#FolkloreThursday: The Sacrificial Gods

[CW: human sacrifice, child death, frank discussions about religion and mythology]

Nota bene: I understand that some who read this will not agree with my beliefs or what I have to say. That’s fine. I get that. Having said that, I do not want to debate this. I have no desire to debate with anyone about what I believe or debate anyone else about their beliefs. Find another forum.

This week’s theme is Spring Folklore, which is a pretty broad target. There are so many ways to go with this so it took me a bit to come up with an idea. And then it hit me…

Let’s talk about some of the many gods who have experienced sacrifice, rebirth, and resurrection, thus perpetuating the cycle of death and rebirth that has been with us for millenia. Because, y’all, the one that gets all the attention was not the first one to do it, or even the second, or the third. The sacrifice of gods and kings was a sacred rite meant to bring life back to the land and ensure a bountiful harvest in the fall. It was a rite of renewal and hope.

Due to the absolute abundance of sacrificial gods in mythology and folklore, I can’t do all of them. There’s really just so many, not to mention all of the sacred kings. Some of these stories have more history than others, and some are so convoluted that it’s difficult to get to the roots of them. So we’ll just take a brief look at four of them that either predate Christ or are contemporary with him. Not all of these take place in the spring (that we know of) but many involve springs (or water in some form), trees (or wood in some form), death, and resurrection.

Let’s start with Dionysus…

Most of us are aware of Dionysus as the God of the Grape but he did a lot more than that, including being reborn several times. There may have actually been two Dionysus’ (Dionysi?) but the stories are unclear on that point. What most people don’t realize–because they’re distracted by the drunken, stumbling aspect–is that he is actually a very ancient cthonic god. He is also associated with orchards, fruit, vegetation, and fertility. So show some respect the next time you lift a glass!

At any rate, Zagreus-Dionysus was born to Zeus and Persephone, or maybe Demeter(?). This version of Dionysus was himself said to be a rebirth of the first Dionysus, who was apparently Osiris. I know, y’all. I know. Stay with me here. We’ll get to Osiris in a moment. So, anyway. Soon after Zagreus-Dionysus was born, he was attacked by Titans.

Not those Titans, y’all. Get it together!

Zagreus-Dionysus shape-shifted constantly as he was being attacked, and it seemed as if he might hold out until Hera (it’s ALWAYS Hera) killed his last form, a bull. The Titans cut him to pieces and got themselves thrown into Tartarus. Gaia, the mother of Titans, was distraught over this and set fire to the world, causing Zeus to have to create a flood in order to calm things down (We’ll get to flood myths too eventually; I promise).

Ok, so his second birth is very convoluted. After Zagreus-Dionysus was torn apart, Zeus took the pieces of his heart and put them into a drink which he then gave to Semele, the daughter of the king of Thebes. Hera (I told y’all!) appears to Semele as her nurse and tells her that she should call to Zeus to come to her as he would come to Hera. So, she does… and is immediately killed by a thunderbolt. Zeus then takes the child from her womb, sews him into his thigh until it’s time, and gives him into the care of Nysus. There’s speculation that this is where his name came from but I couldn’t find any details on Nysus.

His second rebirth takes place in the aftermath of his voyage to the underworld in order to rescue his mother, Semele. They emerge from a lagoon off the coast of the Argolid. This journey to the underworld and his “rebirth” became a sacred mystery with its own rites and rituals. After she is rescued, Dionysus renames his mother Thyone and they both ascend to Olympus as gods. There’s way more to his story than that, as with all of these, but we must move on.

So, about Osiris…

Most of us know Osiris as the Egyptian god of the dead but, like Dionysus, he is much more than that. He was the god of fertility and agriculture, and it is believed that he began as an ancient king of Egypt, whose story became myth as the years went by. This places him firmly in the category of “sacred king.” The amount of ancient, original material on Osiris is truly astounding, and helps to place his origins.

The general story is that Osiris was a god-king who was married to Isis. His lineage extends back into the mists of history, ending with the god Ra. Osiris, Isis, and Set are all the children of Geb and Nut. As is the way with gods, Set is unhappy with Osiris but the reasons differ as to why. Some say that Set was mad because Osiris kicked him, other sources say that Osiris slept with Set’s girl. In all honesty, though, the cause doesn’t really matter. This is an allegory about order and chaos, death and rebirth.

The sources also differ as to how Set killed Osiris. There are stories of dismemberment as well as tales that Set tricked Osiris into a coffin, sealed it shut and threw it into the Nile River. So, again, we see the use of water as a metaphor for rebirth.

After the death of her partner, Isis searches for her husband’s body. In some tales she has to search for the pieces and put them back together.

In Anne Rice’s book The Vampire Lestat, the story is that Isis was able to find all but one piece of Osiris and yes, it’s THAT piece. This is meant to explain how he became the God of the Dead; he can no longer procreate. This is all part of a much larger story that is being told about the first vampires so you’d have to read this book andThe Queen of the Damned to understand the whole thing.

I’ve never been able to find anything that explicitly states this, however, and Isis did become pregnant with Horus immediately after resurrecting Osiris. However, this resurrection was only temporary and he eventually becomes the ruler of Duat, the realm of the dead. His true rebirth, then, is through his son.

That’s the essential gist of the story of Osiris. Now we’re going to jump forward a bit to just before the Common Era, where we will find a god who decided to sacrificed himself.

I’m going to assume that most of us know who Odin is by now. I’ve written about him as an aspect of Santa Claus and as one of the leaders of the Wild Hunt. We tend to associate him most closely with the Vikings but he is much older than that. Going all the way back to 2 BCE or thereabouts in Northern Europe–specifically the Germanic areas–Odin was a well-known figure and had many things attributed to him, including war, fertility, death, rebirth, wisdom, sorcery, frenzy, and so much more. But today we’re going to talk about his eye.

Even though Odin was a god who ruled a vast realm, he felt that he didn’t know enough. He wanted to know all, to have the greatest wisdom, and to see what was being hidden from him. In order to do this, Odin would have to sacrifice himself.

His first step was to tear out his own eye and sacrifice it in Mimir’s well (more water). After this was done, he threw himself onto his spear, Gungnir. His body was then hung from Yggdrasil, the World Tree, for nine days and nights. He was then resurrected, having gained great knowledge, including that of the Futhark, as well as an awareness of other worlds. All things considered, Odin’s story of self-sacrifice is pretty short and sweet. But it also has the advantage of being straightforward, unlike many of these stories and it doesn’t really have variations.

And speaking of variations, y’all, let’s talk about Mithra(s)

I mean, yes, this is Jeremy Davies as one of the Jesus’s in American Gods but it’s pretty close to the extant images of Mithras so I’m going with it.

Okay, so this is another very convoluted story that involves a lot scholarly slap-fighting. First, let me explain the name. Mithra is a Zoroastrian deity from at least 500 BCE who was associated with light, truth, the harvest, and water (again with the water). Mithras was the figurehead for the Roman mystery religion Mithraism. While it does appear to be the case that the Romans were inspired by the Persians, the story of Mithra(s) went wildly out of control.

Originally Mithra was loosely associated with the sun but he was not himself a sun god. This would change later, as all gods evolve, until he essentially became conflated with both Helios and Apollo. His name was also associated with Manichean angels, one of whom was described as being “a savior figure, but one concerned with setting up the structures to liberate the Light lost when the First Man had been defeated.” So, already we can see the connections that are forming.

As to Mithras, well… okay, so his worship became very, very popular with Roman soldiers. So popular, in fact, that Mithraism came to be seen as a rival to Christianity. Followers of Mithraism would find themselves being persecuted by Christians by the 4th century (I’ll ignore the irony of Christians persecuting Romans after they way they were treated because whatever) and the religion would finally be shattered and suppressed by the end of the 4th century.

Now, this is where things get tricky between Mithra(s) and Jesus. There are sources who will state that the Mithraics were grafting his story onto the already existing story of Jesus. However, Plutarch writes of pirates who, in 67 BCE:

…offered strange rites of their own at Mount Olympus, and celebrated there, certain secret rites, among which those of Mithras continue to the present time, having been first instituted by them … — Plutarch

For many scholars, this seems to be a chicken/egg scenario, with individual scholars coming down on one side or the other, depending on their own personal belief systems. Having said that, Mithras did have a miraculous birth in that he was born out of a rock, however, there is no concrete (pun totally intended) proof of whether it was December 25th or not. That idea though, well, I’ll save conversations about the supposed birthdate of Jesus for another post but there is also no indication that Mithras died on a cross.

Part of this conflation may have come from the fact that Mithras imagery was reused and integrated into Christian art in some places. This could have sent people off and running, especially when pagans get wound up about the co-opting of our holidays.

What all of this boils down to, in the end, is the concept of divine and holy sacrifice. It is the idea of a person believing so much in their land and their people that they would give their life in offering. Knowing that your gods have also sacrificed their lives for the greater good provides motivation for simple, mortal humans to do the same.

Too often, when we think of the concept of human sacrifice we react with revulsion and dismay that this happened but we have to consider the context, and the beliefs driving this kind of practice. Many of the cultures that practiced human sacrifice did so in the belief that life itself was sacred and so a human offering themselves in this way was incredibly important. This wasn’t something that was done on a whim.

And too, why can we accept the idea that Jesus dying on the cross for the sins of humanity was a sacred act and still discount the human sacrifice that other cultures engaged in? As much as Christians believe in the holy nature of what was done to Jesus, so too do other cultures believe in the holiness of their sacrificial offerings. I think too often we forget that other people’s beliefs are just as important to them as ours are to us.

And please understand that I am not mocking Christ or any other deity. My belief system allows for the existence of a multitude of deities. Christ is not mine, and he is not meant for me to worship. But I understand his sacrifice in the same way I understand other sacrificial gods. These are things that are sacred and holy, and his sacrifice is one of many.

Griffin, Garrett S. “Other Gods That Rose from the Dead in Spring before Jesus Christ.” Griffin, 6 Aug. 2021, https://gsgriffin.com/2016/12/08/other-gods-that-rose-from-the-dead-in-spring-before-jesus-christ/.

“Mithras and Christianity.” The Tertullian Project, https://www.tertullian.org/rpearse/mithras/display.php?page=mithras_and_christianity.

“Odin – the One-Eyed All-Father.” The Swedish History Museum, https://historiska.se/norse-mythology/odin-en/#:~:text=Odin’s%20self%2Dsacrifice&text=But%20he%20wanted%20to%20know,kind%20of%20symbolic%2C%20ritual%20suicide.

Peet, Sam. “Rebirth and Resurrection: Spring Myths of the Ancient World.” Culture Trip, The Culture Trip, 15 Apr. 2019, https://theculturetrip.com/europe/united-kingdom/articles/rebirth-and-resurrection-spring-myths-of-the-ancient-world/.

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