When I was young, I used to believe that the British press was independent, and derided claims of establishment control as being conspiracy theories.
Since those happy days, I have watched several examples of “three line whips”, where suddenly the press starts to talk in set phrases.
The first that I recall was when the establishment decided to create a national lottery. No expressions of dissent were tolerated, and the phrase “national lottery to raise money for good causes” appeared everywhere, and was recited, dalek-like, on all TV stations. In actual fact the lottery created lots of nice well-paid jobs for the establishment, and “good causes” were pretty much an afterthought.
Another was when the establishment appointed Rowan Williams, an obscure Welsh bishop, as Archbishop of Canterbury. Suddenly there was a media blitz. Everywhere, in every newspaper, every TV channel, his name, when mentioned, was qualified as “holy”. You couldn’t get away from it. Even the dirtiest tabloids praised his “holiness”. And why was he so deserving? Well, although they did not say so, he was appointed because he had “ordained” homosexuals, at a time when all the bishops – including himself – had agreed not to, and so was distinctly dodgy as a candidate in the first place.
A further establishment tradition is to mark major Christmas festivals by running knocking campaigns. Every Christmas, every Easter, one or the other organs is put up to attack the Christians. I gather that BBC Radio 4 is currently doing a series which I have seen described as ridiculously false; but I haven’t heard it. Usually one or the other of the major newspapers will run an article slagging off the Christians and debunking their religion.
This year, the baton has been picked up by the Guardian newspaper in London. On Easter Saturday they published an article by a certain Heather McDougall, it rejoices in the title The Pagan Roots of Easter. [CORRECTION: my mistake: this is an old article from 2010, which was passed to me as new]
Easter is, of course, the festival of Christ’s death and resurrection. Malicious or dishonest – but unscholarly – writers all over the internet peddle falsehoods about how it is *really* just a pagan festival in drag.
The object, of course, is to undermine the truth claims of the Christian religion. The suggestion is an insinuation of borrowing, and therefore of falsity. Yet, fairly obviously, the question of when Christ died is a historical question, amenable to standard scholarly methods. If something happened on a particular date, is it relevant to ask whether something else happened, or was supposed to happen, at some other time on the same date? But to ask the question is to answer it, and answer it in the negative.
But logic has little to do with this, so the argument is kept as an insinuation. Few of these nasty individuals know much history, even about their own argument, as otherwise they would know that claims that catholic festivals were merely pagan festivals renamed was a stock argument of 19th century anti-papist invective.
So what does the Guardian – the house magazine of the British Establishment – have to say?
Let’s have a look at a few quotes:
Today, we see a secular culture celebrating the spring equinox, whilst religious culture celebrates the resurrection.
Do we? I have never met any normal person “celebrating the spring equinox”.
As for “religious culture” – why can’t the author say “Christians”? Because it sure as heck isn’t the Muslims doing so! But the reason, of course, is animosity.
However, early Christianity made a pragmatic acceptance of ancient pagan practises, most of which we enjoy today at Easter.
Unfortunately this vague claim is entirely without evidence, to the best of my knowledge. And what follows will make anyone with any knowledge of antiquity blush!
The general symbolic story of the death of the son (sun) on a cross (the constellation of the Southern Cross) and his rebirth, overcoming the powers of darkness, was a well worn story in the ancient world.
Yes. She really suggested that a narrative relying on son/sun is ancient; something about the ancient world. That the ancients did not speak English she does not, seemingly, know. Likewise I thought everybody knew that the Southern Cross is only visible south of the equator.
But the core claim – that crucified gods were everywhere in the ancient world – is bunk.
There were plenty of parallel, rival resurrected saviours too. …
I’m sure every educated reader groaned at this. Did this woman do NO research at all?
Mithras was born on what we now call Christmas day, and his followers celebrated the spring equinox. Even as late as the 4th century AD, the sol invictus, associated with Mithras, was the last great pagan cult the church had to overcome.
It’s hard not to feel contempt here. No ancient source associates Mithras with 25 December. No ancient source says that they “celebrated” the spring equinox. The late Roman state sun god, Sol Invictus, was not “associated” with Mithras. And the idea that it was the “last great pagan cult” is ridiculous.
In an ironic twist, the Cybele cult flourished on today’s Vatican Hill. Cybele’s lover Attis, was born of a virgin, died and was reborn annually. This spring festival began as a day of blood on Black Friday, rising to a crescendo after three days, in rejoicing over the resurrection.
But, strangely, no ancient text refers to any such resurrection, except Firmicus Maternus in 350 AD, who also tells us that this was part of a ploy by the cultists to evade the attentions of the police by pretending that Attis was just the corn which dies and rises. For the cult of Attis was a seedy one indeed. Attis was not “born of a virgin”, in the sense that the reader is intended to understand; his generation myth is considerably more dodgy than that.
And why, pray, is it “ironic” that a pagan cult should exist on the Vatican hill, the location of a mundus? The answer, I fear, is that Miss McDougall knows nothing about Roman paganism at all.
There was violent conflict on Vatican Hill in the early days of Christianity between the Jesus worshippers and pagans who quarrelled over whose God was the true, and whose the imitation.
This, of course, is codswallop. The early Christians were an illegal cult, and hardly in a position to object violently to anything.
What is interesting to note here is that in the ancient world, wherever you had popular resurrected god myths, Christianity found lots of converts. So, eventually Christianity came to an accommodation with the pagan Spring festival.
It is certainly true that Christians in the late 4th century came to an “accomodation” with paganism; if we use the word to mean that they made it illegal and destroyed all its temples and banned all its rituals. Otherwise the claim is nonsense.
Although we see no celebration of Easter in the New Testament, early church fathers celebrated it, and today many churches are offering “sunrise services” at Easter – an obvious pagan solar celebration.
Easter was indeed celebrated by the “early church fathers” – by people like Polycarp, who knew the apostle John personally, for instance. But not because it was pagan. Polycarp was executed precisely for refusing to endorse paganism.
I was amused by the claim that people like myself, who get up for an Easter celebration at dawn, do so because of some “pagan solar” element. Let me reassure the writer. We get up because we choose to, to worship Christ at the start of a new day. We do not do so because of some imaginary “pagan solar” celebration!
The date of Easter is not fixed, but instead is governed by the phases of the moon – how pagan is that?
Is the author utterly ignorant of ancient history? Christ was crucified on the passover. The passover date was determined by a lunar calendar. So the date of Easter is likewise determined by the date of 14 Nisan.
How simple is that? How easy to verify this with a quick Google search?
All the fun things about Easter are pagan. Bunnies are a leftover from the pagan festival of Eostre, a great northern goddess whose symbol was a rabbit or hare. Exchange of eggs is an ancient custom, celebrated by many cultures.
Yet the only reference to “Eostre” is in the Venerable Bede, De ratione temporum. He makes no mention of bunnies. The custom is a modern invention. Again, a few seconds on google would have shown this.
There is a madwoman out there named Acharya S who has industriously circulated falsehoods of this kind. I’m sure she is hugging herself with glee at being given full play in the house newspaper of the British Establishment.
The sad truth is that the editor of the Guardian doesn’t care. The point is the narrative. The narrative is “the Christians to the lion”, as it was in Tertullian’s day.
Let us praise God that, in Britain at least, the Christians have not lost their saltiness, and that the wicked still hate them.