Where Did Christian Ideas and Practices Come From?


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Re-branding a Sky-God
Making One God out of Many
How Mary keeps her Virginity
Fabricating the Nativity Story
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    Christianity accepted as given a metaphysical system derived from several already existing and mutually incompatible systems.
    Aldous Huxley (1894-1964), Grey Eminence


    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.


    Ideas of God

    Man is certainly stark mad; he cannot make a flea, and yet he will be making gods by dozens.
    Montaigne (1533-1592)


    Greek Gods

    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.

    Religions 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.

    Zeus 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

    The 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".

    Beliefs, 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.

    Other 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 Gods

    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 Book. Zoroastrianism 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 Carthage.

    Mithras with his aureole, later adopted by Jesus ChristAnother 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.

    An 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.


    Sun Gods

    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 .

    The 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.

    Sol InvictusAs 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.

    Christians 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.

    Jesus wearing the rays of a Sun GodAs 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....

    A Sun GodIt 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*.

    Constantine, 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 270


    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 ‘L’Épître Othéa’. Origin: France, Central (Paris), attributed to the Master of the Cité des Dames and workshop.c. 1410-c. 1414


    Sunday 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.


    Mystery Gods, Hero Gods and Others

    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)

    Jesus 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.

    The 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)

    Because 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 Christian emperors.

    Popular 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.

    GodIn 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 clients.

    This 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.

    Where 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 name.

    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 plays.

    The 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 of souls
    Science and Literature in the Middle Ages by Paul Lacroix
    In the Christian versions there is often a demon pulling on St Michael's scales


    Juan de la Abadia the Elder, Saint Michael Weighing Souls;
    Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain; c.2480 - 1495


    another version in stained glass

    Saint Michael

    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 for eternity.

    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.


    Old Gods, New Saints

    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

    As 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 of saints.

    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.

    Many 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:

    Greek God Roman God Christian Saint Responsibility
    Aries Mars Michael battle
    Poseidon Neptune Emygdius earthquakes
    Æskelepios Asclepius Pantaleon physicians
    Eros Cupid Valentine love
    Aphrodite Venus Catherine young women

    Just 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.

    In 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.

    Demigods 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.

    VictoryTo 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.

    Dæmons, 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

    Other 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 in church*.


    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 4th century.

    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.

    In 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 to Pontiff.

    Pope Pius XII on his sedia gestatoria



    Other practices and trappings were adopted from the existing religions of the classical world. As an authority on ecclesiastical history puts it:

    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*.

    Bishops 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 their abbots)

    A new monk receiving the tonsure from his Abbot

    The 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 abominable*. Protestants 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 sacrifice.

    The 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 holy water.

    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 alters.

    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 effect*.

    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.

    Like 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

    The 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 one Yuletide.

    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


    Christian Festival

    Feb 1

    Imbolg Scottish Quarter Day

    Feb 2

    Candlemas/Purification of

    Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM)

    March 25

    near Spring Equinox English Quarter Day

    Saxon New Year

    March 25

    Lady Day

    Annunciation of the BVM

    May 1

    May 15


    Roman Calends, Flora Scottish Quarter Day

    May 1

    May 15

    May Day


    June 21

    Summer Solstice English Quarter Day

    June 24

    St John's Day

    Aug 1

    Lughnasa Scottish Quarter Day

    Aug 1


    Sept 29

    Autumn Equinox English Quarter Day

    Sept 29


    Nov 1

    Nov 11

    Samhain: Celtic New Year

    Scottish Quarter Day

    Nov 1

    Nov 11

    All Saints Day


    Dec 22

    Dec 25

    Winter Solstice followed by Yule

    Roman Saturnalia etc. English Quarter Day


    Dec 25




    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 mainstream Christianity.

    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.



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    §. The pallium was a vestment of white wool, draped over the shoulders. Originally it was worn by imperial officials. By the sixth century it was being worn by eastern bishops and a few western ones. The bishop's mitre, like so much else in Christianity, is a synthesis of Judaic and secular Greek practice. In this case it is a fusion of the Jewish priest's head-dress (as worn by Jesus" brother James, and by John ) and a sort of Greek crown.

    §. Ware, The Orthodox Church, p 253.

    §. Tertullian, De pudicitas, 1.

    §. Whitehead, Church Law, p 266, citing Mosheim, Ecclesiastical History, and Rogers, Ecclesiastical Law.

    §. "The Mass is the greatest blasphemy of God and the highest idolatry upon earth; an abomination the like of which has never been in Christendom since the time of the Apostles." Martin Luther, Table Talk.

    §. A letter from Pope Gregory to Milletus AD 601 cited by the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation ch XXX rescinds an earlier instruction to destroy Anglo-Saxon places of worship and to sequester them instead.

    §. Tertullian asserted that Sol was not the Christians' God (Apol., 16; cf. Ad. Nat., I, 13; Orig. c. Cels., VIII, 67, etc).
    Augustine denounced the indentification of Christ with Sol. (Tract xxxiv, in Joan. In P. L., XXXV, 1652).
    Pope Leo I was the pope who reproved Christians on the doorstep of the Apostles' basilica, for turning to adore the rising sun. (Serm. xxxvii in nat. dom., VII, 4; xxii, II, 6 in P. L., LIV, 218 and 198).

    §. At the fiesta di Santa Francesca Romana held in Piazzale del Colosseo in Rome, motor cars are still blessed annually on 9 th March.

    §. Tammuz is mentioned in Ezekiel 8:14 and referred to obliquely elsewhere (Daniel 11:37, Hosea 4:14, Isaiah 1:29 and 17:10).

    §. Mistletoe is the magical Golden Bough discussed at length in Sir James Frazier's book of that name.

    §. The special annual service for 5 th November added to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer was revoked in 1859.

    §. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p 71.

    § Zoroastra or Zoroaster is thought to have lived c.600 BC. Zoroaster is the Greek form of the name Zarathustra (as in Nietzsche's "Thus Spake Zarathustra").

    § Scattered Zoroastrian groups still survive in Iran. Others were obliged to flee Persia to avoid Muslim persecution in the seventh century AD. Some of them were to become the Parsees of modern India.

    § The Peoples of the Book are those who, Muslims believe, have received divine scriptures from Allah.

    § In other languages of course Sunday is called the "Lord's Day", e.g. Spanish Domenica, French Dimanche, etc.

    § The calculations, involving mysterious golden numbers, are necessary to ensure that "ecclesiastical full moons" coincide with "real full moons".

    §. Converts to Judaism were, and are, expected to undergo circumcision and baptism. Such converts are called proselytes in the Authorised Version, as in Acts 2:10. The requirement for baptism before acceptance as Jews caused problems in 1984, after Falashas were air-lifted out of Ethiopia to settle in Israel in "Operation Moses".

    §. The idea that the gods are of one nature but many names was not novel amongst philosophers. See for example Maximus of Tyre, Dissertationes, 39:5. See also Origen, Contra Celsum, 5:45.

    §. Dante refers to the Christian God as "almighty Jupiter" in his Divine Comedy: Purgatory 6:118.

    §. Adolf Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East (English Translation L. R. M. Strachan), Hodder & Stoughton (1927).

    §. O. Kern, Orphicorum fragmenta, 21a. Cited by C. Kerényi, The Gods of the Greeks, English translation, Thames and Hutchinson (1979), p 116.

    §. Verusque sol, inlabere / micans nitore perpeti ...: St Ambrose, in Splendor paternae gloriae, quoted by F. J. E. Raby, A History of Christian Latin Poetry ( Oxford, 1966), p 35.

    §. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p 457, citing G. F. Nuttall, Richard Baxter (1965), p 46. When Richard Baxter arrived at his new living in Kidderminster in the mid-seventeenth century he found a number of parishioners who thought that Christ was the Sun (and that the Holy Ghost was the Moon).

    §. Constantine's motive was recorded both in statute and inscription, see Chadwick, The Early Church, p 128.

    §. 25 th December was the birthday not only of Sol, but also of Mithras, and of Attis, the Phrygian Sun god.

    §. Part of the pagan liturgy used on 25 th December was even adopted into the Christmas Office of the Christian Church. Seznec, The Survival of the Pagan Gods, p 43.

    §. Hygini, Astronomica, 2.34.

    §. Origen, Contra Celsum, 3.24.

    §. Plutarch, Lives, Alexander 2-3.

    §. Livy, Annales, I 4.

    §. Horace, Odes, I 2. Suetonius identified Augustus's father as the god Apollo.

    §. Adolf Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East (English Translation L. R. M. Strachan), Hodder & Stoughton (1927), pp 342ff, cited in (ed. John Hick) The Myth of God Incarnate, p 98.

    §. Pythagoras was said to have been the son of Hermes, and Plato of Apollo. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, 8.2.66. (Empedocles), 3.2.1. (Pythagoras) and 3.1.2. (Plato) respectively.

    §. C. Kerényi, The Gods of the Greeks, p 79.

    §. Graves, The Greek Myths, p 95.

    §. C. Kerényi, The Gods of the Greeks, p 98.

    §. Pindarus, Pythia, 3.5.

    §. Eratosthenes, Catasterismoi, 32.

    §. John the Geometer, Life of Mary, v1, quoted by Graef, Mary, vol. 1, p 197.

    §. The scriptures are contradictory on the nature of Sheol cf. Deuteronomy 32:22 (Jerusalem Bible), Psalms 88:12, 94:17 and 30:9, Job 14:13 and Ezekiel 32:27. See also Ethiopian Enoch 22:1-14.

    §. Satan as an individual appears for the first time only in the Book of Job and does not acquire his evil aspects until later still.

    §. Stone, Outlines of Christian Dogma, pp 281-2. Even the Church of England sings hymns about guardian angels, e.g. hymn 26 in Hymns Ancient and Modern. Muslims believe in them too, Koran 13:11.




















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