The Winter Solstice: Barbara G. Walker

A Column By Barbara G. Walker

By Barbara G. Walker

From the earliest times, humans have exerted their minds to relate all observable natural phenomena to themselves. Cyclic movements of the heavenly bodies have been considered particularly significant in human terms, and still are, as every astrologer knows. By the late Stone Age people were keeping celestial calendars, as shown by artifacts such as the so-called Venus of Laussel and the great solar-oriented temples like Avebury and Stonehenge.

The winter solstice was always viewed as a dangerous time, because the sun was at its nadir position. People feared that some year it might continue to decline until all the world would go dark and die. They devised rituals of rebirth and renewal, believing that these afforded not just the symbolism but the active magic that would cause the new sun to be born as an infant savior rising in the heavens. By the time of classical antiquity, elaborate religions had grown around this concept. At the end of each winter solstice period, when the light began to grow, all the ancient world celebrated the birth of the solar god from his virgin mother: the god who was called Light of the World, Sun of Righteousness, Savior, Son of God, Good Shepherd, He who rises with healing in his wings, and many similar epithets. Some of his other names were Krishna, Osiris, Orpheus, Heracles, Dionysus, Mithra, Attis, and Adonis (Hebrew Adonai, “the Lord”). The sun who was newborn in the darkest hours of winter was assimilated to all these gods and more. His usual title was Christos or Christ, Greek for “Anointed One.”

In Hellenized Alexandria a newborn baby was displayed and the people gave the ritual cry: “The Virgin has brought forth! The light is growing!” Egypt had long revered the annual birth of the savior Osiris, whose coming was announced by angels, shepherds, and the Three Wise Men, meaning the three stars in the belt of Orion, which point directly to the brightest star in the heavens, Sirius. Its rising signaled the all-important annual flooding of the Nile, bringing salvation from famine. The savior’s body and blood were symbolically eaten as bread and wine, and those who thus assimilated him were said to spend eternity with their Good Shepherd who led them to his Nefer-Nefer land of green pastures and still waters, as specifically stated in Egyptian hymns. He was sometimes called Son of the Sun, or Osiris-Ra, or Sarapis, who became virtually identical with the Judeo-Christian Yahweh around the first centuries B.C.E. and C.E.

Zoroastrian Persia contributed the Messiah (Hebrew Mashiach) to the growing mythos. His Persian name was Mithra, who became enormously popular in Rome, where his temple stood on Vatican Hill until the 6th century C.E. The title of the Mithraic high priest, Pater Patrum, morphed into “pa-pa” or “pope.”

Mithra was born of the usual virgin on December 25th, the “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun,” which Christians adopted in the 4th century C.E., and renamed Christmas. Some said Mithra was the child of an incestuous union between the sun god and his own mother, just as Jesus, who was God, was similarly born of the Mother of God. Mithra’s birth was witnessed by angels, shepherds and the Three Wise Men, known in Persia as Magi, “magicians” or “seers.” Mithra performed miracles of healing, cast out devils, made the blind see and the lame walk, and collected 12 disciples who represented the zodiacal signs surrounding the sun. His followers held their weekly services on Sun-day, and practiced seven sacraments including a communion with wine and bread marked with a cross. Mithra’s death and resurrection took place at the vernal equinox, which was named in Celtic lands after the springtime Goddess Eostre, (Easter), or Astarte. Mithra’s worshipers looked forward to a great battle at the world’s end between spirits of light and spirits of darkness, after which the Messiah would return to earth to render the Last Judgment.

The solstitial myths were not assimilated into the story of Jesus, as given in the synoptic gospels, until the end of the second century C.E. Even the Gospel of Luke barely made it into the canon, winning by only one vote at the Council of Nicea. Since that is the only gospel that contains birth stories copied from the general tradition, without that one vote modern Christmases would have no creche, no star in the east, no virgin mother, no angels or shepherds or Magi, no flight into Egypt nor any Slaughter of the Innocents which derived from the myths of Krishna and Buddha, among others.

In fact, every detail of the Christian mythos was copied from the common fund of solar god-tales known throughout Eurasia for many centuries B.C.E.: the god-begotten solstitial birth from a virgin of royal descent, the Wise Men’s gifts, the baptism, temptation in the wilderness, miracles of healing, multiplying loaves and fishes, turning water into wine, raising the dead, walking on water, preachings and parables, all plagiarized; the anointing into Christ-hood (Christ-ening) by a priestess (Mary of Magdala), the Last Supper with disciples, the equinoctial crucifixion between two others, with scourging, wounding in the side, burial in a new tomb, descent into the underworld, resurrection, and the promise of a glorious return, a Last Judgment, and eternal bliss for believers: all came from the stories of pagan gods and heroes. Scholars have found not one original phrase anywhere in the Gospels that can’t be traced back to an older pre-Christian root.

So, even though there is nothing original in the Christian version of the solar savior, the solstitial festival is still with us, apparently to remain as long as there are still human beings on earth dependent on the life-giving warmth of the sun and able to observe the cycles of the heavens. And as many scholars have noted, it may be that the real power of Christianity lies in the archetypal beauty of its pagan roots. We celebrate the return of the sun and the promise of new life with a new season’s growing warmth, just as our remote ancestors celebrated the prospect of a renewal of sustenance, after the lean winter was over, in their primitive villages a hundred thousand years ago.

Barbara G. Walker is author of the monumental feminist/freethought sourcebookThe Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (1983). Her 20 other books, published by Harper & Row, includeThe Skeptical Feminist. An atheist, she has also specialized in debunking New Age assertions.

Freedom From Religion Foundation