How much of Christianity was lifted from the pre-Christian world?

Sorry to keep you waiting with this post. I guess I should’ve mentioned that the second semester of my third year at university is now in full swing.

In this post I’ll attempt not just to outline how many of the main points of Christianity are borrowed from pre-Christian/pagan belief systems, but by the end establish what that means, focusing on some of the key points found in popular Christianity as it is imagined today.

 

God himself

We already know that Yahweh/Jehovah, the supreme deity of the Bible, was originally a minor Canaanite deity of war, who ascended in status within the Hebrew pantheon as the chief deity of their people (in other words the God of Israel), the context of which transitioned from that of a merely henotheistic tradition (that is the belief that there are many gods but the practice of worshiping just one; i.e. on the basis of tribalism) to that of a full-blown monotheistic tradition. As time passed, Yahweh also accrued many characteristics associated with other deities such as El or Zeus, and became the far more warlike and supposedly omnipresent and loving version of both. And after the Jews were exiled from Babylon, Yahweh transformed from just the God of Israel to the ruling deity of everything.

Yahweh himself is just another deity in a long line of supreme deities with slightly similar characteristics. Ahura Mazda in Persia, Aten and Ra in Egypt, Ba’al and El in Canaan, Marduk in Babylon, Indra and Varuna in India, and of course Zeus in Greece. And we know that before the ascent of monotheism, Yahweh was in direct competition with other deities. Among his biggest rivals was a deity named Chemosh (or Kemosh), whom the Bible refers to as the “abomination of Moab”, a deity that archaeological evidence points to as being not so different from Yahweh.

Kemosh (aka Chemosh)

Kemosh (aka Chemosh)

 

The messianic archetype

Jesus himself was not stolen from paganism, contrary to what Bill Maher and Peter Joseph would have you believe. However, the role he plays in the Bible is that of an archetype that has been passed down throughout the ages. The archetypal role assumed by Jesus is of course the role of a dying and rising deity, or divine being. One of the most familiar examples of this in Mesopotamian mythology is the deity of vegetation known as Tammuz, the deity to whom the origins of the Christian cross are sometimes attributed. Tammuz was believed to have died at the hands of the spirits of the underworld or his wife Inanna/Ishtar, and descended to the underworld only to rise again every six months. Then there is Osiris, who was killed by Set only to be resurrected by Isis and go on to become the lord of the Egyptian netherworld. Among the deities worshipped by the Phrygians was a deity of vegetation and fertility named Attis, who went crazy and mutilated himself only to, depending on who you ask, either resurrect or reincarnate as a pine tree. In another sense, Ishtar’s descent into the underworld is sort of similar to the descent of Jesus into Hell, except that Ishtar dies and resurrects while in the underworld while Jesus is crucified to death and then goes to Hell in order liberate the souls of the damned. In the case of Ishtar, her mission was to save Tammuz who had apparently been dragged to the underworld by Ereshkigal’s spirits.

There are other aspects associated with messianic archetypes that I’ve covered in my post about the “Divine Individual“.

 

Some familiar public holidays

I’ve talked about this before in the early days of my blog and I plan on covering this subject in greater detail in separate posts dedicated to the eight holidays associated with the Neopagan wheel of the year, but we’ll quickly go through the holidays popularly celebrated in the West. The timing of the Christmas holiday season is based on Saturnalia and other winter solstice festivals and is found nowhere in the Bible, the premise of Easter hinges on a myth that, as was just explained, derives from pre-Christian archetypes and storytelling, and while the modern Halloween is largely shaped by Christian and American tradition, the date of the Samhain celebrated by Celtic pagans is, perhaps coincidentally, near to the date that Halloween is celebrated now, and the theme of monsters and night terrors associated with Halloween was also found in European pagan traditions which hold that time to be either Samhain, Walpurgisnacht or both.

 

Heaven and Hell

The belief in an afterlife divided in terms of a blissful kingdom of light versus a dark nether realm filled with demons or monsters has been traced to as far back as ancient Egypt, as has the basic concept of the individual soul being judged after death. The Duat was the ancient Egyptian version of the underworld, filled with all manner of monstrous figures and daemonic beings and the site of the regular journey of the solar deity Ra. It is even documented within Egyptian lore that a serpent bent on mankind’s destruction slithers through the underworld, waiting for the opportunity to strike at Ra whenever he journeys into the underworld, which is similar enough to the Christian view of Satan as the adversary of mankind who also appears as either a dragon or as “that old serpent” intent on striking down Jehovah/Yahweh. However, for the ordinary Egyptian, being trapped in the underworld was not the main fear, rather the prospect of being annihilated in the jaws of Ammut if the soul was found wanting by Anubis. The equivalent heavenly realm is Aaru, a prestine field of reeds which resembled life in Egypt, which the Egyptians felt was the greatest thing on earth and wanted to continue living for eternity. And if the soul was deemed worthy of passing into such a beneficent afterlife, then it would indeed be allowed to pass on an live forever with loved ones and pets. Does that sound familiar?

Don’t forget that many pre-Christian traditions have their own conceptions of the afterlife, and there are several heavens and hells found in the mythologies of the world. In Greece, for instance, those who lived a good and virtuous life or were heroic in some way would enter Elysium, provided that they were remembered by their peers and their descendants, while more wicked individuals would descend into the dungeon of Tartarus, where the Titans were also imprisoned, and everyone else would go to the fields of Asphodel, a meadow in the underworld where ordinary souls pass on that was neither a heaven nor a hell, all after the judgement of the soul. Oh, and much like how Christians believe that Yahweh reserved a lake of fire for the devil and his angels, Tartarus is the place where deities like Zeus cast down their enemies, such as Typhon.

Fallen angels in Hell by John Martin

Fallen angels in Hell by John Martin

 

Angels and demons

Pre-Christian belief systems all had their own varieties of spirits, with plenty of them falling into either the angelic or demonic categories. Mesopotamia had the Shedim, which were largely seen as demonic beings. Other demonic beings included Gallu, Lamashtu and Pazuzu, the baddest of the bunch. Evil spirits were often viewed as the cause of disease and were sometimes capable of bringing harm to humans and abduct their children, particularly night spirits such as Lamashtu and Lilitu, the latter a precursor, at least in name, to the the Biblical Lilith (we’ll get into that in a future Mythological Spotlight, once I get around to writing one). The closest things to angels in Mesopotamian lore were probably beings such as the Apkallu, who were winged sages or demigods who were viewed as teachers and protective spirits. Egyptian, as was already established, was host to several spirits. What we would could demons were viewed by the Egyptians as liminal spirits, frequently either hostile beings or guardians of the netherworld who could be called upon to protect humans, and thousands of nameless demons have been found in depictions on all manner of items from both religious and mundane items in Egyptian society. The Greeks recognized the term daemon – from which we get the nomenclature “demon” – as a general term for spirit, and often these spirits were seen a guiding forces, though there were of course malevolent spirits in Greek lore (a disease spirit named Aerico immediately springs to mind). Romans had a similar belief and believed in the concept of genii, who often served as the spirits of the household. India and Persia observed the similar divide between good and evil spirits. For the Indians, it was the devas, apsaras and sometimes yakshas on the good side, with the asuras, rakshasas and other ghoulish spirits on the evil side. In Persia the devas were actually on the evil camp, identified as “daevas” and the minions of Angra Mainyu or Ahriman, while the good spirits are identified as the Amesha Spentas in service of Ahura Mazda. In fact it’s in Persia via the Zoroastrians that we encounter one of the earliest clear cut incarnations of the concept of good versus evil personified as God versus Satan in the form of Ahura Mazda versus Angra Mainyu.

 

 

Good old fashioned Christian values

The “family values” platitude that is stereo-typically attached to conservative Christians are not especially new. In fact, at the very least it goes back to the Roman Empire. The emperor Augustus instituted a series of reforms aimed at aligning Roman society towards “traditional Roman values” – values such as monogamy and chastity. He even went so far as to criminalize adultery and imposed financial penalties on people who did not marry and have children, which to be fair seems a tad more extreme than the kind of family values politics that Western societies would have to deal with in the modern world.

The concept of marriage, which is often seen as a Christian institution, has been a recognized social and romantic union for longer than Christianity has been recognized as a religion. Marriage rituals have been known to exist in ancient Greece, Rome and China, and the contract of marriage, and divorce, has even been around in ancient Mesopotamian society. In Mesopotamia, marriage was valued for much the same reason we do now – to ensure the continuation of a given family line. Rome also considered monogamy to be the tradition for marriage in society, just as we do now. Of course, the ancient world had a tendency to value arranged marriage, whereas in the modern world we value the choice of getting married.

Then there are some of the debatably more positive values sometimes ascribed to Christianity, which have been observed as far back as the days of ancient Akkad.

 

The influence of the mystery cults

Greece and Rome were home to a particular phenomenon known as the “mystery cult”, which is basically a religious movement characterized by secretive rituals and the tendency to center around a specific deity (like Mithraism for example). There was an Eleusinian mystery cult centering around the goddess Demeter, based around the story of the abduction of her daughter Persephone, the wrath she wrought upon the earth and its fertility and the resurrection of vegetation and thus life. The re-emergence of Persephone was supposed to be representative of the possibility of eternal life through participation in the mysteries. The exact nature of the ritual performed in the Eleusinian mysteries is disputed, but it is possible that the ritual took place in an underground passage or theater and was intended to convey the whole death and rebirth message. It is also said that the Eleusinian mystery participants purified themselves by bathing in the sea. The cult of Dionysus had its own communion, typically described as a sharing of wine (which would be befitting of the deity of wine). The Mithraic mysteries were also known for featuring an oblation of bread and water or wine, at least for initiates of certain degrees, which may have served as either a reminder of their faith or as a means of giving them the power to resist the forces of evil. The Orphic mysteries stressed that only by following their rites, practicing abstinence from sensual pleasures (such as sex) and devoting yourself to the mystery can you guarantee salvation and join the gods on the fields of Elysium for all eternity. And don’t forget the Egyptian mysteries, including the mystery of Osiris which proclaimed “Be of good cheer, O initiates, for the god is saved, and we shall have salvation from our woes”. The promise of eternal salvation through initiation into the mystery cult and performance of its rites very much strikes accord with the Christian idea that you can be saved by being baptized, receiving communion and following Jesus.

 

So what does that mean, exactly?

I do not consider Christianity to be a complete clone of one single religion, as many critics of Christianity are want to do, instead I consider it to be supported by collection of ideas that existed well before both Christianity and Judaism. It started off as an offshoot of Judaism, which itself emerged out of the henotheistic tradition observed in the land of Canaan, and it embraced many ideas that happened to be observed by the rivaling pagan traditions, but in doing so the Christians essentially repurposed them for their own belief system. Many of these old ideas, it seems, are in fact very ancient, and have been with humanity for a very long time. And as much as the idea that Christianity took over solely through violent conquest is an appealing narrative to people more vociferously anti-Christian than I (and believe me I still am considerably anti-Christian; it practically comes with being a Satanist/Luciferian), I suspect many appropriations of polytheistic teachings and those of the mystery cults were more likely either reflective of the religion as a product of its time – remember that the religion had developed in the Roman Empire alongside the other traditions – or as a means of drawing pagans away from their old belief systems and into the new one. I think that when this is understood when dealing with modern Christianity, you can render Christianity essentially harmless for what it is – a messianic Jewish faith that with synthesized pagan beliefs, sometimes the same beliefs that are also present in Judaism I might add.

 

Just as an aside to close this post, I can’t guarantee that I will post as frequently as I would like to, due to university commitments, but I’ll see what I can do.

Personal diversity and a shake up of the gods

Lately I’ve been thinking about deities, my aesthetic tastes, and my inner world, and I have begun to see that diversity is not a bad thing, and that trying to limit that diversity and establishing one dominant aesthetic presence is bound to fail for me. For things that I honestly like, it makes no sense to risk throwing them out in order to maintain such a dominant presence in my inner world, because there’s a wide outer world out there to influence the inner one and it makes sense to let everything that you honestly like influence it, and it doesn’t all have to conform to a single pattern.

In the realm of personal philosophy and spiritual system, I’ve been having trouble creating an Oriental Satanism for a few years, in the process almost forgetting that delightful Chaotee principle of  borrowing what you like from other belief systems to forge your own unique system, which I first learned about from my dear friend The Desolate One (who I consider a great spiritual mentor or teacher). I could take the best and discard the rest, and I do that with Oriental beliefs anyway.

Same with deities. I am making the following changes regarding deities:

  1. Not be so puristic regarding pantheons
  2. Not limit myself to a seven deity system

That’s right, I plan to alter my system for deities. From now on, I revere any deity that symbolises anything important to me and my connection to those things (for instance fire, volcanoes, the sun, love, a possible connection with my father), or any deity I relate to or feel personally aligned with. For example, I may venerate Agni because of fire, Amon-Ra for the sun and creative power, Mara for desire, Goddess Liberty for the concept of freedom, and perhaps Venus for love. Speaking of Liberty and Venus, because of this, they don’t have to be almost all male deities, goddesses can be venerated too (as I already have in the past) and likely will more often now. I aim to do this in my own way, hopefully without being bound to any expectations of ostentatious ritual or prayer that I lack time or resources for. I aim to have as little hierarchy with the deities as possible, and the only deities that might reserve a particularly higher spot will be Shiva, perhaps Shakti, and maybe Satan, but in Satan and Shakti’s case it may be because they represent concepts I hold dear, and in Shiva’s case it is because Shiva is my favourite deity, an ishta-deva if you will. The only rule is that I have to admire specific deities enough, and that I don’t cross into to full-on traditional theistic worship instead of more modern forms of veneration I try to observe.

Of course, this takes time, and it may be a while before I get everything down, but you’ll soon see these changes on my blog’s additional pages. As a pagan, I need to remember that all god-images are god-images. They’re not all the same, but they ruled out because they don’t conform to any attempts to Easternize your own spiritual system. Let us remember E Pluribus Unum, One From Many. From diversity one can draw uniqueness.

Goddesses

Part of me thinks I was a pagan without knowing it when I was younger. The idea of goddesses must have had some appeal, or perhaps it is just what they were associated with.

For instance, when I was a kid, I was reading a book about volcanoes and earthquakes, and there was a few pages on mythological representations of these phenomenon. I noticed a Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes named Pele, and some time afterwards for some reason I tried praying to said goddess.

Then, when I entered my teen years (probably at about 14-15 years old), I became fascinated with earth mother goddesses, perhaps from a mixture of Shin Megami Tensei (these goddess were on the Chaos alignment, and I was a huge fan, and still am today) and because I thought many of them were beautiful. In particular, I had a great fascination with the goddess Gaia as a goddess of earth and a mother goddess. Keep in mind though, at that time my thought hadn’t really, shall we say, evolved to the way it is now. For similar reasons I liked goddesses Isis, Cybele, and Parvati/Shakti.

Today, goddesses still have value to me, mainly as representatives of female power, among various of things. And Shakti is very important to me as both a goddess and a concept.

Polytheism of the mind

Back in May, I did some thinking about some art I made, about six gods pertaining to my persona, and I had a thought swirling in my head: maybe the soul does not consist of one god, but more than one god or aspect.

Ages later, from my understanding now, this makes a lot of sense from a spiritual context. The pagans believed that deities were the divine manifestations of nature, and I think one could also take deities as representations of your soul and psyche, or parts of it. It is the use of deities or god-images to relate to the soul that matters here.

And there are most likely many parts of the individual self, multiple parts of the whole personality, so the deities would represent the major parts of your personality that define you as a person and set you apart from everyone else as an individual.

That, is polytheism in practice. Multiple deities representing parts of your soul.

Satan’s origins in the god Baal

We’ve all heard of the Christian Satan (a.k.a. Lucifer, Beelzebub, etc. yada yada yada I’ve said this before), and thus you may have noticed his appearance throughout culture. You may also have heard that Satan’s design is a composite of pagan gods. Baal is one of those gods, and his role in the birth of the devil is a large and important one.

Let’s first start with Baal himself. While the word Baal (or Ba’al) itself simply means “lord”, and was also used as a title for a number of gods in the Canaanite religion, it is also a common way of referring to Baal Hadad, who for the purpose of this post we’ll refer to simply as Baal. He was a god of storms, thunder, rain, weather, and fertility. Among his notable features includes horns (or a horned headdress) and a thunderbolt, usually three-pronged, the latter of which would later appear as a weapon wielded by gods like Zeus and Indra. Baal was also equated with the Egyptian god Set, who, like Baal, was a strong and virile god of storms, but he was also a god of deserts who was also associated with foreigners and worshipped by Egyptian armies and soldiers, until later myths were he was a god of evil, darkness, and chaos (Egyptians really didn’t like chaos).

An ancient coin featuring a bull-headed deity. Notice he looks a lot like Set and with features of Baal.

Now we move on to Baal in Judaism. While there is no concept of the devil within Judaism, let alone as a being who opposes God, a similar kind of being is found in Ba’al Zebub. In Rabbinical texts, the name Ba’al Zebub (meaning “lord of the flies”) was the Jewish way of mocking the religion of Baal that surrounded them, and its followers, and it may have been a way of referring to Baal as a pile of dung and his followers as flies. They saw Baal as a false god, unworthy of worship. Does that sound familiar? Of course,  it’s a lot like the later Christian concept of Satan. The term Ba’al Zebub is the source of the name Beelzebub, and may have come from a Philistine deity named Baal Zebul.

In Christianity, we have Satan (who the Jewish Beelzebub is now synonymous with), who is most commonly shown as a horned male figure with a trident or pitchfork, along with other features like wings and a tail. The horned devil with a trident actually calls back to the god Baal with his horns and thunderbolt. It should be noted that Baal, or more or less the religion of Baal, was the biggest rival to the Jewish and Christian religions, so it seemed only natural for them to vilify him, and for the Christians to co-opt him into the design of the devil. Images of Baphomet may also be similar, being a horned entity holding objects.

A standard depiction of the devil.

So there you have it, Satan’s primary origins lie in the Canaanite god Baal, and in the Jewish (and later Christian) transformation of him (Beelzebub). There’s the traditional devil in Christianity, then before that a mockery/vilification of Baal in Judaism, and before that, Baal in the pre-Christian world. Baal does seem to me like the archetypal (male) pagan god, and that would probably make sense with regards to his vilification.

The Horned God (and why he’s surprisingly relevant to me)

It has been a long time since I posted about paganism. So I figure I’d remedy this by talking about a deity or archetype who is surprisingly relevent to me. The Horned God.

A statue of a horned deity from Cyprus.

I consider the Horned God as more an archetype than an actual entity. While the Horned God usually refers to a specific god in Neopaganism and Wicca, the image of a horned god recurs throughout history. Since ancient times, horns were a symbol of power, strength and virility/fertility, and to an extent they still are today. Gods with horns are thus associated with fertility and seen as strong, virile gods. In Neopaganism, the Horned God is a symbol of not just male power and virility, but nature, wilderness, the hunt, and the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

The concept of a horned god is very old, one might say it goes as far back as human history, down to the first depiction of a god of the hunt or fertility. It is embodied by many gods in the pre-Christian world. In Greece, there was the god Pan, who was depicted with horns, and was associated with lust and the wilderness. In Egypt, there was the gods Khnum and Banebdjedet, who were ram-headed gods, and some depictions of Set shown him as having horns and a large erect phallus. This makes sense considering Set was seen as a strong and virile god. In Canaan, the god Hadad, also known as Ba’al Hadad (commonly mistaken as just Ba’al), had horns and was associated with fertility, storms, and the rain, thus a giver of life for the crops. In the Indus Valley, there was a lord of the animals called Pashupati (in Hinduism, this is an epithet for the god Shiva, and in Vedic times was an epithet for Rudra), who some speculate was an early form of Rudra, lord of the hunt, who would then become Shiva, who was a wild god. The Celts may have recognized a god called Cernunnos who was associated with nature and fertility.

The seal of Pashupati, discovered in Mohenjodaro in the early 20th century.

The concept of a horned deity would be expressed in Christianity as well, but as tool to scare people away from the sexual freedom he stood for, and to trick people into following the dogma of the Christian church, who believed that sex was bad unless it was for procreation. Yes, I am actually saying that Satan is just another expression of the Horned God,  only stripped of his divinity, and this expression was aimed at vilifying paganism and its values. I am even lead to think Christianity is against power and strength, considering one of the chief attributes of the devil is his horns, and remember, before we saw horns as the appendage of evil, we saw them as the appendage of power. Funny enough, one of the names of Satan is Beelzebub (Lord of the Flies), who was derived from Ba’al Zebul, and we tend to think of Ba’al as a horned sky god. The diabolical horned god image would spill into occultism and the Tarot, where the image of the devil card, and the Egyptian god Banebdjedet, would later influence the design of a demonic horned entity called Baphomet, who would later become associated with Satanism. In the 20th century, the Horned God would be expressed again in gentler Neopaganism and Wicca, and once again considered divine rather than evil.

The image of the devil on the Devil Card. This was back in the 19th century when occultism was apparently a craze.

So, why is the horned god important to me? Well, I’ve gained an interest in horns lately, preferrebly devil or pagan god horns that resembled those of a goat or bull, possibly coming from playing the Chaos in Shin Megami Tensei games. But as for proper meaning, let’s go back to what I said about horns earlier. They were an archetypal symbol of power, strength, and virility. This is very compatible with my philosophy of sexual liberty and the ideal that freedom comes from liberating oneself by one’s own power. Thus horns also fit in my artistic imagery, to symbolize power and strength (I usually paint or draw the horns red to add power symbolism). He is also seems like a god that is so typically pagan, or quite pagan in quality, in the sense that it is quite an animalistic god and a god symbolic of sexual liberty, not repression. Added to that, there’s a kind of masculine importance, being aware of my masculinity, and what I want out of it, or rather what I want to do with it. The horned god archetype, and its Christian expression as Satan, are thus important to me and what I stand for.

Thanks for reading, it’s nice for me to talk about anything pagan again.

Why polytheistc deities are better than monotheistic gods

Modern artwork of the Babylonian goddess of love and war, Ishtar, one of my favourite pagan goddesses for some reason.

It’s no use kidding myself, I think I might be misusing the term “pagan” every now and then. Paganism in general is an umbrella term for indigenous, polytheistic, and often animistic or shamanistic religions, often emphasizing a living mythology and very associated with nature and nature rituals. Not to mention that the word “pagan” was a originally a Roman word used against foreigners, who they believed to be uncivilized and unsocialized, and would later be a Christian term for anyone who didn’t believe their religion and worship their god, much like the common term “heathen”, both insults designed to belittle or demean the target group of people.

Maybe it’s romanticism at work, despite the fact that I swear I actually prefer gods of Asian religions more, like Hinduism and Buddhism. Maybe there’e something about the pagan world I was convinced to like (it is at least partly true). Be that as it may, that doesn’t stop the fact that pagan polytheistic gods are still much better than the Abrahamic monotheistic gods, even with my usual lack of preference towards Western polytheistic gods compared to Hindu/Buddhist/Shinto gods.

Why? Because (1) they’re not so uptight, and even if they were it’s not nearly enough compared to the Biblical god, (2) they are flawed but they don’t make any bones about their flaws, whereas the Abrahamic god believes his is omnibenevolent and utterly perfect and wants everyone to think that way, in spite of his many obvious flaws, that I’m sure he’ll deny, (3) they probably don’t send people to a realm of everlasting torture for not worshipping them (as far as I know), (4), they do a better job of being anthropic and human gods than the Abrahamic or any monotheistic god, which is basically just another of such gods pretending to be an absolute one, and (5) no matter what you believe about the existence of such gods, they surely make more sense than the Abrahamic god.