By Vexen Crabtree 2017
In the Northern Hemisphere, the spring equinox occurs when the length of the day increases until it is equal with the length of the night, which occurs on the 21st of March each year1. The sun, growing in power, finally overtakes darkness, and its rebirth is celebrated. This was an especially important event for early human civilisations that relied upon agriculture. This is why so many ancient religions and cultures celebrate renewal and rebirth at and after the spring equinox, and is why Easter is tied up with the ideas of fertility and growth, hence, the symbols of the egg and the rabbit. Ancient pagans anthropomorphized the forces of nature, and told stories to explain why the sun was resurgent. Adonis, Attis, Dionysus, Osiris and many other Greek and Roman cults incorporated the death and rebirth of their gods at this time, with the principal dying-and-resurrection god returning to Earth for the sake of humankind2. When Christianity arose, Christians also told stories of Jesus dying and resurrecting at Easter, and since the very first centuries of Christianity, Christian apologists have had to defend themselves against accusations that the whole Jesus story was a retelling of pagan myths but without understanding of the underlying solar symbolism2.
“The motif of the dying god is a relatively universal one. It is closely related to the even more universal myth of the hero's descent into the underworld. Nearly always the god's apparent death results in some kind of rebirth or resurrection. The great dying god of Egypt was Osiris [who returned] in the form of grain and the rejuvenated land after the annual Nilotic floods. Attis, the son of the great goddess Kybele of Phrygian Anatolia, was a dying god, as was Dionysos in Greece, and, in a sense, Inanna and especially Dumuzi in Mesopotamia. In Ugaritic Canaan the dying god was Baal, the son of El or Dagan, who descended into the jaws of death (Mot) but who, with the help of the goddess Anat, returned and reestablished fertility for the land. In Phoenicia, Melqart, the city god of Tyre, was a dying and reviving god, as was Eshmun, the city deity of Sidon and Byblos. The best-known of the Canaanite dying gods was Adonis, the spring god of the Phoenicians, who also became popular in Greece and Rome as a human with whom Aphrodite-Venus fell in love. In his Greco-Roman form he was more a symbol of youthful sexuality than of spring. His name was related to Adonia ('my Lord').
The Middle Eastern version of the dying-god motif fully blossoms in the story of Jesus, who was said to have died and then returned to life after three days (one of them in hell), bringing the possibility of what might be called spiritual as opposed to physical fertility.”
"Jealous Gods & Chosen People: The Mythology of the Middle East" by David Leeming (2004)3
Clearly, such seasonal gods were suited perfectly to the agricultural communities that worshipped them.
“Agricultural religion in Egypt was concentrated in the cult of Osiris and Isis, and influenced all local theologies. In Babylonia these deities were represented by Tammuz and Ishtar. Ishtar, like Isis, absorbed many other local goddesses. According to the beliefs of the ancient agriculturists the goddess was eternal and undecaying. She was the Great Mother of the Universe and the source of the food supply. Her son, the corn god, became, as the Egyptians put it, 'Husband of his Mother'. Each year he was born anew and rapidly attained to manhood; then he was slain by a fierce rival who symbolized the season of pestilence-bringing and parching sun heat, or the rainy season, or wild beasts of prey. Or it might be that he was slain by his son, as Cronos was by Zeus and Dyaus by Indra. The new year slew the old year.”
"Myths of Babylonia and Assyria" by Donald A. Mackenzie (1915)4
The Christian versions of the Roman resurrection god-man mythos had Jesus, like other god-men such as Dionysus, resurrect at Easter time, and like the others, this occurred after a 3-day descent. So, the solar spring festival at Easter became "the most important of all Christian feasts, [celebrating] the passion, the death, and especially the resurrection of Jesus Christ"5. Once inherited the power and wealth of the Roman Empire, its Easter celebrations became spectacular affairs with a large number of ancient traditions and practices incorporated with Christian interpretations. After Christianity swept away paganism from Europe, many came to believe (and many still do) that Easter was itself invented by Christianity but thankfully historians nowadays have a wealth of ancient evidence showing us just how ancient the symbols of Easter are.
“In the fourth century an anonymous author tells us that Christians and followers of the Mystery godman Attis were both struck by the remarkable coincidence between the death and resurrection of their respective deities. This gave rise to bitter controversy between the adherents of the rival religions. The Pagans contended that the resurrection of Christ was a spurious imitation of the resurrection of Attis and the Christians that the resurrection of Attis was a diabolical counterfeit of the resurrection of Christ.
The Megalensia was a spring festival in the Mysteries of Attis which, like Easter, lasted for three days.  During this time the myth of Attis was performed as a passion play, just as the story of Jesus was performed as a passion play in the Middle Ages. An effigy of the corpse of Attis was tied to a sacred pine-tree and decorated [...]. It was then buried in a sepulchre.  But like Jesus, on the third day Attis rose again. In the darkness of the night a light was brought to his open grave [whereupon they found that the god had been reborn. A] Christian tradition, reported by the Church father Lactantius, places the death of Christ on 23 March and his resurrection on 25 March, which coincides exactly with the death and resurrection of Attis..
The Anthesteria, the spring festival of the Mysteries of Dionysus, was another three-day festival, of which one modern authority comments, 'A certain similarity with the sequence of Good Friday and Easter cannot be overlooked.'.
Easter rites observed in Greece, Sicily and southern Italy still bear a striking resemblance to the Mystery rites of Adonis. [...[ In the gospels we are told that Jesus' corpse was 'wrapped in a linen sheet' and anointed [...]. According to Plutarch, a representation of Osiris was also wrapped with linen and anointed with myrrh. Likewise, in the Mysteries of Adonis an image of the corpse of the godman was washed, anointed with spices and wrapped around with linen or wool.. [...]
Plutarch tells us that Osiris [is] said to have descended to hell and then arisen from the dead on the third day. [...] Having resurrected, Jesus ascends to heaven. The Church father Origen refers to Osiris as a young god, who has 'restored to life, and went up to heaven'.'
My summary, p69: In the Mysteries of Adonis it is said that he was also resurrected on the third day], and some of the plays centered on Dionysus also had that god resurrect and ascend on the third day too . It was a popular myth! Many of the same details occur in the Mysteries of Mithras, too , who after his resurrection ascends to heaven on a sun chariot. The same 3-day death and ascension were also told as legendary aspects of stories about Greek sages such as the philosopher Canus (who returned after 3 days and instructed his students in matters of the spirit), and even Pythagorus descended into Hades before re-appearing to his students and then ascending into Heaven.p70: 'Given all these dying, resurrecting and ascending Pagan godmen and sages, it is not surprising to find Celsus indignant at Christian claims that Jesus is unique. He is amazed at the Christians' literal interpretation of what to him are obviously myths, writing,"Are you ignorant of the multitudes who have invented similar tales to lead simple-minded hearers astray? It is said that Zamolix, Pythagorus' servant, convince the Scythians that he had risen from the dead, having hidden himself away in a cave for several years, and what about Pythagoras himself in Italy - or Phampsinitus in Egypt? Now then, who else: What about Orpheus among the Odrysians, Protesilaus in Thessaly and above all Heracles and Theseus? [...] All these risings from the dead [...] doubtless you will freemly admit that these [...] are legends, even as you appear to me; but you will go on to say that your resurrection story, this climax to your tragedy, is believable and noble."[whole quote referenced as 263]”
“The dominant myth in Egypt for over three thousand years was that of the god Osiris and his sister-wife Isis. Of all the Egyptian deities these two were the ones most closely associated with the world of human beings. As a victim and dying god, Osiris shared the human experience of mortality. This fact made him a mythological brother, as it were, of other Middle Eastern dying gods, including Dumuzi, Adonis, Attis, Dionysos, Telipinu, and Jesus. It was through Osiris and these others that humans in various cultures hoped to join the universal process of nature that involved afterlife or rebirth after apparent death. So it was that Osiris was associated with the Nile and its annual revival of the land. [...] And it was Osiris whose revival was reflected in the grain rising from the earth. This was the god of all kinds of fertility. [...] Osiris was the first pharaoh - a king [... and] an example of god become man. As the ruler at the world's beginning, Osiris gave human society - that is to say, Egypt - law and civilization.
[In some stories, Osiris was trapped in a coffin over which a tree grew] tying the god-hero once again to other Middle Eastern figures associated with trees. Adonis, Attis, Dionysos, and Jesus were all in one way or another imprisoned in or on trees. The tree of Osiris, a symbol of renewed potency to come [...]”
"Jealous Gods & Chosen People: The Mythology of the Middle East" by David Leeming (2004)6
Current edition: 2015 Mar 31
Parent page: Human Religions
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(1987, Ed.) The Encyclopedia of Religion. Hardback book. Published by Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, USA. 16 huge volumes. Eliade is editor-in-chief. Entries are alphabetical, so, no page numbers are given in references, just article titles.
(2004, Ed.) Jealous Gods & Chosen People: The Mythology of the Middle East. Hardback book. Published by Oxford University Press.
Mackenzie, Donald A.
(1915) Myths of Babylonia and Assyria. E-book. Amazon Kindle digital edition produced by Sami Sieranoja, Tapio Riikonen and PG Distributed Proofreaders.
Price, Robert M.
(2003) Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition?. Published by Prometheus Books, NY, USA.
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