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  Columnist: Victoria Grossack

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Gods' begotten sons

Posted on Friday, 24 December, 2010 | 9 comments
Columnist: Victoria Grossack

Christmas, we are told, is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, the only begotten son of God. His mother, Mary, became pregnant while still a virgin and bore her son nine months later in Bethlehem. Let’s not debate that – yet – but instead review the stories surrounding the offspring of many other gods. They’re nearly always sons, although in a few cases they had daughters, too.

We start with a well-documented case: Augustus Caesar (63 BCE to 14 CE). Augustus – Gaius Julius Augustus Caesar – was the first of the Roman emperors. His biological parents were Gaius Octavius and Atia Balba Caesonia, and his original name was Gaius Octavius Thurnius. But his great-uncle, Gaius Julius Caesar, adopted the young man in his will. Now, in Rome of that time, adoptions were taken very seriously. An adoption – even a posthumous one – was generally considered as good as one’s natural ancestry.

What do Augustus Caesar and Julius Caesar have to do with gods? About two years after Julius Caesar’s death, the Roman senate deified him, proclaiming that he should be referred to as Divus Iulius (the divine Julius – the Latin alphabet had no “J”). This meant that Augustus could refer to himself as Divi Filius (the son of a god). This probably appealed to Augustus’ ego, which one can assume was enormous. More importantly, calling himself the son of a god helped Augustus establish his power as the first man in Rome.

It turns out that claiming a divine heritage, especially during times of turmoil such as creating a new dynasty, was extremely helpful for cementing power. Divine ancestry was supported by ministers and nobles, because they want to keep their heads attached to their bodies, and flattering the new man in charge was a great way to do it. Priests – another powerful element in society – also supported the establishment of a new god, as more gods meant more temples and more offerings and greater job security. Poets, such as Virgil who wrote the Aeneid and “showed” that the Julii were descended from the goddess Venus, found secure employment.

Of course, there’s little claim to the supernatural in Augustus. Julius Caesar, Augustus’ adoptive father, demonstrated that he was completely mortal by dying at the stabbing hands of his assassins. Julius Caesar only achieved godhood through a decree of Rome’s senate. Furthermore, Julius Caesar was not the biological father of his great-nephew. But the case illustrates that claiming a divine heritage was common in the time of Christ. In fact, in the Julio-Claudian dynasty, at least the following members were deified: Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar, Livia (the wife of Augustus), Caligula, Caligula’s sister Drusilla, and Claudius.

Let’s review a couple of other cases. Moving more than a millennia back in time, we encounter the story of Perseus. His mother, Danaë was a princess whose father, the king of Argos, learned that any son she bore would grow up to kill him. So he locked her in tower. However, legend has it that the great god Zeus saw the lovely maiden sitting there by herself, and came down on her in the form of golden rain (rather like the Holy Spirit’s visit to Mary). Danaë became pregnant, and after she gave birth to Perseus, her alarmed father put her and her baby in a chest and cast her out to sea (note the similarity to the story of Moses, which would have originated about the same time). Perseus survived and grew up to become the king of Mycenae – and yes, he did eventually kill his grandfather, although it wasn’t until much later.

In the case of Danaë and her son Perseus there are at least two reasons for claiming that Zeus was the father. There’s the reason that was most customary for inventing divine ancestry: Perseus, obviously ambitious, wanted to make sure that his parentage was as illustrious as possible.

But there was also Danaë’s difficulty. By all accounts she was unmarried and, according to the morals of the day, should not have been sleeping with any man; how was she to explain her pregnancy – especially if she had slept with a servant or a slave or had committed incest? Claiming that her son was the son of a god instead of a mortal put her in a much stronger position. This was the typical approach from a number of women who found themselves pregnant in olden times: Europa, Io, Antiope and Semele, to name a few from Greek mythology. Presumably these young ladies’ parents decided it was better to protect their daughters’ reputations than to show any skepticism.

What did a fellow do if he wanted to claim a god as a parent but his mother and father were married to each other? Let’s consider Hercules, whose Greek name was Heracles, whose biological parents were Amphitryon and Alcmene. It certainly suited Hercules better to be the son of Zeus, as he is generally known, rather than the mortal man Amphitryon. Yet this caused another problem: a slur upon his beloved mother. His mother Alcmene was married, and as a wife should not have been sleeping with anyone else, even if divine! Hence the myth-makers came up with this solution: Zeus came to Alcmene in the form of her husband, Amphitryon, and impregnated her. That way honor was satisfied while still allowing for divine ancestry.

The stories surrounding Perseus and Hercules go so far back that some people today dismiss them as complete inventions. But later, better-documented mortals borrowed from them, including Alexander the Great (died 323 BCE). His parents were King Philip II of Macedon and Olympias.

Olympias, probably because she was both estranged from Philip and because she wanted to elevate her son Alexander, claimed that her son’s father was a god instead of King Philip. Olympias embellished this idea by claiming that the night before she and Philip consummated their marriage, she dreamed of a thunderbolt falling upon her womb. The thunderbolt, the emblem of Zeus, made it clear which god she chose as her son’s father.

Alexander the Great certainly liked the idea of being divine, and was happy to accept himself a son of Zeus. During his conquest of Egypt (where he founded Alexandria, a city thriving still today) Alexander was declared the son of the local god, Amun. >From then on Alexander called himself the son of “Zeus-Ammon.”

These are just a few of the men who claimed be the sons of gods – even, frequently, the begotten sons of gods. Nearly all Pharaohs were believed divine and the children of the divine, as were various rulers of Crete, Corinth, and other countries. So, when Jesus was born, he was born into a world in which everyone who hoped to become anyone bolstered their credibility with divine blood.

Perhaps these are not unexplained mysteries. Perhaps the only unexplained mystery is how so many people can accept the details of the story of Jesus as true while dismissing the other stories as mythic nonsense – despite all the similarities of the Jesus story to the many others of the time. To these believers it is a matter of faith; to the rest it appears to be cognitive dissonance.

Or perhaps the two are just the same.

Article Copyright© Victoria Grossack - reproduced with permission.

Victoria Grossack is the author, with Alice Underwood, of several novels based on Greek mythology, published in both English and Greek. Their books include: JOCASTA: The Mother-Wife of Oedipus; Niobe & Pelops: CHILDREN OF TANTALUS; Niobe & Amphion: THE ROAD TO THEBES; Niobe & Chloris: ARROWS OF ARTEMIS. To learn more about them, their writing and their research, please visit Of course their books make wonderful gifts for those who love Greek mythology!. Celebrate Saturnalia (or any other festival) by enjoying some time in the Bronze Age.

  Other articles by Victoria Grossack

The mystery of the Delphic Oracle
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If you visit Delphi today – a few hours by car from Athens – you will be treated to spectacular ruins in a stunningly beautiful setting. Even on a very hot day...

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I believe that income inequality played an enormous role in the end of the republic. Why past tense? Because this column is concerned mostly with the end of t...

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Columnist: Victoria Grossack | Posted on 7-27-2012 | 5 comments
The official ancient Olympics began in 776 BCE in Olympia, Greece, whose ruins you can visit today. However, the ancient Olympics were based on even earlier at...

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Why turn to ancient Greek myths for inspiration on Valentine’s Day? At first glance, it seems inappropriate. Saint Valentine was a Christian martyr, and had n...

Saturnalia: a source of holiday traditions
Columnist: Victoria Grossack | Posted on 12-16-2011 | 1 comment
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