The Riddle of the Resurrection
A review of Tryggve Mettinger's, "The Riddle of the Resurrection: 'Dying and Rising Gods' in the Ancient Near East," by Dr. Richard Hess.
Mettinger, Tryggve N. D. The Riddle of the Resurrection: “Dying and Rising Gods” in the Ancient Near East. Coniectanea Biblica Old Testament Series 50. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 2001. Paperback. 272 pp. ISBN 91-22-01945-6.
Mettinger’s examination of dying and rising gods returns to a subject that has been a perennial favorite of students of ancient Mediterranean and ancient Near Eastern religions for nearly a century. Its popularity began with the third edition of James G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough, which appeared in 1914. Examining the Classical and Egyptian myths surrounding Adonis, Attis, and Osiris, Frazer argued that the vegetation cycle was followed by a god who would day when the vegetation waned and then be brought back to life with the coming of fresh vegetation.
The first stop on Metttinger’s tour of the mythical world is Ugarit. He begins with the Baal cycle, wherein lies the conflict of those who see Baal dying and then coming back to life vs. those who see a substitute for Baal in the death or for Baal simply going away and later returning. However, none of these latter alternatives satisfies the clear suggestion that Baal went to the realm of death and later is alive. Beyond this, the attempt to find celebrations of models of Baal’s coming back to life in other ritual and myth texts seems interesting but subject to alternative interpretations.
Like Baal at Ugarit, Melqart of Tyre (i.e., the Greek Herakles) may have been a dying and rising god. The tradition that Hiram of Tyre, contemporary of Solomon, began the awakening of Melqart festival is credited to Josephus and his sources. Evidence for official title of a religious figure who “raises/resurrects the god” comes from the fourth century BC and later, with a significant Sidonian vase probably dated to the fifth century. On it appear a series of scenes that describe how Melqart/Herakles is burnt to death and later resurrected. This association with death by fire is found in allusions in various myths and even an observed human sacrifice by Tertullian in second century North Africa. The Pyrgi inscription describes a burial of a god who Mettinger takes to be Melqart but this should not be seen as mythically in conflict with the idea of a death in flames. The incineration motif might have been introduced as new burial techniques came to dominate the Mediterranean, with cremation replacing the more popular burials of the Late Bronze Age (Ugarit).
If Melqart was associated with Tyre, Adonis, though worshipped in many places, was especially connected with Byblos (pp. 125-137). The name seems to derive from the Semitic term for “(my) lord, master.” Adonis had a festival in the summer in which women mourned for his death and then a day later celebrated his resurrection. Although reported by various Greek and Roman writers, the early Christians Origen and Jerome mention it but do not derive any part of the festival from Christianity. Further, they connect the Tammuz of Ezek. 8:14 with Adonis and the weeping ritual with the annual vegetation cycle of death and rebirth. Mettinger (pp. 137-144) discusses the Amarna letters from Byblos where he notes the preponderance of the deity, “the Lady of Byblos.” However, twice there are references to a male deity, once as “my living god” (EA 129.51) and again as “my DA.MU” (EA 84.35). This male counterpart of the Lady of Byblos. He relates this to a deity known as Damu. By the tenth century, from inscriptions in and near Byblos, Damu may have become known as Baal of Byblos and “lord,” where this is an epithet spelled exactly the same as Adon. Mettinger argues that DA.MU was a logographic spelling that represented the god Adon. He notes the connection of Damu and Dumuzi in some first millennium BC Sumerian hymns, and the role of Damu as a dying and rising vegetation deity. This reconstruction would anticipate the dying and rising Adonis of later Phoenician times. The symbolism of Adonis gardens in the Mediterranean and their connection with sterility is well attested in Classical and Roman times and may be suggested as early as Isa. 17:10-11. However, the connection with a thirteenth century BC text from Emar where the diviner throws seed on the ground before planting begins seems speculative. Small plantings of seeds in the summer before the regular sowing continues in Christian celebrations of the midsummer Feast of St. John. Mettinger (pp. 148-154) concludes that the Dumuzi myth was known in thirteenth century Ugarit in the form of Baal. He observes the tendency to mourn the Mediterranean Adonis but notes how little information exists about the Levantine Adonis. All connect their death and resurrection with the seasons and mark annual celebrations around July.
Mettinger discusses Eshmun, the god of Sidon. He notes that the origins of the name Eshmun in “oil” and his association Asklepios all suggest an integral connection with healing. However, it is nowhere clear, before a fifth century A.D. witness, that Eshmun should be identified as a dying and rising god. The same is true of Osiris as known in the myths from Egypt.
The origins of the dying and rising gods are to be found in the Sumerian and Akkadian myths associated with Dumuzi and his borrowing of vegetation forms from Ningishzida and possibly Damu. The result is a god who is celebrated as one who does go into the underworld for part of the year and then re-emerges. That such rituals did take place among West Semites as early as 18th century Mari is shown from texts there. This certainly could have influenced the Baal myths at Ugarit and Dumuzi remained a force in the background of the Phoenician and later Mediterranean rituals and myths associated with vegetation. Mettinger has provided the reader with a valuable guide of all important ancient sources relevant to this question. From a great mass of diverse data he has judiciously argued a conclusion that may not persuade everyone but becomes a primary source for future discussion.
Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
Professor of Old Testament