Ishtar and the Underworld

At Spring time every year, posts are circulated online which point out the pagan roots of the Christian holiday of Easter. Indeed, the Christian festival which does occur each Spring has adopted symbols of fertility such as rabbits and eggs, and its story, the death and resurrection of Christ, is mirrored in many myths and legends of a dying and resurrected god or goddess.

One popular meme paralleling Easter with the Babylonian goddess Ishtar has been broadly panned as unscholarly and inaccurate.

However, according to the venerable Bede in the early 8th century, the Old English ‘Month of Ēostre’, or month of April is named after “a goddess of theirs [Old Germans] named Ēostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month”.

Christians remembered the passion of the Christ on the dates corresponding with the Jewish festival of the Passover, and while the dates move according to the lunar calendar, always falls in Spring. How then are we to integrate the ancient stories, myths and legends which prefigure and correspond to the Easter story and understand them in light of the New Testament gospels which claim historical veracity and eyewitnesses?

Following C.S.Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, I believe that ancient literature has MUCH to say in prefiguring history, pre-framing and pre-telling what occurred on Calvary, that Passover 2000 years ago.

The very myth of Ishtar mentioned above is a good starting point. It is a myth that celebrates spring and new life.

The Jewish festival Purim falls a few weeks prior to Passover and close to Persian New Year, a festival linked to the Spring Equinox. The festival of Purim celebrates the saving of the Jewish people from a decree to destroy them by the royal vizier, an Achaemenid Persian Official Haman, by the quick thinking actions of the Queen Esther during the reign of King Xerxes.

The ancient story of the goddess Ishtar might illuminate how the story of Esther tells of spring festivals and in turn informs our understanding of death and new birth.

Fairy Tales of the World delivers this wonderful summary of the story of Ishtar and the Underworld:

Ishtar was the Lady of the Gods, the Goddess of fertility. Her husband Tammuz, the great love of her youth, had died when he was still very young.

In Babylon, the dead were sent to the Underworld, a place of darkness ruled over by the Goddess Irkalla. It was said that in this place they lived on dust and mud. Ishtar became depressed and decided she would descend into the Underworld to be with Tammuz. So dressed in her finest garments, brilliant jewellery and her high crown, Ishtar entered the cave that leads into the Underworld. Irkalla’s realm was surrounded by seven walls, each with its own gate that had to be passed to get to the dark place where the dead resided.

Irkalla, the Queen of the Underworld had the head of a lioness and the body of a woman and behind her the dead gathered. There was no light in their eyes; they were dressed not in cloth but feathers, and instead of arms and hands they had the wings of birds. They lived in darkness.

Ishtar became frightfully anxious seeing them, and she wished she had never ventured in this dark place. She had expected to find Tammuz  here, but now she realised that this was a hopeless quest. Desperate, she begged Irkalla to allow her to return to the land of the living. Irkalla uttered a cold and contemptuous laugh. All memory of Ishtar’s past existence, of her great love Tammuz, disappeared with the light.

http://fairytalesoftheworld.com/quick-reads/ishtars-journey-into-the-underworld/

On earth a great change came when Ishtar descended into the Underworld. Love and desire became strangers to man and animal alike. Birds no longer sang. Bulls no longer searched out the cows. Stallions were no longer attracted to mares. Rams no longer cared for ewes. Wives no longer caressed their husbands when they returned from business or war.

Shamash, the sun god, was deeply perturbed when he saw the changes that had befallen earth. So Shamash went to see Ea, the great god, and told him that earth’s creatures were not renewing themselves. “How is this possible?” asked Ea. Shamash then related that Ishtar had descended to the Underworld, in search of Tammuz, and had not returned.

Ea then created a being he called Udushunamir, which he made devoid of all emotion or fear. With the power of all the gods, Ea sent him as an emissary to the Underworld court of Irkalla, where he would demand the water of life from the dark queen. Because Udushunamir had been created by Ea, the great god, Irkalla had no power over this creature, and could not stop it entering her realm.

So Udushunamir entered the Underworld, and stood before Irkalla, where he demanded in the name of the great gods that Irkalla provide him with the water of life, and that Ishtar be brought from the darkness. Of course Irkalla was furious at this demand. Irkalla could do nothing but submit, and she ordered the water of life be given to this creature, and so it was.

Udushunamir guided Ishtar through the darkness to the seven gates of the Underworld, and when she emerged from the cave, the rams reared high. Soldiers and merchants alike made excuses to rush home to their wives’ fond embraces. All of creation rejoiced in the return of Ishtar. And all the gods rejoiced too, knowing that their creations would renew themselves and would survive to honour and serve them.

http://fairytalesoftheworld.com/quick-reads/ishtars-journey-into-the-underworld/

When we read the story of Esther, remembered each spring at Purim, we can understand better the ancient myths of death and rebirth. It was Esther, who descended into death, willing to face execution at the hand of the king in order to request her people be spared. Helpless to deliver her people alone however, she needed deliverance from a divine emissary. The King had to send someone immune to the laws of death, into death to retrieve his Queen. In this case, it is the king himself who vows to depose the wicked vizier and to create a new law which will spare the Jewish people from extermination.

So too at Easter we see a similar drama played out on the cross. Christ descended into death to demand the lives of people held in death be returned to life. God, the Father, sending his Spirit into the underworld with Christ, returns him to life and restores with him, life to earth again, renewal and rebirth. Each of the earlier stories pre-figured, pre-told and pre-framed the story of Christ which in turn, fulfilled’ mythological typology in history.

C.S. Lewis, in his ‘Essays on Theology and Ethics‘, addresses the fact that the story of Christ, brought myth into history:

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens — at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.

Myth became fact, essay published in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, C. S. Lewis, Walter Hooper (Editor), Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Reprint edition (October 1994; original copyright 1970 by the Trustees of the Estate of C. S. Lewis). 

Tolkien similarly wrote, in a letter to Christopher his son, clarifying his view that the gospels mirror fairy-tales:

Of course I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy-story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy-story: the greatest. Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story. But since the author of it is the supreme Artist and the Author of Reality, this one was also made . . . to be true on the Primary Plane.

Letters’, 100–101

The glory of the gospel story therefore is that it is the ‘true’ myth, myth-become-fact, fairy-story incarnate in primary reality. As Tolkien concluded in his essay,

this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused

‘On Fairy-stories’, 63.

This Easter, lets take and read again the fairy-tales and myths and legends of the world, and consider, how legend and history met and fused in Christ.

The Golden Bough

The Golden Bough [1890-1915] is an anthology of comparative mythology and religion, written by the Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer.

The book is in fact 12 volumes which analyse the narratives and rituals of the ancient world. Its central thesis is that originally, religions were fertility cults concerned with cyclical seasons. These cults revolved around concerns of life and death and almost universally featured the worship of and periodic sacrifice of a sacred king. This king was most often the incarnation of a dying god, who perished at the harvest and was reincarnated in the spring.

GB

Frazer proposed that mankind has progressed from magic through religious belief to scientific thought, however this legend remained pervasive into the 20th century, Frazer’s own era. He cited the examples of Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis and Attis, Dionysus and drew parallels to Jesus Christ.

The book scandalized the British public when first published, as it equated the Christian story of Jesus and the Resurrection with the pagan religions. Nevertheless, it soon became a staple of anthropology and comparative religious curricula.

aeneas

The book’s title  The Golden Bough, refers to  the adventures of the Trojan hero Aeneas, [Virgil, The Aeneid, Book VI] who leaving Troy after its destruction travels to Italy and founds what will become Rome. He is aided by the 700 year old sibyl of Cumae, who agrees to escort him into the underworld to find his father. To achieve this, Aeneas must pluck a branch of the Golden Bough, a sacred tree that only the gods can access. Aeneas’ mother Aphrodite assists him to pluck a branch of the tree and with it and with the help of the sibyl, he descends to Hades unscathed. There he greets the ‘shade’ of his father who shows him the river Lethe, or forgetfulness and beyond it where all the spirits of the unborn await. There are Aeneas descendants, among them great men such as Romulus and the Caesars who would one day rule Rome. Aeneas’ father also points him to the Gates of Sleep through which he can return to the living.

Virgil’s narrative highlights a few interesting things about the motif of the dying king, or the hero who descends into Hades and returns.  First, it is a classic hero journey, as developed in Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces [1949]. The hero journey, also called the monomyth, is a narrative pattern favoured by storytellers, film-makers and script writers the world over. It describes the typical adventure of the archetype known as The Hero, the person who goes out and achieves great deeds on behalf of the group, tribe, or civilization.

Second, Virgil connects the hero journey to the World Tree, The Golden Bough or the divine Tree of Life. This common motif of ancient narratives connects the realm of the divine, the gods and their garden of Eden or paradise, to Earth. The branch or fruit of of the tree of life bestows immortality and so is restricted from mortal access. Access to life and thus to this tree becomes of obsessive interest to ancient heroes.

world tree

What does all this mean and what importance does this narrative resonance have at a time such as Easter?

Many point out that Easter coincides with the pagan festival of the first full moon of Spring. Thus, the celebration of the death of a supposed god-king,  who later was resurrected to restore life to earth and to humanity is easily explained away as simple anthropological pattern that people of  a more scientific age should be well beyond.

But this is where things begin to go a bit strange.

The Christian celebration of Easter coincides with the Jewish full moon celebration of the passover, a feast which celebrates the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. Far from celebrating the sacrificial death of a god-king, the Passover celebrates the merciful sparing of the people of Israel from a plague of death in Egypt by the sacrifice of a simple lamb.

Within the ancient near eastern context, rich with narratives of dying and rising god-kings, Zoroastrians and Jewish narratives resonated with a typological hero, a servant king, who would bring peace and end the cosmic cycle of death and mend the polarities of light and dark. This king, the anointed mashiach or messiah, would not only restore life, but end all wars, suffering, illness, death and sorrow. While it was acknowledged that this king was a servant and would suffer, this king would also be politically significant and liberate the Jewish people from their bondages.

The-Passion-of-the-Christ-4

When devout Jews of the first century AD declared the Jesus of Nazareth was this promised anointed one, the uproar and dissent caused within the Jewish communities of the Mediterranean caused even the Imperial Rulers to complain and seek to suppress it [Divus Claudius,  25].

Most significantly what this shows is that the Jewish people were the least likely people of the ancient world to equate a man to God, or to conflate pagan mythology of a dying and rising god with the advent of their mashiach.

Historians have posited that claims of Christ’s divinity or evidence of the resurrection were laid-over first century accounts of Jesus of Nazareth to satisfy mythical types. However, this too has been shown to be quite unsupportable. The earliest texts which report eye witness claims of Christ’s death date from the first century and the debates and unrest caused by the earliest followers of Christ are supported by secular historians such as Claudius [above] and Tacitus [Annals XV.44], Suetonius [Nero 16] and Pliny [Epistulae X.96].

TacitusSuetonius

 

 

 

 

 

 

The fact that hundreds of so called eye-witnesses of the resurrected Christ were persecuted and willingly died to maintain this claim, caused unrest across the whole Mediterranean region and resultant persecution by the authorities.

So what can we make of these seeming contradictions? The Christ narrative seems to comply with mythical archetypes which resonate throughout world literature and point to cosmic reconciliation of death and rebirth. However, within the Jewish context, the claim that Christ fulfilled messianic hopes of ending the struggle between dark and light, restoring peace, ceasing the cycle of death and bringing peace – was vehemently opposed by large portions of the Jewish community and yet defended to the death by others.

It is perhaps what CS Lewis refers to when he states:

The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens —at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.  ~ C.S.Lewis [1970] God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. 

Rather than simply assuming, Christianity, like any mythical belief, has roots in pre-scientific questions of death and rebirth, winter and spring, Lewis shows how in fact, the poetic resonance of myths and legends of all eras and cultures, created a prophetic typology, pointing forward to a solution to a cosmic and unsolvable problem.

mashiach

That solution came at Passover about 30AD, when a man died a criminals death. His blood not only averted the Plague of Death on humanity, but also initiated the release of humanity from slavery into glorious freedom.

His resurrection caused a radical revolution in the lives of his 500 odd followers and eye witnesses, who radicalised by the realisation of the fulfilment of all messianic hopes turned the world upside down in a quest to share the news, not only with the Jews, but with the whole world.

Because it has been the whole world who has been dreaming of this miraculous solution since the beginning of time.