by Elizabeth Childs Kelly
The Goddess Ishtar (image is also sometimes referred to as the Goddess Inanna). Photo by awsloley on Pixabay
There’s an old, old story from ancient Rome — perhaps it sounds familiar to you. In it, a prominent young man, whom some call a God, tragically dies in the spring. His mother mourns him bitterly, as do his followers. Yet miraculously, three days later, he rises from the dead, much to his worshippers’ delight, and feasting and great joy follow among all the people.
If you have even a passing knowledge of Christianity, the protagonist of this story might seem obvious to you. It’s about Jesus, right? Well, no. It’s actually a story about a young shepherd named Attis, son of the great Roman Goddess Cybele, and it predates the Christian resurrection story by a full 200 years.
To be fair, I left out a few differentiating details. For example, in the myth of Attis, the young man is castrated, then dies beneath an evergreen tree. And the celebration of his resurrection occurs at the temple of Cybele, who is known throughout the region as the Great Mother Goddess. But otherwise, the broad outlines of this story are remarkably similar to the story of Jesus, which is known and celebrated by Christians everywhere, and particularly at this time of year.
The story of Attis might predate Jesus, but it isn’t the original story, either. In fact, the themes of separation, death and resurrection were common throughout the myths of the Bronze Era, a period of time lasting from roughly 3500 BCE to 1250 BCE. And while the Goddess has pretty much been erased from all Western, modern-era religious myths and stories, She was a central figure in the resurrection stories of our past.
“The goddess has many names and many different tales are told about her, but one story is unvarying throughout the Near East. The goddess becomes separated from the one she loves, who dies or seems to die, and falls into a darkness called the ‘Underworld,’” wrote Anne Baring and Jules Cashford in their classic work The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image. “The goddess descends to overcome the darkness so that her loved one may return to the light, and life may continue.”
In ancient Sumeria, the Goddess Inanna descends into darkness to visit her sister, the underworld Goddess, Erishkigal. Erishkigal kills her sister, but Inanna is eventually resurrected and returns to the light, only to send back her lover, Dumuzi, to take her place.
In Babylonia, the Goddess Ishtar must make an annual pilgrimage into the darkness to awaken her consort, Tammuz, and to bring him back up into the light. In Egypt, the Goddess Isis mourns bitterly when her husband-brother, Osiris, is murdered by their other brother, Seth. The land falls into barrenness as she mourns, and new life only returns when she is able to rouse Osiris from the dead, reassembling the pieces of his body. And in ancient Greece, the Goddess Demeter’s daughter, Persephone, is abducted and taken to the underworld by Hades. Just as with Isis, Demeter’s sorrow plunges the whole world into death, and plant and animal life only return when Persephone is returned to her in the spring.
Not only do these stories share similar themes, they also coincide with a particular moment during the natural cycle of the year: spring, that beautiful time during which the Earth appears to wake up, and new plant life begins to bud. And while the story of Jesus is missing the Goddess (his mother, Mary, is present at the crucifixion, but has no role in bringing him back to life), the timing of it is a match for all the other stories that preceded it. Easter is celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon after the Spring Equinox, the turning point from winter to spring that’s been honored by ancient people for thousands and thousands of years.
When I first learned of the connections between the Christian story of Easter and its similarities to many older Goddess myths, I felt shocked and slightly scandalized. I was raised a Southern Baptist, and while I hadn’t considered myself a Christian for quite some time, I nonetheless had assumed that stories about Jesus were wholly unique. I was fascinated by the older myths, but I hesitated to speak of these connections for fear of offending those who are deeply devout. Now, however, I have a different perspective.
Life had a rhythm, one that constantly reminded our ancestors they were part of a never-ending cycle of life that inevitably involved birth, death, and rebirth.
From the earliest moments in human time, our ancestors seemed to recognize the creative force of the universe as female, a loving mother whose body, Earth, gave us all that we needed to survive. And to make sense of death, they turned their attention to Her and to nature too, witnessing how the plants, animals and even humans that died faded into the Earth, only for new life to eventually sprout from the very same ground. Life had a rhythm, one that constantly reminded our ancestors they were part of a never-ending cycle of life that inevitably involved birth, death, and rebirth — or, resurrection, to use the Biblical term.
In more recent times, we’ve told ourselves a different story — that we exist separate from nature, that the body of our Mother Earth is here for our exploitation and domination, and that time marches forward in a straight line, from birth to a final place of death (with a lucky place in an eternal heaven for those who hold the right set of beliefs). Yet still we cling to the old, old story of resurrection, even though most people have no awareness of its origins.
If we can look beyond religious dogma, I find the continuance of this story to be incredibly comforting. Somewhere deep within us, beyond all of our fears of scarcity and our resulting tendencies to hoard and over-consume all of our natural resources, I believe that we know and understand the natural order of things and our place within it. We know that there are periods of death and decay, and periods of new life, and we know that these rhythms apply to our own lives as well.
Everywhere we turn right now, we are surrounded by stories of death. And yet right alongside all of this human suffering and loss of life (not to mention the tremendous fear of it), the trees are budding. Spring flowers are emerging. Birds are filling the quiet mornings with their raucous songs. Life goes on, even after death — even amidst death.
This is, of course, as it should be. In the oldest stories we have about the Goddess, She is always associated with both creation AND destruction. That’s because our ancestors knew that these two acts are not separate. When something dies, something new is born. And when something new is born, it will inevitably die.
This thought may be more comforting to some than others, depending on how each of us has been personally affected by the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe. For me, it brings some reassurance that even though death is all around us, life can and will inevitably go on, perhaps in new and better ways than this terribly unjust world we currently inhabit. Those we’ve lost will go on, too.
Yes, death is on the doorstep of humanity. So is the resurrection.