Fertility Cults

FERTILITY CULTS. Since the classic work of James G. Frazer in 1906 it has been widely held that a number of cults promoted the fertility of men, animals, and crops by celebrating the myth of a dying-and-rising god with rites of mourning and of later jubilation. The god was believed to typify the death and renewal of vegetation. A “sacred marriage” between the god, represented by the king, and the goddess, represented by a hierodule, also was believed to promote the fertility of the land. The sacred prostitution of Astarte and of Aphrodite also was directed to this end.

In Egypt Osiris was killed by his brother Seth, but was revived by his wife Isis. From the Egyp. Empire to the Ptolemaic period Osiris was associated with germinating grain. The Egyp. dead also were identified with Osiris as the prototype of “resurrection.” In Mesopotamia the Sumer. Dumuzi (the Akkad. Tammuz) was originally a king of Erech, who was deified as the consort of the goddess Inanna (the Akkad. Ishtar). Although the text of the myth, “Inanna’s (or Ishtar’s) Descent to the Netherworld” is missing, it has been widely assumed that the goddess descended in order to resurrect her lover. Laments for Tammuz are well-known, as well as some “sacred marriage” love songs. In the Greco-Rom. period the youthful Adonis, beloved of Aphrodite, was mourned in Byblos in Lebanon. Adonis was slain by a boar in midsummer. Seeds sown in pots, known as “the gardens of Adonis,” were cast into the sea or in wells. In Asia Minor, Attis, the consort of Cybele, met death by castration. The priests of Cybele, the famous Magna Mater, were castrated eunuchs.

In Greece the figure representing the dying vegetation was the goddess Persephone or Kore, whose abduction into Hades was mourned by her mother Demeter. Mysteries of Kore were celebrated at Eleusis. Some scholars have suggested that similar mysteries promising immortality were celebrated for various dying-and-rising gods, and further, that the resurrection of Christ and the preaching of Paul are in some measure dependent upon these mysteries.

The only explicit reference to any of these gods is found in Ezekiel 8:14: “Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the house of the Lord; and behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz.” The Jewish month of June-July still is called Tammuz. But this prob. lost its original significance just as we no longer associate Rom. fertility rites with the month of February. “The plants of pleasantness” in Isaiah 17:10 have been interpreted as “Adonis gardens,” and Hosea 7:14 has been considered to refer to ritual wailing for grain.

Other scholars have gone further in seeing the fertility-cult background as the key to the interpretation of a number of books of the OT. They argue that the Canaanite fertility cult was transmitted to Israel when the prophets exalted Yahweh as the god of the sacred marriage in place of Baal. They interpret the imagery of Jehovah and Israel as His bride as being derived from the fertility cult. Meek comments on Canticles as a Tammuz liturgy, and Gaster sees in numerous Psalms and in Joel the seasonal pattern of God’s victory over His cosmic foes. Indeed, H. G. May went so far as to derive the concepts of immortality, of the suffering servant, and of the fatherhood of God from the fertility-cult background of popular Heb. religion.

In the NT Paul warned the Corinthians against the defilement of their bodies in relation with the sacred prostitutes of Aphrodite. Paul’s harsh words of Galatians 5:12 concerning the Judaizers may have been an allusion to the self-mutilation of the priests of Cybele. Jerome reports that Hadrian (a.d. 135) deliberately desecrated the birthplace of Jesus at Bethlehem by consecrating it to the worship of Adonis/Tammuz.

Many scholars from Reitzenstein to Bultmann have compared the Resurrection of Christ to the resurrection of such figures as Attis, Adonis, or Osiris, and have attributed some of Paul’s teachings to a dependence upon pagan mysteries.

Recent studies tend to undermine seriously the Frazerian thesis of a generically similar series of fertility cults, on the one hand, and the thesis of the dependence of Christianity upon the pagan mysteries, on the other hand.

Studies by Kramer indicate that no cuneiform text speaks explicitly of the resurrection of Dumuzi/Tammuz. A fragmentary passage does imply that Tammuz spent half the year in the underworld with his sister taking his place for the other half year. Frankfort has pointed out that Osiris is not a “dying” god but a “dead” god; he reigns as the mummy-clad king of the dead. Lambrechts has shown that the evidence for the deity and the resurrection of both Attis and Adonis do not antedate the late 2nd cent. a.d. Wagner has demonstrated that in many cases the alleged mysteries of the fertility gods are dubiously attested, and that Christianity is not dependent upon the pagan mysteries.


A. General: W. Baudissin, Adonis und Esmun (1911); J. G. Frazer, Adonis, Attis, Osiris, 3rd ed. (1914); H. Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods (1948); P. Lambrechts, “Les Fêtes ‘phrygiennes’ de Cybèle et d’Attis,” Bulletin de l’Institut Historique Belge de Rome, XXVII (1952), 141-170; id., “La ‘résurrection’ d’Adonis,” Annuaire de l’Institut de philologie et d’histoire orientales et slaves, XIII (1953), 207-240. B. Fertility-Cult Interpretations of the Bible: T. Meek, “Babylonian Parallels to the Song of Songs,” JBL, XLIII (1924), 242-252; id., “The Song of Songs and the Fertility Cult,” in The Song of Songs, ed. Wilfred Schoff (1924), 48-79; H. G. May, “The Fertility Cult in Hosea,” AJSL, XLVIII (1932), 73-98; T. Meek, “The Song of Songs,” The Interpreter’s Bible (1956), vol. V; T. H. Gaster, Thespis, 2nd ed. (1961); S. N. Kramer, “The Biblical ‘Song of Songs’ and the Sumerian Love Songs,” Expedition, V (1962), 25-31; id., The Sacred Marriage Rite (1969). C. Criticisms of the Fertility-Cult Interpretations: H. H. Rowley, “The Song of Songs: An Examination of Recent Theory,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (April, 1938), 251-276; E. M. Yamauchi, “Cultic Clues in Canticles?” ETSB, IV (1961), 80-88; id., “Tammuz and the Bible,” JBL, LXXXIV (1965), 283-290; G. Wagner, Pauline Baptism and the Pagan Mysteries (1967); B. Metzger, “Methodology in the Study of the Mystery Religions and Early Christianity,” in Historical and Literary Studies: Pagan, Jewish and Christian (1968), 1-24.