Much is made these days about the pre-Christian origins of Easter, which while honouring a memory of what came before, can sometimes deflect from a very deep wisdom held in the celebration and understanding of the meaning of this day. The resurrection of a divine being or deity is not exclusive to Christianity by any means, nor is it confined to male deities. Rather, it symbolises a principle in many world religions of overcoming hardship, death and often evil done by the hand of others. Ultimately, it is about transformation, and perhaps all of us in the world, no matter of what colour or creed have need to find a moment in our year to focus on that possibility, and find what it might mean for us.
In addition to Christ, Baal, Melquart, Adonis, Eshmun, Osiris and Dumuzi, are all male deities who die and then rise from the dead. The Buddhist story of Bodhidharma also demonstrates the power of resurrection as does the passing of Chinese Chan master Puhua. And of course, the ancient Greek religions are full of people made physically immortal as they were resurrected from the dead, among them Asclepius and Achilles.
Female resurrection is rarer, perhaps because in many early religions, closely linked to agriculture and fertility, the female principle dies and is reborn with each turning of the year. Resurrection of the goddess is not extraordinary, it is implied as natural process. The Goddess matures, dies and is reborn as winter turns to spring, as darkness gives way to light once more. This fundamental and perhaps original cosmological principle of transformation, is all about us in our first mother, nature.
However, the earliest surviving written story, that of Inanna (cognate with the Akkadian goddess, Ishtar), the Sumarian goddess of love, fertility and warfare, contains an account of her transformation through death to rebirth. This and other legends and songs relating to Inanna and he consort Dumuzi are part of a vast literature inscribed on clay tablets and fragments dating from about 2000 BC are now scattered throughout museums across the world.
Inanna’s descent into the otherworldly realm of her dark sister Ereshkigal is a central story within the mythology found on these tablets. It tells of how one day the Goddess had an urge to descend into the underworld, a dark and dismal place, devoid of hope and full of ded heroes in this Mesapotamian cosmology. After an initial challenge, Inanna enters the pathway to the underworld, forbidden to all living beings, but her dark sister Ereshkigal contrives to strip her at each of the seven gates to the underworld, of all her worldly power and some might say, manifestations of ego. Inanna eventually arrives in the heart of the underworld to face Ereshkigal stripped bare of all her worldly pride. There, the Annuna, the judges of the underworld surround her and pass judgement against her. Ereshkigal then kills Inanna and hangs her corpse on a meat hook. There, the Goddess’ body hangs as a piece of rotting meat until after three days and three nights, her handmaiden Ninshebur, left in the upper world, raises the alarm and pleads with the gods to restore Inanna. The first two gods, Father Enlil and Nanna refuse help, but Father Enki hears her pleas and intercedes, sending two tiny beings, the Kurgarra and the Glaltur into the underworld with the food of life and the water of life to rescue Inanna and bring about her resurrection. After three days of death in the cave of the underworld, Inanna ascends triumphantly, stronger, having gained wisdom and insight from her ordeal, to take her place in the world once more. Interestingly, her first act is to initiate her consort Dumuzi, condemning him to a journey and ordeal in the underworld that will see him transform and gain wisdom too.
There are many parallels between Inanna’s story and that of many resurrection stories told by religions the world over. Many, including that of Christ have the protagonist accept their fate. They go willingly towards it, there might be doubts, but ultimately they heroically embrace that which must be. There is an element of being humbled by the experience, and often there is a moment of being measured or judged by a group with some kind of official or divine right to do so. Death or disappearance from the world in a few lasts a period of three days and three nights, and holy food and elixir, in Inanna’s case, the ‘water of life and the food of life, are a potent symbol in a number of these stories.
This analysis of the similarities in these stories is in no way intended to undermine the value or sanctity of any of them, nor to detract from any person’s spiritual truth or belief. Rather I want to illustrate and therefore celebrate that there is something fundamental about journeying into darkness and overcoming what we find there. I want to find unity in the fact that to return to the world transformed is a fundamental human truth, that the philosophies, cosmologies and religions of the innumerable cultures of this world have been grappling with and ‘teaching’ through songs, stories and founding mythologies as far back as we can possibly know.
Easter, Pasg, the feast of Eostra or by whichever name you wish to call it is a celebration of overcoming darkness in order to transform and embrace life more fully, or begin anew. It is something that we can all share as we break into our easter eggs today, regardless of philosophy, faith, denomination or creed. It is essentially a celebration of our humanity, set at the full tide of spring, when the moon sails full in our sky. It is a beautiful, transformational time in nature, an affirmation that there is life beyond each trial, that there is wisdom to be gained on each journey into darkness, that light and life are always offered to us the other end. I wish you deep journeys and well won wisdom in the coming year, happy Easter.