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The Hidden Meaning of Christmas

By tracing the figure of the Mother and the Divine Child through the centuries, we can see Christmas taking on a different, archetypal dimension. This holiday can reveal the mysteries of the human mind, which projects outwardly its timeless symbols. If we accept the theories of C. G. Jung, the father of archetypal psychology, religion and myth are a reflection of our internal reality: “Myths … have a vital meaning. Not merely do they represent, they are the psychic life of the primitive tribe… A tribe’s mythology is its living religion… But religion is a vital link with psychic processes independent of and beyond consciousness, in the dark hinterland of the psyche.”[1]

It is no coincidence that the celebration of Christmas was placed immediately after the Winter Solstice. As Carl Kerényi puts it, “the rising sun and the new-born child are just as much an allegory of the Primordial Child as the Primordial Child is an allegory of the rising sun and of all the new born children in the world.”[2] At the same time, the archetypal Child embodies the hope of something new coming, whether it is new life or the unseen potential gestating inside of us. In ancient Greek and Roman traditions the Child took the forms of Dionysus, Hermes, Heracles, and even Eros.

Βρέφος Διόνυσος
Hermes handing the infant Dionysus to the Nymphs in Pan’s Cave, c. 330 BCE, Museum of the Ancient Agora, Athens, Greece. Photo by the author.

If the Child symbolizes the quality of the new, the Mother may embody the power to bring this to light, whether it is a new being or an innovative creation. Thus, she can be simultaneously Mother Nature, who gives birth to everything, as well as the creative ability that dwells within us. Such symbolic figures possess multiple meanings as their roots reach deeply into the human soul.

As a result, it can hardly be accidental that the most important mystery cult of ancient Greece was focused on the primal Mother-Offspring dyad. Yet in this case the offspring was not a son but a daughter, known as Core or Persephone. According to Kerényi, “the figure of the child plays a part in mythology equal to that of the marriageable girl, or Kore, and mother.”[3] The most widely worshiped Mother of Greek religion is none other than Demeter, the protectress of agriculture, another aspect of age-old Gaia.

How Demeter and the Virgin Mary Came to Mirror Each Other

Demeter Persephone
Demeter enthroned with Persephone sitting on her lap. Archeological Museum of Eleusis. Photo by the author.

A women’s festival in honor of Demeter, called the Haloa (from the word halos: threshing floor), was celebrated close to the date of Christmas in Eleusis and other places. It took place on the 26 of the lunar month Poseideon, which approximately corresponds to December. A rich feast was organized to honor the goddess that nourishes people with her crops. Dionysus was worshiped too along with Demeter; in some myths he is portrayed as the son of the Core/Persephone.

In the ancient mind, women’s fertility was inextricably tied to that of the Earth. During the Haloa, instead of celebrating the birth of a holy child by the Divine Mother, people honored her power to bear fruit. To stimulate this power they used sympathetic magic. The banquet also included certain sweets, much as in modern Greece we make special Christmas candies called kourabiedes and melomakarona. There was an important difference, though: it is said that the Haloa sweets had the shape of female and male genitals. It is believed that similar objects were planted into the soil, symbolically representing a Sacred Marriage.[4]

Occasionally the Virgin Mary and Demeter come close to each other. Greeks and the Eastern Orthodox Church commonly call Mary Panaghia (pronounced pah-nah-YEE-ah), from the word pan, “all,” and aghia, which means “holy” or “female saint.” Interestingly, some scholars believe that the priestesses of Demeter in her most sacred sanctuary at Eleusis had the same or a very similar title (plural panagheis or panaghiai). According to the famous Byzantine dictionary of Hesychius of Alexandria, panaghia is “a priestess who does not have intercourse with a man.”[5]

There are other intriguing similarities between the Mother of God and Demeter. The bread was considered the goddess’ gift to humankind as she was the giver of the wheat and other grains. Interestingly, the bread is also associated with the Virgin. No, I am not referring here to the heretical Collyridian women of the 4th century but to Orthodox Christians of the Byzantine Empire, both monks and emperors. The bread they offered to Jesus’ mother was called panaghia while the special tray on which it was placed was called panaghiarion. Similar rituals are still part of contemporary Orthodox liturgies.

Here is another intriguing piece of information: the modern inhabitants of Eleusis, who were Arvanites (Albanian-speaking Greeks), venerated the goddess of agriculture even during the early part of the 20th century, sometimes identifying her with Mary. Αuthor Vangelis Liapis, in his book Eleusis in Modern Times (1993), says the following about these people: “They believed in Jesus Christ and in Saint George the rider, liberator of the powerless, but they also believed in the indestructible force of the Earth, who gave life to all living beings. Women blended Panaghia with the goddess Demeter. It had become a custom to call her ‘Aghia (Saint) Dimitra’.”[6] Today, at the site of the Eleusinian Sanctuary there is a small church dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

The “Holy Night” of Initiation

Myths and religions inevitably include a variety of meanings and can be seen from diverse perspectives. So, there will always be those who will insist on seeing Christmas literally, as if it is about the birth of a real baby from a human mother. Yet there is another, more symbolic interpretation: the birth of the Divine Child in the dark and cold of the winter recalls initiatory experiences. Initiation is often described as the death of the old self and the birth of the new.

The “holy night” of Christmas brings to mind the “great night” of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Moreover, both Demeter and Isis were also goddesses of mystery cults. So, the archetypal Mother becomes an Initiatrix, guiding us down the path of rebirth with her wisdom. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Mary in some of the icons with young Jesus seated on her lap is called in Greek Odigitria, which can be translated as “Guide.”

Consequently, in psychological terms Christmas reflects the birth of all those elements that have been gestating within us—the qualities that want to come to light through the darkness of the unconscious. The Mother represents the inner power that gives us rebirth; she is the life-giving source of creation. Perhaps the glowing infant smiling sweetly from the warmth of the manger is none other than ourselves. When theologians and priests say that “Christ is in us,” is it possible that they really mean just that?

Top image: Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerard van Honthorst (1622)

NOTES

[1] C.G. Jung, “The Psychology of the Child Archetype,” in C.G. Jung and C. Kerényi, The Myth of the Divine Child and the Mysteries of Eleusis (New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1949; repr., New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993), 73. Citations are to the Princeton edition.

[2] Carl Kerényi, “The Primordial Child in Primordial Times,” The Myth of the Divine Child, 45.

[3] Ibid., 25.

[4] Τhe primary sources on the Haloa are Demosthenes 1385.2, Filochoros 161, and Lucian, Dialogues of the Courtesans 7.3. For the Haloa and the role of women in Eleusinian cults see also Joan Breton Connelly, Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 64-69.

[5] For the virgin priestesses of Eleusis see Marguerite Rigoglioso, Virgin Mother Goddesses of Antiquity (repr. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 171. Jennifer Reif believes that Demeter probably had the title panaghia too. See Reif, Mysteries of Demeter (York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, 1999), 42.

[6] Cited in Anastasios D. Stamos, “The Goddess Demeter in Modern Times,” Ninth Symposium of Attic History and Folklore, 23 June 2003, School Library, http://3gym-kerats.att.sch.gr/library/spip.php?article10.

Seasons of the Goddess

 

The above essay has been included in the anthology Celebrating Seasons of the Goddess, by Helen Hye-Sook Hwang and Mary Ann Beavis (eds), Mago, 2017.

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