When the Christians met the Pagans
We atheists can be quite gullible. During Easter this year, The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science posted an image on their Facebook page that made the incredible revelation that Easter was originally a festival for Ishtar, the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of fertility and sex. Then Emperor Constantine came and replaced Ishtar with Jesus, but you can still detect Easter’s pre-Christian origins in the Easter bunny and the Easter eggs.
70 000 skeptical atheists found this reasonable, and shared the image. Not convinced? Try saying “Ishtar” out loud. It sounds like “Easter”, spoken by Sean Connery, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, this is by coincidence. Every claim in that image was wrong. Most other languages than English and German use a word for Easter, such as the Norwegian påske, that derives from the Hebrew pesach, the Jewish Passover festival during which Jesus was crucified. It’s true, in a way, that the Christians “stole” Easter. They stole it from the same place they “stole” the Old Testament: From the Jews. During Passover, Jews sacrificed a lamb in memory of the Exodus from Egypt, and the Christians interpreted Jesus as a “Paschal Lamb” for the entire world.
It’s true, though, that the English word Easter has Pagan origins: It probably derives from the goddess Eostre ,but only because Germanic languages once named the month of April, when Easter is usually celebrated, after her. Saying that Easter is “really” or “originally” an Eostre festival because the names are related is like saying that Maundy Thursday, when Christians celebrate the Last Suppoer of Jesus, is “really” or “originally” a celebration of the Norse god Thor.
What makes this story particularly amusing is the source of the Easter theory the Richard Dawkins Foundation promotes: Protestant anti-Catholics who wanted to prove that the Pope was the Whore of Babylon in the Book of Revelations.
Looking for links between Christianity and Paganism is in fact quite the historical minefield, full of dubious theories from uncritical amateurs. It all began with the Protestants, who right from the beginning condemned the Catholic Church for being full of Pagan elements. The Saints, Protestants believed, were a form of polytheism. The Virgin Mary was a mother goddess, probably taken from a Pagan mystery religion. The Catholics, of course, defended themselves against these accusations. The argument was very heated, but they did eventually stop shooting at each other.
Next came atheists, agnostics and folklorists in the 19th century who put Protestantism under scrutiny as well, and found even more Pagan influences. For is there not something oddly Pagan about this winter feast and spring festival in honor of a God who dies and is resurrected every year? Unfortunately their creativity sometimes got away with them. Nor were they entirely free of hidden agendas either, for it is certainly a good way to undermine Christianity, to show that its elements were stolen from somewhere else.
The neo-Pagans of the 20th century weren’t too fond of Christianity either, and added even more instances of creative historiography to this already crowded mine field.
The result has been several centuries worth of questionable (but entertaining) historical theories, and a big mess for the more reliable historians to clean up.
In other words, there are no guarantees that atheists know what they’re talking about when it comes to the history of religion – or that Christians don’t. This may come as a surprise, but some Christians are actually quite well versed in the history of their own Church.
One such person is the Norwegian Christian skeptic Bjørn Are Davidsen, who blogs and writes books about Church myths that are popular with non-believers, such as that the Council of Nicaea in 325 decided that women have souls, that the medieval Church thought the Earth was flat, and that the Christians stole Easter, Christmas, and everything else that is fun from the Heathens.
Whenever a Christian festival approaches, a good piece of advice is to wait for the annual newspaper article that explains its supposed Pagan origins, and then check Bjørn Are Davidsens blog to see what he wrote when the same claim circulated last year.
It’s not strange that popular myths emerge about the history of religion. Much of our religious past is poorly documented, which makes it easy for motivated amateurs to see things in the fog that aren’t there. Especially since the things you see when you squint hard are so entertaining.
The real story of Christianity’s interaction with Paganism is duller, and suffers from an annoying lack of solid answers and conspiracies of cape-clad Satanists meeting under the St. Peter’s Basilica to preserve the secret of the Holy Grail.
But it’s only a little duller. Actually, it’s not dull at all.
The early Christians
The early Christians were anti-Pagans. They didn’t have the word “Paganism” at first, but they were against everything this word represents, the entire Greco-Roman religious tradition. Christian artists would sometimes borrow visual elements they were familiar with from Pagan art, which is why you could find images where Jesus looked like Apollo. And as more and more educated people became Christians, it didn’t take them long to find things to admire in Greco-Roman philosophy. But the early Christians did not go about borrowing Pagan ideas and festivals. They rejected them. The Christians were that weird and quarrelsome sect who believes that everything you’ve been told is wrong.
They took their theology and search for historical sources quite seriously. If you as a non-believer want to learn about the ideas of the historical Jesus, there are in fact several first century historical documents that are a good place to start: The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. You’ll need to read them more critically than they do in church, of course, but it was not by accident or conspiracy that these particular books were selected for the Bible, out of all the many gospels that were available. The early Christians were concerned about finding credible sources for their faith, and modern historians believe that they actually did a pretty ok job.
Other parts of the Christian tradition were taken less seriously, such as the birth date of Jesus. Not only do Matthew and Luke offer different birth narratives, but the very first Christians didn’t find this an interesting event to celebrate, and the date itself emerged only late and half-heartedly, perhaps in the 3rd century. It is unlikely that the date was taken from the Roman celebration of Sol Invictus. More plausibly, December 25 happens to be 9 months after the death of Jesus. This would mean that he was killed and conceived on the same day, a nice symmetry.
The Christian contempt for the Pagans was mutual, which sometimes caused them to be persecuted. It’s a myth that Christians were constantly being thrown to the lions. The persecutions were sporadic, and usually came from below, among the people, rather than from above. The Christians were persecuted because they refused to take part in emperor worship and other official religious rites that ensured society’s protection by its gods. This meant that the Christians were a security threat, and a natural place to put the blame for a bad harvest. The Jews were usually tolerated, because they were an old and venerable religion, and usually kept their faith to themselves. The Christians were young and brash, and aimed to convert everyone. Rumor had it that they ate infants and practiced incest.
Surviving a persecution was not necessarily all that difficult: You just had to reject your Christian faith and take part in a Pagan ritual. But the alternative could be death. A pragmatic but brutal solution to the moral panic that emerged from time to time about the Christian peril. One of the hottest debates among early Christians was over what to do with all those who had rejected their faith under threat, but wanted to return to the Church once the persecution was over.
The last pagans
Everything changed in the 4th century. After one final empire-wide persecution of the Christians, Rome got an emperor, Constantine, who converted to Christianity. This caused the formation of a Christian power elite in Rome, and made it convenient and fashionable to convert to Christianity. Now it was the Pagans’ turn to be persecuted, and more thoroughly than the Christians had been. Step by step, the people Christians now referred to as Pagans were stripped of their religious freedoms.
The conflict between the Christian and the Pagan aristocracy climaxed near the end of the 4th century, when Pagan generals rebelled against Emperor Theodosius, who had made Christianity the official, and only permissible, religion of the Empire. They lost.
But all this was still only the beginning. Christianity was a city religion. It stood strong among educated and powerful urbanites, but weak in rural areas, where most people lived. Rural people were skeptical of the new gods of urbanites, (as they also are today). They were more interested in practical rituals that would ensure a good harvest than in intricate theological analysis.
The Christianization of the Roman Empire went slowly, very slowly. Even in the 8th century, hundreds of years after Christianity had been made state religion, current and former Romans were still being Christianized, a process that partly involved missionary work, and partly the use of power and privilege. Then the turn came to the barbarians in the north, with the same pattern repeating itself. First the Church would arrive and find allies among the kings, who were eager to associate themselves with this educated, urban and powerful religion. Then they would spend the following couple of centuries combatting Pagan traditions among the common people – or at least do their best to move these traditions into a Christian framework.
Slowly, Christianity moved northwards. Much of the Christianization of the Germanic tribes took place in the 8th century. In England it received a setback in the 9th century when the Vikings came, but by the 10th and 11th centuries the turn had come to Scandinavia. The Baltics remained Pagan until the 13th century, and not until the 18th century was there a serious effort to Christianize the Sami people of northern Scandinavia.
Elements of Pagan culture often survived in a Christianized form, especially among the Irish, who moved much of their cultural heritage on to Christian saints such as St. Brigid. Some sacred were destroyed. Christians had little interest in sacred trees, for instance. Other sacred places, such as holy wells and springs, were often reused by linking them to Christian saints. Heights on which Gauls and Germanics worshipped “Woden” (more or less) were dedicated to St. Michael. Pagan buildings were supposed to be torn down, but it was sometimes found more economical to redecorate them as churches.
Who owns Christmas?
In other words, Paganism, the label Christians gave to Europe’s pre-Christian religions, left many traces in European culture before it passed away. Some of them are with us still. In Norway it was King Haakon the Good, who brought the Christian faith home with him from England, who moved the Norse yule feast to coincide with Christmas. He thus gave us a festival that contains both the infant Jesus and home-brewed yule beer, as well as the Scandinavian word for Christmas, jul.
Does this mean that Christmas is “really” a Pagan festival, or is it perhaps instead “really” Christian, even when non-Christians celebrate it? “Really” is a dangerous word, because it suggests that once a tradition has been one thing, it can’t later change into something else. This is a boring way to look at traditions. See them instead as rivers through history, which split and join together, and change shape along the way.
When Christianity stood strong in Norway, Christmas was primarily a Christian festival, because we filled it with Christian content, (and a bit more). Today we are less Christian, and fill Christmas more with other things. Traditions change because we change. They reflect who we are, and we’re not the same as in the year 1900, 1400, or 900.
And there are far more interesting ways to search for connections between Paganism and Christianity than the ones provided us by amateur history. For instance, could it be that because humans in all places and all ages are in many ways the same, the same religious themes tend to show up from time to time in different clothing? Could it be that the reason that Christian cultures have a rich religious universe that in some ways resemble Pagan ones, is that it is natural for people to see traces of the sacred and supernatural in the world around them?
Whatever the cause, religious experimentation continues to this day, at the same rapid pace as always, despite all secular exhortations to let the gods die off. Some have even attempted to revive the ancient Pagan religions. This has sometimes been done with the aid of dubious historical theories. When Gerald Gardner introduced Wicca in England in the 1950s, he claimed that he was simply reviving a witchcraft tradition that had lived in hiding since pre-Christian times. The witch trials of the Reformation era had been an attempt to eradicate this Pagan religion, but it had survived in the dark corners and deep woods of England, and was now ready to step out into the light again.
Gardner was mistaken. But was his attempt to give Wicca roots in the Pagan past more questionable than the attempts of the Christians to find prophesies of Jesus in the Jewish scriptures? It doesn’t seem so to me.
Nor am I able to laugh at modern-day witches and other neo-Pagans, any more than I am able to laugh at Protestants, Catholics, Muslims or Jews, nor of Astarte Inspiration, the “angel school” of Norway’s Princess Märtha Louise. Their biggest difference is their age, but the old were young once too, and were equally mocked by their contemporaries.
We can judge religions by whether they are true, in which respect they all, in my opinion, fall short, or we can judge them by the effect they have on society and their followers. Here the answer is too complicated for us to place priests firmly on one side, and witches and clairvoyants firmly on the other. It depends. Christianity gave shape to Western democracy and enlightenment ideals, and deserves credit for that, but that is no excuse for the contempt monotheists and atheists often express against “Pagan superstitions” and “sects”.
A few things, though, are certain: That those who dream of a world without religion are utopians, that non-believers can be quite gullible, and that Christians are sometimes better informed about Church history than journalists and Facebook atheists. And that when new ideas emerge from the cities, you can safely ignore them for a couple of centuries.
[Translated from Aftenposten.no, Da de kristne møtte hedningene, 07.05.2013]