Many Pagans simply dismiss Yahweh, Jesus, and other such figures as being “imaginary.” (Consider the time-honored disclaimer you will find in almost any Wiccan FAQ: “We don’t worship the devil, because we don’t believe in Satan.”) This position strikes me as being hypocritical, especially when it comes to Pagans who are polytheists. We have no more reason to doubt the existence of Yahweh or Jesus (or even Satan) than we do to doubt the existence of Set, Persephone, or Quetzalcoatl. Yahweh and Jesus also have more than their fair share of worshipers across the globe (not to mention all the people who only pay lip service to them); so where do we get off insisting that they “don’t exist”? It’s one thing for atheists to make such a claim, but polytheists should really know better. For this reason, I thought I should take some time to offer my personal opinions on some of the most important figures from the Abrahamic faiths.
The biblical god was originally worshiped by the Canaanites, who called Him El. You can still find this root in certain baby names today (such as Daniel, which is Hebrew for “El is my judge”). As El, Yahweh was once worshiped beside a goddess named Asherah, with whom he had several children. He was depicted as an old man in the sky with a long white beard and long white robes. This anthropomorphic image is still attached to most Jewish, Christian, and Muslim ideas of “God” today (despite the disdain these faiths each claim to have for “idolatry”). Even in ancient Israel, Yahweh was worshiped beside other divinities like Ishtar and Ba’al Hadad for generations. It wasn’t until the Babylonian Captivity—after the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed and many of the Israelites were forced to live in diaspora—that Judaism came into being. Then Yahweh’s priests started preaching that only Yahweh is real, that all other gods are “false,” and that the Jewish people were suffering becaused they had “whored” themselves to “Gentile idols.”
So why exactly did this transition to monotheism occur? Did Yahweh disown his wife and kids, then declare war on all other gods? Or did his priests just decide to scapegoat other religions as a way of consolidating their own power? There’s no way to be absolutely certain, but I’m inclined to accept the latter explanation myself. If the former explanation were true, it would mean that everyone who worships Yahweh is really serving an evil force that wants only to conquer or destroy the rest of us, and I find this extremely difficult to believe. Sure, the God of Abraham has some truly fanatical followers, but most of the people in my family are Christian of one kind or another, and no one has tried to burn me at the stake so far. If Yahweh were really such an evil creep, co-existing with his believers would be completely impossible. For this reason, I strongly suspect the Bible’s anti-Pagan stance is actually a result of its human authors and their biases, not of any “divine inspiration” on Yahweh’s part.
Some archaeologists have proposed that Yahweh might have originated as a figure in Levantine mythology called
II. The Melekim
Despite the switch to monotheism, the natural human impulse toward polytheism continued to assert itself long afterwards. It became very popular to believe in the melekim (angels), and one melek in particular—the archangel Michael—became especially important. It was prophesied in the book of Daniel that this archangel would rise during the “end times” to protect Israel and grant it dominion over the rest of the world. In later Jewish tradition, this idea of a heavenly savior coming to rescue Israel became that of the Messiah, a holy priest-king who will supposedly rule the world from within a newly restored Jerusalem.
Another melek who became very well-known during this period is Satan, “the accuser,” whose job is to test Yahweh’s worshipers and trick them into sinning against their god (if he can). Contrary to what is normally believed about Satan by Christians and Muslims, Satan is not the “enemy” of Yahweh in Judaism; he is a completely loyal servant, an extension of Yahweh’s own wrathful and capricious side. It was only later that Jewish heretics started painting Satan as a “rebel” against Yahweh who was cast out from heaven. To my mind at least, Satan is still a loyal servant who can only do what his Maker wants him to do, and the same is true for all the melekim. I’m not even sure these beings exist independently of Yahweh at all; they could simply represent different aspects of the god, with Michael representing Chesed or “the right arm that draws near” and Satan representing Geburah or “the left arm that repels.”
Contrary to common wisdom, the idea of an angel who tried to usurp Yahweh’s throne originated from outside of Judaism, and it had absolutely nothing to do with the idea of Satan at first. Lucifer (“Light-Bearer” in Latin) was originally a name for the planet Venus, which is also called the Morning or Evening Star. This planet has been identified with numerous deities who are notorious for being uppity and hot-tempered. Each of these Venusian or Luciferian deities is said to descend into the Underworld at one time or another, but the females are generally successful in achieving their goals (e.g., Aphrodite, Ishtar, etc.), while the males are more often reported to fail (e.g., Attar, etc.). I would contend that our contemporary idea of Lucifer is derived from this latter concept, and that Lucifer is not the same fellow as Satan at all. Lucifer is basically a male Venus who tried to usurp some higher god’s jurisdiction, and who ended up ruling his own kingdom in the Underworld instead. Satan, on the other hand, is merely a personification of Yahweh’s wrath when it is directed against his own followers. In other words, Lucifer was originally a Pagan idea, while the notion of Satan is unique to the monotheistic worship of Yahweh.
IV. Jesus Christ
I personally distinguish between Jesus Christ (the deity) and Yeshua of Nazareth (the historical person). Yeshua was one of several Jewish men who claimed to be the Messiah during the first years of the Common Era. He was a great healer, wizard, and moral teacher, but he was also a charismatic cult leader who expected his followers to put him before their own family members. Still, Yeshua’s version of Judaism as described in the Gospels seems to have been far more humane and down-to-earth than that of the priesthood in his time. While I do think he was probably crucified, I doubt very much that he was born of a virgin or rose from the dead. I think these traits describe an entirely separate entity that has absorbed Yeshua of Nazareth into its own greater identity, and this is the entity I think of as “Jesus Christ.”
According to both the Gospel of John and several Gnostic schools of thought, Jesus Christ is a non-corporeal being who predates the Creation of the universe. I don’t quite accept that claim myself, but I can at least accept the idea that he pre-existed Judaism and the Bible. I believe he is a dying-and-rising god like Osiris or Dionysus, but that he is not identical to either of these figures. Yes, Christ is said to judge the dead like Osiris; he’s identified with wine like Dionysus; his worshipers are preoccupied with life after death, and they draw him down into food and “cannibalize” him. Each of these is a standard feature of any faith that centers on a dying-and-rising god; yet there are also some key differences that people with radically hostile views toward Christianity (e.g., the makers of the 2007 film Zeitgeist) should remember:
It’s possible Yeshua of Nazareth might have been an incarnation or avatar of Jesus, but I regard the Gospel stories about his virgin birth and his resurrection as myths, not as literal historical events. (Mind you, I never use the word “myth” to mean “something that isn’t true.” As a Pagan, I believe all myths are true, but that their truth is symbolic rather than literal. I don’t believe Set is literally a sha-headed bodybuilder who wrestles with giant snakes in outer space; but the meaning of this symbolic image is true, and the same can be said for the Immaculate Conception or the Resurrection of Christ.)
V. The Virgin Mary
Mary strikes me as a goddess who pre-exists Christianity, but who never revealed herself to human beings before Christianity developed. And like her son Jesus, she absorbed an actual human being into herself: Miriam, the mother of Yeshua. Much of Mary’s iconography has been deliberately modeled after (and/or identified with) that of several polytheist goddesses. The most obvious example of this would be the popular image of Mary holding the Christ child, which is clearly based on earlier images of Isis holding the baby Horus. But just because a later deity’s imagery has been influenced by that of another does not mean they are one and the same being. Isis is a mother goddess like Mary, for instance, but she is also a very skilled manipulator (like when she poisons Ra to learn the Creator’s secret name, or when she tricks Set during His contendings with Horus). Furthermore, Isis is not a perpetual virgin but a very sexual being who even performs a rite of divine necrophilia (e.g., when she resurrects Osiris to conceive Horus). The birth of the Egyptian Savior is no less miraculous than that of Jesus, but it’s miraculous for very different reasons (despite whatever Bill Maher or Acharya S. might think).
In contrast to Isis and other similar goddesses, the Virgin Mary has no confrontational side to speak of; she is always gentle, non-sexual, and completely passive. She is so passive, in fact, that she doesn’t seem to care very much about being worshiped. She isn’t even defined as a goddess within the structure of orthodox Christianity. Aside from accepting the worship of heretical Catholics and a few Christopagans, Mary seems content to let her son have all the glory.
VI. Antichrist and the Great Beast 666
It’s easy for non-evangelicals (including most Catholics and mainline Protestants) to forget the importance of Antichrist in Christian lore, and it’s even easier to conflate him with Therion (“the Great Beast 666”) in Revelation 13. I go into some more detail about this particular issue in my sermon on Ishtar’s Final Conflict With “The Man”, but here is the short version. Therion is the archetypal evil king, a lousy and selfish ruler who brings ruin to his own people. This trope is actually pre-Judaic, stretching all the way back to when human beings first invented government. Antichrist, on the other hand, is much younger and more specific to Christianity: he is the spirit of Christian hypocrisy itself. So while Vladimir Putin might as well be Therion in human form, John Hagee is the better Antichrist. The former dominates and destroys anyone who resists his control, but the latter tricks Christians into doing evil things in Jesus’ name.
I’m sure some readers are very upset by the views I have shared here; but hopefully I have shown that I have more respect for the Abrahamic pantheon than most Jews, Christians, or Muslims seem to have for my god and His pantheon. Disagreeing with certain monotheist beliefs is not the same thing as dismissing or invalidating Judaism, Christianity, or Islam altogether. I can accept each of these faiths as being valid and true without accepting all of their theological claims.