Esoteric Christianity

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Esoteric Christianity

By Annie Besant

The Mythic Christ

WE have already seen the use that is made of Comparative Mythology against Religion, and some of its most destructive attacks have been levelled against the Christ. His birth of a Virgin at "Christmas", the slaughter of the Innocents, His wonder-working and His teachings, His crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension — all these events in the story of His life are pointed to in the stories of other lives, and His historical existence is challenged on the strength of these identities. So far as the wonder-working and the teachings are concerned, we may briefly dismiss these first with the acknowledgment that most great Teachers have wrought works which, on the physical plane, appear as miracles in the sight of their contemporaries, but [Page 126] are known by occultists to be done by the exercise of powers possessed by all Initiates above a certain grade. The teachings He gave may also be acknowledged to be nonoriginal; but where the student of Comparative Mythology thinks that he has proved that none is divinely inspired, when he shows that similar moral teachings fell from the lips of Manu, from the lips of the Buddha, from the lips of Jesus, the occultist says that certainly Jesus must have repeated the teachings of His predecessors, since He was a messenger from the same Lodge. The profound verities touching the divine and the human Spirit were as much truths twenty thousand years before Jesus was born in Palestine as after He was born; and to say that the world was left without such teaching, and that man was left in moral darkness from his beginnings to twenty centuries ago, is to say that there was a humanity without a Teacher, children without a Father, human souls crying for light into a darkness that gave them no answer — a conception as blasphemous of God as it is desperate for man, a conception contradicted by the appearance of every Sage, by the mighty literature, by the noble lives, in the thousands of ages ere the Christ came forth. [Page 127]

Recognising then in Jesus the great Master of the West, the leading Messenger of the Lodge to the western world, we must face the difficulty which has made havoc of this belief in the minds of many: Why are the festivals that commemorate events in the life of Jesus found in pre-Christian religions, and in them commemorate identical events in the lives of other Teachers ? 

Comparative Mythology, which has drawn public attention to this question in modern times, may be said to be about a century old, dating from the appearance of Dulaure's Histoire Abrégée de différents Cultes, of Dupuis' Origines de tous les Cultes, of Moor's Hindu Pantheon, and of Godfrey Higgins' Anacalypsis. These works were followed by a shoal of others, growing more scientific and rigid in their collection and comparison of facts, until it has become impossible for any educated person to even challenge the identities and similarities existing in every direction. Christians are not to be found, in these days, who are prepared to contend that Christian symbols, rites, and ceremonies are unique — except, indeed, among the ignorant. There we still behold simplicity of belief hand-in-hand with ignorance of facts; but outside this class we do not find even the most devout Christians alleging [Page 128] that Christianity has not very much in common with faiths older than itself. But it is well known that in the first centuries "after Christ" these likenesses were on all hands admitted, and that modern Comparative Mythology is only repeating with great precision that which was universally recognised in the Early Church. Justin Martyr, for instance, crowds his pages with references to the religions of his time, and if a modern assailant of Christianity would cite a number of cases in which Christian teachings are identical with those of elder religions, he can find no better guides than the apologists of the second century. They quote Pagan teachings, stories, and symbols, pleading that the very identity of the Christian with these should prevent the off hand rejection of the latter as in themselves incredible. A curious reason is, indeed, given for this identity, one that will scarcely find many adherents in modern days. Says Justin Martyr: "These who hand down the myths which the poets have made adduce no proof to the youths who learn them; and we proceed to demonstrate that they have been uttered by the influence of the wicked demons, to deceive and lead astray the human race. For having heard it proclaimed through the prophets that the Christ was to come, [Page 129] and that the ungodly among men were to be punished by fire, they put forward many to be called sons of Jupiter, under the impression that they would be able to produce in men the idea that the things which were said with regard to Christ were mere marvellous tales, like the things which were said by the poets". And the devils, indeed, having heard this washing published by the prophet, instigated those who enter their temples, and are about to approach them with libations and burnt offerings, also to sprinkle themselves; and they cause them also to wash themselves entirely as they depart". "Which [the Lord's Supper] the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done". [Vol. II. Justin Martyr. First Apology, §§ liv, Ixii and Ixvi. ] "For I myself, when I discovered the wicked disguise which the evil spirits had thrown around the divine doctrines of the Christians, to turn aside others from joining them, laughed". [Vol. II. Justin Martyr. Second Apology, § xiii ] 

These identities were thus regarded as the work of devils, copies of the Christian originals, largely circulated in the pre-Christian world with the object of prejudicing the reception of the truth when it came. There is a certain difficulty in [Page 130] accepting the earlier statements as copies and the later as originals, but without disputing with Justin Martyr whether the copies preceded the original or the original the copies, we may be content to accept his testimony as to the existence of these identities between the faith flourishing in the Roman empire of his time and the new religion he was engaged in defending.

Tertullian speaks equally plainly, stating the objection made in his days also to Christianity, that "the nations who are strangers to all understanding of spiritual powers, ascribe to their idols the imbuing of waters with the self-same efficacy". "So they do", he answers quite frankly, "but these cheat themselves with waters that are widowed. For washing is the channel through which they are initiated into some sacred rites of some notorious Isis or Mithra; and the Gods themselves they honour by washings .... At the Appollinarian and Eleusinian games they are baptised; and they presume that the effect of their doing that is the regeneration and the remission of the penalties due to their perjuries. Which fact, being acknowledged, we recognise here also the zeal of the devil rivalling the things of God, while we find him too practising baptism in his subjects". [ Vol. VII. Tertullian, On Baptism, ch. v.] [Page 131] To solve the difficulty of these identities we must study the Mythic Christ, the Christ of the solar myths or legends, these myths being the pictorial forms in which certain profound truths were given to the world.

Now a "myth" is by no means what most people imagine it to be — a mere fanciful story erected on a basis of fact, or even altogether apart from fact. A myth is far truer than a history, for a history only gives a story of the shadows, whereas a myth gives a story of the substances that cast the shadows. As above so below; and first above and then below. There are certain great principles according to which our system is built; there are certain laws by which these principles are worked out in detail; there are certain Beings who embody the principles and whose activities are the laws; there are hosts of inferior beings who act as vehicles for these activities, as agents, as instruments; there are the Egos of men intermingled with all these, performing their share of the great kosmic drama. These multifarious workers in the invisible worlds cast their shadows on physical matter, and these shadows are "things" — the bodies, the objects, that make up the physical universe. These shadows give but a poor idea of [Page 132] the objects that cast them, just as what we call shadows down here give but a poor idea of the objects that cast them; they are mere outlines, with blank darkness in lieu of details, and have only length and breadth, no depth.

History is an account, very imperfect and often distorted, of the dance of these shadows in the shadowworld of physical matter. Anyone who has seen, a clever Shadow-Play, and has compared what goes on behind the screen on which the shadows are cast with the movements of the shadows on the screen, may have a vivid idea of the illusory nature of the shadow-actions, and may draw therefrom several not misleading analogies.[The student might read Plato's account of the "Cave" and its inhabitants, remembering that Plato was an Initiate. Republic, bk. vii. ] 

Myth is an account of the movements of those who cast the shadows; and the language in which the account is given is what is called the language of symbols. Just as here we have words which stand for things — as the word "table" is a symbol for a recognised article of a certain kind — so do symbols stand for objects on higher planes. They are a pictorial alphabet, used by all myth-writers, and each has its recognised meaning. A symbol is used to signify a certain [Page 133] object just as words are used down here to distinguish one thing from another, and so a knowledge of symbols is necessary for the reading of a myth. For the original tellers of great myths are ever Initiates, who are accustomed to use the symbolic language, and who, of course, use symbols in their fixed and accepted meanings.

A symbol has a chief meaning, and then various subsidiary meanings related to that chief meaning. For instance, the Sun is the symbol of the Logos; that is its chief or primary significance. But it stands also for an incarnation of the Logos, or for any of the great Messengers who represent Him for the time, as an ambassador represents his King. High Initiates who are sent on special missions to incarnate among men and live with them for a time as Rulers or Teachers, would be designated by the symbol of the Sun; for though it is not their symbol in an individual sense, it is theirs in virtue of their office.

All those who are signified by this symbol have certain characteristics, pass through certain situations, perform certain activities, during their lives on earth. The Sun is the physical shadow, or body, as it is called, of the Logos; hence its yearly course in nature reflects His activity, in the partial way in which a shadow [Page 134] represents the activity of the object that casts it. The Logos, "the Son of God", descending into matter, has as shadow the annual course of the Sun, and the Sun-Myth tells it. Hence, again, an incarnation of the Logos, or one of His high ambassadors, will also represent that activity, shadow-like, in His body as a man. Thus will necessarily arise identities in the life-histories of these ambassadors. In fact, the absence of such identities would at once point out that the person concerned was not a full ambassador, and that his mission was of a lower order.

The Solar Myth, then, is a story which primarily representing the activity of the Logos, or Word, in the kosmos, secondarily embodies the life of one who is an incarnation of the Logos, or is one of His ambassadors. The Hero of the myth is usually represented as a God, or Demi-God, and his life, as will be understood by what has been said above, must be outlined by the course of the Sun, as the shadow of the Logos. The part of the course lived out during the human life is that which falls between the winter solstice and the reaching of the zenith in summer. The Hero is born at the winter solstice, dies at the spring equinox, and, conquering death, rises into mid-heaven. [Page 135] 

The following remarks are interesting in this connection, though looking at myth in a more general way, as an allegory, picturing inner truths: "Alfred de Vigny has said that legend is frequently more true than history, because legend recounts not acts which are often incomplete and abortive, but the genius itself of great men and great nations. It is pre-eminently to the Gospel that this beautiful thought is applicable, for the Gospel is not merely the narration of what has been; it is the sublime narration of what is and what always will be. Ever will the Saviour of the world be adored by the kings of intelligence, represented by the Magi; ever will He multiply the eucharistic bread, to nourish and comfort our souls; ever, when we invoke Him in the night and the tempest, will He come to us walking on the waters, ever will He stretch forth His hand and make us pass over the crests of the billows; ever will He cure our distempers and give back light to our eyes; ever will He appear to His faithful, luminous and transfigured upon Tabor, interpreting the law of Moses and moderating the zeal of Elias". [Eliphas Levi. The Mysteries of Magic, p. 48. ]

We shall find that myths are very closely related to the Mysteries, for part of the Mysteries [Page 136] consisted in showing living pictures of the occurrences in the higher worlds that became embodied in myths. In fact in the Pseudo-Mysteries, mutilated fragments of the living pictures of the true Mysteries were represented by actors who acted out a drama, and many secondary myths are these dramas put into words.

The broad outlines of the story of the Sun-God are very clear, the eventful life of the Sun-God being spanned within the first six months of the solar year, the other six being employed in the general protecting and preserving. He is always born at the winter solstice, after the shortest day in the year, at the midnight of the 24th of December, when the sign Virgo is rising above the horizon; born as this sign is rising, he is born always of a virgin, and she remains a virgin after she has given birth to her Sun-Child, as the celestial Virgo remains unchanged and unsullied when the Sun comes forth from her in the heavens. Weak, feeble as an infant is he, born when the days are shortest and the nights are longest — we are on the north of the equatorial line — surrounded with perils in his infancy, and the reign of the darkness far longer than his in his early days. But he lives through all the [Page 137] threatening dangers, and the day lengthens towards the spring equinox, till the time comes for the crossing over, the crucifixion, the date varying with each year. The Sun-God is sometimes found sculptured within the circle of the horizon, with the head and feet touching the circle at north and south, and the outstretched hands at east and west — "He was crucified". After this he rises triumphantly and ascends into heaven, and ripens the corn and the grape, giving his very life to them to make their substance and through them to his worshippers. The God who is born at the dawning of December 25th is ever crucified at the spring equinox, and ever gives his life as food to his worshippers — these are among the most salient marks of the Sun-God. The fixity of the birth-date and the variableness of the death-date are full of significance, when we remember that the one is a fixed and the other a variable solar position. "Easter" is a movable event, calculated by the relative positions of sun and moon, an impossible way of fixing year by year the anniversary of a historical event, but a very natural and indeed inevitable way of calculating a solar festival. These changing dates do not point to the history of a man, but to the Hero of a solar myth. [Page 138]

These events are reproduced in the lives of the various Solar Gods, and antiquity teems with illustrations of them. Isis of Egypt like Mary of Bethlehem was our Immaculate Lady, Star of the Sea, Queen of Heaven, Mother of God. We see her in pictures standing on the crescent moon, star-crowned; she nurses her child Horus, and the cross appears on the back of the seat in which he sits on his mother's knee. The Virgo of the Zodiac is represented in ancient drawings as a woman suckling a child—the type of all future Madonnas with their divine Babes, showing the origin of the symbol. Devakî is likewise figured with the divine Krshna in her arms, as is Mylitta, or Istar, of Babylon, also with the recurrent crown of stars, and with her child Tammuz on her knee. Mercury and Aesculapius, Bacchus and Hercules, Perseus and the Dioscuri, Mithras and Zarathustra, were all of divine and human birth.

The relation of the winter solstice to Jesus is also significant. The birth of Mithras was celebrated in the winter solstice with great rejoicings, and Horus was also then born: "His birth is one of the greatest mysteries of the [Egyptian] religion. Pictures representing it appeared on the walls of temples. . . . He [Page 139] was the child of Deity. At Christmas time, or that answering to our festival, his image was brought out of the sanctuary with peculiar ceremonies, as the image of the infant Bambino is still brought out and exhibited at Rome".[Bonwiok. Egyptian Belief, p. 157. Quoted in Williamson's The Great Law, p. 26 ]

On the fixing of the 25th December as the birthday of Jesus, Williamson has the following: "All Christians know that the 25th December is now the recognised festival of the birth of Jesus, but few are aware that this has not always been so. There have been, it is said, one hundred and thirty-six different dates fixed on by different Christian sects. Lightfoot gives it as 15th September, others as in February or August. Epiphanius mentions two sects, one celebrating it in June, the other in July. The matter was finally settled by Pope Julius I, in 337 A. D., and S. Chrysostom, writing in 390, says : ' On this day [.i.e., 25th December] also the birth of Christ was lately fixed at Rome, in order that while the heathen were busy with their ceremonies [the Brumalia, in honour of Bacchus] the Christians might perform their rites undisturbed.' Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman [Page 140] Empire, writes: ' The [Christian] Romans, as ignorant as their brethren of the real date of his [Christ's birth] fixed the solemn festival to the 25th December, the Brumalia or winter solstice, when the Pagans annually celebrated the birth of the Sun.' King, in his Gnostics and Their Remains, also says: ' The ancient festival held on the 25th December in honour of the birthday of the Invincible One,[The festival "Natalia Solis Invicti", the birthday of the Invincible Son. ] and celebrated by the great games at the Circus, was afterwards transferred to the commemoration of the birth of Christ, the precise date of which many of the Fathers confess was then unknown;' while at the present day Canon Farrar writes that 'all attempts to discover the month and day of the nativity are useless. No data whatever exist to enable us to determine them with even approximate accuracy.' From the foregoing it is apparent that the great festival of the winter solstice has been celebrated during past ages, and in widely separated lands, in honour of the birth of a God, who is almost invariably alluded to as a ' Saviour,' and whose mother is referred to as a pure virgin. The striking resemblances, too, which have been instanced not only in the birth but in the life of so many [Page 141] of these Saviour-Gods are far too numerous to be accounted for by any mere coincidence". [Williamson. The Great Law, pp. 40-42, Those who wish to study this matter as one of Comparative Religion cannot do better than read The Great Law, whose author is a profoundly religious man and a Christian. ] 

In the case of the Lord Buddha we may see how a myth attaches itself to a historical personage. The story of His life is well known, and in the current Indian accounts the birth-story is simple and human. But in the Chinese account He is born of a virgin, Mâyâdevi, the archaic myth finding in Him a new Hero.

Williamson also tells us that fires were and are lighted on the 25th December on the hills among Keltic peoples, and these are still known among the Irish and the Scotch Highlanders as Bheil or Baaltinne, the fires thus bearing the name of Bel, Bal, or Baal, their ancient Deity, the Sun-God, though now lighted in honour of Christ.[Ibid., pp. 36, 37. ]

Rightly considered, the Christmas festival should take on new elements of rejoicing and of sacredness, when the lovers of Christ see in it the repetition of an ancient solemnity, see it stretching all the world over, and far, far back into dim antiquity; so that the Christmas bells are ringing throughout human history, and sound [Page 142] musically out of the far-off night of time. Not in exclusive possession, but in universal acceptance, is found the hall-mark of truth.

The death-date, as said above, is not a fixed one, like the birth-date. The date of the death is calculated by the relative positions of Sun and Moon at the spring equinox, varying with each year, and the deathdate of each Solar Hero is found to be celebrated in this connection. The animal adopted as the symbol of the Hero is the sign of the Zodiac in which the Sun is at the vernal equinox of his age, and this varies with the precession of the equinoxes. Oannes of Assyria had the sign of Pisces, the Fish, and is thus figured. Mithra is in Taurus, and, therefore, rides on a Bull, and Osiris was worshipped as Osiris-Apis, or Serapis, the Bull. Merodach of Babylon was worshipped as a Bull, as was Astarte of Syria. When the Sun is in the sign of Aries, the Ram or Lamb, we have Osiris again as Ram, and so also Astarte, and Jupiter Ammon, and it is this same animal that became the symbol of Jesus — the Lamb of God. The use of the Lamb as His symbol, often leaning on a cross, is common in the sculptures of the catacombs. On this Williamson says: "In the course of time the Lamb was represented on the cross, but it was [Page 143] not until the sixth synod of Constantinople, held about the year 680, that it was ordained that instead of the ancient symbol, the figure of a man fastened to a cross should be represented. This canon was confirmed by Pope Adrian I". [The Great Law, p. 116. ] The very ancient Pisces is also assigned to Jesus, and He is thus pictured in the catacombs.

The death and resurrection of the Solar Hero at or about the vernal equinox is as wide-spread as his birth at the winter solstice. Osiris was then slain by Typhon, and He is pictured on the circle of the horizon, with outstretched arms, as if crucified — a posture originally of benediction, not of suffering. The death of Tammuz was annually bewailed at the spring equinox in Babylonia and Syria, as were Adonis in Syria and Greece, and Attis in Phrygia, pictured "as a man fastened with a lamb at the foot". [Ibid., p. 68.] Mithras' death was similarly celebrated in Persia, and that of Bacchus and Dionysius — one and the same — in Greece. In Mexico the same idea reappears, as usual accompanied with the cross. 
In all these cases the mourning for the death is immediately followed by the rejoicing over the resurrection, and on this it is interesting to notice [Page 144] hat the name of Easter has been traced to the virgin-mother of the slain Tammuz, Ishtar.[Ibid., p. 56. ]

It is interesting also to notice that the fast preceding the death at the vernal equinox, — the modern Lent — is found in Mexico, Egypt, Persia, Babylon, Assyria, Asia Minor, in some cases definitely for forty days. [ Ibid., pp. 120-123. ]

In the Pseudo-Mysteries, the Sun-God story was dramatised, and in the ancient Mysteries it was lived by the Initiate, and hence the solar "myths" and the great facts of Initiation became interwoven together. Hence when the Master Christ became the Christ of the Mysteries, the legends of the older Heroes of those Mysteries gathered round Him, and the stories were again recited with the latest divine Teacher as the representative of the Logos in the Sun. Then the festival of His nativity became the immemorial date when the Sun was born of the Virgin, when the midnight sky was filled with the rejoicing hosts of the celestials, and Very early, very early, Christ was born.

As the great legend of the Sun gathered round Him, the sign of the Lamb became that of His crucifixion as the sign of the Virgin had become that of His birth. We have seen that [Page 145] the Bull was sacred to Mithras and the Fish to Oannes, and that the Lamb was sacred to Christ, and for the same reason; it was the sign of the spring equinox, at the period of history in which He crossed the great circle of the horizon, was "crucified in space".

These Sun myths, ever recurring throughout the ages, with a different name for their Hero in each new recension, cannot pass unrecognised by the student, though they may naturally and rightly be ignored by the devotee; and when they are used as a weapon to mutilate or destroy the majestic figure of the Christ, they must be met, not by denying the facts, but by understanding the deeper meaning of the stories, the spiritual truths that the legends expressed under a veil.

Why have these legends mingled with the history of Jesus, and crystallised round Him, as a historical personage ? These are really the stories not of a particular individual named Jesus but of the universal Christ; of a Man who symbolised a Divine Being, and who represented a fundamental truth in nature; a Man who filled a certain office and held a certain characteristic position towards humanity; standing towards humanity in a special relationship, renewed age after age, as generation succeeded generation, as [Page 146] race gave way to race. Hence He was, as are all such, the "Son of Man", a peculiar and distinctive title, the title of an office, not of an individual. The Christ of the Solar Myth was the Christ of the Mysteries, and we find the secret of the mythic in the mystic Christ. [Page 147]



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