The Claims about Pagan Origins for St. John’s Nativity
This is the second of three articles on the Nativity of St. John and its relationship with the Pagan Midsummer. In the previous article we looked at the documentation about the origins of the Feast of St. John’s Nativity. In this article we will look at the claim about ancient pagan origins and the information available to evaluate these claims.
The dating of St. John’s day on or near the Summer solstice, a.k.a. Midsummer’s Day, has made very fertile ground for conjecture and historical claims that Christianity invented this holiday with the intention of replacing or ‘baptizing’ pagan Midsummer practices and beliefs. It would be much more accurate to claim that the modern Neo-Pagans and Wiccans have invented a Midsummer festival with the intention of replacing or erasing the Christian commemoration of the birth of John, the forerunner to Christ.
One of the anonymous writers for Wikipedia claimed:
As Christianity entered pagan areas, midsummer celebrations came to be often borrowed and transferred into new Christian holidays, often resulting in celebrations that mixed Christian traditions with traditions derived from pagan Midsummer festivities.
The view represented in this quotation is generally considered factual—a fake fact which leads people today believe there is no need to look into the evidence. But there is a great deal of evidence which shows that the dates chosen to celebrate Christmas and the Nativity of St. John were chosen before or independent of exposure to these supposed ancient pagan practices. And in most cases, the so called ancient pagan practices are of much more recent origin.
An example from modern pagan sources for Wicca and Neo-Paganism comes from Rosemary Ellen Guiley’s article on “The Wheel of the Year” in her The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft, (2nd ed. 1999), where she wrote:
Summer Solstice (also Litha). One of the most important and widespread solar festivals of Europe, and universal around the world. The Sun God dies. In European tradition, the night before the solstice is a time of great magic, especially for love charms. Certain herbs picked at midnight will bring luck and protect against ill fortune. Contact with the fairy realm is easier. Bonfires are lit to help the Sun change its course in the sky, and rites resemble those for Beltane. Burning wheels are rolled downhill, and burning disks hurled at the Sun. The peak of power of the Sun God is manifested in the flourishing of crops and livestock. Celebrants jump over fires. The Christian Church absorbed the holiday as St. John’s Day, for St. John the Baptist. (p. 357)
Guiley’s claim that midsummer is “universal around the world” demonstrates both a naive view of ancient cultures and of seasonal differences between the temperate zones, the tropics (where there is neither really a summer or a winter), and indeed, the southern hemisphere (where midsummer is December 21st).
The implication she leaves is that the various European traditions currently associated with midsummer are both extremely ancient, pagan, and spread throughout the world outside of Europe. Were they really pagan? Maybe. Were they spread throughout the world? No, not even really throughout Europe. Where they ancient? Possibly, but if they were, there really is not much data on which to base such a claim.
Summer Solstice In The Roman Republic and Empire
The calendars (fasti) of the Roman Republic record that the festival of Fors Fortunae was to be held on June 24th. The descriptions of Fors Fortunae are conspicuously lacking any reference to the significance of the summer solstice. (William Fowler The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic: AnIntroduction to the Study of the Religion of the Romans, 1899, p. 161)
This significant absence of celebrating or even mentioning the solstice can be shown by example of what Ovid wrote in his Fasti
Book VI: June 24
Time slips by, and we age silently with the years,
There’s no bridle to curb the flying days.
How swiftly the festival of Fors Fortuna’s arrived!
June will be over now in seven days.
Quirites, come celebrate the goddess Fors, with joy:
She has her royal show on Tiber’s banks.
Hurry on foot, and others in swift boats:
It’s no shame to return home tipsy.
Garlanded barges, carry your bands of youths,
Let them drink deep of the wine, mid-stream.
The people worship her, because they say the founder
Of her shrine was one of them, and rose from humble rank,
To the throne, and her worship suits slaves, because Servius
Was slave-born, who built the nearby shrines of the fatal goddess.
The actual dates for festivals to Sol given in the Roman Fasti are August 28thth and December 11th. One text at a temple mentions August 9th. Aurelian(A.D. 270-275) did try to re-introduce the worship of Sol Invictus by decree in the year 274 A.D. But there is no record of this festival being held on December 25th. December 25th as Sol Invictus comes from an interpretation of N. INVICTI in the Philocalian Calendar in 354 A.D. Knowledge about Roman Brumalia (supposedly the winter solstice on December 25th) comes from John the Lydian, a Byzantine wrote his De Mensibus, some time in the 6th century A.D. And even there the dates for Brumaia are from November 24th to December 17th. Ovid’s Fasti 1:161 place Brumalia under January 1st. (more discussion on Roman solar worship) (see also this )
So while solar worship did take place in Rome, there is no real evidence of an ancient widespread or universal pagan ritual celebration of the summer solstice—at least not for Rome.
The Solstice in Ancient Greece
The History Channel (“Where the Truth is history” –South Park S13E15) has a webpage on “Summer Solstice Traditions” which says this about Greece:
According to certain iterations of the Greek calendar—they varied widely by region and era—the summer solstice was the first day of the year. Several festivals were held around this time, including Kronia, which celebrated the agriculture god Cronus. The strict social code was temporarily turned on its head during Kronia, with slaves participating in the merriment as equals or even being served by their masters. The summer solstice also marked the one-month countdown to the opening of the Olympic games. (http://www.history.com/news/summer-solstice-traditions)
This is a very plain use of partial facts to create a fictional narrative. There simply was no such thing as “The Greek Calendar.” They make it sound as if this main calendar had various minor versions by saying “According to certain iterations” and then conceding that these “varied widely by region and era.” But the ways in which these calendars varied from each other were significant.
Each polis (city-state) had its own calendar or calendars: The Attic (Athens) Calendars were not at all the same as those of the Macedonians, which also differed from those used by the Boetians, and so on. Each one differed with respect to names of months, number of days in months, which month was the first in the year, whether or not the months were somehow synchronized with the sun, the kinds and nature of rituals, and a variety of other factors. We are not even sure of the names of all the months or the succession of months in many important cities. (Bickerman, Chronology, p. 31n3)
What is clear is that there was no widespread celebration of the summer solstice. The calendar cherry picked by the History Channel is the Attic Calendar. This calendar of Athens is the most studied in Classical Scholarship because it is the one to which the Greek writers mainly referred. Bickerman noted the idea “that the beginning of the official [Athenian] year always coincided with the summer solstice moon remains unproven.” (Chronology, p. 37) Rather, it seems from the evidence that the first month of the year for Athens (Hecatombaeon) actually corresponded closer to what we would call July to August.
The Kronia, the festival of Cronus mentioned in the History Channel’s explanation was actually on the 12th of Hecatombaeon, which would put it in late July or early August the way we reckon dates. This highlights a habit of those claiming pagan origins for Christian holy days. In order to create their talking points they seem very willing to grab whatever is convenient, reshape it and re-date it to fit their narrative. Ironically, Kronia is also invoked as evidence that Christmas was designed to usurp Saturnalia.
But, even with the Attic Calendar we have a conspicuous absence of explicit reference not just to any widespread ritual relating to the solstice, but to any ritual at all. There are plenty of mathematical philosophers who wrote about and could calculate the solstice in Ancient Greece. The summer solstice just does not figure in as part of any ancient widespread European pagan cultural ritual—at least not as far as the Ancient Greeks are concerned.
The Solstice in the Societies of the Ancient Near East
In order to evaluate the claim that summer solstice celebrations were “universal” in the ancient pagan world we should also look at the texts from ancient pagan societies which pre-dated the Romans and the Greeks. The Greeks showed a great willingness to adopt religious rituals and texts and syncretize them within their own (called the Interpretatio graeca). And the Romans in their own turn syncretistically adopted aspects of Greek religions and those of other cultures they conquered (Interpretatio romana). Religious texts and practices from the Ancient Near East formed a significant part of those reinterpretations and practices.
It is precicely this region that the radical Protestant writers, like Alexander Hislop , claim is the source of the Nativity of St. John and its association with the summer solstice.
The Feast of the Nativity of St. John is set down in the Papal calendar for the 24th of June, or Midsummer-day. The very same period was equally memorable in the Babylonian calendar as that of one of its most celebrated festivals. It was at Midsummer, or the summer solstice, that the month called in Chaldea, Syria, and Phoenicia by the name of “Tammuz” began; and on the first day–that is, on or about the 24th of June–one of the grand original festivals of Tammuz was celebrated. (The Two Babylons,1858, p. 113)
So were there any widespread summer solstice rituals in Mesopotamia? The Neo-Pagans and Wiccans and the radical Protestants seem to be on the same page asserting that such was the case. It is important to remember that when Hislop wrote these words (1853-58) there was no understanding of the cuneiform texts that were recently unearthed in Mesopotamia. And it appears that lack of actual textual data did not prevent him or those after him—including the Neo-Pagans and Wiccans—from being able to construct very specific and elaborate histories for the pagan cultures of the Ancient Near East.
However, there is a significant amount of textual data left to us through archaeology. That data cannot be considered to present a complete picture. The reason for this is that the inscriptions we have may not present a full picture. But even without the full picture it is possible to say what is shown by the texts we have.
The relevant texts are those dealing with seasonal or annual religious rituals, seasonal business practices, seasonal farming practices, and legal schedules. There is a very large amount of data from a variety of periods and cultures. These can be generalized as follows (following Mark Cohen’s The Cultic Calendars of the Ancient Near East, 1995)
3rd Millenium BC Calendars
Early Semitic Calendars; Lagash and Girsu; Nippur; Ur; Umma; and Other Mesopotamian Calendars
In this set only the Umma calendar is conjectured to have a possible ritual relationship with the summer solstice.
Early 2nd Millenium BC Calendars
Southern Mesopotamian Sumeria; Assyria; Amorite; Sippar; Mari
Late 2nd Millenium BC through 1st Millenium BC
A feature most of these societies had in common was that the lunar year was primary and the solar year was secondary. Cohen explains:
The Mesopotamians were aware of the difference between the lengths of the lunar and solar years, and eventually the moon (the god Nanna in Sumerian and Sin in Akkadian) achieved dominance over the sun (the god Utu in Sumerian and Shamash in Akkadian) as the determiner of the year: “[Nanna], fixing the month and the new moon, [setting] the year in its place.” The importance of the moon for determining the length of the year was noted by Rim-Sin, the ruler of Larsa, who praised the moon as: “Nanna, who establishes the months, who completes the year.” The Sumerians’ perception of the superiority of the moon was reflected also in their mythology wherein the moon was considered the father of the sun. This supremacy of the moon was evident in the year being measured by complete lunar cycles. Even those annual festivals whose very existences were bound to the solar seasons were assigned fixed days in an irrelevant lunar schema. But as an acknowledgment of the unbreakable bond between the solar year and its religious festivals, the Mesopotamians intercalated the year to ensure that festivals observed in a particular month coincided with the seasonal phenomenon being celebrated. But even this intercalation was defined in terms of the moon by adding a complete lunar cycle to the year. Thus, the Mesopotamian year was, in effect, a solar year squeezed into a lunar strait-jacket. (Cohen, pp. 3-4)
The main calendar issues for these cultures were agricultural. As such there were festivals in strictly lunar months where planting and harvest took place. Cohen reasons that these could be understood as festivals relating to the equinox fitted into the lunar months.
The 3rd Millenium B.C. and Sumeria, Thu Umma Calendar
The sun-god “Utu” is the son of “Nana” the moon-god. And except for a role in the Gilgamesh Epic, the Sumerian literature left to us today does not demonstrate any widespread sun-god worship or ritual.
Cohen and others also suggest the possibility that the new year might have been the summer solstice in a 3rd Millenium B.C. calendar at Umma. But this is still an unknown. (Cohen, p. 161) The text is an Ur III (ca. 2100-2000 BC) tablet (SNSAT 409; British Musesum BM 106129)
At this point the connection between the Umma Calendar and the solstice is only a scholarly conjecture. If this conjecture happens to be true, it is noteworthy that the rest of the Ancient Near Eastern calendars which survive to us were uninfluenced by it. Since the Umma calendar was first published 1990 and is currently available only in transcription, this text probably not a source for Guiley’s claim.
The Umma Calendar is likely the foundational source for what has now been called the Standard Mesopotamian or Standard Babylonian Calendar (instituted sometime between 1700-1500 BC).(Sacha Stern, Calendars in Antiquity2007, pp 72-73) Though fairly unevenly referred to in surviving texts, this calendar was still lunisolar based on visual sightings of the new moon crescent. The first month began when the new moon was sighted after the grain began to emerge. This was the practice until 499 BC when a mathematical formula for a solar year was first used to synchronize the calendar.
And one further caution regarding conclusions: the calendar is reconstructed from various religious and economic texts but there “is no explicit description of the calendar in the extant Mesopotamian sources.” (Stern p. 74)
Shamesh and Tammuz
Temples of Shamesh, the ancient Semitic sun-god, are found after this period (from 1800 BC-500), especially at Babylon, Ur, Mari, Nippur, and Nineveh. There are plenty of examples of solar worship. What is conspicuous in the texts left to us from those cities and those periods is the lack of reference to a widespread summer solstice festival.
There are a couple of examples, however. Two different late Babylonian texts describing a ritual related to the solstices that took place in the month of Tammuz (could be June-July or July-August) and Tebetu (could be November/December or December/January)
The 11th of Du’uzi is when Sillustab and KA.TUN-na, daughters of the Esagil go to the Ezida and on the 3rd of Tebetu Gazbaba and Gunisurra, daughters of the Ezida, go to the Esagil. Why do they do this? In Tammuzu the nights [are short], so to lengthen the nights the daughters of the Esagil go to the Ezida—the Ezida is the House-of-the-Night. In Tebetu the daytime is short (so) the daughters of the Ezida go to the Esagil to lengthen the daytimee—the Esagil is the House-of-the-Daytime. (Sp 1 131, in Cohen, p. 319)
Another Babylonian text for the month of Tebetu:
[The daughters of the Esagil], Sillustab and Istaran—the daughters of the divine queen Arua—and the [daughters] of the Ezida, Gazbaba and Gunisurra—the daughters of Nana—pass by each other (as) they walk along the path. They proceed and …; they enter [their] temples. (SBH no. viii col. Iv 44-47, in Cohen, p. 319)
What can be noticed in these documents is that even though there is a ritual associated with the solstice, the timing of ritual is conditioned upon the first new moon crescent after the grain began to sprout.
Akiti or Akitu Festival
Some readers might be aware of what in some of the Mesopotamian calendars this today is called the Akitu Festival. While it is common in some literature to refer to this as the New Year festival, a festival by the name Akitu was celebrated at various times of the year in different regions.
The a-ki-ti festival is one of the oldest recorded Mesopotamian festivals, the earliest reference being from the Fara period (middle of the third millennium), probably referring to an building or celebration in Nippur) In the pre-Sargonic period the a-ki-ti festival is attested at Ur, providing the name for one of its months. Economic documents indicate that in the Sargonic and Ur III periods (2350-2100 B.C.) the a-ki-ti was a semi-annual festival, being observed at Ur, Nippur, Adab, Uruk, and probably Badtibira. However, in each of these cities the timing of the festival varied. In Ur it was celebrated at the beginning of the first and seventh months, at Nippur and Adab around the full moon of the fourth and twelfth months, and at Uruk during at least the eighth month. (Cohen, Cultic Calendars, p. 401)
The Akiti festival was not universally a “new year” nor was it tied necessarily to solar stations—though this is what Cohen tries to make of the data. It is certainly not tied to the summer solstice.
There is much more that could be written here about the local types of sun-god’s (Shamesh) (see for example Ido Koch’s Charriots of the Sun ), but the surviving literature does not suggest a universal or even widely practiced ritual with regard to the summer solstice. (Cohen indexed with “solstice”; Review of Cohen)
Hislop, his followers, the Neo-Pagans, and the Wiccans claim it happened, the texts that we have don’t bear it out.
Summary Thus Far:
Christmas set to December 25 by the late 2nd century or early 3rd century A.D.
St. John’s Nativity coordinated with Christmas based on Luke 1.
Widespread celebrations of St. John’s Nativity by the mid-4th century.
Ancient Near Eastern sources for solstice celebrations? None demonstrable.
Ancient Greek sources for solstice rituals? None demonstrable.
Ancient Roman sources for solstice rituals? None demonstrable.
This takes us from the third millennium B.C. down to the first 4 centuries A.D.
Maybe It Was Not So Universal, but what about later antiquity?
We’ll look at the supposed Celtic origins for Midsummer/St. John’s Nativity, the traditions, and the origins of the Celts in the third instalment.