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Pagan Influences in Christian Culture

M. Douglas Painter

The belief in a universal language which served as the genesis of many ancient and modern languages is recounted in the Bible in the legend of the Tower of Babel. An unsuccessful attempt to build a tower to heaven resulted in divine retribution for pride and effrontery. This universal language was confounded into a great proliferation of babble and confusion. For modern linguists, the original language was proto-Indo European: a language which, like shards of ancient artefacts strewn across the temporal maelstrom of history, has left numerous vestiges in vocabularies ranging from Western Europe to India. The word for God in the Western tradition, for example, derives from the Pagan religious tradition of the Indo European world. The name for the chief sky-god, diw-os (meaning to shine) became Zeus for the ancient Greeks, and deus in Latin. From deiw-os comes as well dyeu pater (Father and god of the bright sky) which is the root of the Romans chief god Jupiter. Deus becomes Tiu in Germanic dialects (the root of Tuesday). A term used by Teutonic tribes, ghu-tiu (meaning the invoked), later becomes in old German, Got--and in Old English, God.

Just as cultures are connected through time-space through languages, rituals and ideas--so are bodies of thought, religious beliefs and even institutions. The relationship of Christianity to paganism is no exception. In the pre-Christian Roman world, for example, the word 'paganus' had only a secondary religious connotation. It referred to rustic country bumpkins, or village dwellers who did not particularly share in the urbane Roman way of life. The word was associated with the Paganalia which was a rural annual feast. This term for a village or rural resident finally came to mean a civilian, or non-military individual--especially when the Roman legions were in ascendence.

A pagan was simply someone not connected to the army, and who venerated, in all likelihood, household gods and nature deities rather than the more cosmopolitan gods and goddesses officially recognized by the state. Such pagan deities had evolved from even older pre-urbran religious conceptions holding that certain stones, animals, plants, or geologic structure had mysterious powers. In this super-nature, many minerals, animals, or mountains were identified with the divine. Plants were understood to have a kind of divine efficacy in healing, as did places the gods frequented on earth. In religious matters the Roman Empire was rather tolerant of such beliefs, and of the plurality of religions in general.

Despite this multi-cultural approach to religion, the Romans were insistent that the Emperor be venerated, basic laws of civilization upheld (i.e. no cannibalism), meetings were not too boisterous or too furtive (thus giving rise to suspicion of political revolutionary activity) and taxes paid. All this was required for the subjects of the Empire to remain religiously correct, as it were.

Some of these strictures, however, presented certain problems for the Jews and early Christians. The veneration of the emperor was strictly taboo under Mosaic law, and the conception of the ultimate state as founded in a covenant with the God of Israel, which would be restored with the coming of a Messiah, seemed to the Romans potentially seditious. Early Christians were often identified with radical Jewish sects fighting for independence from Roman hegemony--especially after the Jewish wars.

Under a veil of suspicion, the Christian Eucharist was rumored to be a covert cannibalistic feast. To the uninitiated, the transubstantiation of the body and blood of Christ into bread and wine seemed a metaphor for cannibalism, and consequently Christians were intermittently persecuted by officials, or accosted by mobs, for their irreligion. The worship of Christ was rumored to have been the cause of plagues, drought, or some barbarian invasion of the Empire.

Official persecution of Christianity was only occasional, however (the worst period being probably the last half of the first century and the last half of the third). Perhaps because history is written by the winners, these periods of persecution have received a great deal of sympathetic press in subsequent centuries, and are often depicted as a long and continuous struggle of Christianity against an evil Empire.

In this struggle, however, the Christians, despite persecution, were gradually winning. They continued to gain adherents throughout the Empire--in Asia, North Africa, and even among some settled barbarians in Europe. Eventually, Christianity achieved official tolerance with the advent of Emperor Constantine, a convert whose legions fought under the waving standard of the cross at the end of the fourth century. The dominance of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire was achieved in the next century, and the word 'paganus' took on a far more ominous definition.

Paganism came to represent the unbelievers, the heathen cults of polytheism and superstition, as well as the various schools of philosophy that proliferated throughout the Empire. All such sects were persecuted. There were book burnings, the destruction of temples as well as schools of philosophy. At best, the pagan was to be considered non-religious or superstitious; at worst, he was a tool of satanic forces.

The remaining pagans spoke up, warning that the social and political dissolution that they were witnessing in what proved to be the waning years of the Empire was the result of a turning away from the old time religion of their polytheistic forefathers. The Christian response was to reform, convert, absorb or destroy rival belief systems.

Representative of the new strategy of assimilation or destruction of pagan beliefs is an episode that took place around the year 400 C.E. with an imperial order to destroy the main pagan temple: the Marneum. The task was difficult because the structure was quite substantial. It would take an act of divine intervention to bring it down; and this took place in the form of a Greek-speaking peasant boy who informed the Bishop of Graz how the temple could be toppled. This was considered a miracle because it was generally well-known that the boy had previously only spoken Syriac, the oral expression of commoners. Greek was the language of business and higher culture. The boy also had no training in engineering or architecture, so that knowing the structure's weak spots, and how to dismantle it, must have been born of divine revelation.

Rather than miraculous acts of destruction, however, Christians more often simply moved into pagan structures-- having reconsecrated them for Christian usage. This was particularly true as the Church grew and the little houses or complexes that had served for meetings no longer sufficed. New structures that were built were often modeled after pagan prototypes, such as the ecclesiae basilica, and the various memorial shrines built to honor Christian martyrs.

Confronting the beliefs and practices of the heathen masses presented other problems. Textual and rational arguments were rarely the best reproach against superstition, non-Christian miracles, augury, magic, and other forms of supernatural participation. Such practices, without the mediating powers of the now established Church, were deemed to be little more than devil-worship. The Church acted to suppress such beliefs and practices. Over the span of a thousand years, they were to succeed beyond their wildest hopes.

Under the rubric of assimilation of pagan customs, heathens had to be convinced that their rituals for blessing houses, tools, crops etc. would be more effective under the sign of the cross than under pagan prayers, sacrifices, talisman or icons. Certain feast day and procession were often difficult to eradicate because pagans had been celebrating such religious events from time immemorial.

The sanctification of fields in order to allow successful planting, for example, were turned into gatherings to bless the fields under priestly direction. Throwing confetti at modern parades, or rice at weddings, is a replacement for the tossing of grains of wheat and barley in such pagan processions. The Julian Calendar (from Kalendae, or day of the new moon, a day sacred to Juno and the first day of the old Roman calendar) was based on the solar model of the Egyptians, replacing the old lunar model in use until just before the assassination of Julius Caesar. To this day the months of the Christian calendar refer to Roman gods, or Caesars, or simply Roman numbering, and the days of the week remains the names of Germanic gods (only Saturn's Day, or Saturday, remains of the Roman model).

In accord with such assimilation, many believe that the worship of the Madonna in Catholicism had its roots in the veneration of the Goddess Diana from pre-Christian Roman cults. The celebration of Easter, with eggs and bunnies, remains a holdover of former fertility rites celebrating the Pagan Spring. Such adaptions of superficial, crowd-pleasing, rites and pastimes merely suggest how pagan activities are hidden just beneath the surface of Judeo-Christian culture. The capacity for assimilation demonstrates as well a particular genius of destroying former traditions by including, rather than excluding, their rituals and festivities into the greater context of the Christian revelation. Such appropriation of the trappings of other religious systems was not atypical of the advent of Christianity, for after all, Christianity itself had begun as an appropriation of Hebrew writings and religious motifs that were themselves often associated with other religious conceptions.

The idea of monotheism itself had a model, for example, in the failed religious reforms of the Pharaoh Akhenaten who reigned a couple of generations before Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt in Exodus. At that time, God had instructed Moses and the Hebrew to take with them whatever they could use; to literally pillage the Egyptians.

Such pillaging may have preserved many pagan beliefs and rituals. The Judeo-Christian dualistic struggle of the universe as portrayed in the fight between Good and Evil, as well as Light and Darkness, bore similarities to the moral dualism of the Persian Zoroastrian magi; which was also a motif common to Egyptians and Babylonians. Later mystic cults, such as the dualistic Manichaeism and Gnosticism held the same dualistic outlook, and a renewed interest in dualism would show up as a theme in Hebrew mystical sects in the last centuries B.C.E., as well as in Christianity.

The cult of Isis, popular in the Roman Empire in the form of a Hellenized adaption of Egyptian ritual, believed in Isis giving virgin birth to Horus (she was often portrayed suckling the infant), and the resurrection of Osiris, who then became the Judge of sinners. The use of holy water, in turn, was similar to the water from the Nile that was kept in a cistern as a protection against evil.

The passion plays of Christianity had their counterpart in pagan mystery plays, the most famous of which was the Eleusinian mystery cults originating in Attica. The Eleusinian mystery was famed for its celebration of Demeter, the Great Fertility and Corn Goddess, and Persephone, goddess of the underworld--and its mystery promised death/rebirth and the hope of immortality. Many of these cults, no doubt, had a basis in the very ancient cults of the Great Earth Mother which stressed hope in the eternal return of the fertile spring and a rebirth of growth after the death of winter.

Such Hellenized Asiatic and Greek mystery cults were flourishing in the Roman Empire at the time of the rise of Christianity. They were spread by merchants and soldiers and their prevalence shows a very real psychic need and concern for the afterlife at this time in history. One of the most important of these sects was the cult of Mythra.

Mythra was originally an Iranian warrior god who, according to the Avesta (Zoroastrian scripture) assisted the God of supreme Goodness and Light, Ahura-Mazda, in his cosmic battle against the Lord of Evil and Darkness, Ahriman. Somehow the Roman Mythras (not Mythra) gained autonomy from his Iranian roots as worship of him spread across the Greek and Roman worlds.

In the Roman cultic version, Mythras was a sun-god born miraculously in a cave. The miracle pointed to future miraculous accomplishments (not unlike Horus or Jesus). His birthday was celebrated with the kindling of lights just after the winter solstice: namely December 25--a date that was considered as well to be that of the birth of the sun. Early Christian celebrated Jesus' birth on January 6, currently the date of the feast of the Epiphany. January 6, by the way, may have also been a holdover from more ancient rites, as it was considered the date of the birth of Osiris. Christmas was later moved to December 25.

The central motif in Mythraism is hunting and sacrificing the mystic bull in a cave. Important rituals included a sacred meal and a process of purification that included baptism. The symbolic shedding of the bull's blood was for the purpose of purifying the earth and a celebration of Mythras' great deed of slaying the mystic beast and fertilizing Mother Earth. Followers who partook of the bull's body and blood in a sacred meal would receive salvation, for when Mythras had completed his exploits on this earth, he was to ascend into the heavens, returning to Sol Invictus. While on earth, Mythras fought for the cause of Good as virtue, heroism and peacekeeping. His followers, to ensure themselves of eternal life, were to follow his example. They worshipped on the holy day of the Sun (Sunday)--a day on which they were forbidden to work.

Even early Christians recognized the many similarities. In fact, the Emperor Constantine had been an adherent of Mythraism before he became enamored with Christianity. It was readily simple to recast the cosmic battle of Mythras in terms of Good and Evil as the war waged by Christian soldiers. An assimilation of intellectual traditions was accomplished as well. Pagan Stoics and the Neoplatonists held some ideas that were most agreeable to Christian intellectual leaders. The austerity of the Stoic search for virtue, his belief in the universal natural principles of reason as a godlike force directing the universe, and the Stoic turn inward to examine and regulate life's passions--all were compatible with the Christian life of contemplation, prayer and redemption.

The problem was that Stoicism offered no divine sanction for such activity, and no particular reward. The problem was solved by the aligning of Stoic abstinence with the Neoplatonic mysticism. The intent of Neoplatonism was to achieve union with the Agathon, or Plato's ultimate concept of the Good, which underlies all material reality. This was done through contemplation as well as, in the case of Plotinus, realizing the emanations of the Good which resided in all earthly matter. If the Agathon becomes the Judeo-Christian God, and the emanations become the presence of the Holy Spirit, then Stoicism and Neoplatonism are suddenly quite compatible with Christian revelation. A case could even be made that the synthesis of these two philosophic schools formed the foundation for the austere mysticism of medieval monasticism.

The philosophy of Plato proved malleable to Christian interpretation in other forms. His theory that ideas underlie the appearance of matter fit nicely into the conceptions of a Divine reality in heaven--as well as in the mind of God. The Philosopher Kings of the Republic provided an adequate job description for a leader of the Christian Republic, or the Pope. The philosopher king was to be chosen from, and surrounded by, his Gudardians--or Cardinals. Thus Plato's Republic became the basic model for the early political structure of the Roman church.

Aristotle, whose influence made its way West via Spain through Islam, was to be reinterpreted by Aquinas with logic complimen-tary to Christian order and sensibilities. In fact, the Islamic scholar, Averoes, reintroduced Aristotle back into the West via translations made by Jewish scholars in Spain. Acquinas, who remains the official philosopher of the Roman Catholic Church, redeemed the tradition beyond Aristotle's pagan roots, and Averoes' Islamic interpretations, by converting Aristotle's logic into the syllogisms which provided proof of the existence of the Judeo-Christian God.

Thus it was not just people, but whole philosophical schools and religions which were converted. Classical civilization, including such institutions as the models for contemporary government (Democracy and the Roman Republic), science (the respect and refinement for and of reason out of the Platonic and Aristotelian heritage) and even justice (the British common law interpretation of Greek judicial process) are essentially rooted in pagan cultures.

The crowning conversion of pagan rites to Christian order may have taken place in the Renaissance, however, not only in Art and literature, but also in science and mathematics. Pythagoreanism, with its ancient teachings of purification, initiation, communion with spirits and emphasis on the Magus, was revitalized. The great schools of the Pagan philosophers of ancient Attica were reborn, and Neoplatonism becomes the guiding aesthetic of Renaissance artists.

Indeed, the occult traditions revitalized in the Renaissance have survived to our own day through the Rosicrucians of the seventeenth century to the Theosophists movement begun by Madame Blavetsky in the nineteenth. Astrology, which, despite the attempts by both the Church and science to suppress it, survives in our daily newspapers as well as in our 1-900 telephone lines. Theurgy, the invocation of spirits through incantation and trance, survived to become a veritable mania in nineteenth century America and continues today in modern spiritualism. Thus periodically, as there was in the Renaissance, there seems to be pagan revivals and revolt within the worlds of art, philosophy and even popular culture.

This heritage remains true, even as modern anthropologists make us more aware of shamanism and magic amongst primal peoples--and thus remind us of an ancient European past peopled by Teutonic tribes and Celtic Druids. Our attention to a redress of grievances for the inequity of the genders in traditional sexist politics, draws on pagan models for an egalitarian metaphors– particularly the goddess cultures that preceded the rise of classical Greek pagan practices. Our environmentalists, seeking a new paradigm for our understanding of the earth as sacred and in need of our reverence and protection, often invoke images similar to the pagan mysticism of the living Earth Mother, revitalizing animism (the doctrine that all is alive) with new discoveries in the ecological balance of not only of this planet, but of the cosmos. Anthromorphism in physics, and the understanding of any true anthropology, summons up pagan images while our concepts of psychology, in search of a metaphor, draw from the pagan heritage of both myth and archetype. We even name our probes into space after pagan gods.

Christianity in the West, of course, has remained a culture of conversion, with all the power that this word implies: namely, what was once one things is transformed into another. It is also, however--although this is often less acknowledged--a culture of synthesis, in which the conversion of pagan belief systems has left an indelible mark on the Occident; although our debt to pagan culture often goes disguised, repressed or unrecognized.

Indeed, our driving need for a transcendental order which gives purpose, shape and meaning to the everyday rituals of our lives, is often still mitigated in the mysteries of the pagan way, and with that way in synthesis with the elaboration of other beliefs, often comes a revival of energy, mystery and creativity.

Religion at the close of the twentieth century has found that it is best served, perhaps even better understood and completed, if it does not oppose the manifold unique forms and expressions of human understanding which remain the bequest of the destruction of the Tower of Babel. The debates between religion and the formal sciences, for example, have most often become a thing of the past--and indeed, it is many of our greatest scientists who are in fact the most profoundly religious--for through the way of science, a deeper, more mysterious, and fascinatingly complex universe reveals itself--pointing the way, through both empirical knowledge and intuition, toward inevitable metaphysical speculations. The lesson of such assimilation is that we learn more through acceptance than through denial or repression.

Thus let it be with our pagan heritage, for it has in the past--and seemingly continues--to animate, inform and add new dimensions to the manifold interpretations of human experience and intuition. Such acceptance, tolerance and assimilation may provide, finally, an interpretive key to to the many ways of seeing the world that remains, alas, the legacy of the Tower of Babel.