So, it’s Easter week, or Holy Week as it’s called in many Christian denominations. Some variation of “Christ is risen!” “He is risen indeed!” is a common greeting throughout the Christian world around this time of year. But did you know celebrating the death and resurrection of a young deity killed in his prime is a spring custom that predates Christianity? Centuries before Jesus was born, people were celebrating this time of year by proclaiming, “The lord is risen!”
Or, if you skip translating the deity’s name, “Adonis is risen.”
In his 1922 volume The Golden Bough, Sir James George Frazer writes:
When we reflect how often the Church has skilfully contrived to plant the seeds of the new faith on the old stock of paganism, we may surmise that the Easter celebration of the dead and risen Christ was grafted upon a similar celebration of the dead and risen Adonis, which, as we have seen reason to believe, was celebrated in Syria at the same season. The type, created by Greek artists, of the sorrowful goddess with her dying lover in her arms, resembles and may have been the model of the Pietà of Christian art, the Virgin with the dead body of her divine Son in her lap, of which the most celebrated example is the one by Michael Angelo in St. Peters. That noble group, in which the living sorrow of the mother contrasts so wonderfully with the languor of death in the son, is one of the finest compositions in marble. Ancient Greek art has bequeathed to us few works so beautiful, and none so pathetic.
Remember the scene in Snarled Threads where (SPOILERS!) Persephone is cradling Adonis on the barge? Michelangelo’s Pieta was the image in my head when I wrote it. Though hopefully it goes without saying that Thalia’s Musings isn’t a Gospel allegory, and that my Adonis is not Jesus. 😛
But it is fascinating to me how Christianity co-opted so much of the Adonis story and rites into the Easter story and rites when, other than being killed at a young age, Jesus and Adonis didn’t have that much in common. Well, that and geography. Frazer continues:
In this connexion a well-known statement of Jerome may not be without significance. He tells us that Bethlehem, the traditionary birthplace of the Lord, was shaded by a grove of that still older Syrian Lord, Adonis, and that where the infant Jesus had wept, the lover of Venus was bewailed. Though he does not expressly say so, Jerome seems to have thought that the grove of Adonis had been planted by the heathen after the birth of Christ for the purpose of defiling the sacred spot. In this he may have been mistaken. If Adonis was indeed, as I have argued, the spirit of the corn, a more suitable name for his dwelling-place could hardly be found than Bethlehem, “the House of Bread,” and he may well have been worshipped there at his House of Bread long ages before the birth of Him who said, “I am the bread of life.”
And then there’s the heralded by a star in the East thing:
But the star which the people of Antioch saluted at the festival was seen in the East; therefore, if it was indeed Venus, it can only have been the Morning Star. At Aphaca in Syria, where there was a famous temple of Astarte, the signal for the celebration of the rites was apparently given by the flashing of a meteor, which on a certain day fell like a star from the top of Mount Lebanon into the river Adonis. The meteor was thought to be Astarte herself, and its flight through the air might naturally be interpreted as the descent of the amorous goddess to the arms of her lover. At Antioch and elsewhere the appearance of the Morning Star on the day of the festival may in like manner have been hailed as the coming of the goddess of love to wake her dead leman from his earthy bed. If that were so, we may surmise that it was the Morning Star which guided the wise men of the East to Bethlehem, the hallowed spot which heard, in the language of Jerome, the weeping of the infant Christ and the lament for Adonis.
Astarte is an early Mesopotamian fertility goddess. Aphrodite is thought to be her Greek counterpart, with Venus, of course, as the Roman reboot. Other variations on Astarte’s archetype include Ishtar and Eostre. Can you guess which major Christian holiday derives its name from theirs?
My intent here isn’t to ruin Easter for anyone. And I’m certainly not trying to make the point that the Gospel is BS because it’s one more retelling of stories humans have been telling as long as we’ve existed. On the contrary, I think the fact that every civilization has basically told their own variation of the same stories makes those stories that much more significant and that much more real. Whether or not they’re derived from events that literally, historically happened, they’re about True things. Solstices, equinoxes, plantings, harvests, the phases of the moon, the path of the stars; there’s an innate beauty and power to these cycles. That’s what Myth is, not a mere synonym for “fallacy”. Myth is taking the beauty and power of these cycles and turning it into Story.
Whatever stories you’re celebrating this week, may your celebration be a good one!