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Dying and resurrecting god

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The category life-death-rebirth deity also known as a "dying-and-rising" or dying and resurrecting god is a convenient means of classifying the many divinities in world mythology who are born, suffer death or 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. Such deities might include Osiris, Adonis, Jesus, and Mithras. Females deities who passed into the kingdom of death and returned include Inanna and Persephone, the central figure of the Eleusinian Mysteries.

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.

Table of contents

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. 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 BCE), giving the term "euhemerist". Rational Stoic Romans like Cicero and Seneca, 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 EV).

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 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 and theosophy.

By the twentieth century, this spiritualized turn to the universal-dying-god hypothesis had made its way into the sunlit uplands of 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.

Criticisms of the category

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, critics would contend, the hypothesis obscures distinctions that really matter. Furthermore, since death and resurrection are more central to Christianity than most other faiths, it 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 EV.

Detienne, for example, has studied the ritual growing and withering of herb gardens at the Athenian Adonia festival. He argues that rather than being a stand-in for crops in general, these herbs (and the herb-god Adonis) were part of a complex of associations in the Greek mind that centered around spices. These associations included seduction, trickery, gourmandaise, and the anxieties of childbirth. From this 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. On the other hand 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 the objections to the dying-and-rising-god hermeneutic.

Christianity and the Life-Death-Rebirth Category

The putative existence of a universal dying-and-rising god motif, and the particular existence of mystery religions concerned with dying and rising gods around the Mediterranean Sea (e.g. Osiris, Dionysus, Attis), has led some observers to speculate that Jesus Christ, rather than being a historical person, was in fact a syncretizing development of this archetype.

Detractors, on the other hand, point out that many characteristics do not apply to Christ. For example, although Dionysus shared some interesting characteristics with Christ, he was on the other hand a hedonistic and bacchanalian god.

Proposed life-death-rebirth deities


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