The Christs Before Christ: Tammuz-Adonis


About 10,000 years ago, the Ice Age came to an end, resulting in the migration of wild game, flora, and fauna that hunter-gatherers had depended upon from time immemorial. In response to this, man had to innovate new ways to maintain sustenance. Thus, the advent of agriculture. With the rise of agriculture, man gradually ceased to be nomadic and began settling in areas conducive to the cultivation of crops, giving rise to civilization. As agriculture became essential to both civilization and subsistence, it also became crucial to understand the nature of the seasons and the solar cycles that contribute to seasonal change.

Since the scientific method had yet to be conceived, we came to understand the sun and the seasons through stories, rituals, legends, and myths—particularly the personification of croplife. From this sprang “dying-and-rising god myths, [which] symbolized the death and return of vegetation, or the shortening and lengthening of the daylight.” [1]

Renowned scholar of religion, Mircea Eliade, refers to this as “the ‘mystery’ of vegetation,” in which “religious ideas, mythologies, and ritual scenarios [expressed] the mystery of birth, death, and rebirth identified in the rhythm of vegetation.” [2] Eliade adds that such phenomena became “translated into mythological dramas, [wherein] the mythical theme of gods who die and return to life is among the most important.” [3]

We begin to see these dramas played out in the earliest civilizations, such as the Sumerian tale of Dumuzi/Tammuz who undergoes death at the hands of his scorned consort, yet is restored to life six months later. “In the sixth century [B.C.], Ezekiel (8:14) cried out against the women who wept for [Tammuz] even at the gates of the Temple,” though he will later be vindicated, “taking on the dramatic and elegiac figure of the young gods who die and are resurrected annually.” [4]

Ritual mourning and lamentations became commonplace in the ancient Mediterranean world, all of which were predicated upon the agricultural cycle and the dying and rising god mytheme. The Gospel narrative of women weeping at the tomb of Christ is very likely a carryover of this long-standing tradition.

Ishtar, the divine consort of Tammuz, likewise descends to the underworld and suffers the fate of the archetypical dying god. Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld (equivalent to the Greek Hades) has Ishtar killed and hung from a hook. Three days later, she is rescued by the gods and revived with the Water and Food of Life:

Ask her only for the corpse that hangs from the hook on the wall. One of you will sprinkle the food of life on it.
The other will sprinkle the water of life.
Inanna will arise. [5]

The biblical Song of Songs is indebted to ancient Mesopotamian poems concerning Tammuz and Ishtar. “Ishtar Shalmith becomes ‘the Shulamite’ (6:13) whose ‘love is as strong as death’ and whose ‘jealousy is as unyielding as the grave’ (8:6).” [6]

Adonis is believed to be the Greek counterpart of the Babylonian Tammuz. Though widely known as a god of beauty and desire, he also belongs to the category of dying and rising gods, as he too was associated with seasonal worship and fertility. Just as the prophet Ezekiel decries the women’s lamentations for Tammuz, Isaiah bemoans the cult practices in devotion to Adonis:

For you have forgotten the God of your salvation
And have not remembered the rock of your refuge.
Therefore you plant delightful plants
And set them with vine slips of a strange god (17:10).

Ritual mourning and lamentation accompanied the death of the god; though, like Tammuz, he would triumphantly rise again.

They say, at any rate, that the deed that was done to Adon by the boar [i.e. the death of the God] occurred in their land, and in memory of that misfortune every year they beat their breasts and mourn and perform the ceremonies, making solemn lamentations throughout the country. And when the breast-beating and weeping is at end, first they make offerings to Adonis as if to a dead person; and then, on the next day, they proclaim that he is alive and fetch him forth into the air…  [7]

By the Hellenistic Age (circa 4th c. BCE-1st c. CE), these agricultural faiths would evolve into full-blown mystery religions, whereby devotees could be mystically united with the fate of the dying and rising god, sharing in their death and resurrection so as to attain spiritual rebirth and the assurance of life after death. See The Mystery Cults & Christianity.

Works Cited

[1] Robert M. Price, The Reason Driven Life (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2006), 154.
[2] Mircea Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), 41.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., p. 66
[5] Diane Wolkstein & Samuel Noah Kramer, Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer (Harper Perennial, 1983), 64.
[6] Robert M. Price, Did “Top Psychics” Predict Jesus?, (1999).
[7] J.L. Lightfoot, Lucian: On the Syrian Goddess (Oxford University Press, 2003), Ch. 6.


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