It was Loth, his brother, who slew Osiris. He cut the body to pieces and scattered them about the earth. It was Osiris’ sister/wife Isis, the Goddess of Fertility, who gathered his scattered pieces and brought the great god back to life again.
Or it was Tammuz who died and his wife Inana who descended into hell and brought him back to life. Or it was Baal who died and his sister/lover Anat who left the divine realm to find his body and kill Mot, the god of the underworld, to revive Baal. Or it was the great god Pan (all) who died, bringing death to all the world.
The seasons wax and wane, the days shorten, the year fades and dies. There is probably no gap greater in imagination than that between us, who confidently expect to find fresh oranges in our stores in December and our ancestors, for whom the fading of each year was a possible sentence of death measured in the depth of the larder against the unknown days until spring.
Once every religion saw the gradual lowering of the sun in the sky, the dying plants, the rising rivers, the falling temperature as mirroring the divine reality: the year dies, the world dies, the god dies. The revival of all is beyond our power. We can do nothing beyond huddling fearfully together, praying for the mercy to let our god and our world be born again. We wait and watch the lengthening shadow of the standing stones looking for some sign that, once again, it will cease to grow and we will be saved.
Salvation may come in the spring, when life bursts forth, but it begins in the depth of winter. When the sun ceases its fall and begins to rise again, we know that there will be another spring, after all. The wait may be too long to bear, but it will come.
The Hindu Vedas teach that God is not “out there.” All life is interconnected and related, flowing from the sacred, impersonal godhead, the Brahman. Each of us shares and possesses the divine principle in the form of the Atman within us. We have only to look deeply enough in ourselves, leaving reason behind, to experience the true identity with the divine.
The Buddha also taught that we had to look deeply, leaving reason behind. However, he sought to see beyond the interrelated world of birth and rebirth, to see beyond the gods. What he sought was not an illumination to see the nature of our world, but to see beyond it and escape it, to achieve a “blowing out” (Nirvana) of the candle.
The gods are born, the gods die. But not Yahweh. The god of the old testament has no history, no birth. He just is, from before the beginning of the story. The Hebrew god begins as a remote creator, becomes a familiar friend and ally and progresses to becoming a remote, vengeful force, punishing good and rewarding evil.
Three visions, three divinities. The world is a reflection of the divine, the world derives from the divine, the world is separate from the divine. We are at the mercy of capricious forces and can only sacrifice and hope. We are connected to a world whose only surcease is to escape its endless cycles of reality. We are part of a reality with rewards for virtue and punishment for evil. The divine is unfathomable and unpredictable, fathomable and incomprehensible or unfathomable but predictable.
All three offer certain kinds of intervention. The gods can turn themselves into the likenesses of people and become human heroes, shaping events with sturm und drang. They can express themselves in forms we can see (avatars) and pass through, spreading their divinity for good or evil. He can shape events in our world, raising armies and empires to work out His plan.
In most ways, the Christian god is the bleakest view of all. There, god is separate, both from our world and our natures. We are mud people (Adam means dirt), born in sin and left to work out our destinies and be judged on the results. While some Christian sects have accepted the mystical, internal, approach to the nature of god, most churches have accepted the unknowability of god and can offer only the emotional grace of faith.
But Christianity, alone, also offers a hope born of weakness.
The final picture of Christ, as seen from the Athanasian creed is of one, “who for us men and for our salvation came down and was made man, suffered, rose again on the third day, ascended into the heavens and will come to judge the living and the dead.” This figure has something of the mighty avatar about it, the great striding, purposeful godhead working his purposes upon the world of men.
It was not so in the beginning. There we have just another fragile human life, coming into the world just as the world’s life reaches its lowest ebb. When the world was weakest and desperate for hope, an infant appeared, always the symbol of the race’s hope.
In the long run, of course, the baby will grow, become aware of itself and its nature and make its way into and through the world, finding or making a destiny of a very different kind of hope. He will come to inspire and awe with his person and his sacrifice.
But for a moment, he is of a different scale. Purely human, weak and vulnerable, he is all potential, as every baby is.
There are a lot of reasons to smile at one another, draw close together and celebrate the ephemeral bonds we share. But as symbols go, this still, frail, glow in the winter’s darkness is one of the best.