Jesus Vs Attis – Debunking The Alleged Parallels

775

By J.P. Holding| Attis of Phrygia offers the following similarities to Jesus, according to some critics:

1. Attis was born on December 25th of the Virgin Nana.
2. He was considered the savior who was slain for the salvation of mankind.
3. His body as bread was eaten by his worshippers.
4. His priests were “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven.”
5. He was both the Divine Son and the Father.
6. On “Black Friday,” he was crucified on a tree, from which his holy blood ran down to redeem the earth.
7. He descended into the underworld.
8. After three days, Attis was resurrected on March 25th (as tradition held of Jesus) as the “Most High God.”
9. Attis was represented as a “a man tied to a tree, at the foot of which was a lamb, and, without doubt also as a man nailed to a tree…”
10. On March 22nd, a pine tree was felled and “an effigy of the god was affixed to it, thus being slain and hung on a tree…” Later the priests are supposed to have found Attis’ grave empty.

Let’s see how kind the facts are to these claims.

Shepherd Boy Does Good: Some Background Information

I’m going to begin by providing some relevant background data, as well as some commentary on what modern Attis-related scholarship, such as it is, makes of any alleged connection to Christianity.

Our first mention of Attis comes from the well-known writings of the Greek historian Herodotus [Verm.CA, 88-9]. According to Herodotus, Attis was a shepherd from Phrygia and the son of a king, Croseus of Lydia. King Croseus had a nasty dream in which his son was killed by an iron spear, and because of this, he refused to allow Attis out on a boar hunt, until Attis himself persuaded him that it would be OK.

Still a tad worried, Croseus hires a gent named Adreastus, whom he had earlier granted sanctuary to, to guard his son’s welfare on the hunt. Unfortunately, the foot of irony stomps right in when Adreastus throws his spear at a boar and misses, instead hitting you-know-who and killing him.

This is our first mention of Attis, and by now you should be asking, “Where’s the beef? How do the copycatters think this relates to Christ?” The answer is, it doesn’t — and that most of the material about Attis that the copycatters get excited over is from a time seriously postdating Christianity.

And as it happens, the general theory of “diabolical mimicry” which the Church Fathers often pulled up in these cases (the idea that Satan copied Christianity), and which many critics make fun of, is actually on the mark 100% (though whether Satan would embarrass himself by taking part in such a crude and obvious theft is another matter).

Attis scholarship, we should note, is rather a small club — a key name is familiar: M. J. Vermaseren, he who also followed Cumont in the study of Mithra, was a major player; beyond that I have found only five books on Attis available (see source list), and many of them are primarily concerned with Cybele.

But neither Vermaseren, nor any modern scholar of Attis, so much as lays a hint that Christianity stole anything from the Attis cult — indeed, they aver that the opposite is what happened.

Vermaseren notes that all of our information on parallels comes from early Christian writers, and refers to “a tendency to add more and more complicated theories to the Phrygian cult in the course of time.” [Verm.CA, 182] Gasparro [Gasp.Sot, 106] avers that the sources show an evolution in the Attis cult in response to Christianity.

A. T. Fear, in an essay devoted entirely to this subject [Fear.CC, 41-2] notes that the Attis cult “did modify itself in significant ways with the passing of the years” and concludes, based on the dated evidence, that the ways of the Attis cult similar to Christianity “seem to have been provoked by a need to respond to the challenge of Christianity.” In this case, the church was Pokemon, and the Attis people were doing the Digimon ripoff. But not very well, as we will see.

Now Was That Honest?  It’s worth noting that copycat theorists Freke and Gandy refer to Fear’s essay in a footnote in The Jesus Mysteries — but for some reason, do not report Fear’s conclusions about how the religion of Attis derived so much from Christianity.

Debunking the alleged similarities

1. Attis was born on December 25th of the Virgin Nana.

We’ve already talked twice now, with Mithra and Dionysus, about Dec. 25th and why it doesn’t matter – but as gravy, let me add that I have found nowhere any indication that this date was associated with Attis in any way.

That said, what of Attis’ virgin birth? Herodotus records nothing about such a thing; the story alluded to comes much, much later, and rather than being a virgin birth, it is rather another case of Zeus playing the role of dirty old god — albeit this time, much less directly. One story cited makes Cybele Attis’ virgin mother, but this comes from Ovid and perhaps from some statues — it is not the chief story.

As the story goes [Verm.CA, 90-1; VermLAGR, 4, 9], Zeus (as Jupiter) was running around looking for ways to get his jollies and saw Mt. Agdus, which looked liked the goddess Rhea. (Don’t ask how, but I guess if you’re a sexual maniac like Zeus, after a while, it could be that even a mountain looks good.) In the ensuing fracas, Zeus drops some of his seed on the mountain, and from this arises a wild and androgynous creature named Agdistis.

The gods don’t like the obnoxious Agdistis, so Dionysus sneaks up and puts wine in Agdistis’ water to put him to sleep. While he is asleep, Dionysus ties a rope around Agdistis’ genitals, ties the other end of the rope to a tree, yells “Boo!” and — well, you can take it from there.

From the resulting blood, a pomegranate (or almond) tree springs up, and much later, Nana happens by, picks some of the fruit, and puts it in her lap, and then it disappears — upon which, she finds herself pregnant with Attis.

Virgin birth? Kind of.  Virgin conception? No.  It’s just Grandpa Zeus being the deadbeat dad again. The baby Attis is abandoned, but does end up being raised by goats.

2. He was considered the savior who was slain for the salvation of mankind.

On we go, to Attis’ soteriology. and to put it mildly, this is just plain wrong.
In a study devoted entirely to the subject of “soteriology” in the Attis cult, Gasparro finds no “explicit statements about the prospects open to the mystai of Cybele and Attis” and “little basis in the documents in our possession” for the idea of “a ritual containing a symbology of death and resurrection to a new life.” [Gasp.AAO, 82]

Put it bluntly: Attis was no savior, and was never recognized as such. The closest we get to this is from a writer named Damascius (480-550 AD) who had a dream in which a festival of Attis celebrated “salvation from Hades” (see more below).

We also see some evidence of Attis as a protector of tombs (as other gods also were, guarding them from violation); use of Attis with reference to grief and mourning — but when it comes to the gravestones of devotees of Cybele and Attis, they are “all equally oblivious to special benefits the future life guaranteed by such a religious status.” [Gasp.Sot, 90-4].

Attis may indeed have been raised somehow (see below), but it didn’t do us any good! We do see some evidence of a soteriology in a related rite, however, and that we will save for later.

3. His body as bread was eaten by his worshippers.

The critics Freke and Gandy add, based on a note from Godwin, that initiates of the Mysteries of Attis “had some form of communion” in which they ate from a tambourine and drank from a cymbal, and then say, “What they ate and drank from these sacred instruments is not recorded, but most likely it was bread and wine.” [50]

Despite the footnote to Godwin’s text at the end of this sentence by Freke and Gandy, Godwin makes no such assertion in his text; what Godwin does say is that “what they ate or drank we do not know” — not a word is said about it being “likely” bread and wine, and Freke and Gandy’s footnote is therefore a partial fabrication.

Vermaseren, the dean of Attis studies [Verm.CA, 118-9], adds more. Vermaseren confirms the use of the cymbals, and the eating and drinking portion, but suggests that milk was the drink of choice, because wine and bread were forbidden during the Attis festivals — if wine and bread was the snack of choice, it would have had to have been an exception to this rule.

Nevertheless, as usual, this stuff about the snacking habits of Attis’ devotees comes from Christian writers, and at best would reflect the sort of communal meal all ancient societies practiced (being that bread and wine were the key ancient staples).

4. His priests were “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven.”

It is certainly true that Attis’ priests were eunuchs; they emasculated themselves in imitation of Attis [Verm.CA, 96], who, in later stories, did this to himself out of grief. However, the priests also cross-dressed, flogged themselves, and danced in a frenzy. They didn’t emasculate themselves “for the kingdom of heaven”, but in imitation of Attis as an unwitting hemaphrodite.

On the side, it is worth noting that this part of the Attis legend tends to confirm that the parallels to Christian practice and belief were late add-ons. The Christian writers made fun of Attis for castrating himself, and of his priests for following in the example; but the Romans like Juvenal and Seneca thought it was stupid also, and the Romans associated being a eunuch with sexual perversion and decadence [Fear.CC, 47-8].

In light of this, and the new rivalry of Christianity, it makes sense that the Attis cult would try to liven up the membership drives by absorbing the best parts of Christian belief.

5. He was both the Divine Son and the Father.

Well, that makes no sense, and doesn’t match any Christian view I know of.  But at any rate, in terms of applying to Attis, it sort of does. Attis is obviously a divine grandson of Zeus, but the title “Divine Son” is nowhere applied to him.

As to being a Father, he never was one in the stories, but Frazer [Fraz.AAO, 281] told us that his name “appears to mean simply ‘father,'” and in this context he was the consort of Cybele, the mother goddess. No later Attis scholar repeats this idea.

Gasparro notes some representations of the infant Attis seemingly as the son of Cybele [Gasp.Sot, 31]. But at best all we have here is a correspondence of very common familial terms, and Attis had to be someone’s son.

6. On “Black Friday,” he was crucified on a tree, from which his holy blood ran down to redeem the earth.

I have found utterly no verification for any of this. Attis died under a tree, not crucified on it, and there is no reference to it happening on a Friday, much less a “Black” one. Attis did shed blood, but all it did was make flowers (especially violets) in some stories.  If you want to call that “redeeming” the earth, then maybe your local farmer is doing the same thing by rotating the crops.

It sure didn’t “redeem” anything or anyone with reference to sin or do those of us outside the floral business a lot of good.

7. He descended into the underworld.

That’s true, but so this is an extremely common trait of pagan stories. It’s also arguable whether this even applies to the story of Jesus.

8. After three days, Attis was resurrected on March 25th (as tradition held of Jesus) as the “Most High God.”

9. Attis was represented as a “a man tied to a tree, at the foot of which was a lamb, and, without doubt also as a man nailed to a tree…”

10. On March 22nd, a pine tree was felled and “an effigy of the god was affixed to it, thus being slain and hung on a tree…” Later the priests are supposed to have found Attis’ grave empty.

I’m putting these three together because they are intimately related. Is there any indication, generally, of life after death for Attis, in particular a resurrection? Well, yes, but chew on these stories for a moment.

In one story [Verm.CA, 91], Attis is getting married, when Agdistis (remember him?) shows up at the wedding. Apparently Agdistis shows up ticked off and takes a page from Dionysus’ book, driving everyone nuts. The bride dies; Attis then gets upset, falls under a pine (or fir) tree, and out of sheer rational contemplation, emasculates himself, and then dies.

Agdistis, seeing this, goes on a guilt trip and asks Zeus to resuscitate Attis. Zeus, in a playful mood, consents minimally: Attis’ body remains uncorrupted, his hair continues to grow, and his little finger moves continuously.

Didn’t like that one? Try this [ibid., 91-2]: Cybele falls in love with Attis, who prefers a nymph. Cybele kills the nymph; Attis goes nuts and emasculates himself; from his blood, flowers grow out of the ground, and he turns into a pine tree.

Still not a happy enough ending? Here is one more “resurrection” story [ibid., 92]: Cybele, who unknown to herself is the daughter of a king, marries Attis; when the king finds out about this, he kills Attis and makes sure the body is never found.

What about the story above? The closest I can find to this is a story reported by Frazer [Fraz.AAO, 288] in which a Phrygian satyr who was a good flute player vainly challenged Apollo to a fluting contest and lost — and so was tied to a tree, then flayed from limb to limb.

Frazer suggested, because the satyr was also a comforter of Cybele, that he was somehow to be equated with Attis, but this seems more like creative writing by Frazer than sense. And there is no lamb in the story at all.

So, do you see a resurrection here? You won’t — because any of that that there is comes later, after Christianity gets going, as Fear says, a “late-comer to the cult.” [Fear.CC, 41] But in this case we do have some connection with the dates given (though as with Dec. 25th, Mar. 25th is a much later choice of the church with no Biblical verification or apostolic roots), so let’s get into detail on that first [Verm.CA, 113ff].

Based on a calendar dated to 354 AD, there were six Roman celebrations to Attis dated March 15, 22, 24, 25, 26, 27, and 28. The one on the 22nd was indeed as Jackson relates — a pine tree was felled, and the figure of Attis attached, although it represents his death under the tree — the figure being affixed to the tree therefore being no more than a matter of practically depicting the scene, since the figurine of Attis isn’t just going to float along while the tree is carried by the processioneers.

The problem with all of this, though, is that the only one of the six feasts known certainly to have crossed paths with Christianity was the one on the 27th, which is the only festival attested on a calendar dated 50AD. A sixth-century writer says that the Emperor Claudius (41-54 AD) instituted the festival on the 22nd. (The 23rd was a day of mourning; on the 24th the priests of Attis would flagellate themselves.)

And what of the “resurrection” on the 25th? It is here, on the festival called the Hilaria, that a return from the underworld is implied (but not directly pronounced). It is attested no earlier than the 3rd or 4th century AD [Gasp.Sot, 57; contra Verm.LAGR, 47, who interperts pictures of Attis only dancing, as early as the 4th century BC, as somehow celebrating his release from death).

One critic, Robert Price, argues in his book Deconstructing Jesus that pictures of Attis dancing is evidence of Attis’ release from death. He argues that this is proven because dancing was also what Attis did after release from death in later depictions.

He gives no evidence supporting this assertion, but we would point out that proof of release from death, not just proof of dancing, is required; otherwise the evidence only indicates at most that later Attisians assimilated an episode of Attis-dance into their mythology. But certainly it is hard to argue that Attis (or any other figure) had no more than one possible reason to dance.

There were undoubtedly joyous celebrations in the cult prior to this, as early as the 1st century, but with reference to Attis returning to life, the sources “do not of course express the idea of a ‘resurrection’ of Attis, of which there is no trace in contemporary sources, but rather the certainty of his survival, either in the form of physical incorruptibility or in that, religiously defined, of his constant presence in the cult beside [Cybele].

Moreover, the mythical image of the body of Attis saved from dissolution and able to grow and move, albeit only in certain features, expresses the idea that his disappearance is neither total nor final.” [ibid., 59]

And so, in summary: All of our detailed information on these festivals, with reference to their alleged similarity to Christianity, come from late Christian authors such as the fourth century writer Firmicus Maternus, 350AD, who says that Attis comes back to life to comfort Cybele — and connects Attis’ “resurrection” with the return of vegetation (and thus, as Gasparro notes, the term “resurrection” is not suitable, for there is really no death, just a cycle of presence and absence — the vegetable connection is confirmed by iconographic evidence) [Gasp.Sot, 48]. We’ll tie all this together with one last entry.

Finally, from the rites of Attis, certain critics relate the practice of the taurobolium, or bull-sacrifice, in which the initiate was “born again” when he was bathed in the blood of the bull (or sheep, if they could not afford a bull). Some critics even describe this ceremony with the terminology “washed in the blood of the lamb.”

This is perhaps the most popular cite by critics, but the taurobolium as a soteriological rite is not attested until much later than the start of Christianity [Verm.CA, 102-3] — the slaying of a bull generally is known as early as the second century BC, outside the Cybele cult.  It is attested with reference to Cybele only in the second century AD. A detailed description of the rite is found, dated 245 AD, in Rome, but the first description of the taurobolium as having “saving” power is not found until the writings of Prudentius — dated 400 AD (interestingly, corresponding to the same time that the March 25th celebration shows up).

Prior to this, the rite was only done for the sake of the health of the emperor [Gasp.Sot, 198] it had no significance with reference to personal sin. So what’s up with this? This is the main thing that Fear argues that Attisians stole from Christianity — although they didn’t plan too well, since few people could afford to buy a bull or sheep for sacrifice. This, by the way, is a strong hint that the taurobolium as a soteriological event was a recent innovation.

In conclusion, the evidence is very clear that Attis had nothing to do with the institution of the Christain faith.

Sources

Fear.CC — Fear, A. T. “Cybele and Christ.” in Cybele, Attis and Related Cults, Eugene Lane, ed., Brll, 1996.
Fraz.AAO — Frazer, James G. Adonis, Attis, Osiris. University Books, 1967.
Gasp.Sot — Gasparro, Sfameni. Soteriology: Mystic Aspects in the Cult of Cybele and Attis. Brill, 1995.
Verm.CA — Vermaseren, M. J. Cybele and Attis: The Myth and the Cult. Thames and Hudson: 1977.
Verm.LAGR — Vermaseren, M. J. The Legend of Attis in Greek and Roman Art. Brill, 1966.
This article was originally featured on the website of J.P. Holding and was republished with permission from the author.
Enjoy this article? Take a moment to support us on Patreon!