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Pagan Influences in Christian Culture: The Hidden Legacy By Douglas M. Painter, Photographs By Kelly ReedGo Back to Table of Contents
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Photography by: Kelly Reed

Under the rubric of assimilation of pagan customs, heathens had to be convinced that their rituals for blessing houses, tools, crops etc. would be more effective under the sign of the cross than under pagan prayers, sacrifices, talisman or icons. Certain feast day and procession were often difficult to eradicate because pagans had been celebrating such religious events from time immemorial.
The sanctification of fields in order to allow successful planting, for example, were turned into gatherings to bless the fields under priestly direction. Throwing confetti at modern parades, or rice at weddings, is a replacement for the tossing of grains of wheat and barley in such pagan processions. The Julian Calendar (from Kalendae, or day of the new moon, a day sacred to Juno and the first day of the old Roman calendar) was based on the solar model of the Egyptians, replacing the old lunar model in use until just before the assassination of Julius Caesar. To this day the months of the Christian calendar refer to Roman gods, or Caesars, or simply Roman numbering, and the days of the week remains the names of Germanic gods (only Saturn’s Day, or Saturday, remains of the Roman model).

In accord with such assimilation, many believe that the worship of the Madonna in Catholicism had its roots in the veneration of the Goddess Diana from pre-Christian Roman cults. The celebration of Easter, with eggs and bunnies, remains a holdover of former fertility rites celebrating the Pagan Spring. Such adaptions of superficial, crowd-pleasing, rites and pastimes merely suggest how pagan activities are hidden just beneath the surface of Judeo-Christian culture.

The capacity for assimilation demonstrates as well a particular genius of destroying former traditions by including, rather than excluding, their rituals and festivities into the greater context of the Christian revelation. Such appropriation of the trappings of other religious systems was not atypical of the advent of Christianity, for after all, Christianity itself had begun as an appropriation of Hebrew writings and religious motifs that were themselves often associated with other religious conceptions.

The idea of monotheism itself had a model, for example, in the failed religious reforms of the Pharaoh Akhenaten who reigned a couple of generations before Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt in Exodus. At that time, God had instructed Moses and the Hebrew to take with them whatever they could use; to literally “pillage the Egyptians.”

Such pillaging may have preserved many pagan beliefs and rituals. The Judeo-Christian dualistic struggle of the universe as portrayed in the fight between Good and Evil, as well as Light and Darkness, bore similarities to the moral dualism of the Persian Zoroastrian magi; which was also a motif common to Egyptians and Babylonians. Later mystic cults, such as the dualistic Manichaeism and Gnosticism held the same dualistic outlook, and a renewed interest in dualism would show up as a theme in Hebrew mystical sects in the last centuries B.C.E., as well as in Christianity.

The cult of Isis, popular in the Roman Empire in the form of a Hellenized adaption of Egyptian ritual, believed in Isis giving virgin birth to Horus (she was often portrayed suckling the infant), and the resurrection of Osiris, who then became the Judge of sinners. The use of holy water, in turn, was similar to the water from the Nile that was kept in a cistern as a protection against evil.

The passion plays of Christianity had their counterpart in pagan mystery plays, the most famous of which was the Eleusinian mystery cults originating in Attica. The Eleusinian mystery was famed for its celebration of Demeter, the Great Fertility and Corn Goddess, and Persephone, goddess of the underworld--and its mystery promised death/rebirth and the hope of immortality. Many of these cults, no doubt, had a basis in the very ancient cults of the Great Earth Mother which stressed hope in the eternal return of the fertile spring and a rebirth of growth after the death of winter.

Such Hellenized Asiatic and Greek mystery cults were flourishing in the Roman Empire at the time of the rise of Christianity. They were spread by merchants and soldiers and their prevalence shows a very real psychic need and concern for the afterlife at this time in history. One of the most important of these sects was the cult of Mythra.

Mythra was originally an Iranian warrior god who, according to the Avesta (Zoroastrian scripture) assisted the God of supreme Goodness and Light, Ahura-Mazda, in his cosmic battle against the Lord of Evil and Darkness, Ahriman. Somehow the Roman Mythras (not Mythra) gained autonomy from his Iranian roots as worship of him spread across the Greek and Roman worlds.

In the Roman cultic version, Mythras was a sun-god born miraculously in a cave. The miracle pointed to future miraculous accomplishments (not unlike Horus or Jesus). His birthday was celebrated with the kindling of lights just after the winter solstice: namely December 25--a date that was considered as well to be that of the birth of the sun. Early Christian celebrated Jesus’ birth on January 6, currently the date of the feast of the Epiphany. January 6, by the way, may have also been a holdover from more ancient rites, as it was considered the date of the birth of Osiris. Christmas was later moved to December 25.

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