Just as most cultures or religions have a creation myth, so do many have a story about resurrection. In fact, Carl Jung, along with other scholars, considered resurrection deities to be an archetype seated in our collective unconscious. Each of these stories provides a connection between humanity and the larger cycle of life, death and rebirth (either on a physical or spiritual level). This cycle happens in nature, to civilizations and in the cosmos.
In honor of Good Friday, I thought it would be neat to tell some of the more well-documented resurrection myths from around the world:
Religion: Ancient Egyptian
Role: God of the Afterlife
Story: Osiris’s brother, Set (a trickster god), was jealous of Osiris’s position as king, and plotted his death. Set tricked Osiris into lying in a wooden sarcophagus by offering it as a prize to whoever could fit inside. After several others tried, Osiris was encouraged to try. As soon as he laid back, the lid slammed and locked. The coffin was sealed with lead and thrown into the Nile. Hearing of this, Osiris’s wife/sister, Isis, sought for Osiris; she feared he would not find the Underworld without proper burial. She found him, but in doing so, angered Set – who then dismembered Osiris and scattered him across Egypt. Isis searched again for her husband and found all but one piece of his corpse: his copulatory organ. She fashioned a phallus out of gold and sang a song around Osiris until he came back to life. Osiris was resurrected long enough to impregnate Isis with Horus, who (as a an adult) vanquished Set. Having been resurrected, Osiris died again, this time with a proper burial, and became the King of the Underworld.
Name: Inanna / Ishtar
Role: Goddess of Sexual Love, Fertility, and Warfare
Story: Inanna descended to the Underworld, though her reason for visiting is unclear. She dressed in elaborate garments and jewelry; each piece represented part of her power. Inanna passed through seven gates, and at each one she was required to remove a piece of clothing or jewelry, thus stripping her of her power. When she arrived in front of the ruler of the Underworld (who happened to be her sister), she was naked. Powerless to defend herself, she was turned into a corpse by the judges of the Underworld. After several days, Inanna’s servant entreated other gods to free her from the Underworld (per Innana’s instructions before her descent into the Underworld). One of the gods obliged and Innana was freed and revived. Innana then secured her freedom by sending her husband to the Underworld as a replacement offering to her sister. [Note: In an earlier version of the story, supposedly based on incomplete text or an incomplete translation, Innana went to the Underworld and freed her husband, Dumuzi / Tammuz. His story is also often cited as an example of a resurrection myth].
Religion: Ancient Greek
Role: God of the Grape Harvest, Winemaking and Wine, Ritual Madness and Ecstasy
Story: The are two resurrection myths for Dionysus. In one version, his mortal mother, Semele, was visited by Zeus (likely many times) and they conceived Dionysus. Zeus’s ever jealous wife, Hera, plotted to destroy Semele and her unborn child. She visited Semele as a crone and befriended her. Hera convinced Semele she could not be sure her lover was really Zeus until she saw him in his godly form. And so Semele entreated Zeus to appear to her in his true form. Zeus finally relented and came to her wreathed in lightning, and as she looked upon him, she perished in flame. Zeus rescued (or resurrected) the fetal Dionysus by sewing him into his own thigh and Dionysus was born several months later.
In the Cretan version, Dionysus was the son of Zeus and Persephone, the queen of the Greek underworld. Hera, jealous (as always), set the Titans upon baby Dionysus and they ate him, except for his heart. Zeus turned the Titans into dust with his thunderbolts and then used the heart to recreate / resurrect Dionysus.
Religion: Ancient Norse / Germanic
Role: God of Asgard
Story: Odin so loved knowledge, he sacrificed himself in a quest to learn the deeper magic of runes. It was believed one could only learn the magic spells from runes in death. So, Odin hung himself on the World Tree (Yggdrasil) for nine days as an offering to himself. Every night, Odin mastered powerful spell(s). After he mastered the last spell on the ninth night (which became Walpurgis’ Night), he ritually died and all light was extinguished from the world. Odin’s death lasted until midnight, when he was reborn and light returned to the world. (Reference sites: Timeless Myths, Valkyrie Tower)**
138 I know that I hanged on a windy tree
nine long nights
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.
139 No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn
downward I peered;
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there.
Havamal from Poetic Edda, translated by Carolyne Larrington
Religion: Ancient Greek
Role: Goddess of the Underworld
Story: Persephone was a cherished daughter of Demeter and Zeus. One day, she caught the attention of Hades, who was so struck by her beauty he stole her away from the living world. Grief-stricken in the Underworld, Persephone refused to eat or drink. Grief-stricken in the living world, her mother (goddess of the harvest) caused a terrible drought which forced Zeus to intervene. Zeus demanded Hades return his daughter. Hades agreed, provided Persephone had truly abstained from eating or drinking while in his realm. Alas, Persephone had eaten six pomegranate seeds — sealing her fate to spend six months of every year in the Underworld as Hades wife. [Persephone’s story is one of annual resurrection. That is, she is assumed dead every time she returns to the Underworld.] (Reference sites: Mr. Donn’s Greece, History for Kids)**
There are absolutely more examples of resurrection stories out there. For example there are several Native American stories, like the Great Rabbit god of the Algonquin called Manabohozo (who is also a trickster). His is both a creation myth and a resurrection myth. There is also an association between resurrection and the Chinese goddess of mercy, Quan Yin, but I could not find any definitive sources.
We wanted to share solidarity with our Christian friends this Easter weekend through a common message of resurrection and hope. If you find other resurrection stories you would like to share, please do! And please provide links for others to follow.
And by all means…have a Good Friday!
* There are many other stories that are alleged resurrections. I tried to stick to stories where there is archaeological evidence of a resurrection myth.
** I had to piece together some of the stories using different sites. There were lots of holes in the Wikipedia narratives. I’ve provided other resources I used which were not already referenced in the stories themselves.