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Sol Invictus, Christ, Constantine: the Unconquerable Sun
The collective unconscious appears to consist of mythological motifs or primordial images, for which reason the myths of all nations are its real exponents. In fact the whole of mythology could be taken as a sort of projection of the collective unconscious. We can see this most clearly if we look at the heavenly constellations, whose originally chaotic forms are organized through the projection of images...These influences are nothing but unconscious introspective perceptions of the collective unconscious (Carl Jung).
The sun is always a powerful, invincible image, whether it is the weak illumination of the pre winter solstice, or the savage primal energy of midsummer. Long before humanity developed written language humans must have gazed in terrific awe at the reborn sun each morning, how it over came the dangerous dragon of darkness that it sank into each evening, the provider of light, warmth, sustainer of growing vegetation -life itself--this enormous solar edifice quite clearly was one of the earliest forms of worship as man began to fashion a supernatural interpretation of natural phenomenon from the daily spectacle of the dying and reborn sun. Albert Pike makes the following concise statement in his Morals and Dogma:
To them [aboriginal peoples] he [the sun] was the innate fire of bodies, the fire of Nature. Author of Life, heat, and ignition, he was to them the efficient cause of all generation, for without him there was no movement, no existence, no form. He was to them immense, indivisible, imperishable, and everywhere present. It was their need of light, and of his creative energy, that was felt by all men; and nothing was more fearful to them than his absence. His beneficent influences caused his identification with the Principle of Good; and the BRAMA of the Hindus, and MITHRAS of the Persians, and ATHOM, AMUM, PHTHA, and OSIRIS, of the Egyptians, the BEL of the Chaldeans, the ADONAI of the Phśnicians, the ADONIS and APOLLO of the Greeks, became but personifications of the Sun, the regenerating Principle, image of that fecundity which perpetuates and rejuvenates the world's existence. (qtd. in The Sun, A Universal Deity)
From this ancient cosmological vantage point the god dwelled in and ruled the heavens, where the god has remained, only later given anthropomorphic personality as the race has continually evolved its connection to, and recognition of, the dying and reborn sun as the dying and reborn god. A.T. Jones has written eloquently of this concept:
All paganism is at bottom a worship of nature in some form or other, and in all pagan religions the deepest and most awe-inspiring attribute of nature was its power of re-production. The mystery of birth and becoming was the deepest mystery of nature; it lay at the root of all thoughtful paganism, and appeared in various forms, some of a more innocent, others of a most debasing type. To ancient pagan thinkers, as well as to modern men of science, the key to the hidden secret of the origin and preservation of the universe lay in the mystery of sex. Two energies or agents, one an active and generative, other a feminine, passive, or susceptible one, were everywhere thought to combine for creative purposes; and heaven and earth sun and moon, day and night, were believed to co-operate to the production of being. Upon some such basis as this rested almost all the polytheistic worship of the old civilization; and to it may be traced back, by stage, the separation of divinity into male and female gods; the deification of distinct powers of nature, and the idealization of man's own faculties, desires, and lusts; where every power of his understanding was embodied as an object of adoration, and every impulse of his will became an incarnation of deity. (Ancient Sun Worship 3)
This statement is quite accurate in examining the deification of the sun and the subsequent attribution of such to various deities, extending all the way to the present moment in regard to Christ, but having its modern roots in Constantine's Sol Invictus. However, Constantine's invincible sun is merely a progression of anthropomorphic thought that is rooted in the dim recesses of shadowy history. Predecessors everywhere abound and several will be examined as background information before returning to scrutinize the especial contribution of Constantine and the Christian church.
Egyptian Ancient Sun Worship
The Egyptians are one of the earliest recorded cultures to fully embrace the sun as a deity. Ra was the major cosmic deity. Early Egyptian kings claimed descent from his lineage. At the beginning of the Middle Kingdom (2134-1668 B.C.E) the worship of Ra, for all intents and purposes, became a state religion. During the Theban dynasties the god was melded to Amon and was transformed into the supreme god Amon-Ra. Then, the pharaoh Amenhotep II during the 18th Dynasty renamed Amon-Ra to Aton ancient term denoting physical solar force. Amenhotep's son when he became king, Amenhotep IV, revolutionized Egyptian religion by issuing a proclamation that Aton was the one true and only god, on the surface creating the first monotheistic religion. An early example of the concept of the trinity is also in evidence, for the Egyptians believed in a divine father, mother, and son (Horus, Isis, Osiris) (Dyson, Jr.). Thus, the stage was early set for the progression of sun through the heavens to become an eventual "concrete" deity for millions upon millions of believers.
Sumerian /Babylonian Sun Worship
Predating even the Egyptian belief in the sun as a deity the
Sumerian/Babylonian civilization extends backwards in time to about 4500
B.C.E., and this civilization may indeed be responsible for the first
cities. Another triad or trinity is found here, that of Shamash (Utu),
(Inanna). Shamash was the common name of the sun god in Babylonia and Assyria and as such was thought of as the dispenser of justice because as the sun disperses darkness, so Shamash brings wrong and injustice to light. A king or ruler saw Shamash as the "inspiration that led him to gather the existing laws and legal procedures into a code, and in the design accompanying the code the king represents himself in an attitude of adoration before Shamash as the embodiment of the idea of justice" (Shamash). Thus, the stage is set for the earliest recorded concept of a solar object as being identified with the heavens, and as an archetypal god who brings the laws to an individual, much like God gave the commandants to Moses, the recipient of the revealed religion then dispensing the code of conduct to the larger culture. In this ancient cosmogony Shamash also did daily battle with the forces of darkness, until reemerging "reborn" at dawn in the east as a symbol of the powers of light over the enveloping darkness, an archetypal cosmological view that the Judeo-Christian tradition inherited is readily apparent by examining the sacred works of these three great branches of religion. Thus, the progress of the sun is marching inexorably onward toward ultimate anthropomorphic deification in the Roman Empire by Constantine's particular contribution.
Though there are many other stages in between of other dying gods who were resurrected: Tammuz, Adonis, Balder, Attis, and Dionysus, as well as classical heroic individuals like Hercules, Perseus, and Theseus, all of whom claims were made that they were born of the union of a virgin mother and divine father, they will not be discussed in this essay. The final one that will be examined before turning to Constantine is the last of the great pagan faiths that held sway before the ascendancy of Christianity: Mithraism.
Before the time of Constantine the ancient world was a virtual cornucopia of different religions and cults that existed all over the Roman Empire and eastward into China and India. As a result of these competing doctrines "when Christianity was only one of several dozen foreign Eastern cults struggling for recognition in Rome, the religious dualism and dogmatic moral teaching of Mithraism set it apart from other sects, creating a stability previously unknown in Roman paganism" (Mithras in the Roman Empire). The striking parallels to Christianity in Mithraism have long been pointed out, for Mithras was said to have been: born of a virgin birth, had twelve followers or disciples, was killed and resurrected, performed miracles, and was known as mankind's savior who was called the light of the world and his virgin birth occurred on December 25. Indeed, the resemblances are so striking in that all of the Christian mysteries were known nearly five hundred years before the birth of Christ that later church fathers claimed that Satan had created all of this prior to Christ's birth so as to confuse the laity. In regard to Mithras Nabaraz wrote:
According to Persian traditions, the god Mithras was actually incarnated into the human form of the Saviour expected by Zarathustra. Mithras was born of Anahita, an immaculate virgin mother once worshipped as a fertility goddess before the hierarchical reformation. Anahita was said to have conceived the Saviour from the seed of Zarathustra preserved in the waters of Lake Hamun in the Persian province of Sistan. Mithra's ascension to heaven was said to have occurred in 208 B.C., 64 years after his birth. This birth took place in a cave or grotto, where shepherds attended him and regaled him with gifts, at the winter solstice. This is based on an older myth about birth of Mithra, that his magical birth at the dawn of time was from a rock from which he formed himself using his Will. He holds in his hand a dagger and a torch. A statue from Housesteads shows Mithras being born from the rock while the twelve signs of the zodiac surround him, showing his image as a stellar god who rules the cosmos even at his birth. A serpent [is at} times shown to be coiled around…Mithras or [his] birth stone/egg. (Mithras and Mithraism)
When Mithraism became the chief religion in the late Roman Empire, Mithras was called Sol Invictus, or the invincible sun. The eye of Mithras was the sun itself (Mithras, the Soldier's God). The players are now complete for the incredible transformation of Constantine.
Constantine and Sol Invictus
"The struggle for deathlessness must be free." These are the words of Constantine, the first Roman emperor to legalize Christianity, and in his diction is the direct plea for human immortality that became the center point of the very church that Constantine elevated to unprecedented status in the late Roman Empire. He was born Flavius Valerius Constantius in 274 A.D. in the Roman province of Moesia (later Serbia). He died in Nicomedia on May 22nd, 337 (Constantine the Great).
In 312 C.E. Constantine was preparing to battle Maxentius for control of the western portion of the Roman Empire. There are two different versions of the story regarding Constantine on the eve of the battle. One comes from Eusebius, his official biographer who wrote:
…before Constantine went into battle he considered what power to honor and rely on for protection. He contemplated weather to choose multiple deities or to fight in the name of the single, God Almighty. In this account, the leader chose to pursue God and prayed for his assistance. At broad daylight he claimed to witness a magnificent and radiant figure of a cross above the sun. Above the sign was the inscription In hoc signo vinces "by this sign conquer". The next morning he had his army paint their shields and carry this "sign" that he had seen early into battle. He was confident that Christ would deliver him. This sign was made using the Greek letters chi "X" and rho "P" as an abbreviation for Christos, meaning Christ. In 312, Constantine met his opponent in battle at Red Rocks, nine miles north of Rome, surrounded by large hills and the Tiber River. Constantine's force sent Maxentius and his army fleeing to the single Milvian Bridge across the Tiber River where Maxentius drowned. (Laing 192).
Another version of the story has this same image appearing to Constantine in a dream, and whether the tale actually ever happened has been disputed by scholars for centuries. No matter the actual reality of the vision, the ensuing results are certainly true: Constantine embraced the god of the Christians, essentially legalizing Christianity, and an underground persecuted mystery cult that was in grave danger of dying out, suddenly found itself at the pinnacle of the greatest nation on earth. The contribution of Constantine was enormous, and with his assistance, the drama was set upon the stage that continues to play until the present day. With Roman assistance Christianity began the battle to wipe out the old pagan gods, in the process overlaying much of earlier pre-Christian tradition, incorporating pagan ideas and religious holidays into its own structure, and ensuring that the sun would become the glorious figure of Christ. Ironically, Constantine being a pragmatic Roman, interpreted Christ as a war god, not the "prince of peace," and he apparently never truly understood the mysteries of Christianity, retaining his right to worship the pagan gods, especially the sun. He never took baptism until shortly before his death.
Charles Freeman questions whether or not Constantine's famous adoption of Christianity was a spiritual conversion or simply a matter of political expediency, because the suggesting evidence is that Constantine viewed the God of Christianity as being very similar to the old pagan gods, like Apollo, and this latter god was one that Constantine paid particular homage to. Indeed, the triumphal arch of Constantine, built in 315 by the senate of Rome after his "conversion," contains reliefs of Jupiter, Mars and Hercules, and Constantine apparently associated his victory at the Milvian Bridge with the power of the sun, but no Christian symbol can be found on the structure and there is no reference to Christ; however, there are images and homage paid to Mithras, another sun god whose birthday is December 25th (Emperor's State of Grace).
Another example of the influence of this official sun worship on Christianity is:
Constantine's law of…321 [C.E] uniting Christians and pagans in the observance of the "venerable day of the sun" It is to be noted that this official solar worship, the final form of paganism in the empire…, was not the traditional Roman-Greek religion of Jupiter, Apollo, Venus, and the other Olympian deities. It was a product of the mingling Hellenistic-Oriental elements, exemplified in Aurelian's establishment of Eastern Sun worship at Rome as the official religion of the empire, and in his new temple enshrining Syrian statutes statues of Bel and the sun…. Thus at last Bel, the god of Babylon, came into the official imperial temple of Rome, the center of the imperial religion. It was this late Roman-Oriental worship of one supreme god, symbolized by the sun and absorbing lesser divinities as subordinates or manifestations of the universal deity, that competed with young Christianity. This was the Roman religion that went down in defeat but infiltrated and colored the victorious church with its own elements, some of which can be seen to this day. (Cramer 4)
All the evidence suggests that Constantine viewed Christ as one of many gods in a crowded pantheon, a war god at that, who had provided him with his victory over Maxentius, and that this new Christian god could be used as a political tool to solidify his power and prestige in the empire, as well as bringing about a total homogeneity of culture to ancient Rome as witnessed by his calling of the council of Nicea in 325 C.E. to settle the Arian controversy, and also by the later solidification of the dates of Easter and Christmas, for he well knew that power and control in a complex organization depended upon common agreement in regard to the symbols that held it together. For example, in May 330 at the dedication of the new Roman capital Constantinople Constantine was "[d]ressed in magnificent robes and wearing a diadem encrusted with jewels (another spiritual allegiance of Constantine's, to the sun, a symbol of Apollo, first known from 310 was expressed through rays coming from the diadem") (Freeman). The ancient connection to the sun as a god clearly exemplifies Constantine's adoration and admiration for such a "heavenly" deity. After his death and the later collapse of the Roman Empire, the medieval civilization that arose on the ashes of shattered Rome, in particular the Catholic Church would continue the incorporation into the Christian pantheon of religious symbols far predating the beginning of Catholicism.
Christian Overlays of Christmas
Two important contributions that the reign of Constantine wrought were the establishments of the dates of Christmas and Easter. However, neither holidays are unique and original to the church, they are overlays of much earlier traditions, and both are connected to the sun, the former to the winter solstice and the latter to the vernal equinox. Again, the passage of the sun across the ecliptic demonstrates the astronomical motif that has been grafted onto the Christian god.
Constantine may not have completely established the date of Christmas, but what is clear is that he had considerable influence in setting the date of December 25 as Christ's birthday. After Constantine's victory, in perhaps 320 or 353 C.E. the church decreed that December 25 would become the standard day of observance for the birth of Christ. However, this date had long been recognized in antiquity as the return of the sun, for in ancient times, before the establishment of the Gregorian calendar, December 25 was the date of the winter solstice, the point when the sun has reached its southern most trek below the equator, where it appears to stand still for three days. After that time it begins to move back toward the northern hemisphere, gaining strength with each passing day the "sun is born," or the "light comes into the world," or "the light of the world" is at hand. Christmas, during the early centuries, was the most variable of the Christian feast days, and was often confused with the Epiphany, and celebrated in the months of April and May. Pope Julius I, in the fourth century commanded a committee of bishops to establish the date of the nativity of Jesus. December 25 (the day of Sol Invictus, the invincible sun) was decided upon. Not coincidentally, that is the day when the "pagan world celebrated the birth of their Sun Gods-Egyptian Osiris, Greek Apollo and Bacchus, Chaldean Adonis, Persian Mithra-when the Zodiacal sign of Virgo (the sun is born of a virgin) rose on the horizon. Thus the ancient festival of the Winter Solstice, the pagan festival of the birth of the Sun, came to be adopted by the Christian Church as the nativity of Jesus, and was called Christmas" (Crosbie). The church found itself:
By the end of the fourth century the whole Christian world was celebrating Christmas on that day, with the exception of the Eastern churches, where it was celebrated on January 6. The choice of December 25 was probably influenced by the fact that on this day the Romans celebrated the Mithraic feast of the Sun-god (natalis solis invicti), and that the Saturnalia also came at this time(Collier's Encyclopedia, CD-ROM).
Further, according to Annie Besant:
He is always born at the winter solstice, after the shortest day in the year, at the midnight of the 24th December when the sign Virgo is rising above the horizon; born as this Sign is rising, he is born always of a virgin, and she remains a virgin after she has given birth to her Sun-child as the celestial Virgo remains unchanged and unsullied when the Sun comes forth from her in the Heavens. Weak, feeble as an infant is he, born when the days are shortest and the nights are longest....(qtd. in Bailey)
The connection to the sun as a solar deity, the light and soul of the world, when it is reborn at the winter solstice, became the birthday of Christ, and he is but one manifestation of many ancient rchetypal savior deities.
Christian Overlays of Easter
Many ancient cultures celebrated the resurrection of the god at the vernal equinox. The ancients, not having any recourse to modern science, saw the rebirth of life in the spring after the death of winter as a spiritual and holy phenomenon, and invariably connected the rebirth of life with the resurrection of a deity, the archetypal symbolism once again readily apparent. The name Easter is derived from a pagan fertility goddess (either Eastre, or Eostre) that the Saxons of Northern Europe held a festival to her at the vernal equinox in order to celebrate the "resurrection" of life in the spring. Second century Christian missionaries found political expedience in making Saxons easier to convert to Christianity by renaming the celebration of Christ's resurrection Easter which always falls after the vernal equinox (Origins of Easter). Other scholars accept the derivation put forth by the English scholar St. Bede where the name Easter is believed to originate in the Scandinavian "Ostra" and the Teutonic "Ostern" or "Eastre." Both of these names of mythological goddesses archetypally symbolize spring and fertility and their festival, too, was observed on the day of the vernal equinox (Story of Easter). In addition, reaching even further back in time to the Sumerian civilization, Ishtar, another fertility goddess whose name can be pronounced "Easter," was honored on a day commemorating the resurrection of a dying and reborn god named Tammuz; he was believed to be the only begotten son of the moon goddess and the sun god (Pagan Origin of Easter). The underlying scientific explanation, of course, is that at the vernal equinox the sun is directly over the equator apparently moving northward from an earth based vantage point, and will soon be "born again" into the northern hemisphere as the light increasingly floods the earth with longer days, more warmth, and the return of vegetation from its dormant or "dead" state, a clear connection of journeys to, and return from, the underworld. Again, the dominant idea is the link to the sun as the giver and protector of life, the "savior" of the world.
In order to reinforce the above information in regard to the incorporation of Easter into Catholicism, one final point must be made, that of the establishment of the Easter observance date, for this "moveable feast" was a problem and sometime embarrassment to the church as the festival was often celebrated on different dates in the ancient world. Churches in the West celebrate Easter on the first Sunday, after the first full moon that occurs on or after the vernal equinox, so once again we must look to the heavens to determine the proper festival dates of the god(s).
Before 325 C.E. Easter could be celebrated on different days of the week; these included Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. Again, the lack of solidarity among the churches of the ancient world created a schism in the power of the church. Constantine called the Council of Nicea in 325, the first great ecumenical council of the Catholic Church, where not only the Arian controversy concerning the nature of Christ was resolved, but the date of Easter was finally firmly established. This was called the "Easter rule," and the festival is always celebrated on a Sunday between March 22 and April 25 (Tian et. al. 8). This, of course, contributed to a much more unified empire in the far flung borders of Constantine's reign.
Constantine did not want Easter to be celebrated on the Jewish Passover for he believed and stated that it was a Christian "duty to have nothing in common with the murderers of our Lord," (Nicea Ruling…) most certainly an anti-Semitic view. Now, with the date of Easter firmly established, the church after the fall of the Roman Empire grew enormously in power and prestige over the majority of Western Europe, which leads to the final absorption of the ancient sun archetype into the church in the symbol of artistic halos.
Solar Halos, Solar Deity
The archetypal figure of the goddess aspect of the great mother is generally associated with matter, nature and the earth. The opposite in the realm of dualities is the archetypal figure of the great father that is connected to the domain of light and spirit. This principle is the embodiment of and anthropomorphic projection into the heavenly solar realm, interpreted by human consciousness as the source of the great god of light. According to Edinger, "all imagery involving light or illumination pertains to the masculine principle as opposed to the dark earthiness of the great mother. Illumination of the countenance, crowns, halos and dazzling brilliance of all kinds are aspects of masculine solar" (Outline of Analytical Psychology). As has been demonstrated, the connection of deity to the sun is incredibly ancient, with both earthly kings and rulers assuming the role of sun deity, and the natural progression was one of transmuting Christ into the role of the ultimate source of light, the contribution of Constantine quite apparent. Laing writes:
Cults of the sun, as we know from many sources, had attained great vogue during the second, third, and fourth centuries. Sun-worshippers indeed formed one of the big groups in that religious world in which Christianity was fighting for a place. Many of them became converts to Christianity and in all probability carried into their new religion some remnants of their old beliefs. The complaint of Pope Leo in the fifth century that worshippers in St. Peter's turned away from the altar and faced the door so that they could adore the rising sun is not without its significance in regard to the number of Christians who at one time had been adherents of some form of sun-worship. It is of course impossible to say precisely in what way their influence manifested itself. We do know, however, of analogues between Christ and the sun; he was designated the Sun of Righteousness; and our Christmas falls on the date of the festival of a popular sun-god in Rome. (qtd. in Sun Worship)
This role of Christ's connection to the sun is more fully solidified with the addition of the archetypal halo, symbolizing the sun, especially during the Middle Ages (ironically, enough, a time when the light of reason became subject to the powers of superstition). However, like the sun being recognized as a deity for millennia, the symbol of the halo can likewise be traced back to its origin in the remote past.
One of the earliest attributions of the halo to the sky god (sun) is the Egyptian. Egyptians halos commonly were drawn as a large sphere in the color of the sun. Egyptian art contains numerous examples of halos, often associated with self-created and father of all the gods, Ra, who was associated with the sun. The lion-headed Sekhmet is also depicted as having a halo. Sekhmet was sent to a deity who was sent forth to reprimand humanity when the honor of the gods was neglected. Likewise, the Greek sun god Helios (Roman Apollo) is depicted with a halo surrounding his head, in the Roman, Neptune, god of the sea, and the mythic founder of Rome, Romulus are often illustrated with halos adorning their heads. After 100 C.E. Roman emperors used the halo in imperial coins (called a nimbate), (Halos in Western Art). Constantine continued the practice, and the medieval church depicted Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the apostles backlit by the sun halo numerous times in Christian art, a practice that continues to this day. And in the Christian Revelation story, Christ will return from the heavens clothed in clouds of glory and great light. The connection to the sun is obvious.
No matter if it is a Neolithic sun meditation by an ancient human, or the Sumerian (Shamash, the sun god), Egyptian, Greek, Roman, the sun god Mithras, or Christian worldview, the sun was first viewed as a great god of light, power, radiance, and warmth, and the archetype underwent numerous transformations; the sun did daily battle with its opposite, the dark, and always emerged victorious, from there it became the repository of the hopes and dreams of Western civilization when grafted onto the symbol of Christ and his battle against the archetype of darkness, Satan; for the birth of the "sun," look no further than the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, for the light of the world is at hand.
Comments and questions may be sent to the author at [email protected]
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