When I was in Rome a few years ago, I tossed a coin into the Trevi fountain. It was just something every tourist wants to do. But have you ever wondered why people toss coins into fountains? Where on earth did this ritual come from?
Peter Wells, in his book, Barbarians to Angels, The Dark Ages Reconsidered, discusses the excavations in London on Wilbrook River. Excavations of this river, now covered by a street, are revealing treasures from Roman times. People tossed lots of objects in this stream on purpose. Archeologists have recovered human skulls, but also a large number of metal and bronze objects – knives, jewelry, spoons, and coins. He offers the explanation that these objects were tossed into the river as “votive gifts for the gods.” A votive gift is something that is given or offered with the hope that some request, prayer, desire is fulfilled. Most often, these gifts are offered to gods or some other supernatural spirit.
Tossing coins is one example of practices that have become so deeply embedded in our culture that we are not aware of the original purposes behind them. Many of these practices that arose in religions or other cultural myths prior to the emergence of Christianity have been incorporated into the Christian religion. This post will discuss a few of the most common ones.
But first a bit about culture. Culture is created little by little. It is rare that a culture arises that is unique and has no links to the cultures that people have already come into contact with. One could imagine, possibly, a group that gets isolated, perhaps in the Amazonian rain forest and creates a wholly new culture that becomes more or less devoid of previous encounters. That would be the rare case and may not even be possible.
Much more likely is a group that interacts with all of the groups around it and incorporates elements of those cultures while adapting and changing them to suit their own purposes. It is this adaption that occurs that leaves the original intent of the ritual, practice, or story behind.
Christianity took centuries to establish itself in a pagan Roman and Greek world. The Judaic tradition that preceded it existed at the crossroads of the early civilizations of the Middle East. The Northern Kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians and disappeared into that culture. The Southern Kingdom’s elites were hauled off to Babylon and influenced by their myths. (See my posts here and here about that process.) Egypt ruled for centuries over Canaan providing fodder for new traditions such as circumcision, which I wrote about last week.
So what are some other Christian rituals that have their basis in other myths? Let’s take Easter to begin with. One of the earliest references to this word is to an ancient goddess named Ēostre by the English monk Bede who lived and wrote in the 7th and 8th century. Ēostre was considered the goddess of spring and summer. At the time Bede wrote, the word signified a month in the English calendar. Feasts were used to honor her during that month. Is it surprising that the words estrus or oestrus and estrogen have similar etymologies? While some Christian scholars want to deny any link of these goddess feasts with the resurrection of Jesus in the New Testament, there are many instances where Christian leaders set dates to coincide with pagan holidays. If you wanted to supplant an existing ritual, choosing the same time of year for the new one was a smart move. Then there are the Easter eggs and bunnies. Did you ever think that when you helped your children hide Easter eggs that there might be some link back to a female goddess, fertility, and planting?
Sometimes the incorporation of pagan symbols into Christian ones is subtler. Citing Wells’ work again, he examines the discovery in 1959 below the Cologne Cathedral of the grave of a wealthy woman who died in the 6th century. Surprisingly, the grave contained a large number of objects, unusual in Christian burials at the time. In one piece of jewelry, referred to as a rosette fibula, there is the representation of a cross, a symbol of Christianity that was growing in importance at the time. But another piece of jewelry in the same grave consisted of “marvelously complex patterns of animal ornament” which were constructed in a way to be hidden. This animal imagery predates Christianity and is present in many pagan symbols such as the snake and lions representing the goddess. Other animal representations can be traced to prehistoric times.
Then there is Christmas along with the Christmas tree. Most people are aware that the decoration of a Christmas tree is not something connected to Christianity per se. However, they may not know that the winter solstice marked an important time for many peoples around the globe. The winter solstice represents the time at which the days become longer. In ancient religions that worshipped the sun god, there was a belief that the god became sick during the winter and the winter solstice marked his recovery. Because evergreens were … well ever green… throughout the year, they represented hope that the winter would pass and other vegetation would return. The Roman’s festival of this type is called Saturnalia. It is little wonder then, that the Christian calendar celebrates the birth of Jesus near the winter solstice. Once again, the origin is lost and the gifts under the tree come to symbolize the gifts in the Bible to the baby Jesus.
If you are interested, you can also read about how the grain goddess of old got transformed into a Catholic saint here.
So next time you toss a coin in a fountain, just remember that you are connecting with an ancient tradition. And go ahead and make a wish!
The Faithless Feminist
 Peter S. Wells, Barbarians to Angels (New York: NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2008), 107-8.
 Ibid, 174.