Sacred Texts  Legends and Sagas  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book on Kindle

The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, by Otto Rank, [1914], at


The Gospel according to Luke (1:26-35) relates the prophecy of the birth of Jesus, as follows:

And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail! thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour

p. 51

with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shalt give unto him the throne of his father David. And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.

This report is supplemented by the Gospel according to Matthew (1:18-25), in the narrative of the birth and childhood of Jesus: 1

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: when as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph, her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily. But, while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shall call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by

p. 52

the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him and took unto him his wife: And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.

Here we interpolate the detailed account of the birth of Jesus, from Gospel of Luke (2:4-20):

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judæa, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; 1 because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven,

p. 53

the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which has come to pass, which the Lord has made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things which they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

We now continue the account after Matthew, in the second chapter:

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda, for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.

Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

p. 54

And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream, that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way. And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him. When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt: and was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.

Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men. . . .

But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his. mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child's life. And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard Archelaus did reign in Judæa in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither: notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee: And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene. 1

p. 55

Similar birth legends to those of Jesus have also been transmitted of other founders of religions, such as Zoroaster, who is said to have lived about the year 1000 B.C. His mother, Dughda, dreams, in the sixth month of her pregnancy, that the wicked and the good spirits are fighting for the embryonic Zoroaster; a monster tears the future Zoroaster from the mother's womb; but a light god fights the monster with his horn of light, re-encloses the embryo in the mother's womb, blows upon Dughda, and she becomes pregnant again. On awakening, she hurries in her fear to a wise dream-interpreter, who is unable to explain the wonderful dream before the end of three days. He then declares that the child she is carrying is destined to become a man of great importance; the dark cloud and the mountain of light signify that she and her son will at first have to undergo numerous trials, through tyrants and other enemies, but at last they will overcome all perils. Dughda at once returns to her home and informs Pourushacpa, her husband, of everything that has happened. Immediately after his birth, the boy was seen to laugh; this was the first miracle through which he drew attention to himself. The magicians announce the birth of the child as a portent of disaster to the prince of the realm, Durânsarûn, who betakes himself without delay to the dwelling of Pourushacpa, in order to stab the child. But his hand falls paralyzed, and he must leave with his errand undone; this was the second miracle. Soon after, the wicked demons steal the child from his mother and carry him into the desert, in order to kill him; but Dughda finds the unharmed child, calmly sleeping. This is the third miracle. Later on, Zoroaster was to be trampled upon, in a narrow passageway,

p. 56

by a herd of oxen, by command of the king. 1 But the largest of the cattle took the child between his feet and preserved it from harm. This was the fourth miracle. The fifth is merely a repetition of the preceding: what the cattle had refused to do, was to be accomplished by horses. But again the child was protected by a horse from the hoofs of the other horses. Durânsurûn thereupon had the cubs in a wolf's den killed during the absence of the old wolves, and Zoroaster was laid down in their place. But a god closed the jaws of the furious wolves, so that they could not harm the child. Two divine cows arrived instead and presented their udders to the child, giving it to drink. This was the sixth miracle through which Zoroaster's life was preserved. 2

Related themes are also encountered in the history of Buddha (sixth century before Christ), such as the long sterility of the parents, the dream, the birth of the boy under the open sky, the death of the mother and her substitution by a foster mother, the announcing of the birth to the ruler of the realm, and later on the losing of the boy in the temple. 3


50:1 After Preller, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 123.

51:1 For the formal demonstration of the entire identity with the other hero myths of the birth story and early history of Jesus, the author has presumed to rearrange the corresponding paragraphs from the different versions in the Gospels, irrespective of the traditional sequence and the originality of the individual parts. The age, origin, and genuineness of these parts are briefly summarized and discussed in W. Soltan: Birth History of Jesus Christ (Leipzig, 1902). The transmitted versions of the several Gospels--which according to Usener: "The Birth and Childhood of Christ," in Lectures and Essays (Leipzig, 1907), contradict and even exclude each other--have been placed, or left, in juxtaposition, precisely for the reason that the apparently contradictory elements in these birth myths are to be elucidated in the present research, no matter if these contradictions be encountered within a single uniform saga, or in its different versions (as, for example, in the Cyrus myth).

52:1 Concerning the birth of Jesus in a cave, and the furnishing of the birthplace with the typical animals (ox and ass), compare Jeremias: Babylonisches im Neuen Testament (Leipzig, 1905), p. 56; and Preuschen, "Jesu Geburt in einer Höhle," Zeitschrift für die Neutest. Wissenschaften, 1902, p. 359.

54:1 According to recent investigations, the birth history of Christ is said have the greatest resemblance with the royal Egyptian myth, over five thousand years old, which relates the birth of Amenophis III. Here again recurs the divine prophecy of the birth of a son, to the waiting queen; p. 55 her fertilization by the breath of heavenly fire; the divine cows, which nurse the newborn child; the homage of the kings; and so forth. In this connection, compare A. Malvert: Wissenschaft und Religion (Frankfort, 1904), pp. 49 ff.; also the suggestion of Professor Idleib of Bonn (Feuilleton of Frankfurter Zeitung, November 8, 1908).

Next: Siegfried