Emerging From the Dark: The Other Nativity of Jesus

…..and its links to pre-Christian south-eastern Europe.

If your experience of Christianity has been shaped mostly by its western branches, you are probably very familiar with scenes depicting the nativity of Christ, swaddled in a manger, surrounded by Mary and Joseph and three wise men, usually in a stable. Orthodox Christianity envisions this scene somewhat differently, preserving a tradition with deep roots in south-eastern European mythology.

While on a recent trip to the island of Crete, I came upon a painting depicting the nativity of Christ in an Orthodox Christian church. The image was striking in that it showed the newborn infant Jesus not in a stable, but in a cave high up on a mountain (Fig.1). The image reflects a tradition that is characteristic of Orthodox Christianity, being shared by the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox tradition, as well as their common ancestor, Byzantine Christianity.

Fig.1: Nativity Scene, Orthodox Cathedral of Chania. Photo by Laes-Histories

Jesus is not the only divine figurehead to have been born in a cave in south-eastern European and near eastern religious narrative. He shares this attribute with the pre-Christian gods Zeus (Greek), Mithras (Greco-Roman), and Tammuz (Babylonian).

The Church of the Nativity (4th century AD) in Bethlehem is built on the site of a cave where Jesus is thought to have been born according to early Christian tradition. The cave is thought to have been a cult-site of Tammuz in pre-Christian times, continuing perhaps into the early Christian period. Similarly, worship of Mithras (consisting of rites referred to as “mysteries” due to their strictly exclusive and secretive nature) took place in cavern-like structures reflecting the god’s cave-birth (Fig.2). Greece’s own pre-Christian Olympian godhead, Zeus, was thought to have been born in a cave on the island of Crete, variously believed to have been the Idaean Cave on Mount Ida (“Cave of the Goddess” and “Mountain of the Goddess” respectively, from Greek dea. Suggesting that worship of the Mother Goddess once took precedence over that of her son), or Psychro Cave (Fig.3) on the island’s Lashiti Plateau. Both caves were important pre-Christian cult-sites, where numerous votive artefacts dating to the pre-Greek Minoan period have been recovered.

Fig.2: Mithraeum at ancient settlement of Ostia, Italy. Photo by By Michelle Touton (Ailurophyle), Public Domain
Entrance to the Cave of Zeus. Crete island, Greece.
Fig.3: Psychro Cave, Crete. Photo by entrechat, istockphoto

It is clear that the Orthodox tradition of Jesus’ birth in a cave represents a direct carry-over of an idea associated with his pre-Christian forebears.

But the parallels between these nativity-stories don’t stop at their shared physical setting. Zeus was not only born in a cave; he was also concealed there by his mother, the goddess Rhea, who sought to hide him from his father, the god Cronos (then ruler of the Titans), who sought to kill the infant because he feared that he would be supplanted by him. Zeus did later supplant him, and became head of the gods. This, of course, sounds familiar. Jesus, too, was hidden by his parents, Mary and Joseph, in an effort to conceal him from King Herod, who sought to have all newborn male children killed because he had been told in a prophecy that one of them would replace him – an infant who would be the new king.

The pattern of a mythological and/or religious figure being concealed in infancy by his mother in order to protect him from the reach of a ruler who sought to kill him for fear of being replaced is repeated also in the story of Moses and the Pharaoh (which pre-dates that of Christ), who had been told in a prophecy that the child would take his place.

Mithras does not appear to have shared this attribute (although considering the secrecy of the cult, it cannot be ruled out), but his cult does feature the element of conflict between two male figures, having at its centre the overcoming of a bull by the young god (Fig.4).

Fig.4: Mithras bull-killing scene. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Photo by CristianChirita [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

This brings me to the second link between Mithras and Zeus, namely the maternity of Zeus and its implications. Zeus’ mother, Rhea, is a pre-Greek goddess, thought by some to be of Minoan (ca. 2600-1100 BC) origin. The Minoan civilisation, of course, was centred on the island of Crete, where Zeus is said to have been born. These two details suggest that the worship of Greek Zeus may have originated in Minoan tradition. The Minoan civilisation is famous for its ubiquitous bull-iconography, and for the story of King Minos and the Minotaur, half bull, half man, contained in Greek mythology. A ritual involving the tackling of a bull, referred to as “bull-leaping” (taurokathapsia) and involving the grasping of a charging bull’s horns (Fig.5), appears to have been central to Minoan ritual and may have formed part of the initiation or consecration of Minoan rulers. This is a striking parallel to the cult of Mithras, which featured the overcoming and sacrifice of a bull by the young Mithras, possibly enacted by a human representative, at its centre. Add to that the fact that the bull was also an avatar of Zeus, and a third link between Mithras and Zeus is established.

Fig.5: Minoan bull-leaping scene. Restored fresco from Palace of Knossos, Crete. Heraklion Archaeological Museum. Photo by Laes-Histories

King Minos of the Minoans is said to have been a son of Zeus in Greek mythology. If the bull of Minoan ritual was a representative of a Minoan ancestor of Zeus, then the tackling of the bull in Minoan iconography – and by association, in Roman Mithraism – may be rather similar in concept to the theme contained in the nativities of Jesus, Zeus, and Moses, all of whom were heralded as young rivals to the sovereignty of rulers (and in Zeus case, specifically his father) whom they were deemed to replace. In the case of Mithras and, possibly, Minoan “kings” such as Minos, the role of the overcoming agent may have been played by a human representative of the young deity. As such, the overcoming of the bull, either symbolically or physically, may have been key to the legitimacy of Minoan priest-kings, who were seen as earthly representatives and “sons” of the deity.

As we have seen, caves featured prominently in Minoan cult-activity, with at least two of these caves having being linked to the nativity of Zeus since antiquity. It is not far-fetched, then, to consider that these sites may have been thought of as the birth-place of an important deity in the Minoan era. The concept of the cave-nativity of a divine figurehead, then, may be traced back to the Bronze Age in south-eastern Europe.

The cave-birth of Christ in Orthodox tradition is another example of the many ways in which the mythology of Jesus has been adapted to mirror pre-Christian blue-prints.

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