The Pagan Attis and Christian Jesus: A Spurious Connection?
Recently, it has been popular to suggest in some circles that Christianity was influenced, or even derived from, the ancient Roman mystery religions – religions often known to have orgiastic rituals and connection to a personal god. One pagan figure that is popular among proponents of this idea is Attis, a Phrygian god associated with vegetation and consort of the goddess Cybele. Attis is claimed to have been born of a virgin, crucified on a tree and rose again from the dead in a similar manner to Jesus. Those elements may sound similar, however closer examination shows that there is little evidence for these claims and that the original myth bears little resemblance to the Gospel narrative.
Mystery Religions and Christianity
Mystery religions arose during the Hellenistic Period and continued into the Roman Period until about the 5th century, when most pagan traditions in the Roman Empire were replaced by Christianity. They were characterized by elaborate orgiastic rituals, secret knowledge, and an emphasis on a direct personal relationship with a particular god.
The old Greek and Roman gods were distant and indifferent to human concerns. The gods of the mystery religions, however, genuinely cared about humanity and could be personally accessed with relative ease. Isis, the Egyptian goddess and the subject of a particularly popular mystery religion, fed the Nile with her tears and, in the past, was responsible for nurturing Pharaoh and giving him his divine power to govern Egypt effectively.
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Isis with Horus the Child. ( Public Domain )
Since Christianity has some similarities to these religions, some scholars have compared them to Christianity. Some claim to have found a lot of parallels to Christianity in mystery religions, particularly in the cult of the god Attis. Attis was associated with the goddess Cybele. The cult of Attis was a religion which involved orgiastic rites and rituals. The priests of the religion, the Gallai, were eunuchs. This requirement was part of a re-enactment of one of the principle myths regarding Attis and Cybele. It is claimed by some that Attis died on a tree and rose from the dead. It is also claimed that he was born on December 25th and that he was born of the virgin, Nana.
Attis performing a dance of the Cybele cult. ( Public Domain )
Attis Myths and Truth
How much truth is there to these claims? Not a lot of details are available regarding Attis, but most sources do not mention any of these similarities and the only ones that do mention them postdate the time of Jesus by several centuries and were written by Christian authors - meaning that any similarity to Christianity may have been due to the religion being interpreted through a Christian lens. Also, if the actual myth is examined, it bears little resemblance to the Gospel narrative.
According to one version of the myth, Attis was made high priest by Cybele and one of the requirements was chastity on the part of Attis. When he broke this vow of faithfulness to her with a nymph, she caused him to go insane and he eventually castrated himself. After he regained his senses, he committed suicide and she turned him into a tree which became sacred to her.
Cybele and Attis (seated right, with Phrygian cap and shepherd's crook) in a chariot drawn by four lions, surrounded by dancing Corybantes (detail from the Parabiago plate; embossed silver, c. 200–400 AD, found in Milan, now at the Archaeological Museum of Milan). ( Giovanni Dall’Orto )
In another version of the myth, Attis, a celibate high priest, was running from a king who was sexually interested in him. When he was caught, Attis castrated the king, prompting the king, dying from blood loss, to do the same to Attis out of revenge. In this version Attis was found dead by Cybele under a tree.
Although there are many versions of the myth, most of them end with some sort of castration and Attis either dying under a tree or being transformed into a tree.
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Statue of Attis, 2nd half of 2nd century AD, Hierapolis Archaeology Museum, Turkey. (Carole Raddato/ CC BY 2.0 )
Differences Between the Attis Story and Gospel Narrative
There are versions of the myth more like the story found in the gospels, but they post-date Christianity by several centuries and were more likely influenced by Christianity, rather than the other way around. Another thing to note, is that no salvation offer is made in this story. Attis’ death is tragic, but that is all it is, a tragic end. His death does not absolve anyone of sins. In one myth, when he dies, flowers grow up where his blood flows, but his blood doesn’t seem to affect anyone not interested in flowers.
Attis was also a vegetation god and the connection between his death and a tree was thought to symbolize the cycle by which vegetation is reduced in the summer and fall months and returns in the spring. Such themes are absent from the gospels, where Jesus only dies once and is resurrected only once.
‘Christ’s Appearance to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection’ (1835) by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov. ( Public Domain )
In all, it seems that the similarity between Attis and Jesus is exaggerated. There is no evidence to suggest that Attis was killed in a manner similar to Jesus or acted as a deity who could bring salvation to all mankind until centuries after the rise of Christianity, when these changes were more likely made to compete with the growing religion of Christianity.
Top Image: Right: Detail of a statue of a reclining Attis. The Shrine of Attis is situated to the east of the Campus of the Magna Mater in Ostia. (archer10/ CC BY SA 2.0 ) Statue of Jesus Christ as a shepherd with a lamb. ( Public Domain )
By Caleb Strom
“Attis.” Theoi.com. Available at: http://www.theoi.com/Phrygios/Attis.html
“Attis, Cybele, and Jesus” by James Patrick Holding. Tektonics Apologetics Ministries. Available at: http://www.tektonics.org/copycat/attis.php
“Cybele Cult.” Theoi.com. Available at: http://www.theoi.com/Cult/KybeleCult.html
Witt, Reginald Eldred. Isis in the ancient world . Vol. 2. JHU Press, 1997.