Christians believe that Jesus died for the sins of the world. In ancient Greece, there was a tradition of making a particular individual into a scapegoat who symbolically took on the sins of the people and was expelled from the city or put to death. They called this person a pharmakos. Before his death he was clad in holy garments, wreathed with sacred plants, fed on the purest of food. Through his sacred sacrifice, the sins of the city were banished. The fate of a pharmakos was to be insulted, beaten, disrespected in every way and put to death.
The mysteries of Mithras, celebrated their sacrificial rites symbolically, rather than literally. An icon of Mithras slaughtering a bull was used as an altarpiece rather than by enacting the sacrifice itself. “Thou hast saved us by shedding the eternal blood,” reads an inscription not to Jesus, but to Mithras. Although centuries later, Christians would express gratitude to their savior in nearly the same language.
Now, the cross was a sacred symbol for the ancients. Its four arms represented the four elements: earth, air, fire and water. The fifth element, spirit, was bound to materiality by these four elements. Plato refers to the desires of the body as nails that one-by-one fasten the soul to the body. The four nails used to crucify man through hands and feet would have been symbolic of our sensual desires, which attach the soul to the world of the four elements.
In the same way that Osiris was synthesized by the Greeks, with the indigenous god Dionysus to create the the Greek mysteries, other Mediterranean cultures that adopted the mystery religion also transformed one of their indigenous deities into the dying and resurrecting god-man. So the deity was known as Osiris in Egypt, Dionysus in Greece, Attis in Asia Minor, Adonis in Syria, Bacchus in Italy, Mithras in Persia and so on and so on. His forms were many, but essentially he was the same perennial figure whose collective identity was referred to as Osiris-Dionysus.
The Spring festival in the mysteries of Attis, like Easter, lasted for three days. During this time, the myth of Attis was performed as a passion play, just as the story of Jesus was performed as a passion play in the Middle Ages. An effigy of the corpse of Attis was tied to a sacred pine tree and decorated with flowers sacred to both Attis and the Syrian counterpart Adonis. It was then buried in a sepulcher. Like Jesus, on the third day, Attis rose again. The mythologist Sir James Frazier writes, “But when night had fallen, the sorrow of the worshippers was turned to joy, for suddenly a light shone in the darkness: the tomb was opened: the god had risen from the dead and as the priest touched the lips of the weeping mourners with balm, he softly whispered in their ears the glad tidings of salvation. The resurrection of the god was hailed by his disciples as a promise that they too would issue triumphant from the corruption of the grave. On the morrow, the twenty-fifth day of March, which was reckoned the vernal equinox, the divine resurrection was celebrated with a wild outburst of glee. At Rome and probably elsewhere, the celebration took the form of a carnival. It was the Festival of Joy.”
Paul, at around 50 CE, talks of a spiritual resurrection: “Someone will ask, how are the dead raised up? With what body do they come?” Now listen to his answer: “Fool, what you sow does not come to life unless it dies. As for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or some other grain. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor and raised in glory. It is sown in weakness and raised in power. It is sown a physical body; it is raised a spiritual body.”
So what is this secret of rebirth, as played out in countless mythologies throughout history? Perhaps it is an allegory through which we can awaken to our immortal soul – to remind us that man’s problem is that in his ignorance he believes himself to be just a body, one that will grow old, suffer and die. His sense of injustice at the inevitability of this fate leads him to hurt himself and others, either through lust for more life or fear of approaching death. These crimes serve further to bind the soul to the body and so increase man’s suffering.
It seems to me that the greatest tragedy of our time, the greatest tragedy in the modern world, is the atomizing of everything. Each of us is beginning to believe that we are somehow insular beings. And so we identify ourselves as separate beings. I suggest no more of such atomizing. Instead, let us begin to see that we are being reborn as one integral being, one undivided universal Self, belonging to one common human family.
I suggest that this is how we should celebrate Easter. We should celebrate the death of the dark ages of religious fundamentalism and literalism, with its good and evil, its saints and sinners, its insiders and outsiders, and the resurrection of the golden age with its higher level of consciousness in which the old becomes new and the new becomes sacred. Let us listen to our breath a little more. Resolve that we are going to spend a little more time in meditation, a little more time in self-reflection this coming year. This is the beginning of the year to the ancients: Easter is the beginning of the year; the beginning of a new life and a new hope.
Obadiah Harris is the founder and president of the University of Philosophical Research. Harris has a long and storied career in both mainstream academia and the American metaphysical culture. He holds a Ph.D. in education administration and supervision from the University of Michigan and an MA in education from Arizona State University, where he was an associate professor of education and director of community education.