When Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, it didn’t come without controversy. The Romans saw Christians as hostile heathens who rejected the religion of their ancestors. But many of the customs practiced by early Christians were actually borrowed from the pagans they so despised, all as a means of converting the Pagans to Christianity. Here are the 10 most mind-blowing ways Christianity stole from Paganism!
1) The Number 12
The number 12 has an important place in both Pagan and Christian traditions. Pagans worshipped a number of gods, usually 12, but also 22, 32, or 36 depending on the region. Early Christians paid homage to Jesus’ 12 apostles and even today it is said that he will return to Earth with his 12 disciples. Likewise, early Pagans often built temples in groups of 12, with circular designs like Stonehenge (in England) or The Sanctuary at Corsepius (in Turkey). Today, Christians are encouraged to welcome Jesus into their lives through 12 steps programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. 12 is also considered a good omen because many people believe it has no imperfections.
2) Christmas Trees
Early Christians were called tree worshippers by Romans who noted their custom of decorating Christmas trees during holidays. The first documented use of Christmas trees was in Germany in 1521. The ancient Greeks and Scandinavians also decorated trees to celebrate the Winter Solstice, but it is uncertain if they were using evergreen or just hung ornaments on their trees. Early Pagans would bring evergreen branches into their homes and decorate them to bring light and life into the home during the dreary winter months. It has been suggested that Pagan cults worshipped sacred groves of evergreens, thus giving rise to modern-day Christmas tree traditions, but there is no hard evidence to support these theories.
If you’ve ever partaken in a Communion service, you’re familiar with its origins: Jesus performed his first miracle at a wedding by turning water into wine. (The first documented Communion ritual was practiced in Alexandria and involved bread and wine.) The fish symbol appeared on early Christian tombstones and other artifacts as a nod to Jesus, who stated that he will make you fishers of men. But the reality is that the symbol of the fish finds its roots in Paganism. The Christian symbol of the fish, called the Ichthys, even gets its name from a Pagan God, coincidentally named Ichthys, who was the son of the sea goddess, Atargatis, in Babylonian mythology. Pagans worshipped the symbol of the fish, often drawn by two intersecting crescent moons, as a symbol of fertility, believing it resembled a woman’s womb, thus representing the monthly cycle.
In ancient times, humans used fire as a tool for cooking, keeping warm, and light. In addition to these benefits, fire also had religious significance in many cultures. It was believed that divine forces were responsible for providing fire to humankind and so certain rituals were performed to appease these gods. Fire rituals were performed by Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Hebrews, Incas, Native Americans, and many other cultures around the world. One of these Pagan beliefs is represented in Christmas celebrations where families gather together around a Christmas tree, which has lights adorned on it. Lights that, in ancient times, were actual candles, not the string lights we see today.
5) Easter and Easter Eggs
Pagans and Christians alike observed that eggs were a magical and unique thing: they start out in a lifeless shell and turn into a living, breathing animal over time. It didn’t take long for Pagans to adopt eggs as symbolic of new life, springtime, and transformation, while in Christianity, eggs, and Easter eggs, in particular, symbolize Jesus’ resurrection and emerging from his tomb after three days. Like with many Christian holy days, the holiday known today as Easter got its origins from the Pagan festival of Ostara, a celebration of the Vernal Equinox.
6) The Virgin Birth
Think Mary was the first virgin to give birth to a god, demi-god, or son of God? Think again! Virgin births have been around in mythologies for centuries before Jesus. One of the earliest mythologies of an immaculate conception was that of the Egyptian God Horus, borne of the virgin Isis. Other virgin births prior to Jesus consist of Zoroaster, Mithra (who’s birthday is also written as December 25th), Krishna, and the Tien-Tse (Sons of Heaven) in China, among others.
7) Death and Resurrection
Like the myth of the virgin birth, Jesus’ resurrection cannot be solely (or even primarily) attributed to Christianity. 5000 years before Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Egyptian God, Osiris was killed and resurrected (more than once!). Osiris’ son, Horus, was also killed and resurrected. Moving onto Greek mythology, Adonis, Hermes, Dionysus, and Herakles all died and were resurrected. Other deities who were killed and subsequently resurrected include Tammuz of Babylonian mythology, Zarathustra, Mithra, and Krishna. The latter of which was believed to be crucified as well.
8) Longer Days at Easter
The earliest Christians may have decided to celebrate Easter on a Sunday because it meant they could worship for longer. During some years, Easter would be celebrated on April 21st or 22nd, rather than March 25th—but Christians still kept their firstfruits celebrations by congregating in church. Pagans, on the other hand, held celebrations at night since they thought that’s when spirits were most likely to wander into our world. It’s no wonder that Christians started celebrating Easter sunrise services!
9) Sunday Rest Days
The ancient Romans had a day of rest on Sunday. The ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Persians, and even ancient Jews had a concept of a day of rest. Some have speculated that Christians stole their Sabbath from Pagans, but it’s possible that all religions were taking a page from history.
The Christmas tree tradition can be traced to Pagan practices in Germanic Europe. Heathens decorated fir trees in honor of their god, Thor, around December 24—the same day that early Christians used to celebrate Christ’s birth. But the theft from Paganism goes far deeper than simply Christmas trees. The entire holiday of Christmas – you know, the supposed day of Jesus’ birth? – was stolen from the Germanic celebration of Yule, and the Roman festival of Saturnalia. Though it is widely accepted that Jesus’ birth coincides with Christmas Day, historical texts suggest that Jesus was, instead, born in the Spring, however, in an effort to convert Pagans, who were very attached to their holy days, early Christians adopted Pagan celebrations and renamed them.
Written by Vehemence