Birth of the Invincible Sun

Birth of the Invincible Sun

Birth of the Unconquered Sun

In the first centuries after the death of Jesus, a new religious cult swept across the Roman Empire. Traditional Roman religion included festivals and ceremonies associated with a wide variety of gods. Followers of the new religion focused their devotions on one god. They called this god "Mithras" or "Sol" and observed his birthday on December 25 with a festival known as the Natalis Sol Invicti, or the Birth of the Invincible Sun.

Origins of Mithraism

The god Mithras originated in Persia. Ancient Hindu and Zoroastrian texts mention a minor god, Mithra or Mitra, who was associated with the sun, the light that falls between heaven and earth, mediation, and contracts. Most scholars believe that Roman soldiers encountered this god when stationed in the eastern part of the Empire. As their military assignments moved them from one region to another, they spread the cult of Mithras throughout the Roman world. The image of the god changed as the cult of Mithras developed and grew. To his Roman followers Mithras became the god who created the world, the god who would never age or die, the one who was the first and last cause of all things, who upheld standards of justice and truth, and who would bring about a just, new age that would last forever.

Roman Sun God Worship

Mithraism began to spread throughout the Roman Empire in the late first century. The religion reached the height of its popularity in the second through fourth centuries. The Roman Mithras still retained his association with the sun, an association that grew stronger rather than weaker over time, perhaps due to the rising popularity of the Roman sun god, Sol. Although Sol was only one of the group of gods recognized by traditional Roman religion, the Romans viewed Sol and Mithras as more or less the same deity. During the second century Sol became increasingly associated with the supremacy of the emperor and of the Roman Empire. One of Sol's new titles, invictus, or "the invincible one," may well have been borrowed from those titles customarily applied to the emperor.

In 274 the Roman emperor Aurelian (c. 215-275) endorsed Sol's rising popularity by naming the sun god the sole protector of the Empire. He also instituted a festival celebrating the birthday of the god, called "the Birth of the Invincible Sun" (also translated as "Birth of the Unconquered Sun"). Most scholars believe that people celebrated this festival on December 25. Mithraism and the cult of Sol Invictus began to die out in the late fourth century and early fifth century as Christianity became the official religion of the Empire and began to gather large numbers of adherents.

Ceremonies and Celebrations

Very little is known about Roman Mithraism since it demanded that its followers keep Mithraic beliefs and practices secret from outsiders. Archeological investigations have revealed the basic outlines of the religion, however. These include some striking parallels with the emerging Christian faith. Members gathered together periodically to share a common meal. New members of the religion were brought into the faith through a baptismal ceremony. During this ceremony the officiants "sealed" the new members as devotees of Mithras by branding them on their foreheads. The initiate was expected to progress through seven levels of knowledge, each marked by its own sacrament. Finally, a blissful immortality awaited believers after death.

Mithraism also differed from Christianity in important ways. Only men could join the new cult. In fact, Roman soldiers comprised a large percentage of the membership. The sacrifice of a bull appears to have been a central ritual or mythic image in the worship of the god. Remains of Mithraic churches, built to resemble caves, feature wall paintings depicting the god Mithras slaying a bull. Sacred fires seem to have burned on the altars of these churches. Furthermore, astrology appears to have played an important part in Mithraic beliefs. Ancient records attest to the fact that horse races were held in the Roman Circus in honor of the sun god's birthday, but little else is known about how the devotees of Mithras celebrated the festival of his birth. According to the ancient Roman calendar, winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, fell on December 25. Scholars suggest that worshipers viewed this natural event as symbolic of the birth of the sun god and therefore celebrated the festival on that day.

Mithraism and Early Christianity

Mithraism had enough adherents in the first centuries after Jesus' death to provide some degree of competition for the fledgling Christian faith. Its popularity prompted some early Christian leaders to preach against it. They denounced Mithraic ceremonies as misleading parodies of Christian rituals. In spite of their opposition to the cult, in the middle of the fourth century Christian authorities selected December 25 as the day on which to celebrate the Nativity of Jesus Christ. Scholars believe that they did so largely in order to divert people away from competing, pagan celebrations held on or around that date, such as the Birth of the Invincible Sun, Saturnalia, and Kalends.

Further Reading

Fears, J. Rufus. "Sol Invictus." In Mircea Eliade, ed. The Encyclopedia ofReligion. Volume 13. New York: Macmillan, 1987. Gnoli, Gherardo. "Mithraism." In Mircea Eliade, ed. The Encyclopedia ofReligion. Volume 9. New York: Macmillan, 1987. Heinberg, Richard. Celebrate the Solstice. Wheaton, Ill.: Quest Books, 1993. Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. James, E. O. Seasonal Feasts and Festivals. 1961. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1993. Salzman, Michele Renee. On Roman Time. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1990. Smith, C. "Christmas and Its Cycle." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 3. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967.
References in periodicals archive ?
A strong theory suggests that this date was eventually chosen by the church because it aligned closely with a major pagan festival, dies natalis solis invicti (birth of the invincible sun god), thus allowing the church to claim a new celebration for Christianity.