According to the New Testament, Jesus Christ was cruelly martyred by the Romans around 33 A.D. But after three days in the tomb, it says, Jesus miraculously rose again, appeared to his disciples and ascended to heaven. Jesus’ resurrection and triumph over death is what Christians celebrate every Easter.
But Christianity isn’t the only ancient faith to worship a deity who dies and then rises again, as the Scottish anthropologist James Frazer explained in The Golden Bough, his landmark 1922 study of world religion and mythology.
In the ancient Near East, where the Bible was written, stories of divine death and resurrection were closely tied with the agricultural cycle, and Frazer believed that early Christians likely chose a spring date for Easter to coincide with existing pagan festivals for their resurrected gods.
“Taken altogether, the coincidences of the Christian with the heathen festivals are too close and too numerous to be accidental,” concluded Frazer.
Here are six examples of resurrection stories from ancient cultures around the world, including India, China, Mesoamerica and Norse mythology.
Tammuz, the Spring God of Mesopotamia
In ancient agrarian societies, the last days of winter marked the end of months of meager subsistence and the long-awaited bounty of the spring and summer. In ancient Mesopotamia, one of the first agrarian civilizations, the people turned to divine explanations for these annual cycles of feast and famine.
Ishtar was the great mother goddess of Mesopotamia and the source of nature’s fertility and abundance. Her lover was Tammuz, a handsome young god who died each winter and passed away to the shadowy underworld. For six months of the year, Ishtar traveled to the realm of the dead to rescue her lover. During that time, the world was robbed of all fertility, reproduction and growth.
Every spring, the stern goddess of the underworld, Allatu, would allow the imprisoned couple to be sprinkled with the Water of Life and return to the world of the living, bringing life and green vegetation back to the earth. In the Babylonian calendar, the resurrection was celebrated during Du'ûzu or “Month of Tammuz,” which fell in late June and early July.
All across the ancient Near East, later cultures put their own twist on the spring resurrection story. The Phrygians told the tale of Attis, who was brought back to life on the spring equinox by Cybele, the fertility goddess. The Greeks told the myth of Persephone, kidnapped by Hades, who is allowed to return every spring from the underworld, heralding the return of vegetation and grain production.
Osiris, the Egyptian God of Death of Agriculture
Like Mesopotamia, ancient Egyptian civilization was dependent on the cycles of nature. They especially relied on the annual spring flooding of the Nile, which fueled the agricultural abundance of the Nile basin. The ancient Egyptians believed that the orderly cycles of nature were controlled by Osiris, the god of agriculture.
According to Egyptian mythology, Osiris once ruled the earth alongside his queen Isis, the fertility goddess. But Osiris was tricked and murdered by his brother Set, who chopped up Osiris’s body and scattered his remains across Egypt. Isis reassembled Osiris’s body, anointed it with oil and performed the elaborate rites of embalming, which resurrected Osiris to eternal life as the god of the underworld.
Ancient pharaohs also hoped to become immortal through the same embalming and mummification rituals that Isis used to resurrect Osiris. In time, even common Egyptians chose to be mummified in the hopes of conquering death just as Osiris had done. Royal mummies like Tutankhamun were found wearing funerary masks bearing the likeness of Osiris.
Outwitting Death in Ancient India
Further east, in India, there exists at least one beloved story of death and resurrection.
According to Hindu tradition, there was once a clever and beautiful princess named Savitri, who refused to marry any of the suitors clamoring for her hand. She departed her palace in search of her true love and found Satyavan, a handsome woodsman who was once a prince.
Savitri and Satyavan fell in love and married, but a messenger from the gods delivered a terrible prophecy—Satyavan would die in exactly one year. And as promised, on the young couple’s first anniversary, Satyavan collapsed and died. Yamraj, the god of death, came to claim Satyavan’s soul.
But clever Savitri had a plan. She doggedly followed Yamraj across the burning desert and to the entrance to the underworld, begging for the return of Satyavan. Yamraj agreed to grant Savitri one wish, but not for her husband’s life.
Instead, Savitri asked that she be granted the gift of many children. When Yamraj accepted, she asked him how she was supposed to bear children without a husband. And since she had vowed to only marry Satyavan, Yamraj had to return Savitri’s husband to keep his word.
Satyavan was brought back to life and the happy couple were reunited.
Bodhidharma and His Single Shoe
According to Buddhist tradition, the figure known as Bodhidharma was a great Indian sage who may have been the first to bring Buddhism to China. In the Zen Buddhist tradition, Bodhidharma often plays the role of the wise and wily Zen master, challenging his students with cryptic riddles that, if deciphered, lead to the path of enlightenment.
One day, a Chinese diplomat named Songyun was crossing the Pamir Mountains between China and India when he passed the now elderly Bodhidharma walking in the opposite direction. Songyun asked where the master was going, and Bodhidharma replied that he was finally going home to India.
Then Songyun noticed that Bodhidharma was only wearing one shoe, so he asked why. Bodhidharma suggested that Songyun ask the monks when he arrived in Shaolin. The men parted ways, but when Songyun asked about Bodhidharma’s shoe in Shaolin, he was thrown in jail for lying. Songyun could not have seen Bodhidharma, because the master had died several years earlier.
To prove it, the monks opened up Bodhidharma’s tomb, but all they found was a single shoe. Not even death could contain the wisdom of Bodhidharma, who is often depicted barefoot and carrying a single shoe on a stick.
Odin’s Sacrifice (to Himself)
In Norse mythology, Odin is chief among the gods of Valhalla, a creator god whose wisdom and wizardry were unmatched. But Odin had to pay a terrible price to achieve his powerful and esoteric knowledge.
According to Norse legend, the greatest sources of wisdom in the ancient world were the runes, magic symbols that not even the gods could decipher. But Odin was willing to do whatever was necessary—even face death itself—to untangle the meaning of the runes and access their hidden power.
According to the epic Viking poem Hávamál, Odin subjected himself to a violent form of self-sacrifice: “myself to my own self given,” Odin says. Odin hung himself from the great tree Yggdrasil, pierced his side with a spear and forbade any of the other gods from coming to his aid. For nine days, Odin hung from the tree, staring down into the watery depths of the Well of Urd until finally, on the ninth day, the forms of the runes were revealed to him.
In the language and imagery of the Hávamál, part of Odin died in that nine-day ordeal and he was reborn or resurrected as a far more powerful being with newfound knowledge and abilities.
Quetzalcóatl: Resurrection in Mesoamerica
In ancient Mesoamerica, the greatest of all the gods was Quetzalcóatl, the “feathered serpent” worshiped across centuries of Mayan, Toltec and Aztec civilizations.
In some traditions, Quetzalcóatl was an Osiris-like figure, the god of agriculture and vegetation closely associated with the rain god Tláloc. And like Osiris, Quetzalcóatl was deceived by his brother, tricked into drinking a powerful intoxicant and sleeping with a priestess. Overcome with guilt, Quetzalcóatl killed himself through self-immolation, but rose again to life.
In Toltec mythology, Quetzalcóatl is linked with Venus, the brightest star in the ancient sky that appeared to “rise” from the Sun, like Quetzalcóatl rising from his funeral pyre. In his personification of Venus, the morning and evening star, Quetzalcóatl became the god of death and rebirth. As creator god, Quetzalcóatl also descended to the underworld to collect the bones necessary to make the first human beings.