No question about it: 2012 is going out swinging. The gods of winter have seen fit to pack the last few weeks of December with three of the most anticipated events of the year: the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the much-hyped end of the Mayan Calendar and, of course, the world’s first post-apocalyptic winter holiday. At the very least, it’s a strong finish to an already eventful year. But these seemingly unrelated occasions also happen to be profoundly connected to one another. Shining through each of them is an ancient archetype known as the Sun God—a symbol linked to our very survival, lying at the core of our views of good and evil, representing the essence of the winter holiday.
Let’s start with something that J.R.R. Tolkien, the creator of Middle Earth and its hairy-toed, pipe-sucking inhabitants, referred to as eucatastrophe: an unexpected turn of events that transforms tragedy to redemption, darkness to light. Just when we think evil has triumphed, the apparent defeat of the Good Guy turns out to be the exact thing that the forces of light needed to conquer the darkness. A martyred savior—often a bearded figure in robes—returns from The Beyond as a bridge between the material world and the spiritual world: Christ, the returning Son, is resurrected as the redeemer of humankind, Gandalf the Grey returns from the abyss as Gandalf the White, Aslan the lion comes roaring back to life after being sacrificed, Obi Wan Kenobi makes good on his promise to come back “more powerful than you can possibly imagine” after being slain by Darth Vader, etc. Mythologist Joseph Campbell described this resurrected savior figure as a Master of the Two Worlds, able to pass between the material and spiritual realms with ease.
The ancient Mayan version of this ambassador between the worlds of matter and spirit was the solar deity Quetzalcoatl. Born of a virgin, Quetzalcoatl was part human and part god, sometimes appearing as a pale man with a beard. According to Mesoamerican belief, Quetzalcoatl lived on the earth with his followers, introducing humankind to everything from calendars to the practice of baptism. As William W. Seymour wrote in his 1898 book “The Cross in Tradition, History and Art,” the Toltecs claimed that Quetzalcoatl “taught them the sign and ritual of the cross, hence his staff, or sceptre of power, resembled a crosier, and his mantle was covered with red crosses.”
British author Graham Hancock has pointed out that the Quetzalcoatl figure has appeared in the mythologies of several non-Mayan cultures, including Aztec, Egyptian and Olmec. He proposes that the various myths of a bearded white man bringing knowledge all stem from a common source.
John Taylor, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, notes, “The story of the life of the Mexican divinity, Quetzalcoatl, closely resembles that of the Savior; so closely, indeed, that we can come to no other conclusion than that Quetzalcoatl and Christ are the same being.”
When Quetzalcoatl died, he became Venus, god of the morning and evening star. To this day, he is a symbol of death and resurrection to legions of believers, many of whom await his prophesied return. Theorists like Daniel Pinchbeck, author of “2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl,” have proposed that Dec. 21, 2012, the date when the Mayan “Great Cycle” ends, may mark the beginning of a new way of living, as symbolized by this sacrificed deity’s reemergence.
A Hobbit’s Holiday
Quetzalcoatl is one of many sun gods that various cultures throughout history have seen as saviors of humankind. Others include Horus, Odin, Krishna, Mithra, and Adonis. Proponents of the so-called Christ myth theory view Jesus, widely considered to be the “Sun of righteousness” prophesied in Malachi 4:2, as one such mythical solar deity.
Before we explore that concept further, it’s important to note that “mythical” does not necessarily mean “fictional.” Consider the views of J.R.R. Tolkien, a devoted Christian who, without disputing the notion of Christ as a real historical figure, saw his religion as a kind of über-myth. “The gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essences of fairy-stories,” he wrote. In Tolkien’s view, the Incarnation—the doctrine that Christ was divinity born into human form—was the eucatastrophe of human history, and the Resurrection was the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation.
Tolkien was a close friend of C.S. Lewis, playing a crucial part in that author’s conversion to Christianity. Lewis, who openly acknowledged that Aslan, the savior lion in his “Chronicles of Narnia,” was an alternative version of Christ, took a stance similar to Tolkien’s: In his belief system, the resurrection of Christ was a mythical event that actually took place. “If God chooses to be mythopoeic—and is not the sky itself a myth—shall we refuse to be mythopathic?” he wrote in the essay “Myth Became Fact.”
For those unacquainted with Lewis’ terminology, mythopoeia is a word that Tolkien popularized. It refers to a style of fiction that draws upon traditional mythological themes. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia” is a good example of a mythopoeic work, what with its familiar theme of a powerful king who is resurrected after saving his people by being sacrificed. Along with Lewis and Tolkien, authors like William Blake and H.P. Lovecraft are typically cited as some of the most notable mythopoeic authors. Film critic Steven D. Greydanus has named George Lucas’ Star Wars as the ultimate work of American mythopoeia, describing it as an American take on King Arthur, Tolkien, and the samurai/wuxia epics of the East. John Lyden, the Professor and Chair of the Religion Department at Dana College, considers Star Wars a retelling of well-known religious and mythical stories, particularly apocalyptic ones. Lucas, a loyal devotee of J.C.—that is, Joseph Campbell—would undoubtedly agree: He deliberately based the Star Wars saga on the archetypes Campbell described in works like “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.”
Tolkien, for his part, viewed all storytellers and poets in a religious light, considering them to be sub-Creators “capturing in myth reflections of what God creates using real men and actual history.”
We Wish You a Merry Christ Myth
To fully understand the mythic value of the story of Christ, we need to examine his tale in relation to those of various sun gods throughout history. Here’s an overview, culled largely from the writings of Acharya S. and from the film Zeitgeist:
To ancient societies that depended on healthy crops for survival, the waning of the sun carried the very real threat of death. Thus, the darkness was seen as evil, and the light represented life, hope, health and goodness. Naturally, people began to portray these principles as humanlike deities. Horus, for instance, was the life-giving Sun to the ancient Egyptians, and his brother was Set, the murderous lord of darkness.
According to the so-called Christ myth theory, Horus, like Christ, was said to have been born of a virgin on Dec. 25. In fact, so were the Phrygian deity Attis, the Greek god Dionysus and the Persian divinity Mithra. These solar deities share many other characteristics with Christ: Dionysus was a traveling teacher who performed miracles such as turning water into wine and was referred to as “King of Kings,” “God’s only begotten son” and “the Alpha and Omega”; Horus and Mithra, like Christ, had 12 disciples; Horus, like Jesus, was baptized at age 30, thus beginning his ministry; etc., etc.
A common element in many of these tales is the image of a star in the east heralding the solar deity’s birth. The Jesus myth hypothesis states that the Indian deity Krishna, like Christ and Horus, was born of a virgin under a star in the east, and, as with Christ, three kings or magi followed a star in the east to locate the newborn god Horus. Some theorists identify the star in the east as Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. On Dec. 24, Sirius aligns with the three brightest stars in Orion’s Belt, which to this day are known as The Three Kings. Sirius and the Three Kings point to the spot where the sun rises on Dec. 25, hence the tale of three kings following the star in the east in order to locate the birthplace of the Sun/Son.
December 25 happens to be the date of the Roman winter solstice—an event viewed as the beginning of the Sun’s return after a long period of darkness. The days leading up to the solstice were an especially festive time for the Romans, who partook of all kinds of revelry and gift exchanging to stave off the depression that the absence of sunlight can bring. They huddled together for warmth during the darkest days of the year, focusing on the imminent return of the life-giver, the Sun, banisher of night predators and sustainer of the crops upon which survival depended.
The Romans anthropomorphized the Sun as Sol Invictus, or “Unconquered Sun.” According to author Daniel Gleason, Roman sun worship continued through the rise of Christianity. “The early Christian Church eagerly promoted Jesus-Helios-Sol sun symbolism to appease the Roman emperor Constantine who was the high priest of Sol Invictus all through his reign,” he writes in “The Sacred Geometry Mysteries of Jesus Christ.”
December 22-24 were—and are—especially dark times. On the 22nd, the sun reaches its lowest point. From then until the 24th, it appears to stop moving south. At this time, it resides in the vicinity of the Southern Cross (Crux) constellation. On the 25th, the sun moves one degree north, signaling the beginning of greater warmth and longer days. A populace badly in need of eucatastrophe celebrates the returning Sun, which has “died on the cross” and has been “resurrected” after three days.
When spring rolls around, it is clear that the people have been saved. The Sun’s resurrection is officially celebrated on Easter, which just so happens to coincide with spring equinox. The shadow across the land begins to dissipate. The days grow longer. Things bloom. Light has triumphed over darkness, embodied in various cosmologies as Set, Satan, Sauron, etc.
Ancient worshippers of solar deities placed great importance on the zodiac, whose 12 constellations (or “signs”) helped them keep track of the sun’s journey. One theory states that the 12 apostles of Christ described in the New Testament represent the 12 constellations with whom the Sun travels, and that Christ’s birth by a virgin is a reference to the constellation Virgo. This Virgin, who is depicted holding a sheaf of wheat, represents August and September, the time of harvest. Virgo is also referred to as The House of Bread; the name Bethlehem literally translates from the Greek language as “House of Bread.”
The cross that divided the zodiac into four quadrants held spiritual significance for sun god worshippers, who eventually began to abbreviate this symbol as a cross inside a circle. This emblem is commonly referred to as the solar cross or Odin’s Cross, the latter being a reference to The Big Cheese of the Norse pantheon prior to the Christianization of the Germanic peoples.
As we’ll see, Christ and Odin appear to have been cut from the same cloth.
Norse paganism and Christianity openly coexisted between the ninth and 12th centuries—a period of transition represented by the Jelling Stones, a pair of huge carved rune stones that stand in Denmark’s Jelling church. The smaller of these stones depicts Christ being suspended from the branches of a tree instead of a cross, which seems to relate to the fact that Odin is said to have hung from the tree Yggdrasill for nine nights. (Interestingly, Christ and Odin were both pierced with spears during their crucibles.) The larger stone, which bears the earliest known depiction of Christ in Scandinavia, as well as references to the conversion of the Danes to Christianity, is frequently described as Denmark’s baptismal certificate.
Odin’s links to Dec. 25 don’t stop with his parallels to Christ. Odin rode an eight-legged horse that could leap vast distances, and he was referenced in Skaldic poetry as Langbar∂r, Sí∂skeggr and Sí∂grani (all of which translate to “long beard”) and Jólnir (“Yule figure”), and Phyllis Siefker, author of “Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men,” relates that children used to leave their boots near their chimneys for Odin to fill with candy and presents.
Christians are said to have created the character of Santa Claus by merging the figure of Odin with that of Saint Nicholas, a bishop from ancient Myra known for performing altruistic miracles. The resulting figure was Sinterklaas, a benevolent, spear-bearing, cloak-clad old man with a white beard. Sinterklaas would ride the skies and the roofs of houses on a white horse.
In the 17th century, emigrating Dutchmen brought the Sinterklaas legend to America. Then, in the early 1930s, while J.R.R. Tolkien was busy crafting his own variation on the Odin myth (in a 1946 letter, he wrote that he considered Gandalf an “Odinic wanderer,” and the wizard’s resemblance to Odin in his “Wanderer” guise is unmistakable: long white beard, cloak, wide-brimmed hat, staff, etc.), an inventive designer for Coca-Cola introduced Americans to the modern-day version of Santa Claus, who now flew through the sky on a sleigh pulled by reindeer rather than on a horse. It appears that this designer also borrowed on the Germanic sun god Thor, who was depicted as a jolly, heavily built old man who sported a long white beard, was identified with the color red and, most notably, piloted a chariot drawn by a couple of flying goats named Cracker and Gnasher.
The image of a flying chariot, symbolic of the sun’s journey across the sky, is a tradition among solar deities. Helios, the Greek sun god (known to the Romans as Sol Invictus, or “Unconquered Sun”), commanded a chariot drawn by four winged horses; the Hindu sun god Surya rode a seven-horse chariot; the Egyptian solar deities Ra and Horus piloted the barge of the sun across the sky; the Norse goddess Sól (alternately known as Sunna) rode on a two-horse chariot, etc.
In 1902, a curious artifact turned up in Denmark: a Nordic Bronze Age model of a horse-drawn chariot carrying the sun across the sky. Dated by the Nationalmuseet to about 1800 to 1600 B.C.E., the so-called Trundholm sun chariot bears four-spoked wheels in the shape of solar crosses. Based on some correspondences between the number of days in the synodic cycle and the number of spirals in each circle of the bronze disk that the chariot is hauling, University of Copenhagen archeology professor Klaus Randsborg contends that the designer of this sculpture had knowledge of astronomy, and that the disk may have served as a calendar.
The Return of the King
By chariot, sleigh, flying horse or spacecraft, the Resurrected One soars across humanity’s collective mindscape again and again, bringing the gift of light. He is the redeemer in humanity’s greatest stories, from The Return of the King to Return of the Jedi; the works of Tolkien to the Mayan Tzolk’in; the tale of a bearded, robed man who travels with 12 apostles, to the tale of
… well, a bearded, robed man who travels with 12 dwarves. The consistency with which he is resurrected in the world’s mythology is a testament to the human yearning to sacrifice one’s earthly desires and individual identity in surrender to the divine will, as well as to the universal need for reassurance that morning will follow night, that goodness is still alive and that there is a hope that each of us may live on after death, stronger and more glorious than when we were mortal.
Happy holidays. The light is on the way.