Examining even more Parallels Between Jesus and Dionysus: Looking at Archetypal Literary Criticism, The Raglan Scale, Mythemes, and the Hero archetype

In literary criticism there is an entire field of study devoted to archetypal literary criticism. This branch of study focuses on the parallels between the various myths, pointing out such things as common mythemes and things like the hero archetype which are present in many of the ancient stories of myth and religion.

Usually, when introducing people to this subject matter for the first time, I like to mention the Raglan scale as a good starting place when discussing the subject of comparative myth and legend and historical figures.

The Raglan scale lists 22 basic traits that most mythical and legendary figures typically share. If a figure from antiquity shares many of the traits with other well known myths, then they are more likely to be legendary in nature. Likewise, if they share relatively few of the traits then they are probably more or less historical.

The Raglan scale follows as such:

1. Hero's mother is a royal virgin;
2. His father is a king, and
3. Often a near relative of his mother, but
4. The circumstances of his conception are unusual, and
5. He is also reputed to be the son of a god.
6. At birth an attempt is made, usually by his father or his maternal grand father to kill him, but
7. He is spirited away, and
8. Reared by foster -parents in a far country.
9. We are told nothing of his childhood, but
10. On reaching manhood he returns or goes to his future Kingdom.
11. After a victory over the king and/or a giant, dragon, or wild beast,
12. He marries a princess, often the daughter of his predecessor and
13. And becomes king.
14. For a time he reigns uneventfully and
15. Prescribes laws, but
16. Later he loses favor with the gods and/or his subjects, and
17. Is driven from the throne and city, after which
18. He meets with a mysterious death,
19. Often at the top of a hill,
20. His children, if any do not succeed him.
21. His body is not buried, but nevertheless
22. He has one or more holy sepulchres.

Now this scale is just a good gauge to use when determining if a figure of antiquity is more or less likely to be a historical figure or if it seems they may have been impregnated with some myth and legend. Many historical figures, such as Pythagoras and Alexander the Great (just to name a couple), have been highly mythologized and turned into enduring legends. The Raglan scale itself, however, doesn't prove any direct correlation between the corresponding myths exactly, since depending on translations, and writing styles, similarities can change in terms of accuracy and consistency. But, I find, it is a good list to help learn as one sets to the task of recognizing potential literary influences and storytelling archetypes found in our literary traditions, both past and present. Simply put, it's a useful tool for highlighting what may turn out to be more than just a coincidence.

At the same time, if we should discover that there is a direct correlation between two figures, or two literary works, then that would be extremely interesting. Take for example the story of Moses and Superman. These two figures, although entirely different, arising in different cultures and different time periods, share some surprising yet undeniable correlations.

The fact is, the parallels between the biblical Moses and Superman are there because Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster modeled Superman, in part, on the biblical patriarch Moses. That is to say, Moses is an archetypal model for Superman.

Superman biographer Larry Tye, for example, suggests in his book Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero, that Superman's Kryptonian name, "Kal-El," resembles the Hebrew words קל-אל, which can be taken to mean "voice of God." The suffix "el," meaning "(of) God," is also found in the name of angels (e.g. Gabriel and Ariel), who are human looking agents of good with superhuman powers and can fly. Tye suggests that this "Voice of God" is an allusion to Moses' role as a prophet of God, literally the man who brings God's word down from Mt. Sinai to his people. (pp. 65-67)

Moreover, those familiar the the origin story of Moses will recognize that, like Moses, Kal-El's parents send him away in a small vessel in order to save him from impending doom, delivering him to new adoptive parents in an alien culture, where he is raised as one of their own. He grows up moral and just, and then learns he has great powers, after which he fights for the underdogs and becomes a savior to the people.

As Larry Tye says, "The narratives of Krypton's birth and death borrowed the language of Genesis."

According to the biblical scholar and historian Dennis R. MacDonald there are extensive connections between the Gospel stories found in the New Testament and the Greek myths and legends of old. In fact, MacDonald has gone further than anyone in showing that these links are more than just mere parallels but, in many instances, has revealed there to be Greek phrases lifted right out of the Iliad and Odyssey verbatim.

If these borrowings are as undeniable as MacDonald contends they are, then what about other parallels and similarities to the ancient Greek stories and the New Testament? Shouldn't these exist as well? I contend that they do.

In fact, I firmly believe that like the above Moses and Superman example, that the myth of Dionysus, specifically Euripides' epic The Bacchae, in all likelihood has had a large influence of the Gospel narrative of Jesus Christ.

Although I've talked about the parallels between Jesus and Dionysus in depth before, allow me to briefly recap some of the more striking parallels I have found. Once I've detailed my findings I'll let you judge whether or not they are pertinent of if I'm just grasping at straws (also, take note of how many of these fall on the Raglan scale).

1. In the opening lines of The Bacchae it states Dionysus changes in shape from God to man. Christians believe Jesus is God incarnate, an idea they get from the NT written by Greek authors who were, in all likelihood, well verse in the Greek epics.

2. Both Dionysus and Jesus' followers consisted of distinct male and female groups. The procession of followers of Dionysus were comprised of the thiasus (i.e., an ecstatic retinue), the bearded styrs and the loyal women the maenads. In the case of Jesus, his followers consist of the twelve Apostles (also an ecstatic retinue, and most of whom had beards) and the loyal women, namely the three Marys (and most likely other women as well). 

3. Both Dionysus and Jesus are linked to wine symbolism, and the harvest, and fit the pattern of dying and rising gods, or Corn Kings, a term C.S. Lewis used and derived from Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, in which Frazer refers to the archetypal “sacrificial-scapegoat,” such as the dying and rising gods Osiris, Lityerses, Adonis, and Bacchae as the “Korn King.” Additionally, Peter Wick has shown how Jesus turning water into wine at the Marriage of Cana (cf. John 2:1-11; and John 2:3-5 with The Bacchae lines 254-56; 493-96; and 834-35) was intended to show that Jesus was superior to his pagan counterpart Dionysus.

4. In The Bacchae, Dionysus frequently refers to himself as the "Son of God" or "Child of God" whereas Jesus is frequently referred to as the Son of God in the Gospels. Later on, both are referred to as "God’s true Son" (cf. 1 John 5:20 with The Bacchae line 1050).

5. Both Dionysus and Jesus are raised by foster parents with royal ties. King Athamas and his wife Ino raise Dionysus and Joseph and Mary of the royal bloodline of King David raise Jesus. 

6. In both cases the foster parents are instructed by angelic figures (the winged Hermes in for Dionysus and the winged Gabriel for Jesus) to raise the child in a specific way or manner. 

7. Both infants are birthed in secrecy while fleeing from the powers that would seek to have them killed; the ever jealous queen of the gods Hera in the case of Dionysus and King Herod the Great in the case of Jesus.

8. Comparing the Gospel stories of Jesus’ trial with the trial of Dionysus in The Bacchae, we discover that both Jesus and Dionysus get arrested and, subsequently are interrogated by the appointed ruler of the land; Pontius Pilate and King Pentheus respectively. 

9. After they are questioned about their intentions, both give vague responses in much the same way, the most notable being that they both claim to “bare witness to the truth.”

10. Dionysus, when facing the charge of treason for claiming divinity (which, we shall not forget, Jesus faces similar, if not the very same, charges against himself), he refers to himself as a lion walking into a net (The Bacchae, line 1036) thus predicting his own demise. This mirrors Jesus’ prediction of his own death as well. Although it could be claimed a rather loose parallel, Jesus too is likened to the Lion of Judah in Revelation 5:5. It is simply interesting to note that both figures were likened to lions by those who authored their stories.

11. Jesus, like Dionysus, was also accused of drinking too much wine and with known drunkards, and that he himself was a known glutton and a drunkard (Mat. 11:19), an accusation he never denied.

12. Both are sacrificed on a hill (cf. Mark 15:22 with The Bacchae line 1047), and both rise into the heavens upon the clouds (cf. Matt. 26:64 and Mark 14:62 with The Bacchae lines 1685-86).

13. Regarding Jesus and Dionysus, both of their sacrifices guarantees the salvation from sin for their followers (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:9 with The Bacchae line 1037).

14. During their final hours before death, both are surrounded by their most loyal female followers (in the case of Jesus the book of John mentions it’s the three Marys – his mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Mary, the wife of Cleopas – and for Dionysus it’s Agave and her women attendants) and upon rising from death it is specifically these loyal female followers who discover them risen.

15. Both overcome death and then rise upon clouds of glory.

16. After being reborn and then spirited away, it is said each will be “exalted on high.”

Although not specifically a parallel between Dionysus and Jesus, we do find further parallels between the Gospel narrative and The Bacchae, this time involving each stories main antagonists.

For example, both Pontius Pilate and King Pentheus meet similar ends, dying atop mountains. According to legend, Pontius Pilate is filled with sorrow and remorse after Jesus’ death, and commits suicide during the first year of Caligula’s reign, while another legend places his death at Mount Pilatus, in Switzerland.

Likewise, King Pentheus, whose name literally means ‘man of sorrow’ (from the greek word péntho [πένθος] which means sorrow), is driven mad and runs into the woods of Mount Cithaeron, and is killed when he runs into the Bacchanalia (the all-female Maenads), the followers of Dionysus, who cut off his head.

Now, I'm not saying these parallels represent any form of plaigarism. Just that it seems more than a little bit likely that the Greek authors of the Gospel stories knew the classics and that Euripides epic The Bacchae may have been one of the dominant influences on the Jesus narrative, especially his trial, death, and resurrection. Furthermore, it's worth noting that from the moment of the trial to the moment of his death, Jesus' narrative follows the Dionysian narrative point by point in chronological order, which is peculiar -- to say the least.

Finally, I personally find it interesting that both Jesus and Dionysus begin in religions that were once polytheistic but later become monotheisms. Although unrelated to the types of mythemes I'm considering here, it still proves to be highly fascinating from an anthropological point of view.

Ultimately, however, whether one defends or contends the parallels, the point isn't that these are verbatim borrowings but, rather, that we have an archetype where popular themes, motifs, and ideas get retold in similar ways regarding similar religious figures.

Unlike many who are quick to dismiss such literary similarities as unrelated coincidence, I feel that the connection between Dionysus and Jesus Christ may be greater than some tend to think, not only because it is well understood that the story of Jesus turning water to wine seems to have been specifically designed to compete with the popular Dionysian mystery cult at the time, but also because, knowing this, we might come to find the rest of Jesus narrative was designed to compete as a more contemporary, popular version of Dionysus as well, perhaps as a means to win over pagan converts. I find this gives us reason enough to think maybe, just maybe, these parallels are more profound than just simple mythemes and random similarities. There may be a genuine influence of one narrative upon the other, and vice verse, and that's something worth thinking about.

[Update: Since publishing this article, I've received two emails by concerned Christians expressing how offensive they found the content. Of course, my intention was not to offend, merely enlighten. My only goal here was to raise some interesting points, ones I personally feel are worth pondering, and which others may or may not have been aware of. I also made sure to mention that being offended by the mere suggestion that there might be some parallels between Jesus and Dionysus would be a lot like getting offended over the obvious parallels between Moses and Superman. It's all rather silly, if you stop to think about it.]


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