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 precession 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.

Tauroctony from the Pio Clementino Museum, Vatican City
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:

Mithras emerges from the petra genetrix, from  S. Stefano Rotondo, Rome
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:

Sol Invictus (left, with the solar halo) at a feast with Mithras (right) 
  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.