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.

The great twilight

In the process of refining my own creative universe, the concept of the “twilight of the gods”, in which all the deities and all the giants of the earth did battle with each other, and eventually destroy each other, resulting in the deaths of all but a few surviving deities (and the dragon Nidhoggr, who survives by feeding off of the corpses of the slain). Not entirely sure why it is referred to as a twilight, but I digress. I stumbled upon it, thinking of the state of my creative universe, the world in which my “altar ego” lives in and interacts with.

Illustration of the Norse myth of Ragnarok, the “twilight” or doom of the gods.

In this universe, deities and demons fight each other, deities fight monsters, humans fight monsters and demons, and more often the balance of power and the balance between energies is disturbed by humans seeking to tip the balance of light and dark powers in order to fulfill their own twisted ambitions, usually a desire for a “perfect world”, a deluded desire to “save the world”, or a desire to rule to the world. Sometimes demons or deities do the same, either because they have malign ambitions of their own, or because they are guided by cults and/or the negative desires of humans. And sometimes, humans still fight each other. The tension exerted by constant conflict would sustain the world/universe he lives in, it would sustain life, liberty, and, in a way, order (in the sense that the fighting preserves the delicate balance. And this tension would go on for all eternity, and since deities and demons never truly die, or if monsters keep coming back, old battles may return, or they may wage new battles. Perhaps that which has happened in this universe before might be destined to happen again, like an eternal return. If that’s not enough, then if hypothetically this tension were ever to end, then everything would freeze, stagnant, and decay, in an everlasting peace that brings only death by stagnation.

Of course battle isn’t all that my alter ego (or myself as that character) would do in this world, in fact if I was in that setting I’d be getting to do whatever I want which can include an array of things other than fighting. In that sense, if this universe can be considered the place I am united with after this life (not in a merging with God sense), then that’s still basically a lot like the Norse heaven-realm Valhalla, where those who died in battle were rewarded with entry into a realm of constant battle and constant pleasure, but the difference would be that you wouldn’t have to die in battle to get to this world, unless battle means something different (like struggles of the soul).

“Walhall” by Emil Doepler. This is the best image I could find because no depiction of Valhalla I’ve found shows any fighting going on.

Getting back to a concept within a creative universe, The Great Twilight can’t be the only possible name for this state of affairs. The Great Tension is one viable, albeit dry, name for it, but in the meantime I’ll keep thinking on it.

You might be wondering I would want to live in such a world where conflict is a constant? Because at least, it is mine. And there would be a lot more liberty than in our world, and the evils of our world would have no real power, and humans would certainly be different, truly free. If anything, the conflict or tension that often pervades the world I imagine would be the only real trade-off for a world where liberty and virtue are unabated.

My soul doesn’t belong to anyone else, and neither should yours

In a few days, there is a christening for a recently born member of my family. Naturally, I dislike the prospect, and I neither can nor will support it. I actually managed to avoid attending that christening, thankfully, which means I will not have to worry about supporting something I don’t believe in. But let me tell you about just that.

Everything about christening, or infant baptism, is morally wrong because it means you are deciding the faith of the child for the child. The infant or baby has no conception of religion, beliefs, what their beliefs are, or what their answer to the world is, but the parent still has the nerve to label the child as a Christian before the child even decided he/she wanted to be Christian in the first place. It’s the same for all variations of christening for all religions. If you want to be a Christian, you should get baptized by yourself after you have decided you want to be a Christian, let alone associated with a particular denomination or church. You shouldn’t be forced, coaxed, or conditioned into being Christian before you’ve made your mind about, and you especially shouldn’t be raised Christian against your own will just because your family is Christian!

Which brings me to the soul. My mother apparently thinks getting christened is good for the infant’s soul. But let me tell you, she has no basis for saying that other than her apparent Christian faith. First, if you’re soul is supposed to be saved by baptism, and that didn’t save my sister from being a shallow, obnoxious, egotistical brat, why would it save anyone? Second, the only reason they’re going through with this whole thing is to keep up with the Joneses. In other words, to conform with the norms of everyone else without thinking even once about whether or not these stupid customs mean anything to them, or if they actually believe in it. People just go with the flow, supposedly out of a sense of “decency”, which isn’t even decency to begin with. Third, what the hell is so good about your soul belonging to anybody? Is there any reason your soul can’t actually be YOUR soul? Not to mention, if you are your soul, why should you be owned by anyone? You belong to you. No one else. You should be free to be spiritual autonomous, making your own decisions, walking your own path, and enjoying your own fruits and enduring your own austerities and sufferings, instead of belonging to someone else who probably doesn’t give a crap about you and only cares that you worship him like a ruler!

Even though my mother thinks giving your spiritual autonomy over to Jesus or Jehovah is a good thing, it actually means your soul is doomed. Think about it: do you know what the Christian heaven means? Your soul meets up with Jesus and joins a choir of angels or souls that do nothing but mindlessly sing praises for eternity. Why would you want that? Why would you consider that a good thing? That is not joy. That is false joy. A joy that only arises from the mindless devotion of the believer. What would I rather have? I would rather go to a heaven of my design, a place influenced by everything I could possibly want and enjoy. In any case I’d certainly rather not have to be stuck in the same heaven as everyone else.

I can just guess that at least some of my family is going to make a fuss over the fact that I refused to attend the christening, but at least I know I have stood up for individual freedom of choice even against family and tradition.

Make your own Heaven

This month, one of the subjects I’ve been trying to deal with is the concept of afterlife. For a long time I was never sure of anything, all’s I could guess was that there’s more than what we see, or have been told, and that death was not the end. That’s still true to me, but now, I think there’s more to the story.

Currently, my idea is that each soul creates his or her own heaven, thus where you go after you do is influenced by you. You don’t have to go to “God’s heaven”, but your heaven, unless your idea of heaven is “God’s heaven”. The thing is though, it most likely depends on whether or not you reach out to the unseen. Much like a leap of faith. If you do not reach out to the unseen, one is destined to pass into nothingness.

Maybe it’s like in the Shin Megami Tensei series, where in an essentially lawless world you discern your beliefs, ideals, what you stand for and fight for, and your basic moral, philosophical, and aesthetic framework, and you effectively create your own world and its laws based on your own framework and ideal. This concept is illustrated particularly well in Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne, and it could be a good illustration of how one creates ones own heaven based on ones own discerned ideals, values, and self.

There isn’t much else I can say, given there’s not a lot you can say objectively, but in the end, I’m confident that if you reach out to the unseen, you may just access a heaven influenced by you.

My idea of paradise

And this is only one small bit of what it could be.

Most people dream of their ideal paradise, or heaven, being an idyllic place where you have peace for all eternity, or if we’re lazy we usually resort to the Christian heaven (which really isn’t as nice as you’d think, considering the god of the Bible). I’m not exactly one of these people.

See, a paradise that’s basically all peace and relaxation forever means no action, and that tends to get boring.

My kind of paradise is one where I can have fun, and most of all, I’m in charge. For starters, no one telling me what to do, no menial tasks or grunt jobs, and I don’t have to deal with bus companies or daytime TV (especially of the British kind). Second, ample opportunities to live out my desires with full confidence, all the weapons and powers I could imagine wanting, and monsters and bad guys to use my weapons and powers on, and maybe gods, demons, and other fighters to pit my strength against if I feel like it. Eternal life and youth would be nice, as long as still feel pleasure and emotion (even if that means still feeling pain and negative emotions, which won’t matter as long as you have tons of ways of feeling better; although I could do without the horrible uneasiness and mortal chills that creep inside you). Obviously all the music, games, anime, movies, food, and girls I could want would be there, and all the environments I could ever like would be there. And I can go anywhere I want without worrying about jetlag, parasites, mosquitos and such, and goddamned innoculations.

Speaking of video games.

You know what else would spice things up? Being able to interact with the world around, and go on adventures in other worlds. It’d be like playing a video game (or more or less a combination of Sonic the Hedgehog, inFamous, Devil May Cry, Dynasty Warriors, Persona 4, and Shin Megami Tensei), and in these other worlds I get to do what I do and see how I affect these worlds. These other worlds will also provide opportunities for me to not just spread my philosophy, but fulfill it in various scenarios. That would kick so much more ass than just spending eternity in the clouds with “God”.

Is this the best the Christians could come up with in terms of a paradise?

Mine is a chaotic paradise, without a doubt. There’s calm at times, sure, but that’s because I like to relax every once in a while, like pretty any human would. Besides, a paradise like mine can’t get old for me. It’s not the realm free of conflict and chaos, but rather a realm where I’m in charge and I get to do what I want. Much better.

Also, I can get cut or step on shit and it’d be no problem.

Is there no real distinction between angels and demons?

This image should give an idea of what I’m talking about. They both have similar things going on, including fire.

Whenever I think of angels and demons, and heaven and hell, in the Judeo-Christian context, I think of fire and light in the same place, and maybe lava/magma, and other sublimeness. That’s one of the few things with Judeo-Christian mythology I can appreciate, it’s kinda sublime, especially from the point of view of imagery and art. The image above really connects the separate traditional images of the angel and the demon. Actually, to the point that I think they’re the same.

In Christian theological tradition, demons were once angels, beings created to serve God who somehow went against their nature to serve God and rebelled against him, only to be cast out of heaven. Effectively, demons are the same as angels, just that they are against God and are “fallen”. But if we don’t look at from the Bible’s point of view, maybe we reach a different conclusion. To me, angels are the same as demons. They’re the same spirit, but with different allegiances. You might even call back to the Greek concept of demon, or daemon, which I talked about in a previous post.

So the way I see it, angels and demons are really the same kind of being, though on different sides. We just separate them so that we have something to associate with pure good and pure evil, neither of which truly exist in any being. Perhaps the Christian tradition towards these beings was their way of splitting the same being into good and evil, just like their splitting of reality. I might even be a representation of isolating of “animal nature” as opposed to “higher nature”. But really, that’s not really what matters here.

Deconstructing angels

A traditional depiction of an angel, from Angels in America.

The traditional image of an angel is quite recognizable, and quite cliched. They are also depicted as very caring, merciful, compassionate, and innocent beings. We even call very saintly and innocent people, especially children and young girls, “angels”. I’m here to deconstruct two things about angels.

  1. Their common depiction in coventional media.
  2. Their image as such saintly beings.

As you probably know, the image you see above is a conventional depiction of an angel. This depiction originates not from the Bible, or Judeo-Christian sources, but rather the work of Renaissance artists. This was probably done to distinguish them from regular human figures, or to make them more humanlike, and thus more appealing to human eyes than what they actually look like. Though to be fair, regular angels in the Bible did look humanlike, but some of the angels look like things that would make you scream “AHHH! KILL IT! KILL IT!”

cherub

A depiction of the Biblical cherubim.

Other than the Cherubim depicted above, we have Seraphim, which are six-winged burning angels with faces hidden behind the wings, and Ophanim, which are fiery wheels with eyes.

Now, the image of angels being nice and saintly. In Abrahamic lore, they are merely servants of the Abrahamic god. Their benevolent image probably cames from the idea that the Abrahamic god is omni-benevolent. Except that, really he’s not.

Benevolent? All-loving? Really?

We already know that the god of the Bible is quite far from his benevolent image. A god whose plan for humanity endorses genocide, rape, and persecuting those who don’t believe him, and who poses as a highly moral character but is actually a hypocrite. And for some of things he didn’t do in the Bible, he would most likely have had his angels do it for him. And that’s just what they do: serving the god of the Bible, ergo helping him carry out his plans, all of them, including the many less than savory aspects. Therefore I submit that angels are thus nothing more than the heartless enforcers of the will of the god of the Bible, who are for the most part completely subservient (Lucifer being the obvious exception), and unworthy of being compared to the innocence of children.