The Occult Roots of Christianity
Oct 21, 2004
Author: Boyd Rice
If you were to tell a stranger that you belong to a religious movement whose adherents believed in demons, the raising of the dead, or the invoking of entities to alter worldly events in accordance with their own will, they might logically suspect that you were a member of a Satanic cult. And if you further told them that your faith practiced rituals patterned on the idea of drinking blood and consuming human flesh, they’d no doubt feel certain that such was the case. Yet all of the ideas just mentioned are precepts fundamental to orthodox Christianity. Beliefs that would seem utterly bizarre or inherently occult in any other context are, for mainstream Christianity, simple articles of faith. Even so simple an act as prayer has roots in ancient occult practice and belief. There was a time in which it was thought that there were hierarchies of angels and demons whose aid and assistance could be enlisted by mortal men. Each particular angel or demon was seen to govern some specific aspect of human existence, and by making entreaties to the correct entity, man could achieve his desires. To invoke a demon, one had only to speak his name aloud, say the right words, and command him to do one’s bidding.
In the Catholic Church, the legions of angels and devils have been replaced by saints, but the process involved is essentially identical. Each saint is said to hold dominion over some aspect of daily life, and by offering prayers to them one can receive blessings covering everything from safe travel to baking bread. While asking for blessings obviously seems far more benign than the act of invoking a demon, both practices are rooted in the magical thinking of the far-distant past, and represent different aspects of the same fundamental world-view. In passing, it’s worth noting that the Catholic Church is the last Christian institution which still embraces the concept of the malediction, or in common parlance, the curse. While it is well-known that the early Church consciously co-opted certain aspects of paganism (including pre-Christian holy days), Christianity is so rife with occult concepts that it is difficult not to imagine them as anything other than vestiges of ideas that must have been central to the creed from the very start. After all, some of the most illustrious biblical patriarchs, such as Abraham, Solomon, and Moses were men said to traffic in the black arts. In the time of Christ it was widely believed by both his enemies and his supporters that he too was a sorcerer.
Though the foregoing statement will undoubtedly seem blasphemous to true believers, there is ample evidence in historical sources which indicates that this perception of Christ was not an uncommon one in his own day. Such evidence is explored in-depth in Morton Smith’s landmark book Jesus the Magician. In this book, Smith documents how popular opinion at the time posited that Christ’s miraculous powers were the result of the fact that he “had a demon.” This could mean either that he was possessed by a demon, or exercised control over one. Many believed that John the Baptist had a demon too, and that at the time of his beheading, control of the demon passed from John to Christ. Strangely, for many at the time, the notion that Christ was possessed by a demon didn’t seem at all inconsistent with their perception of him as “divinely inspired.” It is said that many faithful Jews at the time even included the names of demons alongside those of biblical patriarchs when saying their prayers. Examples of this can also be found in some ancient magical incantations, such as this quote from the Papyri Graecae Magicae:
“...Lord of life, King of the heavens and the earth, and all those that dwell therein, whose righteousness has not been turned aside... who has irrefutable truth, whose name and spirit [rest] upon good men, come unto my mind and my vitals for all the time of my life and accomplish for me all the desires of my soul. For you are I and I am you. Whatever I say must happen... for I have taken to myself the power of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and of the great god-demon Iao Ablanathanalba.”
While most of Christ’s early followers didn’t seem to view his status as a magician as any sort of stumbling-block, his opponents used it to discredit him, saying he was a charlatan, a mere sorcerer. After all, the Holy Land of that day had no shortage of would-be messiahs, false prophets and sorcerers. Many of these people were probably charlatans, but by and large the designation of “magician” was by no means synonymous with charlatanism. In fact, according to Morton Smith:
“In Jewish priestly circles of the first century like those of Josephus, to be thought a magician was not necessarily discreditable, and in other Jewish circles it might be taken as a messianic trait.”
Evidently, in Christ’s own lifetime (and the years immediately following), his status as a magician was seen as a messianic trait. As the centuries passed, his powers came to be seen as divinely ordained rather than demonic, and by the fourth century his transition from magician to messiah was complete. In the intervening years however, there was a strange interim period in which the occult tradition of Christ became indistinguishably blurred into what would eventually emerge as Orthodox Christianity. In some cases the occult aspects were subtly present, in others widely overt. In the most pronounced cases, Jesus himself was invoked as a demon, or alternately, as a king of demons whose blessing would confer power over other demons. In a lead curse tablet from first or second century Greece, the goddesses Persephone, Hecate, and Selene are conjured in the name of Jesus to curse an enemy’s “body, spirit, soul, mind, thought, sensation, life, heart.” Another such tablet, from Carthage, reads:
“I conjure you, whoever you are, daemon of the dead, by the god who created the earth and heaven... I conjure you by the god who has authority over the subterranean regions, Neicharoplex... by ... holy Hermes ... Iao .... Sabaoth ... the god of Solomon, Souarmimooth ... the god having authority over this hour in which I conjure you, Jesus.”
Interestingly, the gods mentioned herein seem to be viewed as co-equal, with the ruler of the underworld being called upon in the same breath as he who created the Earth and heavens. And strangely, included in their ranks is “holy Hermes”, whose words Christ seemed to echo in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas. In this context, Jesus (the “demon of the dead”), although being conjured, seems to be an intermediary between man and the gods. The fact that there is a plurality of gods whose power is being invoked here is significant, insofar as it demonstrates that the figure of Christ was indeed viewed at one point as the new evangel of a far more ancient tradition. For some he was a prophet who, in the manner of earlier deified kings, joined the ranks of the gods upon passing from his earthly life. For others, he was a conjurer of demons who became a demon. Though he would ultimately be viewed as the son of the one true God, author Morton Smith asserts that in the centuries leading up to that time, “there is no question that Jesus’ name continued to be used in magic as that of a supernatural power by whose authority demons might be conjured.”
There is ample evidence in the Old Testament, alternative traditions and rabbinic lore that the notion of Christ as a magician or conjurer of demons is no mere misconception or misinterpretation. In fact, it seems to constitute a family heritage of sorts. The patriarch Abraham was said to be well-versed in “the black arts”, and traveled extensively, sharing his knowledge with priests and kings of other lands. In rabbinic lore it was recorded that Solomon conjured the demon Asmodeus to build his mighty temple, as is well-known. And Solomon was also said to have been the author of an influential grimoire, The Key of Solomon, which was revered by occultists as a text of monumental importance for many centuries. Clearly, there are firmly-established traditions in which these patriarchs are remembered as occultists and magicians.
Though to modern sensibilities, much of this seems utterly incomprehensible, these ideas may have originally been viewed in an altogether different light than they are today. For instance, it is widely thought that the word “demon” merely meant spirit, and was initially devoid of any connotation denoting evil entities. The Socratic use of the term daemonic simply referred to a power beyond that of humans. Much of early religion was based upon a form of ancestor worship. Many ancient kings both worshipped their deified forebears, and presented themselves as being their living embodiments - possessed by their very spirit. Invoking the names of demons/spirits may have merely been a form of such ancestor worship. A good many demonic names, when translated according to predominant ancient tongues, bear a remarkable resemblance to many early king titles. For instance, “Asmodeus” can be translated as “the Lord God”, and “Azazel” can be translated as “Lord Son of God.” If the invocation of so-called “demonic” names was an esoteric tradition, known and understood by only a small number of initiates, it’s plain to see how it could easily have been misunderstood or misinterpreted by outsiders. We have already described the used of the names of biblical patriarchs in demonic conjuration, which may be another indication that ancestor worship played a part in the process. But that is just speculation. When all is said and done, the most we can definitively say is that these people believed there were forces exterior to man which could be entreated to conform to his will. As previously mentioned, this view differs little from that of any man who lights a candle and utters a prayer, or invokes the name of a saint in hopes of securing blessings.
Those with an anti-Christian bias point to the fact that there were upwards of a dozen crucified messiahs whose stories closely resembled that of Christ, claiming this constitutes “proof” that Jesus never existed. After all, they argue, mythology is full of dying and resurrected gods such as Tammuz, Dumuzi (1), and others. The fact that Christ’s story shares similar elements must mean that it too is merely another myth. Of course, such an argument doesn’t prove anything of the sort. What it does tend to indicate, it seems, is that Christ was part of a long-standing tradition - a tradition whose tenets are often preserved in myth and symbol.
The traditions from which Christianity is derived date back to a time when religious iconography was highly symbolic. At that time, the symbolism involved seems to have been widely recognized and understood. Although much of this same iconography later played a central role in Christianity, the original meanings have long since been forgotten. Take, for example, the cross, the foremost symbol of Christianity. Ask most Christians its meaning, and they’re likely to tell you that it’s an emblem of their faith because Christ died on the cross. Such an idea seems fairly straightforward, since as often as not when one sees a cross, it is in the form of a crucifix, bearing the image of a crucified Christ. Thus, the conception of the cross as being synonymous with the death of Christ has come to be firmly established in the popular consciousness. In fact, however, the cross was one of the primary religious symbols in many ancient cultures for millennia before the advent of Christ. In both the West and the East, the cross can be traced to the remotest antiquity. Some claim that the origin of the cross lies in the earliest practice of solar religion. At dawn, salutations were given to the Sun as God the Father reborn. People would face the Sun as it rose on the eastern horizon, embracing it ritualistically by extending their arms straight out at their sides. They would then turn away from the Sun and, maintaining the same posture, gaze toward that point on the western horizon where the dying Sun would “sink into the Abyss” later that evening. While looking westward in this manner, the rising Sun cast a long shadow of their body that gave a cross-like appearance. So it was that the cross became a symbol of the Sun as a dying and resurrected god. The later meanings attributed to the cross by orthodox Christianity are but a continuation of the theme of death and resurrection - a theme whose roots go back to the dawn of recorded history.
The single institution in which the overlap of Christian and pre-Christian ideas can be seen most explicitly is without a doubt Roman Catholicism. The emerging Church of Rome absorbed a great many of the rites and ideas that had dominated Roman religion and politics in the centuries prior to the birth of Christ. Much of this had come to Rome by way of Babylon, Sumer and Persia. The idea that the emperor was a living incarnation of God was rooted in the most ancient examples of religion in Sumer and Egypt. During the period when the caesars were looked upon as gods, the role of emperor was also to serve as high priest in the Mithraic mysteries, which were then the state religion. His title in this capacity was “Pontifex Maximus.” Later, as papal authority accrued, the Church of Rome would lay claim to the title Pontifex Maximus as a designation for the Pope. In time Catholicism elaborated a policy which presented the Pope as having a role analogous to that of Christ, representing “the voice of God on Earth.” Such a notion is more in keeping with the ideas that defined pagan Rome than with anything to be found in the Bible. Non-Catholic Christians deemed the idea blasphemous, and harsher critics went so far as to label the Pope an agent of the Devil.
The emblem of papal authority, a logo comprised of two crossed keys surmounted by a crown, also has its roots in pre-Christian religion. The gods and goddesses associated with the mysteries (such as Janus and Diana) were often depicted holding keys. It is altogether probable that early non-Christians who saw this iconography in the context of the new religion may have drawn the conclusion that the Pope was an initiate of the mystery schools, or that he was a living inheritor of the knowledge of the gods. Later, as the intrinsically pagan symbolism of the keys faded from public memory, the Church began to assert that the keys represented the “keys to Heaven” given to the apostle Peter by Christ. Peter, they said, traveled to Rome and became the first Pope. Subsequently, the keys have been passed down to each successive Pope. This is the version of things that has been accepted as official Catholic doctrine, although prior to the first half of the fifth century there had been no mention of St. Peter as the first Pope, or of the keys to Heaven.
The distinctive clothing of the Catholic priesthood for many centuries involved the wearing of a garment that looked rather like a dress. The adoption of this style of clothing may have its genesis in the cult of Attis and Cybele, which originated in Greece in 500 B.C., and remained a strong presence in Rome until around 400 A.D. The central myth of the sect stated that Attis had stood beneath a sacred pine tree and castrated himself as an offering to Cybele. This legend served as the basis of yearly rites held in Spring, in which “priests wearing effeminate costumes” would castrate themselves, burying the knives and severed members in the earth as a “blood sacrifice to the goddess.” Such rites may have been the source of the practice of celibacy in the Catholic priesthood. Most religions have no policy demanding celibacy from their priests, and there seems to be no basis in any Christian literature for the adoption of such a practice. Although there is nothing to indicate that Catholics have participated in ritual castration akin to the goddess cult, there is however a curious quote from The Book of Matthew in which the author refers to priests as “eunuchs of the Kingdom of Heaven.”
The black color of Catholic priestly garb can be traced to Babylon, where the priests of Baal were famous for having dressed in black. Babylon exerted a powerful influence on the religious thought of Rome, and another rite central to Roman Catholicism may also have its roots in the priesthood of Baal. Undoubtedly the most bizarre ritual of the Roman Church is that of Communion - the symbolic consumption of the flesh and blood of Christ. Even as a purely symbolic act, the ceremony’s connotations are barbaric, and seem to have more in common with occultism than Christian doctrine. It is said by some that in certain Babylonian rites, a human sacrifice was required, and that the victim’s flesh and blood was then consumed by participants in the ritual. If such accounts can be taken seriously, this might have served as the basis of the later (purely symbolic) practice of Communion. Though some scholars dismiss the claims of Babylonian sacrifice, it’s interesting to note that our modern word for consuming human flesh, “cannibalism”, is rooted in the Babylonian words “kahane baal” (“priest of Baal”).
In a number of ancient cultures, each year a young man was chosen to act as a living incarnation of one of their gods. He would reside in the temple dedicated to that god, and lead a kingly existence, with no luxury denied him. At the end of a year’s time, however, he would be offered as a sacrifice. Being selected for this role was evidently the highest possible honor, both for the sacrificial victim and his family. When the sacrifice was completed, the man’s flesh would be eaten, evidently as a means of achieving communion with the deity he symbolized. Assuming that this rite may have been associated with the purported human sacrifice and cannibalism said to have been practiced in Babylon, the additional symbolic content of consuming the dead god’s flesh would complete the similarity between the ritual practiced by the Babylonians and the Communion of Catholicism. Though such ideas are not at all in keeping with what we imagine we know about early Christianity, there is perhaps much that we don’t know about it. The emergence of Christianity in pagan Rome was a phenomenon viewed with suspicion and fear. Christians were seen as a dangerous, subversive foreign sect. Their doctrine was seen as seditious, because it denied the emperor’s divinity, and recognized his authority as being second to that of Christ. Chroniclers writing at the time tell us that the Christians were an ungodly sect who held bizarre rituals beneath a full moon. The rituals were said to have climaxed in an orgiastic frenzy, which sometimes involved human sacrifice. Ironically, the very charges leveled against the early Christians by pagan Rome are nearly identical to those later leveled against heretics by papal Rome. And very similar charges were later made against the Jews in medieval Europe. Most serious students of history dismiss all such charges as fabrications, libelous falsehoods intended to demonize any group who fails to conform to the prevailing orthodoxy. Although such an explanation seem immanently rational, and in keeping with human nature, it’s hard to deny that much of early religion involved practices that would today be deemed savage: intoxicated frenzy, orgiastic excess, and sacrifice (both animal and human). Though the early Christians may be entirely innocent of the charges made against them, it is not inconceivable that such practices may have been indulged in by organized groups keeping alive strange traditions from antiquity.
Much of the symbolism of the Church of Rome is derived from the old solar religions, and comes by way of Egypt, Sumer, and (yet again) Babylon. It is a popular misconception that solar religion equates with mere “sun worship”, and is the most primitive of superstitions. In fact, the earliest forms of solar religion, those associated with the worship of the Divine Couple, evince a high level of symbolic purity and sophistication, which seems to have steadily decreased with the rise of polytheism. At any rate, imagery related to the Sun can be found abundantly in Catholicism. It is perhaps most evident in the many depictions of saints. The so-called “haloes” surrounding the heads of saints are identical to the solar discs pictured around the heads of earlier gods and goddesses associated with the Sun. In some cases the solar connotation of these haloes is made even more explicit by the inclusion of a red equilateral cross within them - a sun cross. This image of a solar disc enclosing an equilateral cross is a very ancient sun symbol, and can be seen on the king seals of many Sumerian rulers. These deified kings were seen as being suns of God, and some bore the title “Son of the Sun.” Consequently, they are often pictured in close proximity to this solar icon, as a sign of their divine authority. When the Egyptian pharaoh Ankenaten attempted briefly to institute solar monotheism as the state religion in his land, he too took on the title “Son of the Sun.” The single idea most central to Christianity, that of a man being the son of God, had its origin in the ancient royal concept of the “Son of the Sun.”
For a great many years, Roman priests sported a distinctive hairstyle known as the Roman tonsure. It was defined by a round circle shaved atop the priest’s head toward the back, with a fringe of hair cut to a uniform length surrounding it. The style would eventually be adopted by other religious orders, but its association with Catholicism is the reason it remains known as the “Roman” tonsure. It was a style, however, that was worn for centuries prior to the formation of the Catholic church by priests of the solar religion. The symbolism of the hairstyle was intended to denote the priest as a servant of the sun god. The shaved circle is said to represent the solar disc, and the fringe of hair around it was meant to mimic the Sun’s aureole. Though this tonsure may have been worn by priests of numerous solar sects, it would have been best known to Romans as the style associated with the priesthood of Mithra. At some point the Roman tonsure was evidently phased out. However, high-ranking members of the Roman church often still wear small yarmulke-like headgear which occupies the same spot on their heads as once did the circle of shaved hair.
One of the most long-standing tenets of Judeo-Christianity is its taboo against the use of graven images. This dates back to an age in which other religions made statues of their gods, and many people worshipping such idols perceived them to be actual incarnations of the gods they were meant to represent. It is said that the father of Abraham made his livelihood creating likenesses of these gods of other cultures, such as Baal, Dagon, Astarte, and so on. One day Abraham took one of these idols and smashed it, then stated that it could not possibly be a god, or it could not have been so easily destroyed. This single event seems to have signaled the beginning of the prohibition against idolatry and the graven image. The most extreme example of this prohibition can be seen in the iconoclasts of Constantinople. The original meaning of “iconoclast” is “destroyer of images”, and this fanatical sect took holy writ very literally. They insisted that no statue, painting or depiction of any sort should be allowed to exist portraying divinities, patriarchs, saints, the Madonna, etc., on the grounds that they constituted forbidden graven images. Consequently, churches were sacked, statues demolished, and paintings burned. The great churches of Constantinople must have looked very boring as a result.
In contrast, the Church of Rome seems to have embraced the pre-Christian fondness for statues. Cathedrals in the eternal city abound with statues, paintings, and holy relics, all of which have become the object of veneration over the centuries. In St. Peter’s Basilica, visitors actually kneel before the statues of saints, often kissing their feet or hands. Quite often early Catholic churches were established in buildings which had long been pagan temples, and the very statues of the gods worshipped in pagan times were simply repainted and re-christened as Catholic saints. As often as not, the saint names given to the statues were nearly identical to those of the previous gods. This is commented on in Babylon Mystery Religion by Ralph Woodrow, where he states:
“The goddess Victoria of the Basse-Alpes was renamed as St. Victoire, Cheron as St. Ceranos, Artemis as St. Artemedos, Dionysos as St. Dionysis, etc. The goddess Brighit (regarded as the daughter of the sun-god and represented with a child in her arms) was smoothly renamed as St. Bridget. In pagan days her chief temple at Kildare was served by Vestal Virgins who tended the sacred fires. Later her temple became a convent and her vestals, nuns. The continued to tend the ritual fire, only now it was called ‘St. Bridget’s fire.’”
The practice of using pre-existing pagan idols as Catholic icons was so widespread, it is virtually impossible to ascertain how many of these early images date back to the pre-Christian era. It is particularly difficult in regards to one of the most well-known of Catholic icons: that of the Madonna and child. This image, depicting the goddess holding the Holy Child, was central to pre-Christian religion for millennia prior to Christianity. In Egypt, the mother and child were Isis and Horus; in Babylon, Semiramis and Tammuz. India and China likewise had their equivalents. This image of the sacred mother and her divine child goes back to an age in which worship of the divine couple was still the order of the day. The king and queen were worshipped as earthly incarnations of the couple, and their son, the future king, was seen as having been born “of the gods.” Although the details differ significantly, this is precisely Christ’s implied legacy, that of a king, and of a son of God. And though the Catholic church denied Christ’s dynastic kingship due to his purported “virgin birth”, it is clear that the symbolism of the Madonna and child represented an archetype whose meaning was not lost on converts to the early church.
It is popular to contrast Christianity with paganism, to infer that the two exist separately and distinctly from one another, or are, indeed, creeds diametrically opposed to one another. Clearly, such is not the case. If anything, they constitute a continuum of belief. Though they both exist in markedly different forms, they share many of the same intrinsic values and beliefs with one another. That Christianity is merely an extension of ancient occult traditions should be fairly self-evident by now. What is less self-evident is the extent to which it was an organically occurring process, or part of a conscious campaign. Most writers in this vein look everywhere for the hand of the early priesthood, claiming that they deliberately co-opted many aspects of paganism in a cynical bid to gain converts. While to a limited extent this may be true, it cannot be the whole story. The most fundamentally occult aspects of Christianity were part and parcel of the story of Christ well before any priesthood came into existence. Indeed, it would have been an impossibility for a meddlesome clergy to have thoroughly expunged from Christian doctrine every tenet with innately occult or pagan content. Had they tried to do so, they would have found themselves with nothing left.
Remember that it took roughly four centuries for Christianity to sort itself out. During those years that doctrine was often a bizarre hodge-podge of mysteries, the black arts, Gnosticism, and what-have-you. The emerging priesthood probably had their hands full just trying to find a common ground that would grant a sense of cohesion to the new church. It would take them centuries just to arrive at a consensus about which of their holy texts should be included in (or excluded from) the Bible. In all likelihood, the evolution of what would emerge as Christianity was probably a far more organic process than is generally presumed. It probably represents a logical synthesis of the predominant religious ideas of the time. The inclusion of pagan ideas was only natural, because Christianity was itself pagan in essence. Consequently, rather than being foreign to Christianity, pagan precepts were complimentary to it. This is perhaps the primary reason that Christianity was so attractive to pagans. They recognized and understood the fundamental symbolism of Christianity, and responded to its archetypal paganism. They were familiar with the concept of a dying and resurrected god, and too, the notion of a son of God. All the rich symbolism associated with the “new” creed required little or no explanation. Indeed, the reason for Christianity’s success wasn’t that it was a new creed, but rather that it was not. Had some would-be messiah turned up preaching a doctrine not rooted in centuries-old traditions and archetypes, his message would have probably fallen on deaf ears.
When all is said and done, virtually every form of religion has as its foundation a precept which is innately rooted in the occult. It is precisely this element of the occult which defines religious thought and feeling, and makes faith what it is. It is that factor which above and beyond all else speaks most directly to the soul of man, and hints of mysteries that can never be either wholly understood or adequately explained. Perhaps there exists some motivating force within the twilight world of our ancestral memory which recognizes that the outward symbolism of so many religious modes is actually referring to a much more primordial hidden doctrine - a forgotten faith whose vestiges are preserved in symbol and myth. Perhaps the religious impulse, so inherent in man, is but the most common manifestation of this deeply ingrained instinct. In the words of Philo, “In heaven, to know is to see. On Earth, to remember.”
(1) Editor’s note: “Dumuzi” is merely an alternate pronunciation of “Tammuz.”