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Mythology, Goddesses, Trees and Resurrection
There is a saying that there is never anything new under the sun and this is as true of religious beliefs as it is of our more mundane customs, fashions and fads that come and go throughout the course of history.
We humans tend to be borrowers rather than inventors; taking the parts of the latest beliefs, ideas, customs or fashions that we have been exposed to that suit us and then moulding them into a new whole.
Then we declare this most recent aggregation of our beliefs, philosophies and customs to be an entirely new and unique revelation, the only way to live and then, in a distressing number of cases , we go and punish those people whose earlier beliefs we have borrowed from as heretics or unenlightened.
Christian beliefs are a very good example of this, as many of the central concepts of the Jesus story hark back to much earlier times and throughout the ancient world there were myths surrounding a young male deity who would have to die in the early spring and be reborn in order to bring renewal to the land and his people.
Jesus was crucified or hung on a tree to die and then three days later is resurrected to redeem the world of its sins and usher in a new age. Tradition has it that Jesus was a Pisces, the very last sign of the zodiac and in early Christian times he was associated with the sign of the fish.
Pisces is a feminine water sign; a sign of completion that signifies our release into the depths of our subconscious mind and the greater whole. Rebirth and resurrection occurs in the next sign Aries, the first sign of the astrological year, bringing the return of the fiery male energy that is needed to start a new cycle and bring the sun and fertility back to the land.
It is no coincidence that Easter is celebrated in the early spring with symbols of fertility such as eggs and specially baked cakes or that the date each year is calculated from the phases of the moon.
At the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD they made a ruling that Easter would always be celebrated on the Sunday following the paschal full moon, which is the full moon that falls on or just after the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere.
The ancients knew that life was all about cycles and had a great reverence for the passing of the seasons. As they were civilisations that depended heavily on agriculture and the success of their harvests, the last days of winter were an anxious time as they waited for the sun to bring warmth back to the land, enabling the crops to grow and livestock to give birth.
They understood that we don’t just die once, but that we die and are reborn many times during our lives, just as the seasons constantly move through their cycle of fertility and abundance followed by a time of darkness and fallow fields.
Times when we despair as we wait for the sun to once more rise above the horizon and bring light and hope to our world.
In ancient times the sun was generally viewed as male energy and the moon as a feminine energy. Just as in later times, Christianity would tell the story of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, in antiquity there were many triads of deities worshipped, comprising of a family unit of father, mother and child, who was usually a son.
In Ancient Egypt, probably the best known of these triads is that of Osiris, Isis and Horus. Isis was both Osiris’s wife and his sister and went on to give birth to their son Horus. The numinous pair had another brother called Seth who was so jealous of Osiris that he wished to destroy him.
He held a great banquet where he showed off a beautiful box carved from the finest wood. He made a promise that whoever best fitted into the box could keep it. Osiris, who was unaware that Seth had measured him in his sleep and had the box made to fit his exact measurements, trustingly stepped into the box and laid down in it.
Seth slammed the lid shut on his brother and flung the box into the Nile, where the currents swept it away. Isis was devastated by grief, but went searching for her missing husband.
She searched the length and breadth of Egypt, eventually finding the box embedded in a tamarisk tree that was being used as a pillar in a palace at Byblos, a Phoenician city situated on the coast of modern Lebanon.
Isis brought the box back to Egypt and kept it hidden, but Seth managed to find it and in his rage cut his Osiris’s body into fourteen parts which he scattered the length of Egypt. Isis once more went searching, accompanied by her sister goddess Nephthys.
They managed to find thirteen parts of his body which they reassembled, but his phallus had been swallowed by a fish. Isis used her magical powers to create a new one and they conceived the god Horus and Osiris became ruler of the underworld.
Horus vowed to avenge his father against his uncle Seth and was a sky god who was often depicted as a falcon. Every pharaoh was regarded as the living embodiment of Horus, so his mother Isis was regarded as a very important deity.
She is often shown in statues or images seated with the infant Horus or pharaoh on her lap, much like the much later depictions of the Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus. She also shares some other attributes with the Virgin Mary as she was known as the ‘Star of the Sea’ and the ‘Queen of Heaven’.
Isis was often depicted with a throne on her head and her name means ‘throne’ or ‘seat’. She was seen as a ‘mother throne’, her lap being the very first throne a pharaoh ever sat on.
Egypt is a unique country in that its fertility and the success of its crops relied on the annual inundation, where flood waters from the mountains deep in the heart of the African continent deposited rich soil and silt across the farmlands adjacent to the river.
In ancient times it was believed that these life giving floods were the tears that Isis wept for her dead husband and in the temples there would have been annual ceremonies where the story of Osiris and Isis was ritually enacted.
Another ancient goddess who also shared the titles ‘Queen of Heaven’ and ‘Our Lady of the Sea’ was Astarte, who was venerated in Phoenicia.
She was known as the consort of the great god Baal but she was also linked to another fertility god who was called Adonis. Adonis is better known as being part of Ancient Greek mythology, but they had adopted this deity from earlier times.
He is also associated with a tree as it was said that his mother was turned into a myrrh tree by an enraged god, and the infant Adonis was born from that tree. He is also known as ‘he on the tree’. In the Phoenician myth, Astarte falls head over heels with the handsome god.
One of Adonis’s passions was hunting, which concerned the goddess as she fretted for his safety. He refuses all her entreaties to give up favourite his pastime and one day her worst fears are realised when he gets gored to death by a wild boar.
When Astarte finds his bloody, broken body she is distraught, but she later is able to restore him to life. In this area red anemone flowers bloom every year and it was once thought they were a symbol of the blood that gushed from Adonis’s wounds and his subsequent rebirth.
Scholars believe that this drama of death and resurrection was also ritually enacted in the temple of Astarte in Byblos, where effigies of the slain Adonis dressed ritually in red were sorrowfully either buried or hurled into the ocean.
The god was then believed to have been reborn the following day and great celebrations would take place.
In ancient Phrygia, which is located in modern day Turkey, they venerated another great mother goddess called Cybele who was the consort and also the mother of the god Attis.
There are various myths surrounding Cybele and Attis as their worship was adopted by the Greeks and then even later by the Romans. Cybele was also known as Nana, who was the virgin mother of Attis who it was believed gave birth to him on the 25th December.
Cybele had previously given birth to a hermaphrodite demon called Agdistis. The potential power of this demon terrified the other gods so much that they cut off his male member. As his blood spurted onto the ground an almond tree sprouted and grew.
Nana came along one day and ate fruit from this almond tree. She became pregnant and when her infant son was born, she abandoned him to be raised by shepherds.
He grew into a very attractive young man and this beauty captured the attention of his grandmother/mother Cybele, who fell madly in love with him.
His foster parents sent him away to be married, which incensed the goddess who appeared in all her numinous glory at his wedding.
He was sent so mad by this heavenly apparition that he cut off his own phallus, reputedly as he was standing under a pine tree, and bleeds to death from his wounds.
The drops of blood falling to the ground cause the very first violets to start growing and he is saved from death and decay by Zeus, the king of the Olympian gods, who helps Cybele to resurrect him.
Other versions of Attis’s death have him being crucified, or hung, on the pine tree or being gored by a wild boar. He was also dead for three days before his resurrection and, as a god of vegetation, would symbolically have to die each year at the end of the long, hard days of winter in order that the land could be reborn into spring.
The worship of Cybele was adopted by the Romans and priests called ‘Galli’ would literally re-enact the god’s act of self mutilation or cut other parts themselves as an effigy of Attis was dressed in linen and hung on a pine tree.
The deity was then mourned for three days, after which his rebirth was marked by a great celebration that evolved into the Hilaria Festival, which was held every year in March at the time of the vernal equinox.
There were many other deities and myths from ancient times that have stories that share these same themes of a virgin goddess giving birth to a son at the time of the winter solstice, a divine father magically creating a child, and a young male deity who is killed and then reborn three days later around the time of the spring equinox.
Trees are also another strong theme in all of these stories as it was believed that the roots of a tree bound it to the earth, while its branches reached up into the heavens. Therefore, if someone was strung up on a tree it placed them halfway between the mundane world and the divine.
All the great religions have their own unique beliefs and mythologies, but they did not just spring out of nowhere. Whatever new divine revelations sparked the new religion; people clung on to their old habits and took the customs, stories and beliefs from their old way of worshipping into the new.
So there truly is nothing new under the sun. We just recycle our beliefs into new forms that more nearly match our current way of living; just as our fashions in clothes change or our tastes in food alter. But underneath it all is our innate understanding of the rhythms and cycles of life, of the movement from dark into light and of new life springing from that which seemed dead.