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Frazer famously made popular the idea of "dying and rising" gods associated with the seasons and vegetation. In the ancient Near East and Mediterranean, common examples have included Dummuzi/Tammuz, Osiris, Attis, and Baal. The notion of a fairly uniform "dying and rising god" archetype popularized by scholars of comparative religion and mythology has come under fire in recent decades, mainly (in my experience) from regional specialists who stress the uniqueness of such gods in their own geographical regions, as well as conservative biblical commentators who don't like this archetype being applied to the Bible (e.g., Jesus).

Is the notion of "dying and rising" gods still valid? Useful? I have my own ideas on this, but would appreciate hearing the views of others in our community here.

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I don't know why, in the discussions of the dying-and-rising god motif, it's always assumed that the natural range of such myths is the ancient Near East and its close neighbors. There are, of course, the famous examples of Odin and Balder in Scandinavian mythology. Some would say that the Odin myth shows Christian influence, but that's begging the question: it starts with the assumption that the Scandinavians could not have their own indigenous dying-and-rising-god myth and argues from there that the myth must be influenced by Christianity. Such arguments are not very convincing.

Another example that hardly anyone ever brings up is the Hindu god Ganesha. Shiva actually cuts off his head, killing him, and then, when faced with an irate Parvati, Shiva's wife and Ganesha's mother, he replaces the severed head with an elephant's and brings Ganesha back to life. That is a clear-cut case of dying-and-rising god if ever there was one.

So no, "dying-and-rising gods" are not dead, not by a long shot, and in fact are not as geographically limited as commonly supposed. The myths don't have to be uniform. They just have to share the features of death and resurrection, either explicitly or symbolically, as a journey to the underworld followed by a return or rescue to the world of the living.

I can't speak to current scholarly fashions; it may be du jour to express skepticism about the validity of mythological archetypes. But though specialists always insist on the significance of atomistic details, they can't diminish the importance of unifying themes. It seems this one is due for a resurrection.

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Not having received an answer to my question here, I decided to write up my own thoughts on it. My explanation is too long to post here, so I posted it on my blog.

In summary, while Frazer had originally oversimplified and overstated his case for dying and rising gods, there was then an overreaction against the idea in the mid to late 20th century, and now I think the pendulum has properly swung back to a middle ground, on the basis of sound scholarly research. Second, while I don't think the dying-and-rising gods motif can explain the origin of the notion of Christ's resurrection in Palestine among his followers, it may have played a role in contributing to the later spread and popularity of Christianity in the Roman empire.

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    I strongly agree with this thesis, although, full disclosure, I was taught by that Dionysus in particular provides the template for this aspect of the Christ myth, with Persephone rounding out the equation in terms of the Eucharist. (Certainly the blessing over the bread and wine is fairly central in Jewish rites, it takes on an entirely new dimension in Christianity.) I don't think it's an accident Paul traveled so extensively in Greece, and the connection with Zagreus/Dionysus probably had a lot to do with the ability to promote the good news of the new Religion in Europe. – DukeZhou Aug 1 '17 at 19:46
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    Per your blog, which I'm still working my way through, I'm a little skeptical of the idea that the Greek tradition does not cast the Dying/Resurrected gods as humans, where both Dionysus and Heracles were demi-gods, similar to Christ. (I mention Heracles per the pyre: What is the meaning of Heracles' self-immolation.) That said, I strongly agree with your distinction of Abrahamic faiths not being preoccupied with the generative cycle, as opposed to most pagan religions, in my experience. – DukeZhou Aug 1 '17 at 19:55
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My feeling, coming from the literary side of the house (which is to say my study of mythology and language is for the purpose of creative endeavor,) is that Frazer's ideas never went away--it was merely the scholarship that was disputed. Serious scholarship is distinct from "poetic truth".

I see Frazer's influence in writers like Eliot, Yeats and Robert Graves, who themselves had a significant impact on 20th century literature.

I saw a staring virgin stand
Where holy Dionysus died,
And tear the heart out of his side.
And lay the heart upon her hand
And bear that beating heart away;
And then did all the Muses sing
Of Magnus Annus at the spring,
As though God's death were but a play.
Source: Two Songs from a Play

The play referenced in the title of the poem is Yeats' The Resurrection. Theologians and scholars can analyze the subject ad infinitum, but from the standpoint of mythology and literature, these views will always be secondary to the work of the great poets, and Yeats is certainly one of those poets who can stand alongside the greatest poets of antiquity. In other words, Yeats contributes to, and expands, the canon. His literary capability and insight, in conjunction with his status, make him eminently qualified to do so.

More lately this influence is strongly seen in creators of mythology such as Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore, who had a similar impact on their mediums as Eliot and Yeats had on poetry. Lovecraft, another author influence by Frazer, produced work that has been widely mythologized in subsequent work. In essence, Lovecraft creates a new mythological canon. These are just a few examples.

Thus

  • The concept never died

It is just as compelling and as relevant today as when Frazer wrote about it.


In a religious context, one way to regard this archetype is as the mythological component, distinct from the ethical component. From this perspective, Jesus' main function as Messiah was the introduction of the new Golden Rule: the love of the other as the self.

(This idea was presented by Hillel, and subsequently reinforced by Akiva in the Common Era, with the idea that "the rest is [merely] commentary". In those cases, they were referring to the Old Testament, but the same case can, and has, been made for Christianity.)

Post-Nash the Golden Rule has has found mathematical validation in the superrational strategy, liberating the ethical component from the mythological.

Yet I still think the decline/generation model is extremely relevant--Game Theory may be cast as the mathematical analysis of equilibria and cyclic models are quite important. Economies, cultures and civilizations, not just nature, run on cycles.

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