Studier i Religion

Salvanda Et Pastor Bonus

The Shepherd and the Woman: A main theme in the Gospel of St. John and in Oriental Folk Religion

Erik Langkjer

The Weeping of the Woman

In the old religions of the Near East, women play a particular role. The title of Professor F. Hvidberg’s book — Weeping and Laughter in the Old Testament (1938) — refers to a ritual which is performed in many of the countries round Palestine. From Syria we know the myth about the beautiful Adonis, who was loved by everybody, even by the goddess herself, but who was killed by a wild boar while hunting (a symbol of evil, demonic side of life). Every spring the women wept for the dead youth. Even today, Greek women gather in the churches on Good Friday, and cry loudly. In ancient Sparta, the festi­val for Hyakinthos, the dead youth, was celebrated every year. In Aitolia lived the legend of Meleager, the young hero, who had found a wife, and did not want to go to war, but who is forced at last, and when he falls, the women of his town cry so long that they are changed into the eternally sighing guinea fowl. In other places, the young brides sacri­fice a lock of their hair to Hippolytos, the dead prince (a kind of Joseph-figure, who is tempted by his step-mother, but rejects her, and, being pure, will not denounce her; therefore, he himself must bear the suspicion and the curse and subse­quent death). We find an echo of the near eastern symbolism in the story about Martha and Mary, the two women who accompany Jesus to the grave of their dearly beloved Lazarus, where Jesus bursts into tears.

In this weeping for the dead youth each spring, the mea­ninglessness and tragedy of life is concentrated. (Tragodia was originally the song, which was sung over the sacrificial animal, which symbolised the young, suffering god). It is not a coincidence that it is the women who weep, the part of the population that was the most suppressed and harassed by many childbirths and the death of many of their young children. In the heart of woman, the suffering and burden of life is often concentrated. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that, in the New Testament, the Virgin Mary is depicted as mater dolorosa: “yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also.” We find traces of the same symbolism in Norse mythology when it is told that Balder was the white, pure youth, just, and loved by everybody, and when, after the account of his death, it is described how his mother tries to get the whole of Nature to cry for Balder to get him back from the land of the dead. (It is characteristic of most of these old legends that they only talk of the death of the youth - not of his resurrection).

In some traditions, however, it is described how the goddess searches for her lost love. Therefore, the angel says to the women at the tomb, “Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, he is risen, he is not here.” In the Song of Songs: “Whither is thy beloved gone, o thou fairest among women? that we may seek him with thee.” The myth of Isis describes how Isis in her search gets as far as Byblos.

In the cult, the discovery of Osiris is represented by the long expected flooding of the Nile. The rise of the Nile is celebrated with nocturnal boat-trips and with people drink­ing the sweet, fresh water, which represents the presence of Osiris. It is the living water which the king of the land of the dead has sent from his throne in the west. Isis is the goddess of the earth, who thirsts for the living water.

The old custom, that the women weep in the spring and search for the lost god of spring, may sometimes have been followed by a turning-point, when weeping, is turned into laughter: “Rejoice greatly, o daughter of Zion, shout, o daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy king cometh unto thee, meek and humble…”

In India the black Kali is worshipped - and Sulamit says: “I am black, but comely…” The goddess, “woman”, is a representative of the earth. In the ancient Near East, spring was celebrated as the wedding between heaven and earth. The dark queen of the earth meets the god of light and of the sky in the pouring spring rain. And the earth, who for so long had been searching for her lost bridegroom, is happy again, and steps out of the barren, cold state of winter, and instead puts on the garb of the thousand brilliantly-coloured flowers.

In the first miracle, which is referred to in the Gospel of St. John (the marriage at Cana), there are some scenes between Jesus and his mother, which we westerners tend to overlook. First of all, we must bear in mind that the scene is a wedding. Jesus addresses his mother emphatically as “woman.” We must also remember that spring is the time when the new wine, which has been fermenting throughout the winter, is opened. The wine is the symbol of celebration, of fertility, and of happiness. We must admit that, in the Gospel of St. John, Jesus is portrayed as a near eastern spring - and fertility god: “In him was life….” He brings the living water, and is the true fruit-bearing vine. He sees Natanael sitting under the fig-tree, like the friend, who, in the Song of Songs, is looking into the garden, saying: “Come away… the fig tree putteth forth her green figs…” Compare it with the call: “Come and see…” which is addressed to the first disciples (John i 46).

In the Apocalypse (ch. xii), we find the woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars. She is an image of the people of God, but is depicted as Aphrodite Urania, the Queen of Heaven - she bears a boy-child, who will one day guard the nations with a rod of iron, which can only mean Jesus. Thus the mother of Jesus merges with the ancient symbol of the goddess: suffering woman as the representative of the people of God and of the earth: “And the earth helped the woman”, Rev xii 16.

There is nothing wrong in the fact that the Virgin Mary plays a particular role in Christianity, and that she is praised: “From henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.”

The religiosity of antiquity is rich in profound speculations about male and female. Woman’s situation in life is experi­enced as different from that of man’s; she is in harmony with the enormous and life-giving earth.2 During the first trial, therefore, Psyche gets help from hundreds of ants and insects, who crawl out of the earth (Apuleius: Meth. Book 6); but she is also the symbol of the suffering, mourning human beings. The woman weeping for the dead boy is a primordial situation, which is repeated again and again in antiquity with all the wars and the high rate of infant mortality. Her mind is diffe­rent from man’s, and she is more strongly attached to her children in love and pity.

It is characteristic of the Gospel of St. John that it simpli­fies and elaborates the scenes from the life of Jesus so that a particular symbolism stands out. Instead of the original story about the three or four women setting out for the grave early in the morning, only one woman is mentioned, that is, Mary Magdalene. She was a woman from whom Jesus, according to the gospels, had cast out seven evil spirits, and therefore the least respectable of the three or four ladies who accompanied the apostles on their travels. Also when Jesus comes to Samaria, and sits as the unknown stranger at Jacob’s well, it is with a least respectable lady with whom he enters into conversation.

It is a special near eastern symbolism that lies behind these scenes. In the Near East there is a legend about Osiris - a legend in which he is killed by his brother Seth and his seventy-two3 fellow-conspirators. Seth lures Osiris into taking part in a great common meal where he is lured into lying down in a coffin. The conspirators quickly bolt the lid, and throw the coffin into the Nile, where it is carried into the sea by the current. In vain, Isis, his young wife, searches for her lost husband. While roaming around in search of her husband, she comes to Syria, and here she must lead the miserable life of the single girl in the Near East: she has to serve as a prosti­tute in Tyre in order to survive. At last, she comes to the King of Byblos. Here her husband’s body has been washed ashore, and a cedar tree has miraculously grown up around it. This cedar tree now serves as a pillar in the King’s palace. She seizes the pillar with her husband’s body, and drags it away, but evil Seth cuts the body to pieces, and she has to search again until she manages to collect the pieces. It sounds like a folk-tale, but in reality it is a myth. The mourning Isis, while dressed in black, is the arable land, which mourns and withers during the dry season, and longs to taste the life­giving rain. The Isis-legend ends in a description of how Isis has collected Osiris’s limbs, and because he is a god, he is not dead, even though he has been exposed to this rough treatment (but he is in a state of deep unconsciousness). Dying, he lies on lit de parade in the subterranean city of death. Isis longs for his love, and then he suddenly comes back from the land of the dead in the shape of the Nile, which swells, breaks dams, and floods the mourning fields. While hidden among the rushes of the Nile delta, Isis bears their common child, the little Horus.

The running water, or the ‘living water,” in the Near East, is the basis of life. In the Syrian-Palestinian area, living water does not come from the Nile, but from the sky in the shape of rain. Because the God of Heaven is the source of life in the universe, it is said in Rev iv 6 that he thrones at the Crystal Sea (the heavenly water reservoir). When the Samaritan woman encounters Jesus sitting at the well,5 and he promises her the living water, we must understand that, for an Oriental, there is a profound symbolism in this scene with the stranger sitting at the well, who is Lord of the living waters, and appears to be God’s Messiah and the Saviour of the world; and opposite him is the degraded woman - a symbol of the earth, of human beings, of Samaria. She is degraded in her search for love: she has had five husbands, and the one she has now is not her husband.

Each spring6 this old legend about the lost husband was performed when the women gathered together, who wept and mourned for the dead bridegroom, and searched for him. In Syria, he is not called Osiris, but Adonis (“My Lord”). Jesus addresses Mary Magdalene emphatically as “woman:” “Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou?” And Mary Magdalene answers: “Because they have taken away my Lord.” The scene is a garden, and at first Mary Magdalene thinks it is the gardener she is talking to. In the actual setting - a garden outside Jerusalem - the spring - a nature sym­bolism is felt.

Then Mary Magdalene tries to embrace the bridegroom, who has been carried off to the land of the dead, but has now returned. And Jesus says: “Touch me not...but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father, and to my God, and your God.” This is the main motif in the mystery-religion: just as Osiris was living in spite of death, so for his followers there was also a hope of getting the same fate after death. This is what is implied in the words of Jesus: I ascend unto my Father, who is also your Father, my God, who is also your God, that is, the God who raised me, will also raise you, because He is the same Father to you as He is to me.

We see how freely, the Gospel of St. John works. A historical event, like the walk of the women to the grave, is changed into an almost mythological scene, which is meant to portray Jesus as the God of life and spring. He who was dead, but now lives.

The Gospel of St. John wants to describe Jesus as He who is love and life to the cold earth. He is the only one in the universe that gives Life and Light and Resurrection, gives a new life, which is of eternity.

In the gnostic work, the Gospel of Philip, there are further speculations on the theme of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. It is said that Jesus often kissed her (log. 55) and that she accompanied him everywhere (log. 32). She became spiritu­ally pregnant and perfect (log 31). As demonstrated by K. Kerenyi, the pseudo-Clementine novel is a mystery novel of primitive Christianity. Here we find the search and the re­cognition of the woman Mattidia: the widow Mattidia is pursued by her brother-in-law (a suggestion of Seth’s role), and has to flee. She is shipwrecked at the Phoenician coast, and, in the storm of the night, she is separated from her sons. She wanders about as a beggar-woman, her arms are crippled from self-torture. However, she is comforted by some hospitable women who tell her about their suffering (“Die Situation ist ja m. E. klar, es ist die einer trauernden Göttin”. Kerenyi: Die Griechisch-orientalische Romanliteratur in Re­ligions-geschichtliche Beleuchiung, 1927, p. 72, with reference to Homer Hymn. Dem., 198 ff). In the Carthaginian martyr calendar, Clement is entered on Nov. 23. The Roman St. Clement’s Day is Nov. 23, the Armenian, Nov. 26, and the Greek, Nov 25. Outside Egypt, November was the month devoted to the Isis-festivals. Osiris is “the drowned god (“Ist es nun wieder ein Spiel des Zufalls, dass auch der heilige Clemens nach seinem Martyrium ein Ertrunkener sein soll?” Kerenyi, p. 85).

In late Jewish apocalyptic writings, we find an influx of near eastern mythology. The Syrian goddess is called Aphro­dite Urania and Semiramis (from smm rmm: “highest hea­vens”), and we meet her as the Queen of Heaven in the Apocalypse (cf. that “the mother” in some gnostic texts is called Ogdoad, i.e., the eighth heaven). The Syrian goddess is both a virgin and a harlot.7 In the Apocalypse, however, these two functions are divided between two women. As emphasised by G. Quispel (The Secret Book of Revelation, 1979, 32-34), both “the woman”, “the mother,” and “the harlot” are figures, who, each in their own way, reflect the near eastern goddess. The woman flees into the desert, and pre­cisely out there we meet her in a new variant, i.e., as the Great Whore.

Chapter 12: The woman as the Queen of Heaven and the mother of the Messiah.

Chapter 17: The woman as the Great Whore sitting on the beast of the many waters (cf. v. 1; v. 3), the hydra with seven heads, and ten Anti-messiahs.

Chapter 21: The bride, the wife of the lamb.

Cf. in the Gospel of St. John:

Chapter 2: The woman as the mother of Jesus.

Chapter 4: The woman as harlot —the Samaritan woman. The living water, v. 10.

Chapter 8: The woman as harlot—the woman taken in adultery. The living water, 7, 38.

Chapter 12: The woman who anoints the feet of Jesus.

Chapter 20: The woman is comforted. V. 17 is the attempt of Jesus to avoid her embrace.

As long as the time of grace lasts, the harlot is the object of the call to salvation. In the Apocalypse, however, judgement makes a distinction between the harlot and the bride. Just as in Valentinian gnosis “woman” is an image of salvandus/salvanda, so she plays through all her role from mother to the anti-thesis: harlot-bride. It should not be over­looked that many of the symbolic scenes in the Gospel of St. John take place in the encounter between Jesus (the Messiah) and a figure who answers in the name of “woman” (John ii. iv, vii. 32 to viii. ii, xi, xii, xix. 25-27 and xx).

The symbolism is most obvious in John 3.29: “He, that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bride-groom....” The bride is the people, who have flocked to Jesus, in order to be baptized (v. 26). According to K. Niederwimmer: “The text permits the theory that, originally, the baptist circles understood their master’s relationship to their group as that of the mysterious marriage” (Askese und Mysterium, 1975, p. 60).

Also in Paul we come across the syzygy-thought: “For Paul, the Christian is united with his Master to a kind of syzygy”, writes Niederwimmer when commenting on I Corin­thians 6.16f. (ibid., pp. 78f.).

John vii. 33-36 plays on the ritual search for the God of the living waters. John vii. 40-52 is the characteristic dis­cussion about the Messiahship of Jesus (cf. iv. 25f with the testimony vii. 46; cf. iv. 29 which is accepted in iv. 39, but rejected in vii. 47-49).

There is a parallel structure in John iv and John vii:

John iv

John vii

The woman goes out to draw water from the well.

The search for the disappeared God, the God taken away.

The epiphany of the bringer of living water (iv. xiv).

The epiphany of the bringer of living water (vii. 38).8

The acceptance of the epiphany (iv. 39-42).

The rejection of the epiphany, accepted by a few (vii. 40-52).

The Lamentation of Isis and Nephtys in the Temple of Edfu

They are sung at “the Festival of the mourning Women.” The parts of Isis and Nephtys are played by two young women, who have had all the hair on their bodies shaved off, and who have woollen wigs on their heads, and tambourines in their hands. They have to shout four times, “Oh, my lord, Osiris.” The high priest recites four times: “United with the sky is the earth.”

Isis shouts:
Come to your house!
Come to your house. You have no enemy.
Oh, handsome boy. Come to your house that you may behold me.
I am your wife, who loves you.
Do not part from me. Oh, fair youth.
Come at once to your house! I do not see you.
My heart beseeches you. My eyes desire you.
I search for you to see you.
Come to me, who loves you!
Come to your spouse.
Come to your wife, powerless.
Come to your wife.
(Translated by A. Olsson: I Faraos land, 1971, p. 128).

Come to your house/wife is the cry which is meant to call forth the epiphany or the invisible presence of the god. “Come to your holy temple,” the women at Elis shout to Dionysos. Note the expression youth/boy about Osiris, an expression which is evidence of the close relationship with the Adonis-cult,

The myth about the hieros gamos of the shepherd and the goddess is also known on Egyptian soil (A Olsson, ibid., p. 279): “Look, when I went down to the pond, which is situated close to this pasture, I saw a woman in it. She did not belong to the human race. My hair stood on end when I saw her curly wig, and how soft her skin was. Never will I do what she asked me to do....” The shepherd decides to return to his home (to avoid the goddess.) He wants the other shepherds to put their boats into the water, and cross the pond with their cattle, but they want to stay on the pasture. At dawn, he therefore goes down to the boat alone: “The goddess came to meet him when he was on his way to the beach. She came -naked - her hair was ruffled.” The description is interrupted by two verses, of which the first one expresses the fear of flooding by the Nile, whereas the next one, on the contrary, asks confi­dently for the coming of the Nile: “Oh, you mighty Nile, come! The fear you instil has disappeared” (trans. A. Olsson). “Look, wrath came from the goddess....” When the wrath of the water-goddess has been abated with a ritual (?), the threatening waters are changed into the water of life.

The Great Goddess and Her Son

To the visions of 4. Ezra, which are meant to convince the devout reader of the definite coming of the kingdom of God, belongs also the 4th vision: Ezra sees a mourning woman in the field. She has smeared herself with ashes, torn her clothes, and tells Ezra her story. She, who was childless for many years, had a son at last whom she reared up with great diligence. When he had grown up, she celebrated his wedding: “But it so happened, when my son entered the bridal chamber, he fell down, dead” (x 10).

Ezra tries to comfort her by talking about the even greater misery that has befallen Jerusalem and Zion. But the woman’s face suddenly shines, and her looks become like lightening. When Ezra looks more closely, the woman disappears, and in her place there is a glorious city (the re-built, eschatologi­cal Jerusalem), for the woman was an image of Jerusalem.

Behind the story lies an old Western Semitic variant of the Attis-myth. Attis dies in the midst of his wedding, and from the Attis-mysteries we know the synthema: “I entered the bridal chamber,” and the other main figure in the mythical drama is Cybele, the great mother with the mural crown on her head.9

Barley Bread and Resurrection

The close linking together of bread of life and eternal life, which characterises John vi. 33-59, is quite strange:

verse 33: the bread which... gives life to the world.

v. 35: I am the bread of life.

v. 39: I shall raise it up again at the last day (repeated in v. 40).

v. 41f.: the bread which came down from heaven..

v. 44: I will raise him up at the last day.

v. 48, 50: I am the bread of life...that man may eat of it, and not die.

v. 51: I am the living bread...if any man eats of this bread,

he shall live for ever. And the bread... is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

v. 54: has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.

  1. 58: he that eats of this bread shall live for ever.

The bread of life was the main ingredient in every meal. In Egypt, it is called by the Arab word for life. It is holy; if you find it in the dust, you kiss it, and put it up on a wall, and it is considered a sin to refuse a beggar a piece of it (E.S.Drower, Water into Wine. A Study of Ritual Idiom,1956).

The grain dies when it is put into the soil, but through the magic of the water and the sun, it sprouts again from its wintry grave, and becomes strong with green leaves, and heavy ears of corn. This eternal cycle of the corn becomes a symbol of the death and rebirth of the soul in the other life. Drower, in particular, has drawn attention to the special role the bread of life gets in the cult of the Near East: the bread of life becomes the symbol of the forces that give and regenerate life. Life may sleep, but the wonder of spring and germination proves that it cannot die or be destroyed.

The yellow corn, which is cut at the ankle, is thrown around and is bound and thrashed with flails, and is tossed up in the wind, and finally, on a cold winter’s day, is put into the soil to die, became for the ancients a living being, a deity, who, in spite of the cruel treatment, lived in the middle of death, and sprouted, carrying the forces of life. The barley loaves, which were made from the first corn that was reaped in the field in spring (in Palestine at Easter), were, according to Drower, symbols of “the forces which give, feed, let grow, sustain and reproduce life, not only in the corn and the herbs, but also in man.” If you visit museums in Cairo, you may see the so-called “Osiris-beds,” frames with short and withered vegetation. Wet grains were laid out on sheeting, and when they sprouted, they were an image of resurrection, “sprouting Osiris.” When they withered, they were mourned with the lament for “the youth untimely slain.” Even today, the crucifix is laid on these “Osiris-beds” in Sicilian churches on Maundy Thursday. In Greece, a dish called kolyba is served at the graves as a part of the exhuma­tion of the dead person’s skeleton; this dish consists of boiled corn, which has been boiled so hard that the grains have become soft without being dissolved. The porridge is sweet­ened and eaten in the cemetery: the seed-corn is an image of life, which is victorious in death. The Acts of John (72 and 85f.) is the oldest testimony of the Eucharist at the grave. So this custom must have been widespread already at the beginning of the 2nd century A.D. in the literature that was connected with the figure of St. John. In Mandaean texts ”the bread of life” is the bread at the requiem: “1 am the white pitha ­bread....“ “...the good man, who eats me in earnest, arises and beholds the place of light” (Drower, The Prayer Book, no. 352). The Themes of the Spring Festival determine both the Gospel of St. John and the Acts of Thomas.

The following themes may be enumerated as the main charac­teristics of the spring festival in near-eastern folk-religion:

Tammuz is “the lamb in the jaws of the nether world”, cf. the Lamb of God John i 30, and the lamb torn to pieces (sparagmos) in 1. Henoch 90.

a. Hieros Gamos-motifs (John ii.1ff.).1°

b. The rebuilding (renewal) of the temple11 (John ii.13 ff.).

After the victory over

the dragon (the rough sea of the winter season), a temple is

built for Ba’al in Ugarit.

c. The victory over the dragon Sea.

d. The Adonis theme13 (John xi). Jesus as the shepherd who gives his life for the flock (John x) is a Tammuz-theme, and so are the words about the sheep-pen.14 Tammuz is killed in a pen.

e. The Isjtar-theme with descent into the kingdom

of the dead.

f. The goddess is delivered from degradation (Mary of Magdala), is healed by the living water (John iv)15

g. The coming of Gods glory as the light of the world

(ch. vii-ix).

h. The king enters Jerusalem (ch. xii).

Thom.a: Act 1- Hieros Gamos-motif.

Thom.b: Act 2-The temple is built in the winter with large gates towards the east for the light (ch. 18), i.e. that the light may enter at the dawn of vernal equinox, E. Lan­gkjer, Dåben og Himmelrejsen, 1982, 2. & 3. part).

Thom.c.d: Act 3-The victory over the black snake12 is here linked with the usual Adonis theme: the youth, who is killed, has loved a very beauti­ful woman.

Thom.e: Act 6-The young girl’s descensus ad inferos.

Thom.f: Act 5-The noble lady who was possessed by the devil.

Thom.g: Ch. 29-Jesus promises to show forth his glory to the apostle if he will set out towards the east on the dawn of Sunday.

Thom.h: Ch. 39-41-The apostle (the twin of Jesus) rides into the city on the same ass that Jesus used.

Christ is the king of spring, who makes his entry into Jerusalem, across the Mount of Olives, in a waving wood of green palm leaves. He brings light and life, and enters the temple. He was born among shepherds, children of nature. He dies on a peeled tree, is mourned by the daughters of Jerusalem, and is buried in a garden. But he rises from the grave at sun­rise (when “it began to dawn toward the first day of the week”).

S.N. Kramer writes: “From Mesopotamia the theme of the dead Dumuzi and his resurrection spread to Palestine, and it is not surprising to find the women of Jerusalem bewailing Tammuz in one of the gates of the Jerusalem temple. Nor is it at all improbable that the myth of Dumuzi’s death and resurrection left its mark on the Christ story ...Dumuzi, not unlike Christ, played the role of vicarious substitute. . . had he not taken the place of Inanna, the goddess of love, procreation and fertility, in the nether world, all life on earth would have come to an end… . . . the Christ story certainly did not originate and evolve in a vacuum, it must have had its forerunners and prototypes, and one of the most venerable and influential of these was no doubt the mournful tale of the shepherd-god Dumuzi and his melancholy fate, a myth that had been current throughout the ancient Near East for over two millenia. (The Sacred Marriage Rite, 1969. p. 133).

Orphic-Dionysian Elements in Christian Antiquity

In a very ambitious work (Orphisch-dionysische Mysterien­‘gedanken in der christlichen Antike, 1925, reprinted 1966), Robert Eisler has tried to interpret the curious fact that Orphic-Dionysian scenes seem to play quite a great role in the oldest Christian art (“David as Orpheus,” “The good shepherd,” “Lamb with milk pail and shepherd’s crook or caduceus,” “Orans between two shepherds,” “Milk can bet­ween two lambs,” “Jumping buck with milk pail and cadu­ceus,” “Christ sitting in a wealth of vines and clusters of grapes” (Table 1a, 22 & 23, fig. 131f.. p. 374, and table 12+13 bottom).

Rather than assuming a Hellenistic influence, we should recognize the bucolic symbolism which is to be found in the Bible itself (The Song of Songs, and the Gospel of St. John), and in the oldest Judaeo-Christian writings (the Shepherd of Hermas, and Passio Perpetua). The symbolism is genuinely oriental to such an extent that, even where it is Dionysian, this Dionysian element may ultimately go back to near eastern influence (the Cadmean influence in Thebes). In the prologue to the Bacchoi by Euripides, the god describes his mother’s sekos in the old Dionysos shrine; in this Cadmean ruin burns an eternal flame among the smoke-blackened remains covered with vines and heavy with grapes. According to Eisler, sekos is derived from the Semitic word for cottage (sok, cf. sukkot).

Within historical times, the Dionysos-cult is wide-spread, but it is, however, generally agreed that the god was born in Thebes, and there is a growing understanding of the near eastern origin of this deity. (W. Burkert, Griechische Religion der archaischen und klassischen Epoche, 1977, talks about Cilician-North-Syrian origin). The Thyrsos-staff may be compared with Tirsi, a god known in Ugarit (tirsi means “intoxicant” acc. to M. Astour; cf. also M. Smith, “On the Wine God in Palestine,” in S.W. Barron Jubilee Volume, 1975, pp. 815-29, which compares with Judges xi. 21: the dance in the vineyards). Like Baal, Dionysos Bougenes is the spring god, “the calf.” The Anthesteria, the old spring festival in Athens (a Dionysos festival), have much in common with near eastern spring festivals. The Keres (i.e., people from Caria in the south-western part of Asia Minor) correspond to the Ugarit refaites, who are also a kind of primordial rulers.

The myth of the killing of Ikarios, the first person to bring wine to the villagers and the double-ganger of Dionysos (of semitic: “farmer”), is connected with the Anthesteria. How­ever, when they got drunk, the villagers thought that they had been poisoned by Ikarios, and they killed him. His daughter searched for her father (the search of the women for the lost god of spring), and at last she finds his body in a well. In death, the spring god is transformed into life­giving water; Adonis into the Adonis-river; the Nile flows from the limbs of Osiris; wells flow from Balder’s grave (Saxo). The girls of Uruk mourn for Dumuzi, “which has become a plant, which has become water”.


H. Wagenvoort16 has pointed out that there is an obvious parallel between the story about Amor and Psyche, and the old Mesopotamian myth about the descent of Ishtar to the nether world: After Venus has ordered her son, Amor, to instil love of an inferior male into Psyche, the rival beauty, she descends to the bottom of the ocean to bathe there with her train of attendants. And there, at the bottom of the sea, she remains for months until a resolute gull tells her everything that has happened between Amor and Psyche in the meantime. And the gull adds the following peculiar admonition: that Venus has fallen into disrepute, and is ridiculed among human beings, because she has depart­ed to swim in the sea, and Amor has disappeared because of a love-affair. Therefore, there is no longer anything sweet and lovely, as everybody behaves savagely and hideously; there are no longer any marriages; no friendships are formed, and no love of children; there is only boundless corruption and taste for obscene connexions. This theme, which seems super­fluous in the context, finds its explanation when we read about Ishtar’s expedition to the land of the dead. Wagenvoort quotes:

Nachdem Ishtar, die Herrscherin, in das Land, aus dem niemand wiederkehrt, hinabgestiegen war, bes­prang der Stier nicht mehr die junge Kuh, befruchtete der Esel nicht mehr die Eselin, lag der junge Mann in seiner Kammer, lag das Mädchen auf ihrer Seite“. (Translation by Zandee, Jahresbericht no. 6, 1936, Ex Oriente Lux).

Wagenvoort also explains how Tammuz has become Amor. In this case, however, we prefer our own explanation: Tammuz is called “the beloved.”17 To Dumuzi, his Sumerian name, is added the surname: “the Master-Dragon of the Sky.” According to an oracle from Appollo of Milet, Psyche will be put on a high mountain as the bride of a winged dragon of the sky.

0. Henrici18 has drawn attention to the parallels between Psyche and Sophia-Achamoth in Valentinian gnosis: both fall because they are disobedient, and want to see their spouse/“the Father.” Both threaten to perish, but are strengthened by Pan/the saviour. Both reach matrimonial union in heaven through trials: heavenly love triumphs. Both Psyche and Sophia-Achamoth reflect the Western Semitic goddess, who personifies the earth/the town =the people =the congregation/the human soul.

M. Philonenko19 has tried to interpret the late Jewish story about Joseph and Asenath as a mystery story of the same kind as the stories that are dealt with by R. Merkelbach, Roman und Mysterium in der Antike (1962) - among them also the story of Amor and Psyche. We know, at least, the goddess Azenatkona from the East Syrian area. But Asenath is not only the goddess who symbolises the earth (dressed in black at the arrival of Joseph on a chariot of the sun), but also an image of the soul that is converted to Judaism. Like Psyche and Sophia-Achamoth, and Simon Magus’ Helena Salvanda, she is “the image of the soul which is saved.”

Mirjai in the Mandaean writings is also such an image of Salvanda, the soul which is converted and initiated. She is described with features borrowed from apocryphal legends about the Virgin Mary (V. Schou Pedersen: Bidrag til en analyse af de mandæiske skrifter, 1940, p. 47). But they re­main true to the near eastern hierogamatic tradition: the rela­tionship to the saviour Manda d’Haije is described as a love-affair: “...far be it from me to hate the one that has become dear to me. Nay, Nay, far be it from me to hate my master, Manda d’Haije” (The Book of John, 34 f). The Jews find the converted Mirjai sitting on a throne at the mouth of the Eufrat (cf. Ekklesias cathedra in Hermas the Shepherd). She says: “I am Mirjai, a vine, a tree standing at the mouth of the Eufrat. The leaves of the tree are jewels, the fruits of the tree are pearls, the leaves of the vine are radiance, and its grape-vines are light, its precious fragrance spreads among the trees, and goes out in all worlds.” (The near eastern goddess is often depicted at the top of the tree of life). A white eagle perches on the tree, its wings are “fullness of the world”. (The eagle, the sun-bird, is an important Syrian symbol of mystical light and apotheosis). It throws a veil over Mirjai after having sunk the ships of the Jews into the sea of chaos (the victory of the god of light and spring over the residents of the rough wintry sea). The eagle is most probably Anosj (Schou Peder­sen, p. 56), which also Ginza Rabba (Petermann, p. 322) calls a doctor, who heals Mirjai from top to toe. The god of spring brings recovery to the goddess of the earth, who, during the winter months, has entered into a state of torpor; (cf. Demeter and her lover, Jasion-”the healer”; Astronoe and her lover Esjmun Paian; Fotios Bibl. cod. 242, 302). In the mystery novel of Achill Tatios, Melitte-Isis asks for a “remedy” from the young hero. Bellerofontes is Greek for Ba’al rfu, who is the god of spring that brings the refaites, the spirits of fertility, from the land of the dead to drink the wine of the human beings (cf. the great feast, which lasted ten days, and at the end of which Bellerofontes was to be killed).

From the Osiris mysteries we know the date, the 17th athyr as the god’s death-day, and the 19th athyr as the day that he is found again; cf. the strange statement in Hosea (v. 15 - vi. 3): “...till they acknowledge their offence, and seek my face: in their affliction they will seek me early. Come, let us return unto the Lord: for he hath torn, and he will heal us; he hath smitten, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us: in the third he will raise us up...and he shall come unto us as the rain, as the latter and former rain unto the earth.” (Osiris also returns from transcendence in the form of the Nile overflowing its banks). H.W. Wolff objects to the comparison with the Osiris mysteries: (a) that the passage in Hosea is about the people, not the deity; (b) it is about being raised from a sickbed, not about resurrection (Hosea: Biblischer Komm AT3 1976, 150 f). But the symbol­ism is centred on the people =the goddess, who is taken out of her barren state=healed.

Hosea iii. 3-5: Israel will be without a bridegroom and King, but then, at last, she will seek the Lord. (About the expression “seek the Lord” and its connexion with near eastern fertility cult, see Wolff, p. 127, and the literature quoted there). The hieros gamos symbolism is also felt when Efraim is called a “wild cow” (Hos. iv. 16) (cf. the fact that the hieros gamos ceremonies in Athens took place in the “bull-shed”, and that Ba’al loves Anat in the shape of a heifer). In Hos. xiv. 9, the comparison with the fresh green fruit tree, and in v. 6 with the dew, elucidates the work of a saviour god (Wolff, p. xviii). Most important is the whore2° Gomer (the name means “black,” kmr, and stands for the connection with the earth) as salvanda=the people of God. Tammuz symbol: “Therefore shall the land mourn” (Hos. iv. 3).

The Song of Songs in the Gospel of St. John

There is something special about every beginning. There is something special about the first spring day when the sun has gained power, and thousands of spring flowers are nodding in the light on the black soil. There is also something special about the first beginnings of Christianity 2000 years ago in Palestine when we hear about the young men, Andrew and Simon (John i. 35ff), who eagerly seek out their friends, say­ing: “Come and see.”

Very few exegetes note that the spring symbolism of the Song of Songs is used in the writings of St. John: “Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth.” Jesus sees Nathanael under the fig tree, cf. how “the beloved” in the Song of Songs stands behind the garden wall and looks at his love through the lattice, and sees that “the fig tree putteth forth her green figs.”

Cant. v. 2 is especially interesting: ‘it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh, saying, Open to me, my dove.., for my head is filled with dew....” Cf. Revelations iii: “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” Jesus comes as the spiritual bridegroom to share the same house and table with the beli­ever (John i: and they came and saw where he dwelt).

We find the most obvious parallel in the chapters where Mary plays the part of the bride21 (John ii, xii, xx - but not the same Mary, true enough). Cant. i. 12: “While the king sitteth at his table, my spikenard sendeth forth the smell there­of.” cf. John xii: “Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly...and the house was filled with the smell of the ointment.” The pastoral imagery is also taken from the Song of Songs (1-7): “Tell me, o thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest, where thou makest thy flock to rest at noon…”

In our opinion, the pastoral romance by Longos is a close parallel to the Song of Songs; cf., e.g., with Cant. i.8: “And graze your kids close to the shepherd’s huts” (an invitation to Sulamit) - so both Solomon and Sulamit are depicted as shepherds (the May King is, at the same time, shepherd and king). Longos’ novel is also about spring and incipient love. In the descriptions of love between the two, Radin22 sees an influence from India on the Song of Songs, and thinks that this influence has reached Israel already during the great period in the reign of King Solomon via trade relations with the east.

However, we think it is highly probable that both Dionysos, Krishna23 and Solomon/Sulamit, Adonis and Dumuzi are variations of the “shepherd” (the child of nature/the spring god), and it is more likely that the love-mysticism in Indian religion is an off-shoot of the women’s dance for the shepherd in the Syrian-Mesopotamian tradition.

Sulamit is the personification of wild nature: “Who is this ascending from the steppe, leaning on her lover.” Sulamit is also the personification of the women who set out in nature to weep for “the shepherd”; viii. 14: “Flee, my beloved, be like a buck or a stag on the balsam-mountains.” Just as the spring festival ends with the death of the shepherd, so the Song of Songs ends with this appeal to the shepherd to flee. In the Mesopotamian legend about the descent of Dumuzi/ Tammuz and Ishtar to the land of the dead, “Dumuzi, the shepherd,” must give his life to save the goddess, and thereby the vitality and fertility of the whole people. “The Shepherd,” who is at the same time also “the lamb,” or “the he-goat,” saves the great “harlot”. As recognised by S.N. Kramer (The Sacred Marriage Rite, 1969), this also forms the frame­work of the Christ-drama, and, in our opinion, stands out most clearly in the Gospel of St. John, the “spiritual” gospel. Therefore, it is of special importance when, at the end of this gospel, Peter is instituted as “shepherd of the sheep of Jesus.” He becomes a substitute for the Good Shepherd, and the drama goes on year by year in the church, and the pastor, who is nothing in himself, is a substitute for the chief shepherd/the great shepherd of the sheep, who was brought again from the dead through the everlasting covenant, and the congregation as the bride. (This ancient symbolism, which has already been gnawn to the bone through the ravages of time and western rationalism, seems to be disappear­ing completely with the introduction of women pastors). And it gets a special importance when Revelation ends with the vision of “the bride”, the wife of the lamb, the new Jerusalem (Cant vi. 4). and she is depicted as surrounded by “Jerusalem girls” (v.8; viii. 4; v. 16); cp. how the primordial couple living in wild nature is Elioun and Beiruth (in Filon from Byblos). The King of Spring is woken up under an apple tree. M. Pope mentions that Adonis is called Melus (“apple”); Adonis was born by the myrrh-tree (Song of Songs, 1977, p. 663).

In the early church, the bishop was extremely powerful.24 In 1. Pet. v. 4, Christ is called “the chief shepherd”. The bishops were the substitutes of Christ in the congregation. (It is essential to realize that the title of pastor/shepherd is the most important of the names that Jesus uses about himself). With the command, repeated three times, “be a pastor to my sheep”, Peter is appointed as the substitute of Christ in the early church (John xxi). Previous to this, there is a draught of fishes, and seven disciples catch only 152 fishes. There have been speculations as to why this figure is stated so accurately. Maybe it should be interpreted as a symbol of the oldest congregation at Capernaum consisting of 152 baptized members. It is important for the Gospel of St. John to emphasize that Jesus is not absent. The historical Jesus is one with the Christ of the church, who lives today, and comes to his congregation when it celebrates Mass: “I will not leave you fatherless, I come to you...” This coming is specially connected with the Eucharist (cf. how the Christ, who, in John vi, feeds the five thousand in the desert, is fused with the Christ who administers the Sacrament). “And Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks and distributed them” (vi. 11), cf. xxi. 14: “Jesus comes and takes the bread and gives it to them.’’ Note that it is in the meal, the community of the dis­ciples with the dead, but the risen lord is restored.

Some exegetes consider John xxi a later addition to the gos­pel, but this does not seem to be very likely. Is there anything strange about the fact that a gospel. which wants to emphasize the unity between the historical Jesus and the living Christ of the church ends with a picture of the oldest congregation, which was founded at Capernaum, and its pastor, Simon Peter.

The primitive church was saved from its first and greatest crisis by the church fathers, who, with great diligence, collected documentary material about the often monstrous specula­tions and practices of the sects. In this work there was a need for theological temperaments as different as Origen and Epiphanios of Salamis. As a modern church father, our honoured friend has followed in the footsteps of the ancients, and has proved to be an Origen in diligence and learning, and an Epiphanios in zeal. In his care for the students, he has gone far beyond a purely professional interest, and, though not ordained, he has, more than many others, deserved to bear the Master’s title: Pastor Bonus. Like the care of the shepherd (John x. 8-12), his care has often been linked together with anger at financial exploitation, an anger, which is, unfortunately, rare in our time, but which continues what the oldest monks called holy wrath, originating in the Lord’s own zelos (John ii. 17). It is an honour to pay homage to him.

(This article was written for Dialogue in action, Essays in honour of Johannes Aagaard, ed. Lars Thunberg, Moti Lal Pandit, C.V. Fogh-Hansen, 1988, pp.85-110)

Notes and References

1. The shorn lock is also known from the Adonis-cult at Byblos (Lucian, De Syria Dea, 6) and the Egyptian fairy tale about Bata in the Ceder Valley (Lebanon). The stepmother’s behaviour ref­lects that of the Syrian Astarte. In a Hittite legend, she offers the storm god her love in unfaithfulness to her husband, Elkunirsa; cf. the Hippolyte-themes connected with the rose festival at Gaza; Prokopios: Spätantiker Gemäldecyklus in Gaza, ed. P. Friedländer (1939). J. van Dijk speaks of “the drama about the noble Dumuzi (Tammuz) and the treacherous courtesan Inanna (Ishtar)”. Illustreret Religionshistorie, i (1968), p. 424.

2. ”On Mount Lebanon is a statue of Venus. Her head is veiled, her expression sad, her cheek, beneath her veil, is resting on her left hand, and it is believed that, as one looks upon the statue, it sheds tears. This statue not only represents the mourning goddess, but is also a symbol of the earth in winter.” (Macrobius, Satur­nalia, i, 21, 5).

But when the sun has come up….and has crossed the boundary of the spring equinox, giving length to the day, then Venus is glad and fair to see, the fields are green ...” (ibid., 21, 6).

Furthermore, the inhabitants of Hierapolis, who are Assyrians by race, embody all the activities and powers of the sun in the form of a single, bearded statue which they call Apollo (the Mantic god El)...the left hand offers the likeness of a flower.... Before its feet is an image of a woman... The downward-pointing beard represents the rays which shoot from above to the earth.... The likeness of a flower (which the god wears in one hand) represents the flowering of all that the god sows and engenders.... The likeness of a woman is a representation of the earth.” (ibid., 17, 66-9).

3. Plutarch, De Is et Os, ch. 13.

4. CTA,4,6,46.

5. The theme of the goddess at the well is also known from Irish saga. When kissed, she is changed from an old witch into the most beautiful girl in the world, J. de Vries, Keltische Religion (1961), pp. 242f. A variant of the theme of rejuvenation is also known from the Shepherd of Hermas, Vis. 18, 2-5. Hermas meets her in the corn-field.

6. That the festival for Adonis was originally a spring-festival, appears from the fact that he is connected with the anemone, which is in flower in February. See the discussion in W. Atallah, Adonis (1966), pp. 232f. & 240-46.

7. The Cyprian Aphrodite as a prostitute: Clemens protr. 11, 13, 41. Firmicus Mat de errore X, 1; Arn. de Sicca adv.nat. IV, 24. The Punic ­North African goddess, Caelestis Virgo, had a cult, which St. Augustine called shameless, and in her festival, prostitutes (meret­rices) took part publicly. In the Chaldaean Oracles, the goddess is Hecate, queen of the night and the demons. She is Physis, and, as cosmic soul, is identical with Psyche and a virgin, H. Lewy, Chaldaean Oracles and Theurgy, (ed.) M. Tardieu (1978), pp. 84ff.

8. In Egypt the priests at one point, in the four-day celebration, drew forth drinkable water and placed it in a gold container. At that a cry arose: “Osiris has been found!” (Plutarch, De Is et Os). The water in the cultic vessels is, according to Plutarch, the “emanation” (aporroon) of Osiris. Water in Egyptian religious thought has too close an association with Osiris to allow it to have a separate identity apart from the god; cf. the formula: “My Osiris gives you cool water.” In giving this water, Osiris gives himself Robert A. Wild, Water in the Cultic Worship of Isis and Serapis (1981) pp. 82, 127. Cf. Gospel of John iv 14: “Water springing up into everlasting life.” As early as the Pyramid texts, the “cool water” of the Nile is itself the vital fluid issued from the body of Osiris, cf. the curious expression “out of his belly shall flow rivers”, John vii 38. Water was said to restore life to the dead Osiris-king. A. Blackman, Recueil de travaux relatifs a la philologie et a l’ archéologie égyp­tiennes et assyriennes 39 (1921) pp. 59-62.

9. G. Quispel: “Jewish Gnosis and Mandaean Gnosticism” (in J-E. Ménard, Les Textes de Nag Hammadi , pp. 82-122) deals with some of the same contexts as the author of this article. In the Nag Hammadi work The Thunder (or Bronté), an all-embrac­ing female deity, introduces herself with the words, “I am the sister of my husband” (NHC VI, 13, 30f.), “I am the prostitute and the saint, I am the woman and the virgin” (13, 18-20). The same doubleness also exists in the female ruler over the powers of darkness among the Mandaeans. Ruha, in. Ginza (80, 31 & 494, 11), is called kadishta, “prostitute,” also the planet Venus is called prostitute (Book of John, 183, 13). Ruha is also psyche (acc. to E.S. Drower). The goddess as the representative of the earth, see Quispel, p. 98.

Interesting is the figure of Anath-Haije, who, according to Ginza (118, 3), together with Hibil (Abel), is the fruit of the first connec­tion between the heavenly Adam and the “cloud of light”. Anath-­Haije is the Western Semitic goddess with “the shepherd”, Abel, as her brother and partner.

Ruha is depicted as Dea Syria (M. Lidzbarski, Ginza, p.xi; see especially Ginza, p. 99) - Ruha wants to lie with her son Ur, also called “the fool”. After Ur’s fall, she sends up a lamentation: Who will be like you? Who will wear your ornaments? Who will be master of your demons? Ur is Adonis/Orion, the hunter, and is lamented with the typical lament for Adonis. Adonis is both the son and lover of the goddess; cf. Ruha’s words: “Sleep with your mother” (p. 99); “I am your sister; if you will sleep with me, your strength will double.” Ur is connected with the word Orion; (Hebrew ‘ur = “the heated”). Both Orion and Ur are dethroned god. To crown the Creation, Ur, also called “the giant” (gabara) is surrounded with a wall and guards; cf. “Orion’s chain”, Job 30, 31 (chains of Kesil = the fool).

10. In the Dionysos-cult at Elis, we find a parallel to the wine miracle. On a particular evening, water was put in jars, and overnight it was changed into wine, which certified the epiphany of the god asked for by the women. Also John ii 11 speaks about epiphany: “revealed his glory.”

11. The Mesopotamian New Year’s celebration includes a cleansing of the temple with a severed sheep’s head. About the annual clean­sing of the temple among the Mandaeans, see K. Rudolph, Die Mandäer, ii, (1961) pp. 306-9.

12. In the Greek Acts of Thomas the snake says: I am a relative of him who is outside Oceanos, and whose tail is in his own mouth.

13. An Adonis-feature in the figure of Lazarus is that he lives with his sisters. Adonis is the symbol of the youth fostered by women, and not yet mature.

14. The fold of Dumuzi as a term: J. van Dijk: “Sumerisk Religion,” in Illustreret Religionshistorie, ed. J.P. Asmussen and J. Læssø (1968), i, p. 424. In the Acts of Thomas, admission into the con­gregation is referred to by means of expressions like (ch. 59): “that we may become children of thy fold;” (ch. 67): “anoint thy flock”.

15. In the Shepherd of Hermas, we find the themes of rejuvenation of the goddess/fight with the dragon/building of the temple/the shepherd/the women who follow the shepherd/syzygy = the shepherd sitting on the bed. Sim. X, 1, 1.

16. H. Wagenvoort: „Apuleius’ Märchen von Amor und Psyche“, p. 385, in Amor und Psyche. ed. Gerhard Binder and R. Merkelbach, Wege der Forschung (1968).

17. harmu of Ishtar. Dumuzi is called the thrice loved.

18. Amor und Psyche, p. 84.

19. Joseph et Aseneth (ed., 1968).

20. During her search, Isis reaches Tyre where she must live as a harlot for ten years acc. to Epiphanios.

21. The different aspects of the goddess often split up into two perso­nalities, mother and bride, Venus and Psyche, Sophia and Sophia Achamoth, Europa and Harmonia (sister and bride); cf. W. Bousset, Pauly-Wissowa, Real Encyclopädie (Neue Bearb, hersg. W. Kroll), Bd. VII 2, (1912), pp. 1517 f.

22. “Song of Songs and Tamil Poetry” (Stud. in Rel., 1973), 3, pp. 205-19.

23. The Road to India: Krishna, the shepherd (“the Black”), who is loved by the shepherdesses, and is killed at last in the shape of a deer, is an Indian variant of the king of the spring festival, and has the characteristic chaotic elements in his behaviour. The name of Orpheus comes from a word, which means “black”. (The myth about Eurydice, who is brought back from the nether world by her ecstatically playing husband, is a variation of the near eastern myth about Ishtar brought back by the shamanistic hermaphrodite). Daphne in Longos’ pastoral romance is the dark-skinned shepherd. The double name, “the yellow, the black,” also appears in the pair Xanthos and Dionysos Melanaigeus (“with the black goat-skin”) in Athens. The dance of the gopis is also known in the Judaeo-Christian spring tradition (W.C. van Unnik, “A Note on the Dance of Jesus in the Acts of John”, Virgiliae Christ. (1964), 18; Melito of Sardis On the Passover 80; cf. Apoc. xiv 4: “they are virgins…. which follow the Lamb withersoever he goeth”).

The Krishna myth has become historical reality in Christ. In the snow-nights and the deep forests, the white Balder became the white Christ, for the Lord had already in advance laid a spark of the truth in the longings of man.

The oldest Christian mysticism (Origen, Makarios the Great, The Odes of Solomon) is linked with the love-language of the Song of Songs via the spring festival (the ecstatic search of the women) related to the Indian Krishna mysticism.

24. The bishop sat enthroned on his cathedra in the apse towards the west, surrounded by the semicircular bench for the presbytery (Rev. iv 4). From Ignatios Magn. vi 1 it is likely to conclude that the bishop had a throne. E. Segelberg: “The Ordination of the Mandaean tarmidaStudia Patristica X; ed. F. L. Cross (1970), TU 107, p. 422. Segelberg mentions that the chair of James was honoured by the church of Jerusalem, Euseb Hist. Eccl. VII, 19. James was the chairman of a presbytery in Jerusalem, Acts xxi 18.