There were some basic differences between paganism and Early Christianity. For example, the relationship between pagan gods and humans was somewhat distant. While Christians generally viewed their relationship with their God as permanent and very involved, the relationship between pagan gods and humans was somewhat distant. Pagan gods were applied to for help through “payment for ritual, with hymns, incense, and the like,” and if it was believed that they had they done what was asked of them, a suitable token of gratitude was offered, such as the temple built to Apollo by Augustus to commemorate victory over Antony and Cleopatra (MacMullen, 116; Veyne, 6). In contrast, Christians were taught to view their God as someone personally interested in them, who expected all their energy to be expended in His service (Veyne, 22).
However, despite differences in paganism and Christianity, some pagan rituals, characters, and mythology survived even after the Roman Empire converted to Christianity. Pagan characters continued to appear in the arts and literature, some traditions and ceremonies that had their roots in Paganism survived under the guise of Christian observances (Seznec, 30; Hutton, 285). Most striking, perhaps, was the transition which some pagan deities appear to have made into Christian saints. The personalities of these Saints appear similar to their characters as deities, with some minor alterations, and some ways of honoring the deities survived into the conversion to Christianity (Green, 50, 51).
Paganism and Christianity in the Roman Empire, Egypt, Isis
Though there was some initial attempt to eliminate references to pagan deities within Christianity, they continued to appear in art and literature (Seznec, 94). Pagan imagery was frequently featured alongside Biblical imagery. Some sought to include aspects of pagan mythology within Christianity by choosing to interpret pagan deities as humans who had so distinguished themselves due to various acts or accomplishments that they had been deified after their deaths. Church decorations showing pagan motifs alternating with Biblical figures were not uncommon, such as those in the façade of the Colleoni Chapel in Bergamo where “bas-reliefs represent events from the Old Testament and from mythology, the punishment of Adam and the labors of Hercules” in close proximity (Seznec, 30).
Another way that pagan imagery made its way onto church decorations was as allegories for aspects of faith or desirable or undesirable personality traits among Christians (Seznec, 94). Ancient Roman gods and myths were used to “symbolize some vice of virtue or to embody a moral truth (Seznec, 101).” So, eventually it appeared that “Plato accords with Moses, and Socrates ‘confirms’ Christ, so Homer’s voice is that of a prophet. And the Magi of Persia and Egypt, who in their turn masked sacred maxims under a cloak of Fable, are linked to the sages of Israel (Seznec, 98).” Pagan characters also weathered the transition by becoming parables. Those who wished to continue using them pointed out that parable was the means by which Christ had taught much of the time while on Earth, so they believed that they were justified in taking morals from ancient pagan myth (Seznec, 87, 88).
At times, pagan ways of denoting certain characteristics were adopted into Christian iconography. Some of the general imagery that has come to be closely associated with Christ appears to have been of pre-Christian origin. Images that depict Christ without a beard (though as a Jew he would certainly have had one) and with long flowing hair that sets him apart from others in the same composition may be references to ancient pagan gods, such as Apollo and Dionysus (Mathews, 123-127). Apollo’s “abundance of hair” was seen as symbolizing “’fresh and undiminished beauty’” and images of Dionysus also depict him as beardless and with long flowing
hair (Mathews, 127).
Pagan methods of venerating particular deities were adopted into Christianity. The practice of using religious icons for private devotional purposes appears to have grown “out of a strong tradition of pagan panel paintings of the ancient gods” which appears to have continued on some scale through the sixth century (Mathews, 179, 187). Use of panels depicting ancient Roman pagan gods appears to have been widespread, and seems to have replaced an earlier custom of images of deceased ancestors on panels (Mathews, 179, 180). There are similarities in the way in which ancient pagan gods and Christian saints are shown in panel paintings as well. Gods featured in panels were shown half- or full-length, “holding symbols of their divine power” as many saints later were shown (Mathews, 180). Donors who had commissioned pagan panel paintings also frequently appeared in the paintings, and were usually depicted smaller than the gods, much as would happen later with Christian icons and their donors. In addition, other features of pagan panels, such as the frontal gaze, “the halo, the throne, the Zeus-type face – the military or equestrian garb” and the inscriptions sometimes found on pagan icons also show a strong similarity with many Christian icons (Mathews, 190). Like Christian saints, pagan deities were depicted enthroned, such as the panel images of the Egyptian goddess Isis nursing Harpocrates, which shows considerable similarity to early panel painting of the Madonna and Child (Mathews, 182, 183).
The similarities in appearance that many early Christian artworks bear to pagan imagery may have been the result of nostalgia toward pagan beliefs. After all, images “come freighted with conscious or subliminal memories (Mathews, 11).” However, those similarities appear to have also been the result of convenience at times. It seems that “when he was required to introduce a new Christian subject, the pre-existing supply of images at the sculptor’s disposal restricted his flexibility. The Christian subject had to be bent somewhat to fit what the artist was familiar with and this bending in turn suggested new ways of interpreting the new subject.” This was the case in some sarcophagi in which the image of Jonah resting angrily under a vine took its initial shape from images of Endymion happily sleeping through eternity. Therefore, Jonah took on a more peaceful, contented look than would have been expected from scripture, and frequently appeared nude as well, in the classical Roman style (Mathews, 30-33).
Pagan religious edifices were sometimes transformed into churches, likely both for convenience and to establish Christianity’s claim on formerly pagan locations (Hutton, 285, 288). Some churches were built on sites of ancient temples or shrines, and previously venerated local deities were put into service by the Christian church. At times, undeniably pagan artwork was kept and re-interpreted as Christian. The “Black Madonnas of Italy and Sicily occupy churches upon the sites of notable temples to Ceres and Cybele, goddesses of fertility” and their coloring is likely associated with the ancient goddesses’ supposed roles in the “growth and the harvesting of crops (Hutton, 285).” It is believed that these Madonnas may have been based on similar images that were made as the worship of the Egyptian goddess Isis spread throughout Europe (Celenko, 44).
Isis was one of the “oldest and most powerful deities” of ancient Egypt
(Celenko, 43). She was considered the goddess of motherhood and queen of the dead (Hyde, 51). Isis was seen as “’mother of sorrows’ and mother of the god Horus as well as “the bountiful,” “giver of life,” and a source of protection for her worshippers (Hyde, 54; Lewis, 86; Celenko, 32). Isis was strongly “associated with the queen-mother and was the prototype of every mother, royal.” She was believed to have created the first mummy (Osiris), and thus had strong connections with Egyptian beliefs about the immortality of the soul (Celenko, 43). Part of Isis’ identification as being a life source was connected with the Nile. Every year when the Nile flooded, a ceremony involving the worship of Isis was carried out. Isis was believed to cause the Nile to rise for the benefit of Egypt. The most important day of this observance was later to become a Christian feast day, and St. Michael came to be credited with the Nile’s actions (Lewis, 95). Her worship became widespread, eventually extending to virtually all of the territory controlled by Rome (Hyde, 52). She became a popular subject of art and literature (Bowman, 170). Paganism, including the worship of Isis, “survived with some vigour among the hellenised Egyptians into the fifth and even sixth centuries (Bowman, 198).”
A prayer to Isis credited her with caring for the whole world and having “a great affection to the adversities of the miserable as a loving mother,” which helps to explain the connection later made between Isis and the Virgin Mary (Hyde, 54). Because of her role as royal mother, connection with an afterlife, and image as a protective figure, Isis became “identified with the Virgin Mary, especially in her aspect as mother of Horus (Celenko, 44).” In fact, many statues of Isis and her son Horus were found at the ruins of her temples, which were later mistakenly thought to be Virgin Mary and Child images by early Christians, “and little wonder since it is still difficult to differentiate between the two types (Hyde, 54).” Isis was strongly associated with Mother-and-child images in Egypt. Isis was also featured in panel paintings that were presumably used as private domestic altars (Mathews, 180, 181).
Christianity and the Celtic Pagans, Brighid
There were some similarities between Celtic paganism and early Christianity which aided in the transition of religions. Celtic paganism placed a strong emphasis on community responsibility, public ceremonies, service to the state and communal pride which” were fairly easily assimilated into the newer Christian religion (Hutton, 258). Various aspects of Christianity would have appealed to Celtic pagans, such as “a rite of initiation, dependence upon a savior figure and assurance of personal salvation characteristic of the mystery religions.” Like paganism, “it gave victory in battle and its holy men and women were reputed to work miracles. It included a cult of the bones of its martyrs which continued the reverence paid to pieces of consecrated human skeleton, and the sense of their magical power (Hutton, 288).”
Celtic gods, much like Roman ones, could be applied to for help in their specific areas of interest, and could then be rewarded if they were thought to have acted positively. Among ancient Celtic pagans “curses,” or metal tablets, were used to ask the gods for help, either to have benefits conferred on the supplicant, or to exact a punishment on someone else. Curses would also specify what payment the god was to receive in exchange for doing as he or she was asked. The tablets were frequently rolled up and deposited in water sources, which had spiritual connections to them (Green, 74) Water was seen as both a positive and negative force in the Celtic pagan world, and was associated by multiple deities. It appears that votive offerings were frequently made at water sources (Myths, 51).
Several Celtic gods were triple deities, and many Celtic myths “contain references to ‘three’ as a magical or sacred number (Myths, 41).”The number three was “by far the most symbolic number” in Celtic paganism (Green, 163). It is thought such frequent use of the number three may be a way to emphasize increased power or to symbolize totality (Green, 215; Mac Cana, 43). Deities who were depicted in triplicate were usually concerned with the well-being of humans (Green, 216). One of the main Celtic pagan gods, Brighid, was one of the triple deities (Green, 214).
Among Irish Catholic saints, St. Brigit is second in popularity only to St. Patrick (Mac Cana, 34). Brigit, or Brighid, etc. was originally “almost certainly a goddess” who was also associated with healing, crafts, poetry, learning, divination, and aiding women in childbirth (Hutton, 153, 285; Green, 50, 96). The goddess Brighid was also connected to fertility, as she continued to be as St. Brigit (though the focus was on fertility of the land and animals in St. Brigit’s case). Brighid “appears to have undergone a smooth transition” from pagan deity to Christian saint and to have retained many aspects of her previous goddess state (Green, 50; Mac Cana, 34). St. Brigit was even given the same feast day that the goddess Brighid was honored, which is also the date of the Celtic Spring festival, February first (Green, 50, 51).
It is difficult to be certain exactly which pagan deity became St. Brigit, since there are numerous Celtic deities with similar versions of her name (Hutton, 153). It seems most likely that St. Brighid was a composite figure made up of several mother-goddesses and of her own various incarnations (Hutton, 153, 154). St. Brigit retained some of the mythical aspects of her goddess persona. For example, her childhood had supernatural overtones; she was believed to have been fed the milk of a white cow with red ears. White animals with red ears that appear in Celtic mythology are connected with the supernatural (Mac Cana, 34). After the general conversion to Christianity, water continued to be perceived as having connections with holiness. Saint Brigit is strongly associated with water, as were numerous other saints (Myths, 51, 53). Offerings are still made to St. Brigit at a well associated with her legend (Myths, 51, 53; Green, 51). In addition, several rivers are named for her (Mac Cana, 34). It seems that “no clear distinction can be made between the goddess and the saint.” A monastery dedicated to St. Brigit appears to have been located on the site of a former pagan sanctuary
(Mac Cana, 34).
St. Brigit is not the only example of the continuity of parts of Celtic paganism into Christianity. References to pagan beliefs about fire can be detected in the “Christian midsummer festival which marked the birth of St. John the Baptist [and which] derived directly from earlier ceremonies” that centered on fire as a creative, regenerative force (Myths, 46). This festival, much like the previous “fire ceremonies” was meant to help ensure a good wine harvest for the coming year (Myths, 46, 47). In addition, other saints besides St. Brigit are thought to have derived from pagan myths or deities, such as St. Gobnet, whose British early medieval shrine was found to have been built over a massive industrial site “consisting of at least 137 forges,” is likely tied to the ancient pagan smith god Goibhniu (Hutton, 285).
Christianity was adopted in various places in various ways. Frequently, aspects of a region’s previous religion would re-emerge as Christian practices. Though there were major differences between paganism and Christianity, there were similarities as well, which allowed the transition of various pagan observances and iconography into Christian art (Veyne, 6, 22; Hutton, 288). Certain pagan deities either influenced or were re-cast as saints, with similar traits and areas of influence (Green, 50, 51).
Irrespective of any differences however, some pagan rituals, characters, and mythology survived even after the Roman Empire converted to Christianity. Pagan characters continued to appear in the arts and literature, some traditions and ceremonies that had their roots in Paganism survived under the guise of Christian observances (Seznec, 30; Hutton, 285). Most striking, perhaps, was the transition which some pagan deities appear to have made into Christian saints. The personalities of these Saints appear similar to their characters as deities, with some minor alterations, and some ways of honoring the deities survived into the conversion to Christianity (Green, 50, 51). That certain features of paganism made the transition into Christianity is perhaps a large part of the reason that it was acceptable to many pagans. Christian converts who wished to maintain a connection with their ancestral religions made “adaptations as were really necessary and kept what they could (MacMullen, 117).”
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