Easter and the Dying Man-God Motif


Let me break down most celebrated of Christian holidays: Easter

The name “Easter” originated with the names of an ancient Goddess and Gods. The Venerable Bede, (672-735 CE.) a Christian scholar, first asserted in his book De Ratione Temporum that Easter was named after a Germanic fertility goddess, Eostra. [1] She was the Great Mother Goddess of the Saxon people in Northern Europe and was said to have owned an egg-laying rabbit. Her name was derived from the ancient word for spring: “Eastre.”

Similar Goddesses were known by other names in ancient cultures around the Mediterranean, and were celebrated in the springtime. Some were:

  • Aphrodite from ancient Cyprus
  • Ashtoreth from ancient Israel
  • Astarte from ancient Greece
  • Demeter from Mycenae
  • Hathor from ancient Egypt
  • Ishtar from Assyria
  • Kali from India
  • Ostara a Norse Goddess of fertility.

A more generally accepted theory is that “Easter” comes from the German word Ostern, which comes from the Norse Eostur for “spring” and this leads us our next item.

Vernal Equinox (Spring!)

Translated literally, equinox means “equal night.” Because the Sun is positioned above the equator, day and night are about equal in length all over the world during the equinoxes.

Many Pagan religions in the Mediterranean area had a major seasonal day of religious celebration at or following the Vernal Equinox. In “About 200 BCE mystery cults began to appear in Rome just as they had earlier in Greece. Most notable was the Cybele cult centered on Vatican hill …Associated with the Cybele cult was that of her lover, Attis (the older Tammuz, Osiris, Dionysus, or Orpheus under a new name). He was a god of ever-reviving vegetation. Born of a virgin, he died and was reborn annually. The festival began as a day of blood on Black Friday and culminated after three days in a day of rejoicing over the resurrection.” The festival was called Megalensia and was celebrated each year during the period MAR-22 to MAR-25. [2]

In Greek mythology, Persephone descends into the underworld to reside with Hades, leading to the death of winter. Her re-mergence out of the underworld represented the springtime renewal of life on Earth – thus, Persephone’s resurrection symbolized eternal life, precisely as did that of Jesus and the Egyptian god Osiris.

Comprising the entombment for three days, the descent into the underworld, and the resurrection, the spring celebration of “Easter” represents the period of the vernal equinox, when the sun is “hung on a cross” composed of the days and nights of equal length. After a touch-and-go battle for supremacy with the night or darkness, the sun emerges triumphant, being “born again” or “resurrected” as a “man,” moving towards “his” full strength at the summer solstice.

It is noteworthy that even older scholarship reflects the knowledge of the strengthening of the sun at Easter, as exemplified by Rev. George W. Lemon, who in his English Etymology, published in 1783, gives the meaning of “Easter” as:

that time or on that day, the Sun of Righteousness arose with healing in his wings, like the sun all glorious in the east… [3]

The “Sun of Righteousness” refers to Jesus Christ, as purportedly prophesied in the last book before the New Testament, Malachi (4:2). Christ’s identification as the “Sun of Righteousness,” the placement of his “resurrection” at Easter, and his association with the “sun all glorious in the east,” all reflect his solar role, serving as earmarks of Jesus himself being a sun god. Indeed, “Easter” or the vernal equinox truly represents the resurrection of the “Light of the World” (John 8:12) – the sun – bringing with it the fertility of spring.

In his extensive analysis in The Golden Bough regarding the “dying and rising gods,” Sir James George Frazer concluded that the story of Easter as a time of rebirth, renewal and resurrection of life in general could be found in the myths of non-Christian deities such as the Greco-Phrygian god Attis and the Greco-Syrian god Adonis, among others. [4]

The Dying God

Sacrifice takes mythological form in the many stories of the dying god. This motif exists outside of the Indo-European tradition as well as within it. In Sumer, Inanna herself and her consort Dumuzi enact a ritual of death and descent to the underworld, as do the goddess Hainuwele in Ceram, several African deities, and the great sacred god-king-priest Osiris in Egypt. Attis, the son of the Great Goddess Cybele of Phrygian Anatolia, was a dying god. In Europe there are several dying gods or gods who undergo a ritual of death and renewal. The Norse god Odin hangs himself on the World Tree to learn the eternal truth of the runes. The Romans imported the god Attis from Phrygia and practiced his rites of death and renewal in the spring. In Slavic Belorussia and Russia we find the dying and reborn Iarilo, “god of heavenly light,” who rides a white horse and wears a crown of flowers. Two pre-Christian dying-god myths stand out in Europe. These are the myths of the Norse god Balder—the “beautiful” god—and the Greek god Dionysus.

Dionysus was the son of the supreme Greek god Zeus and Persephone. In the Persephone version of the myth [there are many versions], Dionysus was eaten by the Titans at the request of the jealous Hera. They tore him to pieces and boiled the gobbets in a cauldron. In the version of this dismemberment myth, Dionysus is returned to life under the care of Persephone and/or Demeter [Mother and daughter are often interchangeable in some of these myths]. There is a strong and clear connection, between the Dionysus-Persephone/Demeter relationship and the story of the resurrection god Osiris and his sister-wife Isis in Egypt. In the tradition of Sir James Frazer, Robert Graves, and other, the meal of the Titans and the ministrations of the goddesses can be seen as the indication of a ritual in which a king is sacrificed and his body fed to his followers as sacred food.

The possibility of regeneration of and rebirth that the “savior” Dionysus represents is, of course, an important path to the story of Jesus as a resurrected dying man-god, a story that would eventually give new life to the ancient Indo-European theme of the necessary sacrifice and so turn the older “religion” of Greece into “mythology”.

The dying-god motif is closely related to the even more universal myth of the hero’s descent into the underworld. Nearly always the dying god’s or hero’s apparent death results in some kind of rebirth or resurrection. Osiris, revived by his wife Isis, returned as his son Horus and as grain and as the rejuvenated land after the annual Nilotic floods. 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 Melgart, 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.

The Middle Eastern version of the dying- god motif is fully developed 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. [5]

In any event, the deity reborn or raised up at the Vernal Equinox or springtime is a recurring theme not representing a “historical” personage but, rather, a natural phenomenon, i.e., Spring!

Happy Easter and thanks for reading,

  1. Bede; “The Reckoning of Time” (Liverpool University Press – Translated Texts for Historians), 1999.
  2. Berry, Gerald L.; “Religions of the World”, Barnes & Noble, January 1, 1956.
  3. Lemon George William; “English etymology”, 1783
  4. Frazer, James George; “The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion”, The Macmillian Company; 1st edition (1951).
  5. Leeming, David; “The Oxford Companion to World Mythology”, Oxford University Press, 2005

4 responses to “Easter and the Dying Man-God Motif”

  1. Very good article …
    You know a lot of religion…
    Thank for share…

  2. I’d like to second the thanks. A picture says a thousand words, and saves alot of google searching. =)

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