The Mythology of Easter III: The Mythical Meaning of the Resurrection

In yesterday’s post I first concluded that the story of Christ’s resurrection would not have originated by transferring the earlier motif of dying and rising gods to form the epilogue to Christ’s death, but in the end concluded that they, together with the transformations of initiates in mystery cults, share an essential common psychological underpinning showing that they each are variations rooted in the same archetypal source. The mythic associations that springtime and its renewal of vegetation, the vernal equinox and return of the sun’s light, and dying and rising gods have with renewal and rebirth are really varying expressions of the same inner psychic conditions (CW 6, pp. 193-94). In this post I pursue this idea further to explore the full meaning of the Easter experience, not as a matter of Christian doctrine or interpretation of scripture, but in mytho-psychological terms.

Since belief in Christ’s Resurrection arose quickly in a particular time and place, it is helpful to begin with some historical background. Although Christianity is rooted in Judaism, its spread and its success occurred not in Jewish Palestine itself but in the greater Roman Mediterranean world among gentiles, for whose benefit some of the traditional Jewish elements (circumcision, obeying Mosaic Law) were jettisoned while new features were added. In that society, the old pagan Roman and Greek gods were in disrepute and no longer had a hold on most people. The new Emperor’s cult, in which the Emperors (at least the good ones) were exalted into the status of immortal gods upon their death (hmmm…), did not resonate either, because it was too politically oriented.

Psychologically speaking, this problem is called the “loss of soul,” because individuals and the society at large come to operate at the level of everyday ego consciousness, at the expense of inner spiritual life (CW 9.1, pp. 119-20, 139). This loss is the result of depleted psychic energy, which comes from the unconscious (whereas ego consciousness only sucks it up). Experiences of renewal and rebirth come from a new infusion of psychic energy emanating from the unconscious (CW 6, p. 179; 9.1, pp. 141-42). This psychological “loss of soul” problem is commonly reflected in myths, such as where Wolfram’s Grail hero Parzival encounters a “wasteland” kingdom, and proceeds to heal it (Campbell 2015, pp. 149-69), much as the apocalyptic Jesus thought would happen when the spiritual wasteland of Roman Palestine (and beyond) would be transformed into the coming Kingdom of God. Likewise, quite apart from Jewish apocalypticism (including that of Jesus), in the broader Roman religious world something inevitably had to change along these lines.

Given this environment, it is therefore of interest that mystery cults, in which initiates experienced transformation (rebirth) grew increasingly popular. In these rituals an initiate was transformed indirectly through participation in the fate of the deity, as also would be the case with Christ in Christianity. And at this point in time the increasingly popular deities in these mysteries were not Greek or Roman but were imports from Egypt and the Near East (e.g., Mithras, Osiris, Isis), as would also be the case with the Jewish god and Christ. Gnosticism, focused upon the inner divine spirit (“spark”) trapped within the physical body, also became popular among select sophisticated, sometimes ascetically-inclined groups, and it is significant that once Christianity appeared much of Gnosticism readily morphed into Christian forms. These developments evidenced a yearning for a more individualized spirituality of transformation that would provide a more meaningful experience of the sacred, but the mysteries and Gnosticism were confined to a small, sophisticated part of the population, and mostly to men. The situation was ripe for a break-out religion that would answer the spiritual needs of more people.

In order for a new religion to take hold, it must resonate with our inner being, not just our rational ego consciousness. This is because religious experience (also any religious statement) is not rational, but is highly psychological, being rooted in the depths of our unconscious. It is when we dip into that realm, where there are no limits of space or time (CW 9.1, p. 142; 18, p. 695), that we feel not subject to annihilation, sense immortality, encounter God, and can feel at one with the cosmos. Depth psychology holds that the totality of our self is composed of the conscious and unconscious parts of our psyche, and that it is the unconscious portion which gives us the affective feeling of a totality and of being part of it, of relating to something greater than what we normally perceive of as our selves. Psychologically speaking, this is an experience of what we perceive as the divine (God), and the intersection of the unconscious and conscious parts of the self are perceived as the God-man (sometimes also perceived as and called our inner voice, higher self, etc., that endeavors to reach out to our conscious mind). In myths and their symbols, this intersection is personified (projected), sometimes being a pair, such as the Greek Dioscuri (one mortal and the other immortal); alternatively, it can be fused in one figure such as Christ (CW 9.1, p. 121). In any case, the God-man lives within each of us (i.e., the divine being incarnate) as a mediating force between the human and divine (conscious and unconscious), and gets expressed by corresponding mythological symbols. The God-man must be projected in order to be visible and comprehensible to our ego consciousness (CW 18, p. 695). The more we can let the unconscious come forth (though not to excess) and provide psychic energy, the more we will feel renewal (resurrection), our spiritual lives will be deeper and more satisfying, and we will avoid loss of soul. Depth psychologists call this process individuation, which leads to wholeness. The whole self has its corresponding symbols of totality and wholeness, which include the mandala, the circle, and the cross.

The Christ figure is thus an archetypal symbol of the self (CW 9.2). Psychologically speaking, this means that encountering and letting “him” into one’s life really can lead to a better spiritual life, enable one to regain (or avoid losing) one’s soul, and also experience transcending time and death (i.e., immortality). We thus find our “divine” nature and are resurrected with Christ; the idea of Christ’s own Resurrection is a projection of the resurrection of the self indirectly through the Christ figure (CW 18, pp. 694-95). Looking at the spread of early Christianity and the evolution of the nature of the Christ figure (Christology), we can see that this is indeed what happened: The early Christian communities were indeed generally more spiritual than the surrounding population, having a new inner spirituality rather than a religion characterized by rote cultic rituals (principally sacrifices) as in paganism at the time.

Resurrection meditation

Resurrection is an internal affair.

That the Christ figure is archetypal is demonstrated by the rapid mythologization of the historical Jesus, who for that very reason became both nearly unrecognizable and actually unimportant. Thus, “the apparition of Christ came to St. Paul not from the historical Jesus but from the depths of his own unconscious,” according to Jung (CW 9.1, p. 121), and Paul had almost nothing to say about the historical Jesus, focusing instead on the crucifixion and Resurrection. The stories about Jesus’s birth, acts, death, and Resurrection became more mythical and legendary over time, his biography in many ways taking on the archetypal features of other mythical heroes (e.g., miraculous birth with divine parent, little information about childhood, mythologically significant death) (Dundes; Jung, CW 9.1, p. 141). The Resurrection became the focal point, yet for a long time (including in all four canonical Gospels and in Paul) there was no narration of the resurrection event itself, which is natural since the notion of resurrection is irrational and derived from the unconscious, and thus is difficult to express in narration, except symbolically and mythically. Thus, when the Resurrection was finally narrated in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter (late 2nd century CE), the reported events themselves defied any rationality: The heavens opened in a great brightness and two angels descended to the tomb and escorted Jesus out of it between them. As they came out, the height of the angels reached to heaven, while Jesus stood still higher. They were followed by a walking, talking cross affirming to a voice from heaven that Jesus had “preached to those who sleep” (NTA, pp. 224-25). Finally, the sayings of Jesus that were preserved (or created and put on his lips) in the canonical Gospels tended to be teachings that focused on one’s inner life and would encourage (in psychological terms) the individuation process (Edinger, pp. 135-38, listing examples). Likewise in the Gospel of Thomas: “The kingdom is within you, . . . When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will know that you are the sons of the living Father” (saying 3); and, “When you give rise to that which is within you, what you have will save you” (saying 70). This Jesus was demanding a commitment to and a transcendent relationship with the self (Edinger, pp. 135, 143). The susceptibility of the Christ figure to mythologization, made possible by his archetypal nature, accounts in large part for why Christianity spread (and in its many forms) and eventually succeeded. And at the heart of it was the Resurrection story, an experience that already lay within our own hearts.

In light of the above, we can see that actually any religion that hits the right archetypal notes in our psyche will work to achieve essentially the same spiritual results, a fact borne out by history. In this essential sense the various religions really are alike. But this is equally why a non-religious approach to one’s spirituality and “resurrection” will also work. This, in fact, is becoming more important in the modern world as the old Christian (and Jewish, and Islamic, and other) symbols and mythology have become stale and are losing their hold on individuals and in our cultures. The original psychic energy in early Christianity has been lost. While the traditional approach may indeed still work best for some people, others will prefer to be more self-aware, recognizing who the God-man really is rather than being carried off by projections that constellate him as an outside being and interpreting mythological metaphors as historical events (Campbell 2001, pp. 111-12), and instead managing one’s resurrection directly and mindfully. Thus, Eastern spiritual traditions have long utilized forms of introversion (e.g., meditation) to realize the godhead within (Campbell 1964, p. 114). From the objective standpoint, at least, brain studies show that the psychic experience from deep non-religious meditation in the Eastern tradition and the experiences of Christian and Islamic mystics are essentially the same. As the mythologist  Joseph Campbell always stressed, each of us has Buddha consciousness, and “I am that” (e.g., Campbell 2001). In the last analysis, that’s Christ consciousness too.

We can work on our own resurrection any day of the year, but holidays offer us an important reminder to focus on the meaning that they carry. Celebrating Easter in the spring is entirely appropriate. We all want and need to be resurrected, and nature in spring reminds us to do so. Let’s each celebrate and benefit from this holiday in our own way, because there are many paths…. Happy Easter!

Sources and Bibliography

Campbell, Joseph. 1964. The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology. New York: Penguin.

Campbell, Joseph. 2001. Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor. Novato, California: New World Library.

Campbell, Joseph. 2015. Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth. Novato, California: New World Library.

Dundes, Alan. “The Hero Pattern and the Life of Jesus,” in Robert Segal, ed., In Quest of the Hero. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990, pp. 179-223.

Edinger, Edward. Ego and Archetype: Individuation and the Religious Function of the Psyche. Boston & London: Shambhala, 1972, 1992.

Jung, Carl. “The Type Problem in Poetry,” in Psychological Types. Collected Works (“CW”), vol. 6, pp. 166-272.

Jung, Carl. “Concerning Rebirth,” in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Collected Works (“CW”), vol. 9.1, pp. 111-47.

Jung, Carl. “Christ, a Symbol of the Self,” in Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self. Collected Works (“CW”), vol. 9.2, pp. 36-71.

Jung, Carl. “A Psychological Approach to the Trinity,” in Psychology and Religion: East and West. Collected Works (“CW”), vol. 11, pp. 107-200.

Jung, Carl. “On Resurrection,” in The Symbolic Life. Collected Works (“CW”), vol. 18, pp. 692-96.

Wilson, R., ed. and trans. The New Testament Apocrypha, vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990 (cited as “NTA”).

© Arthur George 2016

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5 Responses to The Mythology of Easter III: The Mythical Meaning of the Resurrection

  1. Anonymous says:

    Happy Easter! Thank you for this very comprehensive article.


  2. Happy Easter to you too!


  3. Keith Sandilands says:

    Arthur, thank you for this writing. I very much enjoyed your depth psychology approach to the literal historical event of Christ on the cross and its metaphysical symbolism.

    As you stated and as I have personally felt, we have to view this event through a mythological lens and directly apply its metaphorical meaning to our own lives.

    As another who has been studying Campbell and Jung, I love the Campbell lecture on “The Mythic Symbology of Release”

    I agree with Campbell about the “voluntary” act of Christ, I think this understanding releases Christ ( the living person ) from the temporal world ( the body and its past feelings, his mental comparisons of his journey vs others ) and it firmly places him into the eternal dimension ( which is pure individuation, pure originality, dwelling in the bliss of pure subjective experience )

    Happy Easter !

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks, Keith, for your comments and the video of Campbell, which I had seen before but watched again with pleasure on this Easter. I think it was St. Augustine who mentioned Christ coming to the cross as would a bridegroom. I had thought of mentioning the Bodhisattva tradition in my post since it is on point, but left it out for space reasons. Happy Easter!


  5. Pingback: Christ’s Resurrection and our Redemption: A Mytho-Psychological View of Easter | Mythology Matters

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