The Return of Persephone by Frederic Leighton (1891).
|Description||A dying-and-rising god is born, suffers a death-like experience, and is subsequently reborn.|
|Proponents||James Frazer, Carl Jung, Tryggve Mettinger|
In comparative mythology, the related motifs of a dying god and of a dying-and-rising god (also known as a death-rebirth-deity) have appeared in diverse cultures. In the more commonly accepted motif of a dying god, the deity goes away and does not return. The less than widely accepted motif of a dying-and-rising god refers to a deity which returns, is resurrected or is reborn, in either a literal or symbolic sense.
Beginning in the 19th century, a number of gods who would fit these motifs were proposed. Male examples include the ancient Near Eastern and Greek deities Baal, Melqart, Adonis, Eshmun, Tammuz, Ra the Sun god with its fusion with Osiris/Orion, Jesus, and Dionysus. Female examples include Inanna/Ishtar, Persephone, and Bari.
The methods of death can be diverse, the Norse Baldr is killed by a holly dart from his mischievous/evil step-uncle Loki and the Aztec Quetzalcoatl (feathered serpent) sets himself on fire after over-drinking. Some gods who die are also seen as either returning or bringing about life in some other form, in many cases associated with a vegetation deity related to a staple.
The very existence of the category "dying-and-rising-god" was debated throughout the 20th century, and the soundness of the category was widely questioned, given that many of the proposed gods did not return in a permanent sense as the same deity. By the end of the 20th century, scholarly consensus had formed against the reasoning used to suggest the category, and it was generally considered inappropriate from a historical perspective.
The motif of a dying deity appears within the mythology of diverse cultures – perhaps because attributes of deities were derived from everyday experiences, and the ensuing conflicts often included death.  These examples range from Baldr in Norse mythology to the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl in Aztec mythology to the Japanese Izanami.
The methods of death vary, e.g., in the myth of Baldr (whose account was likely first written down the 12th century), he is inadvertently killed by his blind brother Höðr who is tricked into shooting a mistletoe-tipped arrow at him, and his body is then set aflame on a ship as it sails out to sea. Baldr does not come back to life because not all living creatures shed tears for him, and his death then leads to the "doom of the gods".
In contrast, in most variations of his story, Quetzalcoatl (whose story dates to around the first century) is tricked by Tezcatlipoca to over-drink and then burns himself to death out of remorse for his own shameful deeds. Quetzalcoatl does not resurrect and come back to life as himself, but some versions of his story have a flock of birds flying away from his ashes, and in some variants, Quetzalcoatl sails away on the ocean never to return.
Hawaiian deities can die and depart the world in a number of ways; e.g., some gods who were killed on Lanai by Lanikuala departed for the skies. In contrast, Kaili leaves the world by a canoe which is never seen again. The Japanese god Izanami, on the other hand, dies of a fever and Izanagi goes to Yomi, the land of gloom, to retrieve her, but she has already changed to a deteriorated state and Izanagi will not bring her back, and she pursues Izanagi, but he manages to escape.
Some gods who die are also seen as either returning or bring about life in some other form, often associated with the vegetation cycle, or a staple food, in effect taking the form of a vegetation deity. Examples include Ishtar and Persephone, who die every year. The yearly death of Ishtar when she goes underground represents the lack of growth, while her return the rebirth of the farming cycle. Most scholars hold that although the gods suggested in this motif die, they do not generally return in terms of rising as the same deity, although scholars such as Mettinger contend that in some cases they do.
Development of the concept
The term "dying god" is associated with the works of James Frazer, Jane Ellen Harrison, and their fellow Cambridge Ritualists. At the end of the 19th century, in their The Golden Bough and Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, Frazer and Harrison argued that all myths are echoes of rituals, and that all rituals have as their primordial purpose the manipulation of natural phenomena.
Early in the 20th century, Gerald Massey argued that there are similarities between the Egyptian dying-and-rising god myths and Jesus. However, Massey's historical errors often render his works nonsensical, e.g., Massey stated that the biblical references to Herod the Great were based on the myth of "Herrut" the evil hydra serpent, while the existence of Herod the Great can be well established without reliance on Christian sources. Stanley Porter has specifically rejected the works of Massey and his followers.
The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung argued that archetypal processes such as death and resurrection were part of the "trans-personal symbolism" of the collective unconscious, and could be utilized in the task of psychological integration.[page needed] He also proposed that the myths of the pagan gods who symbolically died and resurrected foreshadowed Christ's literal/physical death and resurrection.[page needed] The overall view of Carl Jung regarding religious themes and stories is that they are expressions of events occurring in the unconscious of the individuals - regardless of their historicity. From the symbolic perspective, Jung sees dying and rising gods as an archetypal process resonating with the collective unconscious through which the rising god becomes the greater personality in the Jungian self. In Jung's view, a biblical story such as the resurrection of Jesus (which he saw as a case of dying and rising) may be true or not, but that has no relevance to the psychological analysis of the process, and its impact.
The analysis of Osiris permeates the later religious psychology of Carl Jung more than any other element. In 1950 Jung wrote that those who partake in the Osiris myth festival and follow the ritual of his death and the scattering of his body to restart the vegetation cycle as a rebirth "experience the permanence and continuity of life which outlasts all changes of form". Jung wrote that Osiris provided the key example of the rebirth process in that initially only the Pharaohs "had an Osiris" but later other Egyptians nobles acquired it and eventually it led in the concept of soul for all individuals in Christianity. Jung believed that Christianity itself derived its significance from the archetypal relationship between Osiris and Horus versus God the Father and Jesus, his son. However, Jung also postulated that the rebirth applied to Osiris (the father), and not Horus, the son.
The general applicability of the death and resurrection of Osiris to the dying-and-rising-god analogy has been criticized, on the grounds that it derived from the harvesting rituals that related the rising and receding waters of the Nile river and the farming cycle. The cutting down of barley and wheat was related to the death of Osiris, while the sprouting of shoots was thought to be based on the power of Osiris to resurrect the farmland. In general rebirth analogies based on the vegetation cycle are viewed as the weakest elements in the death-rebirth analogies.
In Greek mythology Dionysus, the son of Zeus was a horned child who was torn to pieces by Titans who lured him with toys, then boiled and ate him. Zeus then destroyed the Titans by thunderbolt as a result of their action against Dionysus and from the ashes humans were formed. However, Dionysus' grandmother Rhea managed to put some of his pieces back together (principally from his heart that was spared) and brought him back to life. Scholars such as Barry Powell have suggested Dionysus as an example of resurrection.
Myth theorist Robert M. Price has also stated that the Jesus narrative has strong parallels with other Middle Eastern narratives about life-death-rebirth deities, parallels that he writes Christian apologists have tried to minimize. Price's view has virtually no support in the secular scholarly community.
The very existence of the category "dying-and-rising-god" was debated throughout the 20th century, most modern scholars questioning the soundness of the category.  At the end of the 20th century the overall scholarly consensus had emerged against the soundness of the reasoning used to suggest the category. Tryggve Mettinger (who supports the category) states that there is a scholarly consensus that the category is inappropriate from a historical perspective. Scholars such as Kurt Rudolph have stated the reasoning used for the construction of the category has been defective.
The overall scholarly consensus is that while the examples provided often involve death of the deity, they do not generally involve resurrection of the same deity. Eddy and Boyd state that upon careful analysis, it turns out that there is often either no death, no resurrection or no god in the examples used to construct each of the examples in the category. Jonathan Z. Smith, a scholar of comparative religions, writes the category is "largely a misnomer based on imaginative reconstructions and exceedingly late or highly ambiguous texts." The Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion states that Smith is correct in pointing out many discontinuities within the category, and although some scholars support the category, it is generally seen as involving excessive generalization. Gerald O'Collins states that surface-level application of analogous symbolism is a case of parallelomania which exaggerate the importance of trifling resemblances, long abandoned by mainstream scholars.
Frazer's analysis of cases such as Adonis has generally been viewed as highly speculative, casting doubt on the validity of the entire category of dying-and-rising gods. Beginning with an overview of the Athenian ritual of growing and withering herb gardens at the Adonis festival, in his book The Gardens of Adonis Marcel Detienne suggests that rather than being a stand-in for crops in general (and therefore the cycle of death and rebirth), these herbs (and Adonis) were part of a complex of associations in the Greek mind that centered on spices. These associations included seduction, trickery, gourmandizing, 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.
A main criticism charges the group of analogies with reductionism, insofar as it subsumes a range of disparate myths under a single category and ignores important distinctions. Marcel Detienne argues that it risks making Christianity the standard by which all religion is judged, since death and resurrection are more central to Christianity than many other faiths. Dag Øistein Endsjø, a scholar of religion, points out how a number of those often defined as dying-and-rising-deities, like Jesus and a number of figures in ancient Greek religion, actually died as ordinary mortals, only to become gods of various stature after they were resurrected from the dead. Not dying as gods, they thus defy the definition of “dying-and-rising-gods”.
- Comparative mythology
- List of dying or rising deities
- Mother goddess
- Psychology of religion
- Vegetation deity
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- Leeming, "Dying god"
- Burkert 1979, 99
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- Mettinger, Riddle, 113-154.
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- Massey, Gerald (1907). Ancient Egypt, the light of the world. London: T. Fisher Unwin. pp. 728–914. ISBN 978-1-4588-1251-3.
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- Detienne 1994; see also Burkert 1987
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- Endsjø, Dag Øistein 2009. Greek Resurrection Beliefs and the Success of Christianity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-230-61729-2
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- Nash, Ronald H. 2003. The Gospel and the Greeks: Did the New Testament Borrow from Pagan Thought?. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R. ISBN 0-87552-559-8
- Price, Robert M. "Jesus at the Vanishing Point" in James K. Beilby & Paul Rhodes Eddy (eds.) The Historical Jesus: Five Views. InterVarsity, 2009
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