CORN KING CHRISTIANITY
The Missing Option in the Neo-Pagan Spectrum
Dedicated to the memory of Sir James Frazer on the centennial of the
publication of The Golden Bough, 1890.
publication of The Golden Bough, 1890.
The Christian-Pagan Impasse
What few discussions I have seen dealing with the relationship of Christianity and Neo-Paganism have presupposed that the two entities are mutually exclusive, that friendly coexistence, a gentlemen's disagreement, was the best one could do. Even Evangelical Christians attracted to certain elements of esotericism (e.g., John Warwick Montgomery, Principalities and Powers) would only assimilate such occult data into an orthodox Christian framework The reason for the aloofness between Christianity and Neo-Paganism is occasioned simply by the definition of the latter: Neo-Paganism exists only for the purpose of rejecting Christianity. That is, Neo-Pagans seek to revive various pre-Christian forms of nature-worship or Goddess-worship. Neo-Pagan groups are making a conscious about-face from the Christian tradition which is oriented toward history, not nature, and seeks God beyond nature, not within it. Men and women, too, are seen as standing above nature. Neo-Pagans want instead to reaffirm human continuity and solidarity with Mother Earth, and they see divinity revealed there, in the seasons and the fields. It is not that Pagans hate Christianity (though occasionally their rhetoric implies this, blaming today's Christian religion for the Inquisition and the Crusades); they simply choose to go another way. You would not become a Pagan if you wanted anything to do with Christianity, and vice versa. Some are so excited about the new perspective on life they receive upon joining Wicca or some Egyptian or Odinist group that they sport mischievous buttons emblazoned with the label BORN AGAIN PAGAN. In what follows, I hope to suggest a surprising new meaning for that slogan, and I will argue that there just may be a way to go beyond the Christian-Pagan impasse if one wants to. Having made that Mephistophelean promise, I will proceed.
Christianity & the Mystery Cults
Earlier in this century there was some scholarly controversy over the "Christ-Myth Theory" proposed in the 19th century by Arthur Drews and Bruno Bauer. It was argued that, lacking any independent confirmation from extra-biblical sources, the historian could not be sure there was a historical Jesus. The New Testament epistles, written earlier than the gospels, do not concern themselves with any biographical data about a historical Jesus but rather speak of him as a spiritual presence, a dying and rising deity with whom one joins in mystical, sacramental rites (baptism and the eucharist). Religious historian Gilbert Murray (Five Stages of Greek Religion) proposed that given the similarity between Christianity and the Greco-Roman Mystery Cults (the religious societies of Mithras, Serapis, Isis, and Orpheus, etc.), which also involved resurrected gods and their sacraments, the Christian Jesus might have been one more mythical deity whose death and resurrection symbolized the withering of vegetation in the fall and its return in the spring. As C.S. Lewis summarized it, this theory asked, "is not Christ simply another corn-king?" .
This theory had some real strengths. For example, once one becomes aware of the possibility that Jesus' death and resurrection was another version of the myths whereby Adonis, Persephone, Tammuz, Attis, Osiris, and Hercules Sandan died and rose to symbolize the death and resurrection of vegetation, certain New Testament passages suddenly seem to glow with a new light. For instance, the words of institution at the Last Supper: "This is my body." What is "this"? Bread. "This is my blood," "this" referring to wine. Are not those the words of a vegetation god? He sacrifices his body of grain, his blood of the grape, for humanity. Is this Jesus talking, or John Barleycorn? 1
The death and resurrection imagery might stand also for the burial and sprouting of the seed. Persephone's yearly journeys to Hades and back were compared to the burial of the seed and the sprouting of the crop, which of course it symbolized. It is striking to find in John's gospel these words in which Jesus reflects on his own impending death: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (12:24). Paul uses the same metaphor for the general resurrection of the righteous in 1 Corinthians 15:35ff ("What you sow does not come to life unless it dies," etc.) Admittedly, the image is a natural, even inevitable analogy for resurrection; one cannot prove that it is the origin or original meaning of the idea of resurrection.
Ritual resemblances, too, tempted scholars to declare Christ another corn king. For instance, the ritual mourning for Attis began with the chopping down of a tree. To it was affixed an image of Attis, a crucifix, in short. (Compare 1 Peter 2:24, "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness." The "tree" here is probably just a metaphor for the wooden cross. However one occasionally sees Christian crucifixes depicting Jesus on an actual tree trunk.2 After the ceremony depicting his death, the faithful waited three days and then rejoiced in Attis' resurrection. "Be of good cheer, you of the mystery! Your god is saved; for us also there shall be salvation from ills!" Various rituals (some unspeakably bloody, unlike anything we know of in early Christianity) joined the worshipper with the resurrected god, as did Christian baptism. Attis' worshippers, too, partook of a holy meal, a sacrament not open to outsiders, consisting probably of corn and wine. Osiris' eucharist was bread and beer.
Most scholars were quick to reject this theory. I will not take the time here to detail their arguments that the gospels cannot be discounted as evidence at least for some sort of historical Jesus, that the silence of extra-biblical sources actually does not mean much, that the New Testament epistles do contain some (admittedly few) references to a historical Jesus. As for the parallels between Jesus and Attis, Osiris, Adonis, Tammuz, et al., scholars pointed out that, first, the belief in Jesus' resurrection can be traced back to the earliest days of the Christian movement, among the first disciples, who were unlikely to have been influenced by Hellenistic Mystery religions and may never even have heard of them. Second, the death and resurrection of Jesus was a one-time event in the past, not a repeating, cyclical event, magically occurring again and again with every harvest. Third, our evidence for the Mystery cults' beliefs is fragmentary and late. We have no clear evidence that resurrection was predicated of these deities until the third century. It may be that these religions borrowed the whole notion from Christianity! Fourth, the idea of initiation sacraments by which one was joined with a god is quite old and widespread; Christians may just as easily have derived this feature from apocalyptic Judaism.
The theory would seem to have been quite effectively vanquished. Mainstream scholars now consider the corn king theory merely a curiosity in the history of research. In a somewhat different form, the theory had a resurrection of its own in 1970 when John Allegro (The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross) proposed that there had never been a historical Jesus; rather "Jesus" was a symbolic personification of Amanita Muscaria, the hallucinogenic mushroom used sacramentally by the ancient-Vedic priests. (They called it Soma and did personify it as a god. Many hymns in the Rig Veda are addressed to Soma. (See R. Gordon Wasson, Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality.) Allegro's theory was immediately repudiated by all other scholars.
It seems to me, however, that the corn king theory cannot be dismissed quite so easily. Let us take a second look at the arguments against it. To take the first and third objections together, it turns out that the earliest Christians might have been very familiar indeed with myths of dying and rising gods, and needn't have sought them far from home. The discovery of the Ras Shamra texts in 1929 opened up our knowledge of ancient Canaanite religion. These were tablets detailing the myths of Baal, Anath, and other Canaanite deities often mentioned in the Bible. For the first time, we were, so to speak, able to read Baal's Bible as well as Yahweh's. We are in a position to understand just what myths and rituals the Israelite prophets were warning their people to reject. You know, of course, that for most of their history ancient Israelites adopted the worship of the native Canaanite divinities, against the strident protests of Elijah, Hosea, Isaiah, and others. What is crucial for our purposes is that already in Old Testament times, as the Ras Shamra texts reveal, Baal was worshipped as a dying and resurrected god! Of course this shouldn't have been too surprising since the Bible itself refers to such worship in ancient Israel. Ezekiel condemns the ritual mourning for Tammuz in the Jerusalem temple itself! "Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the house of Yahweh; and behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz" (Ezekiel 8:14). Zechariah 12:11 refers to the ceremonial wailing for Baal under another of his titles: "On that day the mourning in Jerusalem will be as great as the mourning for Hadad-Rimmon in the plain of Megiddo." Hosea mentions the mourning and self-flagellation that anticipated the resurrection of Baal, and he said God rebuked Israelites for practicing it: "They do not cry to me from the heart but they wail upon their beds; for grain and wine they gash themselves. They rebel against me. They turn to Baal." (7:14, 16).
His myths told how Baal had been killed by the death monster Mot. Then he rose from the dead and vanquished Mot and took the throne, proclaimed a king of gods. All this was, then, quite familiar to ancient Israelites, and there is no reason to believe knowledge of these things had vanished by the time of Jesus. For instance, the Revelation of John still knows the myth of the seven-headed dragon Leviathan (“Lotan” in the Ras Shamra texts) rising from the ocean of chaos to be vanquished by God (Revelation 13:1-4).
The second objection, that Jesus' death and resurrection was uniquely historical, not cyclical and nature-based, is somewhat mitigated by the fact that it seems the ancient pagan myths drew the distinction that their deities, too, had once died and risen in the remote past, but that these events were magically recalled each year to celebrate (or even to facilitate) the resurrection of vegetation. Mircea Eliade's research (The Sacred and the Profane, Cosmos and History, etc.) has made ancient thinking clearer on this point. The yearly celebrations did not imply a lack of historicity. The gods had died and risen at some particular time in the past (they could even show you the grave of Zeus in Crete!), but this sacred time of origins is mystically recalled each year to impart creative reality anew. The idea, in fact, is just like that of the Christian eucharist, as far as I can see: Jesus Christ died once for all; he will never die again. Yet his death is recalled, made present again, at every eucharistic celebration. Incidentally, it is worth noting that the similarity between Jesus' resurrection and those of the "corn kings" is not purely the product of ivory-tower scholars comparing ancient texts. John Cuthbert Lawson, in his Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion, recalls how once he chanced to be present in a remote Greek peasant village for their Good Friday and Easter dramas. As the actor playing Jesus was ritually interred, Lawson noticed how an old woman standing beside him seemed greatly agitated: Lawson asked what worried her so. Her response: "If Christ does not rise tomorrow we shall have no harvest this year" (p. 573). It is safe to say this old lady had never read The Golden Bough, but then one might say she didn't need to.
As for the fourth objection, that one needn't have gone all the way to the Mystery Cults for sacraments of mystical incorporation, that is manifestly true. But sacred meals and regenerating baptisms are not the heart of the matter. Where would one have derived a ritual of mourning a death and rejoicing in a resurrection? Of course, if you knew your savior died and rose, you might want to commemorate it. That would be enough. But it no longer looks quite so implausible to suggest that the Christian ritual was borrowed from-those of pagan cults since these had already been practiced by Jews in Jerusalem itself. And by Jews who, like the disciples of Jesus, would have considered themselves Yahweh-worshippers, too. It wasn't an either-or proposition. Ancient Israelites worshipped Yahweh and Anath, Yahweh and Tammuz. One could do this because Yahweh was for most of Israelite history considered the head of a pantheon, not the only God (see Psalms 29, 82, 95).
I wonder, in fact, if the mythology of Baal might not be more important for understanding the New Testament than the Old. Here is Sigmund Mowinckel's summary of the Baal myth: "In the religious texts from the town of Ugarit (Ras Shamra) in Phoenicia, the feast of rains - the harvest and new year festival - signifies the revival and resurrection of the god Baal or Aleyan Baal, who having conquered death (Mot), seats himself on the throne and is proclaimed king of gods and men" (The Psalms in Israel's Worship, vol. 2, p. 132). Especially when one recalls that in the Canaanite pantheon, Baal was the son of EI (= "God," just as in the Hebrew Bible), Baal's resurrection victory sounds amazingly like that attributed to Jesus in the early Christian preaching. For example, the hymn quoted by Paul in Philippians 2:6-11: "he humbled himself and became obedient unto death. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord." Or Acts 2:32-33, "This Jesus God raised up ... (he is) therefore exalted at the right hand of God." The Christian preaching was that God's son Jesus by his death and resurrection had defeated Death and been enthroned as Lord. I cannot help but wonder if the early Christians appropriated the old resurrection theology of Baal to explain what happened to Jesus.
To say this, by the way, does not imply that there was no historical Jesus, nor even that this Jesus did not rise from the dead. The point is, what set of images, what conceptuality lay ready to hand for use to interpret Jesus and his fate? Along similar lines, scholars commonly suggest that the New Testament writers borrowed the notion of Jesus' preexistence from the Jewish philosophical speculation about Sophia, the divine Wisdom through whose agency God created the world. If Baal-mythology supplied the category of a son of God's resurrection triumph and enthronement as Lord, we must raise the question of the nature- and vegetation-associations. Originally the Baal myth symbolized the flowering of nature. Was all this stripped away in the Christian appropriation of the myth? Perhaps not. Paul sees the resurrection of Jesus not only as the "first fruits" of the harvest of the dead (the general resurrection, 1 Corinthians 15:22-23) but as the agent of nature's resurrection, too: "For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God ... because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the liberty of the children of God" (Romans 8:19-22).
As if in anticipation of this, and with a tip of the hat to the vegetation cults, we Christians today celebrate Easter not only to commemorate Jesus' historical resurrection, but also to celebrate the coming of spring, do we not?
The Options Open to Us
So then, depending on how we evaluate the evidence I have presented, we might come up with either of two possible versions of a "corn king Christianity." The parallels to the myths and rituals of Baal, Attis, Tammuz, et al., might incline one to embrace the full Christ-Myth theory of Drews, Bauer, et. al. In this case one would conclude that Jesus is "simply another corn-king." But one might decide that there was a historical Jesus who and whose fate were interpreted at least to a significant degree by borrowing the Baal myth. Bultmann thought so. So did Joseph McCabe.
If you arrived at the second possibility, I believe your Christian theology might have more of a basis than you thought it did for ecological sensitivity. You should start believing that Jesus died to save the world in a literal sense. And your evangelism ought to include ecological activism.
But if you decide for the Christ-Myth option, you would have the basis for a new/old form of Christianity, a Paganism of Jesus, if you will.
About the same time scholars were leaguing Jesus with Attis, Adonis, and Osiris, Margaret Murray was unwittingly laying the groundwork for today's Pagan Wicca movement. She examined the records of the European witch trials, including that of Joan of Arc, and hypothesized (in her book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, 1921) that witchcraft was not some sort of Satanist Ladies Auxiliary, as had been traditionally believed, but that rather it was the remnant of a pre-Christian nature-religion. Christians encountered that religion's worship of the Horned God, a fertility deity, and stigmatized him as Satan. (Note the similarity in appearance between Baphomet, the Satanic goat-avatar, and the Greek nature deity Pan, for instance). Originally the nature-religion had nothing to do with Satan or evil.
Gerald Gardner, Isaac Bonewits, and others have taken Margaret Murray's theory, which is quite dubious in the estimation of most historians, and, assuming its truth, have decided to reconstruct the pre-Christian paganism as Murray described it. They have made a living religion of it, and Wicca
is the result. What I mean to suggest is that if one found the Christ-Myth theory convincing, one might as easily reconstruct that hypothetical "pre-Christian Christianity," that "corn king Christianity" in which the dying and rising Jesus was seen to be the embodiment of Nature, or of vegetation. One might observe the eucharist as the celebration of Jesus-nature's gifts of bread and wine. The eucharist and baptism might be sacraments of union with the divine power, along the lines of the spiritual initiation of the Mystery Cults. The quarterly and cross-quarterly seasonal holidays, celebrated by Pagans as Samhain, etc., etc., might be celebrated by Christo-pagans under their Christian names, Hallowmas, Christmas, Candlemas, Easter, Roodmas, St. John's Eve, Lammas, Michaelmas. We already celebrate Easter as the "rite of spring," and we already celebrate Christmas as the Yule Solstice, don't we? All our ivy and trees dragged indoors say we do.
Neo-Pagans have revived just about every known form of pre-Christian paganism, real or hypothetical. Then why not the pre-Christian religion of Jesus Adonis (Adonis, like the Old Testament Adonai, means "Lord")? Corn King Christianity is the missing option in the spectrum of today's Neo-Pagan Revival.
1. Recently I had a dream in which my wife and I found ourselves in a cathedral. We went forward to the communion rail, where the priest offered a strange host that seemed to be a dollop of yellow custard with a wisp of corn silk on top. Instead of the expected words "The body of Christ," he said, "John Barleycorn.")
2. I have one of these. One shocking relic in a Scandinavian church shows Jesus crucified on what is unmistakably a huge penis, underscoring someone's attribution of fertility symbolism to the scene.
By Robert M. Price