Mankind's search for God: Chapter 3, Common threads in Mythology
Common Threads in Mythology
WHY consider myths? Are they not just fictions from the distant past? While it is true that many are based on fiction, others are based on fact. Take for example the myths and legends found worldwide that are based on the fact of the world Deluge, or Flood, that the Bible relates.
2 A reason for considering myths is that they are the foundation for beliefs and rites still found in religions today. For example, belief in an immortal soul can be traced from ancient Assyro-Babylonian myths through Egyptian, Greek, and Roman mythology to Christendom, where it has become an underlying tenet in her theology. Myths are evidence that ancient man was searching for gods, as well as for a meaning in life. In this chapter we will briefly cover some of the common themes that arise in the myths of the world’s major cultures. As we review these mythologies, we will note how creation, the Flood, false gods and demigods, the immortal soul, and sun worship crop up regularly as common threads in the patchwork of mythology. But why should this be the case?
3 Very often there is a kernel of historical fact, a person, or an event that has later been exaggerated or distorted to form the myth. One of these historical facts is the Bible’s record of creation.
Fact and Fiction About Creation
4 Creation myths abound, but none have the simple logic of the Bible’s creation record. (Genesis, chapters 1, 2) For example, the account given in Greek mythology sounds barbaric. The first Greek to put myths in writing in a systematic way was Hesiod, who wrote his Theogony in the eighth century B.C.E. He explains how the gods and the world began. He starts off with Gaea, or Gaia (Earth), who gives birth to Uranus (Heaven). What follows is explained by scholar Jasper Griffin in The Oxford History of the Classical World:
5 “Hesiod tells the story, known to Homer, of the succession of sky gods. First Uranus was supreme, but he suppressed his children, and Gaia encouraged his son Cronos to castrate him. Cronos in turn devoured his own children, until his wife Rhea gave him a stone to eat in place of Zeus; the child Zeus was brought up in Crete, compelled his father to disgorge his siblings, and with them and other aid defeated Cronos and his Titans and cast them down into Tartarus.”
6 From what source did the Greeks get this strange mythology? The same author answers: “Its ultimate origin seems to have been Sumerian. In these eastern stories we find a succession of gods, and the motifs of castration, of swallowing, and of a stone recur in ways which, though varying, show that the resemblance with Hesiod is no coincidence.” We have to look to ancient Mesopotamia and Babylon as the source of many myths that permeated other cultures.
7 The ancient mythology of Chinese folk religion is not always easy to define, since many written records were destroyed in the period 213-191 B.C.E. Some myths have remained, however, such as the one describing how the earth was formed. A professor of Oriental art, Anthony Christie, writes: “We learn that Chaos was like a hen’s egg. Neither Heaven nor Earth existed. From the egg P’an-ku was born, while of its heavy elements Earth was made and Sky from the light elements. P’an-ku is represented as a dwarf, clad in a bearskin or a cloak of leaves. For 18,000 years the distance between Earth and Sky grew daily by ten feet, and P’an-ku grew at the same rate so that his body filled the gap. When he died, different parts of his body became various natural elements. . . . His body fleas became the human race.”
8 From South America an Inca legend explains how a mythical creator gave speech to each nation. “He gave to each nation the language it was to speak . . . He gave being and soul to each one as well [as] the men and the women and commanded each nation to sink below the earth. Thence each nation passed underground and came up in the places to which he assigned them.” (The Fables and Rites of the Yncas, by Cristóbal de Molina of Cuzco, quoted in South American Mythology) In this case it appears that the Bible’s account of the confusion of languages at Babel is the factual kernel for this Inca myth. (Genesis 11:1-9) But now let us turn our attention to the Deluge described in the Bible at Genesis 7:17-24.
The Flood—Fact or Myth?
9 Taking us back to some 4,500 years ago, to about 2,500 B.C.E., the Bible tells us that rebel spirit sons of God materialized in human form and “went taking wives for themselves.” This unnatural interbreeding produced the violent Nephilim, “the mighty ones who were of old, the men of fame.” Their lawless conduct affected the pre-Flood world to the point that Jehovah said: “‘I am going to wipe men whom I have created off the surface of the ground . . . because I do regret that I have made them.’ But Noah found favor in the eyes of Jehovah.” The account then continues with the specific and practical steps Noah had to take to save himself, as well as his family and a variety of animal kinds, from the Flood.—Genesis 6:1-8, 13–8:22; 1 Peter 3:19, 20; 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6.
10 The record of pre-Flood events related in Genesis is branded as myth by modern critics. Yet, the history of Noah was accepted and believed by faithful men, such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jesus Christ, and the apostles Peter and Paul. It is also supported by the fact that it is reflected in so many mythologies worldwide, including the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh as well as the myths of China and of the Aztecs, Incas, and Maya. With the Bible record in mind, let us now consider the Assyro-Babylonian mythology and its references to a flood.—Isaiah 54:9; Ezekiel 14:20; Matthew 24:37; Hebrews 11:7.
The Flood and the God-Man Gilgamesh
11 Going back in history possibly some 4,000 years, we encounter the famous Akkadian myth called the Epic of Gilgamesh. Our knowledge of this is based mainly on a cuneiform text that came from the library of Ashurbanipal, who reigned 668-627 B.C.E., in ancient Nineveh.
12 It is the story of the exploits of Gilgamesh, described as being two-thirds god and one-third man, or a demigod. One version of the epic states: “In Uruk he built walls, a great rampart, and the temple of blessed Eanna for the god of the firmament Anu, and for Ishtar the goddess of love . . . , our lady of love and war.” (See box, page 45, for a listing of Assyro-Babylonian gods and goddesses.) However, Gilgamesh was not exactly a pleasant creature to have around. The inhabitants of Uruk complained to the gods: “His lust leaves no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior’s daughter nor the wife of the noble.”
13 What action did the gods take in response to the people’s protest? The goddess Aruru created Enkidu to be the human rival of Gilgamesh. However, instead of being enemies, they became close friends. In the course of the epic, Enkidu died. Shattered, Gilgamesh cried: “When I die, shall I not be like Enkidu? Woe has entered my belly. Fearing death, I roam over the steppe.” He wanted the secret of immortality and set out to find Utnapishtim, the deluge survivor who had been given immortality with the gods.
14 Gilgamesh eventually finds Utnapishtim, who tells him the story of the flood. As found in Epic tablet XI, known as the Flood Tablet, Utnapishtim recounts instructions given to him concerning the flood: “Tear down (this) house, build a ship! Give up possessions, seek thou life. . . . Aboard the ship take thou the seed of all living things.” Does this not sound somewhat similar to the Bible’s reference to Noah and the Flood? But Utnapishtim cannot bestow immortality upon Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh, disappointed, returns home to Uruk. The account concludes with his death. The overall message of the epic is the sadness and frustration of death and the hereafter. Those ancient people did not find the God of truth and hope. However, the epic’s link to the Bible’s simple account of the pre-Flood era is quite evident. Now let us turn to the Flood account as it appears in other legends.
Flood Legend in Other Cultures
15 Even earlier than the account in the Epic of Gilgamesh is the Sumerian myth that presents “Ziusudra, the counterpart of the biblical Noah, who is described as a pious, a god-fearing king, constantly on the lookout for divine revelations in dreams or incantations.” (Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament) According to the same source, this myth “offers the closest and most striking parallel to biblical material as yet uncovered in Sumerian literature.” The Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations, which came later, were influenced by the Sumerian.
16 The book China—A History in Art tells us that one of the ancient rulers of China was Yü, “the conqueror of the Great Flood. Yü channeled flood waters into rivers and seas to resettle his people.” Mythology expert Joseph Campbell wrote about the Chinese “Period of the Great Ten,” saying: “To this important age, which terminates in a Deluge, ten emperors were assigned in the early Chou-time mythology. Hence, it appears that what we are viewing here may be a local transformation of the series of the old Sumerian king list.” Campbell then cited other items from Chinese legends that appeared to “reinforce the argument for a Mesopotamian source.” That takes us back to the same basic source of many myths. However, the story of the Flood also appears in the Americas, for example, in Mexico during the period of the Aztecs in the 15th and 16th centuries C.E.
17 Aztec mythology spoke of four previous ages, during the first of which the earth was inhabited by giants. (That is another reminder of the Nephilim, the giants referred to in the Bible at Genesis 6:4.) It included a primeval flood legend in which “the waters above merge with those below, obliterating the horizons and making of everything a timeless cosmic ocean.” The god controlling rain and water was Tlaloc. However, his rain was not obtained cheaply but was given “in exchange for the blood of sacrificed victims whose flowing tears would simulate and so stimulate the flow of rain.” (Mythology—An Illustrated Encyclopedia) Another legend states that the fourth era was ruled by Chalchiuhtlicue, the water-goddess, whose universe perished by a flood. Men were saved by becoming fish!
18 Similarly, the Incas had their Flood legends. British writer Harold Osborne states: “Perhaps the most ubiquitous features in South American myth are the stories of a deluge . . . Myths of a deluge are very widespread among both the highland peoples and the tribes of the tropical lowlands. The deluge is commonly connected with the creation and with an epiphany [manifestation] of the creator-god. . . . It is sometimes regarded as a divine punishment wiping out existing humankind in preparation for the emergence of a new race.”
19 Likewise, the Maya in Mexico and Central America had their Flood legend that involved a universal deluge, or haiyococab, which means “water over the earth.” Catholic bishop Las Casas wrote that the Guatemalan Indians “called it Butic, which is the word which means flood of many waters and means the final judgment, and so they believe that another Butic is about to come, which is another flood and judgment, not of water, but of fire.” Many more flood legends exist around the world, but the few already quoted serve to confirm the kernel of the legend, the historical event related in the book of Genesis.
The All-Pervasive Immortal Soul Belief
20 However, not all myths have a basis in fact or in the Bible. In his search for God, man has clutched at straws, deluded by the illusion of immortality. As we will see throughout this book, the belief in an immortal soul or variations thereof is a legacy that has come down to us through the millenniums. The people of the ancient Assyro-Babylonian culture believed in an afterlife. The New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology explains: “Under the earth, beyond the abyss of the Apsu [full of fresh water and encircling the earth], lay the infernal dwelling-place to which men descended after death. It was the ‘Land of no return’ . . . In these regions of eternal darkness the souls of the dead—edimmu—‘clad, like birds, in a garment of wings’ are all jumbled together.” According to the myth, this subterranean world was ruled over by the goddess Ereshkigal, “Princess of the great earth.”
21 The Egyptians likewise had their idea of an immortal soul. Before the soul could reach a happy haven, it had to be weighed against Maat, the goddess of truth and justice, who was symbolized by the feather of truth. Either Anubis, the jackal-headed god, or Horus, the falcon, helped in the procedure. If approved by Osiris, that soul would go on to share bliss with the gods. (See illustration, page 50.) As is so often the case, here we find the common thread of the Babylonian immortal soul concept shaping people’s religion, lives, and actions.
22 The old Chinese mythology included a belief in survival after death and the need to keep ancestors happy. Ancestors were “conceived as living and powerful spirits, all vitally concerned about the welfare of their living descendants, but capable of punitive anger if displeased.” The dead were to be given every aid, including companions in death. Thus, “some Shang kings . . . were buried with anywhere from a hundred to three hundred human victims, who were to be his attendants in the next world. (This practice links ancient China with Egypt, Africa, Japan, and other places, where similar sacrifices were made.)” (Man’s Religions, by John B. Noss) In these cases belief in an immortal soul led to human sacrifices.—Contrast Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10; Isaiah 38:18, 19.
23 The Greeks, having formulated many gods in their mythology, were also concerned with the dead and their destination. According to the myths, the one put in charge of that realm of murky darkness was the son of Cronus and brother of the gods Zeus and Poseidon. His name was Hades, and his realm was named after him. How did the souls of the dead reach Hades?
24 Writer Ellen Switzer explains: “There were . . . frightening creatures in the underworld. There was Charon, who rowed the ferry that transported those who had recently died from the land of the living to the underworld. Charon required payment for his ferry service [across the river Styx], and the Greeks often buried their dead with a coin under the tongue to make sure that they had the proper fare. Dead souls who could not pay were kept on the wrong side of the river, in a kind of no-man’s-land, and might return to haunt the living.”
25 The Greek mythology of the soul went on to influence the Roman concept, and the Greek philosophers, such as Plato (about 427-347 B.C.E.), strongly influenced early apostate Christian thinkers who accepted the immortal soul teaching into their doctrine, even though it had no Biblical basis.
26 The Aztecs, Incas, and Maya also believed in an immortal soul. Death was as much a mystery to them as it was to other civilizations. They had their ceremonies and beliefs to help them reconcile themselves to it. As the archaeological historian Victor W. von Hagen explains in his book The Ancient Sun Kingdoms of the Americas: “The dead were in reality living: they had merely passed from one phase to another; they were invisible, impalpable, invulnerable. The dead . . . had become the unseen members of the clan.”—Contrast Judges 16:30; Ezekiel 18:4, 20.
27 The same source tells us that “the [Inca] Indian believed in immortality; in fact he believed one never died, . . . the dead body merely became undead and it took on the influences of the unseen powers.” The Maya too believed in a soul and in 13 heavens and 9 hells. Thus, wherever we turn, people have wanted to deny the reality of death, and the immortal soul has been the crutch to lean on.—Isaiah 38:18; Acts 3:23.
28 Africa’s mythologies likewise include references to a surviving soul. Many Africans live in awe of the souls of the dead. The New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology states: “This belief is bound up with another—the continuing existence of the soul after death. Magicians are able to call on souls to aid their powers. The souls of the dead often transmigrate into the bodies of animals, or may even be reincarnated in plants.” As a consequence, the Zulu will not kill some snakes that they believe to be the spirits of relatives.
29 The Masai of southeastern Africa believe in a creator called ’Ng ai, who places a guardian angel by each Masai as a protection. At the moment of death, the angel takes the warrior’s soul to the hereafter. The previously quoted Larousse supplies a Zulu death-legend involving the first man, Unkulunkulu, who for this myth had become the supreme being. He sent the chameleon to tell mankind, “Men shall not die!” The chameleon was slow and got distracted on the way. So Unkulunkulu sent a different message by means of a lizard, saying, “Men shall die!” The lizard got there first, “and ever since no man has escaped death.” With variations, this same legend exists among the Bechuana, Basuto, and Baronga tribes.
30 As we pursue the study of mankind’s search for God, we will see even further how important the myth of the immortal soul has been and still is to mankind.
Sun Worship and Human Sacrifices
31 The mythology of Egypt embraces an extensive pantheon of gods and goddesses. As in so many other ancient societies, while the Egyptians searched for God, they gravitated toward worshiping that which sustained their daily life—the sun. Thus, under the name of Ra (Amon-Ra), they venerated the sovereign lord of the sky, who took a boat ride every day from east to west. When night fell, he followed a dangerous course through the underworld.
32 Human sacrifices were a common feature in the sun worship of the Aztec, Inca, and Maya religions. The Aztecs celebrated a constant cycle of religious festivals, with human sacrifices to their various gods, especially in the worship of the sun-god Tezcatlipoca. Also, in the festival of the fire-god Xiuhtecutli (Huehueteotl), “prisoners of war danced together with their captors and . . . were whirled about a dazzling fire and then dumped into the coals, fished out while still alive to have their still palpitating hearts cut out to be offered to the gods.”—The Ancient Sun Kingdoms of the Americas.
33 Farther south, the Inca religion had its own sacrifices and myths. In ancient Inca worship, children and animals were offered to the sun-god Inti and to Viracocha, the creator.
Mythical Gods and Goddesses
34 The most prominent of the Egyptian triads is that made up of Isis, symbol of divine motherhood; Osiris, her brother and consort; and Horus, their son, usually represented by a falcon. Isis is sometimes portrayed in Egyptian statues offering her breast to her child in a pose very reminiscent of Christendom’s virgin-and-child statues and paintings, which came on the scene over two thousand years later. In time Isis’ husband, Osiris, achieved popularity as the god of the dead because he offered hope of an eternally happy life for the souls of the dead in the hereafter.
35 Egypt’s Hathor was the goddess of love and joy, music and dancing. She became the queen of the dead, helping them with a ladder to achieve heaven. As the New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology explains, she was celebrated with great festivals, “above all on New Year’s Day, which was the anniversary of her birth. Before dawn the priestesses would bring Hathor’s image out on to the terrace to expose it to the rays of the rising sun. The rejoicing which followed was a pretext for a veritable carnival, and the day ended in song and intoxication.” Have things changed all that much in New Year celebrations thousands of years later?
36 The Egyptians also had many animal gods and goddesses in their pantheon, such as Apis the bull, Banaded the ram, Heqt the frog, Hathor the cow, and Sebek the crocodile. (Romans 1:21-23) It was in this religious setting that the Israelites found themselves in captivity as slaves in the 16th century B.C.E. To release them from Pharaoh’s stubborn grip, Jehovah, the God of Israel, had to send ten different plagues against Egypt. (Exodus 7:14–12:36) Those plagues amounted to a calculated humiliation of the mythological gods of Egypt.—See box, page 62.
37 Now let us move on to the gods of ancient Greece and Rome. Rome borrowed many gods from ancient Greece, along with their virtues and vices. (See boxes, pages 43 and 66.) For example, Venus and Flora were brazen prostitutes; Bacchus was a drunkard and reveler; Mercury was a highway robber; and Apollo was a seducer of women. It is reported that Jupiter, the father of the gods, committed adultery or incest with about 59 women! (What a reminder of the rebel angels who cohabited with women before the Flood!) Since worshipers tend to reflect the conduct of their gods, is it any wonder that Roman emperors such as Tiberius, Nero, and Caligula led debauched lives as adulterers, fornicators, and murderers?
38 In their religion, the Romans incorporated gods from many traditions. For example, they took up with enthusiasm the worship of Mithras, the Persian god of light, who became their sun-god (see box, pages 60-1), and the Syrian goddess Atargatis (Ishtar). They converted the Grecian Artemis the huntress into Diana and had their own variations of the Egyptian Isis. They also adopted the Celtic triple goddesses of fertility.—Acts 19:23-28.
39 For the practice of their public cults at hundreds of shrines and temples, they had a variety of priests, all of whom “came under the authority of the Pontifex Maximus [Supreme Pontiff], who was the head of the state religion.” (Atlas of the Roman World) The same atlas states that one of the Roman ceremonies was the taurobolium, in which “the worshiper stood in a pit and was bathed in the blood of a bull sacrificed over him. He emerged from this rite in a state of purified innocence.”
Christian Myths and Legends?
40 According to some modern critics, Christianity also embraces myths and legends. Is that really so? Many scholars reject as myths the virgin birth of Jesus, his miracles, and his resurrection. Some even say he never existed but that his myth is a carryover from more ancient mythology and sun worship. As mythology expert Joseph Campbell wrote: “Several scholars have suggested, therefore, that there was never either John [the Baptizer] or Jesus, but only a water-god and a sun-god.” But we need to remember that many of these same scholars are atheists and thus reject totally any belief in God.
41 However, this skeptical point of view flies in the face of historical evidence. For example, the Jewish historian Josephus (c.37-c.100 C.E.) wrote: “To some of the Jews the destruction of Herod’s army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John, surnamed the Baptist. For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man.”—Mark 1:14; 6:14-29.
42 This same historian also testified to the historical existence of Jesus Christ, when he wrote that there arose “a certain Jesus, a wizard of a man, if indeed he may be called a man . . . whom his disciples call a son of God.” He continued by saying that “Pilate had sentenced him . . . And even now the race of those who are called ‘Messianists’ after him is not extinct.”—Mark 15:1-5, 22-26; Acts 11:26.
43 Therefore, the Christian apostle Peter could write with total conviction as an eyewitness of Jesus’ transfiguration, saying: “No, it was not by following artfully contrived false stories [Greek, my′thos] that we acquainted you with the power and presence of our Lord Jesus Christ, but it was by having become eyewitnesses of his magnificence. For he received from God the Father honor and glory, when words such as these were borne to him by the magnificent glory: ‘This is my son, my beloved, whom I myself have approved.’ Yes, these words we heard borne from heaven while we were with him in the holy mountain.”—2 Peter 1:16-18.
44 In this conflict between man’s “expert” opinion and God’s Word, we must apply the principle stated earlier: “What, then, is the case? If some did not express faith, will their lack of faith perhaps make the faithfulness of God without effect? Never may that happen! But let God be found true, though every man be found a liar, even as it is written: ‘That you might be proved righteous in your words and might win when you are being judged.’”—Romans 3:3, 4.
45 This brief review of some of the world’s mythologies has served to indicate some common features, many of which can be traced back to Babylon, the Mesopotamian cradle of most religions. There are common threads, whether in the facts of creation, or in accounts about a period when demigods and giants occupied the land and a deluge destroyed the wicked, or in the basic religious concepts of sun-worship and an immortal soul.
46 From a Biblical viewpoint, we can explain these common threads when we recall that after the Flood, at God’s behest mankind spread out from Babel in Mesopotamia more than 4,200 years ago. Although they separated, forming families and tribes with different languages, they started off with the same basic understanding of prior history and religious concepts. (Genesis 11:1-9) Over the centuries, this understanding became distorted and adorned in each culture, resulting in many of the fictions, legends, and myths that have come down to us today. These myths, divorced from Bible truth, failed to bring mankind nearer to the true God.
47 However, mankind have also expressed their religious sentiments in various other ways—spiritism, shamanism, magic, ancestor worship, and so on. Do they tell us anything about mankind’s search for God?
For a detailed consideration of creation, see the book Life—How Did It Get Here? By Evolution or by Creation?, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.
The more recent mythology of China, the result of the influence of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, will be discussed in Chapters 6 and 7.
For a more detailed discussion of the proofs of the Flood as history, see Insight on the Scriptures, Volume 1, pages 327-8, 609-12, published by the Watchtower Society.
“Hades” appears in the Christian Greek Scriptures ten times, not as a mythological person, but as the common grave of mankind. It is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew she’ohl′.—Compare Psalm 16:10; Acts 2:27, Kingdom Interlinear.—See Insight on the Scriptures, Volume 1, pages 1015-16, published by the Watchtower Society.
Interestingly, Utnapishtim, the hero of the Epic of Gilgamesh, had his boatman, Urshanabi, who took Gilgamesh over the waters of death to meet the flood survivor.
According to the traditional text of Josephus, footnote, page 48 of the Harvard University Press edition, Volume IX.
For further information on Christianity, see Chapter 10.
Greek and Roman Divinities
Many gods and goddesses of Greek mythology held similar positions in Roman mythology. The table below lists some of them.
Greek Roman Role
Aphrodite Venus Goddess of love
Apollo Apollo God of light, medicine, and poetry
Ares Mars God of war
Artemis Diana Goddess of hunting and childbirth
Asclepius Aesculapius God of healing
Athena Minerva Goddess of crafts, war, and wisdom
Cronus Saturn To the Greeks, ruler of the Titans and
father of Zeus. In Roman mythology,
also the god of agriculture
Demeter Ceres Goddess of growing things
Dionysus Bacchus God of wine, fertility, and wild
Eros Cupid God of love
Gaea Terra Symbol of the earth, and mother and
wife of Uranus
Hephaestus Vulcan Blacksmith for the gods and god of fire
Hera Juno Protector of marriage and women. To
the Greeks, sister and wife of Zeus;
to the Romans, wife of Jupiter
Hermes Mercury Messenger for the gods; god of
commerce and science; and protector of
travelers, thieves, and vagabonds
Hestia Vesta Goddess of the hearth
Hypnos Somnus God of sleep
Pluto, Hades Pluto God of the underworld
Poseidon Neptune God of the sea. In Greek mythology,
also god of earthquakes and horses
Rhea Ops Wife and sister of Cronus
Uranus Uranus Son and husband of Gaea and father of
Zeus Jupiter Ruler of the gods
Based on The World Book Encyclopedia, 1987, Volume 13.
Assyro-Babylonian Gods and Goddesses
Anu—the supreme god, reigning over the heavens; father of Ishtar
Asshur—national warrior-god of the Assyrians; also god of fertility
Ea—god of water. Father of Marduk. Warned Utnapishtim of the flood
Enlil (Bel)—lord of the air; later paralleled in Greek mythology by Zeus. Assimilated by the Babylonians into Marduk (Bel)
Ishtar—divine personification of the planet Venus; sacred prostitution a part of her cult. She was Astarte in Phoenicia, Atargatis in Syria, Ashtoreth in the Bible (1 Kings 11:5, 33), Aphrodite in Greece, Venus in Rome
Marduk—first among the Babylonian gods; “absorbed all the other gods and took over all their various functions.” Called Merodach by the Israelites
Shamash—sun-god of light and justice. Forerunner of the Greek Apollo
Sin—moon-god, member of the triad that included Shamash (the sun) and Ishtar (the planet Venus)
Tammuz (Dumuzi)—the harvest-god. Ishtar’s lover
(Based on the New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology)
Gods of the Roman Soldier
Rome was famous for its disciplined army. The cohesion of its empire depended on the morale and the effectiveness of the military legions. Was religion a factor to be reckoned with? Yes, and fortunately for us, the Romans left behind clear evidence of their occupation in the form of highways, fortresses, aqueducts, coliseums, and temples. For example, in Northumbria, in the north of England, there is the famous Hadrian’s Wall, built about 122 C.E. What have excavations revealed about Roman garrison activity and the role of religion?
In the Housesteads Museum, located near the excavated ruins of a Roman garrison on Hadrian’s Wall, an exhibit states: “The religious life of a Roman soldier was divided into three parts. Firstly . . . the cult of the Deified Emperors and the worship of the protecting gods of Rome such as Jupiter, Victory and Mars. An altar was dedicated to Jupiter every year on the parade ground of each fort. All soldiers were expected to participate in the festivals celebrating the birthdays, accession days and victories of the Deified Emperors.” How similar to the customs of armies of today, in which chaplains, altars, and flags are a regular part of army worship.
But what was the second feature of the Roman soldier’s religious life? It was the worship of the protecting gods and the guardian spirit of their particular unit “as well as the gods brought from their native lands.”
“Finally there were the cults followed by the individual. As long as a soldier fulfilled his obligations to the official cults he was free to worship any god he wished.” That sounds like a very liberal freedom-of-worship situation, but “exceptions were those religions, of which Druidism was one, whose practices were considered inhumane, and those whose loyalty to the State was suspect, for example Christianity.”—Compare Luke 20:21-25; 23:1, 2; Acts 10:1, 2, 22.
Interestingly, in 1949 a temple to Mithras was discovered in a bog at Carrawburgh, quite close to Hadrian’s Wall. (See photo.) Archaeologists estimate that it was built about 205 C.E. It contains a sun-god image, altars, and a Latin inscription that states, in part, “To the invincible god Mithras.”
Egypt’s Gods and the Ten Plagues
Jehovah executed judgment on Egypt’s impotent gods by means of the Ten Plagues.—Exodus 7:14–12:32.
1 Nile and other waters turned to blood. Nile-god Hapi
2 Frogs. Frog-goddess Heqt powerless to prevent it
3 Dust turned to gnats. Thoth, lord of magic, could not help
the Egyptian magicians
4 Gadflies on all Egypt except Goshen where Israel dwelt. No
god was able to prevent it—not even Ptah, creator of the
universe, or Thoth, lord of magic
5 Pestilence on livestock. Neither sacred cow-goddess Hathor
nor Apis the bull could prevent this plague
6 Boils. Healer deities Thoth, Isis, and Ptah unable to help
7 Thunder and hail. Exposed the impotence of Reshpu,
controller of lightning, and Thoth, god of rain and
8 Locusts. This was a blow to the fertility-god Min,
protector of crops
9 Three days of darkness. Ra, the preeminent sun-god, and
Horus, a solar god, disgraced
10 Death of the firstborn including Pharaoh’s, who was
considered to be a god incarnate. Ra (Amon-Ra), sun-god
and sometimes represented as a ram, was unable to impede
Mythology and Christianity
Worship of the mythical gods of ancient Greece and Rome was in full sway when Christianity came on the scene nearly two thousand years ago. In Asia Minor the Greek names still prevailed, which explains why the people of Lystra (in present-day Turkey) called the Christian healers Paul and Barnabas “gods,” referring to them as Hermes and Zeus respectively, rather than as the Roman Mercury and Jupiter. The account says that “the priest of Zeus, whose temple was before the city, brought bulls and garlands to the gates and was desiring to offer sacrifices with the crowds.” (Acts 14:8-18) Only with difficulty did Paul and Barnabas convince the crowd not to make sacrifices to them. It illustrates how seriously those people took their mythology back then.