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 and surrounded by Mary and Joseph, in a stable or other wooden structure. 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.

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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 an early Christian tradition, first recorded in the 2nd Century AD . 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 (Fig.2) reflecting the god’s birth in a cave, or, according to some interpretations, from a rock. The latter interpretation suggests that the cave and/or rock was not simply thought of as the location of birth, but as the vessel. This underscores the frequent identification of caves with goddesses, and thereby with divine motherhood, in folklore and mythology.

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 may once have taken 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.

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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 reflects 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 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 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 that he did), 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).

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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 more specifically, 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, recorded in Greek mythology. A ritual involving the tackling of a bull, known 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, whose role and power is implicitly linked with bulls in Minoan art.

The taurokathapsia 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 that the bull is also an avatar of Zeus in Greek mythology, where the deity is thought to be able to assume the form of a bull, and a third link between Mithras and Zeus is established.

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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 version 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 discussed above, caves featured prominently in Minoan cult-activity, with at least two of them having been linked to the nativity of Zeus, himself likely of Minoan origin, since antiquity. It is not far-fetched, therefore, 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 nativity of Christ in Eastern Orthodox tradition is an example of the many ways in which the mythology of Jesus has been adapted to mirror pre-Christian blue-prints.


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