Friday, 17 February 2017

Dying and rising gods: are they a thing?

What are dying and rising gods? Well, if you select a bunch of ancient mythological stories where gods apparently die then come back to life, you can (if you want) define those gods as a class based on a common pattern. I'll call them 'DRGs' for short. DRGs have been around since Frazer's The golden bough (1st edition 1890): the usual suspects are figures like Adonis, Osiris, Dionysus, Attis, and of course Jesus.

Osiris: fresco from the tomb of Sennedjem, Deir al-Medina, Egypt, 13th cent. BCE (source: Caution: Osiris is not a dying and rising god, he's a dying god. See below.

These days DRGs are especially hot stuff among Jesus mythicists. These are folks who argue that the central figure of Christianity is derivative, plagiarised, and distorted from a variety of other mythologies. The payoff, presumably, is that it licenses anyone to critique present-day Christianity for the same flaws. So DRGs aren't a neutral anthropological category for studying the past: they're a hot political weapon.

Here's a fairly well-known mythicist, Richard Carrier:
... almost all the dying-and-rising gods award their followers a handsome afterlife with a baptism through which the follower emulates the death and resurrection of the savior. To claim this isn’t astonishingly similar to Jesus is simply lying at this point.
-- comments on a debate about the historicity of Jesus, Oct. 2016
Notice how Carrier gestures at 'all the dying-and-rising gods' without naming any? For good reason. Classifying Frazer's canon of DRGs as 'rising' would be tenuous, to put it mildly. Carrier knows that if he actually names names, he'll have to add pages and pages of provisos and caveats.

Setting mythicists aside, in the last 50 years the dominant tendency has been to reject DRGs as a non-category. The work of Jonathan Z. Smith (1969, 1987), a scholar of the history of religion, has led many people to reject Frazer. Smith has some good points, but there has been a qualified counter-reaction to him, too. The most prominent current work on the subject, Tryggve Mettinger's The riddle of resurrection (2001), is more reserved -- but there's still plenty to disagree with: I'm not going to draw on Mettinger much here.

The problem with DRGs is that the entire concept was designed specifically with Jesus in mind. If your methods for deciding who is and is not a DRG revolve around 'In what ways are they like/unlike Jesus?', then of course you're going to end up seeing 'death and resurrection' elements behind every bush. You're also going to end up paying less attention to ways in which they are related or unrelated to one another.

Certainly there are gods who can be said to have died and risen. If you really want, you can declare that that's a pattern. But you can find patterns practically anywhere you look. Humans are really good at seeing patterns in noise.
And (Pythagoras) engraved an epigram on the tomb, titling it 'Pythagoras, to Zeus', which began:

      Here lies dead Zan, whom they call Zeus.
-- Porphyry, Life of Pythagoras 17
This snippet refers to a supposed tomb of Zeus on Crete. Yes, Zeus himself. The tomb is almost certainly a fiction, derived from Euhemerus' Sacred history (early 3rd century BCE), but it was widely believed to have existed. Many modern scholars, too, have been lured into believing the tomb was a real tourist attraction, even if not a real cult site.
On Zeus' tomb, see Winiarczyk 2013: 33-41. Winiarczyk's list of ancient testimony (nn. 81, 82, 83) includes '23 pagan writers (14 Greek and 9 Roman), 28 Christians (19 Greek and 9 Roman) as well as 19 later authors (16 Byzantine, two Roman and one Syriac).' Testimony appears only later than Euhemerus, beginning with Callimachus Hymn 1.8-9 (1st half of 3rd cent. BCE) and Dionysius Scytobrachion (mid-3rd cent. BCE, reported in Diodorus 3.61.2). The tomb is variously placed on Mount Ida (Varro, Porphyry, Cyril), Mount Dicte (Nonnus), or at Knossos (Malalas).

And yet, funnily enough, I've never heard anyone suggesting that Jesus was plagiarised from Euhemerean Zeus. That isn't because Euhemerean Zeus wasn't a DRG, it's because Zeus doesn't fit our preconceptions about what a parallel to Jesus ought to look like. In Zeus' case it's blindingly obvious that it's a fringe belief, and more importantly, the resemblance is an isolated motif: it doesn't represent any systematic, deep commonality between the two figures. (We also have a lot more information about Zeus than about any of the others, which means it's harder to get away with misinterpreting what we do know.)

A fairly typical catalogue of imagined DRGs

The truth is a lot muddier than either Carrier or Smith would like. It's at least true that DRGs are rarer than most people think, and they're not remotely uniform. Best practice is going to be: (1) pay attention to ancient testimony about syncretism; and (2) think of a better set of categories for gods than just 'DRG = similar to Jesus, non-DRG = dissimilar to Jesus'.

Syncretism is when two gods are merged in some way. I'll use it in an extended sense, to mean any of: (1) one god being completely absorbed into another (e.g. Selene being absorbed into Artemis); (2) two separate gods being equated without merging fully (e.g. Jupiter = Zeus = Amun); (3) a motif being transferred or copied from one god to another. For example, the story of Orpheus getting torn to shreds reappears in one variant of Dionysus, in a poem attributed to Orpheus. But the two aren't equated with one another anywhere. On the other hand, the Orphic Dionysus does get equated with the Egyptian god Osiris in one late source.

And here's a sample taxonomy of 'DRGs':
  • Gods who die
    Examples: Osiris (Egyptian/Syrian), Adonis (Greek/Syrian), Castor + Polydeuces (Greek/Latin), Attis (Phrygian/Lydian)
  • Gods who die once and return to life once
    Examples: Inanna (Babylonian), Baal (Ugaritic), Telipinu (Hittite), Theseus (Greek), Orphic Dionysus (Greek), Jesus (Hebrew/Greek)
  • Time-sharing gods, i.e. gods who spend part of the year in the world of the dead, and part either in heaven or on earth
    Examples: Dumuzi and his sister (Babylonian), Adonis (Greek/Syrian), Persephone (Greek), Castor + Polydeuces (Greek/Latin)
(Frazer calls Dumuzi 'Tammuz', the Hebrew form of his name: he pops up in the Bible once at Ezekiel 8:14.)

Now, these categories aren't rigid. There are loads of things that mess them up:
  • There are overlaps: some dying gods are also time-sharing gods. But not all of them.
  • Things also get messy if we take ritual context into account. For example: for the deaths of Baal or Asclepius, we don't know of any ritual context; in the cases of Adonis and Osiris we know only of ritual contexts, with no external narratives.
  • Things also get messy if we take into account other factors like whether our sources link the stories to fertility. For example, when Telipinu disappears into the ground, barley and wheat stop thriving, and farm animals stop reproducing. We see comparable elements in Inanna + Dumuzi, but not in the cases of Castor + Polydeuces or Jesus. The case of Adonis is unclear.
  • Smith and Mettinger tend to get bogged down in whether a given divinity is really a god, or just a hero. Personally, I think this isn't a valuable distinction. But it's another factor that can mess up the categories, if you want.
This is why it's essential to pay attention to what the sources tell us about syncretisms. Which gods get equated with which in ancient sources? And who is giving us that equation: is the equation part and parcel of cult practice, or is it imposed by someone outside that religious context?

We can't possibly do an exhaustive study of all these gods, but let's at least take a look at the three that I think are the most difficult: Adonis, Osiris, and Dionysus.

Adonis relief, Rome, 118-125 CE
(source: Brill's New Pauly)


Adonis appears first in the Greek world. In the 7th-6th centuries BCE he pops up in fragments of the Catalogue of Women, Sappho, and Epimenides. The earliest account of his full story comes from an epic poem, Panyassis' Heraclea, where he is a mortal Assyrian prince who becomes the object of a romantic dispute between Persephone and Aphrodite. The dispute gets resolved. Later, Adonis is killed by a boar while hunting. The end. No resurrection.
References: Catalogue of Women fr. 139 Merkelbach-West (7th-6th cent. BCE); Sappho frs. 58, 140a, 168 Lobel-Page (early 6th cent.); Epimenides fr. 57 Bernabé (late 6th cent.?); Panyassis fr. 27 Bernabé (2nd half of 5th cent.).

No later sources for the Adonis story add a resurrection. However, some sources relating to the Adonis cult point in that direction. He's regularly depicted as dividing the year between Persephone (in the underworld) and Aphrodite (in heaven), but a couple of late sources state that he continues to do this after death: so in some contexts, at least, he's a 'time-sharing' DRG.
Adonis time-sharing after death: Orphic Hymn 56.8-11 (ca. 2nd cent. CE?); Cyril of Alexandria Comm. on Isaiah lxx.441.3-19 (late 4th cent.).

Some DRG-hunters have laid emphasis on a passage in Lucian, which describes an Adonis festival where he is mourned as dead, but then the next day the celebrants parade a figurine of him into the open air and 'they say allegorically' (μυθολογέουσι) that he is alive. That carries no weight by itself: Lucian is a satirist, a master of blending biting satire with pure farce; in addition, his description isn't much like what we know of the older Adonis cult at Athens.
Lucian On the Syrian goddess 6 (2nd cent. CE); similarly Origen Selecta in Ezechiel 800a Migne.

Smith thinks that's the earliest sign of Adonis' time-sharing returning to life, but he's wrong. Half a millennium earlier, we have Theocritus (3rd century BCE) telling us about Adonis' annual time-sharing, and not between Hades and heaven but between Hades and the world of the living:
λύσασαι δὲ κόμαν καὶ ἐπὶ σφυρὰ κόλπον ἀνεῖσαι
στήθεσι φαινομένοις λιγυρᾶς ἀρξεύμαθ' ἀοιδᾶς·
'ἕρπεις, ὦ φίλ' Ἄδωνι, καὶ ἐνθάδε κεἰς Ἀχέροντα
ἡμιθέων, ὡς φαντί, μονώτατος. ...'

We'll undo our hair, let our bodice hang down to the ankles,
and with our chests exposed we'll begin the clear song:
'O dear Adonis, you are absolutely the only demigod who comes
both here and to Acheron, they say ...'
-- Theocritus Idyll 15.134-7
This is Theocritus' poetic rendering of a ritual lament in the Adonis festival at Alexandria, Egypt. We don't have anything similar for Adonis in Athens. But it appears that the Alexandrian Adonis, at least, was understood to be time-sharing between the afterlife and the world of the living.

Now to complicate things. Since this motif is missing in Athenian evidence, it looks like some elements of Egyptian and Syrian Adonis worship were adapted from rites relating to Osiris. After Lucian's description of the Adonia at Byblos, he immediately goes on to state that there's a question over whether this rite is actually about Adonis or Osiris. There's a similar question over the Alexandrian Adonis -- here's Theocritus' song again:
And in the morning, with the dew, we'll come together
and bear him outside, towards the waves splashing on the shore
-- Theocritus Idyll 15.132-3 (see also scholion ad loc.)
The practice of a procession to throw a figurine of the god into the sea is better attested for the cult of Osiris than that of Adonis. It makes most sense to understand this motif being transferred from Osiris cult after the Adonis cult had already migrated to the east. Obviously Osiris is where it's all happening, so let's turn to him now.


In Egyptian myth the god Osiris is killed, and his body is dismembered and the parts separated all over Egypt. Isis then gathers the body parts together and reassembles them. They have sex and bear a son, Horus. Later, Osiris becomes judge of the dead.

Except there's a crucial gap here. Isis has sex with Osiris' dead corpse. He doesn't come to life.

Isis, in bird-form, has sex with Osiris. Doesn't he look lively!
(Relief from mortuary temple of Seti I, ca. 1279 BCE; source: Wikipedia)

All over the web you'll the above image, and others like it, described as Isis 'reviving' Osiris. Well, ahem, I guess that's kind of true: getting his corpse to cooperate in impregnating her involves a very specific kind of reanimation. (Honestly, these people that say she's 'fanning life' into him ... what does it look like she's sitting on?)

To be fair, there is a set of Ptolemaic reliefs at Dendara where Isis descends upon Osiris' erect penis, then Osiris rises up from his bier, makes a boat journey, and is given an ankh. You could be excused for interpreting this as 'resurrection' ...

Reliefs from Osiris chapel (1st cent. BCE), temple of Hathor, Dendara. (1) Isis about to land on Osiris' erect penis to impregnate herself; (2) Osiris arises from his bier; (3) Osiris travels in a boat to the netherworld, and on arrival is presented with an ankh. (Source: Mettinger 2001: 173-4. Images are reversed where necessary to make a left-to-right narrative.)

... unless you're aware that in Egyptian iconography it's dead people that carry ankhs. The ankh symbolically completes Osiris' journey into the afterlife. This isn't a dead god coming back to life, it's a god becoming good and properly dead.

Osiris' role as judge in the afterlife isn't that of a living god who just happens to live in the world of the dead: he's a dead god among the dead. The story of his body parts being dispersed is a paradigm for the spread of Osiris-worship all over Egypt; the story of Isis gathering and reassembling them is a paradigm for the process of mummification. That's Osiris' role in extant textual material, too. In funerary rites the deceased is regularly given Osiris as a forename: in the pyramid texts the pharaoh Unis becomes 'Osiris-Unis', Teti becomes 'Osiris-Teti', and so on. That's the context for prayers like the following, which at first glance seem to talk about 'Osiris' coming to 'life' --
Atum, this Osiris here is your son, whom you have made revive and live;
he will live and this Unis will live, he will not die and this Unis will not die ...
-- pyramid of Unis (5th Dynasty, 25th cent. BCE); Allen and Der Manuelian 2005: 34
This formula, repeated and addressed to a different god each time, isn't about Osiris coming to life: it's about Unis (now Osiris-Unis) transitioning to the afterlife. Osiris' involvement is because of the central place of his death in the Egyptian understanding of death.

Osiris is a dying god, not a DRG. And that makes perfect sense for the god in charge of the afterlife. But that didn't prevent Osiris from being equated with some time-sharing gods, as we've already seen -- and also with some DRGs, as we'll see next.


Even today you may hear people repeating that Dionysus was a late addition to the Greek pantheon, imported from Thrace. That's because that's what the classical-era Greeks believed. It ain't true, and we've known that since about 1960. That's when Dionysus started popping up in Bronze Age Linear B tablets (1, 2, 3), which makes him one of the very earliest-attested Olympians. The fact that his cult existed all over Greece also supports his claim to be a divinity of long standing.

In the standard story, Dionysus is born twice (and doesn't die): once from his mortal mother Semele, then again from Zeus' thigh -- Semele dies when Zeus reveals himself to her in his full glory, so Zeus has to think of something quickly to save the unborn child. Dionysus goes on to become the god of wine and drama, and to play an important but nebulous role in mystery cults.

However, there are a couple of fringe variants of Dionysus who do die. In particular, an Orphic variant of Dionysus dies in a mythical episode called the Titanomachy, the battle between the Olympian gods and the Titans. The best known version is in Diodorus --
The mythographers have reported a tradition that he also had a third birth: they say the god was born of Zeus and Demeter, and that he was torn apart by the Giants and boiled down. His body-parts were reassembled by Demeter and he was born anew, from scratch; and they link this story to various natural forces.
-- Diodorus of Sicily 3.62.3 (= Orphica fr. 59.iii Bernabé)
You'll notice Diodorus makes the Giants the culprits, not the Titans: Titans and Giants regularly get mixed up in Orphic sources, though they're not compatible. (The Titanomachy belongs near the very beginning of the chronology of myth; the Gigantomachy comes much later, in the time of Heracles.) Here's a summary of our sources on the death of Orphic Dionysus:

fr. 59.i fr. 59.iii fr. 59.v fr. 327.ii
Philodemus On piety 16.1 Gomp. Diodorus 3.62.3 Servius on Georgics 1.166 Proclus Hymns 7.11-15
cause of death torn apart (διασπάω) torn apart (διασπάω), boiled (καθέψω) torn apart (discerpo) divided up (μερίζω)
culprit Titans Giants Giants Titans
reassembler Rhea Demeter -- Athena (preserves heart)
verb for revival ἀναβιόω 'come to life again' γεννάομαι 'be born' -- ἀνηβάω 'grow young again'
source(s) cited Euphorion's Mopsopia, Orphic writers 'mythographers' Orpheus (and Varro for story of Osiris) --
notes -- -- equates Dionysus with Osiris Dionysus reborn(?) from Semele

Another fragment, fr. 59.iv (= Cornutus Compendium 30) reports that Dionysus was torn apart by the Titans and reassembled by Rhea, but doesn't mention a resurrection. There are other references to Dionysus being torn apart, but without details.

The Olympian Dionysus, the god of state religion, emphatically did not die. But the Orphic Dionysus, the Dionysus of mystery cults, was evidently a genuine DRG. Diodorus reports that the sources available to him are 'inconsistent, numerous, and bizarre', and he complains that he can't sort them out.


I'm being loose with the word 'syncretism': some people might prefer to distinguish syncretism from a phenomenon called interpretatio graeca. The latter refers to a system for equating Greek gods with specific gods in other pantheons, e.g. Zeus = Jupiter = Amun, Apollo = Horus, etc. I'm lumping that together with syncretism because equations like these also pop up within the Greek pantheon (Titans = Giants) and in some edge cases (Samothracian Kabeiroi = Cretan Kouretes = Laconian Dioskouroi(?)).

The Dionysus sources, above, are chocker with syncretisms. Servius equates Dionysus with Osiris, and Typhon with Set; there's the Titans and the Giants; and there's the Orpheus crossover in the idea of Dionysus being torn apart. And the boiling of Dionysus sounds awfully like the trick Medea uses to kill king Pelias: Medea persuades him that she can rejuvenate anyone by cutting them up and boiling them, and of course Pelias dies. Even so, we have three sources -- all earlier than 400 BCE -- reporting that she did in fact perform the procedure successfully on Aison or Jason. So this may be another element of motif-borrowing or syncretism.
Medea's rejuvenation of Aison/Jason: Nostoi fr. 6 West; Simonides fr. 548 PMG; Pherecydes FGrHist 3 fr. 113ab (source for all three = hyp. Eur. Medea).

That's just the tip of the syncretism iceberg. Remember how Lucian is doubtful whether Adonis at Byblos is really Adonis or Osiris? As well as that, Origen and Cyril equate Adonis with the biblical Tammuz (= Dumuzi); Isis can be equated with either Demeter (Herodotus) or Persephone (Archemachus); Typhon is regularly Set. There are loads of other identifications floating round, most incompatible with one another.
Adonis = Osiris(?): Lucian De dea Syria 7. Adonis = Tammuz: Origen Selecta in Ezech. xiii.797d-800b Migne (repeated in Theodoret, Procopius, and ps.-Nonnus); Cyril Comm. on Isaiah lxx.440d-441b Migne. Dionysus = Osiris: Varro ap. Servius on Georgics 1.166 (= Orph. fr. 59.v Bernabé). Isis = Demeter: Hdt. 2.59, 2.156. Isis = Persephone: Archemachus BNJ 424 F 6. Typhon = Set: Hdt. 2.156; Varro ap. Servius on Geo. 1.166; Plut. De Isid. 351f, etc., etc.

But we also have to pay attention to who is making these equations. The ambiguity over Adonis and Osiris comes to us from pagan sources, Theocritus and Lucian: in Lucian's case, he is a Syrian writing about Syrian religion. Herodotus and Archemachus are all about trying to make Egyptian religion and Greek religion mutually intelligible, in part because shrines to Egyptian gods were starting to appear in Greece at the time.

But the equation Adonis = Tammuz, in contrast, appears only in Christian exegetes. They're coming from a hostile position, and for them it is emphatically not an ecumenical matter. They're trying to explain a hostile reference to Tammuz in the Bible, not to make it easier for Christians and Adonis-worshippers to talk to each other. We can be absolutely certain that Adonis-worshippers themselves would never have made this equation.

A genuine case of a derived god whom worshippers happily equated with other gods: Serapis (a.k.a. Osiris-Apis), invented by the Ptolemies and equated by Plutarch with Pluto or Osiris (De Isid. 362a-b), and in this case, found in a Mithraeum in London. (2nd cent. CE, Museum of London; BM listing; source:

The upshot is that while ancient practitioners of the pagan religions happily conflated Osiris with either Adonis or the Orphic Dionysus, lumping Tammuz/Dumuzi in with them is purely a Christian imposition, which Frazer happens to have copied. (Tammuz appears in ancient Greco-Roman texts only in discussions of Ezekiel 8:14.)

And, we should probably note, no one ever tried to equate Jesus with any of these figures -- at least, not until Frazer came along. Motif-borrowings are possible, but the more extreme ideas of Carrier and his ilk are a huge stretch. You don't have to believe cult leaders are fictional in order to disbelieve their religion!

Postscript: actual dying and rising gods

Actual gods who die once and then resurrect once are much older, much more obscure, and have no clear link to 1st century CE Graeco-Jewish culture:
  • Baal, in Ugaritic myth. Baal battles Mot and is devoured. The Canaanite god El and Baal's sister Anat lament for him, and fertility ceases. Anat destroys Mot, El dreams of Baal's return, and Baal reappears, to general rejoicing (though apparently so does Mot).
    Source: Baal Cycle (early 14th cent. BCE), tablet 10 col. viii to tablet 12. See Smith, Parker, et al. 1997: 138-64.
  • Inanna (and Dumuzi), in Babylonian myth. Inanna (Ishtar) travels to the underworld, and instructs her minister to mourn her death and pray for her. Ereshkigal makes her a lifeless corpse, and Enki sends messengers to restore her to life and release her. In exchange for her release she is also required to provide a substitute, her husband Dumuzi. (Dumuzi and his sister, in turn, go on to become a pair of time-sharers, alternating between the underworld and earth every half-year.)
    Source: Sumerian Descent of Inanna (first half of 2nd mill. BCE), also in an Akkadian version; cf. allusion in Gilgamesh vi.46-7.
  • Telipinu, in Hittite myth. The god Telipinu, in a fit of rage, disappears into the ground: weeds cover him, and fertility ceases. The sun-god sends emissaries to look for him, and a bee stings him until he gets up. Telipinu is angry at being awoken, and tears up the landscape until Kamrusepa uses magic to soothe him.
    Source: CTH 324, a mugawar song (15th-13th cent. BCE). See e.g. Della Casa 2010.
It should be pretty clear, though, that these links are even more tenuous than any imaginary links to Adonis.

[Note, 20 Feb.: this post has been edited. The original form had some inaccuracies caused by a lack of specificity, especially in parts discussing Adonis or Inanna. There are also some corrections relating to Inanna/Dumuzi, thanks to comments from Theo (see below). I've tried to leave the alterations visible, but that hasn't been feasible in every place.]