Religious people like to think that their beliefs represent an eternal, unchanging truth. The idea that their mythology is not the record of an unaltered history is offensive to them. The possibility that their treasured symbols were adopted from an older religion is dismissed. The fact that their saints and holy persons were copied from existing gods is often considered insulting and comical. But all of these things are true. It may be hard to believe, but Christianity is anything but original. Everything from the story of Christ’s birth, miracles, torture, death and resurrection was, in fact, copied from older religions.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that the bible isn’t a book of absolute truth. It is possible that everything in the new testament happened exactly as it is written, even the stuff that contradicts itself. That’s not relevant to this article. What is relevant is that pretty much every holiday and ritual that modern Christians observe is linked – sometimes tenuously, sometimes as a matter of historical fact – to older, non-Christian religions.
It may seem unlikely or even heretical to say that Christianity copied its religious practices and beliefs from pagans but please understand that early religion wasn’t the cause for war it was war. Religions and even cults within those religions competed for followers and territory. In Christianity’s early days it was a small cult and they needed supporters desperately. In order to attract them they gradually, but dramatically, lowered the requirements for membership.
The first Christians had to be Jews, but that got tossed. Then they had to be true believers – that was relaxed just to baptism. But even that wasn’t enough to convert everyone. Christ just wasn’t impressive enough, so Jesus’ followers started claiming he had all the powers of all the other gods they encountered along the way. In this way Christianity became sort of an umbrella religion… and many of the holidays modern Christians hold dear to this day are reinterpretations of some very interesting old customs.
In no particular order, here are five of them.
Santa Claus & His Flying Reindeer
Hold on to your stockings because if you haven’t heard this one you are in for one heck of a shock. According to one popular anthropological theory the origin of the Santa [SPOILER ALERT!] myth starts in pre-Christian Siberia. The original Santas were shamans. The chimney was the top of a teepee, as the main entrance would be blocked by snow. The presents? Get ready: Psychedelic mushrooms. Specifically the bright red and white Amanita Muscaria mushroom, one of the strongest in existence. So, why the flying reindeer?
Well the Amanita mushroom is not only one of the strongest around, it’s so strong that if you just eat it you will very likely die of organ failure. To prevent that the Siberian herdsmen would feed the mushroom to their reindeer… and then drink their urine. Yup, the reindeer got the first trip.
And where is it that you find these bright red and white mushrooms? Under a pine tree. A bright green pine tree. Just like ones you now drag inside and put red and white wrapped presents under.
The Timing Of Christmas
No one really knows the date of Jesus’ birth. No one even knows the actual year, let alone the month and day yet every year Christians celebrate the birth of their lord on December 25th. Why pick that arbitrary date? Because everyone was already partying at that time of year and the Christians didn’t want to be left out, basically.
Back before electric light and gas heat the winter was tough. It was cold and dark and there might not be enough food. Besides that, in an agricultural society, there was just nothing to do. It was a natural time to have community events. Not only was everyone idle, they needed cheering up. The winter solstice – the depth of winter and the shortest day of the year – was a nearly universal party time for pagans.
The first recorded Christmas was in 336 AD and researchers believe it was created to compete with, or flat out replace, the Roman and Persian holidays taking place at the same time. This was the new Christian Roman empire, and the theory goes that it would be easier for Pagan Romans to adopt Christianity if they didn’t have to give up their weeks-long feasting.
The most important holiday in Christianity celebrates the rebirth of Jesus, but Jesus was far from the first Mediterranean deity to have risen from the dead. A good go-to example of another reborn god is the father god of Egyptian mythology, Osiris. Every spring the Egyptians would celebrate the resurrection of Osiris.
The stories of Jesus share many similarities with the stories of other gods – gods with which Christ competed for followers. One of the most common myths is that of death and rebirth. Ishtar, Osiris, Dionysus, Attis – the list goes on and on. These gods were all held to have been reborn in the spring. Why? Gods are the embodiment of nature, and the world comes to life in the spring. The flowers bloom, the crops grow, the river floods and the bunnies… well, the bunnies do bunny things. And that’s why the ancient cult of Eostre took bunnies as their symbol. Their annual feast? Spring, of course!
If you’re not familiar with Catholic services, there is a point where the faithful eat a communion wafer and drink a bit of ceremonial wine. They believe that this wafer and wine become, miraculously, the body and blood of Christ. This is not, you understand, a metaphor. To a faithful Catholic the wafer and wine do not symbolize the blood and body of their god incarnate – it is the man’s flesh and blood. Forgetting what this has done for the vampire genre and the scores of jokes about Jesus’ blood alcohol level, this is one of the most important rituals in all of Catholicism and is absolutely necessary for entry into heaven.
SURPRISE TWIST! There may be lots of early Christians still waiting for their passage through the pearly gates: The sacrament was not accepted into the Christian cannon until – and this is starting to become a theme – Constantine converted Rome to Christianity and wanted the pagans to be comfortable. The pagans introduced all sorts of rituals, and many of these were adopted by the early church to make the transition more comfortable for their new followers. Understand, these new followers did not actually have to believe in order to be Christians. They just had to be baptized and follow the rules. But they weren’t about to give up their old customs, one of which was eating the flesh and drinking the blood of their gods. And, frankly, is this one so hard to believe? Cannibalism doesn’t seem like all that Christian of a thing to do.
All The Saints
Ever since the dawn of recorded history competing religions have adopted one anothers’ gods. The Romans renamed the Greek Olympians and adopted them wholesale. The prophet I am named after, Elias, was another version of the Greek god of the sun, Helios, who was later replaced almost completely by Apollo. There were, to put it mildly, just a great big mess of gods in the ancient world. And no matter how awesome and great Christians made Yahweh out to be, the pagans weren’t about to give up asking favors from their favorite gods.
So, instead of outlawing these gods and murdering their followers, Constantine (again!) took the tolerant route and allowed the worship of individual saints in their own temples. Many pagan gods and goddesses were Christianized. Very often these were goddesses who were characterized as either repentant whores or given a sex change.
People still pray to saints every single day, and every profession and personality has its own patron saint: A supernatural person with magical powers that can help or harm. Sound like the invention of a pre-Christian religion? There’s a good reason for that.