Christianity accepted as given a metaphysical
system derived from several already existing and mutually
Aldous Huxley (1894-1964), Grey
If we look for possible origins of concepts that we are accustomed
to regard as characteristically Christian, we do not need to
look far. Jesus and his disciples were all followers of the
Jewish faith, so it is not surprising that the early Church
drew heavily upon Judaism. The idea of one sacrifice serving
to save many is characteristically Jewish. (Jesus seen as an
agnus dei a sacrificial lamb of God is
adapted from the story of the Passover where lamb's blood is
used to save believers.) Jesus and his followers had worshipped
in the Jewish Temple and attended synagogues. When Pauline Christianity
subsequently evolved separate church buildings, these buildings
were partially modelled on synagogues. The style and content
of church services are based on Jewish ones: the reading of
the holy scriptures interspersed with interpretation, psalms
and prayers. Methods of prayer are Jewish methods. The use of
chanting and singing are Jewish, and even Jewish words like
Alleluia and Amen are retained, untranslated
from the Hebrew. Christians adopted Jewish scripture, calling
it the Old Testament. The practice of baptism is Jewish*,
so is the use of holy water. The bread and wine of the Christian
Eucharist replicate the bread and wine of a Jewish Passover
meal, which is of course exactly what the Last Supper was.
The Jews had never believed in the immortality of the soul.
There is no hint of it in the Mosaic laws, which promise rewards
and threaten punishments only for this life, not for the next
one. These ideas came to Judaism from the Hellenic world, where
people had developed theories of the soul. To the Stoic philosophers
for example the soul (logos) was the part of the body
responsible for the senses, the power of speech, reproductive
capacity, and reason. For other Greek philosophers it was the
psyche. Although material, the soul (logos
or psyche) survived the death of the rest of the body.
Such ideas met opposition from Jewish traditionalists. Of the
sects that had arisen by the time of Jesus, the Sadducees held
firmly to the traditional line, while the Pharisees entertained
the notions of an immortal soul, which would be rewarded or
punished in the hereafter. This was a popular belief that became
predominant in Judaism and was carried over to early Christianity.
So too, in the century or two before Jesus, strong apocalyptic
beliefs had developed within Judaism. Jewish literature from
this time abounds in predictions about the imminence of the
end of the world.
Man is certainly stark mad; he cannot make a flea, and yet
he will be making gods by dozens.
Onto its Jewish base Christianity built a structure that would
appeal to the civilised world. In practice this meant that the
new composite religion had to adopt an Hellenic appearance.
in the classical world were a great deal more sophisticated
than modern tales of Greek and Roman myths would have us believe.
For one thing the Greek philosophers had long believed that
there was but one deity, and that the numerous gods worshipped
throughout the known world were merely different manifestations
of that one supreme god, whom we usually call Zeus*.
Romans too spoke of a single God. Edicts issued by the Emperor
Diocletian, whom the Christians regarded as a pagan and an enemy,
referred to the deity as a single entity.
The Roman counterpart of Zeus was Jupiter, and for centuries
Jupiter would be confused and conflated with the Christian
God. Well into the Middle Ages, Dante (1265 -1321) could still
refer to the Christian God as "almighty Jupiter"*,
and it is not difficult to find Christian works of art showing
God the Father in poses that echo those of Jupiter, for example
casting thunderbolts towards earth. At one time it was popular
to show Christ in a similar pose hurling divine bolts at those
condemned to Hell.
had originally been a sky god, controlling the weather. He was
also addressed by titles such as Pater, "Father",
Basileus: "King", and Sôtêr:
"Saviour". Such practices could easily be combined
with Christianity while it was still in its formative years.The
familiar image of the Almighty sitting on his judgement throne
is a straight adoption from conventional representations of
Zeus the king. The Greeks conventionally pictured their gods
as huge figures dressed all in white, and the Christian God
duly adapted himself to these conventions.
This could be any one of a dozen different
gods from the time of Jesus
title Saviour was not only applied to Zeus. It was
also applied to the Sun god Helios, to heroes who attained immortality
such as Dionysus, Herakles and Æskelepios, and to others.
The title was used in many resurrection cults. It was accorded
to vegetation spirits who lived and died, then rose anew and
lived again, just as crops and flowers and trees did each year.
The Jews applied the title to Yahweh, and the Egyptians applied
it to Osiris. The Romans applied it to their emperors: Augustus
was on occasion described as Saviour (Sôtêr).
Augustus was also called "son of God" (theou hyios)*
as well as simply "God" (theos). Like other
emperors he was also called "Lord" (kyrios)
so Christians were already familiar with the idea of using all
these titles for human beings.
A jealous cruel God who had always favoured the Jews was not
likely to be accepted by gentiles. Greek theology had already
outgrown parochial tribal deities. Followers of Orpheus for
example exalted the supreme god as follows:
Zeus is the first, Zeus is the last, the god with the dazzling
lightning. Zeus is the head, Zeus is the middle, of Zeus all
things have their end. Zeus is the foundation of the earth
and the starry sky. Zeus is male, Zeus is an immortal woman.
Zeus is the breath of all things, Zeus is the sweep of unwearying
flame. Zeus is the roots of the sea, Zeus is the Sun and Moon.
Zeus is the King, Zeus is the beginner of all things, the
god with the dazzling lightning. For he has hidden all things
within himself, and brought them forth again, into the joyful
light, from his sacred heart, working marvels*.
There are many points of interest in this passage. As well
as establishing the concept of a supreme deity, it has a tone
that appeals to modern ears: particularly the mention of female
attributes. Even the concept of a "sacred heart" is
already here. It also shows that the formula concerning the
Alpha and the Omega was not an original idea: "I am the
Alpha and the Omega, saith the L ord God, which is and which
was and which is to come" (Revelation 1:8, cf. 21:6 and
22:13). Similar concepts are expressed in the Egyptian Book
of the Dead: "I am yesterday, today, and tomorrow";
and in Plato's Laws (4:7): "God the beginning
and the end".
practices, customs and conventions were all taken over by the
new Christian religion. The letters D.O.M., standing for the
formula Deo Optimo Maximo (To God the Best and Greatest),
may still be found in churches and over church doors. It was
originally addressed to Jupiter. The chi-rho monogram, or labarum,
adopted by early Christians is based on the labrys,
an ancient cult symbol of Zeus. The Greek letters chi
and rho ( cr, in English ch and r)
had long been an accepted abbreviation of the word chrēstus,
which means "auspicious". They had been used to mark
an "auspicious" passage in pagan texts written on
papyri. Now they provided an abbreviation of the word Christ.
When the Emperor Constantine adopted this chi-rho monogram
on his imperial standard, it was a symbol of good omen for everyone,
non-Christians and Christians alike.
popular pagan images were adopted too. The pagan "Good
Shepherd" was one. In the third century Christ was
depicted as a traditional Good Shepherd, with a lamb over
his shoulder. His physical appearance was amended to the
existing pattern a pattern based on the god Mercury,
the guardian of the flocks, who carried a sheep on his shoulders,
or sometimes Orpheus, who did the same thing. Thus on carvings
in the Vatican Museum Jesus appears as a beardless Roman
youth. In some representations he has even acquired a Roman
toga. Another acquisition, still sported by bishops, was
the shepherd's crook, inherited from Roman, Greek and Egyptian
gods such as Mercury, Pan, Apollo and Osiris.
Jesus Christ depicted on a Floor
Mosaic, Aquileia, Cathedral of Bishop Theodore.
The Good Shepherd - A third or fourth century Christ-Orpheus
hybrid holding Orpheus's pan-pipes
Eastern religions also influenced religious thought, notably
one founded by Zoroastra.
Between around 550 and 330 BC, Zoroastrianism had been the state
religion of Persia (modern Iran). It remained influential for
many centuries and survives today.
Muslims regard Zoroastrians as one of the Peoples of the
influenced other religions with which it came into contact,
notably Christianity, and was highly respected (according to
Church scholars the three magi were Zoroastrians). An offshoot
of Zoroastrianism, Manichæism, also influenced Christianity.
It was originated by Mani, a Persian born in Babylonia around
the year AD 216, who claimed to be the Holy Spirit. Like a number
of such innovators, he was not popular among the leaders of
the local established religion and was executed for his troubles.
Manichæism developed existing Zoroastrian concepts, and
it was from here that the idea of heavenly hosts engaged in
constant battle with Satan's armies originated, to be adopted
by Christianity. In the East the religion reached as far as
China where it survived up to the eleventh century. In western
Europe it reached as far as Spain and Gaul. It influenced church
leaders in important Christian centres such as Alexandria and
offshoot of Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, was introduced to the
Roman Empire at least two generations before the birth of Jesus,
and flourished at the same time that Christianitybegan to spread.
The parallels between Mithraism and Christianity are so close
that they are unlikely to be coincidental. Mithra (or Mithras)
was the son of the supreme deity. His birth was miraculous and
attended by shepherds. His death was sacrificial. He rose again
after dying, having descended into Hades in the interim. To
his adherents he was "The Lord", and possessed the
usual attributes of a Sun god. He promised resurrection, a final
judgement, and eternal life. Rites involved bells, candles,
holy water, and a service similar to the Christian Mass, including
a sacred meal. Heaven and Hades were strongly contrasted. Sunday
was the holy day at a time when Christians were still keeping
the Jewish Sabbath day holy. Mithra's birthday was celebrated
on 25 th December, the common birthday of most Sun gods.
Easter festival was also celebrated to mark his sacrifice and
his victory over death. The high priest, addressed as papa,
sat in a sacred chair in the Mithraic temple on the Vatican
Hill. Mithraism was a favourite of Roman soldiers who spread
it around the Roman Empire. Had its leaders not made the marketing
error of restricting membership to men, it might well have been
one of the world's major religions today. Instead, only fragments
remain. Temples of Mithras are discovered from time to time
there is one in the City of London. The old sacred chair
from the Mithraic temple on the Vatican Hill now resides in
the Vatican palace, taken over by another papa.
Philosophers in the Hellenic world had ideas of God that compare
with those of modern theologians. However, sophisticated ideas
have never been an asset to popular religions. Throughout history
the masses have favoured gods who can be seen. Perhaps for this
reason Jesus was sometimes identified with Apollo, the Greek
and Roman Sun god whose journey across the sky could be seen
each day by everyone. Some representations of Jesus are identifiable
only because of their associated Christian symbolism. Without
these symbols, his representation is identical to Apollo's .
Romans called their Sun god, a successor to Apollo, Sol
Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. The religion had come to
Rome in the second century from Syria. It was popular in the
army, and the Emperor Aurelian adopted it, appointing himself
its chief priest or Pontifex Maximus. The religion
merged with the nascent Christian religion, and soon it was
difficult to distinguish between Jesus and Sol Invictus.
Around AD 200 the Church Father Clement
of Alexandria could happily contemplate Christ driving his
chariot across the sky like a Sun god. A third century mosaic
discovered under the high altar of St Peter's in Rome shows
Jesus as a Sun god riding the solar chariot, pulled by horses,
just like Apollo's.
some commentators have noted, the Sun god transformed himself
from Apollo to Sol to Jesus Christ apparently without difficulty.
Jesus retained Sol's nimbus, and it can still be seen around
his head in Christian art (often referred to as a halo), just
as it appears around the heads of other sun gods.
Sol, like Apollo, Helios and mithras, had probably borrowed
his nimbus from the Zoroastrian Sun god Ahura Mazda, who seems
to have acquired it from Indian gods, who in turn seems to have
copied the divine fashion from China.
knelt to the East, the direction of the rising Sun, like followers
of other Sun gods. For a while Jesus became a typical Sun god,
hardly distinguishable from Apollo. After all, Apollo too was
a supreme god, uncreated, eternal, timeless and undeviating.
Christian hymns were addressed to Sol Invictus*.
In the fifth century Christians were still reluctant to turn
their backs on Sol. They walked backwards up the steps of St
Peter's in Rome so that they could remain face-to-face with
the Sun god in the early morning. Gildas, the first British
historian, described Jesus Christ in the sixth century as "the
true sun", and there were English Christians who thought
that Christ was the Sun well into the seventeenth century*.
The altar in the overwhelming majority of church buildings is
still to be found at the east end, and the axis of churches
often align with the rising Sun on a special day.
the Catholic Encyclopedia plainly states, Christmas was not
among the earliest festivals of the Church. Both Irenaeus and
Tertullian omit it from their lists of feasts; Origen, asserts
that in the Scriptures sinners alone, not saints, celebrate
their birthday (Lev. Hom. viii in Migne, P.G.,
XII, 495) ; Arnobius, around the year 300 was still ridiculing
the idea of gods having birthdays. (VII, 32
in P.L., V, 1264). When Christians wanted a birthday
for Jesus, they made up many different dates. Favourites were
28 March, 19 or 20 April, and 6 10 January, but as the Catholic
Encyclopedia says "there is no month in the year to which
respectable authorities have not assigned Christ's birth."
The date eventually settled upon was by an astonishing coincidence
also the established birth-day of other sun gods. Refering to
the "Christmas Feast" the Catholic Encyclopedia,
under "Christmas" notes that:
The well-known solar feast...of Natalis Invicti, celebrated
on 25 December, has a strong claim on the responsibility for
our December date....
goes on to note early sources that comment on the association:
"...O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that
day on which that Sun was born... Christ should be born."
Cyprian., "De pasch. Comp.", xix,
(earliesrt mention - mid third century)
"...But Our Lord, too, is born in the month of December...the
eight before the calends of January [25 December]... But they
call it the 'Birthday of the Unconquered'. Who indeed is so
unconquered as Our Lord...? Or, if they say that it is the
birthday of the Sun, He is the Sun of Justice."
John Chrysostom, "del Solst. Et Æquin."
(II, p. 118, ed. 1588)
Tertullian asserted that Sol was not the Christians' God; Augustine
denounced the indentification of Christ with Sol. Pope Leo I
was the pope who reproved Christians on the doorstep of the
Apostles' basilica, for turning to adore the rising sun*.
the Roman emperor conventionally considered responsible for
the success of Christianity, had himself represented in the
likeness of a Sun god on a porphyry column in his new capital
city. He seems to have believed that his deity was a Sun god.
Certainly he made little distinction between Sol and Jesus.
His coinage continued to depict the Sun god even after his supposed
adoption of Christianity. His stated reason for making Sunday
a day of rest was respect for the Sun*.
Christians adopted this new day of rest, when even the law courts
were shut. Indeed, so closely did they identify with it that
today we do not question why the Christians" special day
should fall not on the original Sabbath (Saturday) but on another
day, nor why that day is in English called not God-day
but Sun-day. In
the West the birthday of the Sun god, Die Natalis Invicti
Solis , was 25 th December. This same date was also the
birthday of other Sun gods*.
Jesus" birthday on the other hand was in March, or September,
or January there was no general agreement, although 6
th January was probably the favourite. Around the middle of
the fourth century, 25 th December replaced 6 th January as
Jesus" official birthday in Western Christendom. Presumably
it was around the same time that part of the pagan liturgy used
on 25 th December was adopted into the Christmas celebrations
of the Christian Church*.
This mosaic shows a conventional representation
of the sun-god Apollo along with pomegranites representing
eternal life - except that the chi-rho monogram shows
it to be Jesus.
Hinton St Mary Mosaic, Dorset, England - dated post AD
Apollo was still being represented as
a sun god well into the Christian period. This is a detail
of a miniature of Apollo shooting arrows at Corinus (after
the white raven has reported her unfaithfulness), in LÉpître
Othéa. Origin: France, Central (Paris),
attributed to the Master of the Cité des Dames
and workshop.c. 1410-c. 1414
was central. Not only was the Christians" weekly holy day
moved to Sunday, but Easter was moved to a Sunday as well. Easter
had originally been celebrated on the 14th of the Jewish month
of Nisan: the lunar month starting with the first full Moon
after the spring equinox. Western Christians shifted it to the
following Sunday, but it still depended upon the lunar cycle,
which is why Easter falls at different dates in different years,
and why it still causes so much confusion. A complicated set
of tables is provided in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer
for calculating the date of Easter for each year up to 2299.
Sometimes Jesus was identified with Orpheus, the son
of Apollo. Orphism was a mystery religion, which taught
that, after death, the human soul might obtain eternal
bliss; or might be subject to temporary or eternal torment,
depending on its behaviour on Earth. Like many other pre-Christian
mystery religions, Orphism featured a miraculous birth
and resurrection. Religious practices included a sacramental
meal of bread and wine, which represented the eating of
the god's flesh and the drinking of his blood. The Christian
Mass is remarkably similar to this and to related forms
of love-magic recorded in ancient papyri. The priest-magician
identified himself with a god, then by divine power changed
certain approved food and drink into the god's flesh and
blood. The priest-magician then offered them to be consumed
by those he intended to bind in love.
Orpheus-Christ. An early
Christian painting (4th Century) from catacomb of
Domitilla, Rome, showing Orpheus-like Christ sitting
on a rock and holding a syrinx (panpipe)
possessed similarities not only with Orpheus, but also with
many other heroes and gods. Orion for example experienced a
miraculous birth. During his life he performed miraculous feats
suchas walking on water*.
He died and was resurrected to take his place as a god. Æskelepios,
another man who attained immortality, was in the habit of returning
to Earth to carry out miracle cures and to foretell the future*.
The Greek god Dionysus, the son of Zeus, was killed and rose
from the dead.
Early Christians seem to have adopted a number of ideas from
the Dionysus cult, and from similar mystery religions, but not
all survive. Festivals in the god's honour involved riotous
behaviour, drinking and sexual indulgence. These festivals were
known as Phallica, or Orgia, or Bacchanalia,
Bacchus being the Roman equivalent of Dionysus. Early Christians
held love feasts, agapes, which adopted many orgiastic
and bacchic practices. But these parties did not fit well with
Church leaders" attitudes. St Paul was already complaining
about Christians" drunkenness and misbehaviour (1 Corinthians
11:27-34). Sex was an even bigger problem, and agapes were eventually
condemned by the Council of Carthage in 397, having become such
scandals that they had to be suppressed altogether.
Greeks had a concept of deification: the transformation of a
human being into a god. Their term for it was apotheosis.
But the idea was not specifically Greek; indeed it was extremely
widespread. In early times kings throughout the known world
had been gods. Later kings tended to become gods only after
they had died. They were frequently accorded divine parentage:
generally a divine father and a mortal mother. There was also
generally something special about the conception of the king
(or other prominent ruler). For example, after his death Alexander
the Great was worshipped as a divinity. According to one story,
he had been fathered by a god (apparently Zeus) either in the
form of a shaft of lightning or a serpent*.
According to another story, Romulus, the legendary founder of
Rome, was born of a vestal virgin, and fathered by the god Mars*.
The Emperor Augustus, in whose reign Jesus was born, was thought
of as Mercury incarnate, assigned by Jupiter to expiate human
guilt*. Julius Caesar
was spoken of as "god manifest, offspring of Aries and
Aphrodite, and common saviour of human life*.
Another divine-father story about Alexander
the Great has him fathered by the ram-headed god Ammon,
which is why Alexander himself is often depicted wearing
a fine pair of ram's horns on his head.
The Conception of Alexander the Great
(detail), Flemish, Ghent, about 1475. MS. Ludwig XIII
5, V2, Fol. 1V (In this image, Nectanebo, the last native
Egyptian pharoah has disguised himself as Ammon)
Even Greek philosophers had been credited with divinity. Empedocles
claimed himself to be immortal, Epicurus was hailed as a god
, and both Pythagoras and Plato were claimed to be of divine
parentage*. Heroes and
demigods were routinely ascribed a divine parent. Æneas
was supposedly the son of the mortal Anchises and the goddess
Aphrodite*. Theseus claimed
to be the son of Poseidon and a mortal woman, Aethra*.
Perseus was the son of Zeus, who impregnated a mortal woman,
Danaë, by coming upon her in the form of a shower of gold
(this story was known to early Christians and suggested possible
parallels for Jesus" divine conception ). Herakles was
said to be the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Alkmene *.
So, according to some, was Dionysus. Æskelepios was believed
to be the son of Apollo and the mortal Koronis*.
Orion was said to be the son of Poseidon and the mortal Euryale*.
The twins Castor and Pollux were born of Leda, a mortal woman,
but fathered by Zeus. Pollux was born immortal , while Castor
was born mortal and (like Herakles, Dionysus, Æskelepios,
and Orion) was granted immortality after death. Generally these
sons of gods lived exceptional lives before winning full deification.
Herakles for example worked miracles, overcame evil and established
peace throughout the world. He triumphed over death by descending
into Hades, and then became a god.
For Roman emperors apotheosis took the form of a formal
ceremony, authorised by the Senate, at which an eagle was released
to carry the dead man's soul to Heaven. Birds were widespread
symbols for the soul, and the idea was a popular one. In European
art kings are sometimes shown undergoing apotheosis.
In the church of Sant' Ignazio in Rome, the founder of the Jesuits
is depicted in the same way . The pattern was a standard one:
a divine birth accompanied by miraculous signs, a virtuous life
also attended by miracles, followed by apotheosis. Details were
invented to fit the standard pattern. This seems to have been
done routinely and quite openly. The orator Menander in the
third century AD provided advice to putative praise-poets. In
his Orations for Orators he suggests various topics to praise.
Amongst them are the subject's birth, for which he suggests
inventing a divine portent. .(click here for more on Divine
Human Beings and apotheosis)
Roman emperors expected to undergo apotheosis and become gods
when they died, they were not too keen to learn that according
to Christian teaching their fate was otherwise. To make their
new religion more palatable, a compromise was achieved, by which
newly expired Christian emperors became saints. Constantine
thus became St Constantine. Not taking any chances, the Senate
recorded their gratitude after his death for the "divine"
memory of Constantine, as they were to do for a string of subsequent
but inconvenient gods were cleared away, generally in one of
two ways. Those who were not demoted to demons were promoted
to saints. Similarly for goddesses: in Europe alone, thousands
of local female divinities transmogrified into the Virgin Mary,
a fact that explains why even today she is represented in such
conspicuously differentways in different areas of Italy, Spain
and Portugal. Even the great Isis was absorbed in this way.
The conventional image of the Madonna and child (Maria lactans)
bears a striking resemblance to older representations of Isis
lactans the goddess Isis nursing her holy child,
the infant god Horus. This is not too surprising since the conventional
depiction of Isis lactans was simply adopted
by Christians for Maria lactans.
Isis - Isis lactans
Mary - Maria lactans
What man is capable of the insane self-conceit of believing
that an eternity of himself would be tolerable even to himself?
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)
The Jews had, at least in the centuries before Jesus, thought
of God as a ruler surrounded by lesser gods who gave him counsel.
This heavenly court is mentioned in Psalm 82:1 and 6, and described
in the opening passages of Job.
the Roman milieu, Jesus started to be represented as an imperial
ruler. When depicted in art he sat on a throne with purple cushions.
His head radiated imperial light, later to blossom into crown
and nimbus. Like an emperor he had his hand and foot kissed.
He reigned from a heavenly imperial court, at which all found
a place. Mary became his consort: "Wearing a crown, clothed
with gold-embroidered mantle, she was proclaimed queen of all
creation and placed on the right hand of her Son and King"*.
The apostles joined a heavenly Senate, the angels became heavenly
courtiers and heralds, and various saints found themselves in
the role of ambassadors, waiting to be ushered into the Presence
for an heavenly audience in order to supplicate for their earthly
heavenly court was the centre of a celestial kingdom beyond
the clouds, the core of Heaven. The place was much like the
home of the Greek gods, described by Homer in the Odyssey:
Olympus, the abode of the Gods, stands fast forever. Neither
is it shaken by winds nor ever wet with rain, nor does snow
fall upon it, but the air is outspread clear and cloudless,
and over it hovers a radiant whiteness.
Such ideas were combined with Jewish ideas of the seven Heavens,
and synthesised by theologians like St Ambrose to produce a
detailed ultra-mundane geography. As well as the seven Heavens
there was Hades (a sort of waiting room for the Day of Judgement)
and three regions of Hell. The Greeks had concepts of eternal
Heaven and Hell, and the various mystery religions all had their
own versions of their geography. Descriptions as detailed as
Dante's were produced, explaining locations, passageways and
gateways between the main areas.
The infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight
to moralists. That is why they invented hell.
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), Sceptical Essays
In Greek thought Hades was the realm of the dead, located in
the underworld. It was populated by shades that carried on an
anaemic existence, mere shadows with no real substance, memory
or feelings. In later times Hades developed distinct regions.
One was a sort of Paradise, the Elysian fields, where heroes
lived an active, rather sporty, afterlife. Another was Tarsus,
where the especially wicked were punished. It was here that
Tantalus spent eternity being Tantalised with water
and fruit, and Sisyphus spent the rest of time rolling a great
stone up a hill. Here too Ixion was bound to an ever-rotating
fiery wheel , the daughters of Danaos tried perpetually to fetch
water in sieves, and a serpent continually devoured Tityos's
liver, or vultures fed on his entrails, depending on which account
one favoured. Early Christians identified Hades or Tarsus with
the Jewish Sheol. The word Sheol appears to mean little
more than grave, though there is no surviving exposition
of mainstream Jewish thought on the nature of the place*.
The Jews also referred to Gehenna, originally the name
of a valley on the outskirts of Jerusalem where other gods were
worshipped. Later it had become a refuse tip where rubbish,
dead animals and executed criminals were burned. The name therefore
came to denote an extremely unpleasant place.
Jesus apparently refers to Hell in the New Testament, as in
Matthew (5:22), the original Greek text uses the word Gehenna.
When the word Hell appears in the Old Testament it generally
corresponds to the Hebrew Sheol. The English name Hell
is of Norse origin. It is a variant of the word hel,
the name of the underworld, and of the goddess whose domain
it was. The domain of hel bore little relation to the
contemporary ideas of Hell. For one thing everyone, except warrior
heroes, went to Hel after their death. The word simply means
"a covered place" and is closely related to the modern
English hall. It is the same element that occurs in
Valhalla, literally the "hall of the slain",
which is where those who died in battle were taken by the Valkyries.
In northern countries, where people feared the cold, hel was
a place of extreme cold, while its Mediterranean counterpart
was to become a place of extreme heat. In English we have taken
the Mediterranean concept but given it the northern European
The concept of Hell was particularly useful to early Christians.
For one thing it provided a stick to contrast with the carrot
of Heaven. For another it fitted well with Zoroastrianism, the
religion of Persia that influenced much of the Middle East.
Zoroaster taught that a constant war is being fought between
the forces of light and dark, representing good and evil respectively.
The forces of good were led by Ahura Mazda, the god of light
(after whom modern Mazda light bulbs are named); the forces
of evil were led by Ahriman, an early prototype of Satan. It
was the influence of Zoroastrianism that had introduced a personalised
Satan into Judaism*.
Having adopted a personalised Devil the early Christians needed
a concrete image for him. The Jews had been well aware of the
Canaanite and Phoenician god Baal, a horned god, whose
name means something like "master", "owner"
or "husband". Although the Jews never saw him as anything
other than what he was, a rival god, he was adopted by Christians
as an alter ego of Satan, as hundreds of other rival
gods were to be similarly adopted in the centuries to come.
Like the ancient Persians and Egyptians, Christians liked to
personify their image of evil as composite zoomorphic creations
monstrous animal montages. Another early alias was Pan,
the Greek god of shepherds. His body resembled that of a satyr,
half-human and half-goat. He had horns, a tail and cloven hoofs.
Furthermore he had a reputation for lustfulness and an unpleasant
habit of inducing fear among innocent passers-by. Panic
is really Panic fear, literally fear inspired
by the great god Pan.
Ideas could be picked up from any local religion, and in Rome
there were many to choose from. Numerous sects converged on
Rome. Anyone synthesising a new religion could choose from Judaism,
classical Greek religions, Sun worship, resurrection cults,
the worship of Isis and Osiris, and so on. By the Middle Ages
Christians had settled on a complex composite Devil. He was
large, black, ugly and hairy, with horns, a long tail, cloven
hooves, and dragon's wings. He had fangs like a dog's , claws
like a bear's , and a voice like a lion's . He also breathed
fire. There were many local variations, all reinforced by monks
who made liberal use of such figures in mystery and miracle
idea of a judgement after death came from Egypt. Osiris gave
judgement in the hall of the dead, weighing the heart of the
newly deceased on a pair of scales against a feather representing
truth and justice. Anubis held the scales. Those who passed
the test were free to join others in the realm of the gods.
Those who failed were eaten by Ahemait, the Devourer, part lion,
part hippopotamus and part crocodile. The Græco-Romans
adopted the idea of weighing the soul, calling it psychostasis,
and nominating Hermes (Mercury) for the role of weigher-in-chief.
Christians adopted it too. In countless churches throughout
the world God is shown weighing the souls of the dead. St Michael
has taken the role of Hermes/Anubis in holding the scales. He
is identifyable by his sword, medieval armour and angel's wings.
Christ sits nearby with the Book of Eternal Life and Book of
Eternal Death at his feet.
A Christianised version of the weighing
Science and Literature in the Middle Ages by Paul
In the Christian versions there is often a demon pulling
on St Michael's scales
Juan de la Abadia the Elder, Saint Michael
Museu Nacional dArt de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain;
c.2480 - 1495
another version in stained glass
Souls who pass the weighing test will be accompanied to Heaven
in triumph by angels, while those who fail are dragged into
the jaws of a beast-like Devil, who munches them dramatically,
just as Ahemait used to do. Once munched, they burn in hell
Significantly, the Devil is described in the Bible as being
like a lion looking for people to devour (1 Peter 5:8). No one
quite knows what another of his attributed names, Behemoth ,
means. A leading theory is that the name denotes a hippopotamus,
recalling Ahemait. The crocodile also metamorphosed into Satan.
A traditional image of the Egyptian god Horus, dressed in Roman
military uniform, mounted on a horse, piercing a crocodile with
his lance, was lightly Christianised. Horus became St George.
He kept his Roman uniform, still sat on his horse, and still
wielded his lance, but now used it to skewer a satanic enemy
representing evil incarnate a sort of winged crocodile,
which we usually call a dragon.
Vox populi, vox dei (the voice of the people
is the voice of God)
Cited and denied by Alcuin (735-804) in a letter to Charlemagne
the god Ahemait transformed himself into Satan, so other gods
found new roles in the Christian hierarchy. The Egyptian Osiris
transmogrified into St Onuphrius, and the god Dionysus (Roman
Bacchus) into St Dionysius, St Bacchus, and several other saints.
Venus became St Venere; Artemis, St Artemidos; Helios, St Elias;
all of whom tend to be mysteriously omitted from modern lists
Others have suffered downsizing. St Charity for example
does much the same job as the Greek goddesses known as the three
Charities. Sometimes there was cross-borrowing. St
Mercourios took over from the god Mercury, and St Michael took
over the warlike functions of Mars, but St Michael also took
over some of the responsibilities of Mercury, for example the
weighing of souls.
The Chapelle Saint-Michel on the Rock
of Aiguilhe, in the Auvergne, France.
High places were generally dedicated to the god Mercury
in the Roman world.
When Christians took over they sequestered these holy
sites and rededicated them to Saint Michael.
This happened in hundreds or thousands of places, including
the Rock of Aiguilhe.
of the saints recognised by the mainstream Western Christian
Churches are ancient gods who have been forcibly recruited into
the ranks of the saints. Some were merely heroes. Hippolytus,
son of Theseus, who died by being dragged along by horses, became
St Hippolytus, who had supposedly been martyred in a similar
way. The Irish St Bridget is none other than an ancient Celtic
goddess, Brigid, who has slowly been losing her divinity over
the centuries. St Vitus was a central European god, as was at
least one of the saints called Valentine.
The phenomenon was neither restricted to Europe, nor to early
Christianity. Modern depictions of Mexican saints are often
indistinguishable from those of Aztec gods. At least one of
Mary's multiple personalities is Aztec. In her persona as Our
Lady of Guadeloupe, she looks just like a Central American native.
In this guise she is a Christianised version of the "Little
Mother" the Aztec earth goddess Tonantzín.
(Believers still leave her votive offerings of corn, just as
they did before the coming of Christianity.) New patron saints
took over the portfolios of old patron gods. To give a few examples
from the many hundreds available:
as Middle Eastern nations had angelic princes to protect and
look after them, and just as ancient city-states had their own
tutelary deities, so Christian countries and cities have patron
saints to fulfil the same role. It is the duty of these god-saints
to protect their citizens. They watch over their communities
and avert famine, war, pestilence and other disasters. Romulus
and Remus, divine protectors of Rome, were exchanged for new
patrons, Peter and Paul, who took over the joint responsibility
for the city. Some patron saints, like St Michael, St James
and St George, joined in human battles to help their human charges,
just as the ancient Greek gods did. Christian saints still look
much like the gods they replaced. They have cults with annual
festivals, as the gods once had. They listen to prayers, accept
offerings, grant favours and work miracles, as the gods once
did. Often they are described as being unnaturally tall or beautiful,
or if not their appearance is sometimes exposed as a disguise,
and sooner or later they eventually reveal themselves as tall
and beautiful. The saints give off sweet smells, emit light
from their bodies or faces, and speak in strange awe-inspiring
voices, just like traditional gods.
exchange for little gifts, saints cure illnesses, control the
weather and grant other favours, just as the old gods used to
do. Altars are dedicated to them, as they were once dedicated
to the gods. So are shrines and other holyplaces, which are
decorated with icons and wafted by incense, just like those
of pagan gods. Statues of saints are taken, dressed up, crowned
and publicly paraded in solemn procession each year, just as
previously the statues of gods were removed, dressed up, crowned
and publicly paraded in identical annual processions. Devotees
keep vigils at their shrines or sleep there in the hope of a
miracle or other supernatural experiences ("incubation"),
just as the devotees of gods used to do. Crutches, false limbs,
and other off-casts of the cured decorate holy healing shrines,
just as they once decorated the shrines of healing gods. Eyewitness
accounts of miraculous healings are posted up to impress pilgrims,
just as they were at pagan shrines.
and othersupernatural beings also found a new home in the Christian
hierarchy. Jewish cherubim became Christian cherubs and adopted
the Greek form of the companions of the Greek gods Eros and
Dionysus divine but porky toddlers, known to artists
as putti. The Jews had not been entirely sure what cherubim
looked like. Stories varied from various kinds of hybrid animal
to storm clouds (e.g. Psalm 18:10). A figure represented as
part man, part lion, part ox, and part eagle, was adopted from
the Babylonians but this composite proved less popular than
naked toddlers. Christian art often retains peripheral clouds
whenever naked toddler cherubs are shown.
the Greeks, angels (angeloi) had been lesser gods serving
the greater ones, and sometimes visiting the world on their
behalf. Christian angels continued to visit people and were
likely to be mistaken for ordinary people, just as they had
been in earlier times (Hebrews 13:2). Only later would they
sprout wings and become immediately recognisable. Christian
representations of winged angels are based largely on the Roman
goddess Victoria (identified with the Greek goddess Nike
and the Egyptian Naphte), though the basic idea seems
to have been Babylonian and ultimately Persian. When the Altar
of Victory was removed from the Senate House in Rome in 382
because of Christian sensibilities, a statue of Victoria was
left untouched, apparently because she had been adopted as an
angel. (Looking at the winged, sword-wielding female figures
on top of many British World War II memorials, it is often impossible
to determine whether one is looking at the goddess Victoria
or a Christian angel.)
The famous statue at the centre of Piccadilly Circus in London
is universally called Eros, an indication of how thin the veneer
of Christian angels really is, for the statue officially represents
the Angel of Christian Charity.
minor Greek divinities, were also enlisted into the Christian
pantheon. The original Greek dæmons had been supernatural
beings of a nature intermediate between that of gods and men;
they were inferior divinities, spirits, or the souls or ghosts
of the dead, especially those of deified heroes. To the Romans
they were known as genii. Everyone had two personal
dæmons: one good, one evil. Christian thought changed
the good one from a "guiding genius" into a guardian
angel (there is still some doubt about whether these angelic
guards are allocated at birth or baptism)*.
The image of diminutive supernatural creatures, one an angel,
the other a devil, sitting on one's shoulders and whispering
secret advice, is still to be found in modern cartoons, and
also in certain old-fashioned theologies.
A modern take on the traditional personal
angel and devil, sitting on one's shoulders
dæmons became demons, malign spirits from Hell, servants
of the Devil, soldiers in the satanic hosts under Satan opposed
to those in the angelic hosts under the command of Saint Michael.
Originality is the art of concealing your source.
Franklin P. Jones (1853-1935)
As the power of the Roman Empire waned, the power of
the Christian Church waxed. The Church, especially the
Western Church, adapted the remnants of the Empire for
its own purposes. Greek, the language of the gospels and
the early Church, was abandoned in favour of Latin, the
language of the Western Empire. Bishops adopted the imperial
purple, a colour that they wear to this day. They also
adopted secular symbols of power like the staff, mitre
and pallium*. They
took to wearing special rings, which people would be expected
to kiss. Each took over a diocese, which had
been the jurisdiction of a Roman governor, previously
set up by Diocletian. Similarly, imperial provinces became
the jurisdictions of metropolitans.
Church ritual was borrowed from imperial court ritual,
and church architecture from imperial architecture. Basilicas
were originally secular buildings, large rectangular halls
with columns down the side and an apse at one end. The
Emperor sat on a throne in the middle of the semicircular
apse surrounded by his officials. Similarly a judge would
sit in the centre surrounded by assessors. These basilicas
were converted into Christian churches, and soon new basilica
churches were being purpose built. Now a bishop sat in
the apse, his throne (cathedra) at the centre
of a semicircle of his clergy. The apse of a modern church
is a reminder of this arrangement. A modern day bishop
still sits on a throne, called a cathedra, and
the church in which he keeps his throne is thus known
as a cathedral church. The thrones are now generally
moved to the side, their original position now being occupied
by the altar, but the bishop and his subordinates still
wear their imperial court robes, a contemporary fashion
from 2,000 years ago. In the Western Church clerical robes
are modelled on courtly robes from the time of Constantine
, while in the Orthodox Churches the vestments worn by
bishops are the same as those once worn by the Emperor
Plan of the Basilica of Maxentius
and Constantine in Rome
A Christian Basilica (with transepts)
Inside a Basilica.
The Basilica of Constantine, or Aula Palatina, at
Trier, Germany is a Roman palace basilica built
by the Emperor Constantine at the beginning of the
bishops of Rome were particularly good at recycling prestigious
remnants of the Empire. They started adopting imperial trappings
and practices. Since the emperors had decamped to Constantinople,
the bishops of Rome filled a power vacuum. They took to dressing
like emperors and adopting a range of imperial styles and titles.
While other bishops dressed like wealthy noblemen of the late
Empire, the bishops of Rome dressed like emperors. They set
themselves up on the Vatican Hill. They adopted the title Pontifex
Maximus from the Emperor. (The Emperor Aurelius had appointed
himself Pontifex Maximus, high priest to the Sun god
Sol Invictus, and his successors had continued to use the title
until 379 ). This title was applied to the Bishop of Rome originally
as a criticism, because of its pagan associations (the Pontifex
Maximus was originally the high priest to the Sun god Sol
Invictus), but that was soon forgotten*.
Popes also appointed themselves Bishops of Bishops,
another title borrowed from the Emperor. Constantine himself
had once borne it. So too popes decided that they should be
addressed as Your Holiness, as emperors had been. Since
the fourth century they have issued decretals, documents
with the name and style of imperial edicts. They even invested
selected bishops with a fur tippet (or pallium), just as emperors
had previously invested their legates.
early Christianity emperors had been Vicars of God
or Vicars of Christ. In time bishops of Rome would
claim to be Vicars of St Peter, and later they too
would adopt the imperial titles, purporting to be Vicars
of God or Vicars of Christ or both.
Later bishops would claim to be emperors by virtue of their
office. They were not only emperors but also monarchs of the
world, and they still are. They are still styled monarch.
They still wear crowns, sit on thrones, add numbers to their
names in a royal manner, and are said to reign. Until
recently they were carried around in a sedia gestatoria,
a portable throne inherited from imperial Rome. Their old title
Pontifex Maximus is still used, though usually shortened
Pope Pius XII on his sedia gestatoria
practices and trappings were adopted from the existing religions
of the classical world. As an authority on ecclesiastical history
No sooner had Constantine the Great abolished the superstitions
of his ancestors than magnificent churches were erected everywhere
for Christians. These churches, which were richly adorned
with pictures and images, bore a striking resemblance to the
Pagan temples, both in their outward and inward form. The
rights and institutions by which the Greeks and Romans and
other nations had formerly testified their veneration for
fictitious deities were now adopted, with some slight alterations,
by Christian bishops in the service of the true God. Hence
it happened that in the third and fourth centuries the religion
of the Greeks and Romans differed very little in its external
appearance from that of the Christians. They had both a most
pompous and splendid ritual, gorgeous robes, mitres, tiaras,
wax-tapers, croziers, processions, lustrations, images, and
gold and silver vases; and many such circumstances were equally
to be seen in heathen temples and Christian churches*.
adopted not only the shepherd's crook carried by the Egyptian
god Osiris but also his crown. This crown was used for example
by the Bishop of Rome, and became a prototype papal tiara. Many
familiar Christian concepts are pagan ideas only slightly disguised.
The clerical tonsure seems to have been borrowed from the priests
of Isis. As so often, Christians seem to have synthesised a
number of existing practices. The tonsure also seems to have
been used as part of an old Roman ceremony of adoption. (Trainee
priests abandoned their own families and were adopted into the
family of their bishops, and trainee monks into the family of
A new monk receiving the tonsure from
idea of a conciliatory sacrifice was common to almost all ancient
religions, as was the holiness of blood. The word bless
originally meant to sanctify with blood; it is related to the
French verb blesser, meaning "to wound".
Protestants shied away from the idea of a sacrifice during the
Eucharist. To them the Roman Mass was a horrible remnant of
paganism with its specific adoption of sacrifice at
an altar, and drinking the blood and eating
the flesh of the sacrificial victim, even referring
to it as the host (the word host comes from
the Latin word for a sacrificial victim).
Martin Luther considered it as blasphemous, idolatrous and
replaced the altar with a Communion table and denied that the
Communion wine really turns into blood. Nevertheless the etymology
of the word Eucharist betrays that it originally denoted a thanksgiving
laurel twig used to sprinkle holy water in Roman sacrificial
rites was replaced in Christian rites by a special brush known
as an aspergillum. In the western Church this brush developed
into a special silver instrument, still used for sprinkling
In pre-Christian times certain women, known as Sibyls, were
granted the gift of prophecy by the gods. Christians were initially
dismissive, but the technique was useful and popular. Christians
soon produced their own Sibyls and their own Sibylline prophecies.
Hidegard of Bingen, whose prophesies were characterised by severe
migraines and an abilty to provide politically acceptable statements,
was hailed in all seriousness as the Sibyl of the Rhine.
In most places where Christianity became established it took
over local pagan sites. This had a number of advantages. For
one thing existing veneration for the site was automatically
transferred to the new church. For another, Christian priests
could prevent those who remained faithful to their old religion
from using their old sacred places. The Jews had used this method
of eliminating the opposition; n ow it was practised by the
Christian Church, and was actively encouraged by the Church
authorities. Throughout the Holy Land ancient holy sites were
taken over by one true religion after another. The Jews had
acquired them by force from ancient pagans. Now Christians took
them from their Jewish owners and turned them into churches.
In the centuries to come Muslims would seize many of them from
the Christians and turn them into mosques.
St Peter's in Rome was built on the site of a pagan necropolis
of the second century AD. This was an ancient holy site, the
place where pagan priests had divined the intentions of the
gods. The Vatican Hill had even taken its name from these pagan
priests vaticinators. The site was also a centre
of worship for at least two divinities: the ancient Phrygian
goddess Cybele and the more recent Sun god Mithras.
Everywhere, local religions were displaced often by force,
and replaced by Christianity. Temples were destroyed or converted
into Christian churches, pagan icons were replaced by almost
identical Christian ones and pagan alters turned into Christian
At Menuthis in Egypt the cult of Isis was replaced by that
of local saints Cyrus and John. The Parthenon in Athens had
been dedicated to the virgin goddess Athene. In the sixth century
it was transferred to a new virgin, St Mary. In the seventh
century Pope Boniface IV turned the Pantheon in Rome into a
church. Now, instead of serving all the gods it serves St Mary
and all the martyrs. St Mary was particularly flexible as a
substitute for old gods. Her symbol even replaced the eye of
Horus that always used to be painted on the prows of Sicilian
fishing boats for protection. Customs and practices associated
with ancient holy places were also taken over. Ancient rights
of sanctuary, which had been enjoyed by the holiest of pagan
temples of Egypt and Rome, were now transferred to the churches
that replaced them. We know that the destruction of other peoples"
places in England, and later their seizure for use as churches,
was deliberate policy because the Venerable Bede recorded correspondence
from Pope Gregory the Great that gives instructions to this
Like the structures they replaced, early churches were often
aligned with the point at which the Sun rose at the summer solstice.
So were graves. Popular sites for churches included existing
temples and stone circles. In some places churches were even
built inside ancient stone circles.
many pagans, the Saxons liked to have the tools of their trade
blessed, and the Church happily accommodated them. So it is
that even now it is possible to find clergymen blessing ploughs,
fishing nets and other tools-of-the-trade. In the last few years
they have become reticent about the once widespread practice
of blessing instruments of torture,
but blessings of hunts and whaling ships are still carried out.
Swords, guns, tanks, military aircraft, warships, bombs and
other weapons are also still routinely blessed. Such blessings
are carried out by Protestant ministers and Roman Catholic priests.
Less controversial is the Roman practice of blessing motor cars,
apparently a vestige of pagan chariot blessing*.
God rest ye merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay;
Remember Christ our Saviour,
Was born on Christmas Day;....
Anonymous Christmas Carol
tradition of burning a Yule log originated in northern Europe,
as did the word Yule itself. Yule celebrations were
simply changed into Christmas celebrations, the 12 days of Yule
becoming the 12 days of Christmas, and a few features from the
Roman Saturnalia and from elsewhere were added. The birthday
of Sol Invictus, 25 th December, had been celebrated
by cutting green branches and hanging little lights on them,
and by giving out presents in Sol's name. December greenery
was popular elsewhere too. In 601 Pope Gregory I (St Gregory
the Great) wrote to St Augustine at Canterbury, instructing
him to copy the custom of using greenery for seasonal decoration.
Augustine was told to decorate his churches just as the natives
decorated their temples.
Although Christmas trees were late in arriving in England (they
were popularised by Prince Albert), an Englishman had originally
invented the tradition in the eighth century. Born in Devon
as Wynfrith, he became a missionary in Germany and is now remembered
as St Boniface, Archbishop of Mainz. He earned fame by decorating
a fir tree in compensation for vandalising a pagan holy tree
The Christmas festival was created from many sources, since
most ancient religions held festivals to mark the middle of
winter. From Saturnalia (17-24 th December) comes the basic
celebration and festivity, including school holidays, the making
and giving of gifts, as well as much drinking and banqueting.
Saturnalia was followed by the Roman Calends, a festival when
it was customary to perform pantomimes and put up special decorations.
In northern Europe the God Odin would ride out at this time
of year. Known as the Old Gift Bringer he would visit
people in the middle of the night to bring rewards to the virtuous
and punishment to the wicked. The later Christian saint Nicholas
(Santa Claus) would do much the same thing.
As in most places throughout the known world, the resurrection
of a dead fertility deity has been celebrated around Easter
time since pre-Christian times. The early Church was accused
of plagiarism for adopting customs such as those practised in
the cult of Cybele, as part of which the resurrection of Attis
was celebrated on 25 th March. One can see why. Both religions
featured public ceremonies, flagellation, and all night vigils
with lights and fasting. Both had days of mourning succeeded
by days of joy following the day of resurrection. The present
Holy Week and Easter are developments of this theme. The Jewish
Passover itself may well have been a remnant of a cult such
as Cybele's . Early Christians knew of traditions of resurrected
gods such as Osiris, Adonis and Tammuz. Tammuz is mentioned
in the Old Testament*.
Such deities were also known in western Europe. According to
Bede, the word Easter is derived from Eostre,
the name of a Saxon goddess whose festival was celebrated at
the vernal equinox. Rabbits and eggs, the traditional symbols
of Easter, are both fertility symbols from ancient cults.
A pagan spring fertility symbol, Christianised
by writing the words "Happy Easter" on it
Almost all Christian festivals were designed to replace existing
ones. Thus St Valentine's Day replaced the Roman festival of
Lupercalia, which Pope Gelasius I tried to suppress
late in the fifth century. Candlemas, 2 nd February, is really
the pagan Feast of Lights, when torches and candles
were carried in night-time processions. In 701 Pope Sergius
I appropriated this day for the feast of the Purification of
Mary. In Roman Catholic countries young girls still walk in
night-time processions, wearing white veils, and carrying lighted
candles, as though still celebrating the pre-Christian Feast
of Lights. Despite the efforts of the Church the ancient
pagan May Queen has never been fully Christianised in Britain.
On mainland Europe the Roman Catholic Church has been more successful
and the May Queen has come to be identified with the Virgin
Mary. On the first of May each year statues of the Virgin are
crowned and bedecked with flowers by ingenuous devotees.
Eggs representing fertility become Easter
Eggs by painting Christian images on them
Christian weddings are modelled on ancient Roman ones. The
use of wedding rings is attributable to them, as is the wearing
of veils by brides. Bridesmaids are also of Roman origin, as
is the custom of the man carrying his new bride across the threshold.
So is the ancient custom of throwing confetti, rice or grain.
Christians also follow the Romans in wearing black for funerals,
and Christian symbols of mourning are the same as theirs: the
urn, the upturned extinguished torch, and the broken column.
Remnants of ancient Celtic practices also survive in Christian
guise. The custom of well dressing, for example, dates from
a time when wells were regarded as holy places. Wishing wells
are another reminder. The familiar Christmas mistletoe is also
a Celtic survivor, the custom of kissing under it being a vestige
of its use as a Druidic symbol of fertility*.
It is probably for this reason that it was always banned from
Christian churches (except for York Minster). The date of Hallowe"en
was fixed on the date of the Celtic New Year, when the major
Celtic festival of Samhain was held, and huge fires were lit
to welcome back the spirits of the dead. There are still a few
vestiges of this festival kept up at this time of year
open fires, dressing up as ghosts of the dead, children's formalised
mischief, and so on. The traditional Hallowe"en pumpkins,
designed to look like grotesque human faces, are apparently
remnants of Celtic head hunting.
Some Christians still worry about these surviving echoes of
Samhain, regarding them as satanic. Each year the national press
in Britain reports the continuing efforts of Christians to suppress
them. Their concern is not new. Samhain has worried British
Christians since the eighth century, and determined efforts
have been made ever since to Christianise it. The Celtic Church,
for example, celebrated a festival for all of its saints, All
Saints" Day, on 1 st November. Even the name Hallowe"en
is Christian. It is a contraction of All Hallows" Eve,
the Eve of All Hallows, or the Eve of All Saints.
After the Celtic Church had been incorporated into the Roman
Church, a concession was made to accommodate a further Celtic
celebration: in 837, All Saints" Day was
joined by All Souls" Day on 2 nd November. All
Souls" Day is the Christian version of the ancient Day
of the Dead, when people used to remember their dead relatives,
holding feasts for them as Christians still do in many countries.
In Britain it had long been customary to light huge fires around
this time of year. Despite Christian efforts to suppress them,
the ancient custom of lighting huge fires has continued in Britain
well into modern times. When they could not be suppressed they
were instead Christianised. Guy Fawkes provided a convenient
excuse for the modern annual bonfire celebration, although Fawkes
himself was not executed until several months after the date
of his arrest (5 th November), and in any case he was not burned
but instead hanged, drawn, and quartered. Despite all this,
the ancient Celtic fire festival was successfully converted
into a Protestant festival against the Roman Catholics held
responsible for the treasonable gunpowder plot. In England,
5 th November came to be known as "Pope Day". It retained
this name well into the twentieth century, and effigies of the
Pope are still burned in some towns (notably Lewes, in Sussex)
on this day. Observation of the day was legally enforceable
under James I, and a special annual service was added to the
Anglican Book of Common Prayer*.
Despite all these efforts, in some places in England annual
fires are still lit with no tradition of burning Guy Fawkes
or the Pope. They continue the ancient Celtic tradition of lighting
great fires to celebrate Samhain.
The following table summarises the relationship between on
the one hand the four main Celtic festivals (Imbolg, Beltane,
Lughnasa, Samhain) and the four main Saxon festivals and on
the other eight important Christian festivals. The dates also
match the traditional quarter days (on which agricultural rents
are still paid). The Celtic festivals correspond to Scottish
Quarter Days and the Saxon ones to English Quarter Days.
Pagan Festival Quarter Days
Imbolg Scottish Quarter Day
Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM)
near Spring Equinox English Quarter
Saxon New Year
Annunciation of the BVM
Roman Calends, Flora Scottish Quarter Day
Summer Solstice English Quarter Day
St John's Day
Lughnasa Scottish Quarter Day
Autumn Equinox English Quarter Day
Samhain: Celtic New Year
Scottish Quarter Day
All Saints Day
Winter Solstice followed by Yule
Roman Saturnalia etc. English Quarter Day
Many outdoor Christian ceremonies, adapted from pagan practice,
have now been abandoned. These ceremonies were designed to ensure
fertility, good weather, or some other divine favour. For example…
…blessing the trees on the 12 th Day after Christmas,
reading gospels to the springs to make their water purer, and
the blessing of corn by the young men and maids after they had
received the sacrament on Palm Sunday. The medieval Litanies
or Rogations (major on St Mark's Day (25 th April), and minor
on the three days before Ascension Day) derived from earlier
pagan ceremonies, and had been designed to combat war, illness,
violent death and other non-agricultural terrors*.
Apple trees were blessed by wassailing them, and other crops
were encouraged by lighting midsummer fires. A successful corn
crop was assured by numerous ceremonies: thinly disguised fertility
rights, the making of corn dollies at harvest time, and so on.
From a purely historical viewpoint, Christianity appears to
have adopted everything, from its most central doctrines to
its organisation and outward trappings, down to the most trivial
custom. Most notably, Christian practices and ideas seem to
be synthesised from Jewish and Greek ones. A Church is a cross
between a synagogue and a basilica. The Eucharist is a cross
between a Passover meal and a Greek resurrection meal. Jesus
Christ is half Jewish messiah and half Greek hero-god. God the
Father is half Jahveh and half Zeus. Indeed, the old accusation
that "Roman Catholicism is Judaism wondrously interlarded
with paganism" could equally be levelled at the whole of
The usual Christian explanation for this is that God had already
revealed selected elements of his divine truth to Jews and pagans
before the time of Jesus, so that the seeds of Christianity
already existed in the world concealed in other religions. So
for example it was not so much that Christians adopted existing
pagan Sun festivals, but that pagan Sun festivals prefigured
later Christian ones.