Exploring myth

Bart Ehrman vs. virgin births

Baby New Year

Well, it’s a new year for those of us observing the Gregorian calendar.  Another holiday season in celebration of the winter solstice has come and gone. And as happens every year, with the coming of the winter solstice also comes a new surge of articles, blogs, vlogs, social media posts, etc. regarding popular mythology related to the winter season and its solstice. Included in this mythology is the motif of parthenogenesis, that is to say- virgin birth. This is due to the fact that the most popular winter solstice myth in our culture is that of the birth of a certain shepherd god from the Levant, who was allegedly born of a virgin. And it is on this topic that our beloved Bart Ehrman has been chiming in this past week,  specifically regarding the idea “that virgin births were common in pagan religious traditions,” of which he stated explicitly that “it is wrong.” Hmmm, well the words “common” and “pagan” in that statement could potentially serve as qualifiers to navigate around certain critiques of that statement. However, later in the same article Ehrman goes on to write in no ambiguous terms (emphasis mine)- “about the miraculous births of their sons of gods.  Their mothers were never virgins”. Well, that statement is just demonstrably false. There are several examples of parthenogenesis in ancient mythology, some of which do involve sons of gods being born from virgin mothers.

Ah yes, good ol’ parthenogenesis- it is a natural by-product of mythology when trying to construct a theogony as part of a cosmogony. If you do not want an infinite regress of causality, then logically you will have your gods ultimately descend from only one god, a god who was itself a product of autogenesis. If it is the case that the theogony of your mythology traces back to a single autogenetic deity rather than a multitude of deities, then what, most likely, will be the mechanism by which you have that solo god- who is all alone in the universe- produce its offspring? No doubt this virgin deity will by necessity reproduce asexually, hence you get parthenogenesis in your mythology. We see examples of this recorded in very ancient times, long before the Common Era. As per Hesiod’s Theogony, c. 8th century BCE:

Sing the glories of the holy gods to whom death never comes,
the gods born of Gaia and starry Ouranos, …
Chaos was born first and after it came Gaia
the broad-breasted, the firm seat of all
the immortals who hold the peaks of snowy Olympos, …
Gaia now first gave birth to starry Ouranos,
her match in size, to encompass all of her,
and be the firm seat of all the blessed gods.
She gave birth to the tall mountains, enchanting haunts
of the divine nymphs who dwell in the woodlands;
and then she bore Pontos, the barren sea with its raging swell.
All these she bore without mating in sweet love. [1]


Fig. 1: Gaia with her children, from the Ara Pacis, 9 BCE.

So here we have Chaos as the first-born in existence, and from him came the goddess Gaia. Although not stated explicitly, parthenogenesis may be inferred here by necessity given that Chaos, as the first to exist, had no one to reproduce with. What we do have explicitly stated here is that Gaia gave birth to her first generation of children withOUT sexual intercourse, i.e. through parthenogenesis. The gods Uranus, Pontos, and the nymphs were all born of a female[2] virgin (who herself was born of a male virgin in this myth) in a scripture recorded eight centuries before the Common Era. That’s even older than the oldest known scripture that allegedly “prophesied” the virgin birth of the aforementioned Levantine shepherd god. Hesiod wrote that it was only after this virgin birth of her first generation of offspring that Gaia then took her oldest son Uranus as a husband, with whom she produced the famous Twelve Titans (there’s that twelve motif again 😉).

His Theogony describes the transition of power from female to male: from Gaia who gives virgin birth to her husband, to her grandson Zeus who gives solo birth to Athena.

Dr. Diane Rayor, Sappho’s Lyre: Archaic Lyric
and Women Poets of Ancient Greece 

Gaia will continue to reproduce by parthenogenesis.

Dr. Elizabeth Pender, in Plato and Hesiod [4]

Just across the pond of the Mediterranean, in Egypt, we find another such primordial virgin mother- Neith, the patron deity of the city of Sais.

Wikipedia_Louvre_statuette_de_Neith Late Period

Fig. 2: Statue of Neith from the Late Period, currently at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Neith (Net) was the mother goddess, … She was a creator goddess who formed all things. In the beginning, she found herself in the watery waste of Nun, and she formed herself when the world was still in shadow and when there was no earth on which to rest, when no plant grew.

Dr. Harold Scheub, A Dictionary of Mythology: The Mythmaker as Storyteller [5]

Now bearing those facts about Neith and her solitude in mind, there is a statue currently at the Vatican’s Gregorian Egyptian Museum which dates to the time of the Persian rule of Egypt, specifically the early reign of King Darius I, c. 519 BCE.[6] It is a depiction of Udjahorresnet, a Saitic physician and priest of Neith. The inscriptions on this statue contain several adorations to Neith, and one line in particular, located under the right arm, reads:

I let his majesty know the greatness of Sais, that it is the seat of Neith-the-Great, the mother who bore Re and inaugurated birth when birth had not yet been. [7]


Fig. 3: Statue of the priest Udjahorresnet, 6th century BCE, which attests to the virgin motherhood of Neith.

In corroboration with this is a statue of Neith herself that was once located at her temple in Sais. Though it is now no longer extant, its existence and inscription was documented by a couple of writers from antiquity. Reconstructing it from quotes by Plutarch[8] and Proclus,[9] the inscription said:

I am what is, and what will be, and what has been,
No one has lifted my veil.
The fruit I bore was the sun. [10]

Dr. Erik Hornung comments that the veil having never been lifted “clearly refers to sexual union,”[11] and the obvious lack thereof. Egyptologist Jan Assmann states, concerning the inscription:

It refers not to an epistemological dilemma, the absolute unattainability of truth, but to the parthenogenesis of the sun out of the womb of a maternal All-Goddess.[12]

Continuing that sentiment:

Neith was a creator goddess, and she did not need a partner in order to conceive and give birth.

Dr. Olaf Kaper, The Egyptian God Tutu [13]

In Sais in the Delta, for example, there was a virgin goddess who gave birth to the sun at the beginning of time by some form of parthenogenesis.

Dr. John D. Ray, Reflections of Osiris: Lives from Ancient Egypt [14]

Neith did not depend on a male partner for her creative powers, which encompassed the entire universe of gods, animals, and humans.

Dr. Barabara Lesko, The Great Goddesses of Egypt [15]

So the Egyptian sun god Re was born of a virgin, and that was literally written in stone many centuries before the Common Era.

It is actually somewhat fitting that this motif can be found in the mythos of Re, given that his morning form (as a sun god he underwent three forms for the three portions of the day- morning, afternoon, and evening[16]), or that is to say his infantile form when the sun was first born at dawn, was the solar scarab beetle known by his name of Re-Khepri[17]. Just as newborn scarab beetles in Egypt were observed to emerge into life from out of a sphere of dung (in which its egg was laid), so too Re-Khepri was believed to have emerged as a newborn scarab from the sphere of the sun.[18]

scarab birth

Fig. 4: The newborn scarab emerges from its “brood ball,” just as the newborn Re-Khepri emerges from his sun ball.

At this point one might ask how this all relates back to Re’s virgin birth and why that feature is somewhat fitting for him given he was born as a scarab. The reason is because in ancient Egyptian folklore all scarabs were believed to have been born through parthenogenesis.

Another reason the scarab was held in special regard is that the ancient Egyptians believed that the beetle had offspring without the union of male and female. This false belief arose simply because the Egyptians never saw them copulating.

Dr. Bob Brier, Ancient Egyptian Magic [19]

The observation of young beetles emerging from dung balls was taken as a parthenogenetic process, parallel to the sun god’s own birth.

Dr. Hope Werness, The Continuum Encyclopedia of
Animal Symbolism in World
Art [20]

There is no such thing as a female beetle, but all beetles are male.

Plutarch, Moralia 355A [21]

The oval is identified as nnw.t, a word that originally signified the dung ball of the scarab beetle. Its use here was doubtless to evoke the beetle’s own (perceived) parthenogenesis, and the associated concepts of solar re-birth.

Dr. Joshua Roberson, The Book of the Earth: A Study of Ancient Egyptian Symbol-Systems and the Evolution of New Kingdom Cosmographic Models [22]

So in the ancient Mediterranean world there was a belief floating around that scarabs were virgin-born, just like the aforementioned Levantine shepherd god. This is truly fascinating when considering the fact that this god was regarded as being one & the same with his own father, part of a triune hypostasis of some sort. Well that father of his, whose name in Greek was IAΩ [23] (as attested to even in translations of his own holy scriptures), was sometimes depicted in the form of a scarab, much like the virgin-born sun god Re.

IAΩ scarab gem

Fig. 5: Jasper stone magical amulets from the Roman Era which depict the Levantine god IAΩ in the form of a scarab, an animal which in ancient times was used as a symbol for virgin birth. That is quite fitting given that the son of IAΩ was also said to be virgin born.

Parthenogenesis was not exclusively associated with scarab beetles. Several species of animals were in ancient times said to have been produced without sexual copulation.

Take bees for instance:

With regard to the generation of bees different hypotheses are in vogue. Some affirm that bees neither copulate nor give birth to young, but that they fetch their young. And some say that they fetch their young from the flower of the callyntrum; others assert that they bring them from the flower of the reed, others, from the flower of the olive. And in respect to the olive theory, it is stated as a proof that, when the olive harvest is most abundant, the swarms are most numerous. Others declare that they fetch the brood of the drones from such things as above mentioned, but that the working bees are engendered by the rulers of the hive.

Aristotle, History of Animals 5.21 (4th century BCE)[24]

Aristotle knew not only that bees can reproduce without copulation but also that the offspring so produced was unlike the mother. The difference refers to the sex of the parthenogenetic offspring.

Dr. Ursula Mittwoch, in New Scientist [25]

Pliny refers to kings (reges), and like Aristotle uses the simplex “bee” to denote the worker; indeed his reference to true bees (verae apes) in the above passage underlines the impression that they are bees par excellence. As to the manner of reproduction, Pliny—like Aristotle—refers to belief by some in a type of parthenogenesis.

D.E. Le Sage, in Bee World [26]

Bees were believed to be parthenogenetic … Belief in the bee’s parthenogenesis led to its being a symbol of the Virgin.

Dr. Hope. B. Werness, The Continuum Encyclopedia of
Animal Symbolism in World Art

Virgin birth in bees is not just mythology or hearsay, it’s actually a scientifically verified phenomenon, as can be read in the published studies linked below.[28] It is no wonder then that, just  like virgin born bees, it was said of a certain other famous virgin birth that “honey shall eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good.” And early fathers of that faith, such as St. Ambrose of Milan, wrote that “virginity is fit to be compared to bees, so laborious is it, so modest, so continent. The bee feeds on dew, knows nothing of copulation, and makes honey.” Likewise, St. Augustine of Hippo wrote that the “Almighty Creator” formed the flesh of his son “in a virgin womb, and (to speak even to unbelievers themselves) Who was able to bestow on bees a progeny without sexual intercourse.”

Vatican beesVatican bees 2b

Ambrose beehive

Fig. 6

Certain species of fish were likewise believed to have been capable of virgin birth.

“Among insects and fishes, some cases are found wholly devoid of this duality of sex. For instance, the eel is neither male nor female, and can engender nothing. … There are certain fish that are nicknamed the epitragiae, or capon-fish, and, by the way, fish of this description are found in fresh water, as the carp and the balagrus. This sort of fish never has either roe or milt. … In the group of fishes, however, there are some that are neither male nor female, and these, while they are identical generically with other fish, differ from them specifically; but there are others that stand altogether isolated and apart by themselves. Other fishes there are that are always female and never male, and from them are conceived what correspond to the wind-eggs in birds. …  In the case of certain fishes, however, after they have spontaneously generated eggs, these eggs develop into living animals; only that in certain of these cases development is spontaneous. …  Some of the grey mullet species are not produced from copulation, but grow spontaneously from mud and sand.”

Aristotle, History of Animals 4.11, 5.1, 5.11 [29]

“The species called by the Greeks hoop-fish is said to practice self-impregnation.”

Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 9.77 (1st cen. CE) [30]

The virgin birth of fish is also a scientifically verified phenomenon that happens in real life.[31] And like bees, the fish was another parthenogenetic animal used to symbolize the world’s most famous virgin-born deity, as it still is to this day.


Fig. 7: Ancient fish symbol of the virgin-born Levantine god whose birthday we just celebrated on Dec. 25th; from the Catacomb of Domatilla, Roman Imperial Era.

fish catacomb sebastian

Fig. 8: From the Catacomb of St. Sebastian, Roman Imperial Era.

fish cross

Fig. 9: The tradition carries on.

Next up are snakes, another animal scientifically proven to be capable of virgin birth.[32] People who lived before the Common Era no doubt observed this fact as well, which seems to have been the basis for many of their myths involving serpentine parthenogenesis. For example, the Latin poet Ovid, writing at the turn of the Common Era, recorded a legend in which serpents were born from out of the earth when drops of blood from a severed gorgon’s head dripped into the soil.[33] Ovid, as well as the 1st century historians Pliny the Elder and Plutarch, also wrote of a belief in which serpents were born from the coagulating marrow of human corpses.[34] Pliny also reported of serpents allegedly born from the blood of birds, and others born from the viscera of sacrificial victims, and of a particular breed from Tiryns which was said to be born from the earth itself.[35] Plutarch likewise documented the belief that serpents were born in full form from out of the earth,[36] as did Herodotus (circa 5th century BCE).[37] Hence several ancient sources from Homer onward tell of a story in which the earth itself acted as surrogate for the DNA of Hephaistos and Athena, the patron goddess of virginity itself, so that her perpetual virginity might remain intact in spite of her motherhood to her serpent son Ericthonius (or Erechtheus), who sprang forth out of said earth.[38]

Ion: A forefather of thy father spring from the earth?
Creusa: Yes, Erichthonius did, but my descent avails me nought.
Ion: And did Minerva take him up from the earth?
Creusa: Yes, though she bore him not, into her virgin hands.

Euripides, Ion § 267-70 (5th cen. BCE).

erechtheus ostia

Fig. 10: The virgin birth of the divine serpent Ericthonius from out of the earth to his parents Athena & Hephaistos; Roman Imperial Era, Luna marble relief from a temple of Hephaistos, currently at the Museum of Ostia.

So well established was this tradition of Ericthonius’ virgin birth that it was cited by the 1st century philosopher Apollonius of Tyana to support Emperor Domitian’s claim to also be a son of Athena. According to his disciple Damis, as preserved by Philostratus:

Another man said that he was under indictment because when sacrificing in Tarentum, where he was a magistrate, he had not added to the public prayers the fact that Domitian was the son of Athena. “You,” said Apollonius, “thought that Athena could not have children as a perpetual virgin, but you seem to have forgotten that this goddess once gave birth to a snake for the Athenians.”[39]

So here we see that in the 1st century a human king walking the earth was believed to be the son of a god and had a virgin birth. That sure has a familiar ring to it. Bart Ehrman very often makes reference to this same biography of Apollonius in his writings and lectures, yet nevertheless he said that the mothers of pagan sons of gods “were never virgins.” ‾\_(ツ)_/‾


Fig. 11: Bust of the 1st century Roman Emperor Domitian, currently at the Musée du Louvre in Paris. During his lifetime he was worshiped as a virgin-born son of a god.

And wouldn’t you know it, another human king walking the earth in the 1st century who claimed to be a virgin-born son of a god compared himself to a snake as well. Just as his ancestor “lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up.”

Moving along from serpents, we now finally come to birds, certain species of which are also scientifically verified to be capable of parthenogenesis.[40] In the context of ancient myths, the most popular of avian parthenogenesis was arguably that of the Phoenix.

These creatures get their start in life from others, but there is one that renews and reproduces itself, a bird Assyrians call the phoenix. It does not subsist on seeds or berries, but on drops of incense and cardamom. When it has lived five centuries it builds a nest high in a swaying palm tress, using only its beak and its talons, and lines it with cassia bark, smooth spikes of nard, crushed cinnamon, and yellow myrrh. Roosting there, the bird ends its life among the perfumes. They say that a little phoenix is reborn from its father’s body, destined to live the same number of years/ When t grows up and is strong enough to carry a burden, it relieves the high palm of the heavy nest and piously carries what was its cradle and its father’s tomb until it reaches the city of Hyperion the Sun, and sets it down before the sacred doors of Hyperion’s temple.

Ovid, Metamorphoses 15.426-44 (1st. cen. BCE-CE) [41]

They say that Ethiopia and the Indies possess birds extremely variegated in colour and indescribable, and that Arabia has one that is famous before all others (though perhaps it is fabulous), the phoenix, the only one in the whole world and hardly ever seen. The story is that it is as large as an eagle, and has a gleam of gold round its neck and all the rest of it is purple, but the tail blue picked out with rose-coloured feathers and the throat picked out with tufts, and a feathered crest adorning its head. The first and the most detailed Roman account of it was given by Manilius, the eminent senator famed for his extreme and varied learning acquired without a teacher: he stated that nobody has ever existed that has seen one feeding, that in Arabia it is sacred to the Sun-god, that it lives 540 years, that when it is growing old it constructs a nest with sprigs of wild cinnamon and frankincense, fills it with scents and lies on it till it dies; that subsequently from its bones and marrow is born first a sort of maggot, and this grows into a cock, and that this begins by paying due funeral rites to the former bird and carrying the whole nest down to the City of the Sun near Panchaia and depositing it upon an altar there.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 10.2 [42]

There is another sacred bird called the phoenix. I myself have not seen it, except in paintings, for it rarely visits Egypt; indeed, the people of Heliopolis say that it comes only once every 500 years. They claim that a phoenix visits them when its father has died. The paintings, if they are accurate, depicts a bird in shape and size very much like an eagle, with both golden and red feathers. They also say, though it seems incredible to me, that when the phoenix sets out from Arabia toward the sanctuary of Helios, it carries the corpse of its own father plastered up in myrrh and buries it there in the sanctuary.

Herodotus, Histories 2.73.1-3 (5th cen. BCE) [43]

And thus the virgin-born phoenix was likened to the virgin-born Levantine shepherd god.

The phoenix burned itself on the pinnacle of the temple in The City of Peace. On the eighth day after the holy Virgin had brought forth our saviour, she took him with [her husband] to the temple in order to make a sacrifice for him as firstborn, and he was named [“He saves”]. From that moment now no one has ever seen that bird up to this day. Our fathers have born witness.

Coptic Sermon on the Phoenix 40-46 [44]

They say that there is a bird single in its kind which affords a copious demonstration of the resurrection, which they say is without a mate, and the only one in the creation. They call it a phœnix, and relate that every five hundred years it comes into Egypt, to that which is called the altar of the sun, and brings with it a great quantity of cinnamon, and cassia, and balsam-wood, and standing towards the east, as they say, and praying to the sun, of its own accord is burnt, and becomes dust; but that a worm arises again out of those ashes, and that when the same is warmed it is formed into a new-born phoenix; and when it is able to fly, it goes to Arabia, which is beyond the Egyptian countries. If, therefore, as even themselves say, a resurrection is exhibited by the means of an irrational bird, wherefore do they vainly disparage our accounts, when we profess that He who by His power brings that into being which was not in being before, is able to restore this body, and raise it up again after its dissolution? … For He that framed for Himself a body out of a virgin, is also the Former of other men. And He that raised Himself from the dead, will also raise again all that are laid down.

Constitutions of the Apostles 1.7 [45]

Other such mythical parthenogenesis of birds includes that of the vulture.

The Egyptians fable the whole species [of vultures] is female, and they conceive by receiving the breath of the East Wind, even as the trees do by receiving the West Wind.

Plutarch, Moralia 286C [46]

The belief that the vulture represented femininity and motherhood, and the related ideas that there were only female vultures and that they were virgin born, without a male begetter, thus appears to come from Egypt. In an Egyptian Demotic papyrus from the second century CE, we can read the following words of the goddess Mut: “I am the noble vulture (nryt) of the male brother, the lord of Thebes, i.e. the noble vulture of which no male exists.” This Egyptian statement that there were only female vultures is confirmed by various Graeco-Roman writers.

Dr. Herman Te Velde, in Servant of Mut: Studies in Honor of Richard A. Fazzini [47]

They say, too, that among vultures there are only females, which become parents alone.

Tertullian of Carthage, Adversus Valentinianos 4.10 [48]

It is said that no male vulture is ever born: all vultures are female. And the birds knowing this and fearing to be left childless, take measures to produce them as follows. They fly against the south wind. If however the wind is not from the south, they open their beaks to the east wind, and the inrush of air impregnates them, and their period of gestation lasts for three years.

Aelian, On the Characteristics of Animals 2.46 [49]

I have to say that the Creator showed in the birth of various animals that what He did in the case of one animal, He could do, if He wished, also with others and even with men themselves. Among the animals there are certain females that have no intercourse with the male, as writers on animals say of vultures; this creature preserves the continuation of the species without any copulation. Why, therefore, is it incredible that if God wished to send some divine teacher to mankind He should have made the organism of him that was to be born come into being in a different way instead of using generative principle derived from sexual intercourse of men and women? Moreover, according to the Greeks themselves not all men were born from a man and a woman.

Origen Adamantius, Contra Celsum 1.37 [50]

Amen, Mr. Adamantius, amen; it couldn’t have been stated any better.

An important point to take away from this is that the mechanism for this virgin birth of vultures was their ability to conceive through exposure to wind or breath, for other birds were said to be able to conceive this way as well.

Ancient writers, among them Varro, believed that in those instances where eggs were not “fecundated” or fertilized by a cock, the hen “conceived” from the wind. Such eggs were called by the Greeks, in consequence, hypenemia oa or wind-eggs.

Dr. Page Smith and Dr. Charles Daniel, The Chicken Book: Being an Inquiry into the Rise and Fall, Use and Abuse, Triumph and Tragedy of Gallus Domesticus [51]

The wind was also thought by the ancients to have procreative power. Mares were reported to become impregnated by facing their hind quarters into the wind … The wind-egg is an imperfect or soft-shelled egg that is unproductive.

Dr. Sidney Ochs, A History of Nerve Functions: From Animal Spirits to Molecular Mechanisms [52]

The Greek word hypēnemios … has a technical sense that is applied to wind eggs—that is, eggs that are unfertilized, such as are produced by certain domesticated birds, and which some biologist contemporaries of Aristotle considered to prove that females could produce seed without any intervention from males.

Marcel Detienne, The Writing of Orpheus: Greek Myth in Cultural Context [53]


Evidence based on observation of “wind eggs” (hupenemia)—eggs that are seemingly produced without the power of the male but that are consequently not fertile—and of mola—monstrous products of the womb attributed to self-insemination—seemed to bear testimony to the hierarchical ordering of the one sex.

Dr. Thomas W. Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud [54]

In those animals where generation takes place from animals of the same kind, where there are the two sexes, generation is the result of copulation; in the group of fishes, however, there are some which are no male and female; they are identical generically with other fishes, but differ from them specifically; others again are entirely peculiar to themselves. There are yet others which are female and have no male: these produce eggs just as birds produce wind-eggs. … When female partridges stand to leeward of the males, they become impregnated; they often do so too when they hear the voice of the male, if they are on heat, or when the male flies over them and breathes down on them. … Some people allege that wind-eggs are the remains of eggs previously produced by copulation. They are wrong, because we have sufficient observations to establish that chickens of the domestic fowl and of geese lay wind-eggs though they have never copulated. Wind-eggs are smaller in size than fertile ones … Wind-eggs are produced by many kinds of birds, e.g., domestic hens, partridges, pigeons, peahen, geese, vulpansers.

Aristotle, History of Animals 5.538-40, 6.559-60 (4th cen. BCE) [55]

Certain mares on Mount Tagrus, at a particular time of year, are impregnated by the wind; just as in this country frequently occurs in the case of those hens the eggs of which are called hypenemia.

Varro, On Agriculture, 2.1.19 (1st. cen. BCE) [56]

They snuff the light airs and often without being mated
Conceive, for the wind—astounding to tell—impregnates them.

Virgil, Georgics 3.274-75 (1st cen. BCE) [57]

In the absence of a cock … wind-eggs are conceived by the hen birds mating together in a pretense of sexual intercourse, or else from dust, and not only by hen pigeons but also by farmyard hens, partridges, peahens, geese and ducks. But these eggs are sterile, and of smaller size and less agreeable flavor, and more watery. Some people think they are actually generated by the wind, for which reason they are also called Zephyr’s eggs. … There is, moreover, a kind of egg which very famous in the Gauls, but not mentioned by the Greeks. Snakes intertwined in great numbers in a studied embrace make these round objects with the saliva from their jaws and the foam from their bodies. It is called a “wind egg.”

Pliny, Natural History 10.79.166, 29.9.52 (1st cen. CE) [58]

‘The hen knows not the passing of the winds,
Except when brooding-time is near.’

And I do not find it strange if it is not by a physical approach, like a man’s, but by some other kind of contact or touch, by other agencies, that a god alters mortal nature and makes it pregnant with a more divine offspring.

Tyndareus the Lacedaemonian, in Moralia 717-18 (1st cen. CE) [59]

It is said that no male vulture is ever born: all vultures are female. And the birds knowing this and fearing to be left childless, take measures to produce them as follows. They fly against the south wind. If however the wind is not from the south, they open their beaks to the east wind, and the inrush of air impregnates them, and their period of gestation lasts for three years. … The Peacock, like other birds, may from time to time lay a wind-egg.

Aelian, On the Characteristics of Animals 2.46, 4.7 [60]

Many kinds of birds do not need the union with the males for conception; but, in other kinds, eggs produced without copulation [wind eggs] are sterile. It is said that the vultures hatch without coition a very great number of young, and this, although they are especially long-lived; in fact, their life generally continues for a hundred years. Consider this as my special observation from the history of the birds, in order that if ever you see any persons laughing at our mystery, as though it were impossible and contrary to nature for a virgin to give birth while her virginity itself was preserved immaculate, you may consider that God, who is pleased to save the faithful by the foolishness of our preaching, first set forth innumerable reasons from nature for our beliefs in His wonders.

Basil of Caesarea, Exegetic Homilies, Homily 8 § 6  [61]

Now what immaculate virgin could Mr. Basil be referring to there when he compares her virgin motherhood to the virgin motherhood of birds? I do wonder. Actually, come to think of it, scriptures do say that this human virgin mother was likewise impregnated by wind (πνεῦμα in Greek) just as birds are. Specifically, it was stated to be a “holy” wind/πνεῦμα which “overshadowed” her to produce conception, a “holy wind” which was described as descending upon humans in the form of a bird.


Fig. 12: A virgin being impregnated by a “holy wind” in the form of a bird, reminiscent of the belief popular at the time (and for centuries prior to that time) which stated virgin birds could be impregnated by wind.

It is at this point that perhaps Bart Ehrman or his fans would wish to retort that while the virgin birth in this particular nativity story is neither the only virgin birth story nor the earliest virgin birth story, it is still a unique virgin birth story worthy of special pleading because none of the aforementioned sources above stated that the virgin parent was a human mother. Yeah, that’s it! That’s the hair we’ll split to remove this particular story from consideration among the myriad of other virgin birth stories that existed prior to it! Yeah, this story was the first source to portray a human mother as capable of giving birth without sexual conception! Right? Right?!?

Enter Aristophanes of Byzantium, c. 257 – c. 185 BCE.

Woman alone of two-footed creatures brings forth live young; other two-footed creatures produce eggs. Woman alone of creatures that bring forth live young (rather than eggs) produces offspring without being impregnated.

Aristophanes of Byzantium, Epitome on the
History of Animals
1.98 (2nd cen. BCE) [62]

The present text first notes that woman is the only two-footed creature that brings forth live young, rather than eggs like the birds, and then goes on to assert—apparently—that woman is the only creature, bringing forth live young rather than eggs, that can bring forth without being impregnated. So interpreted, the text indicates two ways in which woman is like the birds, in being two-footed and in bringing forth without impregnation.

Dr. Robert W. Sharples, Theophrastus of Eresus: Sources for his Life, Writings, Thought & Influence, Commentary Volume 5, Sources on Biology [63]

That bears repeating one more time- a source written two centuries before the Common Era attested to a belief that human women “produce offspring without being impregnated.”

So there really wasn’t anything innovative or all that unique about this particular virgin birth story which we annually celebrate on December 25th that warranted special distinction from any other virgin birth story that existed prior to it or at that same time as it. Hence it is no wonder that one of the early fathers of that faith admitted:

“The first-birth of God was produced without sexual union … we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter. … And if we assert that he was born of God in a peculiar manner, different from ordinary generation, let this, as said above, be no extraordinary thing to you.”

Justin Martyr, First Apology 21-22

To read about the virgin births of other deities predating the Common Era, such as Epaphus, Osiris, Horus, etc., see The Perennial Gospel.


[1] Hesiod, Theogony, in Hesiod: Theogony, Works and Days, Shield, trans. A.N. Athanassakis (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983-2004), xii, 14. (Emph. added.)

[2] It should be noted here, in anticipation of what some antagonists might try to retort with, that the translator here, Dr. Apostolos Athanassakis, clarified on p.1 that “To Hesiod, Earth (Gaia), Sky (Ouranos), and Sea (Pontos) are not mere elements but gods.” Therefore any attempts to try and dismiss this as a tale of virgin-born gods far predating the Common Era by claiming that these primordial deities of Hesiod are just “abstract elements” and thus not comparable to other virgin-born gods are all futile attempts.

[3] Diane J. Rayor, Sappho’s Lyre: Archaic Lyric and Women Poets of Ancient Greece (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 17. (Emph. added.)

[4] Elizabeth E. Pender, “Chaos corrected: Hesiod in Plato’s creation myth,” in Plato and Hesiod, ed. G. R. Boys-Stones, J. H. Haubold (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 230.

[5] Harold Scheub, A Dictionary of Mythology: The Mythmaker as Storyteller (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 172.

[6] Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature Volume III: The Late Period (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980-2006), 36-7.
Rosalie David, Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 313.

[7] Lichtheim (1980-2006), 38. (Emph. added.)

[8] Plutarch, Moralia, 354C.

[9] Proclus, On the Timaeus of Plato, I.98.

[10] Erik Hornung, The Secret Lore of Egypt: Its Impact on the West, trans. D. Lorton (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), 134.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Jan Assmann, “Periergia: Egyptian Reactions to Greek Curiosity,” in Cultural Borrowings and Ethnic Appropriations in Antiquity, ed. Erich S. Gruen (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2005), 47. (Emph. added.)

[13] Olaf E. Kaper, The Egyptian God Tutu: A Study of the Sphinx-God and Master of Demons with a Corpus of Monuments (Leuven: Peeters Publishers, 2003), 105.

[14] John D. Ray, Reflections of Osiris: Lives from Ancient Egypt (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 63. (Emph. added.)

[15] Barbara S. Lesko, The Great Goddesses of Egypt (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 50.

[16] “I am Khepri in the morning, Re at noon, and Atum who is in the evening.”- Turin Papyrus, 12th century BCE. Translation by Robert K. Ritner, “The Legend of Isis and the Name of Re {1.22} (P. Turin 1993),” in The Context of Scripture: Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World, Vol. 1, eds. W.W. Halo and K.L. Younger (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1997),  34.
“They will bring you into being like Re in this his name of Khepri; you will draw near to them like Re in this his name of Re; you will turn aside from their faces like Re in this his name of Atum.“- Pyramid Texts, Utterance 606 § 1695.

[17] George Hart, The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses (New York: Routledge, 1986-2005), 84.

[18] “The womb of the sun, from which the newly born Khepri emerges.”- John C. Darnell, The Enigmatic Netherworld Books of the Solar-Osirian Unity: Cryptographic Compositions in the Tombs of tutankhamun, Ramesses VI and Ramesses IX (Fribourg: Academic Press Fribourg, 2004), 412.

[19] Bob Brier, Ancient Egyptian Magic (New York: Quill, 1980-2001), 146.

[20] Hope B. Werness, The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in World Art (New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2006), 42. (Emph. added.)

[21] Plutarch, Moralia, in Plutarch’s Moralia: Volume V, trans. F.C. Babbitt, (London: William Heinemann Ltd., and Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1936-62), 29.

[22] Joshua Roberson, “The Book of the Earth: A Study of Ancient Egyptian Symbol-Systems and the Evolution of New Kingdom Cosmographic Models” (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2007), 150. (Emph. added.)

[23] See Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 1.94.2.
Marcus Terentius Varro, in De Mensibus 4.53.
Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 1.21.3.
Tertullian of Carthage, Adversus Valentinianos 24.3.
Origen Adamantius, Contra Celsum 6.32.

[24] Aristotle, History of Animals, in The Works of Aristotle: Historia Animalum, Vol. IV, eds. J.A. Smith and W.D. Ross, trans. D.W. Thompson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910), 216.

[25] Ursula Mittwoch, “Virgin Birth,” New Scientist 78, no. 1107.35 (1978): 751. (Emph. added.)

[26] D.E. Le Sage, “Bees in Indo-European Languages,” Bee World 55, no. 1 (1974): 22. (Emph. added.)

[27] Hope. B. Werness, The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in World Art (New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2006), 17, 40.

[28] Benjamin P. Oldroyd, et al. “Thelytokous Parthenogenesis in Unmated Queen Honeybees (Apis mellifera capensis): Central Fusion and High Recombination Rates,” Genetics 180, no. 1 (2008): 359-366.
Madeleine Beekman et al., “Asexually Produced Cape Honeybee Queens (Apis mellifera capensis) Reproduce Sexually,” Journal of Heredity 102, no. 5 (2011): 562-566.

[29] Op. cit. 171-72, 175, 188-89.

[30] Pliny the Elder, Natural History, in Pliny: Natural History, Books 8-11, trans. H. Rackham, (London: William Heinemann Ltd., and Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1940-67), 277.

[31] Helen Spurway, “Spontaneous Parthenogenesis in a Fish,” Nature 171 (March 1953): 437.
Demian D. Chapman, B. Firchau, M.S. Shivji, “Parthenogenesis in a large-bodied requiem shark, the blacktip Carcharhinus limbatus,” Journal of Fish Biology 73 (2008): 1473-77.

[32] Warren Booth et al., “Facultative Parthenogenesis Discovered in Wild Vertebrates,” Biology Letters 8, no. 6 (2012): 983-5.
Warren Booth et al., “Consecutive Virgin Births in the New World Boid Snake, the Colombian Rainbow Boa, Epicrates maurus,” Journal of Heredity 102, no. 6 (2011): 759-63.
Michael Kearney, Matthew K. Fujita, Jessica Ridenour, “Lost Sex in the Reptiles: Constraints and Correlations,” in Lost Sex: The Evolutionary Biology of Parthenogenesis, eds. I. Schön and K. Martens (Berlin: Springer, 2009), 447-474.

[33] Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Stanley Lombardo (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2010), 111.

[34] Ibid. 429.
Plutarch, Lives, in Plutarch’s Lives: Volume X, trans. B. Perrin (London: William Heinemann Ltd. and Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1921-59), 141.
Pliny the Elder, Natural History, in Pliny: Natural History, Books 8-11, trans. H. Rackham, (London: William Heinemann Ltd., and Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1940-67), 411-13.

[35] Ibid. 159, 381, 555.

[36] Plutarch, Moralia, in Plutarch’s Moralia: Volume VIII, trans. P.A. Clement and H.B. Hoffleit (London: William Heinemann Ltd., and Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969), 153.

[37] Herodotus, Histories, in The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories, ed. R.B. Strassler, trans. A.L. Purvis (New York: Anchor Books, 2009), 45.

[38] Variations of this myth can be found in Homer, The Illiad 2.625-30, in Euripides, Ion 1.20-26, 268-74, 999-1009, & 1428-29, in Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3.14.6, and in Hyginus, Astronomica 2.13.

[39] Philostratus, Apollonius of Tyana, Volume II: Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Books 5-8, ed. and trans. Christopher P. Jones (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005), 269-71. (Emph. added.)

[40] John Ringo, Fundamental Genetics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 210-11.
Seth M. Kisia, Vertebrates: Structures and Functions (Enfield: Science Publishers, 2010), 248-49.
Tim Birkhead, The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2008-11), 287-89.

[41] Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Stanley Lombardo (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2010), 429. (Emph. added.)

[42] Pliny the Elder, Natural History, in Pliny: Natural History, Books 8-11, trans. H. Rackham, (London: William Heinemann Ltd., and Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1940-67), 293. (Emph. added.)

[43] Herodotus, Histories, in The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories, ed. R.B. Strassler, trans. A.L. Purvis (New York: Anchor Books, 2009), 149.

[44] Roelof Van Den Broek, The Myth of the Phoenix (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1971), 47.

[45] (Emph. added.)

[46] Plutarch, Moralia, in Plutarch’s Moralia: Volume IV, trans. F.C. Babbitt (London: William Heinemann Ltd., and Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1936-99), 141. (Emph. added.)

[47] Herman Te Velde, “The Goddess Mut and the Vulture,” in Servant of Mut: Studies in Honor of Richard A. Fazzini, ed. S.H. D’Auria (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV), 244. (Emph. added.)

[48] Tertullian of Carthage, Adversus Valentinianos, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume III, eds. A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, trans. A. Roberts (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1885-1994), 509.

[49] Aelian, On the Characteristics of Animals, in Aelian: On Animals, Books 1-5, trans. A.F. Scholfield (London: William Heinemann Ltd., and Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958), 145.

[50] Origen Adamantius, Contra Celsum, trans. Henry Chadwick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953-2003), 36. (Emph. added.)

[51] Page Smith and Charles Daniel, The Chicken Book: Being an Inquiry into the Rise and Fall, Use and Abuse, Triumph and Tragedy of Gallus Domesticus (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1975-2000), 21.

[52] Sidney Ochs, A History of Nerve Functions: From Animal Spirits to Molecular Mechanisms (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 4, n.18.

[53] Marcel Detienne, The Writing of Orpheus: Greek Myth in Cultural Context, trans. J. Lloyd (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989-2003), 53.

[54] Thomas W. Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990-2003), 58.

[55] Aristotle, in Peck (1970-93), 99-101, 111, 227-29. (Emph. added.)

[56] Varro, in Hooper, (1934-93), 325.

[57] Virgil, in Lewis (1983), 97.

[58] Pliny, in Rackham (1940-67), 399. (Emph. added.)

In Pliny: Natural History, Books 28-32, trans. H. Rackham (London: William Heinemann Ltd., and Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963), 217.

[59] Plutarch, Moralia, in Plutarch’s Moralia: Volume IX, trans. E.L. Minar, F.H. Sandbach, and W.C. Helmbold (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961), 117. (Emph. added.)

[60] Aelian, in Scholfield (1958), 145, 325.

[61] Basil of Caesarea, Exegetic Homilies, trans. A.C. Way (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, Inc., 1963-2003), 128. (Emph. added.)

[62] Aristiphanes of Byzantium, in Fortenbaugh (1992), 185. (Emph. added.)

[63] Sharples (1995), 115-16. (Emph. added.)

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One comment on “Bart Ehrman vs. virgin births

  1. Pingback: Kettle Logic and the ol’ “Differences vs. Similarities” Argument | Mythicism.Net

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