Hope of Israel Ministries (Ecclesia of YEHOVAH):
The Ancient Beginnings of the Virgin Birth Myth
From about 80 A.D. to the present time, most Christian faith groups have taught that Yeshua of Nazareth (Jesus Christ) was conceived and born by his mother Mary, while she was still a virgin. They believe that this happened by the action of the holy spirit, without an act of sexual intercourse. However, the Virgin Birth story was not new when the Messiah was born. Mythology is full of such stories. An Egyptian Virgin Birth story, told about 2,000 years before the Messiah, had many details identical with those found in the Gospel accounts. What is the TRUTH?
John D. Keyser
Roman Catholicism has taught the doctrine of perpetual virginity -- that Mary lived, gave birth to the Messiah, and remained a virgin throughout her entire life.
Islam also teaches that Mary was a virgin when she conceived the Messiah.
Some of the early leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- by far the largest of the Mormon denominations -- taught that YEHOVAH God has a physical body, and that He came down to earth, engaged in sexual intercourse with Mary, and conceived the Messiah. However, this was never made an official church teaching and is rarely heard of today, with the exception of statements by anti-Mormon groups who often claim that YEHOVAH God engaging in sexual intercourse with Mary is current LDS Church teaching.
The Anglican Communion, Eastern Orthodoxy, Protestantism and Roman Catholicism have taught the "virgin birth," although the term "virgin conception" would be much more accurate. This has long been one of mainstream Christianity's foundational beliefs, along with the inerrancy of the Bible; YEHOVAH God's inspiration of the authors of the Bible; the atonement, resurrection, and the anticipated second coming of the Messiah, etc. All of the commonly used major ancient church creeds have also mentioned the virgin birth.
However, there is an incompatibility between belief in the virgin birth and the messiahship of Yeshua:
1) The virgin birth implies that the actual father of Yeshua was the holy spirit.
2) Numerous places in the Hebrew Scriptures state that the coming messiah was to be of the House of David.
1) If Yeshua is the Messiah, then he could not have been born of a virgin; he would have had to have a father who was of the House of David, and
2) If Yeshua was born of a virgin, then he could not have been the messiah, because his father -- the holy spirit -- was not a human descendent of the House of David.
Most modern educated theologians have generally rejected the virgin birth. They regard it as a religious myth that was added to Christian belief in the late first century A.D. and was triggered by a Greek mistranslation of the book of Isaiah from the original Hebrew. Its purpose was to make Christianity more competitive with contemporary pagan religions in the Mediterranean region, most of whom featured their founder having been born of a virgin. Without the claim of a virgin birth, many believe it to be unclear whether "Christianity" could have survived.
Various polls have found that about 80% of American adults believe in the virgin birth of the Messiah. This exceeds the total number of American adults who identify themselves as Christian or Muslim. In fact, 47% of non-Christian adults also believe in the virgin birth.
Conflicting Quotations Showing the Diversity of Beliefs About the Virgin Birth
"The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter" (Thomas Jefferson, 1823).
"There can be no doubt as to the Church's teaching and as to the existence of an early Christian tradition maintaining the perpetual virginity of our Blessed Lady and consequently the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. The mystery of the virginal conception is furthermore taught by the third Gospel and confirmed by the first" (Catholic Encyclopedia).
"Larry King, the CNN talk show host, was once asked who he would most want to interview if he could choose anyone from all of history. He said, 'Jesus Christ.' The questioner said, 'And what would you like to ask Him?' King replied, 'I would like to ask Him if He was indeed virgin-born. The answer to that question would define history for me'." (From Just Thinking, RZIM, Winter 1998. Cited by ChristianAnswers.net).
"Although the virgin birth cannot be understood as a historical-biological event, it can be regarded as a meaningful symbol at least for that time" (Hans Kung, On Being a Christian).
"Matthew's Gospel was written in about AD 80-90 for Christians who were not of Jewish provenance -- that is, Gentiles who had no knowledge of Isaiah's original Hebrew. For them, the passage announced, unambiguously, the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy: the miraculous birth of a divine being. But the prophet himself and readers of his original Hebrew sentence regarded it as a quite specific allusion to the historical circumstances of Isaiah's age -- and would have found its mutation in Greek into one of the foundations of Christian doctrine quite baffling" (Geza Vermes, discussing Isaiah 7:14).
"The virgin birth of Jesus Christ is the root from which everything the New Testament says about him grows....Both Luke and Matthew state it up front as a fact, which they are convinced explains the unusual nature of the man, Jesus, and the amazing things he said and did" (R.C. Girard & Larry Richards, The Life of Christ).
"The virgin birth is an underlying assumption of everything the Bible says about Jesus. To throw out the virgin birth is to reject Christ's deity, the accuracy and authority of Scripture, and a host of other related doctrines that are the heart of the Christian faith. No issue is more important than the virgin birth to our understanding of who Jesus is. If we deny Jesus is God, we have denied the very essence of Christianity" (John F. MacArthur, Jr. cited in The Life of Christ).
In light of the above quotations, What is the TRUTH about the Virgin Birth controversy?
Other Stories of Virgin Births
It may be thought that the story of a virgin birth is too wonderful to have been invented merely to show that a misunderstood prophecy had been fulfilled, and that so miraculous a doctrine could not, without some basis of fact, suddenly be created by any mind, however fertile. But a study of ancient literature discloses the fact that myths of virgin births were part of many -- if not all -- of the surrounding pagan religions in the place where, and at the time when, Christianity arose.
"The gods have lived on earth in the likeness of men" was a common saying among ancient pagans, and supernatural events were believed in as explanations of the god's arrival upon earth in human guise.
The Egyptian Myths
About two thousand years before the Christian era Mut-em-ua, the virgin Queen of Egypt, was said to have given birth to the Pharaoh Amenkept (or Amenophis) III, who built the temple of Luxor, on the walls of which were represented:
1) The Annunciation: the god Taht announcing to the virgin Queen that she is about to become a mother.
2) The Immaculate Conception: the god Kneph (the holy spirit) mystically impregnating the virgin by holding a cross, the symbol of life, to her mouth.
3) The Birth of the Man-god.
4) The Adoration of the newly born infant by gods and men, including three kings (or Magi?), who are offering him gifts. In this sculpture the cross again appears as a symbol.
In another Egyptian temple, one dedicated to Hathor, at Denderah, one of the chambers was called "The Hall of the Child in his Cradle"; and in a painting which was once on the walls of that temple, and is now in Paris, we can see represented the Holy Virgin Mother with her Divine Child in her arms. The temple and the painting are undoubtedly pre-Christian.
Therefore, we find that long before the Christian era there were already pictured -- in pagan places of worship -- virgin mothers and their divine children, and that such pictures included scenes of an Annunciation, an Incarnation, and a Birth and Adoration, just as the Gospels written in the second century A.D. describe them, and that these events were in some way connected with the God Taht, who was identified by Gnostics with the Logos.
And, besides these myths about Mut-em-ua and Hathor, many other origins of a virgin birth story can be traced in Egypt.
Another Egyptian god, Ra (the Sun), was said to have been born of a virgin mother, Net (or Neith), and to have had no father.
Horus was said to be the parthenogenetic child of the Virgin Mother, Isis. In the catacombs of Rome black statues of this Egyptian divine Mother and Infant still survive from the early Christian worship of the Virgin and Child to which they were converted. In these the Virgin Mary is represented as a black negress, and often with the face veiled in the true Isis fashion. When Christianity absorbed the pagan myths and rites it also adopted the pagan statues, and renamed them as saints, or even as apostles.
Statues of the goddess Isis with the child Horus in her arms were common in Egypt, and were exported to all neighboring and to many remote countries, where they are still to be found with new names attached to them -- Christian (Roman Catholicism) in Europe, Buddhist in Turkestan, Taoist in China and Japan. Figures of the virgin Isis do duty as representations of Mary, of Hariti, of Kuan-Yin, of Kwannon, and of other virgin mothers of gods.
And these were not the only pre-Christian statuettes and engravings of divine mothers and children. Such figures were stamped on very ancient Athenian coins. Among the oldest relics of Carthage, of Cyprus, and of Assyria figures of a divine mother and her babe-god are found. Such figures were known under a great variety of names to the followers of various sects; the mothers as Venus, Juno, Mother-Earth, Fortune, etc., and the children as Hercules, Dionysos, Jove, Wealth, etc. In India similar figures are not uncommon, many of them representing Devaki with the babe Krishna at her breast, others representing various less well-known Indian divinities.
It is difficult to assign the exact position in the divine hierarchy which polytheists believed their various gods to occupy. Their beliefs probably differed, and were certainly vague. The better-educated classes were -- without a doubt -- inclined to be skeptical then, as at all times, and to regard all these stories of different manifestations of divinity as more or less allegorical or symbolic. And, when they were not skeptical, their minds became so entangled in the complexities of metaphysical speculation that the stories they told grew very confused. On the other hand, the ignorant classes, both rich and poor, certainly believed in the most miraculous explanations of the pantheon which the priests could invent. By such people, the more improbable the alleged fact, the better they liked it.
The Sacred Bull
In Egypt we also find that Apis -- the sacred bull of Memphis and a god of the ancient Egyptian Pantheon -- was believed to have been begotten by a deity descending as a ray of moonlight on the cow which was to become the mother of the sacred beast. As a result he was regarded as the son of the god.
This miracle was said to be constantly repeated.
An Apis -- according to Plutarch and the ancient Mathematici -- was conceived every time a cow "in season" happened to be struck by a beam of light from the moon.
The Mathematici, of course, realized that the light of the moon was really the reflection of the light of the sun, and they therefore believed that the moon received her male generative power as proxy for the sun, the creator of all things.
Apis, the living calf, was regarded as a re-incarnation of Osiris -- or at any rate as an emblem of the spirit or soul of Osiris. He is occasionally represented as a man with the head of a bull.
It is more than likely that the story of the rape of Europa by Jove (in the guise of a bull) originated in this myth of a cow impregnated by a ray from the moon. The idea of a god incarnate in a bull easily gave rise to variants of this kind.
Notes Insight On the Scriptures --
"Shortly after the Exodus, even the Israelites, likely because of being contaminated by the religious concepts with which they became acquainted while in Egypt, exchanged Jehovah's glory for "a representation of a bull." (Ps. 106:19, 20) Later, the first king of the ten-tribe kingdom, Jeroboam, set up a calf worship at Dan and Bethel. (1Ki 12:28, 29) Of course, according to God's law to Israel, no veneration whatsoever, not even in a representative way, was to be given to the bull or any other animal. -- Ex 20:4, 5; compare Ex 32:8" (Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc. 1988, Vol. 1, p. 374).
Perhaps the most curious and best known variant of the bull-lover theme is the story about Pasiphae, the wife of Minos. She was said to have developed a violent passion for the bull which Poseidon (Neptune) had sent to her husband. So, with the aid of an artist named Daedalus, she disguised herself as a cow and resorted to the meadow in which the bull grazed. The fruit of her union with the bull was the celebrated Minotaur, partly human, partly bovine, which Minos shut up in the Labyrinth. The ancient superstition that monsters have been born from the union of human beings and animals survived until quite recently -- and probably still exists among the uneducated and semi-educated. Exact, or comparatively exact, knowledge of the possibilities of hybridization is a science of quite recent growth.
It should be noted that the Minotaur was named after the husband of his mother, as well as after his real father the Tauros. That is a peculiarity of many of these stories.
Virgin Births in Other Countries
In many other countries besides Egypt similar stories of the virgin birth of gods were told.
Attis, the Phrygian god, was said
to be the son of the virgin Nana, who conceived him by putting a ripe almond or
pomegranate in her bosom.
The Grecian God Dionysos was said -- in one version of the myth concerning him -- to be the son of Zeus out of the virgin goddess Persephone. In another version he was said to be the miraculously begotten son of Zeus out of the mortal woman Semele. According to this story he was taken from his mother's womb before the full period of gestation had expired, and completed his embryonic life in Zeus's thigh. As a result, Dionysos was considered to be half human and half divine -- born of a woman and also of a god.
His myth, which was current long before the Christian era, is a remarkable example of the kind of story which could be, and was, invented about a man-god. He was said to have been persecuted by Pentheus, King of Thebes (the home of his mother); to have been rejected in his own country; and, when bound, to have asserted that his father, God, would set him free whenever he chose to appeal to him. He disappears from earth, but re-appears as a light shining more brightly than the sun, and speaks to his trembling disciples; and he subsequently visits Hades. The story of his birth is alluded to, and the story of his persecution related, in The Bacchae, which Euripides wrote about 410 B.C. when the myth was already very old and very well known.
Jason, who was slain by Zeus, was said to have been another son of the virgin Persephone, and to have had no father, either human or divine.
Perseus was also said to have been born of a virgin; and it is this story which Justin Martyr -- the second-century Christian "Father of the Church" -- stigmatizes as an invention of the Devil, who, knowing that the Messiah would subsequently be born of a virgin, counterfeited the miracle before it really took place.
The "Fathers of the Church" frequently gave this explanation of the numerous pre-Christian virgin birth stories to which their rivals tauntingly referred.
Adonis, the Syrian god; Osiris, the first person of the principal Egyptian Trinity; and Mithra, the Persian god whom so many of the Roman soldiers worshipped -- all had strange tales told about their births.
At the time when Christianity arose all these gods were worshipped in various parts of the Roman empire.
Attis, Adonis, Dionysos, Osiris, and Mithra were the principal gods in their respective countries; and those countries together formed the greater part of the Eastern provinces of the Roman empire, and of its great rival, the Persian empire.
Virgin Births in Classical Mythology
Classical mythology is full of similar stories, and the idea of a virgin birth was familiar to all men of that time.
Of Plato it was related that his mother Perictione was a virgin who conceived him immaculately by the god Apollo. Apollo himself revealed the circumstances of this conception to Ariston, the betrothed husband of the virgin.
Virginity, perhaps on account of its rarity in those days among women of a marriageable age, had always a halo of sanctity cast over it by barbaric and semi-civilized tribes. Even in civilized Rome itself the Vestal Virgins were looked upon as peculiarly sacred.
Strangely, this reverence for virginity seems to have sometimes been contemporaneous with the institution of religious prostitution on a large scale. There is, indeed, no reason why this should not have been the case, incongruous though it seems to us, as such religious prostitution was looked upon very differently from the way in which it would now be regarded.
Originally it was an institution designed to bring fertility to the fields by sympathetic magic. The sacrifice of chastity in the service of the goddess was an act of devotion -- not an act of licentiousness. When studying these customs we must remember that we are dealing with men and women brought up in an entirely different psychological climate from our own. A veneration for chastity was with them not incompatible with periodic orgies, nor with places set aside for sacred prostitution or asceticism. Such prostitution was regarded as an alternative way of making a sacrifice for the public good.
It is likely that an historian of the future may well find it difficult to reconcile our own professions and our own practice in similar matters, and will be confused by the protestations of virtuous horror which he reads alongside of accounts given by the same authors of conspicuous lapses from virtue.
The conventions of romance are not always the same as the customs of the people. They reflect the theory rather than the practice. Extremes are always more conspicuous than the mean.
An old story about the children of AEgyptus and of Danaus is a myth that curiously illustrates this same reverence felt for virginity by the ancients in romance rather than in reality.
The former had fifty sons; the latter fifty daughters. The former ruled over Arabia; the latter over Libya. They quarreled over the kingdom of Egypt which AEgyptus had conquered, and when AEgyptus tried to patch up the quarrel by sending his sons to marry the daughters of Danaus the latter pretended to consent, but provided his daughters with daggers and with instructions how to use them. On their wedding night all the daughters of Danaus, save one, murdered their husbands in their sleep. Hypermnestra spared her husband Lynceus because he had respected her virginity, and not availed himself of his marital privileges.
So Lynceus survived the slaughter of his brethren, and lived happily ever after with Hypermnestra, by whom he had at least one son.
The Curious Veneration for Virginity
It is not possible here to discuss at length the origin and history of the curious veneration for virginity which was current at this period. However, it is of interest to note that the belief that some occult power was attached to the state of virginity survived even up to the Middle Ages of our era.
For example, it was thought that virgins were peculiarly efficient as bait for Unicorns. The Unicorn, or rather his congener the Monoceros, was evidently a fastidious beast that could only be attracted by a virgin. On finding one tied up in the forest as a lure he was enticed to kiss her, and then to fall asleep on her breast. Whereupon the brave hunter came up and slew him in his sleep. If the young woman was not really a virgin, the Monoceros immediately killed her and disappeared before the hunter arrived.
This method of hunting the Monoceros is described in the Bestiary of Philip de Thaun, written in the twelfth century, and is but one of the many strange facts alleged by authors of that period in support of the theory that virginity had special virtues when dealing with animals, with demons, and with human beings.
It was a semi-romantic, semi-religious halo that was cast over this particular physical condition.
To the Vestal Virgins in Rome were attributed the faculty of prophesying and many sacred virtues. All virgins were immune from death at the hand of the executioner, and the Vestals enjoyed many other privileges so long as they preserved their chastity.
The same idea is found in the histories of miraculous virgins that are so numerous in the mythologies of Asia. Such, for example, was the Chinese legend that tells how, when there was but one man with one woman upon earth, the woman refused to sacrifice her virginity -- even in order to people the globe. The gods, honoring her purity, granted that she should conceive beneath the gaze of her lover's eyes, and a virgin-mother became the parent of humanity.
One of the legends which arose, as Buddhism degenerated from its original lofty idealism, was to the effect that the Buddha Gautama was given birth to by Maya, an immaculate virgin who conceived him through a divine influence.
Gautama the Buddha, was the son of a Hindu rajah named Suddhodana, and was born, in the ordinary course of nature, in 563 B.C. He never claimed to be a god, neither did he nor his disciples claim that his birth was miraculous.
But in after years a myth arose among Buddhists to the effect that his mother Maya -- having been divinely chosen to give birth to the Buddha -- was borne away by spirits to the Himalayas, where she underwent ceremonial purifications at the hands of four queens. The Bodhisattva then appeared to her, and walked round her three times. At the moment when he completed his travels the Buddha (the incarnate Bodhisattva) entered her womb, and great wonders took place in heaven, on earth, and in hell.
Her body became transparent, so that the babe could distinctly be seen before it was born; and he was finally born without any of the pain and suffering which usually attend the births of mortal infants.
Events Surrounding the Messiah's Birth in Matthew and Luke
The "multitude of the heavenly
host" who, according only to Luke, sang before the shepherds as they watched
their flocks by night while the Messiah was being born, are paralleled in Buddhist
scriptures by a heavenly host who worship the Buddha in heaven immediately
before his descent into his mother's womb.
The miraculous birth is
pre-announced both to Maya and to her husband, King Suddhodana, who parts from
her for thirty-two months, so that she should live immaculately during the whole
of that time.
Maya, "in order that the (Buddhist) scriptures might be fulfilled," was on a journey when the birth took place as, according to Luke, was Mary when the Messiah was born.
Some of the Apocryphal Gospels give fuller details than the Canonical of the wonders attending the birth of the Messiah. In these -- as also in the account given in the Koran -- the resemblances to the Buddhist legends are even more remarkable than those to be found, as we have already seen, in the Gospels according to Matthew and to Luke. The latter has, however, another story which corresponds closely with the earlier Buddhist legends about Gautama.
The devout Simeon who is filled
with the holy ghost and recognizes the child Yeshua as the Messiah (Luke 2:25-35)
is a duplicate of the Holy Brahmin Asita, who recognizes the child
Gautama as the Buddha. He, Simeon, speaks of the Messiah as "a light to lighten the
Gentiles" (verse 32), using the same metaphor as is used in the gatha with
which, later on in the story, the young Gautama is greeted by the rishis: "In
the darkness of the world a light has appeared to lighten all who are in
And Matthew's story of Herod
being told that one who would be "King of the Jews" had been born, and of the
consequent massacre of the innocents, also corresponds with Buddhist legend.
Luke's account of the child Yeshua confounding all the learned doctors of the temple with his "understanding" is a modified version of stories, told in the apocryphal Gospel of the First Infancy, of the child Yeshua's precocity in grammar, arithmetic, astronomy, and physics. Those stories are themselves paralleled by legends of the youthful Gautama's extensive knowledge, and of how he himself teaches the guru engaged for his education.
In the case of both Catholicism and Buddhism the Virgin Birth stories came as later explanations of the spiritual uniqueness already accounted for otherwise.
The Indian Myths
And, long before the rise of Buddhism, the story of Rama's miraculous birth had been told to millions of Hindus:
1) Rama was conceived, so the story went, by his mother drinking a sacred potion prepared by the god Vishnu himself.
2) The wives of King Dasharatha drank of this "divine rice and milk."
3) From one of them was born Rama; from another, Bharata; and from the third, who had drunk a double portion, Laksmana and Satrughna.
Therefore, Vishnu became not only the parent of Rama but, by re-incarnation, became identical with that Rama whose virtues and exploits are celebrated in the great Indian epic, the Ramayana, and whose worshippers can still be numbered by millions.
Sita, the bride of Rama, was said to be not born of human parents, but sprung from a furrow as her reputed father ploughed the ground.
These Buddhist and Hindu myths are, of course, generally connected with the doctrine of reincarnation. The god chooses a human father and mother, and then his soul enters the embryo of their child.
But this re-incarnation idea does not really distinguish them clearly from other virgin birth stories, as many of the latter, including the Christian story, involve the doctrine of a preexistent being. So the only distinction -- and that more apparent than real -- which can sometimes, though not always, be made is that in some of the Indian cases other human incarnations had previously taken place.
In some of the uncanonical stories of the incarnation of the Messiah it is said that the Messiah's spirit had previously been incarnate in Adam, Abraham, and other prophets -- and it has even been alleged that it was subsequently incarnate in Mohammed.
Moreover, in a great number of these myths of miraculous births -- which are to be found, as might be expected, in the Hindu scriptures -- the re-incarnation theme has been dropped out and the popular story left free from all metaphysical subtleties.
We will now refer to a few more of the best known of these stories. However, it should be remembered that in the course of time, some of these 3,000-year-old myths have evolved into a number of different versions and so, in minor details, discrepancies between the stories as related here and as related elsewhere may be noticed. As far as possible the best authorities have been consulted and followed.
The Pandavas, the heroes of the Mahabharata, were not the sons of Pandu, though they took their names from him and were born of his wives Kunti and Madri. Their fathers were respectively the gods Dharma, Vayu, Indra, and the Aswins, the latter twins and jointly the fathers of twins.
Even the Kauravas, cousins and rivals of the Pandavas, were abnormally, though in this case not divinely, born. One hundred of them were born at one birth, a number considerably exceeded by a lady named Sumati, who, according to another Indian myth, gave birth to a gourd which burst open and produced 60,000 children. There are, of course, many legends -- even European -- about the birth of large numbers of children at one time. A well known one relates the circumstances in which a Countess of Henneberg gave birth, in the year 1276, to 365 children at one time -- half of them being male, half female, and the odd one an hermaphrodite!
The Pandavas, like so many other
divinely-born children, had to flee for their lives, because it was foretold to
the King that they would one day reign in his stead and rule over his own
Before she married Pandu, Kunti, the future mother of three of these Pandavas, had once been given a charm which enabled her to have a child by any one of the gods whom she thought of.
Out of curiosity, she invoked the Sun, and by him became the mother of Karna, who was born fully clothed in armor. This demi-god, Karna, is spoken of as "an emanation from the hot-beamed Sun," who was able, on important occasions, to illuminate his semi-mortal son living upon the earth by his rays.
To conceal the birth of a strangely begotten son, Kunti placed him in a box made of wicker work soon after he was born, and floated him down the Ganges. He was then rescued by a charioteer who brought him up as his own child.
It was not only to the virtuous heroes that miraculous births were ascribed, but sometimes also to the wicked villains of mythology:
Kansa, the king of Mathura and persecutor of the divine hero Krishna, was said to be the child of an union consummated by violence in the jungle between a demon and the mortal woman Pavanareka.
In another myth Kartikeya, who was incarnated for the purpose of saving the gods from the armies of the demons, is said to have been given birth to by Ganga (the river Ganges), into whom (or which) the male germ of life had been dropped by Siva.
There are other curious myths about this god Kartikeya, who was supposed to have had six or seven mothers. This was accounted for, in one of these myths, by his having been suckled by six young women who were coming to bathe in the Ganges when he was born. In another myth he was suckled by Svaka, his actual mother, having successively assumed the forms of seven wives of Rishis on her visits to the god Agni (Siva), whom she repeatedly seduced.
An even more primitive myth describes how Garuda, the bird god who acted as Vishnu's chariot, was hatched from an egg which his mother, Vinata, a daughter of the patriarch Daksha, laid.
Many of these Hindu myths about the birth of their gods are, as we have noted before, stories of re-incarnation in what seemed to the Hindus to be very much the ordinary course of nature. Others, however, are very often accounts of a child being born merely as an effect of concentrated thought on the part of the parent god, such thought giving birth, or rise, to a divine-human being who is, therefore, a conception of the mind of the god concerned -- a materialized emanation of the Supreme God, or of some minor deity. A considerable number of such asexual births are recorded in the Hindu Scriptures, and we can trace how what was probably originally a purely metaphysical speculation or poetical fantasy takes shape as a supposed material fact.
The children are sometimes mental emanations, and others sprung from the glory of the god's countenance or from the sparks cast from his eyes, and in at least one case -- Ganesa from Parvati -- born of the emanations from the body of a goddess.
In some stories children begotten in the usual way are said to have been born in a strange manner, as, for example, by drops of sweat from the mother being received by trees, collected together by the wind, and matured by the sun. In this way Pramlocki gave birth to Marisha, the future mother of the patriarch Daksha, who has already been mentioned.
It is of interest to note, in connection with Indian mythology, that Hanuman, the monkey-shaped god, was said to have been begotten by the wind-god.
One Indian case of alleged incarnation of a god is especially remarkable because it took place in comparatively modern times. In 1640 Ganapati, the Indian god of wisdom, is said to have appeared to a very holy Brahmin of Poona, and to have imbued him, as a mark of his especial favor, with a portion of his own holy spirit.
This idea seems at first to closely parallel that of the Gnostic inspiration doctrines than that of a more carnal connection with the god. But Ganapati went further than the inspiration of an individual, as he made a covenant that the senior descendants from Muraba Goseyn should likewise partake of his divine nature unto the seventh generation. Muraba Goseyn therefore became a portion of the god himself. The seventh descendant has now passed away, but only quite recently the last of these man-gods was still worshipped in India, and said to perform occasional miracles. It is so easy to observe miracles when miracles are expected!
The Egyptian pharaohs were all looked upon as divine -- as the sons of god, or as the incarnations of some one god, or even of several gods at the same time. This divinity was, of course, regarded as hereditary. In order that the royal and divine blood should be kept absolutely pure, it was enacted that the only legitimate sons of a pharaoh were those born of his marriage with his own sister.
But even when the throne of the pharaohs passed to a usurper, the latter, if he supported the priests, was soon able to take on the divine as well as the other titles of his predecessors, and demand divine honors from his subjects.
It has been correctly stated that the deification of Alexander the Great by the Egyptian priests -- and his being called the son of the god Amen -- was merely a formality gone through by every usurper who seized the throne of the pharaohs after overthrowing the preceding dynasty. It may be that neither the priests nor Alexander himself had any illusions about the matter; but the point which concerns us here is that the public of the day was prepared to accept the king as a god and as the son of a god.
Moreover, the legends about the birth of Alexander arose quite independently of any apotheosis of the king by the priests.
A supernatural parentage seemed, to the men of his time, the best explanation of genius such as his; and the many varieties that are to be found of the legend show that it originated in the usual way of legend -- gossip passing into tradition, and not in the pronouncement of a priesthood.
According to the best-known version of the story, Philip of Macedonia, the ostensible father of Alexander, discovered his wife in the embraces of a serpent, and thereafter -- whether from fear of sharing his connubial couch with so unpleasant a bed-fellow, or from fear of offending the god -- he seldom entered her bed. The courtiers of Alexander accounted in this way for the birth of their master and hero, who was thus shown to be not only descended, through his legal father, Philip, from Hercules, but also from Jupiter, whose amours had been conducted in the lowly guise of the serpent.
It is interesting to note that the double pedigree holds good: the descent through the supposed father and the descent through the actual father are both credited to the hero.
Another story relates that Nectanebus, having prophesied to Olympias, the mother of Alexander, that she would give birth to a son whose father would be the god Ammon, enjoyed, in the guise of that god, the embraces of the queen.
Oriental nations and, imitatively, even the Greeks in their degenerate days, showed a tendency to deify their kings and generals. Even when they did not actually worship them, they gave them titles which we are inclined to regard as Divine -- such as "Soter" (Savior), a title given to Ptolemy I, and "Epiphanes," a title given to Antiochus IV.
Besides Alexander, Lysander and others were also given divine honors during their lifetime.
Demetrius was hailed by the Athenians as the Only God. When we consider the divine or semi-divine honors paid in historical times to men like Miltiades, Brasidas, Sophocles, Dion, Aratus, and Philopoemen -- whose real existence is incontestable -- it seems impossible to deny that the tendency to deify ordinary mortals was an operative principle in ancient Greek religion. The distinction between human and divine seemed so small to anthropomorphists as to be entirely negligible.
Many of the Roman emperors also were, during their lifetime, worshipped as gods, and, after their death, admitted to the Pantheon. By a decree the emperor Hadrian deified his favorite Antinous who had been drowned in the Nile.
Love of Gods for Mortal Women
One of the favorite subjects for romance in ancient days was the love of gods for mortal women. That the gods were at times inclined to visit favored ladies was believed by all credulous folk -- and nearly all men were credulous in those days!
Silvia, the wife of Septimius Marcellus, was said to have had a child by the god Mars. It may be that this legend about the wife of Septimius Marcellus arose from her name Silvia, as the mother of Romulus and Remus -- so a still older myth related -- was a vestal virgin named Rhea Silvia, and their father was Mars.
Many similar stories were told, and believed, of other women, both illustrious and humble.
Until a growing skepticism made the plot appear unreal -- or a more refined or hypocritical taste debarred such subjects from literature -- comic authors of all countries were fond of writing tales about foolish women who, believing that they had found favor in the eyes of a god, gave themselves up to the embraces of cunning priests or of secular womanizers who had bribed the priests to help them in their deceptions.
But sober historians also record as facts -- and there is no reason for doubting these facts -- several episodes of this kind:
1) Mundus, a Roman patrician -- so Josephus and several other authors relate -- bribed the priests of Isis to induce a married lady named Paulina, a devout worshipper of the god Anubis, to come to their temple at night to meet the god, whom they alleged to be enamored of her charms. Mundus impersonated the god, and thus enjoyed the favors of the lady who, up till then, had always rejected his advances.
2) Demaratus, the presumptive son of Ariston, about whose parentage there were grave doubts, was told by his mother that there had come to her one night, in the appearance of Ariston, a man with a garland which he placed on her head. Upon the departure of this man, Ariston himself had come to her and inquired as to the origin of the garland which she was still wearing. He denied that he had visited her earlier in the night, and identified the garland as one which came from the temple of the god Astrabacus. The soothsayers who were called in and consulted about the affair declared that the visitor must have been Astrabacus himself!
Therefore, if Demaratus was not the son of Ariston, he was the son of the god Astrabacus.
This event was supposed to have taken place about the year 510 B.C., but long before that a somewhat similar tale was told about the birth of Hercules --
3) Hercules' mother, Alcmena, was the wife of Amphitryon, who, at the time when our story begins, was away hunting the Cadmean vixen and performing other actions worthy of a Greek hero. Shortly before his return to his wife, Zeus assumed his likeness and took his place in Alcmena's bed, at the same time prolonging the night so that it lasted as long as three ordinary days and nights. On the next day Amphitryon returned, and, not finding himself so warmly welcomed as he hoped and expected, inquired the reason, and learnt that he had, so Alcmena thought, already spent the previous night with her. He then discovered the trick which the chief of the gods had played upon him. Alcmena subsequently gave birth to two boys, of whom Hercules, the son of Zeus, was older by one day than Iphicles, the son of Amphitryon.
An event of a similar kind was reported to have taken place in much later days: A princess of Gasna is said to have been seduced by an adventurer named Malek, who pretended to be Mohammed.
These old stories, and others like them, were probably the origin of the numerous tales with a similar plot to be found in the novels of French and Italian authors of the Renaissance period and later.
So the story of Nectanebus having impersonated the god Ammon and begotten Alexander may well have been invented by men anxious to detract from the fame of the Macedonian hero; but the female credulity which it alleges was certainly very common --
At the temple of Belus, at
Thebes, a different woman used to be dedicated to the god every night, and to
sleep in a chamber at the summit of the building.
At the great temple in Babylon
a similar custom existed.
At Patara, in Lycia, a priestess was locked in the
temple every night to receive the embraces of the god.
Jupiter Ammon was visited by the most beautiful and most noble ladies in Egypt.
Thus we learn, from classical authors, that the notion of the gods visiting mortal women and becoming fathers of their children was commonly entertained throughout the near East in Greek and Roman times.
Some of the priests must have known who it was that impersonated the god on these occasions; but probably others, and certainly the general lay public, believed that the god himself actually generated mortal children. We cannot tell for certain whether Alexander really came to believe that he was the son of Jupiter Ammon. Men in his position are subject to megalomania, and megalomaniacs are capable of entertaining such beliefs. But we do know that he posed as son of the god and was acclaimed in his lifetime as divine, and that he demanded from his courtiers and other subjects the honors usually paid only to gods.
He had been informed by the oracle of Ammon -- flattering priests who impersonated the god -- that he was the son of Zeus and, his pride swollen by conquest, he eventually seems to have believed that this was really a fact. That the priests should hail as a god one who could and did shower rich presents upon them is not surprising. But that even the Greeks, in spite of their philosophy and their democratic theories, should so degrade themselves is to be accounted for only by the blinding effects on men's minds of success so striking and so vast as Alexander's. Man idolizes that which he fears, that which he envies, and that from which wealth, power, and all other earthly blessings seem to flow.
Transitory Cults and Real Religions
The precise relation of these transitory cults to the real religions of the near East cannot, of course, be exactly determined. The fact of their having existed, however, shows the readiness of men in those ages to set up new gods, and to accept mortal men as gods.
Like individuals, some cults die in youth, by accident or by not being well fitted to survive in competition with others. In Western Asia and the neighboring lands scores of religions have arisen and left records, more or less blurred, of their existence. Doubtless many scores of others have arisen and disappeared without leaving any distinguishable traces behind them.
Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam are the most conspicuous survivors of a host of cults which, at different times, sprang, apparently suddenly, into existence -- many of them with doctrines and stories not very dissimilar to those of their more fortunate rivals.
The Invention of Pedigrees
We are not presently concerned with these stories except in so far as they incorporate a miraculous birth story. This the Zingis Khan legend does.
When Zingis the Mogul had conquered a great part of Asia and become master of a formidable and aggressive empire and a terror to the whole Eastern world, his courtiers evolved for him a genealogy which traced his descent seven generations back to an immaculate virgin. He received the title of Son of God, and divine honors from his subjects.
Even when the founder of a family has neither known nor cared about the names of his ancestors, his descendants and their courtiers usually invent a pedigree suitable for the wealthy and powerful.
The pedigree of Togrul Beg, the first of the Seljuk dynasty, was
unknown to contemporary experts in genealogy. Yet, when the Seljuks had carved
out a vast empire for themselves and the Turks, a lengthy pedigree was attached
to the name of their founder, and at the beginning of that family tree we find
the name of Alankavah, who is described as a virgin mother.
Nurhachu, who was born in 1559 A.D. and eventually united for the first time all the Manchu tribes into one great confederacy which conquered the Chinese Mongols, was the grandson of Aisiu Gioro. The latter, so the Chinese legend relates, was made chieftain of his tribe because of his miraculous birth. He was the son of a virgin, into whose lap, as she sat on the banks of a lake, a red fruit was dropped by a magpie. The effect of the red fruit was such that she immediately conceived, and nine months later gave birth to a son, Aisiu Gioro. Gioro was destined to become the grandfather of the great Nurhachu.
Thus do legends arise to account for the birth of great men!
The Scythians, who inhabited the
Crimea and Southern Russia, had a tradition that their race was descended from a
man named Targitaus, who was a child of Jove and "a daughter of the Borysthenes"
-- i.e., of God and of a mortal woman. The approximate date of the birth
of Targitaus would be, according to the Scythian legend, about 1500 B.C.
The Greeks told another story, attributing the birth of one Scythes, the first Scythian, to the union of Hercules -- that always prolific parent -- with a being who was half woman and half serpent. This being had stolen his mares, so that Hercules was unable to continue the journey upon which he was engaged; and she refused to surrender them unless Hercules made her his mistress. The satisfaction of her demands resulted in triplets, of which Scythes was the youngest.
Herodotus also relates that the Tauri worshipped a virgin goddess. This was probably either Iphigenia or Artemis, to both of whom we refer elsewhere. Around the birth of Tamerlane arose many curious legends, which are gravely recorded by his biographers.
Lowly Births a Common Feature
The lowly as well as marvelous birth of heroes is likewise a common feature of legends and myths. For example, Sargon, the semi-legendary king of Accad, one of the earliest rulers of whom any historical records have been found, is made to describe himself as
"Sargon, the mighty king, the king of Agade, am I; My mother was lowly, my father I knew not. My lowly mother conceived me; in secret she brought me forth."
Gudea, a Sumerian king, later in time than Sargon but reigning as early as the first half of the third millennium B.C., used to boast, it is recorded, that he had neither father nor mother. He worshipped the god Ningirsu, who is said to have visited him and to have given him injunctions as to the building of temples, the purification of cities, the burnt-offerings to be made at his own shrines, and the false priests to be destroyed
Different from Ordinary Men
Even when the birth of the hero is not alleged to be virginal, it is distinguished in some way or other from the birth of ordinary men. In one type of such stories great men are said to have been removed from the wombs of their mothers by an operation, instead of being birthed in the normal manner. Julius Caesar is said to have been brought into the world in such a manner. Shakespeare, in one of his plots, uses this same theme. Macbeth is told by the witches that he cannot be slain by a man born of a woman, and is eventually killed by Macduff who "was from his mother's womb untimely ripp'd." There is nothing miraculous alleged; yet such stories show how prevalent was the belief that famous men were usually born in some exceptional manner, and that men born in an unusual way were capable of doing things impossible to ordinary men.
Shakespeare is not writing history, but weaving into his tale a popular legend of great antiquity. The authors of the Caesarian story, on the other hand, were writing what they intended for history. Such stories used to be regarded as facts, fully explanatory of genius and good fortune. They came to be regarded as fictions that were very useful in the making of plots. Not that the operation has not often been performed by modern surgeons, perhaps even by ancient physicians; but it is no longer regarded as being an adjunct of genius, a portent, or a mark of divine esteem.
To the founders of all great religions (either mythical or historical) virginal or other remarkable births are usually attributed. We have already referred to the Buddha's birth, as also to the myths about Attis, Adonis, Dionysos, and Osiris. Three other great religions remain to be mentioned:
1) Lao-Tzu, the actual or semi-legendary philosopher, whose works form the foundation of the now degenerate Taoist, and perhaps even of the still lofty Confucian, religions in China, is said to have been the son of Lao -- a virgin who conceived him by the sight of a falling star.
2) Among the legends which grew up round the name of Zarathustra (or Zoroaster as he is now better known) after his death was one to the effect that his mother conceived him by drinking a cup of Homa, the sacred drink which so often figures in Persian and (as Soma) in ancient Hindu legends.
The educated Zoroastrian of today does not believe in such myths; but, as in other religions, its myths were at one time believed by all men, and are still believed by the less well educated.
3) It is said that Amina, the mother of Mohammed, told the latter's grandfather that she had seen, shortly before the birth of the prophet, a light proceeding from her body which illuminated the whole neighborhood.
Another story told of Amina is, though not impossible, exceedingly improbable. This is to the effect that her husband, the father of Mohammed, was so handsome and attractive that on the night of his wedding with Amina two hundred disappointed maidens died of jealousy and despair.
Islam is very much poorer in birth stories (and, in fact, in all stories of the miraculous) than any of the other great religions of the world -- probably on account of the comparative lateness of its origin and because of the fierce historical light which shone upon it from the beginning. This is so even though it conquered lands where such miraculous stories were exceedingly common.
One of its predecessors in western Asia was Manichaesism, a post-Christian religion which blended Christian and Zoroastrian doctrines (with some peculiar to Islam itself) into a whole which was sometimes regarded by Christians as a heresy -- and sometimes as a pagan religion.
The Manichaeans related that a certain Terebinthus, said to have been the writer of the books from which Manes, their founder, learnt his doctrines, was born of a virgin. If there is any truth in the traditions about Terebinthus, he must have lived in the first or the early part of the second century A.D. This story of his virgin birth would therefore be another example of the ease with which claims to such miraculous births were made and granted at that period in the world's history. Even if Terebinthus himself is altogether mythical, the fact that the story was told shows that it was credible to men of the third century. That it was considered not only credible -- but even probable -- that men of great piety should be born of virgins is illustrated by a much later example of such a story:
It was told that St. Dominic, the founder of the Dominican order of monks, was born of an immaculate conception. To this twelfth-century saint belongs, in all likelihood, the honor of being the last man in Europe -- though, as we have already seen, not in Asia -- for whom a virgin birth has been claimed. However, this myth was not very widely accepted, and it is now devoutly buried in various old biographies of the saint, where it is unlikely to be resurrected by even his most ardent admirers.
A curious Christian sect known as the Nazoreans, or Sabaeans, which is still to be found in the neighborhood of Basra, believe that John the Baptist was conceived by the chaste kisses imprinted on the lips of the elderly Elizabeth by her husband Zacharias.
Miraculous Birth Stories in Folklore
Stories about miraculous births are to be found in folklore as well as in religious histories and traditions:
A Sicilian tale, probably of
ancient origin, tells of a king's daughter who was shut up in a tower which had no
aperture through which the sun could shine, since it had been foretold that she
would conceive a child by the sun and her father was anxious to prevent this
from happening. The girl, however, made a small hole in the wall with a piece of bone and a sunbeam
-- entering through this hole -- impregnated her.
Among the Red Indians of the North American continent similar tales are told about women who have become pregnant by being struck by the rays of the sun as they lie upon their beds. The children thus conceived eventually visit the sun, and, like Phaeton in the old story told by Ovid and by many of his predecessors, take over their father's business for one day, and nearly involve the whole world in destruction by their inexperienced clumsiness in driving his chariot or in controlling his heat.
This form of the miraculous birth story also has a long ancestry --
Danae was said to have been impregnated by Zeus
in the shape of a shower of gold which fell in her lap, even though she had been shut
up by her father Acrisius in a bronze chamber specially built to protect her
from such an unwanted event.
In another myth of a similar nature a Siberian maiden of the Kirgis tribe was impregnated by the eye of God.
The peculiarity of this form of the story is that the mortals are generally said to make every endeavor to avoid the woman's union with the god. With great plausibility, therefore, some of the ancients themselves attributed this class of legend to explanations given of the birth of illegitimate children. No one would have thought of doubting a story by which the reputation of the king's daughter was not only preserved, but enhanced. Why should they wish to doubt it? They had all heard curious stories of similar events having taken place long ago in other countries, and now they were in the fortunate position of being almost eyewitnesses of so glorious a sign of divine favor. They could tell their children and grandchildren, and strangers from other less-favored lands a tale to make them wonder -- and could vouch for it as having happened to their own immediate knowledge.
We have all learned in recent years -- even if we did not know it before -- how men and women are apt to claim immediate and intimate personal knowledge of events which have really never taken place. How otherwise honest people will claim to have seen with their own eyes, or to have heard with their own ears, things which were never done and words which were never spoken makes an interesting study. In ancient times such legends, once well started, were seldom contradicted. No inquisitive skeptics made inquiries and shattered beliefs in new fairy tales. No enterprising newspaper proprietors re-awakened the flagging interest of their clients by contradicting this week the exciting story they had vouched for last week. Gossip became legend, and legend became myth -- with no historic searching of the archives for documentary proofs or cross-examining the witnesses. Men, then even more than now, longed for romance rather than for facts.
These last examples, however, have been culled from folk-lore, and we must now return to the regions of religion, which can still furnish us with further examples of the widespread existence of virgin-birth stories.
The Concept of a Man-God
The idea of a man-god born of a virgin was conceived so early in the history of mankind that it was carried into America in that remote age when men first migrated into that continent.
Huitzilopotchli, the god of war and chief deity of the ancient Mexicans, was said to have been miraculously conceived by a virgin. His mother, a mortal woman named Coatlicue, saw a ball of bright-colored feathers floating in the air. She took this ball, placed it in her bosom, and by its touch found herself pregnant. Afterwards she gave birth to the god, who entered the world fully armed.
The detail about the war-god or hero being born fully armed is common to many myths. We have already noticed the case of Karna, the son of Kunti by the Sun, who was so born.
is the most notable of the gods and goddesses who entered this world fully
armed. Regarding her it was related that she sprang from the head of Zeus, which had
been cleft by Prometheus, or, as others said, by Hephaestus.
The detail about
the impregnation by touching the brightly colored feathers also has many
parallels, notably the case of Juno who, on being touched by a flower -- or, as
some said, by the help of the goddess Flora -- conceived the war-god
There is the Latin version of the still older Greek myth according to which Here, "without being united in love" -- "without intercourse with the other sex" -- gave birth to Hephaestos, and conceived Ares by the touch of a flower. Of this goddess Here it was said that after losing her virginity by marriage with Zeus she recovered it annually by bathing in the spring of Canathus.
It is curious to meet this poetical fantasy again in regions as far afield as the South Pacific Ocean and Eastern Asia:
In Tahiti the goddess Hina is believed to have conceived by
passing under the shadow of a leaf which the god shook.
In China it was said
that virgins sometimes conceived children by the mere act of smelling roses.
The Indians of the Queen Charlotte Islands in Canada, tell a story about a certain chiefs daughter who conceived by accidentally swallowing a leaf as she drank a draught of water. This leaf was really a raven who had assumed this disguise in order to gain admittance to the chiefs house; and so, nine months later, the young woman gave birth to a child who was really the raven in human form.
It is therefore apparent, either spontaneously or through some source which cannot now be traced, that the inhabitants of America -- as well as of other places remote from those which we first considered -- had formed or inherited the idea that gods were born of virgins. They also believed that divine beings (including in that term the animal ancestors of totem worshippers), though born of mortal women, could not be conceived in the normal human manner.
Possibly such an idea arises necessarily and naturally from a belief in a god who walks upon earth as a man. The resemblance of minor details in the European and the American stories makes it probable that the myths all come from the same pre-historic Asiatic source.
In other parts of the North American continent the virgin-birth story takes a different form -- one of great interest, because it has some very curious resemblances to the Christian story, though these stories must have developed quite independently:
"The North American Indians have many traditions of a disobedient virgin who gives birth, by magical Impregnation, to a being who at an early age develops the characteristics of a miracle worker....the manifestation of altruism on the part of the hero personage in behalf of human beings, the destruction of existing monsters and personified evils....and finally....the departure of the hero to another world, after leaving his promise to return again in some future time of need to benefit his people."
While all this may differ in unimportant mythological details from the Gospel stories of the Virgin Birth, it corresponds remarkably closely with what we find in the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke.
Travelling further afield, we still find the idea of gods living upon earth; but the conceptions are more primitive and should be classified somewhere between the animism theory of spirits inhabiting inanimate objects and the anthropomorphic doctrine of gods like men:
At the present day in Samoa , men believe that their gods are incarnate in their sacred animals; and doubtless in Egypt and in India similar beliefs preceded the doctrine that the gods had ever become incarnate in men.
We cannot tell how long ago it was that this idea of the miraculous conception of a god was first formed, but it was certainly formulated in pre-historic times since it can be found in the very earliest historical records.
In the very ancient Cretan religion, which flourished before the days of Greek civilization, the chief goddess who was worshipped had, as a youthful companion, a young god who was said to be her immaculately conceived son. The goddess herself was spoken of as a virgin.
Again, in some of the numerous ancient forms of phallic worship, virgins were deflowered by a priapus made of stone or some other hard material; and in one of the legends connected with this custom a semi-divine person, Ocrisia, was said to have been conceived by this method.
Although we do not agree with the views of those who trace all myth motives to phallic or kindred origins, there is no doubt about the great antiquity of phallic worship, or of its widespread nature. But there are other possible sources to be explored if we desire to embark upon the hopeless search for beginnings.
Some people have argued that the universal myths of semi-civilized mankind all have their remote origins in astronomical events, or are derived from the names of the constellations. Therefore, when the sun began the new year in the constellation Virgo, his birth on December 25 in each year was greeted by his worshippers with the cry, "The Virgin hath brought forth." Today most "Christians" celebrate the Messiah's birth on this date. The constellation was "the celestial virgin," and the title "celestial virgin" was sometimes given to Juno, and to Cybele, "the mother of all the gods."
Possibly, perhaps probably, allegorical explanations of astronomical phenomena were one of the sources from which some myths were derived. Doubtless there were other sources as well, and the myths as we know them were gradually evolved from a very varied ancestry. Even if we were able to trace the descent of a myth in detail over a number of ages, we would not necessarily learn much. Characteristics must have been inherited through maternal and more remote matronly influences. And this analogy rather under-estimates than over-estimates our difficulties -- the variety and complexity of mythology being extraordinarily great.
Many Virgin Goddesses
By the time that Greek mythology had reached the earliest stage that has survived for our study, we find that there is already a bewildering array of virgin goddesses.
Many of these goddesses were eventually identified with each other, and said to be merely the same person under different names; but others always remained distinct.
When we come to Roman times we meet with many new names of goddess mothers, some of which are undoubtedly synonyms for the earlier Greek divinities, though others are distinct from them. Some of these were virgin mothers of mortals; others were ordinary mothers of the immortals.
Among these Greek and Roman names -- of which several are really synonymous -- are Artemis, Iphigenia, Athena, Pallas, Here, Juno, Agdistis, Cybele, and Rhea. The last-named is identifiable with Agdistis and with Cybele, and was known as "The Mother of Zeus," "The Mother of the Gods," and "The Great Mother."
We need not consider here the details of the myths connected with such goddesses we have not already referred to, since it is with human mothers of "God" that we are now more concerned with. We have already noted how familiar the ancients were with miraculous birth stories.
It is not necessary in this brief survey of the best-known miraculous birth stories, to refer to the births of demi-gods and mortal heroes from mortal women and gods -- or from goddesses and mortal men -- where such births were not miraculous in any other respect than as being the result of a union between a mortal and an immortal.
But the fact that this title of "The Mother of God," so familiar to the pagans, was transferred to the Messiah's mother Mary should not be overlooked. When in later years Catholics began to worship Mary as "The Mother of God," it caused great scandal among those (many of them devout Christians but convinced monotheists) to whom the notion of God having a human mother, or indeed a mother of any kind, was most abhorrent.
As civilization advanced, the new "Mother of God" was pictured as a more refined being than the old "Mother of the gods."
Mary, the new conception, was a pure and refined virgin; Cybele, the old conception, had been looked upon as an emblem of fertility, and sometimes represented in sculpture as having teats as numerous as those of a bitch or of an old sow.
The notions of a coarser age were also illustrated in some of the statues of Isis which represented the virgin mother of Horus wearing a sistrum -- an article somewhat similar to that afterwards known as a "ceinture de chastete" -- as a symbol of her perpetual virginity.
The art of a more refined age returned to the style of sculpture which had been used to represent the ancient Chaldean virgin goddess and her child. In the simpler statues of Isis and her child many of these figures -- as well as of the ceremonies and ideas connected with these ancient pagan goddesses -- were transferred to the new cult of the Virgin Mary. The conquered absorbed the conqueror: Christianity became permeated by Paganism. And this in despite of the attempts frequently made to formulate the Incarnation doctrine in metaphysical terms.
The pagan tales of mortal women being visited by gods made no pretence that the progeny of such unions were conceived by any other than the ordinary physical process. On the other hand, however, the Christian theologians sometimes attempted to show that, though they used physiological terms, they were really speaking of a spiritual process. These attempts were, as must be the case when men use one set of words to imply another set of opinions, doomed to failure. The pagan tales described conceivable, though incredible, miracles; while such Christian apologists described a process which cannot be conceived, being not only miraculous, but indescribable in any terms which are not self contradictory.
The conception of a living creature is brought about by the conjunction of a spermatozoon with an ovum. If a living creature owes its origin to any other process, that origin may or may not be miraculous -- but it certainly is not a conception. The same word is used for the mental conception of an abstract idea and for the physical conception of an embryo, but it is used in an entirely different sense. A further miracle is certainly required if men are ever to be enabled to understand how those processes -- the mental conception and the physical conception -- could have been combined. Men may be prepared to believe that a human embryo has once been formed in a woman's womb without any male assistance. That may be comprehensible, though to most people it is incredible. Men may be prepared to believe that a god miraculously conceived in his mind a being of real flesh and blood. That may, to some people, appear credible, though incomprehensible. A combination of the two processes is, however, not only incredible, but also incomprehensible.
This, however, is what the Christian theologians attempted. On the one hand, the virgin birth story, as known to the pagans, had been introduced into their story; and, on the other hand, the Gnostic doctrine (that the Logos, an emanation from the Supreme Mind, had become flesh and blood) was also part of their story. They tried to combine the two conceptions, the mental and the physical. The spirit of God had, so they said, fertilized Mary. The doctrine retains, or adds to, the coarseness of the pagan myths -- while at the same time substituting for the simple physiological process of the latter an incomprehensible process.
The theologians found themselves in a dilemma. Since they desired to retain the very popular virgin birth doctrine, they set aside considerations of its incongruity with their other doctrines -- even if they fully appreciated those considerations. They were not men of a scientific habit of thought. They should have been far better informed about physiology than were the men of pre-historic days, among whom all the curious stories which we have already noted originated.
The Problems With the New Testament
Notes James Still: "Biblical scholars have long ago dismissed the literal interpretation of the miraculous Virgin-Birth of the Messiah. Also, many...Christian denominations have either quietly purged this curious piece of teaching from their body of philosophy, or conveniently ignore the issue altogether. Despite this, the allure of such an intriguing concept is still very powerful and the Messiah's Virgin Birth continues to enjoy the unquestioning belief of millions of people" (Origins of the Virgin Birth Myth).
There is a lot of evidence to show that the original Hebrew or Aramaic forms of both Matthew and Luke were -- like the present Gospel of Mark -- WITHOUT the first two chapters, starting their accounts of the Messiah's ministry with John the Baptist's calling.
It is a fact that the Ebionites of the second to fourth centuries after the Messiah, used the Gospel of Matthew written in Aramaic but WITHOUT the Virgin Birth narrative -- unlike our version of this gospel that, like Luke, includes the Virgin Birth story. Writes Barrie Wilson --
"...they [the Ebionites] did not accept the virgin birth story at all since this MYTHOLOGY does not find its roots in Jewish thinking. So, unlike later Christians [of the Roman Catholic variety], they did not see Jesus as a divine being. Nor did they think that Jesus 'preexisted' his human form in any fashion...He was, like you and me, HUMAN IN ALL RESPECTS, feeling our pain, joy, sorrow, and gladness. He became God's CHOSEN Messiah because God judged him more righteous than any other person" (How Jesus Became Christian, St. Martin's Press, N.Y. 2008, p. 100).
However, a conscientious "Seeker of Truth" can still spiritually discern most of the truth from the highly biased translations of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) that have come down to us. The New Testament we have today is at least a THIRD LEVEL translation of the original Apostolic Writings and Epistles that have mysteriously vanished. These Gospels and Epistles were originally translated from the Aramaic or Hebrew by uninspired Hellenized Judahites -- followed by pagan Greeks and canonized by the equally paganized ancient Roman Universal (Catholic) Church and government of the Roman god and Emperor Constantine "the Great."
Hope of Israel Ministries -- Proclaiming the Good News of the Soon-Coming Kingdom of YEHOVAH God!
Hope of Israel Ministries
P.O. Box 2186
Temple City, CA 91780, U.S.A.