Next Sunday most Christians in the western world will celebrate Easter (Greek and Russian Orthodox faiths follow a different calendar). And last week all of us noted the Vernal Equinox, the First Day of Spring (notwithstanding the continued wintry weather gripping large swaths of the East and Midwest). In spite of any such glitches in local weather, however, we know that it won’t be long before the forsythias are in bloom, crocuses are poking their heads up, and it’s just a matter of a few short weeks after that before tulips, lilacs, and daffodils begin to make their appearance.
Even in this terrible era of global warming, there is no holding spring back. And the concomitant joyful celebrations of the warming of temperatures, the blossoming of plants, and the regeneration of life after a long, cold winter are practically part of our human DNA.
Such rites of spring were common among ancient peoples, particularly as they came to rely more and more on agriculture and on the cultivation of crops, rather than on hunting and gathering, in order to feed themselves and their families. Look at almost any of these cultures anywhere in the world, and you will see rites that honored the burial of seeds in the earth, in essence their ritual death, only to await not long afterwards their miraculous resurgence, their resurrection as it were. Everywhere, ritual followed such practices, and one relied upon the other for the continual nurturing and feeding of humankind.
As almost sacrilegious as this may sound to some, there are not a few scholars who contend that the origins of Christian Easter itself can be found in these ancient ways of viewing and understanding the world. It is after all common to find stories in numerous mythologies around the globe recounting the death, burial, and resurrection of a god. We see these stories everywhere, in fact, and most reflect this same burying of seeds in the earth and the eventual resurgence of these buried seeds in the form of living plants. People then eat of the fruits of this regeneration and so, in that sense, partake of the life of the mythic creature (the seed) that had ritually died, been placed in the earth, only to rise again.
One of my favorite myths of this variety within the Greco-Roman tradition has to do with Demeter and her daughter/younger self, Persephone. As you may recall, Hades (the Roman Dis Pater), snatched Persephone from the world of light and carried her down into the Underworld. Demeter, goddess of grain and the harvest (the Roman Ceres, from which we get the word cereal), mourned her and refused to deliver on her promise of providing food for humankind. However, without people Zeus would have no worshipers, and so he quickly decided to send his messenger, Hermes, to negotiate a deal with Hades. Unfortunately, in the meantime Persephone had relented and eaten six pomegranate seeds while in the Underworld. The immutable rule was that anyone who partook of food in the realm of Hades must remain there forever. Still, Clever Hermes was able to strike a compromise bargain, whereby Persephone was granted permission to leave the Underworld and rejoin Demeter in the upper world for six months out of the year. Alas, she would also perpetually be required to return below ground again for the other six months of the year. Thus, we have two seasons, one wherein Demeter mourns and all things die off (i.e. winter), and one when she rejoices and in which we partake of the fruits of the field (i.e., summer).
There are actually countless such similar stories in many different mythologies of the world in which gods or great heroes descend into the underworld, but then in some form return to life once more. We see it, for example, with Dionysius and Orpheus (both Greek), Osiris (Egyptian), Tammuz (Sumerian), Kululcan (Maya), Quetzalcoatl (Aztec), and a great many others. All essentially tell the same story: death (and burial) is not to be seen as the end, but the spirit instead lives on and returns to the world of light for the continuance and furtherance of human life.
But let us recognize that mythology is not only for and about ancient peoples. As I have already mentioned, the belief of Christians today in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ fits very neatly into this same pattern. Note, for example, that in the old Catholic Apostles’ Creed there is a curious line in which it is said that Jesus was “crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into Hell, and the third day he arose again from the dead.” In other words, once more we have exactly the same story of death, burial, descent into the underworld, and eventual resurrection. And while there seems to be no direct scriptural reference to this in the gospels, Catholics have believed it to be true for centuries.
Myths have many uses and many meanings. Going back for a moment to Demeter and Persephone, let us remember once again that, while the story tells us Persephone is Demeter’s daughter, in reality we can understand her as being essentially a younger, less mature form of the goddess herself. Viewed from a purely psychological point of view, we can understand this as meaning that we, all of us, have periods when we are clear and rational and full of light (the Demeter phase), and those in which we are filled with the dark, irrational passions of unreasonable fear, out-of-control anger, depression, deceit, envy and the like, that is, when our higher self is, as it were, stolen away (the phase during which Persephone is in the Underworld). In other words, sometimes we live our lives according to the light of rationality and reason, but sometimes we are caught in the shadowy and murky throes of buried and unconscious impulses, urges, and cravings. Indeed, for most of us, if we can manage a balance of half and half, as was the grand bargain struck by Hermes (the messenger of our higher, more rational selves), we have to think that we are doing pretty well!
Demeter, therefore, represents the ego, which moves about in the upper world of light and which, in so doing, is capable of fulfilling and nourishing our being. Persephone, on the other hand, is that part of ourselves which has been captured and lives in the chthonic underground of our deeper and more primal compulsions. The danger is that, if we go on to nourish ourselves with the latter, we run the risk of getting stuck there forever. Fortunately, most of us most of the time seem capable of making that fortuitous bargain whereby we live sometimes in one place, sometimes in the other.
Easter and Christ’s resurrection, too, can be seen as playing on a similar set of psycho-spiritual human concerns. The God-Avatar (Jesus), who took human (i.e. bodily) form, allows himself to die, only to show us that resurrection from death is possible. The meaning here is that our consciousness can be lifted out of the “death” of living only and forever at the more or less unconscious level of strict bodily awareness. Instead, each of us is shown that we are also capable of realizing that we can partake in higher things or, to put it another way, that eternal, undying Spirit has in some sense become us.
Whether your personal take on these mythic stories is more literal or more metaphorical, spring is the time to think about them. How, indeed, can we not, when all we see surrounding us is the rising of new life out of the death of the old?
The story of the resurrection of Christ, as well as that of all the other gods and great mythic heroes and heroines that came before and after, symbolizes the buried seed and the resurgent natural world, come back to life after long, cold, “dead” winter. Beyond that, we are also reminded that our own lives are capable of their own kind of resurrection. It is the job of each of us to strive for that elevation in our thinking and our consciousness in the best way we know how. In so doing, we can say, along with the great Marian hymn so popular in the Middle Ages, “Resurrexit, sicut dixit, alleluia.” He arose, as he said, alleluia. Surely, that is reason enough for all of us to rejoice, is it not?