The Archetype of the Dying and Rising God in World Mythology

The Archetype of the Dying and Rising God in World Mythology

By Paul R. Rovang

Lexington Books, 2023

224 pages, hardcover, $100.00

Although many of the great Christian apologists of the twentieth century—Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell, Chuck Colson—converted directly from atheism to Christianity, C. S. Lewis’s journey to faith was a two-step process. When, at the age of thirty, he fell to his knees and confessed that God is God, he was only a theist. It would take him more than a year before he could accept that Jesus Christ was the Son of God.

One of the major obstacles that prevented him from moving from theism to Christianity was his great love of Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. In this classic work of comparative anthropology, Frazer identifies the archetype of the dying and rising god as being spread out across the ancient world, expressing itself in such mythic heroes as Adonis, Tammuz, and Osiris. Though the Victorian Frazer does not say so directly, he strongly implies that the story of Christ’s death and resurrection is merely the Hebrew version of the same seasonal archetype.

What shook Lewis out of his Frazerian belief that Jesus was only a myth was a long night stroll he took on the grounds of Magdalen College, Oxford, with his friends Hugo Dyson and J. R. R. Tolkien, a committed Catholic and lover of all the realms of faerie. In response to Lewis’s insistence that Jesus of Nazareth was nothing more than a myth, Tolkien responded that the reason Jesus sounded like a myth was because he was the myth that became fact. Whereas Adonis and Tammuz and Osiris died and rose nobody knew (or cared) when or where, Jesus was crucified at a specific time and place, under Pontius Pilate, and his historical resurrection brought with it historical consequences.   

A week later, Lewis accepted Christ as the unique God-Man who died and rose once for all to reconcile man to God. More than that, he came to believe that just as Christ fulfilled the Old Testament Law and Prophets, so he fulfilled the highest yearnings of the pagan peoples, yearnings that manifested themselves in archetypal myths like that of the dying and rising god. Although Lewis continued to accept the data amassed by Frazer about the ubiquity of the Adonis-Tammuz-Osiris archetype, he now interpreted that data in a new way: as proof that Jesus was the savior of Jews and Gentiles alike.

If the events that transpired on Good Friday and Easter had no connection to the desires and expectations of the Gentiles, it would have seemed that Jesus was a foreign God invading the world. Instead, as the myth made fact, Jesus enacted in history the cosmic salvation that the pagan archetypes pointed forward to. There are still many skeptics today who argue that the Christian gospel is just a copycat religion that reinterpreted the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth through the lens of Frazer’s dying and rising god. But then there are a growing number of apologists who have followed Lewis’s lead in seeing the existence of such archetypes as a strong argument for the truth of the gospel.  

What I was not aware of until I read Paul Rovang’s well-conceived and well-researched The Archetype of the Dying and Rising God in World Mythology was that many, if not most, anthropologists today dismiss Frazer’s claims altogether. Chief among the naysayers is J. Z. Smith, whom Rovang quotes as follows: “The category of dying and resurrecting gods, once a major topic of scholarly investigation, must now be understood to have been largely a misnomer based on imaginative reconstructions and exceedingly late or highly ambiguous texts” (9).

Rovang, professor emeritus of English at Pennsylvania Western University-Edinboro, devotes two-thirds of his book to demonstrating, by means of carefully sifted evidence from archeological inscriptions, anthropological rituals, and literary texts, that the ancient archetype did exist and was ubiquitous. Before doing so, however, he analyzes Smith’s agenda in a way that should force evangelicals, like me, to do some self-reflection.

With the help of Jan Bremmer, Rovang exposes Smith’s hidden agenda of deconstructing Protestant attempts to posit a pristine early Apostolic Christianity untouched by pagan influence which the Reformers reclaimed from later pagan and Catholic accretions. The irony of this agenda is that, in the name of it, Smith tries to deny all influence between ancient cultures. “In the end, Smith is not dismissing the notion of the dying and rising gods outside of Christianity so much as their antiquity and the influence of their traditions by or on early Christianity” (11).

The reason why Rovang’s analysis should give evangelicals pause is that we are often too quick to suspect all forms of non-biblical influence on Christianity. Through the incarnation, God, to the horror of ancient and modern Gnostics alike, entered human history, with all its messiness and mixed motives, its idolatry and immorality, its desires, and depravities. Jesus is the Second Adam, not the Second Abraham; he restored and brought to perfection what was latent in all people but inaccessible and unachievable because of our fallen nature. As such, all the nations find their fulfillment in him.

Besides, as Rovang suggests, what seems like a direct influence might really be caused by a common, universal archetype divinely written in the human heart.

While the manifestation of an archetype may be seen as more significant if it is not a product of borrowing, since such occurrences suggest the archetype’s power to impose itself on the human psyche, the importance of the manifestation is not strongly dependent on any chain of influence. This importance inheres in the very existence of the archetype, an understanding that allows analyses to transcend the ideologically influenced interpretations which Smith both decries and himself inadvertently develops. (12)

Evangelicals, I would add, need not be troubled by the Platonic nature of Hebrews 9:23-24. The biblical author did not write out of a direct Platonic influence; rather, Plato, by means of natural revelation, got something right that would later be revealed directly in the New Testament. Just so, the pagans who spun their archetypal myths of dying and rising gods were expressing, in a manner far darker than that of Plato’s philosophy, the need for the One True God to die and conquer death.

As to those myths, Rovang’s research leaves little doubt that they represent a true, global phenomenon. Rather than summarize his densely argued and annotated survey of the archetype, I will list, in bullet form, some of his findings I found particularly revealing:

  • In addition to the dying and rising myths of Adonis (Greek), Tammuz (Babylonian), and Osiris (Egyptian) being widespread in the Mediterranean world, the syncretistic links between them were also well known. In fact, Origen and Jerome, commenting on the reference to women weeping for Tammuz in Ezekiel 8:14, both treated Tammuz and Adonis as the same figure (30).
  • There were actually a number of dying and rising goddesses: both the well-known Greek Persephone, who rotates seasonally between living in the Underworld with Hades and on the earth with her mother Demeter, and the lesser-known Sumerian Inanna, who, unlike Persephone, “absolutely dies and returns to conscious, embodied life” (25).
  • Although the Greeks and Romans were less willing than the peoples of the Near East to make their dying and rising heroes divine, Heracles (Hercules in Latin) literally harrows hell when he descends to Hades to kidnap Cerberus, the three-headed hound of hell, and has his mortality burned away when he immolates himself in a fire and is apotheosized to dwell with the gods on Mount Olympus.
  • The dying and rising goat-god Dionysus was intimately linked to the cycle of the grape. “In identifying Jesus as the Lamb of God rather than the goat-god, John [the Baptist] both distinguishes him from and identifies him with Dionysos. Christ is the world savior who fulfills not only the Old Testament symbolism of the atoning lamb (Lev. 16) and of the nation of Israel as a withered vine (Ps. 80:7-19; Jer. 2:21), but also the pagan symbolism of the goat and the grapevine as conveyors of zoë [Greek for eternal life]. The integration of both traditions is pointedly expressed in Jesus’ insistence [John 6:53-56] that his followers drink his blood, an act which seemingly would have violated a taboo for Jews (Gen. 9:4) but would have made perfect sense to pagans familiar with the Dionysos myth and its attendant rituals” (61).
  • Although the Persian Mithra (Mithras in Latin) is often championed by skeptics as a dying and rising god who influenced Christianity, he does not fit the archetypal pattern. He does, however, seem to be connected to the setting and rising sun.
  • The Norse Balder and Odin both fit and do not fit the archetype.
  • Although Celtic Britain and Ireland tell stories, like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, of magical men who are decapitated and then put their heads back on, the beloved Hindu God Ganesh, after losing his human head, had it replaced with the head of an elephant!
  • Similar tales of dying and rising gods, most of them linked to vegetation myths, appear in sub-Saharan Africa as well as among the Australian Aboriginals, Native Americans, and Mayans.

After substantiating the existence of the dying and rising god archetype Rovang examines the relationship between Jesus and the archetype. While many orthodox Christians will recognize the name Rudolph Bultmann, Rovang puts in helpful context Bultmann’s liberal, non-creedal attempt to strip Christianity of its supernatural, “mythical” husk and focus instead on the “historical” kernel of the teachings and proclamations of Jesus and the church. To argue that Bultmann may not have read Frazer directly does not, of itself, negate the connection. For the last century, countless secularizing thinkers who have not read a single book by Marx or Freud have been profoundly influenced by their theories.

Here is how Rovang explains the connection between Frazer and Bultmann: “Frazer’s representation of a mythologized Jesus shaped by the line of dying and rising gods in which he, an originally historical figure, came to stand, indirectly provoked Bultmann’s demythologizing efforts to conceptualize a savior presentable to the modern rational mind, arriving finally at a risen Christ who is a historically unverifiable product of ones will to believe” (140). Convinced that modern people could no longer take seriously any claims that, like the bodily resurrection of Christ, appeared to be mythic, Bultmann felt it his religious duty to create a naturalized, demythologized Christ that an “educated” person could accept without checking his mind at the church door.

Frazer and Bultmann represent mirror images of each other, both equally unable, because equally unwilling, to hold together the historical and mythical elements of Christianity. “Frazer…since he can’t tell them apart, throws out the babe of Bethlehem with the mythological bathwater, while Bultmann, in attempting to discard the bathwater, drops the divine infant he is trying to cleanse of mythic elements and picks up a severely damaged, but as he judges, more ‘real, historical Jesus’” (152). Needless to say, neither Christ can save, and neither can fulfill both the law and prophets of the Jews and the mythic yearnings of the pagans.

To resolve this dilemma, Rovang offers a thorough examination of the myth-made-fact position that Lewis first learned during his life-changing walk with Tolkien. Rather than succumb to the false dichotomy of Frazer or Bultmann, Lewis came to understand that in the historical person of Jesus Christ “the archetype [had] stepped out of the ages-old traditions of an expanse of cultures as a flesh-and-blood human being—yet divine, and therefore a nexus between myth and history” (148).

Rovang has done both the anthropological and Christian communities a great service in re-substantiating the defunct claims of Frazer while re-interpreting those claims in such a way as to rehabilitate the mythic elements of Christ in conjunction with, rather than at the expense of, his historical incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.   

Louis Markos, Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Christian University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; his 25 books include The Myth Made Fact: Reading Greek and Roman Mythology through Christian Eyes, From Plato to Christ: How Platonic Thought Shaped the Christian Faith, and From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics.