|Osiris: fresco from the tomb of Sennedjem, Deir al-Medina, Egypt, 13th cent. BCE (source: Wikimedia.org).|
Caution: Osiris is not a dying and rising god, he’s a dying god. See below.
Here’s a fairly well-known mythicist, Richard Carrier:
... almost all the dying-and-rising gods award their followers a handsome afterlife with a baptism through which the follower emulates the death and resurrection of the savior. To claim this isn’t astonishingly similar to Jesus is simply lying at this point.Notice how Carrier gestures at ‘all the dying-and-rising gods’ without naming any? For good reason. Classifying Frazer’s canon of DRGs as ‘rising’ would be tenuous, to put it mildly. Carrier knows that if he actually names names, he’ll have to add pages and pages of provisos and caveats.
-- comments on a debate about the historicity of Jesus, Oct. 2016
Setting mythicists aside, in the last 50 years the dominant tendency has been to reject DRGs as a non-category. The work of Jonathan Z. Smith (1969, 1987), a scholar of the history of religion, has led many people to reject Frazer. Smith has some good points, but there has been a qualified counter-reaction to him, too. The most prominent current work on the subject, Tryggve Mettinger’s The riddle of resurrection (2001), is more reserved -- but there’s still plenty to disagree with: I’m not going to draw on Mettinger much here.
The problem with DRGs is that the entire concept was designed specifically with Jesus in mind. If your methods for deciding who is and is not a DRG revolve around ‘In what ways are they like/unlike Jesus?’, then of course you’re going to end up seeing ‘death and resurrection’ elements behind every bush. You’re also going to end up paying less attention to ways in which they are related or unrelated to one another.
Certainly there are gods who can be said to have died and risen. If you really want, you can declare that that’s a pattern. But you can find patterns practically anywhere you look. Humans are really good at seeing patterns in noise.
And (Pythagoras) engraved an epigram on the tomb, titling it ‘Pythagoras, to Zeus’, which began:This snippet refers to a supposed tomb of Zeus on Crete. Yes, Zeus himself. The tomb is almost certainly a fiction, derived from Euhemerus’ Sacred history (early 3rd century BCE), but it was widely believed to have existed. Many modern scholars, too, have been lured into believing the tomb was a real tourist attraction, even if not a real cult site.
Here lies dead Zan, whom they call Zeus.
-- Porphyry, Life of Pythagoras 17
|On Zeus’ tomb, see Winiarczyk 2013: 33-41. Winiarczyk’s list of ancient testimony (nn. 81, 82, 83) includes ‘23 pagan writers (14 Greek and 9 Roman), 28 Christians (19 Greek and 9 Roman) as well as 19 later authors (16 Byzantine, two Roman and one Syriac).’ Testimony appears only later than Euhemerus, beginning with Callimachus Hymn 1.8-9 (1st half of 3rd cent. BCE) and Dionysius Scytobrachion (mid-3rd cent. BCE, reported in Diodorus 3.61.2). The tomb is variously placed on Mount Ida (Varro, Porphyry, Cyril), Mount Dicte (Nonnus), or at Knossos (Malalas).|
|A fairly typical catalogue of imagined DRGs|
Syncretism is when two gods are merged in some way. I’ll use it in an extended sense, to mean any of: (1) one god being completely absorbed into another (e.g. Selene being absorbed into Artemis); (2) two separate gods being equated without merging fully (e.g. Jupiter = Zeus = Amun); (3) a motif being transferred or copied from one god to another. For example, the story of Orpheus getting torn to shreds reappears in one variant of Dionysus, in a poem attributed to Orpheus. But the two aren’t equated with one another anywhere. On the other hand, the Orphic Dionysus does get equated with the Egyptian god Osiris in one late source.
And here’s a sample taxonomy of ‘DRGs’:
- Gods who die
Examples: Osiris (Egyptian/Syrian), Adonis (Greek), Castor + Polydeuces (Greek/Latin), Attis (Phrygian/Lydian)
- Gods who die once and return to life once
Examples: Inanna (Babylonian), Baal (Ugaritic), kinda-sorta Telipinu (Hittite), Theseus (Greek), Orphic Dionysus (Greek), Jesus (Hebrew/Greek)
- Time-sharing gods, i.e. gods who spend part of the year in the world of the dead, and part either in heaven or on earth
Examples: Dumuzi and his sister (Babylonian), Adonis (Greek), Persephone (Greek), Castor + Polydeuces (Greek/Latin)
Now, these categories aren’t rigid. There are loads of things that mess them up:
- There are overlaps: some dying gods are also time-sharing gods. But not all of them.
- Things also get messy if we take ritual context into account. For example: for the deaths of Baal or Asclepius, we don’t know of any ritual context; in the cases of Adonis and Osiris we know only of ritual contexts, with no narrative versions.
- Things also get messy if we take into account other factors like whether our sources link the stories to fertility. For example, when Telipinu disappears into the ground, barley and wheat stop thriving, and farm animals stop reproducing. We see comparable elements in Inanna + Dumuzi, but not in the cases of Castor + Polydeuces or Jesus. The case of Adonis is unclear.
- Smith and Mettinger tend to get bogged down in whether a given divinity is really a god, or just a hero. Personally, I think this isn’t a valuable distinction. But it’s another factor that can mess up the categories, if you want.
We can’t possibly do an exhaustive study of all these gods, but let’s at least take a look at the three that I think are the most difficult: Adonis, Osiris, and Dionysus.
|Adonis relief, Rome, 118-125 CE|
(source: Brill’s New Pauly)
AdonisAdonis appears first in the Greek world. In the 7th-6th centuries BCE he pops up in fragments of the Catalogue of Women, Sappho, and Epimenides. The earliest account of his full story comes from an epic poem, Panyassis’ Heraclea, where he is a mortal Assyrian prince who becomes the object of a romantic dispute between Persephone and Aphrodite. The dispute gets resolved. Later, Adonis is killed by a boar while hunting. The end. No resurrection.
|References: Catalogue of Women fr. 139 Merkelbach-West (7th-6th cent. BCE); Sappho frs. 58, 140a, 168 Lobel-Page (early 6th cent.); Epimenides fr. 57 Bernabé (late 6th cent.?); Panyassis fr. 27 Bernabé (2nd half of 5th cent.).|
|Adonis time-sharing after death: Orphic Hymn 56.8-11 (ca. 2nd cent. CE?); Cyril of Alexandria Comm. on Isaiah lxx.441.3-19 (late 4th cent.).|
|Lucian On the Syrian goddess 6 (2nd cent. CE); similarly Origen Selecta in Ezechiel 800a Migne.|
λύσασαι δὲ κόμαν καὶ ἐπὶ σφυρὰ κόλπον ἀνεῖσαιThis is Theocritus’ poetic rendering of a ritual lament in the Adonis festival at Alexandria, Egypt. We don’t have anything similar for Adonis in Athens. But it appears that the Alexandrian Adonis, at least, was understood to be time-sharing between the afterlife and the world of the living.
στήθεσι φαινομένοις λιγυρᾶς ἀρξεύμαθ’ ἀοιδᾶς·
’ἕρπεις, ὦ φίλ’ Ἄδωνι, καὶ ἐνθάδε κεἰς Ἀχέροντα
ἡμιθέων, ὡς φαντί, μονώτατος. ...’
We’ll undo our hair, let our bodice hang down to the ankles,
and with our chests exposed we’ll begin the clear song:
’O dear Adonis, you are absolutely the only demigod who comes
both here and to Acheron, they say ...’
-- Theocritus Idyll 15.134-7
Now to complicate things. Since this motif is missing in Athenian evidence, it looks like some elements of Egyptian and Syrian Adonis worship were adapted from rites relating to Osiris. After Lucian’s description of the Adonia at Byblos, he immediately goes on to state that there’s a question over whether this rite is actually about Adonis or Osiris. There’s a similar question over the Alexandrian Adonis -- here’s Theocritus’ song again:
And in the morning, with the dew, we’ll come togetherThe practice of a procession to throw a figurine of the god into the sea is better attested for the cult of Osiris than that of Adonis. It makes most sense to understand this motif being transferred from Osiris cult after the Adonis cult had already migrated to the east. Obviously Osiris is where it’s all happening, so let’s turn to him now.
and bear him outside, towards the waves splashing on the shore
-- Theocritus Idyll 15.132-3 (see also scholion ad loc.)
OsirisIn Egyptian myth the god Osiris is killed, and his body is dismembered and the parts separated all over Egypt. Isis then gathers the body parts together and reassembles them. They have sex and bear a son, Horus. Later, Osiris becomes judge of the dead.
Except there’s a crucial gap here. Isis has sex with Osiris’ dead corpse. He doesn’t come to life.
|Isis, in bird-form, has sex with Osiris. Doesn’t he look lively!
(Relief from mortuary temple of Seti I, ca. 1279 BCE; source: Wikipedia)
To be fair, there are pictorial depictions of Osiris apparently getting up from his bier. For example, in this set of Ptolemaic reliefs at Dendara, Isis descends upon Osiris’ erect penis, then Osiris rises up from his bier, makes a boat journey, and is given an ankh. You could be excused for interpreting this as ‘resurrection’ ...
Osiris’ role as judge in the afterlife isn’t that of a living god who just happens to live in the world of the dead: he’s a dead god among the dead. The story of his body parts being dispersed is a paradigm for the spread of Osiris-worship all over Egypt; the story of Isis gathering and reassembling them is a paradigm for the process of mummification. That’s Osiris’ role in extant textual material, too. In funerary rites the deceased is regularly given Osiris as a forename: in the pyramid texts the pharaoh Unis becomes ‘Osiris-Unis’, Teti becomes ‘Osiris-Teti’, and so on. That’s the context for prayers like the following, which at first glance seem to talk about ‘Osiris’ coming to ‘life’ --
Atum, this Osiris here is your son, whom you have made revive and live;This formula, repeated and addressed to a different god each time, isn’t about Osiris coming to life: it’s about Unis (now Osiris-Unis) transitioning to the afterlife. Osiris’ involvement is because of the central place of his death in the Egyptian understanding of death.
he will live and this Unis will live, he will not die and this Unis will not die ...
-- pyramid of Unis (5th Dynasty, 25th cent. BCE); Allen and Der Manuelian 2005: 34
Osiris is a dying god, not a DRG. And that makes perfect sense for the god in charge of the afterlife. But that didn’t prevent Osiris from being equated with some time-sharing gods, as we’ve already seen -- and also with some DRGs, as we’ll see next.
DionysusEven today you may hear people repeating that Dionysus was a late addition to the Greek pantheon, imported from Thrace. That’s because that’s what the classical-era Greeks believed. It ain’t true, and we’ve known that since about 1960. That’s when Dionysus started popping up in Bronze Age Linear B tablets (1, 2, 3), which makes him one of the very earliest-attested Olympians. The fact that his cult existed all over Greece also supports his claim to be a divinity of long standing.
In the standard story, Dionysus is born twice (and doesn’t die): once from his mortal mother Semele, then again from Zeus’ thigh -- Semele dies when Zeus reveals himself to her in his full glory, so Zeus has to think of something quickly to save the unborn child. Dionysus goes on to become the god of wine and drama, and to play an important but nebulous role in mystery cults.
However, there are a couple of fringe variants of Dionysus who do die. In particular, an Orphic variant of Dionysus dies in a mythical episode called the Titanomachy, the battle between the Olympian gods and the Titans. The best known version is in Diodorus --
The mythographers have reported a tradition that he also had a third birth: they say the god was born of Zeus and Demeter, and that he was torn apart by the Giants and boiled down. His body-parts were reassembled by Demeter and he was born anew, from scratch; and they link this story to various natural forces.You’ll notice Diodorus makes the Giants the culprits, not the Titans: Titans and Giants regularly get mixed up in Orphic sources, though they’re not compatible. (The Titanomachy belongs near the very beginning of the chronology of myth; the Gigantomachy comes much later, in the time of Heracles.) Here’s a summary of our sources on the death of Orphic Dionysus:
-- Diodorus of Sicily 3.62.3 (= Orphica fr. 59.iii Bernabé)
|fr. 59.i||fr. 59.iii||fr. 59.v||fr. 327.ii|
|Philodemus On piety 16.1 Gomp.||Diodorus 3.62.3||Servius on Georgics 1.166||Proclus Hymns 7.11-15|
|cause of death||torn apart (διασπάω)||torn apart (διασπάω), boiled (καθέψω)||torn apart (discerpo)||divided up (μερίζω)|
|reassembler||Rhea||Demeter||--||Athena (preserves heart)|
|verb for revival||ἀναβιόω ‘come to life again’||γεννάομαι ‘be born’||--||ἀνηβάω ‘grow young again’|
|source(s) cited||Euphorion’s Mopsopia, Orphic writers||‘mythographers’||Orpheus (and cites Varro for story of Osiris)||--|
|notes||--||--||Servius equates Dionysus with Osiris||Dionysus reborn(?) from Semele|
Another fragment, fr. 59.iv (= Cornutus Compendium 30) reports that Dionysus was torn apart by the Titans and reassembled by Rhea, but doesn’t mention a resurrection. There are other references to Dionysus being torn apart, but without details.
The Olympian Dionysus, the god of state religion, emphatically did not die. But the Orphic Dionysus, the Dionysus of mystery cults, was evidently a genuine DRG. Diodorus reports that the sources available to him are ‘inconsistent, numerous, and bizarre’, and he complains that he can’t sort them out.
SyncretismI’m being loose with the word ‘syncretism’: some people might prefer to distinguish syncretism from a phenomenon called interpretatio graeca. The latter refers to a system for equating Greek gods with specific gods in other pantheons, e.g. Zeus = Jupiter = Amun, Apollo = Horus, etc. I’m lumping that together with syncretism because equations like these also pop up within the Greek pantheon (Titans = Giants) and in some edge cases (Samothracian Kabeiroi = Cretan Kouretes = Laconian Dioskouroi(?)).
The Dionysus sources, above, are chocker with syncretisms. Servius equates Dionysus with Osiris, and Typhon with Set; there’s the Titans and the Giants; and there’s the Orpheus crossover in the idea of Dionysus being torn apart. And the boiling of Dionysus sounds awfully like the trick Medea uses to kill king Pelias: Medea persuades him that she can rejuvenate anyone by cutting them up and boiling them, and of course Pelias dies. Even so, we have three sources -- all earlier than 400 BCE -- reporting that she did in fact perform the procedure successfully on Aison or Jason. So this may be another element of motif-borrowing or syncretism.
|Medea’s rejuvenation of Aison/Jason: Nostoi fr. 6 West; Simonides fr. 548 PMG; Pherecydes FGrHist 3 fr. 113ab (source for all three = hyp. Eur. Medea).|
|Adonis = Osiris(?): Lucian De dea Syria 7. Adonis = Tammuz: Origen Selecta in Ezech. xiii.797d-800b Migne (repeated in Theodoret, Procopius, and ps.-Nonnus); Cyril Comm. on Isaiah lxx.440d-441b Migne. Dionysus = Osiris: Varro ap. Servius on Georgics 1.166 (= Orph. fr. 59.v Bernabé). Isis = Demeter: Hdt. 2.59, 2.156. Isis = Persephone: Archemachus BNJ 424 F 6. Typhon = Set: Hdt. 2.156; Varro ap. Servius on Geo. 1.166; Plut. De Isid. 351f, etc., etc.|
But the equation Adonis = Tammuz, in contrast, appears only in Christian exegetes. They’re coming from a hostile position, and for them it is emphatically not an ecumenical matter. They’re trying to explain a hostile reference to Tammuz in the Bible, not to make it easier for Christians and Adonis-worshippers to talk to each other. We can be absolutely certain that Adonis-worshippers themselves would never have made this equation.
|A genuine case of a derived god whom worshippers happily equated with other gods: Serapis (a.k.a. Osiris-Apis), invented by the Ptolemies and equated by Plutarch with Pluto or Osiris (De Isid. 362a-b), and in this case, found in a Mithraeum in London. (2nd cent. CE, Museum of London; BM listing; source: Wikimedia.org)|
And, we should probably note, no one ever tried to equate Jesus with any of these figures -- at least, not until Frazer came along. Motif-borrowings are possible, but the more extreme ideas of Carrier and his ilk are a huge stretch. You don’t have to believe cult leaders are fictional in order to disbelieve their religion!
Postscript: actual dying and rising godsActual gods who die once and then resurrect once are much older, much more obscure, and have no clear link to 1st century CE Graeco-Jewish culture:
- Baal, in Ugaritic myth. Baal battles Mot and is devoured. The Canaanite god El and Baal’s sister Anat lament for him, and fertility ceases. Anat destroys Mot, El dreams of Baal’s return, and Baal reappears, to general rejoicing (though apparently so does Mot).
Source: Baal Cycle (early 14th cent. BCE), tablet 10 col. viii to tablet 12. See Smith, Parker, et al. 1997: 138-64.
- Inanna (and Dumuzi), in Babylonian myth. Inanna (Ishtar) travels to the underworld, and instructs her minister to mourn her death and pray for her. Ereshkigal makes her a lifeless corpse, and Enki sends messengers to restore her to life and release her. In exchange for her release she is also required to provide a substitute, her husband Dumuzi. (Dumuzi and his sister, in turn, go on to become a pair of time-sharers, alternating between the underworld and earth every half-year.)
Source: Sumerian Descent of Inanna (first half of 2nd mill. BCE), also in an Akkadian version; cf. allusion in Gilgamesh vi.46-7.
- Telipinu, in Hittite myth. The god Telipinu, in a fit of rage, disappears into the ground: weeds cover him, and fertility ceases. The sun-god sends emissaries to look for him, and a bee stings him until he gets up. Telipinu is angry at being awoken, and tears up the landscape until Kamrusepa uses magic to soothe him.
Source: CTH 324, a mugawar song (15th-13th cent. BCE). See e.g. Della Casa 2010.
[Note, 20 Feb.: this post has been edited. The original form had some inaccuracies caused by a lack of specificity, especially in parts discussing Adonis or Inanna. There are also some corrections relating to Inanna/Dumuzi, thanks to comments from Theo (see below).]
- Allen, J. P.; Der Manuelian, P. 2005. The ancient Egyptian pyramid texts. SBL, Writings from the Ancient World 23.
- Della Casa, R. 2010. ‘A theoretical perspective of the Telepinu Myth: archetypes and initiation rites in historical contexts.‘ Antiguo Oriente 8: 97-116.
- Frazer, J. G. 1890. The golden bough, 1st edition (2 vols.). London.
- Mettinger, T. N. D. 2001. The riddle of resurrection: ‘dying and rising gods’ in the ancient Near East. Stockholm.
- Smith, M. S.; Parker, S. B.; et al. 1997. Ugaritic narrative poetry. SBL, Writings from the Ancient World 9.
- Smith, J. Z. 1969. The glory, jest and riddle. James George Frazer and The golden bough. Diss. Yale.
- Smith, J. Z. 1987. ‘Dying and rising gods.’ In: Eliade & Adams (eds.) The encyclopedia of religion, New York.
- Winiarczyk, M. 2013. The ‘Sacred history’ of Euhemerus of Messene. Berlin.