Recently one of my favorite bloggers, Sara from Midaeval Maiden and Life With 4 Cats, asked me a question about Egyptian mythology being influenced by other cultures. I provided an answer where the words just flowed along nicely and so, since I get occassional e-mails asking me similar questions I figured I would post my answer to Sara in the spirit of a FAQ. All in all, it saves me from coming up with a totally new post today … I think you’ll agree.
My Answer: This sort of inter-cultural influence is pretty standard in mythology. No belief system springs from a vacuum. It springs from previous belief systems in the region and also from appropriating elements of belief systems of other cultures they come into contact with. The process is called syncretism.
Even the big three religions have done it. Zoroastrianism predates Christianity, Islam and Judaism and all three of those belief systems borrowed heavily from it and from other regional mythology – for Christians it was Zoroastrianism,Gnosticism, Judaism, Mithraism and pretty much ALL of the Mystery Religions of the region. For Judaism, in addition to Zoroastrianism it was Canaanite and Ugaritic myths, For Islam it was Zoroastrianism, Persian mythology and the countless deities of the Arabian peninsula about whom so little is known thanks to Islam’s ruthless, brutal efficiency in wiping out those Pre-Islamic beliefs.
And for other similarities to how the Egyptians appropriated earlier belief systems: the Romans did nothing but RENAME the Greek deities and absorb their mythology whole (Hercules is the Roman name for the Greek Herakles, Mercury is the Roman name for the Greek Hermes, Minerva is the Roman name for the Greek Athena, etc.) The dual-faced god Janus (the god January is named after) is regarded as virtually the ONLY purely Roman deity.
The Aztecs appropriated the myths of their predecessors like the Toltecs and the Olmecs. Huitzilopochtli is often considered the only purely Aztec deity. … The Greeks themselves appropriated many of the myths of the Hittites. In my entry on the Navajo war god Nayanazgeni taking on the Anaye I often mentioned how the Navajo appropriated elements of that myth from other tribes they came into contact with during their wanderings.
The process is ongoing, too, because Mormonism is basically a fusion of Christianity and Rosicrucianism. (Before any Mormons send me outraged e-mails read the 1620s Rosicrucian work titled Christianopolis first to see where Joseph Smith got a lot of his ideas) The beliefs of the Hare Khrishna folks are a fusion of Christianity and Hindu myths, with Jesus presented as an incarnation of Vishnu. Voodoo beliefs are a fusion of Yoruban, Fon, Christian and Caribbean belief systems.
Sometimes the process is incomplete because of the course of history. The leader of China’s Taiping rebellion during the mid- 1800s was convinced he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ incarnated in human form to establish a “Kingdom of Heavenly Peace”. The belief system his followers embraced combined elements of Christianity, Confucianism and Buddhism.
If the Taipingis, as they were called, had prevailed not only would the following years in China’s history have been entirely different, but we might have the Taipingi faith as one of the world’s major religions. With my odd sense of humor I love reading the historical documents the Taipingi left behind, especially the ones in which their leader refers to “my elder brother Jesus”. Hey, I guess he figured if his big brother could incarnate as a Jewish philosopher in the Roman- occupied Middle East, he could incarnate as a Chinese revolutionary if he wanted to.
To go back to the current Big Three religions, even their belief in Savior Figures was influenced by Zoroastrianism. The Jewish notions of a Messiah, the Christian belief about Jesus Christ being a Gnosticized version of that Messiah and Islam’s savior figure called the Mahdi are largely appropriated from Zoroastrianism’s savior figure Soter. Hell, the study of savior figures in all the world’s mythologies is even called Soteriology in honor of Soter since he’s the oldest KNOWN savior figure.