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Attis: Born of a Virgin on December 25th, Crucified and Resurrected after Three Days

by D.M. Murdock/Acharya S

'A Roman wood and ivory throne found in the Villa of the Papyri, Herculaneum, showing Attis next to a sacred pine tree collecting a pine cone.' (Photo: Reuters/Archaeology Superintendent of Pompeii)

In many mythicist writings, the ancient Phrygo-Roman god Attis is depicted as having been born of a virgin mother on December 25th, being killed and resurrecting afterwards. Here we shall examine the evidence for these contentions, which parallel the gospel story and Christian tradition concerning Jesus Christ.

Providing a summary of the mythos and ritual of Attis, along with comparisons to Christian tradition, professor of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Manchester Dr. Andrew T. Fear states:

The youthful Attis after his murder was miraculously brought to life again three days after his demise. The celebration of this cycle of death and renewal was one of the major festivals of the metroac cult. Attis therefore represented a promise of reborn life and as such it is not surprising that we find representations of the so-called mourning Attis as a common tomb motif in the ancient world.

The parallel, albeit at a superficial level, between this myth and the account of the resurrection of Christ is clear. Moreover Attis as a shepherd occupies a favourite Christian image of Christ as the good shepherd. Further parallels also seem to have existed: the pine tree of Attis, for example, was seen as a parallel to the cross of Christ.

Beyond Attis himself, Cybele too offered a challenge to Christian divine nomenclature. Cybele was regarded as a virgin goddess and as such could be seen as a rival to the Virgin Mary... Cybele as the mother of the Gods, mater Deum, here again presented a starkly pagan parallel to the Christian Mother of God.

There was rivalry too in ritual. The climax of the celebration of Attis' resurrection, the Hilaria, fell on the 25th of March, the date that the early church had settled on as the day of Christ's death.... (Lane, 39-40)

As we can see, according to this scholar, Attis is killed, fixed to a tree, and resurrects after three days, while his mother is "regarded as a virgin goddess" comparable to the Virgin Mary.

These conclusions come from the writings of ancient Pagans, as well as the early Church fathers, including Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Tatian, Tertullian, Augustine, Arnobius and Firmicus Maternus.

Born of the Virgin Nana

The Phrygian god Attis's mother was variously called Cybele and Nana. Like the Egyptian goddess Isis and the Christian figure Mary, Nana/Cybele is a perpetual virgin, despite her status as a mother. The scholarly term used to describe virgin birth is "parthenogenesis," while many goddesses are referred to as "Parthenos," the Greek word meaning "virgin." This term is applicable to the Phrygian goddess Cybele/Nana as well.

"Attis is the son of Cybele in her form as the virgin, Nana."

Medallion of Cybele in chariot, under the sun, moon and star; 2nd cent. BCE, Ai Khanoum, Afghanistan (Singh, 94)

The diverse names of Attis's mother and her manner of impregnation are explained by Dr. David Adams Leeming (25), professor emeritus of English and comparative literature at the University of Connecticut:

Attis is the son of Cybele in her form as the virgin, Nana, who is impregnated by the divine force in the form of a pomegranate.

Regarding Nana, in Virgin Mother Goddesses of Antiquity (111), Dr. Marguerite Rigoglioso states:

...Another instance of spontaneous conception occurred when Nana, whose very name was one by which the Great Goddess was known, became pregnant simply by eating the tree's fruit...

December 25th

The "December 25th" or winter-solstice birth of the sun god is a common theme in several cultures around the world over the past millennia, including the Egyptian, among others. As it is for the Perso-Roman god Mithra, the Egyptian god Horus and the Christian godman Jesus, this date has likewise been claimed for Attis's nativity as well. For example, Barbara G. Walker (77) writes:

Attis's passion was celebrated on the 25th of March, exactly nine months before the solstitial festival of his birth, the 25th of December. The time of his death was also the time of his conception, or re-conception.

"Each year, Attis was born at the winter solstice."

In this same regard, Shirley Toulson (34) remarks:

In the secret rites of this Great Mother the young god Attis figured as her acolyte and consort.... Each year he was born at the winter solstice, and each year as the days shortened, he died.

The reasoning behind this contention of the vegetative and solar god Attis's birth at the winter solstice is sound enough, in that it echoes natural cycles, with the god's death at the vernal equinox also representing the time when he is conceived again, to be born nine months later.

Moreover, at times the young Attis was merged with Mithra, whose birthday was traditionally held on December 25th and with whom he shared the same Phrygian capped attire.

Attis wearing a Phrygian cap

Marble bust of Attis wearing Phrygian cap
2nd cent.  ad/ce
(Paris)

Mithra wearing a Phrygian cap

Mithra in a Phrygian cap
2nd cent.  ad/ce
Rome, Italy
(British Museum, London)

Crucified

The myths of Attis's death include him being killed by a boar or by castrating himself under a tree, as well as being hung on a tree or "crucified." Indeed, he has been called the "castrated and crucified Attis." (Harari, 31) It should be noted that the use of the term "crucified" as concerns gods like Horus and Attis does not connote that he or they were thrown to the ground and nailed to a cross, as we commonly think of crucifixion, based on the Christian tale. In reality, there have been plenty of ancient figures who appeared in cruciform, some of whose myths specifically have them punished or killed through crucifixion, such as Prometheus.

"The god has been called the 'castrated and crucified Attis.'"

Moreover, Attis is said to have been "crucified" to a pine tree, while Christ too was related as being both crucified and hung on a tree (Acts5:30 ;10:39). As stated by La Trobe University professor Dr. David John Tacey (110):

Especially significant for us is the fact that the Phrygian Attis was crucified upon the tree...

In antiquity, these two concepts were obviously similar enough to be interchangeable in understanding.

Tomb/Three Days/Resurrected

We have already seen Dr. Fear's commentary that Attis was dead for three days and was resurrected, worth reiterating here:

"The youthful Attis after his murder was miraculously brought to life again three days after his demise."

Death of AttisThe death and resurrection in three days, the "Passion of Attis," is also related by Professor Merlin Stone (146):

Roman reports of the rituals of Cybele record that the son...was first tied to a tree and then buried. Three days later a light was said to appear in the burial tomb, whereupon Attis rose from the dead, bringing salvation with him in his rebirth.

Concerning the discovery of a throne at Herculaneum, Italy, buried in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD/CE, archaeologist Dr. Mark Merrony remarks:

...Unusually, the throne is carved with scenes depicting the mystery cult of Attis, which spread to Rome from Turkey via Greece during the reign of Claudius (AD 41-54). Essentially, historical texts indicate that this cult was concerned with the life, death, and resurrection of the goddess, and involved several key stages enacted in March: the procession of the reed-bearers and flute-blowers; the entrance of the sacred pine tree; the burial of the effigy of Attis strapped to a stake; mourning, sacrifice, and bloodletting; and the resurrection of Attis. The best-preserved scene on the throne shows the deity collecting a pine cone next to a sacred pine tree.

There is a debate as to when the various elements were added to the Attis myth and ritual. Contrary to the current fad of dismissing all correspondences between Christianity and Paganism, the fact that Attis was at some point a "dying and rising god" is concluded by Dr. Tryggve Mettinger, a professor of Old Testament Studies at the University of Lund and author of The Riddle of the Resurrection, who relates: "Since the time of Damascius (6th cent. ad/ce), Attis seems to have been believed to die and return." (Mettinger, 159) By that point, we possess clear discussion in writing of Attis having been resurrected, but when exactly were these rites first celebrated and where? Attis worship is centuries older than Jesus worship and was popular in some parts of the Roman Empire before and well into the "Christian era."

In the case of Attis, we possess a significant account of his death and mourning in the writings of the Greek historian of the first century BCE, Diodorus Siculus (3.58.7), including the evidently annual ritual creation of his image by priests, indicative of his resurrection. Hence, these noteworthy aspects of the Attis myth are clearly pre-Christian. The reason these motifs are common in many places is because they revolve around nature worship, solar mythology and astrotheology.

Bibliography

Harari, Josue V. Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structural Criticism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979.
Lane, Eugene N., ed. Cybele, Attis and Related Cults. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996.
Leeming, David Adams. Mythology: The Voyage of the Hero. New York/Oxford University Press, 1998.
Merrony, Mark. "An Ivory Throne for Herculaneum." minervamagazine.com/news.asp?min_issue=MAR_APR2008
Mettinger, Tryggve D. The Riddle of the Resurrection. Coronet, 2001.
Murdock, D.M. Christ in Egypt: The Horus-Jesus Connection. Seattle: Stellar House Publishing, 2009.
--"The Real ZEITGEIST Challenge." stellarhousepublishing.com/zeitgeist-challenge.html
Rigoglioso, Marguerite. Virgin Mother Goddesses of Antiquity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
Stone, Merlin. When God was a Woman. New York: Dorset Press, 1990.
Tacey, David John. Patrick White: Fiction, and the Unconscious. Melbourne/New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Toulson, Shirley. The Winter Solstice. London: Jill Norman & Hobhouse, 1981.
Vermaseren, Maarten Jozef. Cybele, Attis, and Related Cults: Essays in Memory of M. J. Vermaseren. Leiden/New York: E.J. Brill, 1996.
Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. HarperSanFrancisco, 1983.

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