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                                                                    by A C Grayling


From the ubiquity of resurrection myths in the world’s religions, it is obvious that the life-and-death question of the vegetation cycle provided one of mankind’s earliest impulses to superstition. Myths relating to the winter death of plants and their revival in spring probably became organized when mankind first engaged in settled agriculture about 10,000 years ago, thereby giving rise to systematic religions with priesthoods and ritual.

The ancient Egyptians saw their god every day, and felt his power on their backs; for he was Ra, the sun. When he wandered southwards as each year’s autumn drew into winter, his votaries became anxious that he would not return - which meant that the crops would fail and they would starve. They therefore sacrificed a human being to him on the winter solstice, and dismembered the body to scatter it like fertilizer on the fields. Characteristically for a deity, Ra liked the taste of murder, and duly returned.

But the allegory of the demise and revival of vegetation itself was embodied in another major figure of the Egyptian pantheon: Osiris. His brother Seth killed him, and his sister (and wife) Isis brought him back to life. He too was chopped into pieces and scattered across the fields by Seth, all but one interesting piece of him being found and reassembled by Isis. This intertwining of love and death is a persistent theme in the myths; in the case of Persephone, daughter of the corn goddess Demeter, it is Hades’ passion for her which makes him kidnap her into his underworld kingdom - whence, after her mother’s intercession, she is allowed to revisit the upper world for two thirds of the year - from spring to autumn, naturally.

Mesopotamia’s Dumuzi (in the Bible, Tammuz) was for 4,000 years mourned annually when he went for his exile in the underworld, and greeted with rejoicing when he returned. Canaan’s Baal had to descend annually into the underworld to fight Mot, King of Death, and the forces of disorder; an early legend has him murdered by his brother and brought back to life by his sister (and wife) Anat. In Hittite religion, Telepinu allegorizes the annual death and resurrection of nature; he goes missing, and when found is stung back to life by a bee (suggesting an early guess at plant embryology).

Far from these Middle Eastern myths - which sometimes evolved into non-religious tales too, as of Orpheus, Odysseus and Heracles, all of whom made return visits to the underworld - the same themes persist. Mali’s Pemba had to die and regrow as a tree in order to create human souls from the bark. Odin of the Norsemen hanged himself from the World Tree, Yggdrasil, in order to drink from the fountain of knowledge in Hell. Nana-huatl of the Aztecs cremated himself so that he could rise again as the sun. Tayau of the Huichol Indians, son of their corn goddess, was thrown into an oven, and travelled underground to emerge in the east also as the sun. And so on and on. The list is long.

In the context of these many tales the Christian ‘story of Easter’ is a mythopoeic cliche. As with Orpheus, Odin and Odysseus, the descent into and return from Hades is detached from immediate connection with agriculture, but it offers a kind of salvation not much different from escape from starvation, for in the theology of St Paul the prize is escape from death. For Odin and Odysseus, by contrast, the prize was knowledge, while for Orpheus it was love. Knowledge and love are far nobler prizes than mere prolongation of existence and it is doubtful whether eternal prolongation of existence is anyway desirable just as such (especially if it involves endless hymn-singing).

The Aztecs have it that their gods cremated themselves to give birth to mankind. Now there is a heartening allegory! If only all the gods in whose name people currently kill one another would cremate themselves and thus liberate mankind from the bane of religion, how much happier a place the world would be.


                                                            From The Heart of Things [2005]


A C Grayling is a Philosophy professor at the University of London and Oxford -  and a first rate contemporary philosopher, writer and thinker. He has a personal web site at http://www.acgrayling.com

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