From Ramses II to Alexander the Great, these leaders helped shaped the world we know today.
- We often dismiss ancient history and the people in it as too long past to be noteworthy.
- Some early rulers were so iconic that their names and works passed into legend and influenced others for centuries.
- Every person on this list contributed to the world you live in today.
A lot of people can be rather dismissive of ancient history, even using the term to refer to past events so remote as to be irrelevant. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the events and decisions made in antiquity continue to influence us to this day. To explore this, we'll look at ten of the most legendary rulers of ancient history, what they did, and why their decisions still matter.
For our purposes, "legendary" means "awesome" rather than "potentially not real." A few kings and queens of old who may not have been real people, such as Gilgamesh, The Yellow Emperor, and the Queen of Sheba, are not included. Additionally, what passes for "ancient" varies based on what area you're talking about, so while all of the people on our list are long dead, a few of them were on the scene much more recently than others.
Hammurabi (1810– c. 1750 BCE)
Hammurabi (left) meets the God of Justice on the pillar laying out his laws.
Hammurabi was the king of Babylon who conquered all who opposed him and ruled with a code of laws assuring uniformity in justice. While his laws are not the oldest surviving ones and are not particularly good, they are among the earliest examples of a constitution known to man with an influence that is difficult to overstate.
After spending the early part of his reign strengthening Babylon's walls and expanding the temples, Hammurabi took advantage of regional political intrigue and shifting alliances to conquer all of southern Mesopotamia—which came to be known as Babylonia—and forced the other power in the area, Assyria, to pay tribute.
He is most famous for his code of laws. The code, famously preserved on a monolith shaped like an index finger, shows Hammurabi receiving the law from the God of Justice. It goes on to describe 282 situations and prescribes legal action for each. It includes clauses for the presumption of innocence, the opportunity for both parties in a case to present evidence, and is the first known example of the eternally famous dictum: "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."
Despite the attempts of the code to ensure equality, the harsh punishments are scaled based on who harms whom. A property-owning man would be punished less harshly than a slave, for example.
Despite the disintegration of his empire after his death, his laws largely remained enforced at the local level and went on to influence the Romans, who wouldn't barrow the idea of making the law publicly available until much later.
Hatshepsut (1507–1458 BCE)
Credit: Postdlf, CC BY-SA 3.0,
The second woman confirmed to rule as pharaoh and by far the most consequential, Hatshepsut had to overcome laws and traditions technically barring women from the role.
The wife, daughter, and sister of a king, Hatshepsut was also technically the wife of a God. Upon the death of her brother-husband, the pharaoh Thutmose II, Hatshepsut used her political cunning, regal background, and religious power to assume the title of pharaoh alongside her young son Thutmose III.
Like any good pharaoh, she embarked on a vast building campaign to legitimize her rule. No previous ruler (and perhaps only a few after) oversaw such an extensive series of building projects. Their vast scale suggests the country was particularly prosperous at this time.
Among these projects was her tomb, the extremely impressive Djeser-Djeseru.
Trade routes that had been disrupted prior to her reign were reestablished. This process included an expedition to the mysterious and wealthy Land of Punt. She also found the time to send military expositions to neighboring states. These ventures assured the prosperity which would define the 18th dynasty.
As with many pharaohs, there were attempts to erase any trace of Hatshepsut from the historical record. While these failed, they did cause some trouble for archaeologists a few thousand years later, who struggled to determine why some hieroglyphs referred to a queen.
Ramses II (1303 BCE – 1213 BCE)
The man himself- mummified, of course.
Known to the Greeks, lovers of romantic poetry, and Alan Moore fans as Ozymandias, Ramses was one of the greatest rulers of Egypt, a country with enough great rulers to make that quite the achievement.
Like other great Egyptian rulers, Ramses' reign featured monumental construction projects. Unlike most of his predecessors, his projects were on a scale not seen since the building of the Pyramids.
He built the new capital of Pi-Ramesses, a dazzling city and military base with which he kept an eye on his holdings in Canaan. Several massive temple structures, including the famous Abu Simbel temples, were dedicated at this time and featured colossal images, often of himself. He also ordered his artists to carve words and images deeper into stone than had been done previously to make them easier to see and harder to remove.
On the whole, his reign is considered by many art historians to be the high point of Ancient Egyptian culture.
Known as a great military leader, Ramses personally led his armies in Libya, Nubia, and Canaan. While his war with the Hittites didn't go quite as well as his propaganda claimed, it did lead to the first peace treaty in human history.
During the Bronze Age Collapse, a period when most Mediterranean civilizations fell, Ramses was able to make Egypt one of two major civilizations to avoid failure and destruction at the hands of the mysterious "Sea Peoples" by defeating them in battle and securing the Egyptian borders. Without his leadership, Egypt may have suffered the same dark age as its neighbors and the world the poorer for it.
His reign was so long—he lived to be 96—that many Egyptians feared the end of the world at the time of his death. Nine later pharaohs would take his name in tribute to his legacy.
In addition to his impact in popular culture hinted at above, he is also frequently used as the pharaoh in film adaptions of the Exodus story, though there is no archaeological or historical evidence confirming such an event or that he was in charge when it happened.
The Duke of Zhou (11th Century BCE)
The Grand Old Duke of Zhou
One of the lower-ranking officials on our list is famous less for what he did and more for how he did it. The Duke of Zhou (pronounced "Joe") was Confucius' hero and laid the foundations for the first ruling dynasty in Northern China. As a result of Qin Shi Huang burning the imperial records, we don't actually know much about the Duke, but his influence on Chinese history is significant.
The brother of the first king of the Zhou dynasty which ruled much of central China, the Duke became the regent for his young nephew after his brother's death. Unlike most royal uncles in such a position, the Duke is famous for having not acted improperly. When his nephew came of age, the Duke gave up his power and went home.
During his regency, he put down a number of rebellions, expanded eastwards, codified Feudalism, established the holy city of Chengzhou, and legitimized Zhou rule with the idea of the Mandate of Heaven.
The mandate is an idea suggesting that rulers should be virtuous. When they are, heaven favors them and grants the nation prosperity. When they are not, natural disasters and other catastrophes will plague the nation. These disasters are a sign that heaven has abandoned a particular set of rulers and that they can, and should, be swept away by new ones who will do a better job. The Duke suggested that the Zhou, a new dynasty, had come to power this way and enjoyed heaven's favor.
Confucius, the most influential thinker in Chinese history, later praised the Duke and claimed that his entire political philosophy was based on his life. The Mandate of Heaven, which would be refined by other philosophers, remained an important element in Chinese history and is still occasionally invoked to this day.
Pericles (495 – 429 BCE)
The only member on this list to not rule as a king, Pericles was a general and the first citizen of Athens. While his command of the Assembly was firm enough that some commentators declared Athens "in name a democracy but, in fact, governed by its first citizen."
While he was only ever elected as a general, Pericles was the leading member of the democratic faction of Athens for much of his life and dominated the political scene. After taking the reins of power, he oversaw the expansion of democratic rights, the issuing of salaries to those serving in government offices, the giving of land to the poor, and the creation of pensions for war widows.
This time span, known as the Age of Pericles, is considered the golden age of Athenian culture, when many playwrights, artists, sculptors, and philosophers were in Athens doing their finest work. It is this era that made Athens the leading city of ancient Greece.
His most famous act was technically one of embezzlement. He convinced the Athenians to use the treasury of the Delian League, a group of Greek city-states united for defense under Athenian guidance, to build a massive temple complex to replace an older temple for Athena. That complex, the Parthenon, remains a symbol of Ancient Greece and its golden era.
With his considerable oratorical skill, Pericles was able to maintain majorities in the Assembly even in the face of organized opposition. His famous "Funeral Oration" remains a landmark speech in the history of democratic leadership.
Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BCE)
No discussion of great rulers of the ancient world is complete without a reference to Alexander. The son of the king of Macedonia, a Greek-speaking kingdom just north of what the Greeks considered the civilized world, Alexander took control of his father's kingdom and leadership of the Greek world after the old king was conveniently assassinated.
After becoming king and assuring the cooperation of the other Greek states, Alexander set out to conquer Persia, the neighboring empire which stretched from Egypt to India. After ten years of campaigning, in which he never lost a battle, Alexander conquered Persia, attempted to invade India, and laid out plans for a cosmopolitan empire blending eastern and western cultures together.
He died at age 33 of a mysterious illness before he could do so. His empire was then split up among his generals.
His conquests ushered in the Hellenistic period and made Athenian Greek the Lingua Franca of the eastern Mediterranean world. Greek ideas on art, culture, city planning, and education spread into new areas and fused with local ideas. This all but assured the primacy of Greek culture over all others in that part of the world and would guarantee its endurance even long after Rome conquered most of the Hellenistic kingdoms that sprung up after Alexander's death.
Qin Shi Huang (259 – 210 BC)
The first emperor to unite China and the initiator of several ideas later rulers would emulate, Qin Shi Huang technically ended what is thought of as ancient Chinese history and ushered in the imperial era.
After becoming king of one of the seven warring kingdoms during the aptly named "warring states period," he united the seven under his rule through a brutal military conquest. Assuming the title of Emperor of China, he abolished feudalism, redrew the administrative maps, and replaced hereditary officials with ones selected for their merits.
He then began an extensive public works campaign, which included building the first iteration of the Great Wall and a canal linking the Yangtze and Pearl Rivers. His government also found the time to build extensive roadways, reform the coinage, and redistribute land to the peasants.
Qin Shi Huang also had a dark side. He famously burned the imperial library and all of its texts, which made him, or the legalistic philosophy his government followed, look bad. The flourishing of ideas that defined warring states era philosophy ended during his rule, though the ideas he sought to suppress, including Confucianism, merely went underground.
Toward the end of his life, the emperor began a search for immortality elixirs. It is believed that some of these elixirs contained mercury, which may have hastened his death. His tomb is the home of the famous terracotta army in Xian.
Boudica (died in 60 or 61 CE)
Boudica's statue in London, the city she burned.
Credit: Paul Walter - Boudica statue, Westminster, CC BY 2.0,
Boudica was the queen of the Celtic Iceni tribe, famed for leading her people in revolt against the Romans. While she was defeated, her victories still inspire those fighting for freedom two thousand years later.
Her late husband had willed his petty kingdom to both Rome and his daughters in hopes that this arrangement would assure some form of independence. The Romans instead moved in and brutally suppressed the population. Appealed by this betrayal, Boudica led the Iceni and their neighbors in rebellion.
Their first stop was Colchester, which they systematically demolished. When the 9th legion was sent to put down her rebellion, she led her troops in battle against them. The 9th was almost completely annihilated, with only a few officers and horsemen escaping.
Her army advanced, burning Roman settlements in their wake. Roman officials fled as the city of Londinium, now known as London, was wiped off the map.
It was shortly after this that the Romans counterattacked with a large force somewhere outside of modern London. Boudica, having expressed her desire to win or die as a freewoman, led the rebels from her chariot and perished alongside them.
She is unique among the members of this list for being better known as a symbol of the fight against oppression than for the constructive elements of her reign. Her image returned to prominence during the English renaissance when England, led by Elizabeth I, faced invasion. The following centuries only added to her fame.
Today, statues of Boudica can be found in several prominent locations in London.
Trajan (53-117 CE)
Credit: Marco Almbauer - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
The second of the "Five Good Emperors," Trajan expanded Roman territory to its greatest extent, stretching from Scotland to Kuwait. Between his military successes and domestic policies, the Roman Senate found it proper to declare Trajan Optimus Princeps- the greatest ruler.
Adopted by a childless emperor as an adult, Trajan was the first Roman emperor to not be born in Italy. Coming to power during an era of relative prosperity, Trajan spent much of his time on public works projects and warfare.
On the domestic front, he rebuilt the road system which Rome is so famous for, gave the city of Rome—now home to a million people—a new forum and lovely column, financed vast infrastructure projects, and granted pardons to those persecuted under the reign of Domitian a few years prior.
On the battlefield, he led the legions in three large wars. These ended in the conquest of modern Romania, Armenia, Iraq, and Kuwait. In celebration of the Romanian conquest, he put on a festival featuring 10,000 gladiators.
Pacal the Great (603 – 683 CE)
The jade death mask of Pacal.
A Mayan king whose 68-year rule is the fifth-longest reign in history, Pacal turned a minor city-state into a powerhouse and built some of the great Mayan temples. Known as K'inich Janabb' Pakal in his own language, his rule was one of the high points of the Mayan civilization.
Coming to power at age 12 after a period of regency under a mother who would later serve as his chief advisor, Pacal legitimized his rule with a series of massive building projects. These included the great Temple of the Inscriptions in his capital of Palenque, which would later serve as his tomb. He also forged alliances with other Mayan rulers that would bring Palenque to prominence.
His capital city, while a smaller Mayan urban center, features some of the finest artwork that civilization is known to have produced. The majority of the city has not been fully discovered, and what archaeological wonders lie waiting in the jungle is anyone's guess.
Meet a spectacular new blue—the first inorganic new blue in some time.
The color you're looking at in the unretouched photo above is a stunning new blue called "YInMn Blue." It's the first new inorganic blue pigment developed in hundreds of years. "YInMn Blue" is a contraction of Yttrium, Indium, and Manganese, and the pigment was invented by a team of chemists led by Mas Subramanian at Oregon State University (OSU).
The color was invented in 2009, but it took until last spring for the EPA to approve it for general use — the agency refers to it as "Blue 10G513." Before that, in 2016, the Shepherd Color Company had licensed it for exterior use, and knockoffs of the color popped up here and there in Etsy offerings. It even inspired a new Crayola color called "Bluetiful." Appropriate.
So, um the color of the sky is...?
Credit: Constant Loubier/Unsplash
YInMn Blue is the latest character in an odd story: humanity's relationship with the color blue.
For a long time, humans apparently took no note of blue, which is weird. Though blue isn't especially common in vegetation and stone, there's no other color that so envelops us — in the sky above and on the face of the oceans that surround us. (BTW, the late George Carlin once lamented a paucity of blue foods.)
There are no ancient European year-old cave paintings with blue pigments, though it does appear in some African cave art. There's no mention of it in the Bible. Though there are plenty of references in Homer's Odyssey to white and black, and a few to red and yellow, there's no blue. He refers to the color of the sea as "wine-dark."
Some historians hypothesize that early humans might have been color-blind, capable only of seeing black, white, red, and eventually yellow and green. Perhaps they just weren't very interested in the idea of color altogether.
Maybe, though, a more likely explanation is that lacking a concept and a word for blue, ancient people lacked a frame of reference for understanding what they were seeing. Radiolab did a fascinating episode about this possibility.
A BBC documentary found that people from a Namibian tribe with no separate words for green and blue couldn't differentiate green from blue squares, though there's some controversy about the experiment. What is true, though, is that Eskimos see more types of snow because they have 50 words for it. (The word "Eskimo" groups together the people of the Inuit and Yupik families.) We see just a few.
Credit: Geert Pieters/Unsplash
While Homer, et al., were stumbling around clueless, it seems that the first folks to get blue were the ancient Egyptians, who were entranced by the semiprecious Afghan stone lapis lazuli about 6,000 years ago. They gave the color a name—ḫsbḏ-ỉrjt—and used the stone liberally in jewelry and headdresses.
The Egyptians even attempted to make paint from the mineral, but failed. In 2,200 B.C. they finally succeeded at producing a light-blue paint, cuprorivaite or "Egyptian blue," from heated limestone, sand, and azurite or malachite. Egypt's precious blue pigments eventually became valued by royalty in Persia, Mesoamerica, and Rome.
The earliest successful lapis lazuli paint—and ultimately Europe's first great blue—appeared in 6th century Buddhist paintings from Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Imported into Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries, ultramarine—from ultramarinus, or "beyond the sea"—was used only in expensive commissioned artwork until a French chemist developed a cheaper, synthetic version in 1826. True ultramarine was both so coveted and pricey that, according to the Metropolitan Museum, Vermeer impoverished his family to purchase it, and there's a story that one of Michelangelo's paintings, "The Entombment," was left unfinished because he couldn't afford the ultramarine it required. At the other end of the cost spectrum was the affordable blue dye indigo, made from the plant Indigofera tinctoria, and imported to Europe in the 16th-century.
Over time, more blues appeared. In 1706, German dye-maker Johann Jacob Diesbach came up with Berliner Blau, or Prussian blue, accidentally when potash he was using to make red pigment was contaminated with animal blood that paradoxically turned it blue. 1802 saw the invention of cobalt blue, based on the 8th- and 9th-century blue pigments used in Chinese porcelain, by French chemist Louis Jacques Thénard. Cerulean blue—from caerulum, meaning "heave" or "sky"—was the last major blue introduced before YInMn Blue. It was invented by Albrecht Höpfner in 1789.
Back to the new blue
The discovery of YInMn Blue occurred when chemistry grad student Andrew Smith was heating manganese oxide to approximately 1200 °C (~2000 °F) to investigate its electronic properties. To his surprise, what emerged from the heat was a brilliant blue compound. Recalls Subramanian: "If I hadn't come from an industry research background — DuPont has a division that developed pigments, and obviously, they are used in paint and many other things — I would not have known this was highly unusual, a discovery with strong commercial potential."
Subramanian knew, he told NPR in 2016, "People have been looking for a good, durable blue color for a couple of centuries." OSU art students soon began experimenting with the new color, incorporating it in watercolors and printing. In 2012, Subramanian's team received a patent for YInMn Blue.
Bonus: Previous blue pigments are prone to fading and are often toxic. These are problems that don't afflict YInMn Blue. "The fact that this pigment was synthesized at such high temperatures signaled that this new compound was extremely stable, a property long sought in a blue pigment," says Subramanian in the study documenting YInMn Blue.
Subramanian and his colleagues have been developing colors ever since, including new bright oranges, new purples, and turquoises and greens. Currently, they're on the hunt for a chromatic Holy Grail: a stable, heat-reflective, and brilliant, red. It's a challenge. While red is among the oldest colors, Subramanian calls the shade he seeks "the most elusive color to synthesize."
All the fun of opening up a mummy, without the fear of unleashing a plague.
- Three long dead Egyptians recently had their CT images taken.
- The scans revealed what was, and was not, done during their mummification.
- The finds shed more light on how the Egyptians were inspired by the Greeks and Romans.
Beyond being great villains in horror films, mummies are excellent tools to learn about the past with. With these well-preserved corpses, you can learn about what people were like in life by reviewing what they left behind. If you get enough of them, you can start to make generalizations about how entire populations lived.
The Egyptians liked to bury mummies with possessions that they might take with them into the afterlife. Because of this, their tombs often reveal the lives they lived, the art styles of the time, what objects they found important enough to take with them into the beyond, and other details that might otherwise be lost to history.
One of the difficulties of using mummies to learn about these things is that they can be challenging to wrap back up after pulling back the bandages. Luckily for us, modern technology has made doing that obsolete. Recently, a team of researchers created CT scan images of three mummies and published their findings.
They look pretty good for being 2000.
The decorated images showing who the mummies used to be.
Credit: Zesch et al., PLOS One, 2020
The three mummies scanned are the only known examples of "stucco-shrouded portrait mummies." As opposed to being buried in a coffin, these three were placed on wooden boards then wrapped in a textile and a shroud. They were then decorated with plaster, gold, and a whole-body portrait revealing what they looked like, how they styled their hair, and what they wore in life. All three were once buried in Saqqara, the great Necropolis just south of Giza.
They date back to the Late Roman Period in Egypt, and all three of them have had very exciting afterlives filled with stories about their discoveries and shifting ownership. Now, thanks to modern technology, we can learn about their lives.
The CT scan shows that the man was between 25 and 30 years of age when he died and that he had several cavities and unerupted teeth. He was only 164 cm tall (around 5'4"). Several of his bones are broken, though this is believed to be the result of careless handling by whoever discovered the remains.
Most curiously, there is no evidence that his brain was removed during the mummification process, as was standard in other cases. It also seems that few embalming chemicals were used to preserve him. This suggests that he was just wrapped, painted, and buried and that dehydration is what kept his corpse so well preserved.
The woman was between 30 and 40 years old and stood at 151 cm (4'9"). She shows signs of arthritis in her knees. Like many other Egyptians, she was buried in fine jewelry. Several necklaces appeared on the scan, suggesting she was well off. For reasons unknown, nails were also found in her abdomen. Like her male counterpart, her brain was not removed during mummification, either.
The last mummy was that of a girl in her late teens. She showed signs of having a benign tumor on her back, and all of her internal organs were still intact. Her coffin contains hairpins, suggesting that she wore her hair up as depicted in her portrait.
How does this change our understanding of Egyptian life and death?
Finding hairpins with the remains is noteworthy, as only a few other such examples exist. It provides further evidence that ancient Egyptians wore their hair up.
Other mummies have been buried with coins, but in Egypt, the practice does not seem to go back to before Alexander the Great conquered the area. This suggests that the deceased had adopted elements of the Greeks' religion and brought along coins to pay Charon.
The find also sheds more light on how the Egyptians lived and died under Greek and later Roman rule and how their conquerors' beliefs and art styles influenced their religion.
Well preserved coffins hint towards more discoveries in a famed necropolis.
- Archaeologists in Egypt have discovered more than two dozen sarcophagi in the last month.
- Experts predict more discoveries in the coming weeks.
- Their discovery is another credit to Saqqara, the necropolis of the old capital of Memphis.
The combined blows of political instability, terrorist attacks, and the COVID-19 pandemic have taken a toll on Egypt, driving down its yearly tourist numbers to unacceptably low levels. In response, the county has amplified archaeological work in hopes of keeping tourist interest alive.
The work paid off. This week, investigations of a necropolis south of Cairo revealed more than two dozen mummies buried more than 2,500 years ago.
More mummies than a horror movie
The first 13 coffins were found stacked on top of one another in a shaft 11 meters deep. All of the sarcophagi were completely sealed and apparently hadn't been tampered with since there were buried. In some cases, the paint on the wooden coffins is still visible, giving them a vibrant appearance.
Shortly after that find, the ministry of antiquities announced the discovery of 14 more coffins at the same site in a similar shaft. Similarly to the previous find, these coffins were remarkably well preserved and featured painted hieroglyphics.The finds were also detailed in a Facebook post by the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. At the moment, we don't know who these mummies were, what kind of lives they lived, or what items they decided to take to their graves. This information is expected to turn up soon. More details on the mummies are expected next month.
The remains were found at the Saqqara Plateau, known to have housed the necropolis of the city of Memphis during that era of Egyptian history. It is well known for its Step Pyramid of Djoser, perhaps the earliest example of cut stone construction at such a scale in human history. Located a mere 16 kilometers (10 miles) south of the better known Great Pyramid at Gaza, Saqqara has been a site of significant archaeological interest for more than a century.
The earliest burials there date back to the first dynasty, some 5,000 years ago. The site remained in use as a burial ground and religious center to the rise of Islam in the 7th century C.E. It's six thousand years of service has given it a unique collection of monuments, pyramids, and tombs for high ranking officials and pharaohs, alongside galleries for the mummies of pets, statues of Greek philosophers and poets, and the remains of monasteries.
Of course, while the mummies of pharaohs (and the massive wealth they were buried with) capture public interest, mummification was not just for royalty. Many tombs are filled with the remains of middle-class Egyptians, rather than those of royalty, and feature simpler variations of the elite's burial practices.
The Ministry of Antiquities expects more sarcophagi to be found at the site and has already announced further excavations.
A few traditions in the Roman Catholic Church can be traced back to pagan cults, rites, and deities.
- The Catholic rite of Holy Communion parallels pre-Christian Greco-Roman and Egyptian rituals that involved eating the body and blood of a god.
- A number of Catholic holidays and myths, such as Christmas, Easter, and Mardi Gras, graph onto the timeline of pre-Christian fertility festivals.
- The Catholic practice of praying to saints has been called "de-facto idolatry" and even a relic of goddess worship.
By the fourth century, the Christian Church had established itself as the official faith of the Roman Empire through a successful grassroots campaign to dominate, and almost exterminate, paganism. But did it?
In reality, the early Church had to merge itself with pagan practices and beliefs in order to blend into Roman society. In the rites and symbols of the Roman Catholic Church, we can find surviving, though rebranded, pre-Christian myths, deities, festivals, and rituals. Here are three Catholic practices that can be traced back to ancient pagan religions and cults.
Photo by Debby Hudson / Unsplash
One of the more fascinating elements of Catholicism is the ritual cannibalistic consumption of their "demigod" known as Holy Communion or Eucharist. During Catholic mass, bread and wine are transformed into the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, who is considered the son of God, in a rite called "transubstantiation." This isn't a symbolic transformation. A core teaching of the Catholic faith is the belief in literal transubstantiation. Practitioners eat the body and blood of Christ to become one with God.
Similar rituals were practiced in the underground "mystery religions" of the Greco-Roman world. In a few of those occult religions, celebrants shared a communal meal in which they symbolically feasted on the flesh and got drunk on the blood of their god. For example, the Mithraic Mysteries, or Mithraism, was a mystery cult practiced in the Roman Empire in 300 BC in which followers worshipped the Indo-Iranian deity Mithram, the god of friendship, contract, and order. Mirroring the Catholic Eucharistic rite, the idea of transubstantiation was a characteristic of Mithraic sacraments that included cake and Haoma drink. But the ritual probably wasn't original to Mithraism either. In Egypt around 3100 BC, priests would consecrate cakes which were to become the flesh of the god Osiris and eaten.
Holy Days and Carnivals
The survival of ancient communities was intimately dependent upon the fertility of the land, so their religious symbolism and festivals reflected this fundamental bond between humans and the cycles of nature. A number of Catholic holidays and myths parallel the timeline and adopt the symbols of pre-Christian fertility festivals. In Catholicism, Jesus Christ is thought to have been born on December 25, Christmas Day. In pre-Christian Roman religions, the Winter Solstice was a core sacred event that took place on December 25 at the time of the Julian calendar. The best known custom was the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which was celebrated similar to Christmas with drinking, fires, gift-giving, and tree worship.
Similarly, the Catholic Fat Tuesday, otherwise known as Mardi Gras, is rooted in the pre-Christian Roman celebration of Lupercalia. A February holiday honoring the Roman god of fertility, its customs involved feasting, drinking, and "carnal behavior." Today, the same can be said of Mardi Gras, when Catholics (as well as non-Catholics) eat festival foods and party before abstaining for 40 days during Lent.
When it comes to Easter, celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, the symbolic story of the death of a god (or sun/son) and springtime rebirth is a tale as old as time. The spring equinox was recognized by various pagan cults as a festival marking the resurrection of light triumphing over darkness and the fresh fecundity of the land. One such festival was Eostre, which celebrated a northern goddess of the same name. Her symbol was the prolific hare representing fertility.
Speaking of goddesses...
Goddess Worship: The Virgin Mary and Saint Brigid
Photo by Grant Whitty / Unsplash
Though theoretically monotheistic, the Catholic practice of praying to saints has been called "de-facto idolatry" and even a relic of goddess worship. Rebranded pagan goddesses can be found in the Catholic Church today in forms of Saint Brigid and the Virgin Mary.
Mary, the Virgin Mother of Christ, is arguably the most important Catholic icon save for the Holy Trinity. She's likely the amalgamation of pre-Christian mother goddesses from antiquity whose ranks include Artemis, Demeter, Diana, Hera, Isis, and Venus. The cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis may have had a particularly strong influence on Christian myth. While historical records can not substantiate this entirely, there is physical evidence of statues of Isis cradling Horus that were converted and reused as the Virgin Mary holding Jesus.
Brigid, the beloved Celtic goddess associated with fertility and healing, is perhaps the clearest example of the survival of an early goddess into Catholicism. Practitioners, particularly in Ireland, pay tribute to Saint Brigid of Ireland who shares many of the early goddess's attributes. Her feast day on the first of February falls around the same time as the pagan celebration of Imbolc.
The appropriation of these pagan practices and symbols by the Catholic Church shows how, as social interests change and new institutions are established, religious myths and practices are not so easily exterminated. Today, millions of Catholics eating the body and blood of their god, bowing their heads to feminine idols and celebrating natural cycles on the Liturgical Calendar are still worshiping in the ways of the ancient pagans.