BMCR 2002.09.07

The Riddle of Resurrection: Dying and Rising Gods in the Ancient Near East. Coniectanea Biblica, Old Testament Series 50.

, The riddle of resurrection : "dying and rising gods" in the ancient Near East. Coniectanea biblica. Old Testament series ; 50. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2001. 275 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9122019456 $55.00.

The identification of gods who die and are resurrected is most prominently associated with J.G. Frazer in his Golden Bough. From its very first edition (1890), The Golden Bough revolved around the notion that at the core of religion lay a myth — ritually enacted — of a royal god who incarnated the power of fertility, who was annually killed and then, as the grain, resurrected to reign anew. While this myth-ritual scheme would be most prominently represented in gods like Attis, Adonis, and Osiris, Frazer regarded it as general to all religions, seeking its traces in Africa and the Americas, and certainly, if unspokenly, as the basis for the story of Christ’s death and resurrection. In the years following the publication of The Golden Bough in ever-expanding editions the dying/rising fertility-god myth came to be embraced by numerous scholars (notably Joseph Campbell), even while the actual evidence for its existence across cultures, and even in Mediterranean antiquity, progressively eroded. Most recently, the historian of religions Jonathan Z. Smith and the semiticist Mark Smith have declared the myth of the dying and rising god a fantasy, the product of uncritical comparison rather than a close consideration of evidence.1 More to the point, J. Z. Smith has used the dying/rising god myth as an example of the kinds of errors that cripple the enterprise of comparative religion when scholars ignore the following principles: comparison must always be towards differentiation in regard to a general category (“dying/rising god”) rather than in finding links across individual examples (“Osiris like Attis”); concepts of “myth” and “ritual” must be defined and regarded as fundamentally separate dimensions for narrative; one should avoid generalizing elaborate patterns across all religions; one should consider the evidence for a myth or a ritual as the product of a particular historical context, not as timeless outcrops of a widespread pattern; one should not take similarity as evidence for genealogy or influence; and finally, in the face of evidence for gods who “die” but don’t“rise,” one should not impose the total Frazerian pattern but accept that one transition might occur without the other.

It is Tryggve Mettinger’s goal in The Riddle of Resurrection to take up the question of dying/rising gods again with such critical principles in mind, with a more focused range of cultures, and with the results of additional Ancient Near Eastern archaeological discoveries since the time of Frazer. As he states his operating question, “Are there, in the realm of Northwest Semitic cults in Syria, Phoenicia, and the Mediterranean, gods who are believed to die and return to life?” (41). And his answer is a qualified but confident “yes.” In producing such a clear, closely argued, well-documented, and critically astute monograph, Mettinger has provided an enormous service to the study of ancient religions. He demonstrates the great diversity among the “dying and rising” gods in the Ancient Near East; he shows their antiquity — sometimes into the Bronze Age — and metamorphoses through time and cultural contact; he notes the seasonal or agricultural associations that “dying and rising” myths held in many cultures; and he finds a great variety of ritual connections with the myths — almost none of which involve the full-scale dramatic mimesis that Frazer envisioned. Furthermore, where J. Z. Smith found a concerted effort in Frazer and other early historians of religion to reduce Christianity by means of the comparative enterprise, Mettinger almost entirely brackets the question of “influences” on Christian thought.

The book is organized predominantly by individual gods, but a methodological Introduction (Chapter 1), which reviews “dying/rising god” research from Frazer through the two Smiths, is quite helpful for setting the stage for what, to some historians of religions, might seem an out-dated subject. Texts and recorded rites of Dumuzi/Tammuz, Adonis, and Baal do, in fact, point to some kinds of dying and resurrecting, although the translation of lacunose documents, the dates of some witnesses (sometimes from the late Roman period), and the identity of gods have made it difficult to determine the nature of myths and rituals. In a particularly astute section on the categories “ritual” and “myth,” Mettinger shows their generally tenuous connection: a mythic theme can be articulated in diverse ways through popular or priestly ritual, iconography, texts, and outsiders’ descriptions.

Chapter 2, on Baal of Ugarit, confronts the details that this erstwhile storm-god (an analogue of the Israelite YHWH in his early stages) descends into “death” (Mot) at one point in the cycle represented on the tablets found at Ras Shamra, is declared dead and mourned by the other gods, and finally, after the goddess Anat chops up Mot himself like grain, is said (rather allusively) to come back to life and to reign from his throne. Here, clearly, the death and resurrection of the god have the seasonal/agricultural connotations that Frazer suggested to be the natural background to the myth, although in this case it is hard to determine whether the myth is reflected in or explains natural phenomena. Mettinger also notes several texts that might reflect ritual responses to the Baal myth: water libations, banquets. In a later chapter, he points out that the metamorphosis of the storm-god Baal, who conquers the sea-monster Yam, into a dying/rising god of vegetation is itself a problem, perhaps to be explained through Mesopotamian influence (207-9).

Chapter 3 covers traditions about the Syrian god Melqart, who was apparently identified with Heracles in western Syria during the Roman period. Greco-Roman sources refer to Heracles’ death on a pyre in order to join the ranks of the gods, and they often locate this event in Syria. What is less clear is Melqart-Hercules’ resurrection, but Mettinger finds numerous references to Hercules “awakening” or “arising” in Greek and Semitic materials, as well as a fascinating V/IV BCE stone bowl from Sidon whose iconographic scheme suggests a divine figure’s consummation and then reappearance on an altar. Such evidence, Mettinger argues, points not only to a myth of the god’s death and resurrection but to explicit and widespread ritual involvement in the myth: e.g., the burnt offering of quails, mentioned in other sources as meant to awaken the god. Finally, Mettinger addresses the difference in modes of death between Melqart-Hercules (in Iron-Age and Greco-Roman sources) and Baal (in Late Bronze Age sources). The former’s immolation, he argues, derives from the predominance of cremation in Syrian mortuary custom at the time and may actually have supplanted an early stage where the god was buried.

Chapter 4 addresses the mythology and rituals surrounding the god Adonis, but in his west Semitic, not Greek, form. In Greek tradition, Adonis is more a semi-divine hero than an actual god; and his myth and rites focus almost exclusively on his death — his entry into the underworld — with no suggestion of resurrection. “Adonis gardens” referred to in classical literature seem to focus on the death of seedlings, not a death/life cycle. The god’s roots lie in the Near East, as both the name (from adon*, “lord”) and the rooftop site of some Adonis rituals in Greece imply. However, the clearest evidence that Adonis was meant to rise again from death in Near Eastern traditions comes from late antique sources: the Christian writers Origen and Jerome, who might have projected a Christian cast on their mentions of Adonis rites, and the detailed but perhaps satirical document De Dea Syria, normally attributed to Lucian of Samosata. J. Z. Smith had already questioned the veracity of this kind of evidence, but Mettinger argues that the ritual details repeated in all these late sources — lamentation, funeral sacrifice, and a subsequent point of rejoicing — should be taken seriously. Based on a recent reconsideration of De Dea Syria‘s authorship and reliability, for example, the text’s picture (6) of communal mourning/celebratory rites to Adonis in Byblos becomes invaluable ancient reportage rather than the fantasy of a clever satirist.2 The question remains, however, whether these dying/rising rites antedate the Roman period. Mettinger finds allusions in the Amarna letters (XIV BCE) to much earlier west Semitic gods that may lie behind Adonis, such as Baal of Byblos, who seems to have undergone resurrection. Although, he argues, the ancient Greek silence on the resurrection motif does not mean that the Levantine version would have also lacked this stage, Mettinger resists a conclusive argument on the pre-Roman antiquity of the Near Eastern Adonis’s resurrection.

The fifth-century CE philosopher Damascius recounts a myth of “Asclepius of Berytus,” known as Esmounos, who dies after castrating himself in an attempt to escape a goddess. The goddess then resurrects Esmounos. Given that the god Eshmoun is known in ancient sources on Syrian religion, does the late antique myth reflect ancient tradition? Mettinger, in Chapter 5, notes the obvious reflections of the Cybele-Attis cult in Damascius’s story but also suggests that the god Eshmun’s resemblance to Melqart might allow for ancient traditions of his death and resurrection.

The preeminent “dying” god was once thought to be Osiris, and Mettinger devotes Chapter 6 to exploring the Egyptian god’s substantial differences from the gods under examination. Osiris is fundamentally a “dead” god: his rituals and his mythical powers extend from his permanent (and “lively”) dominion in the world of the dead. From this position he raises the corn, as symbolized in the “corn mummies” that temples would assemble to dramatize the god’s powers; but the corn’s rising never signifies Osiris’s resurrection. Perhaps, given the quite early appearance of Egyptian cults in cities along the Syrian coast, Mettinger notes, cults of Osiris might have influenced the west Syrian cults of dying and rising gods: the original Adonis gardens as descendants of the corn mummies? Osiris’s underworld dominion inspiring similar powers among the Syrian dying gods? But Osiris himself stands apart from the “dying/rising” myth.

Chapter 7 addresses the character and influence of the ancient Mesopotamian god Dumuzi-Tammuz, once one of the archetypes of the dying/rising god but now the subject of much debate among Sumerologists. Some texts seem to refer to Dumuzi taking the place of the goddess Inanna (or, in Akkadian texts, Ishtar) after her descent to the underworld, a theme of divine “bilocation” between domains of death and life that seems to reflect both seasonal transition and the procession of images between temples. Quite a number of texts refer to rites of mourning for Dumuzi or Tammuz (notably Ezekiel 8:14). In these cases the god is clearly one who dies or disappears; only a few texts refer vaguely to his “rising,” and these references seem to be embedded in ritual processions of images, so it is difficult to assert a myth of resurrection. Yet Mettinger suggests that Dumuzi-Tammuz, historically the oldest of the series, might have influenced the myth of the storm-god Baal’s seasonal descent into death as well as the seasonal aspects to Adonis and Melqart rites.

A brief Epilogue surveys Mettinger’s general findings; that there were several Ancient Near Eastern gods who mythically would die and also rise; that they were indeed gods (not heroes), indeed died (not disappeared), and indeed came back to life; and that evidence for their myths and rites cannot be ascribed to Christian mis-readings. It is Mettinger’s overall methodological strength to stress, here and throughout the monograph, the diversity of the myths of god’s deaths and resurrections and of the rites in which these myths seem to be embedded. Osiris is not like Adonis; Melqart’s immolation is not like Baal’s or Dumuzi’s descent; popular rites of mourning are not like priestly image-processions. In this regard, Mettinger has shown, without the pro- or anti-Christian biases of his forebears, the historical existence of some ancient gods apparently believed to die and to be resurrected. Even more, without turning these gods into mere metaphors for the cycle of seasons, he has offered the reader a nuanced appreciation of their seasonal and fertility connections.

But it is precisely in this rigorous attention to differences and to the various meanings of gods’ deaths and reappearances that Mettinger’s work fractures the very usefulness of the category “dying and rising god.” By the end of the monograph, the category emerges as a rather simplistic generalization for a very wide array of gods and a very murky range of rituals. What does it mean, for example, for these gods to “die”? They might descend for a time to the underworld, disappear from agricultural or seasonal experience, or frame ritual traditions of mourning — in no case identical to “death” as experienced on a regular human (or even royal) scale. Likewise, a god’s “resurrection” means vegetative, agricultural, or seasonal emergence, a divine image’s “appearance” by procession at a particular temple, or the frame for ritual traditions of celebration — not the kind of revivification imagined in the biblical tradition (e.g., Ezekiel 37, Daniel 12, 2 Baruch 50-51). J. Z. Smith once recommended that the comparison of religions involves ultimately the “rectification” of the categories by which one compares phenomena — those essential lenses or contexts into which we experimentally set our data. In this case, Mettinger’s methodological precision and attention to textual detail reveal the “dying/rising god” classification to be, in fact, a non-classification — a Christian theological holdover, like “sacrament” or “faith,” from a time when all comparison was meant to legitimize or delegitimize dogma.


1. Jonathan Z. Smith, “Dying and Rising Gods,” Encyclopedia of Religion (New York, 1987), 4:521-27; Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity (Chicago 1990), chap. 4; Mark S. Smith, “The Death of Dying and Rising Gods in the Biblical World,” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 12 (1998):257-313.

2. Lucinda Dirven, “The Author of De Dea Syria and His Cultural Heritage,” Numen 44, 2 (1997):153-79.