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Pagan Influences in Christian Culture: The Hidden Legacy By Douglas M. Painter, Photographs By Kelly ReedGo Back to Table of Contents
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Photography by: Kelly Reed

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 Acquinas with logic complimentary 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.

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