A dying-and-rising, death-rebirth, or resurrection deity is a religious motif in which a god or goddess dies and is resurrected. “Death or departure of the gods” is motif A192 in Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (1932), while “resurrection of gods” is motif A193.
Examples of gods who die and later return to life are most often cited from the religions of the Ancient Near East, and traditions influenced by them include Biblical and Greco-Roman mythology and by extension Christianity. The concept of a dying-and-rising god was first proposed in comparative mythology by James Frazer’s seminal The Golden Bough (1890). Frazer associated the motif with fertility rites surrounding the yearly cycle of vegetation. Frazer cited the examples of Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis and Attis, Dionysus and Jesus Christ.
Frazer’s interpretation of the category has been critically discussed in 20th-century scholarship, to the conclusion that many examples from the world’s mythologies included under “dying and rising” should only be considered “dying” but not “rising”, and that the genuine dying-and-rising god is a characteristic feature of Ancient Near Eastern mythologies and the derived mystery cults of Late Antiquity.
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.
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 represents 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.
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. He also proposed that the myths of the pagan gods who symbolically died and resurrected foreshadowed Christ’s literal/physical death and resurrection. The overall view of 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 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.
While the concept of a “dying-and-rising god” has a longer history, it was significantly advocated by Frazer’s Golden Bough (1906–1914). At first received very favourably, the idea was attacked by Roland de Vaux in 1933, and was the subject of controversial debate over the following decades. One of the leading scholars in the deconstruction of Frazer’s “dying-and-rising god” category was Jonathan Z. Smith, whose 1969 dissertation discusses Frazer’s Golden Bough, and who in Mircea Eliade’s 1987 Encyclopedia of religion wrote the “Dying and rising gods” entry, where he dismisses the category as “largely a misnomer based on imaginative reconstructions and exceedingly late or highly ambiguous texts”, suggesting a more detailed categorisation into “dying gods” and “disappearing gods”, arguing that before Christianity, the two categories were distinct and gods who “died” did not return, and those who returned never truly “died”. Smith gave a more detailed account of his views specifically on the question of parallels to Christianity in Drudgery Divine (1990). Smith’s 1987 article was widely received, and during the 1990s, scholarly consensus seemed to shift towards his rejection of the concept as oversimplified, although it continued to be invoked by scholars writing about Ancient Near Eastern mythology. As of 2009, the Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion summarizes the current scholarly consensus as ambiguous, with some scholars rejecting Frazer’s “broad universalist category” preferring to emphasize the differences between the various traditions, while others continue to view the category as applicable.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.
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. 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, such as 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”.
Since the 1990s, Smith’s scholarly rejection of the category has been widely embraced by Christian apologists wishing to defend the historicity of Jesus, while scholarly defenses of the concept (or its applicability to mystery religion) have been embraced by the new atheism movement wishing to argue the Christ myth theory.
- Leeming, “Dying god” (2004)
- Burkert 1979, 99
- Stookey 2004, 99
- Miles 2009, 193
- Thompson’s categories A192. Death or departure of the gods and A193. Resurrection of gods. S. Thompson, Motif-index of folk-literature : a classification of narrative elements in folktales, ballads, myths, fables, medieval romances, exempla, fabliaux, jest-books, and local legends, Revised and enlarged. edition. Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1955-1958, p. 106.
- Frazer, quoted in Mettinger 2001:18, cited after Garry and El-Shamy, p. 19
- summary in Mettinger (2001:15–39)
- Garry and El-Shamy (2004:19f.), citing Mettinger (2001:217f.): “The world of ancient Near Eastern religions actually knew a number of deities that may be properly described as dying and rising [… although o]ne should not hypostasize these gods into a specific type ‘ the dying and rising god.'”
- Lee W. Bailey, “Dying and rising gods” in: David A. Leeming, Kathryn Madden and Stanton Marlan (eds.) Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion (2009) ISBN038771801X Springer, pages 266-267
- Garry, Jane; M El-Shamy, Hasan (December 1, 2004). Archetypes and Motifs in Folklore and Literature; a handbook. pp. 19–20. ISBN0765612607.
- Thematic Guide to World Mythology by Lorena Laura Stookey (Mar 30, 2004) ISBN0313315051 pages 106-107
- Norse Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs by John Lindow (Oct 17, 2002) ISBN0195153820 pages 66-68
- Handbook of Japanese Mythology by Michael Ashkenazi (Nov 5, 2003) ISBN1576074676 page 174
- The Myth of Quetzalcoatl by Enrique Florescano and Lysa Hochroth (Oct 29, 2002) ISBN0801871018 page 42
- Mettinger, Tryggve N. D. (2001). The Riddle of Resurrection: Dying and Rising Gods in the Ancient Near East. Almqvist & Wiksell, pages 7 and 221
- Ackerman 2002, 163, lists divine kingship, taboo, and the dying god as “key concepts” of not only Frazer, but Harrison and others of the ritualist school, in contrast to differences among these scholars.
- Massey, Gerald (1907). Ancient Egypt, the light of the world. London: T. Fisher Unwin. pp. 728–914. ISBN978-1-4588-1251-3.
- Unmasking the Pagan Christ by Stanley E. Porter and Stephen J. Bedard 2006 ISBN1894667719 page 18
- Unmasking the Pagan Christ by Stanley E. Porter and Stephen J. Bedard 2006 ISBN1894667719 page 24
- Crowley, Vivianne (2000). Jung: A Journey of Transformation:Exploring His Life and Experiencing His Ideas. Wheaton Illinois: Quest Books. ISBN978-0-8356-0782-7.
- Care for the Soul: Exploring the Intersection of Psychology and Theology by Mark R. McMinn and Timothy R. Phillips (Apr 25, 2001) ISBN0830815538 Intervarsity page 287
- Alane Sauder-MacGuire, “Osiris and the Egyptian Religion” in the Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion by David A. Leeming, Kathryn Madden and Stanton Marlan (Nov 6, 2009) ISBN038771801X Springer, pages 651-653
- The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious (Collected Works of C.G. Jung Vol.9 Part 1) by C. G. Jung and R.F.C. Hull (Aug 1, 1981) ISBN0691018332 page 117
- The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious (Collected Works of C.G. Jung Vol.9 Part 1) by C. G. Jung and R.F.C. Hull (Aug 1, 1981) ISBN0691018332 page 128
- Egyptian Mythology, a Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt by Geraldine Pinch 2004 ISBN0195170245 Oxford Univ Press page 91
- New Testament tools and studies“, Bruce Manning Metzger, p. 19, Brill Archive, 1960
- Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt by Margaret Bunson 1999 ISBN0517203804 page 290
- Euripides and Alcestis by Kiki Gounaridou (Sep 3, 1998) University Press Of America ISBN0761812318 page 71
- The Greek World by Anton Powell (Sep 28, 1997) ISBN0415170427 page 494
- A Short Introduction to Classical Myth by Barry B. Powell (Jan 2002) ISBN0130258393 pages 105–107
- Tryggve Mettinger, “The ‘Dying and Rising God’: A survey of Research from Frazer to the Present Day”, in Batto et al. (eds.), David and Zion: Biblical Studies in Honor of J.J.M. Roberts (2004), 373–386
- Zittell Smith, Jonathan (1969). The Glory, Jest and Riddle. James George Frazer and The Golden Bough(PDF). Yale dissertation.
- Smith, Jonathan Z. (1987). “Dying and Rising Gods,” in The Encyclopedia of Religion Vol. IV, edited by Mircea Eliade ISBN0029097002 Macmillan, pages 521-527
- Gale, Thomson. “Dying and Rising Gods”. Home Search Research categories. Encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 10 October 2016.
- Jonathan Z. Smith “On Comparing Stories”, Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity(1990), 85–115.
- Mettinger (2004) cites M.S. Smith, The Ugaritic Baal Cycle and H.-P. Müller, “Sterbende ud auferstehende Vegetationsgötter? Eine Skizze,” TZ 53 (1997:374)
- Gerald O’Collins, “The Hidden Story of Jesus” New Blackfriars Volume 89, Issue 1024, pages 710–714, November 2008
- The Gardens of Adonis by Marcel Detienne, Janet Lloyd and Jean-Pierre Vernant (Apr 4, 1994) ISBN0691001049 Princeton pages iv-xi
- David and Zion, Biblical Studies in Honor of J.J.M. Roberts, edited by Bernard Frank Batto, Kathryn L. Roberts and J. J. M. Roberts (Jul 2004) ISBN1575060922 pages 381-383
- Comparative Criticism Volume 1 by Elinor Shaffer (Nov 1, 1979) ISBN0521222966 page 301
- Detienne 1994; see also Burkert 1987
- Dag Øistein Endsjø. Greek Resurrection Beliefs and the Success of Christianity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2009.
- Albert McIlhenny, This Is the Sun?: Zeitgeist and Religion, Labarum Publishing (2011), chapter 14, “Dying and Rising Gods”, 189–213.
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