A virgin gave birth to a baby who was both god and human. He was born on December 25th, and he came to bring light to the darkness of the world. He was Horus, and Egyptian records show he lived, died and was resurrected at least 5,000 years before Christ. Horus was just one of many “Sun Gods” born around the winter solstice. Mithra, Heracles, Osiris, Adonis, and Dionysus are just a few of many others. Their stories are all similar. Born to virgins, they come to save the world, do miracles, heal, and bring peace. Many die and are reborn. But why does the story repeat across cultures, and why do the gods appear to share a birthday?
Two common themes tie ancient religions together: virgin or divine births, and astrological occurrences. Quetzaltcoatl was the Mayan “Lord of the star of dawn.” Born of a virgin, he was the god of light, justice, and mercy. He was a symbol of resurrection and rebirth. He descended into the underworld and gave new life to the bones of previous races (the dead) with his own blood, and died by setting himself on fire and ascending into heaven as the morning star.
The story of Quetzaltcoatl bears resemblance to that of Jesus, who was also called the “Morning Star” in the Bible. Christians believe Christ shed his blood to forgive our sins and grant us everlasting life. Some believe he ascended into the underworld. The myth of dry bones being reborn appears in the Bible, in Ezekiel 37. Jesus was also a symbol of death and resurrection. His birth was marked by a bright star in the sky.
“You have saved us in the shed blood,” states one early painting to the God Mithras. Mithras was born to a virgin near the time of the winter solstice. He was best known for defeating a bull and shedding its blood to save mankind. Ancient religions saw stories in the stars. Taurus the Bull, and Virgo the Virgin are constellations, and figures that appear repetitively across religions. Many of the ancient Egyptian gods are pictured with horned caps, and bull worship was common across cultures. You may recognize Pisces, the fish, even in modern-day references to Jesus.
Caves and water form other prominent markers in ancient religion. Mithras brought water to dry land. Jesus was baptized with water, and offered his followers “living water.” Jesus died and was placed in a dark “cave” for three days. While in Japan, the Sun Goddess Ameratasu slept in a cave, before re-emerging and “returning light to the Earth.”
Sol Invictus, or the Unconquered Sun, was the official God of Rome up until the time that the newest sun god, Jesus, claimed many of the stories, holidays, and traditions as the new religion spread and gained followers. The festival of Natalis Invicti (Birth of the Sun) was celebrated on the 25th of December. That date was chosen because it was close to winter solstice, the shortest and darkest day of the year. After solstice, the sun would “return to the Earth,” filling it with abundance, harvest, warmth, light, and life. It’s no wonder that the sun gods were known as the “light of the world.”
It wasn’t until the year 336 that the Roman Emperor Constantine decided that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on December 25th, officially joining the belief of Christ’s divine birth to the ancient celebration of the “birth of the sun.” For thousands of years humans have experienced a desire, deeply rooted in survival, to revere the sun, our life source. The faces of our gods and their stories have changed very little through hundreds of generations. Likewise, the followers of sun gods have remained fervent and devoted. It seems we are drawn by a primal force to feel reverence when the light of the sun kisses our skin, and fear when it withdraws into the darkness of unknown space.
In today’s modern age, nonbelievers can participate in the age-old celebration of the sun in new, relevant, and scientific ways. By discovering methods to protect the harmony and balance between the heavens and earth, we can figuratively join hands with our ancestors as they celebrated this season. Choosing to support the Earth through purchasing green and organic, eating vegetarian or reducing meat consumption, and minimizing our carbon footprint are ways we can protect the glory of our life-giving sun for generations to come.