Saturday, December 25, 2010
Happy Birthday, Jesus, Mithras & Invincible Sun!
Despite the different paths our lives took after college, my college roommate and I still exchanged Christmas gifts for several years. She was/is a church-going Lutheran whose Jewish husband converted to Lutheranism before they married. Because they lived in West Palm Beach for a time, and because there are a lot of Jews there, she was able to hook me up with some cool earrings (Sedar plates and menorahs) to augment my holiday earring collection. One year I decided I'd like to have a real menorah and figured she'd be a good person to ask. Our email exchange, though, took a strange turn....
The email thread went something like this:
Me: For Christmas this year, I would like a menorah.
Her: Why? You're not Jewish.
Me: No, but you don't have to be Irish to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. I think there's something of value in most religions, and you know I like to celebrate holidays.
Her: Are you going to go to church on Christmas then?
Me: Well, seeing as how December 25 is really the birthday of Mithras the Sun God, maybe I should just dance naked in the woods.
Her: Where did you hear that crap?
I guess she forgot about the History of Witchcraft class I took our freshman year.
December 25 is highly unlikely to be the birthday of Jesus. I thought everyone knew that. Early Christians didn't really find birthdays noteworthy, and the date Jesus entered this world is nowhere to be found in the Bible. However, scholars think it was most likely to be sometime between the spring and early fall; it has to do with the time of year that shepherds would be out in their fields.
Whether December 25 is the birthday of Mithras, and whether Mithras is the same as the Sun God, are also debatable. However, it is generally accepted as true that the early Catholic church chose December 25 as the date of the celebration of the birth of Jesus because it coincided with the date of an official Roman pagan holiday known as Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun. It was a solstice celebration, and at that time, because they used different calendars back then, December 25 was the winter solstice.
The cult of Mithras was very popular in Ancient Rome, but there may have been several different gods known as the sun god, with celebrations at the winter solstice, and maybe that's why the government made it an official holiday. Initiates to Mithraism were sworn to secrecy, so our knowledge of its beliefs and rituals is limited to accounts from outsiders and to attempts to decipher the inscriptions and art in its excavated "temples," which were usually underground chambers or caves.
Some folks on the interwebs will try to convince you that Mithraism and Christianity are actually the same religion - supposedly because they share commonalities like that Mithras and Jesus both had virgin births in caves with bovine around, were resurrected after three days, and are ritually worshipped with communion. However, this is really stretching it because Mithras sprang from a rock (I guess a rock could be considered a virgin?) and I thought Jesus was born in a manger. At least that's how it looks in my Nativity scene. One of the only things we do know about Mithras, apart from springing from a rock, is that he killed a bull, and I know it's not scientific, but I've never seen a Christmas Nativity in which the baby Jesus slays one of the nearby moo-cows, although that would be pretty cool in an Addams Family kind of way.
Another reason for the confusion surrounding Mithraism is that Mithras may or may not be the same as the Persian god Mitra, who was known as the Truth and the Light and yada yada, a lot of the same stuff you've heard about Jesus. But modern Mithras scholars seem to think that the Mithras of Ancient Rome and the Mitra of Persia are not the same dude after all. There is a theory that Mithras worship centered around astrology and a phenomenon known as the progression of the equinoxes, wherein the equinox falls in a different astrological sign every few thousand years and any god who can knock the whole universe of planets out of whack must be a powerful god indeed. But it gets complicated and I'm not sure it really matters anyway.
The point is, here, yet again, a bunch of religions borrow from one another and muddle things up. December 25 is not Jesus's birthday. It was once an official Roman pagan holiday, but it's not even the solstice anymore. If I wanted to commemorate a Mithraic ritual, I would probably need to slaughter a bull or at least eat a nice juicy steak. I don't know how one properly celebrated the Sol Invictus god, if different, unless maybe it involved watching a sunrise. The dancing around naked in the woods thing didn't seem to be a part of either religion. If that happened, my guess is it woulda been the Druids on the actual solstice (aka Yule).
This solstice, I did go outside in the middle of the night to see the lunar eclipse, but I didn't wait around for the sun to rise. I did harvest mistletoe (revered by the Druids) by climbing onto my husband's shoulders in the sleet and snow. We also performed a purification ritual that we like to do on both the solstices and equinoxes, known as the changing of the Brita and air filters. Unfortunately, none of these activities was performed in the buff. But the Unconquerable Sun is resurrected every 12 months, so there's always next year.