The “Mithras was born on 25th December! Tee hee” myth

Every year at Christmas time the web is filled with people jeering at Christians.  Such is the society we live in.  A common jeer is to shout exultantly that Christmas is really a pagan festival.  In years gone past these people mocked that it was really the birthday of Mithras.

It looks as if my efforts with the Mithras wikipedia page are bearing fruit.  Far fewer of these fools are appearing in fora, and people are offering refutations.

I need hardly say that no ancient text or inscription records any “birthday” for Mithras.  The idea that it does is a confusion with the late Roman state sun god, Sol Invictus.  There is a record of a festival on 25 Dec. for the latter, in 354 AD, in the calendar included in the Chronography of 354.  This says simply “Natalis Invicti”. 

This is pretty certainly a festival for Sol Invictus.  The ancient festivals have fewer chariot races than the ones from late antiquity, and the Natalis Invicti has the substantial number of 24 listed. 

The word “natalis” can mean “birthday”; but it can also mean the anniversary of the dedication of a temple.  Since no source indicates that the sun came into being at one precise date — indeed the idea is ridiculous — it is probably the anniversary of the dedication of the splendid temple by Aurelian in 274 AD.

So how does Mithras come into this?  Well Mithras is labelled Deus Sol Invictus Mithras almost from the earliest inscriptions, ca. 100 AD.  But “deus sol invictus” seems to have been a cheap epithet.  Quite a few deities use it, as meaning only “invincible sun god”.  To identify all these would be as silly as supposing that everyone called John Smith was the same.  Doubtless someone, of limited education and less scepticism towards anything he found convenient, stumbled across this and fell into this error.  Knowing that few people had ever heard of Sol Invictus, he chose to mention Mithras.

But as I say, I am heartened.  None of us benefit from the wrong raw facts getting into circulation, after all; and it feels as if my efforts have done some good.

7 thoughts on “The “Mithras was born on 25th December! Tee hee” myth

  1. FYI: The epithet Deus Invictus in Roman imperial religion originated from Julius Caesar, whose statue had been set up in the Quirinus temple with the inscription DEO INVICTO, probably in 45 BC, because Cicero mentioned it in May of that year (Dio 43.45.3; Cic. Att. 12.45.3(2); 13.28.3).

  2. One more thing:

    The word “natalis” can mean “birthday”; but it can also mean the anniversary of the dedication of a temple. Since no source indicates that the sun came into being at one precise date — indeed the idea is ridiculous — it is probably the anniversary of the dedication of the splendid temple by Aurelian in 274 AD.

    Every source indicates that the sun came into being at this precise date: in antiquity 25 December was the bruma, the day of the sun’s death and birth, i.e. rebirth, every year, unconquered, in other words: the winter solstice. So it’s not really important whether this calendar record refers to the dedication of the temple or not, because that dedication can naturally only have occurred on 25 December 274. The date itself is most important.

  3. The fundamental problem with these Anti-Christian assertions (i.e. that Christ’s birthdate is based on Sol Invictus and/or Mithras) is that they inadmissably infer something specific from a general phenomenon. The general phenomenon is that December 25 (or a day near that date depending on the regional calendar) was a festival of the sun, logically also of the unconquered sun, because the sun rose from death on that day every year. Ergo we have festivals of the sun and the winter solstice in (probably) every culture, Persia, Greece, Egypt, Rome, Gaul, Britain etc. Many gods were equated and associated with the sun, as sun gods, e.g. Dionysus (cf. Brumalia, introduced already by Romulus), Apollo, Mithras etc. Many rulers, before or after their deification, became sun gods, at the very least they were associated with the local sun gods, starting with Caesar and Augustus, and the later Sol Invictus festival on 25 December was also celebrated in honor of the emperor. So it is unequivocal that 25 December (the winter solstice) was a festival of the sun and was connected to many many gods, probably also including Mithras. But this is only the general phenomenon. Alleging that the artificially determined birthdate of Christ was based directly on Sol Invictus or Mithras is pseudoscientific. Fact is that the birthdate of Christ was unknown. Fact is that Christ was also associated with the sun, depicted as a sun god, e.g. Christos Helios in the Julian mausoleum in St. Peter in Rome. Fact is that the Christmas ritual includes evergreen plants or trees, symbolizing eternal life, life through death (= winter), which we know e.g. from Roman religion since early times, as part of festivals and triumphs, until the imperial period—the kind of tree was not important, it only needed to be evergreen (cp. e.g. the two laurel trees of Augustus). So it is feasible to assume that Christmas was generally based on the time of the winter solstice, but that doesn’t mean that the Christian festival was based directly on another sun god. It just so happens that the day was connected to many gods. It’s more likely that it has something to do with the rededication of the statue of Sol Invictus as the statue of Divus Constantinus in Constantinople, which would be a direct historical reference to early Christian worship on December 25. Speaking of Eastern Rome: It is often forgotten that the original Christmas, the first festival of Christ’s birth to appear in Christian worship, was 6 January, Epiphaneia (alternative dates: 10 January, and even 20 May).

  4. There’s a lot in this which I’d like to know more about. Starting with the “Bruma” – what are our sources of knowledge about this?

  5. There are quite a few sources, Ovid’s Fasti, Servius, Malalas, Choricius, John Lydus etc. Originally the Brumalia was from 24 November to the winter solstice, the actual bruma, originally the first day of the new year (even before 1 March), later (in the East) only to 17 December. The information that Romulus inaugurated the festival is a bit vague. That info is mentioned in the Suda, but in connection with some weird arguments that have since been refuted, although they are based on ritual historical facts (connection to sumptuous meals and extravagant presents to the populus), so we’d have to find a second source to at least back up the Romulus thing. In Greece it was apparently a Dionysian festival, and there is an attribution of the Roman festival to Bacchus, probably based on a false etymology derived from Bacchus’ alternate name Bromius. The etymology was refuted, but it wouldn’t be illogical to assume that a Greek Dionysian festival was celebrated by Romans in honor of Bacchus or Liber Pater. It was popular among Christians in the east and at first tolerated by the Church, unlike the Saturnalia, because the festival’s name referred to the pagan god Saturn. It was later connected to Chronos as well, and the Church banned the festival officially, but it was nevertheless celebrated in the Byzantine empire at least until the 10th century. The original solar festival of the unconquered sun still reverberates in the good wishes to one’s friends to “survive the ages”, like the sun (invictus > victus > vives).

  6. Thank you for these snippets. I think we need to go to the sources and find out just what is certain and what is inferred. As you rightly say, there is some curious stuff around based on etymology and I have seen some of it in the wild.

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