The Risen God
The idea of a god who died and then rose from the dead in order to give life to his people did not suddenly appear for the first time in the Middle East 2000 years ago.
On the contrary, it is an idea shared by many cultures, including Australian Aboriginal and pre-Columbian Native American cultures, which suggests that either the notion was developed before the arrival of humans in Australia (approximately 50,000 years BC) and the Americas (approximately 15,000 years BC), or that the idea is actually an archetype embedded in the psyche of every human being.
Joseph Campbell's book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, explains the idea of archetypes and draws parallels between many different mythologies. George Lucas credits Campbell for some of the structure of his classic Star Wars movies. See the Hub, The Spiritual Journey, for parallels between the hero's journey in literature and religious mythology, and the individual's spiritual and psychological journeys.
There are two schools of thought as to the underlying symbolism of the death-and-resurrection motif. It may be a response to the natural cycle of the seasons, particularly in the temperate and northern realms, in which winter brings a very clear apparent "death" of most vegetation, and spring is an almost miraculous resurrection of green. Alternatively, it could be a subconscious representation of the process of "ego death", which is a necessary first step in personal psychological transformation, and the subsequent upwelling of newly-released life energy once the transformation is complete.
Either way, the concept is not the exclusive preserve of "the people of the book" - it is a truly global notion.
Australian Aboriginal Risen Gods
Much of the culture and myth of the over 850 different Aboriginal cultures which existed in Australia prior to the arrival of Europeans has been lost.
Some elements, however have been documented, and there are at least two deities who died and were reborn, both of whom are known to be assciated with the initiation rituals which transformed boys into men.
Julunggul (the Rainbow Serpent), of the Arnhem Land area, was associated with rebirth and initiation. The Wawala, twin daughters of Djanggawul, were devoured by a copper snake, Yurlungur. He was later ordered to regurgitate them, and they were restored to life. This symbolism is used in the initiation ceremony.
The Mayan Maize God, Hun Hunahpu
Hun Hunahpu, likely a manifestation of the Precolumbian Maya god of maize, descended beneath a great mountain into the underworld realm of Xibalba, there to confront the twin lords of death. Hun Hunahpu was ultimately defeated and sacrificed.
The victorious underworld lords then took his head and placed it in the branches of a dead tree. The instant the head touched the tree, it miraculously came to life with abundant foliage and fruits which resembled the god's skull. In ancient Maya art, this was the sacred World Tree which represented the ability of life to spring forth from the realm of the dead.
The planting of apparently dead corn husks and the subsequent growth of new life, and thence food for the tribe, was part of the worship of Hun Hunahpu.
The Babylonian God Tammuz (aka Damazi, Hedammu, Adonis)
Tammuz loved Ishtar, and because Goddesses of Love were generally capricous and dangerous, this love (according to Gilgamesh) brought about his death. Ishtar went into the underworld to release him, but after seeing his ingratitude, she threw him back. His sister volunteered to take his place for six months of each year.
The annual mourning for the loss of Tammuz took place after the summer solstice, and was observed by Ezekiel taking place on the very steps of the Jewish temple.
"Then he brought me to the door of the gate of the Lord's house which was toward the north; and, behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz. Then said he unto to me, 'Hast thou seen this, O son of man? turn thee yet again, and thou shalt see greater abominations than these." - Ezekiel 8.14-15
The celebration of the rebirth of Tammuz took place after the winter solstice - later religio-political events made that festival into a celebration of the birth of Jesus.
Tammuz was known as "The Shepherd", like Jesus, and images of the Queen with the baby Tammuz on her lap were popular, leading to the "Madonna and Child" school of iconography in Christianity.
Nabatean Arabs also worshipped Tammuz as the God of Life, depicting him with wings.
The Phoenician Phoenix
The phoenix is an immortal bird, which at the end of each life-cycle builds a next of cinnamon twigs and ignites it, burning itself to ashes. From the ashes, a new, young phoenix arises.
The phoenix was worshipped under various names in the area around Lebanon, where people consider themselves to be the descendents of the Phoenicians.
The phoenix has been used a symbol for Jesus, representing his ability to rise from the dead, his divinity, and also (inadvertently) his connection with pagan sun gods.
The Akkadian Goddess Ishtar, The Sumerian Goddess Inanna, Also Known As Astarte, Anunit, Atarsamain, and Esther.
Ancient gods and goddesses did tend to wander about and change their names, with elements of their myths dropping off or being embellished as they went, which complicates this task a little, but here goes ...
Ishtar went into the underworld to retrieve her lover, Tammuz, from death.
Ishtar, the divine personification of the planet Venus, was associated with sexuality,and her temples were places of ritual prostitution. Note the parallels with Mary Magdalene, a former prostitute, who was the first to see Jesus after he rose from the dead.
As part of the rules for her descent into the underworld, Ishtar shed an article of clothing at each of the seven gates, arriving in the underworld completely naked. There, she was imprisoned, and all sexuality ceased on Earth.
Ea, the king of all the Gods, sent a eunuch to obtain the water of life and sprinkle it on Ishtar. She was revived, and returned to the surface, regaining her clothing on the way.
This legend is believed to be the basis for the famous Dance of The Seven Veils.
The Egyptian Horus
The Egyptian Goddess Isis gave miraculous birth to the god, Horus, conceiving him through magical means after his father, Osiris, had died. The god of the sky, he was known as Horus Two-Eyes, with the eyes being the sun and the moon. Stories of damage to one of his eyes and its subsequent miraculaous healing (because of the waxing and waning of the moon) have been used to parallel death and rebirth. Over time, Horus came to be equated with the other Egyptian sun-god, Ra.
The Egyptian sun-god Ra was also the product of a virgin birth, delivered of Neith, who was impregnated by Kneth, the breath of life, after a forewarning by the god Thoth. Anyone spot the parallels with Mary, mother of Christ's experiences?
Because Horus was the son of Osiris after his death, and because earlier tales identified the original Horus (before syncretism with Ra) as the husband of Isis, Horus came to be seen as the reincarnation of Osiris.
Thus, by Hellenic times, in many areas Horus was happily in existence for many worshipppers as being his own father. The elements of the trinity - father, son, and Holy Spirit, are all present in this story, hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus.
The gods Osiris and Dionysus were equated in documents as early as the 5th century BC by Herodotus, a Greek historian, suggesting that strong parallels had been in place for quite some time by then.
Gnostic and Neo-Platonis thinkers extended the observation to include Aion, Adonis, Attis, Mithras and other gods of the "mystery religions" of the Middle East.
During the first century BC, the name Osiris-Dionysus was in widespread use.
Dionysus was the Greek God of wine and inspired madness. Almost all myths represented him as having foreign (non-Greek) origins. He was also known as Bacchus, and the frenzy he induces as bakcheia. He is the patron deity of agriculture and the theatre, and was known as the LIberator - freeing one from one's normal self. He presided over communication between the living and the dead.
He was the son of Zeus, and the "Dio" part of his name is also derived from Zeus (deus). Historians have traced his worship to Minoan Crete, a neighbour of the very early Greek city-states.
Dionysus died and was reborn before he was born in one version of the story, and as an infant in another. Zeus was a well-known philanderer, and his wife Hera, in fits of jealousy, was prone to trying to kill his bastard offspring.
In one story, Dionysus' mortal mother was incinerated by Hera while he was in utero, and Zeus rescued the foetus, sewing it into his thigh until Dionysus was ready to be born (or reborn). In the other version, Dionysus'mother was the goddess Persephone (who spends half of each year in the underworld), and Hera tore him apart. Zeus retrieved his heart, and used it to reincarnate him.
Interestingly, there is a similar story about Tammuz, and the "heart of Tammuz" is reputedly a powerful religio-magical artefact. It is inscribed with a cross, or possibly a T, with a semi-circle or crescent on top.
Unverified claims by Christian fundamentalists include the claim that the crucifix icon is an example of Satan's influence on Roman Catholicism, and that a cross is actually a symbol of Tammuz, who was known to the Canaanites as Baal.
The Aztec Quetzalcoatl
Quetzalcoatl, as a snake, was a representation of the fertility of the earth. Snake worship was practised from the dawn of history, and is recorded earlier than 1100 BC. By 150BC, Quetzalcoatl has taken on the classic "feathered snake" form in paintings and carvings.
He was a symbol of death and resurrection, and the patron god of priests. He was the giver of maize to the people, and the god of the morning star.
Quetzalcoatl allegedly went to Mictlan, the underworld, and created fifth-world (current world) mankind from the bones of the previous races (with the help of Chihuacoatl), using his own blood, from a wound in his penis, to imbue the bones with new life.
Oh, and guess what? He was the product of a virgin birth.
The Canaanite Baal, aka Hadad, Adad, and Melquart
Baal was actually an Ugaritic word meaning loosely "divine" or "Lord", and it was applied to many foreign deities througout the Bible, so only context can establish which entity is meant in any particular passage.
In this case, we focus on one particular case, the god worshiped in Tyre as Hadad or Melquart.
Lord of the sky, governor of rain, the germination of plants, and protector of life, Baal correlates well with the other pagan deities we have discussed already. He is the son of El, the father of all the gods, referred to by the Hebrews as "YhWh", or "Yahweh".
Baal hosts a victory foeast after defeating the Laviathan, and at the urging of another god, invites Mot, the god of death. Mot is offended by being offered wina and bread in place of blood and flesh, and threatens to tear Baal apart. Baal impregnates a heifer, dresses the resulting calf in his clothes, tricking Mot, who slaughters the calf, believing he has slaughtered Baal. This is the inspiration for the worship of the Biblical "Golden Calf".
Baal enters the underworld as a shade, while Anat, Baal's sister, conducts an elaborate funeral for the slain calf.
The world is cracked with drought until Shapsh, the sun goddess, goes to the underworld and brings Baal back.
So there we have, yet again, the death-and-rebirth, the sacrifice of the son, and the return to life through the agency of a woman.
Celtic Horned God, Cernnunos
Associated with fertility and animals, the Celtic Horned God was worshipped in remarkably consistent fashion across much or Europe and Great Britain from prehistoric times.
A spring ritual involved intercourse between a man representing Cernnunos, and a woman representing the Earth Goddess, particularly after the advent of agriculture. Some accounts suggest that the man playing the part of Cernnunos would then be sacrificed, either each year, or after seven years of "kingship". The death and "rebirth" of the horned god represented the cycle of seasons and the return of life after winter. The human sacrifice ensured the fertility of the fields for another year.
In later times an animal, often a stag, was substituted for the human sacrifice, as Abraham substituted the lamb for his son Isaac, and as Baal substituted a calf for himself.
Xalmoxis was credited with the power of immortality, or life after death. The Dacians Believed that when they died, they simply "went to Xalmoxis". He was originally a mortal man, who taught the idea of eternal life after death.
He travelled to Egypt and taught the Egyptians the notion, then lived in Hades for three years.
He returned to life and showed himslef once more to the Dacians, to prove he was speaking the truth about life after death.
Records are scant, and it is not clear whether he was a sky-god, a god of the dead, or a variant cult of a god like Dionysus or the Libyan Atlas.
T. W. Doane in his 1882 Bible Myths opined that "nothing now remains for the honest man to do but acknowledge the truth, which is that the history of Jesus of Nazareth as related in the books of the New Testament, is simply a copy of that of Buddha, with a mixture of mythology borrowed from other nations."
The 1875 book The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors by Kersey Graves lists over a dozen miraculously conceived, saviors who, he argues, died on a Cross or tree. Graves claims that this is true of Krishna, Buddha, Ixion, Hercules/Heracles, Hesus/Eros, Attis, Tammuz/Adonis, Mithra, Quexalcote, Odin, Horus, Prometheus, and others.
Pinchas Lapide in the 1970s and 1980s was a strong proponent of recovering historical, Jewish, Jesus from beneath the layers of Christian mythology. Lapide saw the historical Jesus as a rabbi in the Hasidean tradition of Hillel and Hanina Ben Dosa, and in the context of Jewish independence struggle against Roman occupation. In The Myth of God Incarnate (1977), edited by John Hick, a team of seven British theologians argued from a position within the Church that God's incarnation in Christ is mythical.
According to expert Mary Boyce, "Zoroaster was thus the first to teach the doctrines of an individual judgment, Heaven and Hell, the future resurrection of the body, the general Last Judgment, and life everlasting for the reunited soul and body. These doctrines were to become familiar articles of faith to much of mankind, through borrowings by Judaism, Christianity and Islam." The historic Zoroaster lived more than 1000 years before Christ, and his ideas were gradually incorporated into the sermons of rabbis, prophets, and priests over the next 1500 years.
Isaiah, therefore, writing prophecies 600 years befofor the birth of Jesus, had plenty of raw material from which to craft the lines which remain the basis for the Jewish people's wait for their Messiah, and the Christians' conviction that he has been and gone and will come again.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.