Sunday, April 24, 2011

Resurrected Deities

Mythology is replete with examples of gods who died and were reborn. The idea is one of several central to both Indo-European and Middle Eastern mythology. Frasier's Golden Bough argued that such myths were intended to explain the phenomenon of the ripening of the fields, their harvest, and subsequent re-planting. Unfortunately, he went a bit overboard with the explanation, finding vegetation gods and goddesses just about everywhere he looked.

Frasier's excesses notwithstanding, the lineage of gods and goddesses who are said to have died and then been returned to life is impressive, revealing a strain of thought deeply rooted in the shared cultural heritage of Europe and the Middle East.
  • Zalmoxis died and dwelt in Hades for three years, then returned to spread the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.
  • Dionysus was devoured by the Titans, except his heart, which Zeus used to bring him back to life. The cult of Dionysus celebrated with a feast of bread and wine, and the Greek Orphic tradition placed a great emphasis on salvation of the soul in the afterlife.
  • Osiris was slain by his brother Set, and chopped into pieces which were then thrown into the Nile. The pieces (with one notable exception... ahem) were gathered up by their sister Isis, and Osiris was brought back to life. 
  • After Krishna was slain by an arrow, his soul ascended into heaven and his body was cremated. Thereafter, he was resurrected as a god.
  • Ishtar descended into the underworld and, after having sat on the throne of Ereshkigal, was slain and her corpse hung up on a nail(!). She was later rescued and brought back to life by Tammuz, who remained in the underworld in her stead.
  • Odin was hung on the World Tree for nine nights as a sacrifice "myself to myself", whereafter he emerged from the trial with the knowledge of the runes.
  • Balder was slain by his brother and descended into Hel, the Norse underworld. There he will remain until the Ragnarok burns the entirety of the multiverse to ashes, after which time he will re-emerge to lead a new generation of gods in a reborn universe.
This is but a small representation of the dozens of such figures in mythology. It does get me wondering, however, if such a figure might not be found in Greyhawk mythology. I would probably see Rao or Pelor as the most likely candidates for the role of life-death-rebirth deity, although Atroa, goddess of spring, is also said to have "renewal" as part of her nature, so she would also be a likely candidate.