The category life-death-rebirth deity
also known as a "dying-and-rising" or "Resurrection" deity
is a convenient means of classifying the many divinities in world mythology
who are born, suffer death, an eclipse, or other death-like experience, pass a phase in the underworld
among the dead, and are subsequently reborn, in either a literal or symbolic sense.
Male deities among such figures might include Osiris, Adonis, Tammuz, Zalmoxis, phoenix, Jesus, Baldr, and Odin.
Female deities who passed into the kingdom of death and returned include Inanna (also known as Ishtar) whose cult dates to 4000 BC and Persephone, the central figure of the Eleusinian Mysteries, whose cult may date to 1700 BC as the unnamed goddess worshiped in Crete.
Historically, this category has been most strongly associated with two different approaches to the study of religion. The first, which might be labelled the "naturalist" approach, seeks to explain such myths in terms of parallels with natural processes. The second, which might be labelled the "internal" approach, seeks to explain such myths in terms of individual spiritual transformation or timeless, archetypal truth.
The naturalist approach
Of the two major life-death-and-resurrection approaches to hermeneutics
, the naturalistic explication has more support in ancient sources. These rituals were closely linked to the cycle of seasons, as when Athenian women planted "gardens of Adonis" in pots and then, when the young green growth withered in the heat of the summer, wept for the dead young god. " Osiris beds ", small bed - like / mummiform bundles of cloth, contained soil & seeds, which were watered before sealing an Egyptian tomb, so the plants could grow, magically re - creating Osiris' mystical, albeit temporary, resurrection. Already in antiquity, the rationalizing approach of Aristotle
could be elaborated to a rigidly naturalistic interpretation of myth origins as explanations of natural seasonal phenomena. Such a reductionist interpretation was apparently epitomized by Euhemerus (late 4th century BC), giving the term "euhemerist"
. Rational Stoic
Romans like Cicero
, who saw the official and civil nature of ritual as paramount, were prepared to explain the myths and festivals of Attis
, Adonis and Persephone in terms of natural phenomena. The abduction and return of Persephone, Cicero argued, was symbolic of the planting and growth of crops.
In the late eighteenth century, the naturalist interpretation took on renewed vigor, as freethinkers like Richard Payne Knight sought to explain all religious phenomena in terms of solar activity. Thus the tribulations of Jesus and Osiris were both taken to represent the course of the sun through the day, night, and dawn (Godwin, 1994).
The naturalist hypothesis reached a further apogee in the works of James Frazer and Jane Ellen Harrison, and their fellow Cambridge Ritualists. In their seminal works The Golden Bough and Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, Frazer and Harrison argued that all myths are only echoes of rituals, and that all rituals have as their primordial purpose the manipulation of natural phenomena by means of sympathetic magic. The rape and return of Persephone, the rending and repair of Osiris, the travails and triumph of Baldur would therefore all be rooted in primitive rites to renew the fertility of withered land and crops.
The internal approach
By the Victorian era, the solar-phallic ideas of Richard Payne Knight
along with the less risqué work of scholars like Max Müller
had taken strange turns as they made their way into popular discourse. Groups like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn
were using scholarly parallels between Christ, Osiris and other putative solar dying-and-rising gods to build up elaborate systems of mysticism
By the twentieth century, this spiritualized turn to the universal-dying-god hypothesis had made its way into the academic discourse. From his studies of alchemy and other spiritual systems, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung argued that archetypal processes such as death and resurrection were part of the transpersonal symbolism of the Collective Unconscious, and could be utilized in the task of psychological integration. Jung's line of argumentation has been followed, with modifications, by scholars like Karl Kerenyi and Joseph Campbell.
In academic disciplines such as Mythography
and its symbols are categorized as a myth system
, along with all other world religions. The universal dying-and-rising god motif, and the particular existence of mystery religions
concerned with dying and rising gods around the Mediterranean Sea
), led some scholars, beginning with Francis Cumont, to classify the figure of Jesus
Christ (as told in the gospels) as a syncretized example of this archetype
. This assessment is rejected by Christian scholars. (Nash, 2003)
These correspondences are unrelated to the question of the Historicity of Jesus. Even the interpretation of the crucifixion of Jesus as a strictly historical event in no way precludes its subsequent mythologization.
In particular, C. S. Lewis after his conversion to Christianity believed that the resurrection of Christ belonged in this category of myths, with the additional property of having actually happened in history: "If God chooses to be mythopoeic — and is not the sky itself a myth — shall we refuse to be mythopathic?
Some Christian groups do not insist on the historicity of the resurrection but rather postulate it as a tenet of faith beyond rational verification. For these Christians, this opens up the figure of Jesus to be understood in an academic fashion as one of a group of deities associated with the myth sequence of life/death/resurrection. Understanding of the resurrection as a form of the "risen god" theme is, therefore, for these Christians strictly independent of acceptance or rejection of the historicity of the event.
Criticisms of universality
The chief criticism that has been brought against the universal life-death-resurrection deity
category is that it is reductionist
: in seeking to fit disparate myths into a single box. Marcel Detienne
argues that the hypothesis obscures distinctions that really matter. Furthermore, since death and resurrection are more central to Christianity than some other faiths, Detienne argues that an application of the motif risks making Christianity the standard by which all religion is judged. For extended arguments in this vein, see e.g. Burkert, 1987 and Detienne, 1994.
Beginning with an overview of the ritual growing and withering of herb gardens at the Athenian Adonia festival, Detienne theorizes that rather than being a stand-in for crops in general and therefore the universal acknowledgment of the cycle of death and rebirth, these herbs (and Adonis) were part of a complex of associations in the Greek mind that centered around spices. He postulates that these associations included seduction, trickery, gourmandise, and the anxieties of childbirth. From his point of view, Adonis's death is only one datum among the many that must be used to analyze the festival, the myth and the god. Similarly, a god like Osiris, whose functions relate to crops and the dead rather than spices and love, would call for a very different interpretation, despite the common theme of having died. Such, then, are Detienne's objections to the dying-and-rising-god hermeneutic.
List of life-death-rebirth deities
- Burkert, Walter (1987). Ancient mystery cults. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-03386-8
- Detienne, Marcel (1994). The gardens of Adonis: Spices in Greek mythology. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-391-00611-8
- Frazer, James George (1996). The Golden Bough. New York: Touchstone Books. ISBN 0-684-82630-5
- Godwin, Joscelyn (1994). The theosophical enlightenment. Albany: State University of New York Press. ISBN 0-7914-2151-1
- Gaster, Theodor, H., "Thespis: Ritual, Myth, and Drama in the Ancient Near East", Henry Schuman Publishing, New York, 1950. ISBN 0877521883. Cf. Part II, "Seasonal Myths of the Ancient Near East", p. 129. On Baal and "the seasonal motif of the dying and reviving god".
- "Cybele, Attis, and the Mysteriies of the 'Suffering Gods': A transpersonalistic interpretation" by Evgueni A. Torchinov, from The International Journal of Transpersonal Studies (1988, Vol 17, No. 2, pp 149–59) (PDF.)