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The Pagan Heritage of Humanity [i]


















Perhaps my title is one too strong for our modern palates.  But here in the Breadbasket of America, as the harvest time gives way to the waning of the Solar Year and the celebrations of the birth of a new God, the ancient symbols of Paganism begin to make their yearly appearance throughout my neighborhood, the commercial districts and even my own home.  Of course, these ancient symbols are jealously defended as sacred by mainstream religions, and their practitioners would argue aggressively with me when I submit that:

  1. As they hang their mistletoe, burn their Yule Log or conduct any other Christmas tradition, they are participating in Pagan ritual that began in remote prehistory;

  2. Many of the major events in the lives of our Prophets, such as births, deaths, etc. were assigned calendar dates to coincide with major Pagan Holy Days, and;

  3.  The celebration of our major Holy Days date back to the seasonal events of our primal agricultural societies (planting, harvest, etc.) and our veneration of the Sun as a God and the Solar Year as his life cycle.

First we should reach an understanding of Paganism itself and then examine the influences of Paganism on Zarathushtrianism, Judaism and Christianity.

The term Pagan is Latin in origin and was coined by the (Pagan) Romans to describe those simple country folk who worshipped the Old Gods as opposed to the official Roman ones.  A similar term from Old English is Heathen used to describe the People of the Heath, again, those country folk who worshiped the Old Gods.  Over time these terms came to mean something very different.

In Europe’s Middle Ages, when a resurgence of interest in our Pagan past threatened the Christian Church, the old country gods were demonized by the Church, eventually becoming the very definition of Evil.  The Old God of the forest, the Satyr (known by many other names such as Pan, Cernunos, Robin Goodfellow, etc.) is transformed from a simple symbol of unbridled masculine energy, to become Shaitan himself, or Satan, a Deity of ultimate evil that guides the souls of men to evil.  He is physically described with the exact features of the Satyr; half man, half goat with horns and cloven hooves.  All that was left for the Church to add was a pointed tail and a pitchfork.  Thus we have the first physical description of Satan, who was never described physically in the Torah, the Christian Gospels or the Quran.

Satan is a godform that did not exist in Gathic Zarathushtrianism or early Judaism.  Zarathushtra spoke of Angra Mainyu as a negative force in the Universe but not as a Deity.  The concept of Angra Mainyu as an evil Deity in opposition to Ahura Mazda would creep into Zarathushtrianism in later centuries as a form of Dualism, perhaps even influenced by the Pagan Anthropomorphism of Christianity and Hinduism (more on anthropomorphism later).  This is a reputation that Zarathushtrians have fought against ever since – the view that they belief in two Gods, one of Light and one of Darkness, locked in an eternal struggle for the hearts of men.   The truth in this matter is that Dualism and Anthropomorphism can only be seen as Pagan in nature.

The entity, Shaitan, in early Judaism was merely seen as the Adversary.  Each tribal group had their own titled “Shaitan”.  He was simply a member of the tribe who was selected to play an important part in early Judaic society.  It was his responsibility to argue for the opposition of any major decision, a Devil’s Advocate if you will; they held a position in society somewhat like our modern prosecuting attorneys.

By the time of Mohammad, the Christian Satan had been so sufficiently developed that the god form was fully embraced by Islam.  It is easy to see why so much of Christian and Islamic History is full of violence toward other peoples, when we understand that, to this day, Christian and Islamic faithful see all of life as an eternal war against the forces of the Shaitan, and all “Pagans” as soldiers in His army (“Pagan” having long ago come to mean the same as “Infidel”, anyone who was not Christian or Islamic).

The earliest epochs of our Pagan past were not so threatening or violent as our later reaction to it.  In time, Paganism would become violent and lead to Zarathushtra's revolutionary pronouncements against it, but its beginnings are much more benign.  Let us start there.

Modern Neo-Pagans refer to their religion as the Old Religion and truly it was Mankind’s first understanding of his environment.  Primal Man, as a nomadic tribesman, saw himself not only as a part of Nature but integrally connected to it.  His Gods were Gods of Life and Sustenance.  The Birth of a child, the creation of Life, was the most magical and powerful event in his experience and therefore he venerated those feminine forces that were powerful enough to do it.  The Moon, the Earth and Nature itself were all seen as feminine and to this day we still make reference to “Mother Earth” and “Mother Nature”.  In his Holy Songs, Zarathushtra repeatedly refers to Nature and Creation in the feminine gender.  The most violent event in Primal Man’s life was the hunt and even this, along with the gathering of plant foods, were seen as gifts and blessings of sustenance from the Mother Earth Goddess, as if she suckled us at her own breast.  This is how close Man’s relationship was to Nature, like that of child to mother.  In many ways the reforms of Zarathushtra was a return to this close and gentle relationship with Mother Earth.

The Moon was a particularly powerful symbol of the divine feminine with its three phases symbolizing the three phases of a woman’s life.  The Waxing Moon was representative of the Maiden in preparation for motherhood, the Full Moon was the Mother herself in all her glory, and the Waning Moon was woman in her aging years, at her most powerful as the Wise Matriarch of the tribe and family.  The Moon was so much associated with Woman’s power to create life that her monthly cleansing cycle was called her “Moon Cycle”, the literal meaning of Menstrual.  The fact that a woman’s cycle is 28 days, exactly equal to a full cycle of the Moon, could not have been seen as coincidence by Primal Man.

All of Life was understood to be cyclical in nature.  There was no understanding of true death, for with each death in the tribe there was a birth and the cycle continued.  In fact, the cycle of the tribe and of Nature itself was Immortal and would continue forever.  We still celebrate this rebirth and renewal of Life every year in the Spring, when the Earth is bursting with new life and Nature is in full bloom.  Our Easter and Nowruz (Novruz) Festivals are just two examples of how we still celebrate the Earths regeneration and refreshment.

Anthropology and Pagan tradition tell us that this way of life continued for thousands and thousands of years, but with the advent of animal and plant domestication, everything began to change.  Man began to look to the cycle of the Sun to guide him through his agricultural year and it is from this era that most of our calendars are based, a solar year divided by 13 months (more moon cycles).  This seems benign enough but as agriculture began to turn tribal/nomadic societies into extended/settled societies, the priorities in life also began to change.  What was the most important thing to insure the success and prosperity of an agricultural society?  Land.  And how does a society obtain Land?  They take it from other Peoples.  And how do they do this?  War!!!  In time the birth of a child and human life itself was no longer embraced as Sacred and Divine.  The gentle Gods of Life gave way to the masculine Gods of War and Death.  And how did Warriors appease the Gods of War?  They killed something, human or animal, and spilled its blood on the altar.  The act of killing, in its own right, became holy, a sacrament to the Gods.  What a horrific change this must have been for those who still worshipped in the old ways!  We should here remember what was the first thing that the God of Abraham promises.  Land (Genesis 15).  And the greatest test of Abraham’s faith was to spill the blood of his own son upon the altar (Genesis 22).  Though God ultimately stays the hand of Abraham, the story enlightens us as to the accepted religious practices of the age.  It is into this age that Asho Zarathushtra is born (but let us come back to Zarathushtra a little later).

Between the cycles of War, for those who were not members of the new warrior class, agricultural societies seemed to go on peacefully celebrating the blessings of Nature.  Therefore, some of the Old Gods continued in new forms.  Goddesses of water and Fertility such as Anahita (she had many other names in other cultures) became very important, for what is more important to agriculture than Fertility and a reliable source of Water?  Well, perhaps the light of the Sun, and it was here that the Sun became all-important as a god form.  Seen as the Divine Masculine in union with the Divine Mother in the creation and sustenance of Life, He became our “Father in Heaven” and has been so ever since.   However, the Sun can sometimes be a severe and punishing father as well as a nurturing one.  He became a perfect symbol of the severity of War as well as the Life giver and Guide through the agricultural year.  The Sun became associated with Mithra, the Aryan God of Contracts, for what could be more important in that age of Kings and their entitlements, and what could be more severe than to break an agreement between kings or warriors?  Thus, eventually Mithra becomes Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable Sun, the primary god of Roman Soldiers and Emperors.  This heritage continued for so many hundreds of years that in 325 of the Common Era, the Roman Emperor Constantine, a Mithraic worshiper of Sol Invictus and therefore a Pagan (though he is called Saint Constantine by Christians for having Christianized the empire) decreed that the Christian God would be worshiped on the Day of the Sun, or Sunday as opposed to the Jewish Sabbath, or Saturday.  This is one of the most important of our Pagan traditions as it is practiced by millions of Christians every week.

Our own modern calendars and seasonal celebrations are also based on this veneration of the Sun and His yearly cycle, entwined with the ancient agricultural cycles of planting and harvest.  The Zarathushtrian Gahanbars (Thanksgiving Festivals) are based on these Solar and agricultural cycles of the year.  They are: Nowruz (Novruz), New Year, literally the New Day or First Day (Spring Equinox); Maidyozarem, Mid-Spring (May 1st); Maidyoshahem, Mid-Summer (very near the Summer Solstice); Paitishahem, Harvest (very near the Autumnal Equinox); Ayathrem, No-Travel/the End of caravan season (mid October); and Maidyarem, Mid-Year (very near the Winter Solstice).

There is good evidence that many of the ancient Jewish Festivals, which have long been celebrated in commemoration of biblical events, were originally seasonal festivals, Solar or Lunar in nature.  Examples of this transformation are:  the Feast of the Tabernacles, originally Sukkot, a harvest festival, now associated with the Exodus from Egypt; and Purim, also associated with the Exodus but originally celebrated on the first full moon after the Spring Equinox.

The Solar Year begins at the Winter Solstice with the birth of the Sun God, as the days begin to get longer and the Sun is in its waxing phase.  As the Sun gets stronger, day-by-day, so does the Sun God, the Father God.  He continues to grow stronger until the Summer Solstice when the length of each day, and therefore the power of the Sun God, begins to wane.  At the Winter Solstice the whole cycle begins anew when the Old Solar God dies and a new Solar God is born.  It was the perfect time of year to celebrate the birth of a new God and was declared (again, by Emperor Constantine in C.E. 325) to be the official birthday of Jesus, whose real birth date is nowhere given in the Christian Bible.  Thus, it was the fate of the Christian Prophet and God to be forever entwined with the ancient Aryan God Mithra and his Roman counterpart Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable Sun.  Virtually all of the modern symbols of Christmas, from the decorated tree to the red and green colors and even Santa Claus himself are Pagan and Pre-Roman in origin.  Another remnant of the ancient Solar Deity at this time of year is the image of Old Father Time giving way to the New Year, symbolized by a Baby. 

This is only the beginning of the Pagan year that was embraced by Christianity.  Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the Church began a deliberate program of Christianizing the Pagan festivals of the Sun Cycle in an attempt to win the hearts of Pagans to the new religion, knowing that the country folk would be hard pressed to give up their ancient ways.

 A review of the Christian calendar shows us that the seasonal festivals that were accepted most readily were the intermediary solar events called Minor Sabats by Pagans, the Major Sabats being the major solar events of Equinox and Solstice.  These minor solar events were celebrated at the mid-point between each Equinox and Solstice and it may be that they were more readily accepted as Christian Holy Days because they did not have the Pagan stigma that the major solar events did.  They are:  Imbolg, celebrated by Christians as Candlemas (February 2nd); Betlaine, Christian May Day (May 1st); and Samhaine, Christian All Hollows (the day after All Hallows Eve or Halloween, October 31st). There is one of these minor solar events that is conspicuous by its absence, that being Lughnasadh (August 1st), the Festival of Lugh (pronounced Lu), the Bringer of Enlightenment.  Of course the Church of the Christian Dark Ages could not allow the veneration of a Bringer of Light, not at a time when only the Clergy were allowed to learn how to read and only the Church was allowed to bring Light to the faithful.  By his other name, Lucifer, he would eventually be demonized and fully transformed into the Christian deity of ultimate evil, Satan himself.

This brings us to the most holy of all Christian Holy Days, Easter.  Its origin again goes back to our ancient Pagan festivals of Spring.  Even the name of for this Holy Day (at least among Northern European Peoples) comes from the German Eostara, a

Pre-Christian celebration of fertility and new life.  Two of the time-honored symbols of Christian Easter are the colorfully decorated “Easter Egg”, a very obvious symbol of fertility, and “the Easter Bunny”, the most fertile of all God’s creatures.  Is this not the perfect time of year to celebrate the resurrection or re-birth of a God?

It is important to note here that the two most sacred holy days for Christians take place on major solar events, Christmas (the Winter Solstice) and Easter (the Spring Equinox).

Let us now move to the problem of Anthropomorphism, the practice of assigning to God the characteristics of Man.  The related practice of assigning godhood to Man, Deification, should also be discussed here as being purely Pagan in nature and origin.

It was probably natural for Primal Man, in his attempt to understand the workings of his natural environment, to explain them in the terms most accessible to him, human terms.  It is easy to see why references such as “the Voice of God” or “the Hand of God” became the norm in describing the Creator.  Even Zarathushtra, in the midst of his rebellion against Paganism was unable to avoid this practice, referring several times in the Gathas to the “hand” of Ahura Mazda.  But as the Old Gods of Pre-Gathic times (Mithra, Anahita, Verethregna etc.) crept back into the Aryan pantheon, this natural anthropomorphism would give way to an understanding of the Gods as completely man-like.  This concept of the nature of God would later be inherited by Jews and Christians and become canonized in Holy Scripture, “And God said, ’Let us make Man in our own image and after our own likeness’” (Genesis 1:26).

The Egyptian and later Greek and Roman practice of deifying their kings was also adopted by Christians for their new king, Jesus, descended from the royal bloodline of Jewish Kings (Matthew 1). After the death of Jesus, Paul and the writers of the Gospels began to claim that he was one and the same as the Creator of the Universe.  In fact, the deification of Jesus can be traced back to Ancient Egypt and the Osiris/Horus myth cycle, in which the God is killed in blood sacrifice and three days later, is resurrected as the new King and Creator of all Life.  Other elements in the story of Jesus, such as his virgin birth, come directly from Mesopotamian and Pre-Gathic Aryan Myth.

It has been the tendency of all branches of revealed Monotheism to drastically change the religion from the simple and pure philosophies of their Prophets by adding voluminous codes of conduct and re-assimilating ancient practices that were hard to die.  The 1st through 4th Century blood cult of Christian Martyrdom, the blood lust of the European Inquisition and the suicide blood-cult of modern Islamic terrorists, all in the name of God, can only be seen as a return to the Pagan practice of Blood Sacrifice to the Gods of War. 

Zarathushtra was the first Prophet to understand God as a Being of Light and Wisdom, the Primal Creative Force that emanates to and through all things.  The God of Zarathushtra does not promise Land or Victory in battle, he promises Life and Freedom of Choice, prefect Bliss and Immortality.  Ahura Mazda does not require blood sacrifice, in fact he abhors it as working against the nature of His Perfect Truth, Asha.  Zarathushtra tells us that that Deity is not the private domain of Kings, Priests and Warriors, but that the Light and Wisdom of God resides in all Men and in all Women.

Our Pagan Heritage and the re-introduction of Pagan Symbols and Pagan Gods into the pure philosophies of Monotheism, is not something we should look back upon with pointed fingers and regret.  We should rather see this heritage as another step in our religious evolution, just as Zarathushtra would have seen it, as part of our continuing evolution toward a pure understanding of the Wise Lord and the symbol of God’s Perfect Light.  Then, perhaps, we will recognize the symbols of Sun Worship and Anthropomorphism for what Zarathushtra called them - Pagan Superstitions.

[i] Based on a paper written for meeting a course requirement at Spenta University.