5. Son of God, or Sun of God? The Real Meaning of Christmas!
Written September 2008
( I submitted this essay to Transit, the magazine of Cleveland and Darlington Astronomical Society, in 2008, hoping – obviously - that it would be published in the December issue. The Editor declined to print it, for fear of offending people’s religious sensitivities. For this reason, I have reproduced here the “author’s note” which I intended to precede it in the magazine. )
Author’s note: Our esteemed Editor has joked that some of my articles should carry a health warning. Well, this time, I’ll give you the warning myself…
This is possibly the most contentious piece I’ve ever written. Some readers who are Christians may be offended; they are not obliged to read it! I would hope, however, that all of our members are fair-minded and reasonable people, and will not begrudge me the right to express my views, just because they may differ from their own.
In fact, I would encourage those who are Christians to read this article – if they have the courage to take a step back and examine their “faith” in the light of critical analysis.
You may also wonder, at first, what this has to do with astronomy – but bear with me, and all will be revealed.
Every year on 25 December, a billion or so people, throughout the western world, engage in all manner of festivities, to celebrate the rebirth of the ancient Egyptian Sun God - and most of them have no idea that they are doing so! For this is exactly what the familiar “Christmas story” is really about – and it has a surprising connection with astronomy.
Most of you will already know my views on religion. I don’t believe in the existence of God – the Christian version or any other – or of anything “supernatural”, or anything which violates the laws of physics or of nature. But in anticipation of the protests of aggrieved Christians, nothing I’m going to say here actually requires an atheist viewpoint; it’s quite possible to accept it, while continuing to believe in God and Jesus. In fact, I’m still willing to concede that a man named Jesus may have existed – though of course, I don’t believe that he was anything more than a human being. I’m simply going to say that the story of his life, as told in the Bible, is completely false, and is nothing more than a rehash of a far older myth. After all, most modern day Christians, and all mainstream churches, readily accept that the Bible isn’t, nor was it ever meant to be, a literal history book. I’m just taking that idea a stage further.
Before I get to the Egyptian connection, let’s take a brief look at some other stories.
The Hindu god Krishna, who has been worshipped in India from about 900 BC to the present day, is said to have lived on Earth in human form. According to the myth, he was born of a virgin mother on 25 December, and his birth was heralded by a star in the east. He performed a number of miracles, including walking on water and feeding a large crowd of people with very little. He died by crucifixion, was dead for three days, and was then resurrected and rose to Heaven.
Does all that sound familiar??!! Indeed, if you were to listen to a Hindu telling the story of Krishna, you could be excused for thinking he was talking about Jesus!
The Greek god Dionysus, according to myth, was born of a virgin on 25 December. He performed miracles, including turning water into wine. He died by crucifixion, was dead for three days, and was then resurrected.
The Persian god Mithras, worshipped from about 1200 BC until Roman times, was born of a virgin on 25 December. He performed miracles, and travelled with twelve disciples. He died by crucifixion, was dead for three days, and was then resurrected.
( Incidentally, the religion of Mithras became popular with some Romans, as an alternative to their own polytheistic tradition. It was especially popular among the Roman army; consequently, the remains of Mithraic temples can be found in England! )
And so it goes on. The same story, with minor variations, comes up time and time again, in dozens of different religions, past and present, throughout the Middle East and Asia. Even the story of Buddha has some of the same elements. Obviously, the only possible explanation is that they all evolved, or were adapted, from a single common ancestor.
The oldest version of which we know – because it was the first to be recorded in writing – is the ancient Egyptian myth of Horus, the Sun God, which predates that of Jesus by some 3000 years. No-one can be certain whether even that was the original, or whether it in turn was derived from something even older.
Once again, Horus was said to have lived on Earth in human form. He was born of a virgin on 25 December; his birth was heralded by a star, and he was visited by three kings, who paid homage to him. He performed miracles, including walking on water and raising someone from the dead, and travelled with twelve disciples. He died by crucifixion, was dead for three days, and was then resurrected and rose to Heaven.
There are many other similarities. Horus’ virgin mother was called Isis-Meri. His human “foster father” was called Seb – which, while not quite so obvious, can be seen as related to the name Joseph. His arch-enemy was the evil god of night and darkness, whose name was Set – a pretty obvious forerunner of Satan!
As I’ve said, Horus, like Jesus, was said to have raised someone from the dead - in this case, his father Osiris. Now, think of the name of the character whom Jesus is said to have raised from the dead, and then consider the following…
Egyptian gods tended to have two or more alternative names, as both the myths and the language evolved over many centuries. Another name for Osiris was Asar; as a religious title, he was referred to as “The Asar” – which later translated into Hebrew and Arabic languages as “El Asar”. When the Romans later incorporated the myth, via Mithras, into their culture, they added a suffix “us”, to turn the name into a Latin one – producing Elasarus!
So we can clearly see that the entire story of Jesus is nothing more or less than yet another rehash of that of Horus; it simply happens to be the most recent!
But what, I hear you ask, does any of this have to do with astronomy? Well, I’m coming to that… Now it’s time to think about what the whole weird story actually means.
I’m afraid I must now come to that word which is seldom mentioned among astronomers – astrology! Remember that in ancient times, astronomy and astrology were closely associated, even by the intelligent… And they were particularly important to the Egyptians.
Many ancient cultures learned to use the sky as a calendar, with the appearance of different constellations indicating the seasons, and telling them, for example, when to plant and harvest their crops. Given their world view, in which the Earth was the centre of the Universe, and the stars “lights in the sky”, which revolved around it, it was perhaps natural to imagine that the motions of heavenly bodies were somehow linked with earthly events.
The star Sirius played a vital role in the culture of Egypt. Each year, its heliacal rising – the time when it first became visible before sunrise – occurred shortly before the most vital natural event in their calendar, the flooding of the Nile, and alerted them to plant their crops in anticipation of it. Their civilisation owed its very existence to this phenomenon, as it was what made the land fertile. Indeed, there was once a period when, for some unknown reason, the flooding didn’t happen for several successive years; the result was a devastating famine, which almost wiped out the entire civilisation. The fact that such an obvious astronomical phenomenon, involving the brightest star in the sky, preceded their most important earthly event, was of course nothing more than a remarkable coincidence – but it inevitably led those people to believe that heavenly events were related to those on Earth. Perhaps this one phenomenon, more than any other, was responsible for the growth of astrology as a belief system in the ancient world.
Many of the myths associated with the Egyptian gods and goddesses – in common with the Greek ones which followed much later – began not as stories of gods and deities in whom people actually believed, but as astronomical/astrological allegories, or fables, to describe the motions of heavenly bodies. The story of Horus is no exception; the whole thing was an elaborate explanation of the daily and yearly motions of the Sun in the sky.
Firstly, the cycle of day and night was seen as a perpetual battle between Horus and his arch-enemy, Set, the evil god of darkness. Every evening, Set overcame Horus, and banished him into the underworld; in the morning, Horus gained the upper hand again, and rose back into the heavens. This, indeed, is the origin of the word sunset, while horizon is derived from “Horus has risen”. ( The Egyptians were also the first to divide the day into equal intervals; the word hour also comes from Horus. )
Now think about the Sun’s apparent motion through the sky during the course of a year. In particular, it moves alternately north and south of the Celestial Equator, crossing it at the equinoxes, and reaching declinations of plus and minus 23.5° at the solstices. We know, of course, that this is simply due to the Earth’s axial tilt. The ancients, however, saw it as an annual cycle of birth and death; the Winter Solstice, when the Sun reached its lowest point in the sky, and the hours of daylight were shortest ( in the Northern Hemisphere, of course! ), signified the death of the Sun – followed by its rebirth, as it began to move northwards again, and rose higher into the sky. This is why the birth date of Horus, Mithras, Krishna, Jesus, etc., is just after the Winter Solstice. Why it’s three days after the Solstice is something which I’ll come to in a little while.
Other elements of the story are also purely astrological. What about the “birth from a virgin”? Well, “the Virgin” was nothing more or less than the constellation Virgo! This is believed to be far older than even the Egyptian civilisation, and was used by many ancient cultures as a symbol of spring and fertility, and as a marker for the Vernal Equinox. ( There was a particular epoch, several millennia ago, when it coincided with the Equinox; it no longer does, due to precession. There’s an interesting theory, that all of the constellations of the Zodiac – as opposed to the astrological so-called “signs” of the same names – were invented as markers of the solstices and equinoxes, in three different precessional epochs. But that’s another story! )
In Egypt around 3000 BC, Virgo was high in the sky in December evenings, so could have been associated with the rebirth of the Sun. But more importantly, many cultures regarded the Vernal Equinox, rather than the Winter Solstice, as the rebirth of the Sun God – because that was when he finally triumphed over the god of darkness, and day became longer than night. So the idea of the “birth from a virgin” probably arose from this association. And of course, Easter – which to Christians was the time of Jesus’ resurrection – is intimately associated with the Vernal Equinox!
Incidentally, the figure of Virgo, in her role as a fertility symbol, is traditionally portrayed holding a sheaf of wheat; indeed, the latter is represented by her brightest star, Spica. An alternative name for the constellation, in some ancient cultures, was “The House of Bread” – which also happens to be the meaning of the Hebrew word Bethlehem…
We are all familiar with the story of the Three Kings, or Wise Men, who supposedly visited the baby Jesus, having “seen his star in the east”. Where does that come from? Not entirely from the Bible, that’s for sure! Only two of the four Gospels tell the story of Jesus’ birth at all, and – hardly surprisingly – they tell contradictory versions. The familiar traditional “Nativity” story, with the stable the star, the Wise Men, etc., is the version of Matthew. But there is no mention of kings; Matthew simply says, “There came wise men from the east”. Wise men, not kings, and an unspecified number of them; nowhere does it say there were three! Yet for centuries, Christian tradition has referred to them as three kings ( as in the Christmas carol ), and has even given them names! I admit to having absolutely no idea as to the origin of those names – but I can tell you exactly where the “three kings” idea comes from.
Horus’ birth, like that of Jesus, was heralded by a star. But while Jesus had an unspecified “star in the east”, Horus had a specific star – none other than Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, and one which, as we have already seen, was of massive importance in the Egyptian culture. Three other bright stars, those which we call Orion’s Belt, form a straight line with Sirius, and could easily be visualised as “following” it – though in the direction of the sky’s apparent rotation, they actually precede it. And the Egyptians called those three stars – guess what? – The Three Kings!
But that’s not all there is to it. Around 3000 BC, at the latitude of Egypt, another remarkable astronomical coincidence occurred at the time of the Sun’s “rebirth”. In the evening of 24 December, Sirius was low in the south-eastern sky, and if you extended the straight line of Orion’s Belt, through Sirius and down to the horizon, it would have led you, almost exactly, to the point on the horizon where the Sun would rise the next day! ( I’ve verified this for myself, using Starry Night Pro, which can account for precession and display the sky for any past or future epoch; the alignment is really quite stunning. ) So we have the Three Kings, “following the star”, to the place of the Sun God’s birth!
Now we come to the Sun God’s death. As I said earlier, the Sun was said to die, when it reached its lowest point in the sky at the Winter Solstice. But where does “the cross” come in? The answer is remarkably simple; the cross is simply the Southern Cross! Many people probably take it for granted that that constellation is named after the religious symbol, but it’s actually the other way around; the constellation existed long before Christianity. In 3000 BC Egypt, Crux was seen low in the sky around the Winter Solstice; it rose and set at about the same azimuths as the Sun, so it more or less mimicked, during the night, the Sun’s path through the sky during the short day. So it became associated with the Sun’s death, leading to the concept of the Sun “dying on the cross”.
( At this point, I anticipate an objection by some readers, Christian or otherwise, along the lines of: “Wait a minute! How can you say the cross is only an astrological fable? It’s a historical fact that crucifixion did exist as a method of execution; the Romans really did kill thousands of people in that manner – whether or not a man named Jesus was one of them!”
Yes, of course they did – but the fact remains, that the Horus myth involved crucifixion, nearly 3000 years before the Romans used it for real! You have to wonder how someone came to invent such a bizarre and brutal method of execution; perhaps it was inspired by the already existing myths of Horus et al dying on a cross. )
Now for the last common element of the multiple myths; why were Horus et al all said to have been dead for three days, before their resurrection? If the Sun’s declination is plotted against time throughout the year, it traces, of course, a sine curve. Its rate of change of declination – its daily motion north or south – is a maximum at the equinoxes, and becomes zero at the solstices, the turning points of the curve.
For a couple of days either side of each solstice, at the top and bottom of the sine curve, its rate of change of declination is close to zero. To the Egyptians, for a period of three days after the Sun’s “death”, the daily north-south movement was so small as to be imperceptible; it seemed to hover at its lowest point in the sky for those three days. 25 December was the first day on which its daily motion, which had now turned northwards, became discernible; that’s why that date was taken to be the date of the Sun God’s rebirth.
Hence, the Sun God “died on the cross”, was dead for three days, and was then reborn, or resurrected, on 25 December.
So there you have it, folks – the real meaning of your so-called “Season of Goodwill”! I’ll end by wishing you all a Merry Horusmas!
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