Christian saints who fight dragons or get torn to pieces by angry mobs are actually based on the lives of pagan deities and heroes. When Christianity was trying to win over the general population, it just appropriated their traditional stories. And rebranded old pagan stories as Christian tales.
So, for example, a female pagan goddess in a town or village would then become Our Lady of (insert name of aforementioned town or village). While God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were at the centre of Christian theology – worshipping goddesses had always been an important part of life for millions of people. So the old pagan goddess got a makeover and became the mother of Jesus and Queen of Heaven.
From a revered pagan to a Christian saint
The cheekiest rebrand has to be the 4th/5th century pagan philosopher Hypatia, ripped to bits at the hands of a Christian mob in Alexandria, Egypt. This philosopher and mathematician was a popular and respected teacher in her home city. But she was also an adviser to the Roman prefect Orestes and opposed the power hungry bishop, Cyril. As a result, a Christian mob lynched her and murdered Hypatia in a manner so awful I’m going to spare you the details.
This assassination appalled people throughout the Roman Empire. And immediately, Christian writers tried to find ways to extricate the newly recognised religion from this unholy mess. Over the centuries, a story emerged of a woman called Catherine of Alexandria, a learned saint martyred for her faith. By pagans of course.
There is zero evidence that Catherine ever existed. She is more than likely an intriguing piece of medieval fiction crudely superimposed on to Hypatia. For her part, Hypatia definitely existed. A few years ago, her life story was brought to the silver screen in a very underrated movie.
Umpteen Christian saints based on pagan lives
In the east, Christian missionaries rubbed up against the stories of Siddhartha Gautama – who became the Buddha. But they didn’t let that obstacle get them down. Instead, they changed the Buddha into the story of Barlaam and Josaphat. In this very odd account, the apostle Thomas journeys to India and converts many to Christianity.
But years later, an Indian king called Abenner persecutes the Christians. However, astrologers predict to the king that his son Josaphat will convert to Christianity. The enraged monarch throws his son out into the wilds. While there, the poor boy meets a Christian hermit called Barlaam and indeed adopts the faith. His father, realising the error of his ways (of course), hands his throne over to his Christian son.
This story was popular in Georgia, central Asia and depicted in medieval art. But the comparisons to the Buddha story have always been glaring.
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From Pagan god to Christian saint
Some Christian authors today have tried hard to erase the link between Christian saints and the pagan tales their life stories are based on. But it’s not difficult to understand how this kind of thing happened.
Imagine you’re a Christian missionary trying to convert a village in Roman Gaul. Throughout the Roman Empire, conservative minded rural communities were always the most resistant to Christianity. They revered their traditional Gods because they believed that these deities guaranteed the harvest and warded off evils like disease and poverty.
You haven’t got forever as a missionary to convert these people. So, either you prove through miracles that their deities don’t work. Or you co-opt them. Make it easy for ill-educated, illiterate folk to transition to the new faith.
And we see writings from early missionaries in the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries bemoaning the fact that once they turned their backs on a community, the peasants reverted to the old Gods. And their traditional festivities and sacrifices. It was a long, hard slog to impose Christianity and sometimes, a few corners had to be cut.
4 thoughts on “Christian saints based on pagans”
In 1079 SEBORGA became a Principality of the Holy Roman Empire.
In 1118 the Prince/Abbot Edward ordained the first nine templars (or Knights of Saint Bernard) and the Principality of SEBORGA became the first and unique sovereign Cistercian State in history. In 1127 the nine Templars returned from Jerusalem to SEBORGA. Saint Bernard was waiting for them and ordained Hugues de Payns to be the first Grand Master of Saint Bernard’s Knights.
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, not tall and slim build, of poor health, pale with curly hair yet strong and stubborn arrived in Seborga in February 1117, to join Gondemar and Rossal whom he had sent for June 1113, in order to protect the “Great Secret.”
The raining prince at the time was Prince Abbot Edward, born near Tulon, a tall man with a soft heart. In September 1118 he ordained the first Knights Templar who formed the famous “Poor Militia of Christ.” They were Abbot Gondemar and Rossal, Andre de Montbar Count Hugues I de Champagne, Hugues de Payns, Payen de Mont Didier, Geoffroy de Saint-Omer, Archambaud de Saint Amand and Geoffroy Bisol.
All left Seborga in November 1118, eight arrived in Jerusalem in the morning of May 14th. 1119, Hugues de Champagne joined them six years later on the same day at the same time.
In 1127 the nine Templars from Jerusalem to Seborga on the first Advent Sunday of 1127.
Saint Bernard was waiting for them together with Friar Gerard de Martigues who in 1112 had formed the order of the Knights of Malta.
In Seborga in the presence of all the population of 23 Knights and over 100 militias Saint Bernard ordained Hugues de Payns to be the first Grand Master of Saint Bernard Knights.
The consecration with the sword was made by Prince Abbot Edward.
In that same day a vow of silence was made between Saint Bernard of the Knights and the Great Bishop of the Cathars to safeguard “The Great Secret.”
On the Knights Templars 15 were also the Princes of the Cistercian Principality of Seborga, one of theme Guillaume de Chartres died in Seborga as a result of being wounded in the Holy land. In 1611 the last known vow of silence took place in the presence of father Cesario da San Paolo who also became Grand Master, as a remembrance of this day on every roof of Principality were placed 13 roof tiles with the incision- number 13 the date 1611, the letters C.S., and Templar cross.
“Historian Karen Ralls claims that Saladin often reserved the nastiest post-battle treatment for the Templars and Hospitallers on account of their penchant for pain”
In the Islamic Tradition Martyrdom is considered a gift which immediately negates all past sins, this is the same in the Christian Tradition where the “Crown of Martyrdom” is seen as the assurance of faith.
“For I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” – (Galatians 6:17)
“For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead: And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again.” – (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)
“I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:7-8)
“”Which one of the Prophets did your fathers not persecute, and they killed the ones who prophesied the coming of the Just One, of whom now, too, you have become betrayers and murderers.” (Acts 7:52)
And most specifically “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:56) where Martyrdom is equated with the Transfiguration.
Within the Tradition Saladin was honoring the Templars by making them Martyrs.
“Friends on that day will be foes one to another, save those who kept their duty” Quran Surah 43:67
“On no soul do We place a burden greater than it can bear: before Us is a record which clearly shows the truth: they will never be wronged.” Quran Surah 23:62
“But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy. If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified.
But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters. Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.
For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? ” 1 Peter 4:13-17
“And (Jesus) shall be a Sign (for the coming of) the Hour (of Judgment): therefore have no doubt about the (Hour), but follow ye Me: this is a Straight Way.” Quran Surah 43:61
In our contemporary understanding we have a difficult time understanding this relationship with G-d, however Muhammed had nothing but praise for Jesus and the Quran is fairly explicit about the validity of his Spirit. Think of the stories about Saladin and Richard Coeur d’Leon, this is the same level of respect he was showing the Templars when he gave the the highest honor he could to those who took up arms for their faith.
In Hinduism we can see this in the Kshatriya, or ‘warrior caste’. The Bhagavad Gita is explicit in it’s description of this Tradition:
“Arjuna told Krishna, “Take us out between the armies.”
Krishna positioned the chariot halfway between the armies, and stopped. It was quieter there; both armies were distant; Arjuna looked out.
“I see my brothers there, my cousins, my uncles, the beloved sons of my beloved friends.”
He swung around.
“And there also, there are my cousins, my uncles, the beloved sons of my beloved friends. They are all my brothers, Krishna. It cannot be lawful to kill them. I cannot kill them. I will have no part of this action.”
Krishna answered. “There can be no blame for law-minded action, if you act with the proper dispassionate attitude. You must do the right thing, and be heedless of consequence.”
Arjuna said, “Krishna, all those people are going to die. I will not be responsible for their deaths.”
“Quite right,” said Krishna.
“What do you mean?”
Krishna explained. “We act as instruments of dharma. Everybody on this field today is working out karmic dramas that extend back through lifetimes upon lifetimes. You and I, my best true friend, have been preparing for this battle for hundreds of lifetimes. I remember every one of them. You don’t.”
Arjuna studied his friend.
“Krishna, who are you?”
And there was a flash of light, bright as a thousand suns, and Arjuna saw Krishna’s cosmic form as Narayana, one of the great gods. There, all at once, were all of the planets and all of the stars and all of the gods and all of the demons and spirits, gandarvhas and apsaras, all of the sages and saints, all of the priests and warriors, all that is and all that ever was and all that will be. Arjuna saw, and felt, endless perfect love swelling to fill the everything that Krishna had become. And he saw all the gory deeds that were ever done and the carnage that must come with time; he saw Krishna tall as mountains, black as night, his eyes blazing as he waded through rivers of blood, the mangled corpses of Duryodhana and his brothers dangling from his bloody jaws.
“Krishna, stop!” Arjuna fell to the chariot floor, his head in his hands. “Be just my friend again.”
“But you see how it is, Arjuna,” said Krishna, as he helped his friend up. “You cannot kill them, because they are dead already; their own actions have doomed them. You cannot be responsible for their deaths, because each one is responsible for his own death. In each lifetime, each one does what he has to do, and if he does it selflessly, in love of me, without regard for gain or loss, he may come finally to rest in my perfection and be free of the cycles of action and death.”
So it was not maliciousness on Saladin’s part that lead him to treat the Templars as he did, but rather respect and full faith in the Divine Will outside of any temporal appearances.
Also in terms of Catherine’s relationship to Hypatia, remember that St. John of the Cross and Therese of Avila were both persecuted for “excessive piety” by secular factions within the Church hierarchy. To view the Church as a unity in it’s physical manifestation is to miss that the only Unity that exists is in G-d, thus Muhammed can speak in praise of the “People of the Book” and Buddhism can speak of “hidden buddhas” and “buddhas of all times and places” and Prophets in Judaism can say that the people of G-d will be taught by a stranger.
Islam means “submission” and Muslim “one who submits”, Catholic means “universal”, it’s only when we start taking secular authority and secular organizations for the truth that divisions arise due to sectarian beliefs that are inconsequential to the teachings of any Tradition. Pythagoras, Diogenes of Sinope, Aristotle, Plato, Avicennia, etc. were all accepted by Orthodox authorities within the Christian Tradition. Hypatia’s martyrdom was not at the hands of believers, it was at the hands of those ridden with jealousy. Historian David Lineberg’s studies have shown that Hypatia’s death “had everything to do with local politics and virtually nothing to do with science,” and we can therefore include religion as well.
Hypatia means “intellectually superior woman” in Greek, Catherine’s etymology leads to ‘εκατερος (hekateros) “each of the two”, or from the name of the goddess Hecate. In the Tradition these names bear the meaning of the stories. Hecate was the consort of Hermes, patron of Neo-Platonism and Hypatia was a Neo-Platonic Philosopher. This may seem like playing with words, but in Traditional cultures these sorts of connections are made fairly explicit. Exploring the connections between the two is a chance to see where their examples meet in the Truth.
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