Miraculous births are a common element in historical literature and religious texts. Stories of miracle births often include conceptions by miraculous circumstances and features such as intervention by a deity, supernatural elements, astronomical signs, hardship or in the case of some mythologies complex plots related to creation.
- 1 Abrahamic religions
- 2 Dharmic religions
- 3 Zoroaster
- 4 Assyrian and Babylonian mythology
- 5 Egyptian mythology
- 6 Greco-Roman and Hellenistic mythology
- 7 China
- 8 Other traditions
- 9 See also
- 10 References
In the Hebrew Bible, and in later Jewish tradition there are stories of matriarchs giving birth where the God of Israel miraculously intervenes. For example, within the Rabbinic literature expansions were made on the birth of Moses and the matriarch Sarah on the earlier Old Testament traditions.
The birth of Moses as the liberator of the people of Israel was foretold to Pharaoh by his soothsayers, in consequence of which he issued the cruel command to cast all the male children into the river. The account of the creation of the water on the second day, therefore, does not close with the usual formula, "And God saw that it was good," because God foresaw that Moses would suffer through water. Later on, Miriam also foretold to her father, Amram, that a son would be born to him who would liberate Israel from the yoke of Egypt.
Moses was born on Adar 7 (Talmud Megillah 13b) in the year 2377 after the creation of the world. His mother kept his birth secret for three months, when Pharaoh was informed that she had borne a son. The mother put the child into a wicker basket and covered it with tar and pitch, which she hid among the reeds by the bank of the Nile before the king's officers came to her. His sister watched from a distance to see what would happen. He was found by Pharaoh's daughter and maidens when she came down to bathe in the Nile. She had pity on him seeing that he was a Hebrew. Moses' sister then asked Pharaoh's daughter if she would like her to call a nurse from the Hebrew women. Agreeing to it, she was brought the mother of the child to her. Pharaoh's daughter then told her to nurse the child and she would give her her wages. The Child grew and she brought him to Pharaoh and he became her son. She named him Moses because she drew him out of the water.
Due to her old age, Sarai was infertile, but a miracle was vouchsafed to her (Genesis Rabbah xlvii. 3) after her name was changed from "Sarai" to "Sarah" (R. H. 16b). When her youth had been restored and she had given birth to Isaac the people would not believe in the miracle, saying that the patriarch and his wife had adopted a foundling and pretended that it was their own son. Abraham thereupon invited all the notables to a banquet on the day when Isaac was to be weaned. Sarah invited the women, who brought their infants with them, and on this occasion she gave milk from her breasts to all the children, thus convincing the guests of the miracle (B. M. 87a; comp. Gen. R. liii. 13).
According to Isaiah 7:14, around 735 BC King Ahaz of Judah received a message from the prophet Isaiah during the Syro-Ephraimite War with Aram (Syria) and Israel, "Therefore, the Lord, of His own, shall give you a sign; behold, the young woman is with child, and she shall bear a son, and she shall call his name Immanuel." This is generally taken by Judaic commentators to be a reference to the non-miraculous birth of Hezekiah or another contemporary child, as indicated in Isaiah's following indication of the timing.
The Greek Septuagint and some later Christian translations, following the application of Isaiah 7 in Matthew 1, use the word "virgin". The Hebrew word alma actually translates as a young woman of childbearing age who had not yet given birth and who might or might not be a virgin, whereas the Hebrew betulah, used elsewhere in Isaiah, is the word that means "virgin." If the referent is to Ahaz's betrothed, Abi, daughter of the High Priest, no miraculous birth is implied, merely chastity. The Christian world believes that the verse is a messianic prediction of the miraculous birth of Jesus, as described in various gospels of the New Testament of the Bible.
Scholars have argued that the nativity of Jesus, if not taken as historically accurate, should be interpreted within the context of 1st century Judaism, with which it draws parallels, and not from the context of foreign mythologies.
Mary (mother of Jesus)
According to tradition of the Catholic church, the Virgin Mary's parents, St. Anne and St. Joachim, were childless, when an angel came to them and told them they would give birth to a daughter. During the conception of Mary, she was preserved from the stain of original sin.
The Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew record the birth of Jesus. In the account of the Gospel of Luke, Mary learns from the angel Gabriel that she will conceive and bear a child called Jesus. When she asks how this can be, since she is a virgin, he tells her that the Holy Spirit would "come upon her" and that "nothing will be impossible with God". She responds: "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word". At the time that Mary is due to give birth, she and her husband Joseph travel from their home in Nazareth about 150 kilometres (93 mi) south to Joseph's ancestral home in Bethlehem to register in the census of Quirinius. Having found no place for themselves in the inn, they meet a man who gives the couple a place in his stable.
Mary gives birth to Jesus and she places the newborn in a manger (feeding trough). An angel of the Lord visits the shepherds guarding their flocks in nearby fields and brings them "good news of great joy": "to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord." The angel tells them they will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. The angel is joined by a "heavenly host" who say "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!". The shepherds hurry to the manger in Bethlehem where they find Jesus with Mary and Joseph. They repeat what they have been told by the angel, and then return to their flocks. Mary and Joseph take Jesus to Jerusalem to be circumcised, before returning to their home in Nazareth.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the impending birth is announced to Joseph in a dream, in which he is instructed to name the child Jesus. A star reveals the birth of Jesus to a number (traditionally three) of magoi (magi, Greek μάγος, commonly translated as "wise man" but in this context probably meaning "astronomer" or "astrologer") who travel to Jerusalem from an unspecified country "in the east".
Herod understands the phrase "King of the Jews" as a reference to the Messiah, since he asked his advisers where the Messiah was to be born. They answer Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David, and quote the prophet Micah: "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage," a deceitful Herod tells the magi.
As the magi travel to Bethlehem, the star "goes before" them and leads them to a house where they find and adore Jesus. They present Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In a dream, the magi receive a divine warning of Herod's intent to kill the child, whom he sees as a rival. Consequently, they return to their own country without telling Herod the result of their mission. An angel tells Joseph to flee with his family to Egypt. Meanwhile, Herod orders that all male children of Bethlehem under the age of two be killed, the so-called "Massacre of the Innocents". After Herod's death, the family return from Egypt, but, instead of going back to live in Bethlehem, fears concerning Herod's Judean successor Archelaus cause them to move to Galilee and settle in Nazareth, fulfilling, according to the author, a prophecy: "He will be called a Nazorean". The Greek for this last word is Ναζωραιος.
John the Baptist
The Gospel of Luke includes an account of John's infancy, introducing him as the son of Zachariah, an old man, and his wife Elizabeth, who was sterile. According to this account the birth of John was foretold by the angel Gabriel to Zachariah, while Zachariah was performing his functions as a priest in the temple of Jerusalem; since Zachariah is described as a priest of the course of Abijah, and his wife, Elizabeth, as one of the daughters of Aaron this would make John a descendant of Aaron on both his father's and mother's side.
The Gospel of Luke states that Jesus was conceived when Elizabeth was about six months pregnant when her cousin Mary came to tell her about her news, Elizabeth's unborn child 'jumped for joy' in her womb. Zachariah had lost his speech at the behest and prophecy of the angel Gabriel, and it was restored on the occasion of Zachariah naming John. On the basis of Luke's account, the Catholic calendar placed the feast of John the Baptist on June 24, six months before Christmas, although Bible study clearly shows that Jesus' birth was in the Fall, not Winter. According to Luke, Jesus and John the Baptist were related, their mothers being cousins.
The many similarities between the accounts of the birth of Samuel in the Old Testament have led some scholars to suggest that this is the model for the Gospel of Luke story of the birth of John and of the annunciation and birth of Jesus.
Pseudepigraphal and apocryphal traditions
The Second Book of Enoch contain a section, called Exaltation of Melchizedek, which say that Melchizedek was born of a virgin, Sofonim (or Sopanima), the wife of Nir, a brother of Noah. The child came out from his mother after she had died and sat on the bed beside her corpse, already physically developed, clothed, speaking and blessing the Lord, and marked with the badge of priesthood. Forty days later, Melchizedek was taken by the archangel Gabriel (Michael in some manuscripts) to the Garden of Eden and was thus preserved from the Deluge without having to be in Noah's Ark.
After the 1st century, traditions flourished that represented the thinking of that time, and also preserved source material for many of the ideas in the "theological writings of the church fathers." In their present form the pseudepigraphal writings contained in the Sibylline Oracles include literature written from the 2nd century B.C. through the 6th century of the Christian era. They contain some material relevant to the birth and infancy of Jesus. But this passage in the Oracles, Book III, probably represents the hopes of pre-Christian Alexandrian Jews.
"Be of good cheer, O maiden, and exult; for the Eternal, who made heaven and earth has given thee joy, and he will dwell in thee, and for thee shall be an immortal light.
And wolves and lambs promiscuously shall eat grass in the mountains, and among the kids shall leopards graze, And wandering bears shall lodge among the calves, and the carnivorous lion shall eat straw in the manger like the ox, and little children lead them with a band. For tame will be on earth the beasts he made,And with young babes will dragons fall asleep, and no harm, for God’s hand will be on them."
Later, the church fathers refer to subsequent books in the Oracles that are clear allusions to Christ, and probably dated from the close of the second or beginning of the 3rd century A.D. The first Christian theologians demonstrated in their writings their knowledge of such non-canonical sources.
The Apocryphal gospels contain much that is pertinent. The Apocryphal literature departs from the Christian canon and its legends have many elements similar to Pagan stories representing popular beliefs of the church from the second Christian century on through the Middle Ages.
The Qur'an and other Islamic literature contain reports of a number of miraculous births of biblical characters. The Qur'an describes virginal conception of Jesus by Mary (Arabic: Maryam), which is recounted throughout several passages in the Qur'an. The narrative goes that Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel that she will give birth to a holy son, named Isa' (Jesus), the Messiah and that he will be a great prophet, to whom God will give the Injil (Gospel) and he will speak in infancy and maturity and will be a companion to the most righteous. When this news was given to Mary, she asked the angel how she can have a baby as she was a virgin. To this, the angel replied "Even though when God wants to create a matter, he merely wills (Kun-fa-yakun) it and the things come into being".
After giving birth, while resting near the trunk of a palm tree Jesus spoke to Mary from the cradle instructing her to shake the tree and obtain its fruits. After showing Jesus as a newborn to her family Jesus again spoke "Lo, I am God's servant; God has given me the Book, and made me a Prophet. Blessed he has made me, wherever I may be; and He has enjoined me to pray, and to give alms, so long as I live and likewise to cherish my mother" in order to dispel rumours of conception. This birth narrative draws strong parallels to the apocryphal tradition of Jesus' birth within the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and Arabic Infancy Gospel.
In 1440, the poet Kabir was also said to have been born of a virgin widow (a Hindu), through the palm of her hand. Like Karna, Kabir was sent down the river in a basket; he was found and adopted by a family of Muslim weavers, downstream. This (presumably posthumous) account—which depicts Kabir as secretly descended from Hindus—was intended to legitimise Kabir's religious authority in the eyes of the Hindu population who venerated his works. This story is absent from Muslim and Sikh accounts of Kabir's work.
In the story of Krishna the deity is the agent of conception and also the offspring. Because of his sympathy for the earth, the divine Vishnu himself descended into the womb of Devaki and was born as her son, Vaasudeva (i.e., Krishna). The Hindu Vishnu Purana relates: "Devaki bore in her womb the lotus-eyed deity...before the birth of Krishna, no one “could bear to gaze upon Devaki, from the light that invested her, and those who contemplated her radiance felt their minds disturbed.” This reference to light is reminiscent of the Vedic hymn "To an Unknown God," which refers to a Golden Child. According to F. M. Müller this term means "the golden germ of child" and is an attempt at naming the sun.
This is occasionally brought up as evidence for the hypothesis that "virgin birth" tales are a fairly common phenomenon in non-Christian religions around the world. However, there is nothing in Hindu scriptures to suggest that it was a "virgin" birth. By the time of conception and birth of Krishna, Devaki was married to Vasudeva and had already borne 7 children.
However, some Hindus believe that when the emanations of the Supreme Being are pratyacsha, or obvious to the sight, they become sacara, or embodied. Krishna was such an embodiment and usually bore a human form. In that mode of appearance the deities are generally supposed to be born of a woman, but without any carnal intercourse. This belief is not adhered to by those who follow the Purva Mimansa, or the philosophy of Jaimini. They insist that the Devas were mere mortals whom the Supreme Being endowed with qualities similar to his own. In general, the Hindus perform acts of worship to some of their ancient monarchs and sages, who were deified on account of their eminent virtues.
The stories of Buddha’s unusual birth developed through the centuries. Two accounts cited by Boslooper tell of the descent of the future Bodhisattva from the "Tusita Body" into the mother’s womb, the appearance of the Buddha in the mother as a shining gem, and the accompanying wonders in the natural world. These are the Majjhima-Nikāya, 123 Acchariyabbhutadhammasuta III. 119-124; (I. B. Horner, 1959, pp. 164–169); and Māhapadānasutta, Dīgha ii. 12. In the Mahapadana-sutra, Digha ii. 12, is the description of the incarnation of the Vipassī Buddha.
"Now Vipassi, brethren, when, as Bodhisat, he ceased to belong to the hosts of the heaven of Delight, descended into his mother’s womb mindful and self-possessed."
According to this text, the Vipassī Buddha was the first of six incarnations to precede Gautama. The others listed are Sikhī, Vessabhū, Kakusandha, Koṇāgamana, and Kassapa. The most popular legendary account of the birth of Buddha is in the Nidanakatha Jataka (see, Jataka tales) which accounted for the lives of Buddha in previous incarnations. In this account, the “Great Being” chose the time and place of his birth, the tribe into which he would be born, and who his mother would be. In the time chosen by him, Maya, his mother, fell asleep and dreamed that four archangels carried her to the Himalayan Mountains where their queens bathed and dressed her. In her dream the Great Being soon entered her womb from her side, in the form of a white elephant. When she woke, she told her dream to the Raja, who summoned sixty-four eminent Brahmans to interpret it.
“The Brahmans said, ‘Be not anxious, O king! Your queen has conceived: and the fruit of her womb will be a man-child; it will not be a woman-child. You will have a son. And he, if he adopts a householder’s life, will become a king, a Universal Monarch; but if, leaving his home, he adopts the religious life, he will become a Buddha, who will remove from the world the veils of ignorance and sin.'"
It is told that the mother and son were watched over by four angels, and of the necessity of the mother's early death, of how a "Bodisat leaves his mother's womb erect and unsoiled, like a preacher descending from a pulpit or a man from a ladder, erect, stretching out his hands and feet, unsoiled by any impurities from contact with his mother's womb, pure and fair, and shining like a gem placed on fne muslin of Benares." Also we read, "Buddha's mother was the 'very best of women.'"
"Then is described how at his birth he took seven great steps and at the seventh he shouted, 'I am the chief of the world,' how he at birth held in his hand some medicine that became for him the drug by which he later healed the sick and blind and deaf, how at birth he wished to give a gift but was presented one himself by his mother, and how lastly he sang the song of victory.'
However, according to Boslooper, "It is obvious that ancient pre-Christian Buddhism knows nothing of the virginity of the mother of Buddha." The oldest accounts of his ancestry mention nothing abnormal about his birth. In one place he is said to be wellborn on his mother's and father's side for seven generations back (Dīgha Nikāya i. 113) Elsewhere when the Buddha refers to the Lady Māyā as his mother, he also says that his father is King Suddhodana. In the early tradition it was believed that conception took place with the combined contributions of the father, the mother and the "genius," which is to say, the being to be born, Gandhabbo.
"But if, monks, there is here a coitus of the parents, and it is the mother's season and the Gandhabba is present, it is on the conjunction of these three things that there is conception."
Zoroaster’s name has been adopted from the Greek and Latin Zoroastres. The ancient form of his name in the Avesta is Zarathustra. His native country was probably Media in Western Iran, (possibly in modern Azerbaijan), but his ministry took place in eastern Iran, especially in the region of Bactria, about 1200 BC. Zoroaster was originally a Magian priest, and under the reforms he instituted, Mithra became one of the Yazatas (Worshipful Ones), the angels or lesser divine beings.
"It was said that (Zoroaster's) birth was foretold from the beginning of time, and that the moment he was born, he burst out laughing and the whole universe rejoiced with him." After his birth evil demons tried to destroy him, but with Ahura Mazda's protection, he survived all attempts on his life. The Zoroastrian tradition differs from the Christian one because the divine only assists in the preservation of Zoroaster’s seed. "The central scripture, the Avesta and also the Pahlavi texts include the tradition that the 'kingly glory' is handed onward from ruler to ruler and from saint to saint for the purpose of illuminating ultimately the soul of the Zarathushtra." Also the scriptures clearly allude to conjugal relations between his parents, during which evil spirits try to prevent his conception. But according to later tradition, Zoroaster's mother, Dughdova, was a virgin when she conceived Zoroaster by a shaft of light.
Assyrian and Babylonian mythology
The Assyrian and Babylonian concept of origins expressed procreation first in “relationships between gods and goddesses resulting in other gods and goddesses," such as Ea and Damkina assisted by Apsu giving birth to Marduk. The Akkadian “Creation Epic”, the most likely parallel to the Biblical virgin birth, describes the birth of Marduk in this way: “Ea, having overheard the plan of the primordial deities to destroy the other gods, deceived Apsu and Mummu and put them to death. ‘Ea, his triumph over his enemies secured, in his sacred chamber in profound peace he rested.’ (ANET, p. 61, lines 74—75.) Then he took over the place which Apsu had used for his cult and dwelt there with his spouse, Damkina.” It was here that Marduk, the “most potent and wisest of gods” was created in the heart of Apsu and “He who begot him was Ea, his father, she who conceived him was Damkina, his mother”.
According to Norman Lockyer, Ea, Ia, or Oannes was the primal god of Babylon. He was a ‘Great God, Maker of Men, Potter, Artist and Workman.’ He formed a Triad with Anu and Bil—the two poles of heaven and the equator. Oannes first appeared from the sea to teach the Babylonians the art of writing, sciences and crafts, the building of cities, the surveying of land, the observation of the stars, and the sowing and harvesting of all kinds of grains and plants. He was believed to have been "reincarnated" several times. Berossos, priest of the Temple of Bel, in Babylon, knew of as many as six such reincarnations.
In addition, “procreative deities, either male or female, played a part in the birth of other deities or great personages, such as the Ugaritic tradition of Lady Asherah, ‘the Progenitress of the gods’; Mami, 'the Mother-womb, the one who creates mankind'; Father Nanna, the 'begetter of gods and men'; the Assyrian traditions that Tukulti-Urta was created by the gods in the womb of his mother and that Sennacherib's birth was assisted by Ea, who provided a 'spacious womb', and Assur, 'the god, my begetter'; and the North Arabian myth of the mother goddess who was responsible for Dusares."
The belief in the conception of Horus by Isis is traced to the beginning of Egyptian history. Horus' conception and birth were understood in terms of the Egyptian doctrine of parthenogenesis, which was connected with the goddess Neith of Sais. (page 220) In Upper Egypt, Net was worshipped at Seni and represented with the head of a lioness painted green, with the titles: "Father of fathers and Mother of mothers," and "net-Menhit, the great lady, lady of the south, the great cow who gave birth to the sun, who made the germ of gods and men, the mother of Ra, who raised up Tem in primeval time, who existed when nothing else had being, and who created that which exists after she had come into being."(page 150)
Many of the attributes of Isis, the God-mother, the mother of Horus; and of Neith, the goddess of Sais are identical with those of Mary the Mother of Christ." (page 161) Early Christian stories in the Apocryphal Gospels, which record the wanderings of the Virgin and Child in Egypt are similar to stories found on the Metternich Stela texts about the life of Isis. (page 161) Also, the pictures and sculptures of Isis suckling her child Horus are the foundation for Christian figurines and paintings of the Madonna and Child. Of course, the legend of the birth of Horus has many elements not found even in the Apocryphal Gospels. Egyptian texts mention numerous forms of Horus. In one he is "Heru-sa Ast, sa-Asar, or Horus, son of Isis, son of Osiris." Isis is described in the Hymn to Osiris, as finding and restoring the body of her dead husband, and using magical words given her by Thoth to restore him to life. Then, by uniting with Osiris she conceives Horus. Horus represented the rising sun and in this respect was comparable to the Greek Apollo.
There were at least fifteen other Horuses in the Egyptian pantheon, so in the story of Isis and Osiris Horus is "sometimes known as Harsiesis, to distinguish him from the others. He is depicted as a falcon, or with a falcon's head. He eventually avenged Osiris' death and reclaimed the throne, ruling peacefully...Herakhty, or 'Horus of the Horizon', was a sun god who rose each morning on the eastern horizon. He was often identified with the sun god, Ra, and was eventually absorbed by him, forming Ra-Herakhty."
Lineal descent from Ra, whether by birth or by marriage, was claimed by all kings of Egypt at least since User-ka-f, first king of the Vth Dynasty, who was high priest of Re at Heliopolis. An important part of this tradition was the legend of the God Re generating with the wife of a priest. "The newborn child was regarded as a god incarnate, and later with appropriate ceremonies he was presented to Re or Amen-Re, in his temple, where the god accepted it and acknowledged it to be his child." This tradition was later inscribed in a stereotyped form in temple reliefs.
Many texts mention different attributes of Isis. These were combined into a single narrative by Plutarch in the 1st century AD. In her aspect of protector of Egypt and its people, Isis is depicted with huge outspread wings. She taught women to grind corn, to spin and to weave, and she taught the people how to cure illnesses. She instituted the rite of marriage. When her consort, Osiris, left Egypt to travel the world, Isis ruled the country in his absence. "The hieroglyph for her name is the image of a throne, and her lap came to be seen as the throne of Egypt. Because of her fame Isis eventually absorbed the qualities of almost all the other goddesses; "she was a great mother goddess, a bird goddess, a goddess of the underworld who brought life to the dead, and a goddess of the primeval waters...Her following spread beyond Egypt to Greece and throughout the Roman Empire...(lasting) from before 3000 BC until well into Christian times.
Greco-Roman and Hellenistic mythology
The birth of gods
Greco-Roman and Hellenistic literature is rich in the tradition of birth among the gods. The legend of Perseus, whose mother conceived him by Jupiter in the form of a golden shower seems to be the basic legend (cf. Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book IV). The Greek Anthology has the following: ZEUS, turned to gold, piercing the brazen chamber of Danae, cut the knot of intact virginity. Stories of the creation of gods and goddesses by other gods and goddesses include the traditions of generation of Apollo by Zeus and Leto, of Hermes by Zeus and Maia, of Dionysus by Zeus and Semele, of Dionysus Zagreus by Zeus and Persephone, and of Persephone by Zeus and Demeter. The birth of gods by generation of a god with a mortal woman include the birth of Hercules by the union of Zeus and Alcmena and that of Pan by Hermes with a shepherdess.
Helios was a child of Zeus by Euryphaessa. He was also called "the son of Earth and starry Heaven," and the son of Hyperion. Dionysus was dithyrambus, "he who entered life by a double door." His first birth took place prematurely. His mother, Semele, died when Zeus appeared to her in a flash of lightning, and so Zeus opened his own flesh and enclosed the infant. In time, Dionysus was born "perfect" from Zeus' thigh. Dionysus Zagreus was important in Orphic theology. In Protrepticus ii. 14 ff. by Clement of Alexandria, this child had the form of a bull. Zeus intended to make him the ruler of the universe but the jealous Titans lured the child away, tore him to pieces, cooked him and ate him. Athena preserved his heart, however, which Zeus swallowed. According to Boslooper, Clement omitted one part of the myth that forms a connection between his account and the Theban legend of Dionysus. Because Zeus swallowed the heart of Dionysus Zagreus, when Semele bore Dionysus the new god was Zagreus reborn.
Mithra and Mithras
In Indian mythology, Mithra is known as Mitra. He was originally a god of contracts and friendship and was a forerunner of the Graeco-Roman god Mithras. In Iran, he developed into the protector of truth. Before the time of Zoroaster, he was associated with Ahura Mazda, the principle of good. As a consequence of Zoroaster's reforms to Iranian religion, Mithra was ousted from power and Ahura Mazda became supreme. In the more ancient Indian Vedas Mithra was the god of light, invoked under the name of Varuna, and was called "the Light of the World." He was the mediator between heaven and Earth.
Mithraism "learned" astrology from the Chaldeans after the Chaldean conquest, and continued as an astronomical religion. In the Hellenistic period it took on its final form. Mithra was assimilated into Graeco-Roman beliefs in the 1st century BC as Mithras. He was an ancient and highly honored god of Roman Paganism, where he was worshipped for more than 300 years as "the soldier's god."
Heroes and historical figures
The love of a god for a mortal, resulting in the birth of a hero is one notable deviation from the tradition of the origin of gods. (The other deviation would be the births of Athena and Aphrodite, which came about 'without the mother factor'.) Heroes created by generation of a god with a mortal include Ion by Apollo and Creusa, Romulus by Mars and Aemila, Asclepius by Apollo and Coronis, and Helen by Zeus and Leda. Plutarch records how Theseus and Romulus were both born out of wedlock and of uncertain parentage and at the same time had the reputation of being sprung from the gods. He said that Theseus' grandfather Pittheus invented the story that Theseus was the child of Neptune to conceal Theseus' lineage as the son of Pittheus' daughter Aethra and Aegeus ("Lives", Vol. 1, p. 2pp. 3 ff). But there were other stories about the birth of Romulus and his brother Remus. The story of Romulus' divine origin says that his mother was the mortal daughter of Aeneas and Lavinia, and his father was Mars.
In his "Hymn to Asclepius", Homer attributes his origin to the god Apollo and the daughter of a renowned soldier, King Phlegyas. As the divine patron of the healing art, Asclepius became the most popular of the hero gods of Greece. The belief that religion was concerned with sickness and disease was central to his cult. His sanctuaries in the Greco-Roman world became so famous there was a movement to make him a god of the first rank and identify him with Zeus himself. Asclepius was "the one who leads and controls all things, the savior of the whole world, and the guardian of mortals."
Helen of Troy was worshiped as a heroine in several parts of the ancient world during the early historical epoch. Euripides' play "Helen" depends on a tradition begun in the early 6th century B.C. by the Greek poet, Stesichorus, that Helen was the daughter of Zeus (who took the form of a swan) and Leda. But this might simply be a poetic way of saying that she was hatched from an egg.
There are two versions of the birth of Oedipus. He was given a semi-divine status in Sophocles' "Oedipus the King" where he was said to be the son of either Pan, Loxias, "or the Bacchants' god, dweller on the hill-tops..." and one of the nymphs of Helicon. But in Euripides' "The Phoenissae," his mother Jocasta says Oedupus is the son of Laius, a mortal, who was warned by the god Phoebus not to have children.
"King of thebes for horses famed! seek not to beget children against the will of heaven; for if thou beget a son, that child will slay thee, and all thy house shall wade in blood."
Laius ignored the warning, but after the child was born he gave him to shepherds to expose on Mount Cithaeron. The child was found and raised among the keepers of the horses of Polybus. As a grown man, Oedipus did indeed kill his father, not realizing who he was, and then married his mother. When he discovered the truth he blinded himself. In this story, he is clearly considered to be the son of Laius and Jocasta. This is also obvious in Sophocles' "Oedipus the King". According to Boslooper, "The two passages indicate that in the Greek mind the thoughts of divine and human paternal participation in conception were not mutually exclusive." (p. 178)
Alexander, the Ptolemies, and the Caesars were said by some scholars to have been "virgin born". Alexander the Great, " journeyed to the Oasis of Amen in order that he might be recognized as the god’s son and thus become a legitimate and recognized king of Egypt. Inscriptions show that he and the Ptolemies after him had the incidents of their birth regularly depicted in temple reliefs.” (As cited by Boslooper) Norden calls this the Hellenistic virgin motif. However, evidence shows that Alexander must have had a double tradition of origin. It is recorded that "Alexander the Great and Augustus are deemed to have been conceived of a serpent god, and they claimed between them Phoebus and Jupiter as their progenitors."
“The Emperor Augustus was praised as the Savior of the world…(but) the idea of Savior was not unique or original with Augustus himself. Before him the same title was given Seleucid and other Hellenistic kings. Throughout this period there were frequent longings for a savior from the present troubles.” Augustus was said to have had a miraculous birth and a childhood filled with many portents and signs. A few months before he was born a portent was observed at Rome which gave warning that nature was pregnant with a king for the Roman People. "Thereupon the senate in consternation decreed that no male child born that year should be reared; but those whose wives were with child saw to it that the decree was not filed in the treasury, since each one appropriated the prediction to his own family." Boslooper relates several additional stories. In one, Suetonius narrates what he learned from Asclepias of Mendes:
"When Atia had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified herself, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colors like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo. Atia too, before she gave him birth, dreamed that her vitals were borne up to the stars and spread over the whole extent of land and sea, while Octavius dreamed that the sun rose from Atia's womb." (p. 180)
The hope for a savior was expressed in Virgil’s “Fourth Eclogue". The Church fathers later claimed this was a reference to Jesus Christ, however, the poem was dedicated to Pollio, one of the great influential men at the time of the civil wars and Virgil's patron and friend. The hero of the poem is a child born or to be born in 40 B.C., at the time of Pollio's consulate. A new era was expected, in fulfillment of an older oracle.
"...Now the last age by Cumae's Sibyl sung
Has come and gone, and the majestic roll Of circling centuries begins anew: Justice returns, returns old Saturn's reign, With a new breed of men sent down from heaven. Only do thou, at the boy's birth in whom The iron shall cease, the golden race arise, Befriend him, chaste Lucina; 'tis thine own Apollo reigns...
"For thee, O boy, First shall the earth, untilled, pour freely forth Her childish gifts, the gadding ivy-spray With foxglove and Egyptian bean-flower mixed, And laughing-eyed acanthus. Of themselves, Untended, will the she-goats then bring home Their udders swollen with milk, while flocks afieldShall of the monstrous lion have no fear..."
The Abandoned One
Qi, the Abandoned One, who later became known as Houji – a culture hero or god of agriculture – was held in some accounts to have been miraculously conceived when his mother, the consort Jiang Yuan, stepped into a footprint left by the supreme god Shangdi.
Some Taoist schools held that Lao-tse was conceived when his mother gazed upon a falling star. He was born while his mother was leaning against a plum tree. Lao-tse was said to have emerged as an old man with a full grey beard. This may be because his name – "Old Master" (老子) – can also be read as "Old Child".
The myth of Huitzilopochtli is uniquely Aztec. Huitzilopochtli is therefore considered to be the cult god or the patron god of the Aztec. As a solar deity, Huitzilopochtli is closely related to and overlaps with Tonatiuh. Huitzilopochtli’s mother was Coatlicue, or She of the Serpent Skirt. Coatlicue, known for her devout nature and virtuous qualities, was at Mt. Coatepec one day, sweeping and tending to her penance, when she discovered a bundle of feathers on the ground. She decided to save them and placed them in her bosom. Without her realizing, the feathers impregnated her.
There are several stories about the birth of Quetzalcoatl. In the first story, Quetzalcoatl was born by a virgin named Chimalman, to whom the god Ometeotl appeared in a dream. In another story, the virgin Chimalman conceived Quetzalcoatl by swallowing an emerald. A third story narrates that Chimalman was hit in the womb by an arrow bolted by Mixcoatl and nine months later she gave birth to Quetzalcoatl. A fourth story narrates that Quetzalcoatl was born from Coatlicue, who already had four hundred children who formed the stars of the Milky Way.
According to a legend narrated by The Secret History of the Mongols, a Mongol woman named Alan Gua had a son, named Bodonchar, some years after her husband has died. She claimed a radiant yellow person visited her at night and impregnated her. She thinked the visitor was the god Tengri. Bodonchar became the founder of the Borjigin tribe and a direct ancestor of Genghis Khan.
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