Dying and Rising Gods (Lee W. Bailey, 2009)

NOTE: The following article is taken from the Encyclopedia of Psychology & Religion:


An ancient text says, as James Frazer worded it, “Heracles on his journey to Libya had been slain by Typhon and brought to life again by Iolaus, who held a quail under his nose: the dead god snuffed at the bird and revived” (Frazer 1922: section 224). This is a short version of the many accounts of gods and semi-gods who were said to have died and been resurrected, well documented in the eastern Mediterranean region. This one is associated with the migration of quails that descend in hordes on Palestine/Israel in spring to breed.

Heracles and his nephew, Iolaus. 1st century BC mosaic from the Anzio Nymphaeum, Rome
Heracles and his nephew, Iolaus. 1st century BC mosaic from the Anzio Nymphaeum, Rome

James Frazer

The classicist James Frazer (Cambridge University), in his 1890–1915 encyclopedic The Golden Bough, collected a mass of reports of ancient authors and nineteenth-century travelers about archaic rituals, myths, and traditions. It is a classic compendium of fascinating material, highlighting the dying and rising god theme, but he organized it according to lax, speculative nineteenth-century standards.

Frazer’s overall thesis was that archaic magic gave way to religion, which has now given way to science. This theme was soon proven wrong when twentieth-century religion continued to flourish alongside science. He also practiced the risky speculation of armchair scholars, by hypothesizing grand organizing themes without adequate study of the details of each culture (he traveled only to Italy and Greece). This conflict between those exploring large universalist themes and those restricting research to culturally unique specifics has continued and is active in the discussion of the “Dying and Rising Gods,” which was the most controversial schema that Frazer proposed.

Lemminkäinen's Mother, an 1897 painting by Akseli Gallen-Kallela: She is shown having just gathered his broken body from the dark river.
Lemminkäinen’s Mother, an 1897 painting by Akseli Gallen-Kallela: She is shown having just gathered his broken body from the dark river.

Frazer reviewed the ancient texts and recent studies of eastern Mediterranean gods and demigods such as Tammuz, Adonis, Dido, Hercules, Melquarth, Attis, Marsyas, Hyacinth, Osiris, Dionysus, Demeter, and Persephone. He interpreted their deaths and resurrections primarily as primitive magic carried over into religions of deities, having the purpose of assuring the fertility of the earth’s reproductive systems. Not understanding the natural processes of growth, he proposed, these ancients believed that they had to magically help fertility happen by imitating the seasonal process, thereby facilitating it. So the death (or descent into the underworld) of a god or goddess was symbolized in part by a ritual of planting seeds, and the resurrection was an image of plants sprouting and animals being born.

"Odin's last words to Baldr" (1908) by W. G. Collingwood.
“Odin’s last words to Baldr” (1908) by W. G. Collingwood.

Many variations developed, including bloody sacrifices, such as the initiates into the cult of Cybele imitating her beloved Attis by castrating themselves and throwing their blood (life fluid) and testicles onto a statue of the goddess, apparently to assure her impregnation and subsequent fertility in the plant and animal world. Attis was said to be born of the virgin Nana, and initiates were said to be baptized with the blood of a bull (the taurobolium) (Frazer 1922, pp. 403–413). Frazer interpreted this all as promoting fertility among hungry people groping with agricultural practices in a world they saw as filled with spirits. The ancient high death rate may have also been in the background. Women were reported to grieve the death of Adonis, plant gardens of Adonis, and celebrate when the seeds sent up shoots (Frazer 1922, pp. 376–403). He notes an Egyptian inscription that shows the dead Osiris lying prostrate, rising up and standing with Isis (Frazer 1922, p. 436; drawings in Mettinger 2001, pp. 171–174). He also argues that in addition to vegetation magic (naturist), some resurrections were intended to be social, assuring the continuation of the life force of the king (euhemerist), and that some myths (e.g., Osiris) were intended to assure eternal life.

Cybele & Attis
Cybele & Attis

Now all this is fascinating, but Frazer has been accused of excessive speculation, especially in the category of the Dying and Rising Gods as symbols of vegetative growth. Several scholars have rejected his broad universalist category and stressed the particular differences among the accounts of the gods, semi-gods, or humans and textual difficulties, although some scholars support the Dying and Rising Gods theme (Mettinger 2001, p. 215; Fig. 1).


Jonathan Z. Smith

The critical particularist reaction by Jonathan Z. Smith (University of Chicago) in 1987 (2005, 2nd ed.), in Eliade’s Encyclopedia of Religion, swept aside this Dying and Rising Gods typology as “largely a misnomer based on imaginative reconstructions and exceeding late or highly ambiguous texts” (Smith 2005, p. 2535). Smith holds the data to strict standards of empirical historical research and finds it lacking. He argues that some of these gods or semi-gods are said to disappear, not die. His typology is that some deities return but have not died and that other gods died but do not return. His thesis is that “There is no unambiguous instance in the history of religions of a dying and rising deity” (Smith 2005, p. 2535).

In one text about the Syrian/ Babylonian/ Greek god/ hero Adonis, for example, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Adonis is killed by a boar, but does not rise from death [except as the anemone flower – Book 10: line 737]. Apollodorus’ Library (III. xiv. 4) describes Adonis’ alternation between the upperworld and the underworld, but, Smith interprets, this offers no explicit suggestion of death and rebirth (Smith 2005, pp. 2535–2536). Smith (like some Christians) suggests that late post-Christian myths of Dying and Rising Gods were likely influenced by Jesus’ resurrection. Attis, for example, in a late text, is said to be resurrected, but Smith says he is not here a dying and rising deity, nor is he a deity at all, but a human (Smith 2005, p. 2536). Other myths of resurrection, Smith argues, fail to fit his strict category, such as Baal and Marduk. He says that the text so-called Death and Resurrection of Bel-Marduk is most likely an Assyrian political parody (Smith 2005, p. 2537). Osiris, he argues, cannot be said to be risen, “in the sense required by the dying and rising pattern,” since his resurrection after dismemberment sent him to be the Lord of the underworld land of the dead, imparting a new permanent life to the deceased (Smith 2005, p. 2538). Thus, he defines resurrection as literally returning to mortal earthly life, excluding continuation as plants or in an immortal state, and rejects the motif of going to the underworld and returning as symbolic of death and resurrection.

Marduk, the Sumerian AMAR (“calf”) of UTU (the sun), that is, the great Son of God who overcomes death through resurrection.
Marduk, the Sumerian AMAR (“calf”) of UTU (the sun), that is, the great Son of God who overcomes death through resurrection.

Smith is right in pointing our many discontinuities among the supposedly dying and rising gods. The vegetation gods, such as Adonis, differ from the royal kingship gods and the gods of immortality after life, such as Osiris, who combines all three types. Smith’s particular readings are rooted in his empirical hermeneutic and logically astute analyses, inspired by empiricism’s distaste for speculation. But Smith’s readings are selectively speculative and too literalist for such symbolic literature. This contrasts with a symbolic, more phenomenological hermeneutic, which would read important images differently. For example, the underworld is clearly the ancient abode of the dead, and Adonis is relegated by Zeus to spend half his year there with Persephone (goddess of death) and half above ground with Aphrodite (goddess of love) (Apollodorus III, xiv, 4). This seems clearly to symbolize a dying and rising god able to appear on earth, yet partake in immortal forces that overcome ordinary death (athanatoi), thus being able to be resurrected, although perhaps not in a literal earthly body.

Aphrodite and Adonis, ca. 410 BC, Louvre
Aphrodite and Adonis, ca. 410 BC, Louvre

Smith focuses on themale dying and rising gods and minimizes the importance of the goddesses. For example, an Inanna text that clearly states that she is a dying and rising goddess: “My father. . . He gave me descent into the underworld. He gave me ascent from the underworld” (Wolkstein and Kramer 1983, p. 16). Inanna/Ishtar is clearly the dying and rising goddess (c.f. Persephone) in this Sumerian/Akkadian tradition, and seeking evidence primarily among the male figures distracts from the feminine traditions.While she descended into the underworld, life above stopped (“Since Ishtar has gone down to the Land of no Return, The bull springs not upon the cow, the ass impregnates no the jenny. . .” lines 6–7), and when she returned, it began again with resurrection (“May the dead rise and smell the incense” last line, Pritchard 1958, pp. 80–85).

Ishtar holding her symbol, Louvre Museum
Ishtar holding her symbol, Louvre Museum

Smith seems loathe to accept the idea that return from the underworld is a meaningful symbol of rising from the dead. But in ancient myth, the underworld is commonly the abode of the dead, and rising from it commonly symbolizes return to life on earth or the place of immortality. “Rising” from death need not mean an empirical return to normal bodily life but could easily mean a more poetic, mystical passage of the spirit of the ancestors into the upperworld, which was a common theme in ancient Egyptian and many other religions. Smith focuses on Ishtar’s lover Tammuz and, with a reading claiming a mistranslation, says that “in the Akkadian version, Tammuz is dead and remains so” (Smith 2005, p. 2539). Yet the complete reference at the end of the Sumerian and Akkadian texts gives a different picture. When Ishtar returns to the upperworld from the land of the dead, she says:

As for Tammuz, the lover of her youth, Wash him with pure water, anoint him with sweet oil; Clothe him with a red garment, let him play on a flute of lapis, Let courtesans turn [his] mood. . . On the day when Tammuz comes up to me, When with him the lapis flute (and) the carnelian ring come up to me, When with him the wailing men and the wailing women come up to me, May the dead rise and smell the incense (Pritchard 1958, p. 85).

Tammuz (Sumerian Dumuzi)
Tammuz (Sumerian Dumuzi)

On the surface, Ishtar/Innana’s successful battle with Erishkigal, Queen of the Dead, and return to the upperworld with her deceased lover Tammuz/Dumuzi is the symbolic cause of the conquest of death resulting in resurrection. To focus on the death of Tammuz, saying that here he is only being “treated as a corpse,” and to highlight the ritual wailing about his loss is to ignore this clear reference to his subsequent return to life, as in the reawakening the erotic instinct of reproduction. (“Let courtesans turn his mood.”) Smith simply refuses to read numerous symbols of resurrection as meaningful. To privilege an earlier or later text over another version does not necessarily grant it more authority. Nor does it make sense to claim that Dumuzi/Tammuz cannot return to life, without sending a replacement to the land of the dead, refuting the deity’s rising to life for half the year; it simply denies the importance of the “rising” in the life-half of the cycle of the deity’s tradition (Smith 2005, p. 3190).

Smith’s readings of the Dying and Rising Gods texts is a useful re-examination, but finally a one-sided, narrowly speculative, overly rationalistic hermeneutic, curiously suppressing the symbolic and poetic sensibility basic to religions. “Rising” may be read as a poetic expression of some form of overcoming death, not just the literal return to a human body. The return of a god from the land of the dead to a spiritual realm associated with the resurrection of the human dead need not be discarded as irrelevant in contrast to a demand that the definition of a rising god includes returning to an empirical human body on earth. Smith does this with Osiris, who returns from death to become not a human, but the Lord of immortal souls, with the repeated ritual formula clearly indicating resurrection: “Rise up, you have not died” (Smith 2005, p. 2538).

Serapis, a syncretistic god created by the (Greek) Pharaoh Ptolemy to unite Hellenistic and Egyptian religions.
Serapis, a syncretistic god created by the (Greek) Pharaoh Ptolemy to unite Hellenistic and Egyptian religions.

Tryggve Mettinger

A recent study by the Swedish Hebrew Bible scholar Tryggve Mettinger (University of Lund), The Riddle of Resurrection: Dying and Rising Gods in the Middle East (2001), does not accept Smith’s conclusions. In a careful textual and linguistic analysis, he accepts more images showing the validity of a variety of dying and rising gods. He does not want to hypostatize a specific type of deity but stresses the different types of gods with similar patterns (Mettinger, p. 218). He concludes, for example, as pictured in the Egyptian Dendara Temple of Osiris inscriptions, that Osiris “both died and rose . . . he rose to continued life in the Netherworld. . .” (Mettinger 2001, p. 175). In response to the idea that some ancient texts may have been read through a Christian lens as implying resurrection, he reminds us that several gods are said to die and return long before the Christian era: Dumuzi, Baal, Melquarth, Adonis, and Osiris.


The major question whether early Christians borrowed the theme of the dying and rising god in interpreting their experiences of Jesus is obviously the critical issue. Frazer puts the question in his boldly speculative way:

When we reflect how often the Church has skillfully contrived to plant the seeds of the new faith on the old stock of paganism, we may surmise that the Easter celebration of the dead and risen Christ was grafted upon a similar celebration of the dead and risen Adonis. . . (Frazer 1922: section 217).

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Now it is true that Christianity, like many other religions, did borrow many themes from other religions, such as baptism and virgin birth. But many religions commonly borrow themes from earlier faiths. The Hebrew term for “my Lord,” Adonai, is very similar to the name of the ancient Phonecian/ Syrian/ Greek divinity, Adonis, having the same linguistic root. Mettinger says that dying and rising deities were well known in Israel in New Testament times. Adonis was known in the Hebrew Bible to be “beloved by women” (Bible, Daniel 11:37). The earlier resurrection of Melquarth-Heracles was celebrated in Tyre (where Jesus visited – Bible, Mark 7:24–30).

Votive statues from the Temple of Melqart in Cadiz
Votive statues from the Temple of Melqart in Cadiz

But looking at particulars, there are some differences with Jesus. The earlier figures were legendary ancient divinities, whereas Jesus was a living human. For the disciples and Paul, Jesus’ resurrection was a one-time historical event, not an annual, mythic ritual tied to fertility or kingship. And Jesus was more an ethical prophet than the ancient vegetation or royalty deities. There is no evidence of the ancient dying and rising gods suffering to forgive sins, as was said of Jesus. There also is no specific evidence that Jesus’ resurrection account drew on ancient traditions (Mettinger, p. 221). Do such particulars negate the overlapping cross-cultural themes?

Vision of Apostle Paul
Vision of Apostle Paul

Symbolism and Depth Psychology

Psychologically, resurrection is highly symbolic. It incorporates themes needed by many to deal with the terrors of death, as Carl Jung says, describing the [divine] hero who conquers death and brings back the promise of eternal life. Like Osiris, he/she psychologically becomes the “greater personality in every individual (like the Johannine Christ), viz. His teleios anthropos, the complete (or perfect) man, the self” (Jung, CW 18: para. 1567). In Jesus’ time, the ancient gods had lost their power to the superficial, concretized state religion of Rome that divinized the Caesar for political reasons. A similar situation exists today, Jung says. The authority of traditional religions has been weakened by empirical science and power politics, and there is a need for a spiritual counterbalance to awaken the divine self in each person, a force that takes the soul beyond the vicissitudes of the life-death struggles of time and space. The Dying and Rising Gods theme must be read with depth psychology’s poetic eye.

To deny the significance of this theme is to mistakenly restrict religious interpretation to the secular, rationalistic, calculating, logic-chopping hermeneutic. To affirm its poetic, symbolic, psychological significance is to recall the ancient assumption that dynamic infinity transcends worldly existence and can overcome earthly limits. We could also expand the dying and rising theme to embrace the “one deep river, many new springs” image of old religions as containers of transcendence that contain valuable archetypal themes and successful new “spiritualities” that rise with renewing archetypal themes, now blended globally with new relevance for a new era. We are seeing this with the expanding Western embrace of meditative Buddhism, the feminist and goddess movements, and the newly emerging ecological spirituality.


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