Resurrection in Mythology
Resurrection is another theme that tends to appear in myths and legends from around the world. There are many different types of resurrection in mythology –some which are considered a blessing, some which are considered a curse, and some which are used to explain the natural order of things. Legends about resurrection are broad and varied and are only held together by the common theme of something once claimed by death coming back to life.
In honour of Easter, we’ve decided to take a look at some of the different ways that resurrection and rebirth appear in different myths:
Resurrection of Spring
Many early myths are used as a way to explain natural phenomena, and there are many cultures which have legends of gods or goddesses who die and then come back to life as an explanation for the cyclical nature of the seasons. In these myths, a young god or goddess associated with plants or vegetation is kidnapped, or dies, and is transported to the underworld. In the time that they are away, the plants of the world begin to die, and winter takes hold. When the god or goddess returns from the underworld, winter ends, and spring begins.
One of the most famous versions of this is the Greek myth of Hades and Persephone. Hades kidnapped Persephone and took her to the underworld, intending to make her his bride. Persephone’s mother was so distraught that she caused a terrible famine in the mortal realm, and hundreds died. Zeus eventually forced Hades to allow Persephone to return, however Persephone had eaten six pomegranate seeds and so was bound to the underworld. It was decided that she would spend six months of the year in the heavens – spring and summer – and six months in the underworld – autumn and winter.
Another, similar myth exists in Slavic mythology, in which Jarylo, the tenth son of the lightning god Parun, was kidnapped on the day of his birth and raised by the god of the dead. Spring marked his return to the world.
Resurrection as Salvation
Whether or not this one truly counts as a salvation or as a curse depends on point of view, but in Greek myth the gods frequently take pity on dying mortals by resurrecting them in a new form. Unfortunately, these forms can be a little bit hit and miss, as they are normally plants, animals, and constellations!
One example of this was Smyrna, the princess of Cyprus and mother of Adonis. She fled from her father who was determined to kill her for her crimes. Begging the gods for their assistance, she was transformed into a myrrh tree. Depending on the myth, the gods either transformed her into a tree to save her life, or to punish her. While a tree, Smyrna gave birth to Adonis, the child springing forth from a split open bough of the tree. Ironically, Adonis was also resurrected as a plant, his blood transforming into anemones upon his death.
Resurrection as a Curse
Not every story of treats resurrection as a blessing, and many myths see it as denying an individual their path to paradise or eternal rest.
In these stories, the thought of resurrection is instead looked at as a curse, and fears of being forced into an eternal, unnatural life has led to myths of ghouls, vampires and zombies. The resurrected are no longer human, and in many cases, lack reason and rationality. They are instead driven by a supernatural hunger for human flesh or blood and are no longer the same person that they were before their death.
Many myths about these creatures are focused on how to protect yourself, and how to permanently kill them. These deaths are usually violent, involving such horrors as decapitation, immolation, and, of course, the traditional ‘wooden stake to the heart’ method of taking care of vampires.
Resurrection as Rebirth
Humans and gods are not the only beings that resurrect in mythology. One creature that is well known for its ability to die and come back to life is the phoenix.
Early legends of the bird can be found across Egypt, Europe, and Asia. The phoenix is a creature associated with the sun, and fire. It is often said that when the bird dies, it bursts into flame, and a new phoenix is born from the ashes of the old. Other myths are slightly less dramatic. In them, the phoenix does not catch fire, and merely decomposes naturally. A new Phoenix is born from its corpse.
Because the phoenix appears in so many myths and cultures, there are many different versions of the reincarnation legend. In some, the phoenix’s natural life is 1,000 years, after which it passes away and is reborn. In others, the bird must create a special nest which it lights and must then jump into the flame.
Resurrection of the World
In Norse mythology, legend tells of not just a person, or even a god resurrecting, but rather the rebirth of the entire world.
In Norse legends about the end of days, they tell of a terrifying event known as Ragnarok. Ragnarok is the end of days and tells of a battle between the gods that resulted in the end of the world. For three years, the world was plunged into eternal winter, after the sun and the moon were destroyed. The battle culminated with the death of the thunder god, Thor, who defeats Jormungandr, the Midgard serpent and dies soon after from the snake’s poison.
After the world is destroyed, it is reborn. A new green world is born from the sea, and the dead sun births a daughter, who takes her place in the sky. The few survivors of the battle take shelter on this new world and bring forward new life – including the two human survivors, Lif and Lifthrasir.
These are, of course, just a few of the ways that resurrection appears in myths and legends around the world! It is a popular theme, and while we have only taken a look at the more successful legends - there are many legends similar to that of Persephone where, sadly, the person is not successfully reborn.