Back to Home Page or Contents Page or Past and present beliefs or Index
Dying and Resurrected Gods: Archetypal Manifestations of Psychological Need
By Ralph Monday
He who speaks with primordial images speaks with a thousand tongues… (Carl Jung)
Every culture that is examined, whether ancient or modern, has the concept of a dying and resurrected god. The manifestation takes many forms and is as primal as the unconscious recognition of the deep spiritual meaning grafted onto the vernal equinox, the present religious veneer just as superficial and with as little "true" depth as a drying stream. That river bed, though not quite as full as it has been for the past several millennia, can be reasonably and inevitably traced to (if not the ultimate source, at least a primary one) the Nile, Euphrates, and Tigris. For it is in these regions that the archetypal image of the dying/reborn god has most powerfully shaped the Western ethos and sent the stream, at first a compelling, full flowing fount in the ego strength of unbridled youth, adolescent in the time of Constantine, thorough maturity from Charlemagne to Luther, a bit decrepit now in the early twenty-first century, heir of Newton, Copernicus, Galileo, Einstein, but yet even now, the majority of the masses stand straddling that stream, one foot planted firmly in an ancient and medieval mindset, the other faced with the postmodern realization of the ravages done to the cool water by science and technology. The paradigm shift that has been occurring since at least the Renaissance, and baring some major upheaval of Western Civilization, most likely will continue at an accelerated pace, and yet the yearning for the god who perished, but mysteriously and paradoxically lives, continues. The anthropomorphic hopes and dreams of a collective humanity are grafted onto the image, perhaps even intertwined somewhere deep in homo sapien DNA structure, and it is most likely here, in the ancient, ancestral, shadowy regions of human consciousness that a logical explanation can be found. In regard to this matter Joseph Campbell said,
"Mythology-and therefore civilization-is a poetic, per-normal image, conceived, like all poetry, in depth, but susceptible of interpretation on various levels. The shallowest minds see in it the local scenery; the deepest, the foreground of the void; and between are all the stages of the Way from the ethnic to the elementary idea, the local to the universal being, which is Everyman, as he both knows and is afraid to know. For the human mind...is the ultimate mythogenetic zone-the creator and destroyer, the slave and yet the master, of all the gods." (qtd. in Salyer 57)
The dying and resurrected god images under discussion (there are many others) are: the Osiris, Isis, Horus Egyptian resurrectional trinity and the Sumerian/Babylonian Tammuz. These myths can be looked upon as variations upon one great human mythical symphony, what Joseph Campbell called the "monomyth." An argument is made that these archetypal symbols are psychological projections of the collective unconscious, the need of the human mind faced with the overwhelming specter of imminent mortality to fashion eternal symbols of human resurrection married to the god's victory over the shadowy domain of death, a spiritual transcendence of the physical underworld to the numinous realm of eternal spirit, logos, the human and the divine united in a transcendent marriage of cycles of life, death, and infinite revitalization. This is the role of the dying/reborn god. This is the message to the believer, for they all share a similar pattern: "Beginning with some violent cosmic or social crisis, and culminating in the suffering of a mysterious victim (often at the hands of a furious mob), all these myths conclude with the triumphal return of the sufferer, thereby revealed as a divinity" (Girard 46).
Osiris, Isis, Horus
Osiris is one of the earliest examples, Egyptian, in human culture of the dying and resurrected god. Frazer, in The Golden Bough, pointed out that in his estimation the dying and reborn god was originally tied to and connected with fertility rituals: the reborn vegetation in the spring, the cyclical waning and waxing of the moon. This may well be accurate, but clearly over time the vegetation rites apparently slid into a forgotten past, and at some time in cultural affirmation the dying/reborn god assumed anthropic genesis and was transformed into a psychological interpretation of the need for an eternal spiritual life.
Osiris was the Egyptian savior god and the chief deity of death, and the only god to rival the solar cult of Ra. His death came about when he was drowned, later dismembered, and the more than fourteen pieces of his desecrated body were scattered across the land and water by the brother of both Isis and her husband Osiris-Seth, (World Mythology 40-41) "god of evil, darkness, drought, perversity" (Knapp). After the death of Osiris, Isis searched for and found his body. Then, with Nut's (Osiris' mother) assistance, she resurrected the corpse except for the genitals which fish had eaten (World Mythology 41). This miraculous revival demonstrates that Osiris was one of the earliest archetypes of the dying and resurrected god. His cult spread widely during the time of the Roman Empire and was a large and important body of worship in many Roman provinces. Jung recognized this Egyptian prototype for he wrote, "...the Christian era itself owes its name and significance to the antique mystery of the god-man, which has its roots in the archetypal Osiris-Horus myth"...(Man and His Symbols 79). In addition, to further emphasize the tacitly stated historical connection of an actual living man who died and was reborn, there is an historical remnant indicating that the god was an authentic king in the distant Egyptian past who ruled from his capital in the delta, and that his death was brought about by a rebellious Ombos in upper Egypt, a city sacred to the dark god Seth (World Mythology 42).
Plutarch's chronicle of the birth, life, and death of Osiris is well known. Osiris was the god who had been metaphorically crucified, died, journeyed to the underworld, and then triumphantly rose again. Through the terrible ordeal of suffering that Osiris experienced, the ancient Egyptian believer held faith that his own mortal frame might at some point in the future after his death, live again in a phantasmagoric transformation or in some exalted shape. The believer offered prayers to his resurrected god, Osiris, who had conquered death and become lord of the otherworld, that eternal life would be granted, the archetypal idea of rebirth from death clearly demonstrated. On all known funeral inscriptions including pyramid texts to prayers inscribed on coffins in the Roman Empire, the believer symbolically identified with Osiris and the idea that if the god lived forever, so, too, would the suppliant. An even clearer idea of this belief is held in the XVIIIth, or early in the XIXth dynasty where Osiris is called the king of eternity, the lord of everlastingness, who traverseth millions of years in the duration of his life, the firstborn son of the womb of Nut, begotten of Seb (Geb), the prince of gods and men, the god of gods, the king of kings, the lord of lords, the prince of princes, the governor of the world, from the womb of Nut, whose existence is for everlasting,...Unnefer of many forms and of many attributes, Tmu in Annu, the lord of Akert,...the only one, the lord of the land on each side of the celestial Nile." (Legend of Osiris)
In another context Osiris' rebirth from death can be seen as related to fertility/vegetation rituals as the concept of God's renewal which symbolically is grafted psychologically onto the reborn god object:
This is a well-known primordial image that is...universal...the whole mythological complex of the dying and resurgent god...expresses a transformation of attitude by means of which a new potential, a new manifestation of life...is created. This latter analogy explains the well-attested connection between the renewal of the god and seasonal and vegetational phenomena. (Jung Psychological Types 193-194)
These myths began in the eastern Mediterranean (The Levant, the Middle East, Mesopotamia, Persia-Assyria-Syria), where farming cultures developed religions that celebrated the yearly return of crop fertility, where Gaia "religions had Gods who personified the cycle-of-nature by dying in the autumn and being reborn in the spring" (Pagan Christs). Clearly, Osiris was viewed as a symbol of new and eternal life.
Tammuz, Babylonian God of Vegetation
Tammuz was an ancient Babylonian archetype of the dying and reborn god. He was connected with agriculture and livestock as well as wild animals. His personification was that of the cyclic rebirth of nature in the spring, and he was the consort of Ishtar, goddess of fertility, for like the majority of these primordial manifestations of the resurrected life force, in earth based religious traditions the god and the goddess are equally represented for life springs from pairs of opposites, dualities that form again and again the complete trinity. One legend states that Ishtar
was so filled with grief over Tammuz's death that she...contrived to enter the underworld to get him back. According to another legend, she killed him and later restored him to life. These legends and his festival, which took place in the early spring, commemorating the yearly death and rebirth of vegetation, corresponded to the festivals of the Phoenician and Greek Adonis and of the Phrygian Attis. (Leeflang)
Furthermore, Tammuz was also recognized as the river god of the Tigris and Euphrates, and he was also the son and brother of Ishtar, for the two came together when the world began where she gave birth to Tammuz, had sexual intercourse with him and yet remained a virgin. After his death in the summer all vegetation also perished and Ishtar searched for him around the globe. When she finally descended into the underworld and found her consort, she resurrected the god in the spring and the world came back to life with his rise from the grave, (The Goddess Ishtar) reminiscent of renewed life in many ancient stories of these primordial archetypes. Likewise Lindemans writes that ...[Tammuz was the] Akkadian vegetation-god, counterpart of the Sumerian Damuzi and the symbol of death and rebirth in nature. He is the son of Ea and husband of Ishtar. Each year he dies in the hot summer (in the month tammus, June/July) and his soul is taken by the Gallu demons to the underworld. Woe and desolation fall upon the earth, and Ishtar leads the world in lamentation. She then descends to the nether world, ruled by Ereshkigal, and after many trials succeeds in bringing him back, as a result of which fertility and joy return to the earth. In Syria he was identified with Adonis. (Tammuz)
So Tammuz, too, is identified with the concept of the eternal dying and resurrected god. Both Osiris and Tammuz represent, perhaps, the development of the Christ myth in western civilization and this is connected to man's urge to dramatize when dealing with supernatural realities. The human mind is given to project an unconscious archetypal image onto people or objects, creating mythical figures. A mythical image of a godman, who redeems heroically the fragile fragmented man of his failures/sins and offers an escape, a ray of hope, holds sway over him. When the true nature of the target figure is seen, the projection is shattered into pieces. A fallen idol remains, but the archetypal desire for the human race to achieve ego immortality remains. When one god dies, another is created to replace the deceased object; so has such a belief always been, likely it will always remain.
Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Occidental
New York, Arkana, 1981.
Cotterell, Arthur. A Dictionary of World Mythology, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Girard, Rene. "Are the Gospels Mythical?" Quadrant, V. 43. i12. Dec. 1999.
10 Feb. 2004. Expanded Adademic ASAP. TEL. Roane State Community College.
Goddess Ishtar, The," 29 March 2004. <http://inanna.virtualave.net/ishtar.html#Relations>.
Jung, Carl. Man and His Symbols, New York: Anchor Press, 1964.
Jung, Carl. The Type Problem in Poetry, Psychological Types. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971.
Knapp, Bettina. "The Archetypal Woman Fulfilled: Isis, Harmony of Flesh/Spirit/Logos," Symposium, V. 50 N. 1. Spring (1996). 28-40. 6 Feb. 2004. Expanded Academic ASAP. TEL. Roane State Community College.
Leeflang, Tracy. "Tammuz, Babylonian God of Vegetation." 1999. 07 Apr 2004. <http://www.dutchie.org/Tracy/tam.html>.
Legend of Osiris, The. <http://www.sacred-texts.com/egy/ebod/ebod04.htm>.
Lindemans, Micha F. Tammuz, Encyclopedia Mythica 03 03 1997. 07 Apr 2004 <http://www.pantheon.org/articles/t/tammuz.html>.
Pagan Origins of the Christ Myth. Pagan Christs. <http://home.earthlink.net/~pgwhacker/ChristianOrigins/PaganChrists_introduction.html>.
Salyer, Gregory. "Interpreting Campbell: Hermeneutics and Comparative Mythology." Uses of Comparative Mythology: Essays on the Work of Joseph Campbell. Ed. Kenneth L. Golden. New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1992. 57.