Merry Christmas, Pagans! Blessed Be! and Holy Yoicks! on this, your, Solstice Holiday*.
There. I begin with an outrage. Or perhaps just a smidgen of outrage? I certainly hope there's some outrage, since, as my now temporarily out-of-body husband, the wonderfully outrageous Vivian Stanshall, used to say, "An outrage a day keeps complaisance at bay." (He also said, once he -- and even I -- had pretty much gotten over the shock of his unexpected Viking death: "Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here."
In any case, in the full knowledge that I am addressing a varied assortment of Pagans, I now intend to plunge into a subject that might not seem quite the thing; but please, for the moment, indulge me. Very early Christianity -- that which existed during the first three hundred or so years of the second millennium CE -- is more than a fitting topic, it truly belongs here... for in speaking about the turmoil and confusion of early Christians, I will actually be speaking almost solely of, and about, early Pagan belief.
In the beginning, those very first people who followed the teachings of Jesus Christ were Pagan. Who Jesus actually was is a matter of much debate; that he actually was, is also a matter of debate. But that a religion formed in his name (as a Jew, his name would have been Yehoshua; as a member of a Jewish sect, it would also have been Yehoshua the Nazorean) is a matter of generally accepted fact. But what becomes increasingly evident is that what we now know as Christianity is an off-shoot, even more, it's a travesty, of the birth of a Jewish Pagan Mystery religion called Gnosticism. Gnosis, a Greek word meaning "knowledge," but not any knowledge: "intimate personal knowledge of the divine," lay at the very center of this new Mystery religion, just as it lies at the center of all Mystery religions -- and there were hundreds, if not thousands, of Mystery religions clotting up the world at this time. (Actually, a few are still around...one or two as old as they claim to be, most newly made: patchwork quilts of lost bits, homeless pieces, and oftentimes misunderstood scraps of belief and ritual.) Many early Mystery religions centered round a Godman, and virtually all Mystery religions honored as well The Goddess in one form or the other. Proto-Christianity, beginning as Jewish Gnosticism, was no different in this way than any other Mystery religion.
I think most of you already know -- as almost everyone once knew back in the days before Rome and the Catholic Church spent three hundred violent years changing history, and with it, human consciousness -- that before and during the time of "Christ," there were at least two dozen life-death-rebirth deities throughout the world, some of whom were female, and the most famous of whom today are: Osiris of the Egyptians, Tammuz of the Akkadians (to the horror of Jewish priests, Tammuz was beloved of Jewish women before and during the life of Yehoshua), Atunis of the Etruscans, Adonis (who was born of a virgin in a cave in the sacred grove called Bethlehem), Dionysus of the Greeks, Vishnu of the Indians, Attis of the Phyrgeans, Aeneas of the Romans, Mithras of the Persians, and the sweet shepherd of Sumer, who was the dying god Dumuzi. Even the Celts had a Godman: Cernunnos, the Horn-ed One, the Lord of the Wild Things—your very own Lord of the Hunt.
Not all, but many of these Godmen, were born of a virgin whose name was often Mary, or a form of Mari, Queen of Heaven. They came forth in a cave in the deepest darkest part of the winter (December 25th was the birthday of the Persian Godman Mithras which is why at the First Council of Nicaea this birth-date was given to Jesus, as a way of silencing Mithraism, the only religion to challenge Catholicism for the official blessing of Rome), each Godman was tortured and then brutally slain for our sins, very often hung on a tree or a stake, and was then interred or buried -- but rose again on the third day. All of this goes back, again as I'm sure many here know, to the very earliest observations of the Sun and each of the visible stars, most especially the twelve signs of the Zodiac, the constellation of Orion (then called Osiris), and the brightest star in the sky, Sirius (known as Sopdet in ancient Egypt, meaning Isis of Ten Thousand Names)... for all of this is symbolic of the movement of the Sun, our first God. In Christianity, astronomy is everywhere...not that many seem to notice it. Twelve disciples, twelve loaves, twelve days of Christmas, twelve tribes... as for the Jews, their very Menorah is taken from Babylonian astronomy. The seven candles are the seven stars of the Pleiades.
The Mystery religion I'm discussing here had as its Godman: Jesus Christ -- who in every important way was a copy of Osiris, the Pagan Godman who died each year in The Passion of Osiris so that Egyptians might live. The myth of Jesus was tailored specifically for the Jews by a Jewish philosopher living in Alexandria called Philo Judaeus, as well as by a few of his philosopher friends throughout the range of the Jewish diaspora. The only difference between Osiris and the Christ -- and this difference turned out to be fatal for Pagans—was that Jesus was a Jewish Godman, therefore Philo and his friends felt sure they must also weave in the potent strands of the Jewish Messiah myth in order to "sell" him to the Jews. (Just as Pythagoras, wishing to bring the Passion of Osiris to the Greeks, made a minor Greek god called Dionysus into a Greek Godman.) This meant the Jews expected the Godman/Messiah to come in the flesh. They expected him to arrive as their living King and then to sweep the Romans from Judaea, the Arabic sons of the great Herod from everywhere else, and the lax and unLawful Priests from the Temple... an expectation that suggested to some that what had been a perfectly good, tried-and-true Godman, might be something that had never come before -- a living Godman. Over the course of the next few centuries a smattering of converts to Jesus Christ began to clumsily blend together the Gnostic teacher, Yeshoshua the Nazorean, and the new Jewish Godman/Messiah. And so soon as they accomplished this, they forgot the symbolic meaning of Gnostic teaching, and became preoccupied with the supposed "facts" of Yehoshua's life, which had become densely entwined with the myth of a Godman's "life" and "death."
Here's where things get complicated, only growing more complicated over the years as more and more voices added their clamor to the once symbolic Passion and the once simple Gnostic teachings. And here's where the Gnostics, once without the burden of priests or a hierarchy of Papal Power, and once embracing women and the Goddess, began to splinter and shatter into literalist groups espousing beliefs antithetical to any true Pagan, and to Yehoshua himself.
But to go back one thousand nine hundred and a few dozen years ago, the first scattered groups of what could be called proto-Christians knew their new Godman Jesus Christ was a form of deity already in existence. They knew he was a Godman amongst other Godmen. They knew also that Mary Magdalene was his consort as Isis was the consort of Osiris -- and that she was the Goddess. They did not believe that Jesus Christ was God made flesh. They did not believe he was the only Son of God. They called themselves "Gnostics" because at the heart of this new movement (although in truth a movement as old as time and already ancient in India) was the quest for "gnosis," or divine insight.
This is what Saul of Tarsus (or as the Romans called him: Paul) taught. Although there are fifteen or so letters by Paul in the New Testament, only eight (maybe less) of these letters are authentic. All the rest are forgeries written many years later by early church fathers to claim him for Christianity. But Paul was a Gnostic. He was not an anti-Semite, nor was he a woman hater. These are "qualities" given him later in the forged letters. In truth, he traveled with a woman called Thecla, who baptized and preached at his side. Nowhere in Paul's letters to the various Gnostic groups he was trying to organize, does he mention the "life" of Jesus Christ, for nothing about Jesus interests Paul save his crucifixion. Since Paul's authentic letters were the earliest documents claimed by the Catholic Church as evidence of the historical truth of Jesus, it would seem odd he does not write of Christ's life. It ceases to be odd when you realize that for Paul, whilst Yehoshua the Nazorean may or may not have existed, and may or may not have mattered to him, the "Christ" was the Jewish Godman. Paul's interest was in the suffering and death of the Godman, and that's because the crucifixion is The Passion of Osiris or Dionysus remade for new ears. Ironically, those new ears were supposed by Philo and his friends to be Jewish, but the Jews rejected Philo's new Godman and they rejected Paul and his Jewish/Pagan Gnostic teaching. (To this day, for observant Jews, the Messiah is yet to come.) In despair and anger, he turned to Gentiles. Paul died a disappointed man, and, at the time, a forgotten figure in gnosticism. Doubly ironic, those who did not reject Paul's message of the "Christ," by which he meant divine insight, or enlightenment (for that's what happened to him on the Road to Damascus: he was filled with Christ Consciousness or the GodHead or Buddha or whathaveyou) were simple Gentile peasants, who increasingly took the message "literally." And gradually, over the next few hundred years, it was these non-Jewish literalists who created Christianity by their very insistence on taking what was meant as outer symbol for historical truth.
But they did not create Jesus as the only begotten Son of God. That was the work of the Emperor Constantine and a gathering of Literalist Bishops at the First Counsel of Nicaea in 325 CE. From this came the Nicene Creed, or "the profession of faith." It was here that the central beliefs of Christianity were set down, and virtually none of these beliefs stemmed from the very first Jewish Gnostics, or from the symbolic Godman teachings of Paul, or from the possible earlier teaching of Yehoshua the Nazorean. It was also here that the newly Rome-accepted Catholic Church was granted the use of the Roman army to suppress the Gnostic Pagans who also claimed Jesus Christ as their own -- and by any means necessary. If you've all grown up, as I have, hearing about the terrible tribulations of the early Christians, I am here to state boldly: it was not the literalist Christians who were suppressed so much as it was the literalist Christians, now become the Catholic Church, who tortured and killed the Gnostics, and destroyed their work -- which is why the Western World is not Pagan today, or Gnostic, but Christian. More irony, the four gospels accepted by the Church (out of thousands once extant) are Gnostic gospels (very evident in the Gospel of John which begins with a direct quote from the Egyptian Book of the Dead) and are entirely symbolic. To read them today is to read Pagan teaching if we realize we are not reading history, but symbolism.
Good grief... if the subject of early Pagans versus early Christians is anything at all, it's deeply complex. After seven years of intense research for a novel about Mary Magdalene called "The Secret Magdalene," (which I began in total ignorance, but which I also began without bias, since I was neither -- or so I then thought -- Christian nor Pagan), I know just how complex. I'm still reeling from all I've learned and have yet to learn. But this much I know, and this much I no longer doubt -- Christmas is a pure Pagan holiday. By this, I don't mean that it's based on a Pagan Winter Solstice celebration, and I don't mean that it was "stolen" from Pagans since Christianity hasn't one single thing about it that is original, and I don't mean that it contains within itself countless hidden Pagan references -- although all these things are true. No, I mean a flat-out: Christmas is Pagan. I mean there's nothing "Christian" about it. What I really mean is that not Yehoshua the Nazorean, but Jesus Christ was and remains a Pagan Godman. I mean that Mary Magdalene was and remains his consort, his mother, and the old woman who stood under his cross. She is The Goddess. In the guise of the seemingly separate Mary, Martha, and the Magdalene, she is the Triple Goddess: maiden, mother, crone. (From the Gospel of Philip, discovered amongst the Gnostic codices dug up in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, sometime in1945: "There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary.")
To go deeper -- by its very nature the secret heart of a Mystery religion is unknowable. It is beyond that which can be expressed in words. But it does express itself in sacred symbols and secret rites which confer spiritual and magical benefits. To follow a Gnostic Mystery religion is to travel a path leading to a blessed and beatific understanding.
The highest promise for the exoteric initiates was to share, and therefore to feel, the natural life-death-rebirth cycle as it was evoked through the life-death-rebirth of a Godman, and in some cases, Godwoman. (Persephone of the Greeks is an example of this, as is Innana of the Sumerians.) But the true highest promise, that one given to the esoteric "inner" initiates, was to achieve gnosis, or divine insight. In the tradition of the Buddha, and as Yehoshua the Nazorean taught, this is called enlightenment and is a state of personal rapture allowing the one so blessed to Know the All.
Contrary to popular thought, Enlightenment or gnosis does not make a person "perfect." It does not exalt them above all other people. But it does allow the "enlightened" person, or Gnostic, to Know the All.
What is there to "know"? That we are all One. That we are all Loved. That we are all Eternal -- and we are all Safe. Therefore we do not require "saving" or "redeeming" since we are not lost. This world is not lesser or evil or fallen or failed. There is no male God sitting in judgment over us. We do not have to "behave." There is nothing that is not blessed in Consciousness for all is Experience. We each and every one of us create what we think of as "reality" making us all, by definition, creators. We are all Divine. What could be further from Christian belief?
But as all esoteric members of a Mystery religion understood, divine insight cannot be taught, it is not an understanding of the intellect -- it must be felt. And it must be felt with the whole of the self through the arousal of terror, pity, horror, sorrow, joy. Mel Gibson with his Passion of Christ seems to me and to perhaps many others a misguided soul, but he also seems innately, and without knowing it, to have grasped the deepest intent behind the Passion -- which is to make people feel. In the original Passion, that of Osiris, which took place once a year in front of thousands of devotees, this is exactly what was intended -- for people to feel and to feel deeply. First, pity as Osiris the Godman was tortured, then terror as he was hung up to die in terrible pain, then reverence as he was tenderly taken down by the Triple Goddess and placed in a tomb, and then awe as he rose on the third day... and finally, hopefully, to know gnosis.
Basically, the gospel story of Jesus Christ is a spiritual allegory, Pagan in source, encapsulating a profound philosophy that leads to mythical enlightenment. Therefore, the Jewish Gnostic teacher, Yehoshua the Nazorean, is yours. The Godman, Jesus Christ, is yours. Early Gnosticism is yours.
And with that, I wish you all a very merry Pagan Christmas, and an eternal New Year.
* Holiday = Holy Day = Heli = Sun = all adding up to Day of the Sun. Not to mention that the Holy Land is the land over which the First God Sun rises each day, meaning the East.
Drawing from so many works on this subject, enough to fill an entire library (it certainly fills mine), I offer only four sources:
One: "The Jesus Mysteries" and Two: "Jesus and the Lost Goddess," by Freke & Gandy. Timothy Freke has a degree in philosophy, is the author of more than twenty books, and is an authority on world spirituality. Peter Gandy has an M.A. in classical civilization, specializing in the ancient mystery religions.
Three: Anything by Elaine Pagels.
Four: "The Secret Magdalene," by me. Published by Eio Books.
Ki Longfellow is a novelist (publishing two books under the name Pamela Longfellow before coming to her senses), is the widow of Vivian Stanshall, shining light of England's Bonzo Dog Band, and after a life of theater and film and showboats and travel and gnosis, now lives in Vermont. Mostly. Only God knows what's next -- and She's not saying. Why spoil the surprise?
This essay appeared originally on Witchvox on December 18, 2004.