Category Archives: Pagans

Xenu Bunnies & Pagan Easter

While I am not a fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s brand of popular science, I can certainly appreciate his good, and no doubt lucrative, works. These works sometimes require him to critique religion, which he does in a such an easygoing and avuncular manner that it barely registers. If the goal is persuasion, this seems a more effective approach than throwing atheist firebombs and telling religionists they are delusional. Gentle corrosion is, over the long term, more effective than aggressive confrontation. Consider this contrast as it applies to cars: oxidation is barely noticeable but will eventually result in disappearance. The aphorism here might be steel to rust and rust to dust. Crashes, on the other hand, just result in cars that limp along or sit in the salvage yard without disappearing. Although deGrasse Tyson has suggested something along these lines to Richard Dawkins, the latter still prefers the thrill of demolition derbies.

There are times, however, when even deGrasse Tyson cannot resist. Consider this response to a question from The Daily Beast:

Interviewer: I’m curious what your take on Scientology is, because the intergalactic story of Xenu does encroach on your territory a bit.

deGrasse Tyson: So, you have people who are certain that a man in a robe transforms a cracker into the literal body of Jesus saying that what goes on in Scientology is crazy?

True though this may be, it is a bit out of character for deGrasse Tyson. What follows at this later point in the interview is more characteristic:

Interviewer: The HBO documentary “Going Clear” essentially argues that Scientology shouldn’t be granted tax-exempt status as a religion.

deGrasse Tyson: But why aren’t they a religion? What is it that makes them [not] a religion and others are religions? If you attend a Seder, there’s an empty chair sitting right there and the door is unlocked because Elijah might walk in. OK. These are educated people who do this. Now, some will say it’s ritual, some will say it could literally happen. But religions, if you analyze them, who is to say that one religion is rational and another isn’t? It looks like the older those thoughts have been around, the likelier it is to be declared a religion. If you’ve been around 1,000 years you’re a religion, and if you’ve been around 100 years, you’re a cult. That’s how people want to divide the kingdom. Religions have edited themselves over the years to fit the times, so I’m not going to sit here and say Scientology is an illegitimate religion and other religions are legitimate religions. They’re all based on belief systems. Look at Mormonism! There are ideas that are as space-exotic within Mormonism as there are within Scientology, and it’s more accepted because it’s a little older than Scientology is, so are we just more accepting of something that’s older?

As the sociologist Rodney Stark often observes in his work on what makes some religions successful and others not, this is only partially correct. It is not just antiquity or age that determines whether a new religion is accepted. While time depth certainly enables selective forgetting and remembering, both of which contribute to mythmaking, the key is that the new religion must be an offshoot of something older: it should build on that which has gone before. If the originators handle things properly, they will construct their religion on an already accepted tradition and then transform it. This is precisely what happened within the Abrahamic line: Judaism begat Christianity which begat Mormonism. Joseph Smith, in stark contrast to L. Ron Hubbard, intuitively understood the need not to start from scratch and craft a religion from whole new cloth, or Xenu scrap paper. This explains why today there are over 6,000,000 Mormons and less than 50,000 Scientologists. It also explains why the former is sometimes called a “sect” and the latter is often labeled a “cult.”

Christianity, for its antiquarian part, is not just or merely an offshoot of Judaism. During the centuries long course of its early development, Christianity assimilated various aspects of Greek philosophy and adopted all manner of pagan rituals. While Saturnalia-Christmas is the most famous example of this (a fact, by the way, which caused the Puritans to ban Christmas celebrations between 1659 and 1681), Easter is in a similar egg basket. Over at The Conversation, Professor Rod Blackhurst observes:

For a start, the word itself, “Easter”, is usually regarded as being derived from Anglo-Saxon forms such as “Estara” or “Ostara” (and cognates) associated with a dawn goddess and common spring festivals celebrated in the British Isles and Northern Europe long before Christianity. According to some, those associations extend back to the Babylonian deity Astarte.

More obviously, the ubiquitous egg given as a gift (or munched as a chocolate indulgence) at Easter is a widely employed fertility symbol that signals the rebirth of vegetation and the end of animal hibernation after the northern hemisphere’s winter. (If you tend backyard chickens, as I do, you’d understand.)

There is certainly nothing Christian about the Easter egg; it is pre-Christian and, more to the point, pagan in its history and its associations. That the Easter festival has pre-Christian, pagan layers of symbolism, therefore, I regard as an incontestable fact, but it seems that even such a “given” can be contested and can upset some people; such is the nature of religion, a field of cherished certainties.

There are many who revel in these sorts of facts and associations because they apparently undermine the alleged originality and purity of Christianity. This is certainly one way of looking at things (and I confess to so looking at them when the argumentative need arises), but there is another way of looking which relates to my earlier point about pragmatism in constructing a religion. Professor Blackhurst explains:

[These pagan elements do not] detract from Christianity – on the contrary, [they] can and should be seen as a part of the accumulated richness of the Christian tradition. When Christianity moved into pagan regions – especially in Europe – it would sometimes adopt the tactic of ruthlessly eradicating the existing religious culture. More often, though, it took the more pragmatic and compassionate approach of absorbing and adapting pagan rites, sites and institutions wherever they were not entirely inimical to the Christian spirit.

Rather than being manically hostile to all things pre-Christian, many of the wisest figures in Christian ideas – St Augustine is a conspicuous example – took the view that the pagan religions had, in their way, prepared the ground for Christ and that Christianity was not so much a replacement for paganism but a fulfilment of it. In this way local pagan deities became Christian saints and Christian churches were built on pagan sacred sites. It was not so much a matter of invasion and eradication as a matter of adoption and conversion.

The same held true for festivals and holy days. Christmas and Easter are obvious instances. Both are cases where Christ has been assimilated to aspects of pre-Christian solar worship and the mythos of the dying and reborn sun that is a guiding reality in the life of any agricultural people.

Christmas was assimilated with Yule and related festivals at mid-winter and Easter was assimilated with festivals celebrating the rebirth of sun in the spring. In doing this Christianity showed itself to be not some new, freakish creed from the Middle-East, but rather the fulfilment of great spiritual traditions extending back to the dawn of history. Appreciating the pagan assimilations of Christianity enriches the Christian tradition; denying them impoverishes it.

To show that Easter or some other aspect of the Christian tradition has pagan or pre-Christian roots only demonstrates the wealth of the tradition. Living traditions are always like that. They soak up what came before them. Buddhism did much the same in its spread through Asia. Even Islam, for all its official hostility to pagan idolatry, soaked up, absorbed and assimilated, much of pre-Islamic Arab customs. The sacred month of Ramadan was celebrated long before Muhammad.

We should not be surprised that this is the case. Religious traditions never enjoy a tabula rasa. They are at their most destructive and self-defeating when they deny all that came before them.

These points are well-taken, though another should be added to Blackhurst’s somewhat celebratory essay. Religions are also destructive when, having assimilated that which came before, they declare an end or closure to the tradition. When they deny or exclude everything that comes after (as nearly all of them do), they tend to get aggressive, destructive, and downright ugly, sort of like Donnie Darko.


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Sky-Sailing to Byzantium

By the magic of flight, I have just sailed the skies to Byzantium and back. It was a wonder-filled sojourn that has had me away for a few weeks, so there is some catching up to do. Before getting back to the blog’s more regular programming, I am going to talk Turkey over the next few posts. In anticipation of the trip, there was reading to be done. This reading began, of course, with William Butler Yeats’ poetic journey to the polis of Byzantium, later known as Constantinople and today known as Istanbul, which Yeats never actually visited:

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

A great deal of interpretive ink has been spilled over Sailing to Byzantium, so I don’t feel any need to spill more. While all readers of the poem will appreciate that Byzantium was richly symbolic for Yeats, perhaps fewer know that Yeats partially explained this symbolism in his esoteric-occult tome, A Vision:

I think if I could be given a month of Antiquity and leave to spend it where I chose, I would spend it in Byzantium a little before Justinian opened St. Sophia [537 c.e.] and closed the Academy of Plato [529 c.e.]. I think I could find in some little wine-shop some philosophical worker in mosaic who could answer all my questions, the supernatural descending nearer to him than to Plotinus even, for the pride of his delicate skill would make what was an instrument of power to princes and clerics, a murderous madness in the mob, show as a lovely flexible presence like that of a perfect human body.

I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic and practical life were one, that architect and artificers — though not, it may be, poets, for language had been the instrument of controversy and must have grown abstract — spoke to the multitude and the few alike. The painter, the mosaic worker, the worker in gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books, were almost impersonal, almost perhaps without the consciousness of individual design, absorbed in their subject matter and that the vision of a whole people. They could copy out of old Gospel books those pictures that seemed as sacred as the text, and yet weave all into a vast design, the work of many that seemed the work of one, that made building, picture, patterns, metal-work of rail and lamp, seem but a single image, and this vision, this proclamation of their invisible master, had the Greek nobility, Satan always the still half divine Serpent, never the horned scarecrow of the didactic Middle Ages.

Given this splendid vision of the ancient city, it’s a small wonder that Yeats did not have his rough beast, in The Second Coming, slouch towards Byzantium rather than Bethlehem. While this would have required some symbolic sleight-of-hand, with Emperor Constantine standing in for the poetic allusion to Christ, as a matter of historical fact such a substitution makes sense. Without Constantine, his conversion, and advocacy, there is no Christianity as we know it today.

Not all of my preparatory reading was so poetic or metaphorical. I had long wanted to peruse Peter Brown’s classic, The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150-750, so this seemed the perfect time. Aside from providing critical context on the development of early Christianity (context which, by the way, has influenced Robin Horton’s theory of religion), Brown’s book rescued Constantinople from Edward Gibbons’ dim assessment of the city as an emblem of decline and fall. While Rome and the western provinces later known as Europe did in fact descend into “dark ages,” Brown observes that things were quite different in the east:

In Byzantium, a classical elite survived. It constantly re-created itself throughout the Middle Ages. Most of our finest manuscripts of the classics were produced in medieval Constantinople. Indeed, if it were not for Byzantine courtiers and bishops of the ninth and tenth centuries onwards, we should know nothing — except from fragments in papyrus — of Plato, Euclid, Sophocles, and Thucydides. The classical Greek culture that we know is the Greek culture that continued to hold the interest of the upper classes of Constantinople throughout the Middle Ages. These men lived in their classical past so naturally that medieval Byzantium never experienced a Renaissance: Byzantines never thought that the classical past had died and so they rarely attempted, self-consciously, to have it “reborn.” (177)

These little known facts had me searching for traces of Hellenism among the Islamic-Ottoman palimpsest of modern Istanbul. Other than some remarkably old columns in Corinthian, Doric, and Ionian styles, the classical traces have mostly been erased, effaced, or overlaid. Brown’s book also alerted me to the possibility that such traces might be found in the provincial east, at Harran, where Hellenistic learning and pagan rituals flourished for a few centuries after they had disappeared even in Constantinople.

Because Harran is near Göbekli Tepe and the latter was on my itinerary, it seemed only right to pay my respects with a visit. While I could not find any traces of Hellenism at Harran, it was well worth the time. History hangs in the air there like no other place I’ve ever been. My site inspection of Göbekli Tepe was naturally awesome and surprisingly informative. There are aspects of the site that have been little noticed or mentioned in the literature. Some of these (which I will discuss in a future post) would seem to confirm the suspicion, summarized here, that Göbekli was residential and agricultural.

Two other books deserve mention for the prospective traveler to Byzantium-Constantinople-Istanbul. The first, Michael Angold’s Byzantium: The Bridge from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, creates the dreadful impression that the city’s main occupation over the centuries was theological controversy. While this is in some sense true, there was much more to Byzantium than arcane and empty disputes over matters of Christian doctrine. This much more is on ample display in the second, Colin Wells’ Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World. While Wells may overstate some small aspects of his case, this is a book which you should read even if you aren’t soon sailing to Byzantium or Istanbul.

But for those who are soon to visit, or are thinking about visiting, this epic piece of cultural analysis parading as sports writing should convince you. Rarely have I encountered a better lede than this from Spencer Hall’s delightful essay, “The Istanbul Derby”:

Come up the steps of this hotel, there’s something you should see while we explain this setup to you. First, there is this soccer game. It takes place in Istanbul, a city of 18 million people founded around two thousand years ago, a city so old it has Viking graffiti in its Muslim mosque which was once a Catholic church built for an emperor. Nothing can happen here that has not already happened, and yet people are very, very excited about a soccer game between Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe, Istanbul’s two oldest and bitterest rivals.

Like Byzantium turned Constantinople turned Istanbul, Hall’s essay is a layer cake of paradox. In the next few posts, I’ll share some additional slices. But in the meantime, here is my main impression: the city has long been about conquest, commerce, and religion (in this particular order, with the latter subserving the former). In its historical aspects, it overwhelms with all three.


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Modern European “Primitives”

At the imaginary margins of “secular-rationalist” Europe there be monsters. In fact, there are so many folk-monsters roaming the countryside that French photographer Charles Freger spent a few years shooting them. They now appear, in all their pagan ritual glory, in the recently published Wilder Mann: The Image of the Savage (2012). The blurb reads:

The rituals are centuries old and celebrate the seasonal cycle, fertility, life, and death. People literally put themselves into the skin of the “savage,” in masquerades that stretch back centuries. By becoming a bear, a goat, a stag, a wild boar, a man of straw, a devil, or a monster with jaws of steel, these people celebrate the cycle of life and seasons. The costumes amaze with their extraordinary diversity and prodigious beauty. Work on this project took leading French photographer Charles Fréger to eighteen European countries in search of the mythological figure of the Wild Man.

Freger’s photos are generating some minor buzz about the “still practiced pagan rituals of Europe.” Over at the Times, James Estrin begins his piece with a progressive paragraph that could have been lifted from any number of cultural evolutionist books from the late 19th century:

Charles Fréger was fascinated by what the human race lost over the millenniums when it evolved from hunter-gather to farmer and, eventually, urban dweller. After learning that there were Europeans who continued ancient pagan rites of celebrating the winter solstice and the beginning of spring, he set out to examine what traditions faded as people became more civilized.

This is a standard modernist trope; the dominant doxa is that we Western moderns have become rational, civilized, and perhaps even scientific. In the primitive and “wild” past things were supposedly much different. This seems doubtful – modes of production and technologies can advance or “progress” without major changes in prevailing modes of thought or worldviews. For most people alive today, including “moderns” in the West, advanced technologies and “primitive” worldviews can (and do) peacefully co-exist. Dominant modes of thought really haven’t changed all that much since we supposedly emerged from the mythopoeic or “primitive” past.

Regardless, Freger’s photographs are arresting and remind me of the European alp demons I covered in this post. Along those same lines, Freger brings us these tree and bough spirits:



It seems only appropriate to append these images with some spruce words from Chapter 10 (“Relics of Tree Worship in Modern Europe”) of James George Frazer’s Golden Bough:

We have now to show that the tree-spirit is often conceived and represented as detached from the tree and clothed in human form, and even as embodied in living men or women. The evidence for this anthropomorphic representation of the tree-spirit is largely to be found in the popular customs of European peasantry.

There is an instructive class of cases in which the tree-spirit is represented simultaneously in vegetable form and in human form, which are set side by side as if for the express purpose of explaining each other. In these cases the human representative of the tree-spirit is sometimes a doll or puppet, sometimes a living person, but whether a puppet or a person, it is placed beside a tree or bough; so that together the person or puppet, and the tree or bough, form a sort of bilingual inscription, the one being, so to speak, a translation of the other. Here, therefore, there is no room left for doubt that the spirit of the tree is actually represented in human form.

Humans are so wonderfully and primitively weird.

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Alp Demons & (Pagan) Folk Beliefs

Before Christianity came to Europe, it was teeming with a dazzling variety of what are usually called “pagan” beliefs and rituals. I’ve never cared much for this characterization because “pagan” doesn’t really tell us anything other than that people weren’t Christian. It was coined by Christians to categorize and derogate the non-Christian other. Paganism in Norway, for instance, was quite different from paganism in Romania. It is also well known that Christianity, despite its institutional dominance and the allegiance of elites, was far less influential in the countryside and among rural folk, many of whom could be called pagan-Christians or Christian-pagans.

In all its myriad forms, paganism persisted throughout Europe and co-existed with Christianity. What eventually came to known as “folk beliefs” inspired James George Frazer, who collected and described them in his magnum opus The Golden Bough. Similar beliefs fired the  imagination of another giant in the field of religious studies, Mircea Eliade, who as a child was so fascinated by the strange rituals of Romanian peasants that he devoted his life to the study of religion.

Were they alive today, Frazer and Eliade would be delighted to learn that many of these beliefs and rituals persist. European folk beliefs have incredible staying power and syncretically mingle with both Christianity and secularism. Fascinating evidence of this comes from Carsten Peter’s new book, Alpen Dämonen (“Demons of the Alps”), which was four years in the making. Spiegel has a nice photo gallery and these comments:

“Peter’s photography book, Alpendämonen, explores 20 different wintertime traditions from the Alps that include gruesome masks, costumed processions and pagan rites. The at times terrifying figures often go by different names, but are most commonly known as Krampus or Perchten, who serve as helpers to Saint Nicholaus. They threaten to punish or even kidnap naughty children when he visits on the evening of Dec. 5, ahead of the Feast of St. Nicholas the following day.

Other monsters are the symbolic expression of driving out winter and its demons to herald warmer seasons to come, and their costumes and processions vary between regions. In the largely German-speaking northern Italian region of South Tyrol, for example, residents of a town stage the Wudeljagd or “Wudel Hunt,” whereby dragon-like figures called Schnappviecher or “snapping animals,” are slaughtered by men in butcher’s outfits during a procession. The butchers represent spring, which triumphs over winter.”

It sounds a bit like Frazer and would have been his sort of thing had he cared to leave the comforts of Cambridge. He preferred simply to read about these and similar rites. Frazer’s work surely would have been affected or altered if had he seen or experienced something like this (photos Carsten Peter/National Geographic Deutschland):

The costumes in these two photos are vaguely reminiscent of those used by peoples of the Northwest Coast:

This one seems to have been inspired by the beaked-stuffed masks that doctors wore during the horrors of the Bubonic plagues:

So where are the wild things? In Austria, of course, assisting with Advent (photo Radecker Pass):

The Spiegel reporter seems surprised that these rituals still exist in Europe and notes their similarity to rituals that might be found in New Guinea, native North America, and the Caribbean. Frazer wouldn’t be surprised by this, as he shared Tylor’s view that the human mind is everywhere the same (“psychic unity”) and gives rise to similar kinds of ideas. Only the historical and social settings differ, which accounts for the variation in types of beliefs and kinds of rituals. Given this fact, neither Tylor nor Frazer saw these folk, pagan, or native rituals as being fundamentally different from those of Christianity, Islam, or any of the so-called world religions. They were right.

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Hitler’s Faith & Nazi Religion

What did the Nazis believe about religion? Simply asking the question suggests some difficulties. “The Nazis” implies a homogenous group with clearly articulated and uniformly held positions. There were of course many different kinds of Nazis who held diverse and changing views on everything. The only common and consistent thread seems to have been racial ideology. When it came to issues other than politics, Nazis weren’t well known for systematic thinking. On the issue of religion, this lack of clarity continues to exorcize historians and pundits.

Just last week, Richard Dawkins debated Cardinal George Pell in another installment of the interminable debates which convince atheists that atheism is best and theists that theism is best. Pell, on par for the theist course, argued that atheism leads to bad things like Hitler and the Nazis. Dawkins responded by observing that Hitler wasn’t an atheist.

This exchange, unenlightening though it was, at least generated useful commentary by an historian familiar with the debates about Nazis and religion. He notes that scholars are of three schools of thought: (1) the Nazis were neo-pagans, (2) Naziism was a political religion, or (3) Nazis were peculiar Christians. Based on everything I’ve read over the years, all three descriptions seem to be correct — they aren’t mutually exclusive. Hitler himself admired the Catholic Church and used it as a model for his own movement.

One thing is clear: Hitler wasn’t an atheist and almost no Nazis were. However idiosyncratic, Hitler clearly had creationist ideas:

Hitler argued for a critical review of the Bible, to discover what sections met an “Aryan” spirit. In these same notes, he took a “biogenetic” history as the main biblical emphasis, arguing that original sin was solely racial degeneration – sin against the blood. He also argued in favour of the notion of a creator, a deity whose work was nature and natural laws, conflating God and nature to the extent that they became one and the same thing. This again came back to race, and meant that he argued in Mein Kampf that one could not avoid the “commands” of “eternal nature” or the “Almighty Creator”: “in that I defend myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”

For theists this sort of thing is best ignored, as is the fact that 99% of Germans were avowed Christians during the Nazi era. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this debate is its relationship to evolution. Aside from mistakenly believing that Nazis were atheists, most theists assume that the Nazis were Darwinian evolutionists. They weren’t.

As Coel Hellier documents in this superb post, Nazi racial ideology was religious, creationist, and opposed to evolution. After an extensive examination of Nazi ideas, Hellier concludes:

The main ideas of Darwinism are that natural selection, operating over lengthy time periods, can cause species to transform into other species, and that all modern mammals descend from a common ancestor. Both of these notions the Nazis explicitly rejected, finding them abhorrent, materialistic notions that would strip man of his soul and of his special status. The Nazis preferred, as do many other religious people, to see man as God’s special creation. It was seeing, in particular, the Aryan race as “God’s handiwork” that led the Nazis to consider it sinful to allow the destruction of the Aryan race by allowing racial inter-marriage, and hence the necessity for removing the possibility by finding a “final solution” to the “Jewish problem.”

Thus nothing in Nazi ideology derives from Darwinism. The few aspects in common were pre-Darwinian; the ideas that originated with Darwin were anathema to and rejected by the Nazis. The widespread blaming of Darwinism as an inspiration for Nazi crimes has no support in historical evidence and instead derives purely from a desire on the part of the religious to smear Darwinism.

The labeling of the Nazis as “atheistic” is similarly motivated and is also the exact opposite of what the evidence says. The Nazi ideology was theistic and religious and an offshoot of Christianity, merging Christianity with Nazi racial theory. It is true that the Nazified Christianity was opposed to more mainstream Christian views, and thus that the Nazis wanted radical reform of the Christian religion, but in no sense was it “atheistic.”

It would be splendid if, before the next debate, the theist representative would read Hellier’s piece and leave the Hitler-Nazi-atheist canard out of it.

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No Bull: The Mithras Cult & Christianity

In his 1880 Hibbert Lecture on the history of early Christianity, Ernest Renan commented: “I sometimes permit myself to say that, if Christianity had not carried the day, Mithraicism would have become the religion of the world.” While it is doubtful that a Persian-influenced mystery cult which appealed primarily to Roman soldiers, officials, and aristocrats might have become a world religion, there is no doubt that the Mystery Cult of Mithras was a potent religious force in the Roman Empire during the first through fourth centuries A.D.

Because Mithraism came to prominence during those centuries when Christianity was in its formative period, comparisons between the two are inevitable. While some claim that Christianity borrowed heavily from Mithraism or was modeled on it, this seems unlikely and arguments to this effect are more polemic than history. The Roman elites devoted to Mithras were quite different from the provincials devoted to Christ, and these differences are reflected in the two religions.

If there is any correspondence between the two, it is one of changing sensibility. To the extent early Christianity was pacifist and loving, it held little appeal for Roman soldiers and aristocrats who valued strength and virility. With its primary icon being the sun god Mithras (who is usually portrayed as slaying a wild bull) and its primary ritual being a communal feast among “brothers,” the cult was well suited to those whose business was war.

Mithras Slaying the Bull

While Constantine’s 4th century A.D. conversion gave Christianity a substantial boost, Roman elites were skeptical and slow to follow. The subsequent adoption of Christianity as the official religion of empire had many consequences, one of which was that it had to serve the interests of empire. Because one of those interests is war, I suspect that at least some of the martial elements of Mithraism were incorporated into Christianity. The mature (and militarized) fruits of this incorporation appeared several centuries later, during the Crusades. The rituals of the Knights Templar and other Christian military orders bear a striking resemblance to the Mithraic rituals so favored by Roman legionnaires.

Whatever the connections, the origins of Mithraism remain (appropriately enough) a mystery. In the late 1800s, the philologist Franz Cumont inaugurated a Mithras origins debate that continues to this day. In “The Mysteries of Mithras: A New Account of Their Genesis,” Roger Beck convincingly argues for an origin in the eastern border province of Commagene. The Kingdom of Commagene was in the right place at the right time and when it was incorporated into the Roman Empire, Commagenian elites would have carried the cult to Rome.

Although the Mithras cult was not present in Rome during the late republic or early empire (circa 49 BCE), several cults worshiped bulls and sacrificed them during rituals. There is a great scene from the HBO/BBC miniseries “Rome” that depicts one such sacrifice in gory detail:

Bull worship and sacrifice is undoubtedly much older and may go back several thousands of years to late Neolithic hunter-gatherers and probably was present in the earliest Neolithic communities such as Catal Hoyuk. The Mithraic adoption of bull symbolism was in all likelihood an homage of sorts to the distant past.


Beck, R. (1998). The Mysteries of Mithras: A New Account of Their Genesis The Journal of Roman Studies, 88 DOI: 10.2307/300807

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Religious Evolution: Sami Sticks & Phoenician Stones

Unlike living organisms, cultural formations do not “evolve.” Evolution, sensu stricto, is a biological process and not a cultural one. Despite this fact, some scholars have fruitfully deployed evolutionary ideas — as analogy and metaphor — to analyze cultural history.

In 1964 the sociologist Robert Bellah did just this in his classic paper, Religious Evolution. Taking as his premise Eric Voegelin‘s idea that cultural history describes an arc that moves from “compact” to “differentiated” symbol systems over time, Bellah posits five stages in the history of religions: (1) Primitive, (2) Archaic, (3) Historic, (4) Early Modern, and (5) Modern. The kinds of religions that Bellah associates with each of these stages deserves a post of its own, but for our purposes the important points are that “Primitive” is shamanic, “Archaic” is diffuse cult polytheism, and “Historic-Modern” is textual and systematized. Most religions today are of the latter variety.

Despite cursory appearances, Bellah’s typology is neither progressive nor normative. As Bellah is at pains to emphasize, his is not a unilinear evolutionary model:

Of course the scheme itself is not intended as an adequate description of historical reality. Particular lines of religious development cannot simply be forced into the terms of the scheme. In reality there may be compromise formations involving elements from two stages which I have for theoretical reasons discriminated; earlier stages may, as I have already suggested, strikingly foreshadow later developments; and more developed may regress to less developed stages.

And of course no stage is ever completely abandoned; all earlier stages continue to coexist with and often within later ones. So what I shall present is not intended as a procrustean bed into which the facts of history are to be forced but a theoretical construction against which historical facts may be illuminated.

Because history is continuous and no stage is ever completely abandoned — each is incorporated into subsequent stages, we can find elements or traces of “Primitive” (i.e., earliest) religions in “Modern” (contemporary) religions. In concrete terms, this means that “modern” religions such as Christianity and Islam contain within them ideas and concepts characteristic of “primitive” religions, otherwise known as shamanisms. Shamanic beliefs and practices constitute the earliest forms of supernaturalism and prefigure all modern religions.

I was recently reminded of Bellah’s typology while reading about Sami shamanism and Phoenician polytheism. The Sami are (or were) hunter-gatherers living in the boreal forest areas of northern Scandinavia and Russia. They were known to the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote about them in 98 AD. At some point, the reindeer hunting Sami domesticated the animal and many became pastoralists. They interacted extensively with the Vikings, and were subjected to aggressive Christian colonizing beginning in the 1500s. Although their traditional ways of life had largely been destroyed by the late nineteenth century, there are numerous accounts of Sami beliefs and practices. In Bellah’s scheme, these would be characterized as “Primitive” or shamanic.

The Phoenicians were a trading and seafaring people who occupied the coastal areas of present day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and North Africa (Carthage). Organized into city-states which at times were in alliance and others in conflict, the Phoenicians dominated much of the Mediterranean from 1200 to 500 BC. Carthage persisted until 146 BC, when it was destroyed by the Romans in the final Punic War. Although it is unclear whether Phoenicians considered themselves to be a distinct ethnic group, they spoke a common language and developed the first phonetic alphabet. They interacted extensively with all Mediterranean peoples, prominently including the Greeks. In Bellah’s scheme, their religion would be characterized as Archaic (cult polytheism).

In “Varro Muorra: The Landscape Significance of Sami Sacred Wooden Objects and Sacrificial Altars,” Ingela Bergman and colleagues provide an introduction to the Sami, who believed that all things — animals and landscapes in particular — were imbued with spirits or spiritual power. Although the authors characterize this as “animism,” it is actually a kind of pantheism coupled with beliefs in a variety of major and minor spirits. This is precisely the sort of thing we would expect to find among people who are nomadic hunter-gatherers, and is in fact characteristic of such peoples across time and space.

What is unusual, however, about Sami supernaturalism is their intensive use of varro muorra, a concept that exclusively denotes sacred wooden objects. These objects included scaffolds that functioned as offering platforms and carvings that represented or contained spirits. While other hunter-gatherers are known for using wooden scaffolds (usually for mortuary purposes) and wooden objects (in medicine bundles), widespread and intensive usage of these items is uncommon in shamanic practice. It certainly makes one wonder whether earlier contact with Norse pagans and later interaction with Scandinavian Christians influenced Sami ritualism. It also demonstrates Bellah’s observation that a particular religion may be “compromise formations involving elements from two stages,” which in this instance would be Primitive (shamanism) and Archaic (cult ritualism).

Another example of mixed element religious practice comes from “Phoenician Cult Stones,” an article published by Eugene Stockton in 1974. Before surveying the many instances of Phoenician temples and cult stones proper, Stockton observes that sacred rocks belong to a “primitive substratum” of religion; indeed, unusually shaped rocks have long been a part of sacred shamanic landscapes and forager medicine bundles. Such rocks were often considered to be the residing place of ancient spirits. More recently but still before Phoenician times, incipient and early agriculturalists erected megalithic structures for ritual purposes. This appears to be a vestigial practice carried over from shamanic formations.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Phoenicians (and the Greeks) venerated stones, often erecting them in temples and other ritual spaces. Once in place and properly dedicated, the stones could either harbor deities or represent them. This is a practice with a deep history, one that manifests itself even in “Modern” religions. One need look no further than the ritual foci of Islam — the sacred Black Stone, embedded in the holy granite cube known as the Kaaba — to see this is the case. Indeed, the Black Stone most likely pre-dates Islam and was revered by nomadic Arabian pagans.

Where does all this leave us? First, it shows that Bellah’s stages are a useful heuristic for illuminating unsuspected or unnoticed connections between seemingly disparate religions. Second, it demonstrates that religious history is multilinear and diffusion works in two directions: from the “Primitive” to the “Modern” and vice versa. Finally, it attests to the fact that no religion is sui generis: all have a history and none stands alone.


Bellah, R. (1964). Religious Evolution American Sociological Review, 29 (3) DOI: 10.2307/2091480

Bergman, I., Ostlund, L., Zackrisson, O., & Liedgren, L. (2008). Varro Muorra: The Landscape Significance of Sami Sacred Wooden Objects and Sacrificial Altars Ethnohistory, 55 (1), 1-28 DOI: 10.1215/00141801-2007-044

Stockton, Eugene D. (1974). Phoenician Cult Stones Australian Journal of Biblical Archaeology, 2.3, 1-27

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