The Great Myths 2: Christmas, Mithras and Paganism

The Great Myths 2: Christmas, Mithras and Paganism

Well, it’s Yuletide and so tis the season to be merry, to buy presents, to queue for ages in airports and to eat too much.  It’s also the season when New Atheists fill their social media feeds with smug memes like these:

How do they know these things about Mithras and December 25th?  Well, they read them in memes on other New Atheists’ Facebook feeds.  Though the fact that this idea was given a boost by the delightfully droll Stephen Fry on the BBC’s comedy trivia quiz show QI a few years ago also helps:
So who needs to do something as tedious as fact-checking when a meme and a fruity-voiced comedian tells you things you like to hear?  Well, perhaps a true rationalist. 
Merry Mithraic Mirth
Many years ago when I was at university and really should have been writing my thesis, some friends of mine and I decided to prank the local chapter of “Students for Christ” by starting “Students for Mithras”. We didn’t do much other than put up some posters parodying the Christians’ rather clumsy attempts at marketing, but given that this got a predictable reaction from the poor befuddled fundamentalists, we hatched ambitious plans to produce pamphlets and evangelical material for our revived Mithraism, all aimed at highlighting the many parallels between the Mithras cult and Christianity.
Unfortunately this didn’t go quite according to plan.  Once we started reading up on Mithraism we discovered, to our surprise, that there were actually very few such parallels to be had.  Academic works on ancient Mithraism tended to dismiss the idea that the two cults shared many attributes as a common misconception and we found the small amount of information we could glean about Mithraism didn’t give us much material to work with at all.   So the prank fizzled out and we were forced to find some other way to avoid actual study.  Like going to the pub.
But the idea that there are many remarkable parallels between Mithraism and Christianity and that the latter is therefore derived, at least in part, from the former maintains its imaginative hold on those who don’t bother checking these things.  Unfortunately, despite their regular repetition, virtually none of these parallels stand up to critical scrutiny.   Most of them, like the list given by Stephen Fry in the video above and often repeated in New Atheist memes, come directly from the – ahem – “research” of the notorious New Age nutcase who called herself “Acharya S”.  This loon, whose real name was D.M. Murdock, wrote a series of books repeating the idea that Christianity was derived entirely from earlier pagan religions based on astrological themes.  Her work is a case study in bad New Age nonsense, with tenuous or even totally non-existent parallels presented as evidence of derivation, and footnotes to everything from online undergraduate essays to nineteenth century Theosophy texts based on “visions” as the supposed substantiation for her claims.  Why atheists who claim to be rationalists would gormlessly accept this New Age junk pseudo history without checking it is the main “Mithraic mystery” here.
The grab bag of crackpot claims listed so breezily by Stephen Fry has been debunked many times since that episode of QI went to air (such as here and here), but given the time of year and the fact that the nonsense claims about Mithras and Christmas are repeated most often, I‘ll concentrate on those here.

Mithras, Mithra or Mitra?

The first problem is which god we are supposedly talking about.   The claims about this god and Christmas etc. usually refer to him as “a Roman god”, which means we should be talking about Mithras.  But sometimes they refer to him as “Mithra”, which was the name of a Persian god.  And to confuse things further, we also have “Mitra”, who is a minor god in the Indic pantheon.  So which is the god that is supposed to have been born to a virgin on December 25th in cave with attendant shepherds?  The people who make these claims tend not to know or, more importantly, seem not to care.

The fact is that there were several deities with similar names that found their way into three distinct religious traditions.  The Indic god Mitra appears in the Rig Veda as a twin god of Varuna and the two are often referred to jointly as Mitra-Varuna.  Both gods are, among other things, deities of treaties and contracts and the name Mitra seems to mean “that which causes [it] to be bound” and related to the Sanskrit word mitram (“covenant, oath, contract”).  The Indic Mitra had a number of cosmological associations but seems to have been seen as the bringer of the dawn.  On the whole, though, he was the junior partner with Varuna and a minor deity.

It is likely (though far from certain) that the Indo-Iranian god Mithra is directly derived from the Indic god Mitra, who found his way west into Persia from India.  The Persian form of the god retained some association with treaties and contracts, but is not mentioned in Zoroastrian literature with any regularity, despite having what seems to be a fairly exalted status.  The Avestan hymn to him calls him by a variety of titles including “Mithra of Wide Pastures, of the Thousand Ears, and of the Myriad Eyes …. the Lofty, and the Everlasting … the Province Ruler …. the Divinity  of the Spoken Name” and “the Holy”.  He eventually took over the status as solar deity from earlier Indo-Iranian gods and his name is found as a compound element in several royal names in dynasties from Parthia, Armenia and Pontus (e.g. the several Pontic kings named “Mithradates”).

So are Mitra and Mithra the same deity as the Roman god Mithras?  It used to be assumed that they were.  The late nineteenth century scholar Franz Cumont was once almost the sole western expert in Mithraism and he propagated the idea that the Persian Mithra was adopted wholesale by the Romans and spread across the Roman Empire from the east much as Christianity was to do later.  So Cumont assumed that anything that could be said of Mithra or Mitra could be said of Mithras and vice versa.

This is why New Atheists who invoke the alleged parallels with Christmas are fairly blasé about what they call the god: Mithra is Mithras and Mithras is Mithra, so who cares, right?  And Cumont’s conflation of the Persian and the Roman cults is taken to mean that something that is said about one can be assumed to be true about the other.  Unfortunately, Cumot’s assumptions were criticised and overturned by the next generation of Mithraic scholars and the current consensus is that the Roman cult had very little in common with the Persian or Indic cults and that the Roman Mithras shared not much with his Persian counterpart, other than a form of his name, his hat and his trousers.

The current thinking is that the Roman cult actually arose in Rome itself and spread east and north from there, rather than being imported from the east and spreading west.  It was an entirely new sect; something like a modern men’s society like the Masons, but one that took on the name and the costume of a Persian god to give itself a veneer of antiquity and therefore respectability.  The Romans were rather intolerant of what they called superstitiones – new religious sects that didn’t have the dignity of ancient belief and practice.  Christianity and, later, Manicheanism were both persecuted partly because they were seen as “novel superstitions” and this would have been something the creators of Mithraism would have wanted to avoid.

Exactly what inspired the birth of this new sect is unclear, but Mithraist scholar David Ulansey believes it was the discovery of the procession of the equinoxes, made by Hipparchus in 125 BC, that got astrologically-minded mystics thinking about what divine being could be responsible for this remarkable celestial force; one that, to them, literally spun the cosmos on its axis.  Ulansey may or may not be correct, though his book The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World (OUP: 1989) makes a strong case, but it is clear that the Roman cult was heavily focused on astrology.  It is also notable that several key elements in the iconography of the Roman cult of Mithras, which along with inscriptions is actually our primary source of information about it in the absence of any surviving Mithraic texts, are only found in Roman Mithraic sites and not in the Persian or Indic sites at all.  Of these, the most common is the tauroctony or image of Mithras’ slaying of the cosmic bull.

So the Roman cult of Mithras seems to have begun in Rome and spread out mainly via the Roman military and merchants, with particular clusters of activity, judging from the archaeology, along the Danubian frontier.  And, despite its outward pretensions to Persian origins and antiquity, it seems to have had a uniquely Roman iconography, theology and ritual, acting as an exclusive, male-only and secretive religious club.
Born of a Virgin? Attended by Shepherds?
This origin means that several of the claims about Roman Mithraism’s supposed influence on Christianity and, particularly, on Christmas begin to fall apart under critical analysis.  The claim that Mithras was “born of a virgin”, for example, seems to have no basis in any of the evidence for the Roman god.  After the tauroctony, the most common image of Mithras does indeed depict his birth.  Unfortunately no “virgin” is involved and the parallels with the stories of the birth of Jesus are nowhere to be found.  This is because the Roman god was thought to have been born, fully formed and entirely adult, from a rock – the so-called petra genetrix:
Variants of this iconography show Mithras entwined by a serpent as he emerges from the rock or have him surrounded by images representing the astrological zodiac.   Occasionally he is attended by the two torchbearers who also often appear in the tauroctony scene.  Inscriptions tell us they are named Cautes and Cautopates and they are depicted in the petra genetrix scenes either observing or, sometimes, helping Mithras emerge from the rock.  Cautes is usually depicted here and in other scenes with his torch held upwards and Cautopates with his held down, so it is thought that they may represent sunrise and sunset respectively (as per Mithraic scholar M. J. Vermasaren) or perhaps the spring and autumn equinoxes (David Ulansey).  What is clear is that they are not “shepherds”.  As Manfred Clauss says emphatically in his discussion of their role in the petra genetrix iconography:

“There are … no grounds for calling these two figures ‘shepherds’ in the wake of the Christian nativity story.” (Clauss, The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and His Mysteries, p. 69 and n. 81)

Likewise there is nothing in the Mithraic birth scenes to suggest this happened in “a cave”; not that any cave is mentioned in the stories of Jesus’ birth in the gospels anyway: here the claims about parallels are getting confused with much later artistic depictions.
So it should be pretty clear by now that the claims about virgins, shepherds and caves in relation to the Roman god are totally baseless and, unless someone finds an early version of the Jesus nativity story that has him leaping fully-formed from a rock while waving a dagger and a torch, there are no parallels with the birth of Mithras at all.  So where did all this nonsense come from?
It seems to have its origin with Cumont’s outdated idea that the Roman Mithras and the Persian Mithra were completely the same and that ideas about one applied equally to the other.  Some late Armenian texts talk about “the Great Mher” ( a later form of Mithra’s name) being born of a virgin who becomes pregnant via the waters of “the milky fountain of immortality”.  An Armenian Christian text mentions a Christian responding to a Zoroastrian official regarding the supposed virgin birth of Jesus by noting “your god Mihr” (again, Mithra) being born of “incestuous intercourse with his own mother”, which seems to be a reference to the Indo-Iranian water goddess Anahita, who is depicted as both the mother and the consort of Mithra in some traditions.  Finally there are some garbled traditions, which may be related, that the supreme Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda deposited his semen in Lake Hamun in Iran and that a virgin has or will in the future give birth to a son after swimming the lake, though this is not directly connected to Mithra.
By a tangled conflation of all of these elements, New Age theorists like the aforementioned “Acharya S” have managed to come up with a hybrid idea that “Mithras” was said to be born of his virgin mother/consort Anahita and that this was believed by the Roman cult and absorbed by Christianity.  The “logic” by which they cobble this idea together is far from clear (the writing style of the late “Acharya S” has been described as “like the ramblings of a very stoned person”), but it is based on the assumption that these much later Persian and Armenian ideas were reflected in the earlier Roman cult.  There is no evidence to support this and it is rejected by actual historians of Roman Mithraism.
So why are supposed “rationalists” accepting this garbled New Age pseudo history without question?  That’s the mystery here.
Mithras and December 25th?
But the element of the myths around Mithras and Christmas that is repeated most often is the claim that Mithraists celebrated the god’s birthday on December 25th and that this is the reason we celebrate Christmas on this date.  This is repeated endlessly in smug articles about the pagan origins of Christmas.  For example:

“Mithra has many stories associated with him.  His association with the sun is well-known, especially by the ancient pagans ….  So one of the important days for those that followed the Mithraic rituals was December 25th, the dies natalis solis invicti, or ‘the birthday of the invincible sun.’  Due to the existing pagan holiday and the Church’s desire to incorporate pagan people into the Christian world, Jesus’ birthday was associated with this date during the 4th century.” (“Merry Christmas Pagans!” – Atheist Polyamorous Skeptics)

As we’ve seen, several claims in that paragraph are wrong.  To begin with, they’re referring to “Mithra” when they seem to be talking about the Roman god Mithras and the claim that he has “many stories associated with him” is nonsense, given that we have no “stories” about the Roman god at all.  That aside, the claim that December 25th was a festival of the birth of Mithras is garbage.
Mithraic scholar Roger Beck calls the idea that Mithras’ birth was associated with December 25th “the hoariest of ‘facts’” but it keeps getting repeated despite it having no foundation.  It arose out of a confusion between a feast of the birth of the “Unconquered Sun”  – Sol Invictus – on that date and the fact that Mithras Sol Invictus is one of the titles of Mithras found in Mithraic inscriptions.  So some have conflated the two and decided that “Sol Invictus” always refers to Mithras and so December 25th was the date of the festival of his birth.
There are multiple problems with this conflation.
To begin with, the evidence for any kind of Sol Invictus festival on December 25 is actually quite thin.  It rests mainly on one slightly ambiguous entry in the so-called “Calendar of Philocalus”, which was an almanac and list of significant dates and events dated to 354 AD.  For December 25 the calendrical part of this document has the entry “N.INVICTI.CM.XXX.” which is generally transcribed as “N = Natalis (“birthday/nativity”) INVICTI = “Of the unconquered one” CM = circenses missus (“games ordered”). XXX = 30″ or “Thirty games were ordered for the birthday of the unconquered one”.  Which “unconquered one”?  It is generally thought that this title refers to the sun god Sol Invictus, the “Unconquered Sun”, though this is not definite given that the same document also refers to other feasts of the Sun more explicitly (e.g. SOLIS·ET·LVNAE·CM·XXIIII (August 28th) and LVDI·SOLIS (October 19-22).  A much later source, the twelfth century Christian Syriac scholiast on Dionysius Bar Salibi, did record that “the pagans were wont to celebrate the birthday of Sol on December 25” and so attributed the date of Christmas to this, but it is not clear where he – centuries later – got this information.
But even if this is a reference to Sol Invictus, the idea that this somehow also refers to Mithras is erroneous.  The god that the Romans called Sol Invictus was originally introduced to Rome from Syria by the emperor Elagabalus – a Syrian who had served as an priest of the cult of his sun god in his youth.  During his short reign (218-222 AD) Elagabalus replaced Jupiter Optimus et Maximus as the chief god of the Roman pantheon with his sun god and also flouted a number of Roman religious and sexual taboos (he was bisexual, transgender and was alleged to prostitute himself for fun) before, perhaps understandably, being assassinated by scandalised traditionalist Romans.  The sun cult survived in Rome, however, and was revived in the reign of Aurelian, who in 274 AD made it the state religion of the Empire.
But Sol Invictus was not Mithras.  Like Sol Invictus (and several other gods) Mithras was associated with the sun and so, like these other solar gods, he was sometimes given the title “Mithras Sol Invictus”.  But Mithras and Sol were separate gods, as evidenced by the fact that they are regularly depicted together as distinct deities in Roman Mithraic iconography:
  So if the reference in the 354 Calendar is to Sol Invictus, it is not a reference to Mithras, who was a separate deity.  There is absolutely no evidence linking Mithras to December 25.
So Where did December 25 Come From?
If Christmas doesn’t owe its date to Mithraism, where did the date come from?  After all, it’s not like anyone (except the most clueless) really believe that the historical Jesus was born on that date and the fact that he wasn’t is pretty much common knowledge.  The gospel writers don’t even agree on what year he was born, so the idea they knew the date is fairly fanciful.  The usual explanation presented as an alternative to the Mithraism explanation is that Christmas is just a Christianisation of the Roman festival of Saturnalia.  This was, as the name suggests, a feast of the god Saturn and celebration of the winter solstice and the turning of the year.  It involved many of the current practices retained as Christmas traditions: feasting, drinking, games and gift giving.  But while Saturnalia clearly influenced the way Christmas was celebrated, it had nothing to do with the date of Christmas.  Saturnalia began on December 17 and ran till December 23.  So it ended before December 25.
While the idea that December 25 had some great pagan significance is repeatedly endlessly, the only association we have between that date and anything at all pagan is the ambiguous reference in the “Calendar of Philocalus”, and even if that does refer to a birth celebration of either the sun itself (as opposed to any god) or Sol Invictus, that is a slender thread on which to hang this idea.
On the other hand, there is a strong tradition within early Christianity that points in another and totally non-pagan direction.  Within Judaism there was a tradition that prophets died on the same date on which they were conceived.  Jesus was thought to have died on 14 Nisan according to the Jewish calendar.  That’s March 25, which is celebrated in various Christian liturgical calendars as the Feast of the Annunciation to this day – the feast of the conception of Jesus.  March 25 was also thought to be the date of the Creation of the World.  So if, according to this theological calculation, Jesus was conceived on March 25, when was he born? The obvious answer is nine months later: on December 25.
And it’s this date that we find recurring in the early Christian writings on the subject, many of which were long before the fourth century and any period in which Christianity was trying to absorb and adopt pagan festivals.  Theophilus of Caesarea (115-181 AD) wrote that “we ought to celebrate the birth-day of our Lord” on December 25.  Origen (153-217 AD) noted “there are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day …. the twenty-fifth day of Pachon”.  Hippolytus of Rome (170-240 AD) also gives the date as “eight days before the calends of January (December 25).  
Of course, there were a variety of dates proposed for the birth of Jesus in early Patristic writings, ranging from April 19 or May 20 (referred to and dismissed by Clement of Alexandria – 150-215 AD) to November 17 (Clement’s own calculation) or March 28 (found in De Pascha Computus of 243 AD) or perhaps April 2 (Hippolytos – 170-235 AD).  But it was December 25 that eventually predominated; at first in Rome and then elsewhere in the Empire.  
The same Calendar of Philocalus that mentions the games of the “unconquered one” on December 25 also mentions in another section that “VIII kal. Ian. natus Christus in Betleem Iudeae” (“the Christ was born in Bethlehem in Judea on the 25th of December”).  This reference, in 354 AD, is the first one made to this as an annual date for the celebration of Jesus’ birth.  Not long afterwards the then Bishop of Rome declared this date the official one for the celebration of Jesus’ birth in his diocese.  
So what is the origin of the date?  Given that the calculation of December 25 from the conception/death date of March 25 predates any need to co-opt pagan festivals by about 200 years, it is most likely that this is the original reason this date was one of five that were considered and argued for by early Christians.  It’s possible that if there was a feast of the nativity of Sol Invictus on the same date, it’s therefore plausible this affected the final selection of this date over the others; though it could also be pure co-incidence.  And while the festivities clearly took on many of the customs and trappings of Saturnalia, that feast is not the reason for selecting this date, given it ended earlier on December 23.
What is clear, however, is that there is absolutely no evidence linking December 25 to Mithras.  Given that the claims about a “virgin birth” for that god are garbled nonsense and the stuff about shepherds and caves are total garbage, the fact that these things keep getting repeated uncritically by New Atheists is more evidence that people who are supposed to be “rationalists” simply don’t check their facts when it comes to history.  The idea that the date and other elements of Christmas are all derived from paganism is cute, but not sustainable historically.  Neat little internet meme “gotchas” may be fun, but those of us who try to be rational and objective should be wary of them in the extreme.  Do your homework people.
But Happy Christmas/Yuletide 2016 to all.

40 thoughts on “The Great Myths 2: Christmas, Mithras and Paganism

  1. I’m also interested in the reasons why Kersey Graves and Acharya S’s twittery gets so much play—I think it’s one part theological, one part historiographical.
    Most US atheist activism is focused around pissing off fundamentalists, who are 1. wildly against anything they deem “not Christian” and 2. completely submit themselves to anything they deem “American” (except the Adventist strands who don’t even have birthdays). So anything that clashes with their “Father Knows Best” view of things like talk of Saturnalia or opposition to stupid wars gets them sobbing into their pillow. It’s the equivalent of the habit of telling nativists that their pre-1924 ancestors were “undocumented,” too. This pseudohistory is motivated by being a gadfly as much as anything else—whatever gets the biggest rise out of the fundies.
    The “proofs” that Christmas “is pagan” are actually pretty low-grade: revelry, toys, gift-giving, evergreens, booze and feasting, and a personification of winter. This fundamentally misunderstands how symbolism works—thanks to Gimbutas and Gerald Gardner (and let’s toss in Charles Godfrey Leland, Guido von List, and Yeats) “paganism” was seen as a unitary and organized counter-structure to Christianity. So these winter festivals and emblems are seen not as common signs of the turning year or even Europe-wide celebrations, but the codified rites and liturgical paraphernalia of a substrate that, in its most extreme interpretations, accounted for every pantheon from Thor to Thoth and Zalmoxis.
    Ronald Hutton has written extensively about how what we think of as “paganism” is High Medieval novelties that in the late 19th c. were interpreted as 5,000-year-old Indo-European survivals. This was an era of both heated nationalism and universal “systems of everything” in archaeology—when Ignatius Donnelly combined pyramids and bananas to give us the conclusion of a globe-spanning Atlantean Empire, and when the Old Testament was believed to be entirely Babylonian.
    Heck, if Christianity could “make up” its figures and its past, then so could the Victorian romantics. Against the degenerating cities of bowlegged child laborers and hypocritical bourgeois piety, “pagan” quickly meant a noble heritage of a grander, more sustainable, even empirical religion. It was seen as no less storied and extensive than Christianity, the original faith of all the people, before monotheism was imposed by the sword and trickery. (Any scholarship at odds with neopagan “fantasies of history” gets savagely attacked.)
    “The paganism in Christmas” is thus seen as fully-pagan inclusions, at odds with the overt Nativity message. But instead the new monotheism was integrated and recontextualized using old symbols and divinities. In my field, Catholic saints and Beninese deities swapped attributes, a process producing the “Black Atlantic” from Brazil to the Caribbean, without santos and orixas becoming confused for one another. In the case of Roman suns and Germanic evergreens, they easily represented a deity who was reborn the hard way ’round. And everyone likes presents! Reformers and Puritans, of course, reject any such resignification as letting paganism in through the back door. The atheists using this avenue of attack against the fundies are actually fighting on common assumptions.
    We have to remember that the Anglosphere has almost an unquestioned stratum of anti-Popery in its culture. “Outing” paganism in the traditions of the Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans that became the widely-shared, nondenominational US Christmas ticks off all the boxes for both fundies and “freethinkers.” Small wonder that they’re often indistinguishable. Just look at #23!—straight outta Hislop.


  2. I note that you don't say there was no relation at all between many such figures; just that there was no strong identity.

    For example? Were Sol and M really absolutely unrelated? Getting my MA in Art History, we were continually told that when figures were pictured together, it was normally intended to illustrate a relationship between them.


  3. Great Article! Btw, i found this comment on R/Historians on jesus where he claimed Tacitus is interpolated (because it wasnt mentioned by Tertullian or Clemens of Alexandrius) and linked this site:

    If you want to see the comment and his reply its here:

    Im Canadian_Methodist btw, so i made the long commenting refuting his claims.


  4. I just replied to that guy on the James passage in Josephus, and will respond to him on the Tacitean reference if he comes back to answer you. It looks like he's read two articles by the notorious Richard Carrier and now thinks he's an expert. Another online Jesus Myth wannabe jerk, in other words.


  5. After getting my MA in History – Art History – I went on to get a PhD in Culture Studies. In both programs, we learned in effect how to recognize and discuss common myths, in art, and general culture.

    Then I applied that professional graduate study, of hundreds of authors, to religion, the traditional mythographer/mythicists from Herder on.

    There, I'd have to agree that often early mythicists spoke a little politically, polemically, when they asserted perfect equivalents or Identity; and said Jesus "is" Dionysus, say.

    Still however, in my dissertation I began to note, if not perfect equivalency between such things, at least a degree of overlap, in their characteristics and meaning. In what linguists would call their "semantic fields."

    So I've come to suggest that it would be wrong to say that Jesus and Dionysus are "the same." But I would say that Jesus making wine his essence, and then the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, specifically, suggested Jewish and later Christian "indebtedness," as Art Historians call it, to Greek and Roman worship of Dionysus or Bacchus. As historically noted in say, 2 Mac. 5-7.


  6. I'm using it as a model for methodology. The principle in historical, structural mythography, is to look not just for obviously similar figures. Who have many or most characteristics in common. Who may or may not be identical. But whose characteristics overlap in some significant way, if not in others. Here we use Venn diagrams, often.

    In the case of Sol and Mithra(s), etc., we'd note some similarities in name, and attributes. Like astrology and references to the sun. Especially the sun around Winter Solstice (as various cultures timed it). Any overlap at all could be significant.

    In contrast, in your own method, you're looking at and emphasising the many differences between these figures; rather than the sometimes small but significant overlaps. Or "axis of similarity" I call it.

    When dealing with very ancient cultures, with little good hard historical data available, often these faint traces are all we have.


  7. Then you'd better go explain to all those silly old experts in Mithraism like Clauss, Beck, Vermasaren and Ulansey that they are wrong about Mithras and Sol, because they don't seem to have the benefit of your MA in Art History.

    Yet again you seem to have arrived at conclusions rejected by the majority of scholars. If that kept happening to me, I'd start to doubt my judgement and question my assumptions. But apparently it doesn't seem to bother you.


  8. N.B. The phrase "Mithras Sol Invictus" would itself suggest that ancients themselves related/conflated the two figures; likely because of common interest in astrology;and specifically the positions of the sun in the equinoxes and solstices. Central moments for ancient calendars and planting schedules.

    A conflation between a figure emerging from a rock, and a virgin, next, I submit, can be explained by ancient conflation of Parthenos, and Parthenon. Both meaning "unpenetrated." The first meaning a human virgin. The other referring to the impenetrable rock fortress.

    So we see similar ancient figures being conflated by ancients themselves. To form hybrid gods.


  9. "The phrase "Mithras Sol Invictus" would itself suggest that ancients themselves related/conflated the two figures"

    No, it wouldn't. (i) We know they were considered separate deities and that they were considered separate deities by Roman Mithraists. (ii) "Invictus" was a term used about a whole range of deities in various contexts. (iii) It's not even clear when the term "Sol Invictus" refers to the deity of that name or is simply an epithet for the Sun itself (the celestial body, not any god associated with it). Steven Hijmans has discussed these distinctons in detail in "Sol Invictus, the Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas", Mouseion 3, 2003, p.377-398.

    "A conflation between a figure emerging from a rock, and a virgin, next, I submit, can be explained by ancient conflation of Parthenos, and Parthenon. Both meaning "unpenetrated." The first meaning a human virgin. The other referring to the impenetrable rock fortress."

    That's very inventive. All you need now is a story about Jesus being born by leaping fully-formed from a "virgin" rock and you might even been getting somewhere rather than desperately chasing your tail.


  10. So in Hijman, "Sol Invictus" doesn't mean Sol Invictus? Consider that the name Sol Invictus was always a descriptive name: strong sun. If it is applied to many different figures, that in itself suggests they are similar.

    If General Sherman and General Lee each have the word "General" in their names, that is not to say they are the same person. But it does suggest at the very, very least,that they are related in one way: they are both "generals."

    If we stop looking for perfect equivalence, and look for an axis of semantic overlap, we can begin to see a generic class relationship. A certain common character in after all, related but not identical characters.

    This is what we typically see in many similar mythic characters from neighboring cultures. Dionysus for example, has a regional variation, called Dionysus Zagreus. They are not identical. But they are related. As probably regional variations from the samem root source. Or possibly one is from the other; but they diverged slightly over time. A process that in its linguistic side, is related to "semantic drift."


  11. So in Hijman, "Sol Invictus" doesn't mean Sol Invictus?

    Have you considered actually reading his article and seeing what he says? I find that works best.

    If we stop looking for perfect equivalence, and look for an axis of semantic overlap, we can begin to see a generic class relationship. A certain common character in after all, related but not identical characters.

    You keep repeating this elementary point as though it's some vast insight. Unfortunately for you, we have no evidence that Sol and Mithras were considered to be anything other than separate gods and no connection at all between Mithras and December 25.


  12. Let's go back to your earlier query: the connection between Sol Invictus rising from a virgin rock, and Jesus?

    For the sake of simplicity, lets use the material on hand here: let's look for Jesus coming from a virgin rock.

    Let's look for a similar structure in the Jesus story.

    Which might be? Consider Jesus rising from the allegedly closed, new rock … of the until-then unused rock tomb or tunnel. With its blocked entrance.

    Jesus rising out of the virgin rock. At once a rock. And a virgin womb/Mary symbol. And the locus of his new rebirth.

    Obviously Jesus'resurrection, could not be historical, or true. Obviously it was a myth. But if so, then what was its mythic provenance or origins?

    It may be I suggest, that his emergence from a formerly unused rock, was an obvious untruth or myth, and obviously borrowed specifically from …. Petra genetrix. Both virgin, and rock. (A conflation in turn created by ancients trying to put together Parthenon and parthenos).

    Yes, there are differences. But the similarities are very interesting. And its possible to guess from this, how people would put things together to come up with their surreal gods. Out of the odd interconnections of language.


  13. " let's look for Jesus coming from a virgin rock."

    Why? There's no "virgin" rock in the Mithras material and no rock at all in the Sol Invictus material. "Virgin" is an element you've added to try to make the pagan stuff somehow bend a little closer to the Christian material – a complete contrivance on your part. No-where in any of the Mithraic material is the rock referred to as being "a virgin" or even "virgin". That's your artificial addition.

    " Consider Jesus rising from the allegedly closed, new rock … of the until-then unused rock tomb or tunnel. With its blocked entrance. "

    That's nothing like what is depicted in the Mithras iconography. Did Jesus need assistance in getting out of the tomb? Did two companions have to struggle to get him out? Was there are snake entwining him while he did so? No. Not even close. You're really stretching.

    "At once a rock. And a virgin womb/Mary symbol. And the locus of his new rebirth."

    So now Mary's womb is a rock? This is pathetic.

    " Obviously it was a myth. But if so, then what was its mythic provenance or origins?

    From the Jewish belief in a coming general resurrection. It helps to look at things like the immediate cultural context before going off on your kind of idiotic wild goose chase.

    "A conflation in turn created by ancients trying to put together Parthenon and parthenos"

    What "conflation"? The word "parthenon" means "a virgin girl's apartment" – it has nothing to do with rocks.

    "Yes, there are differences. But the similarities are very interesting."

    There ARE no "similarities". Stop cluttering up my comments with this junk babble.


  14. right, found it now, it just wasnt showing on the comment section for some reason, anyway i got another question about Tacitus if you dont mind.

    The guy on reddit claimed its interpolation because it wasnt mentioned by anyone else until the 15th century when copys of tacitus were being forged?

    Im not sure what he was going at there, then he claimed that Tertullian, Clemens of alexandria, and Origen should've mentioned this passage as they were known for quoting tacitus and clemens job was to collect pagan authors who question or mention jesus.

    Im not frequent in these matters so can you help answer this? thanks.


  15. Again, this is seriously off topic for this post. Did you not understand that when I said so above? You can contact me via e-mail using the "Report Atheist Bad History" button at the top of this page. Stop cluttering up this thread with your off-topic personal requests.


  16. Thanks – this was really interesting. I'm a Christian, and assumed the Saturnalia origin for Christmas was true – which didn't bother me in the slightest, but it's always good to have faulty preconceptions challenged!


  17. This is a very nice article, Tim.

    Deep sympathy in dealing with people who just need this to be true so bad, for no better reason than convenience.

    I don't think your quote is from Dionysius Bar Salibi; rather from the scholiast on Dionysius Bar Salibi?

    One tweak- the caption to the Paris meal of Sol and Mithras labels Sol as "Sol Invictus". But in this context, Sol is not invictus, because Sol submits to Mithras. It should just be "Sol and Mithras".

    I enjoyed your stuff on the Anahita material – I'd never bottomed that out.

    Roger Pearse


  18. Hello Roger. I'm very glad to have you here and that you liked my article. I've corrected the Bar Salibi reference. I'm not sure about the "Sol submits to Mithras" point though, since in this and other depictions they are seated as equals and the only other iconography with them in it that I know of Mithras is being greeted by Sol. I don't know of any where Sol is submitting to Mithras. He certainly isn't doing so in the feasting scenes I'm referring to here.

    Finally, I don't blame you for never having chased "Acharya S" and her Anahita rabbit down that hole. That woman's nonsense would exhaust most people.


  19. Given that I'm an amateur, I don't. I read the work of the professional historians who do and present the mainstream, agreed, consensus positions they come to. The internet already has enough crackpot wannabe nobodies with their silly fringe theories. People like you, in other words. Doesn't the fact that so many of the things you believe are rejected by the consensus of professional experts? That would make me pause, at least, but it seems to have no impact on you at all.


  20. Nice article Tim. I was initially surprised that you tackled this theme, as I thought that we had short discussion on this topic and you said that you were not going to touch it due to the loony nature of much of the material on the topic. But I think on reflection, that it was more that you did not like to engage those who had drank deeply from the likes of Acharya S, as their ideas were too kooky and a rational discussion was near impossible.


  21. " A much later source, the twelfth century Christian Syriac scholiast on Dionysius Bar Salibi, did record that "the pagans were wont to celebrate the birthday of Sol on December 25" and so attributed the date of Christmas to this, but it is not clear where he – centuries later – got this information."

    But Hijmans contests this interpretation/traduction: "Closer consideration shows that Usener's quotation of the passage is misleading. Not only does Usener translate "birthday of the sun god" (polytheistic religious) where the Syriac merely states "feast day of the rising of the sun" (cosmic symbolic), more importantly he presents the scholiast's passage as an objective statement of fact even though it is actually a hostile one. "


  22. Do you have citations for the references from Theophilus or Origen? Google suggests Hippolytus’ Commentary of Daniel, but I’m not having much luck with the other two.


    1. The Hippolytus reference is to his Commentary on Daniel. But while I’ve seen the Theophilus quote many times, the only footnotes for it all read: “Magdeburgenses, Cent. 2. c. 6. Hospinian, De origine Festorum Chirstianorum”. This indicates they all get the reference from the same work, though I haven’t been able to trace its origin. The fact that it refers to a work by the Swiss reformer Rudolf Hospinian (1547–1626) and seems to be referring to the Centuriae Magdeburgenses – the Lutheran histories published between 1559 and 1574 – rather than an actual work by Theophilus makes me suspicious.


  23. Thank you for writing this article and taking the time to carefully draw out your arguments with primary sources (as always – one of the things I most appreciate about your work is that as well as dealing with common misconceptions, it also helps make the classics that bit more accessible!).

    On a related note, I have a question regarding your statement, ‘Within Judaism there was a tradition that prophets died on the same date on which they were conceived’. I’ve increasingly heard this point being raised but usually from apologists who tend to be quoting each other(!). Do we have any other examples of the application of said tradition, or some kind of textual evidence e.g. from Rabbinic commentary?

    Thank you!


    1. I probably need to update the article because since I wrote it a year ago I’ve looked more carefully at the idea that Jewish prophets were thought to die on the date of their conception. It seems that the Jewish tradition was that they died on the date of their birth. This is a Talmudic tradition – b. Kiddushin 39a interprets Deut. 31:2 as Moses dying on his birthday. Rosh Hashanah 1 repeats the same idea and seems to also apply it to Abraham.

      The idea that he died on the same day as his conception seems to be a Christian development, possibly because his conception was much more important to Christians due to the whole “virgin conceiving” doctrine. So we have Augustine making this connection explicit, as well as stating that it had been accepted for a long time:

      “For [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.”( De Trinitate IV.9).

      Eastern traditions made the same calculation, but from a different starting date. So working from 14 Artemisios (April 6) as the conception/death date, they arrived at Jan 6 as the date of his birth



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