When Symbolism Flirts: the odd relationship between Christian and Pagan symbols

Symbols are everything.

If you doubt that then think of the strength of feeling which is evooked by the American Flag — both positive and negative.

Land of hope and freedom, or symbol of the armed forces occupying your land?

How about the Swastika?

Once a symbol of good fortune and the perpetual rise and fall of the sun, the swastika now evokes historical condemnation of the Nazis. It’s precisely this strength of feeling which is provoked on a regular basis by 4chan and the dissident trolls of the Alt-Right. Memes, such as Pepe and Kekistan depend on this idea that symbols will elicit attention. If you doubt the success of this may I remind you that Hillary Clinton devoted an entire election campaign speech confronting the Alt-right and their memes — which were so pervasive that one 4channer can be heard calling “Pepe!” during her speech.

The power of symbols is evident when it come to the study of religions.

There are symbols used in the holy texts, there are symbols used in their art and there are symbols used by their followers.

The Cross is perhaps one of the most well known symbols in the world, denoting Christianity. When we think of Christianity we might think of Christmas and Easter — yet the primary symbols we associate with these are the Christmas tree and Easter Eggs, or the Easter bunny.

As a quick google search will show you, certain parts of the internet as a battleground for ‘the real meaning of’ these festivals.

Some claim that they’re actually pagan festivals, some a frustrated that too few people understand the significance of the Nativity or the crucifixion.

And, to an extent, both are right.

It’s impossible to deny that in the past there have been pagan festivals not just at Christmas and Easter but also on many other dates that are significant to Christians.

These memes are making exactly that point.

However, this is nothing new. In our culture today where colonialism is looked on with a sense of judgement and guilt for the ways in which nations, such as Britain, have badly mistreated other nations in the name of God, Queen and Empire we often operate with a sense of detachment from that past. The harsh reality is that even today civilisation remains a conquering, violent construct. If you don’t think so then you’re either not connected with the military forces, or you’ve rationalised away the underlying threat of violence which underpins the civil justice system; from police to prisons, financial and social crimes are enforced by those who society has accepted are allowed to use force in the name of preventing more force. This is not a value judgement on either the military or the police; it’s a recognition of reality, a reality which has been since before recorded history began.

The roman culture is a good example. One of the strengths of the Roman Empire was that when it had conquered a new territory it incorporated it into Roman Culture. The Rome was not an occupying force per se, it was a ruling force. In a time when the plurality of deities was more readily accepted than today the Romans either adopted new ones, or renamed them to match current ones. As such, the Roman pantheon of Gods was a relatively fluid system. What it achieved was a unity of religious control, and along with that came obedience to the Emperor.

This is syncretism; the amalgamation of language, in this case religious.

And it was hugely successful.

Once Christianity became the universal religion of the empire under Constantine, the practice of syncretism continued. Albeit in a different form. Rather than adopting new deities into a pantheon, Christianity adopted and transformed existing dates and rites of ritual worship and reorientated them towards Jesus. This wasn’t done unthinkingly, as we might cynically think now. There’s actually a rich history of intense biblical and liturgical scholarship involved in the formation of when festivals should be and why they’re the distance apart from each other that they are and so on and so forth.

Nevertheless, it remains true that when many people think of Christianity they think of the pagan symbols.

Yet, as Pete pointed out in his question, “many ‘so-called’ pagans wear a Christian symbol”.

An Inverted Cross — properly called St Peter’s Cross

The inverted cross is beloved of ‘pagans’, rockers, metal heads and goths everywhere. It adorns clothing, posters and even people’s bodies as tattoos. A sign of cultural rebellion, it has its perceived origins in the so called “Black Mass”.

In Christianity one of the core ritual acts of worship is the Eucharist, the service where bread and wine is presented to the congregation as a symbolic remembrance of the body and blood of Christ shed upon the Cross for the forgiveness of sins. It’s also called the Mass, and almost as long as there has been a celebration of Mass there has been a strong view that God himself is actually present in the bread and the wine, that when you’re in the presence of the Mass you’re also in the presence of God. As such the Mass is a sacred act of worship with enormous spiritual significance.

The Black Mass is a parody of this act of worship. It aims to shock, mock and invert the practises and symbols of the Mass. As early as the 4th Century, around the time of the formulation of the Nicene Creed, there were reports of groups of heretics using menstrual blood in place of wine along allegations of orgies and other such acts. In contemporary usage, the Black Mass is primarily a theatrical rejection of Christianity and God rather than a spiritual practise in itself. Thus it follows logically that to parody and mock the Cross it should be reversed, and as this can’t happen horizontally it happens vertically; the inverted Cross. It is from this that many horror films have been inspired or influenced in their presentation of the occult and the diabolical (even though many ‘real’ pagans, satanists or other occultic practitioners claim its a misunderstanding of their actual beliefs and practises).

As with Christmas and Easter, the internet remains a battleground for the meaning of the symbol. However in this case it’s more straightforwardly a matter of history.

The Christian Origins of the upside-down cross comes from Origen’s account of the death of the Apostle Peter, the rock on which Christ built his Church. The story goes that when Peter was martyred he was to be crucified. However he felt unworthy to die in the same way as his Lord and so was permitted to be crucified upside-down. Hence the Petrine Cross, which technically remains, given the tradition of Peter as the first pope, a symbol of papal office — a symbol which is not at all, as some corners of the internet would think, an admission of an occultic conspiracy concerning the Vatican.

In origin, then, the Cross of St Peter is just another Christian symbol among symbols, and its association with ‘paganism’, or more strictly anti-christianism, is something of a quirk of culture. Personally, I thoroughly enjoy my heavy metal but have refrained from wearing an inverted cross because of wishing to avoid mixed signals.

So then:

Is Christianity an inherently open faith?

It’d be tempting to question the terminology here.

Inherently. Open. Faith.

Each of these could be parsed in several ways, but I’m going to respond like this:

The central tenet of Christian faith is that God is a God who speaks, who reveals himself embodied as the human man Jesus who was killed on a cross and then rose again before instructing his disciples to preach the good news and make disciples of all nations.

This is the same God who created by speech; who said let there be light, and there was light.

When confronted with a God who speaks, who calls our name and says ‘I will be your God, if you will be my people’, it rests upon us to speak back, to respond — to accept and believe, or to reject and walk our own way.

And our speech is conveyed, at least in part, in the symbols we use.

Symbols we may have borrowed, symbols which may be accessible to others.

Symbols which converse; which flirt and entice, which replace and subvert.

Follow me on Twitter @ SamuelSThorp, ask me a question and if I can I’ll post it here on Medium.

I wear a ring.

It’s on my right hand,
my doing hand,
on my middle finger because what it represents is at the centre of my identity.

This is true of me as Christian, of me as Samuel, before it is true of me as one who is training to be a priest.

Wherever I walk, I walk as a vassal of a Heavenly Kingdom.

The Symbolism of the Cross is a post I wrote a while ago. If you enjoyed this, give it a read and let me know what you think.

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