Catholic Saints and Pagan Gods
29 SEP 2017
As Christianity swept into pagan lands, it officially replaced the old religions. Sometimes remnants of the old culture and religion remained, however, and rather than discarding the old gods entirely, some cultures re-branded the native gods as Christian saints. The stories and attributes of pagan deities became the stories and attributes of saints, although this was done at a popular level more often than at an official level.
1 Pagan Tradition, Christian Clothing
Pagan culture put its stamp on Christianity as the religion moved through Europe. The early Christians never bothered to celebrate Jesus' birthday, and it is impossible to know when Jesus was actually born, but the church eventually lined up Christmas with a pagan festival. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the solar feast of Natalis Invicti "has a strong claim on the responsibility for our December date." (See Reference 1) You can see this blending at work on Easter as well -- the most important Christian holiday of the year is also bursting with pagan symbols of fertility, such as eggs and rabbits.
2 Ancient vs. Modern Sainthood
According to Catholic Online, saints used to be picked by "popular acclaim," which led to sainthood for people who never existed. (See Reference 2) Because of this, pagan gods could be named as saints, but the modern canonization process is far more rigorous. The canonization process now includes a requirement that the person be dead for five years, as well as the involvement of several layers of clergy, including the pope.
3 Saints as Substitutes for Pagan Gods
While there is no St. Zeus or St. Athena, the early Catholic Church has been criticized for allowing virtues of pagan gods to be melded with virtues of saints. This criticism was especially intense during the Reformation. In his work "A Treatise on Relics," John Calvin blasted the practice of people "substituting the agency of the Christian saint, the hero of their tale, for that of the Pagan deity, to whom it had originally been ascribed." (See Reference 3, page 126)
4 Pagan Gods and Saints of the Same Name
Sometimes a pagan God can be celebrated alongside -- or confused with -- a saint of the same name. This can lead to a belief that the Catholic Church has canonized a pagan god when it is merely a coincidence. St. Brigid of Ireland provides a terrific example. St. Brigid was a friend of Saint Patrick, and the Feast of Saint Brigid celebrates her, according to Catholic Online. The celebration, though, is often mistaken as a pagan celebration of the Celtic deity named Brigid. The deity Brigid did not become St. Brigid; a woman was named after the deity Brigid and later became a saint that happened to be named Brigid.