote this piece somewhere between 1198 and 1216 CE.

Milk must have seemed a miracle to early people.  During ancient times, children would have died without the nourishment of milk.  In the Old Testament, milk and honey are the images connected to the Promised Land. 

There are descriptions of early Christian baptisms that used milk and honey to christen neophytes, symbolizing their spiritual new life when they ate them.  Some Gnostics, as well, wrote of milk and honey to symbolize the highest spiritual state.

Let us keep in mind the words of the 20th Century anthropologist, Levi-Strauss, who wrote a seminal volume in 1964 called The Raw and the Cooked. He discussed honey, but what he said of it can also be applied to fresh milk.  They both taste cooked, but are eaten raw.  They need no processing, no purification.  They are both different from other sources of nourishment.  Wine, another symbol of life and fertility, needs man-made processing.  Only milk and honey are pristine.  They stand between the raw, earliest civilizations, and the cooked, later civilizations.  In many religions, both occupy a sacred place.  For Christians, the depiction of the mother’s milk nourishing an infant, was a symbol of god nourishing the soul of the faithful.

There is was remarkable story told by a Church Father, Bernard of Clairvaux, who wrote an enormous amount of tributes to the Virgin Mary.  He was in Church, reciting the “Ave Maria Stella,”and when he came to the words: “Show thyself a mother,” the Virgin appeared to him, and pressing her breast, allowed three drops of milk to fall into his mouth. Coincidentally, he was called the “honey-tongued doctor.” The Virgin’s liturgy contains lines from Ecclesiasticus, written about 200 BCE, that state: “…my memorial is sweeter than honey and mine inheritance the honeycomb.” (Ecc. 24: 18-20.)

There were tales told of the Virgin’s milk pouring into the mouths of souls in Purgatory.  The Virgin frequently bared her breasts to remind Jesus of her suckling him when she asked him for a favor. Calvin railed against the image of Mary and her milk during the Protestant Reformation.  As the Renaissance advanced, propriety and the controversy over Mary’s Assumption made the breast baring and all the milk very uncomfortable for the Church, and the popularity of the image waned. 

But Mary’s connection to the Magna Mater from the dawn of civilization is very clear.  Mary as nursing mother was yet another pagan symbol adopted by both the early and later Church for its own purposes.  The manner in which the image was used not only illuminates its spiritual symbolism, but also opens yet another window from which to see the Church’s changing view of the physicality of women.

As I conclude this lecture, I cannot emphasize enough how obvious it is that the Christian Church, from its earliest days, practiced syncretism. Its theologians and advocates combined the stories, legends and myths of the pre-Christian world with its own mythology, creating a hybrid Mystery cult that was very attractive to the uprooted and spiritually seeking people of the Hellenistic world.  Popular gods and goddesses were given new stories and holy traits; and the two traditions of Christianity and paganism produced not only Jesus and the Virgin Mary, but also many of the saints of the Church.  The pagan images of the revered chaste, fertile and nursing mother/wife goddesses were manipulated to blend with the story of the Virgin Mary. The combinations produced multifarious versions of her that reflected the changing concerns of the Church.

This lecture has demonstrated that the Jesus image was fashioned from legends of heroes and from myths of dying-and-rising gods that reach back to the earliest myths of mankind. 

The image of his mother, Mary, as well, was forged from pre-Christian goddess worship.  The pagan roots of Christianity have been thoroughly researched by respectable scholars.  Those writers who deny the factual evidence are either mistaken or disingenuous.

The earliest Church prevailed over and conquered pagan religions for a variety of reasons, many of which have been enumerated in “The Early Christian Church and Its War on Reason” at  But an important element in its success was to both borrow from the Mystery Religions and at the same time, unlike the other cults, insist on Christian exclusivity.  The Christian faithful were enjoined to leave all the other “false” faiths and worship only Jesus, god and the Holy Spirit of the New Testament.  We owe a debt of thanks to scholars such as Marina Warner, Earl Doherty, Robert Price and others who have exposed the Church’s pagan roots and brought the evidence to light for all who value truth to embrace. 

It is a matter for celebration, as well, that as archeological research and scientific inquiry advance, the mists from the dark past of human sacrifice and suffering are being rapidly dispelled.  We may now celebrate the human capacity to grow and human minds to explore.  We are beginning to realize that our crowning achievements have depended on us, alone, by our own efforts, and not on the benevolence of a god whose story is mired in the savagery of the earliest days of our civilization.  The day is coming when we shall have eradicated all vestiges of the superstitious past, as we have discarded the plough for the tractor, the horse drawn carriage for the automobile and the airplane. 

We are beginning to replace the story of Jesus, god, the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary with visions of new horizons.  The influence of the ancient gods is being slowly overthrown as our confidence in man’s future and ability forge new customs and ideas without reference to useless fictions grows and flourishes.

Video of Lecture: The Pagan Roots of Jesus and Mary

Lecture: The Pagan Roots of Jesus and Mary

Video of Discussion: The Pagan Roots of Jesus and Mary

Discussion: The Pagan Roots of Jesus and Mary


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