From the Baptism of Dionysus to the Initiation of Christ : Iconographic Language and Religious Identity

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by Neil Godfrey

I have translated an article by Anne-Françoise Jaccottet that I referenced in the previous post.

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3 thoughts on “From the Baptism of Dionysus to the Initiation of Christ : Iconographic Language and Religious Identity”

  1. It’s really not surprising that Jesus would be baptized before going on his journey which leads to his suffering, death, and resurrection. In initiation rituals, there’s always a water purification before the symbolic death and rebirth/resurrection (Paul seems to combine the two in baptism). Another element of the baptism (and transfiguration) is the declaring of Jesus as God’s son. This seems to be influenced by royal coronation rituals like in the Psalms and other ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman royal coronation rituals. In fact, in Egypt, the coronation of the pharaoh (where he was transfigured and declared to be the son of a deity) was the same ritual that was performed on the deceased person to transfigure, resurrect, and “glorify” them into a divine being (in emulation of Osiris and the sun god). The rituals performed by the pharaoh were often in emulation of Osiris and the sun god’s deaths and resurrection/rebirths. The first part of the pharaoh’s coronation ritual is a water purification. So if Jesus’s baptism, transfiguration, suffering, death, and resurrection are influenced by initiation rituals and royal coronation rituals (which are closely related – initiation into a salvation cult resembles a royal coronation in a lot of ways. Initiates, like kings, are often crowned like Jesus is with a crown of thorns), then it makes sense that he would have to be purified in water as part of the process.

    “Water Rites in Ancient Egypt” by Jan Assmann and Andrea Kucharek in Ablution, Initiation, and Baptism: Late Antiquity, Early Judaism, and Early Christianity (Walter de Gruyter, 2011):
    “What is the function of the “Baptism of Pharaoh” – the purification of the king – within the sequence of rites outlined at the beginning? Its mediating position can be seen from the situation within the sequence: the purification stands between leaving the palace and the coronation by the gods and is thus before entering the actual temple to settle: the purification, as the formulas ‘Your purity is mine purity’ and ‘Your purity is the purity of Horus’ etc., offset the king into a god-like state of purity, which first enables him to face the gods in action and to be recognized by them as one of their kind… In the three-part scheme of a “rite de passage” the purification would thus occupy the mediating phase of the transformation. The first phase, the detachment, is marked by leaving the palace, the third phase is reintegration through coronation, initiation and crowning confirmation. This ritually repeated coronation was evidently presented as a rejuvenation or even rebirth of the ruler… A purification as a prerequisite for initiation to the deity was also required when entering the afterlife… This was precisely the function of the cleansing also when the king enters the temple… The oldest depiction of the cleansing of the deceased from “hes” vases, its iconography, show similarities with that of the “Baptism of Pharaoh”. The godlike state gained through physical cleansing through embalming and moral purity through the judgment of the dead enables the deceased to face the gods, just as he allows the king – and in his deputy part of the priesthood – already on earth in the temple.”

    “Njswt nhh – Kingship, Cosmos, and Time”, Katja Goebs, 2002, Z. Hawass, L. Pinch Brock (eds), Egyptology at the Dawn of the Twenty-first Century. Proceedings of the Eighth International Congress of Egyptologists, Cairo, 2000:
    “Moreover, as authors such as Gardiner, Leclant, and Assmann have noted, the texts and images that describe the royal accession (repeated during the Sed Festival) contain, besides the assumption of crowns, various other elements – such as purification, suckling, induction – of rituals that are commonly known as the Rites of Passage first discussed by Van Gennep, and whose structure was then applied to the rituals surrounding the accession of kings by Hocart. It is not surprising, therefore, to find them reappearing in funerary literature, which is concerned with the rites connected to the deceased’s “passage” to the sky and his transfiguration. Indeed, already Hocart asserted of the ancient Egyptian rituals: “The funerary rites which consecrated the dead as gods were identical with those which made (the king) a god during his lifetime. We may either say that when the living king is represented on monuments as being suckled by the wife of the principal god … he is imitating the rebirth of the dead, or that when the dead are suckled by Isis they repeat the king’s consecration. It is all one since death = birth = coronation.”

    Becoming Divine: An Introduction to Deification in Western Culture (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2013), M. David Litwa:
    “The ka was the divine spirit of the king, a spirit he shared with all pharaohs who came before him and all who would come after. Although the king’s ka was shaped and molded as the “twin” of the king at his birth, it was officially inherited at his coronation. For the Pharaoh, the ka was the divine principle in his person: the “immortal creative spirit of the divine kingship”. It was the spirit of the creator and king of gods Amun-Re himself. Apart from his ka, Amenhotep III was a normal human being, subject to all human foibles and frailties. Endowed with the divine force of ka, however, Amenhotep III was son of the living God and god himself…

    In the birth room, the king fully merged with his newborn ka in a secret ritual… After his rebirth, the king entered a long hall oriented east-west with twelve pillars. The twelve columns may have represented the twelve hours of the Sun God’s journey through the netherworld. By processing through the colonnade, the king imitated the voyage of the Sun God in his journey by night in the netherworld. Now seething with divine energy, the king finally reappeared as if from a divine womb into the sunny court… As the living manifestation of the Sun God, the people adored their transformed king as the source of their own life.

    In the ancient world, typically only kings and pharaohs claimed the divine prerogatives of immortality and ruling power. Yet in the mysteries of Dionysus – the topic of chapter 3 – deification was made available to all who underwent initiation…Orphic deification is experienced, interestingly, as a postmortem rebirth from the goddess Persephone and consequently an assimilation to Persephone’s divine son, Dionysus. As Orphic initiates identified with the god Dionysus, so the Apostle Paul morphed with the divine Christ. “I have been crucified with Christ,” he once claimed, “I no longer live- Christ lives in me”(Gal 2:19-20).”

    King and Messiah as Son of God: Divine, Human, and Angelic Messianic Figures in Biblical and Related Literature (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2008), Adela Yarbro Collins and John J Collins:
    “Eckart Otto has argued persuasively that Psalm 2 combines Egyptian and Assyrian influences… The declaration that the king is the son of God, however, has closer Egyptian parallels. The idea that the king was the son of a god is not unusual in the ancient Near East… Only in the Egyptian evidence, however, do we find the distinctive formulae by which the deity addresses the king as “my son”. The formula, “you are my son, this day I have begotten you,” finds a parallel in an inscription in the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut: “my daughter, from my body, Maat-Ka-Re, my brilliant image, gone forth from me. You are a king, who take possession of the two lands, on the throne of Horus, like Re.” Another inscription of Amenophis III has the god declare: “He is my son, on my throne, in accordance with the decree of the gods.” At the coronation of Haremhab, Amun declares to him: “You are my son, the heir who came forth from my flesh.” Or again, in the blessing of Ptah, from the time of Rameses II: “I am your father, who have begotten you as a god and your members as gods.” Such recognition formulae occur frequently in Egyptian inscriptions of the New Kingdom period… The king is still subject to the Most High, but he is an elohim, not just a man. In light of this discussion, it seems very likely that the Jerusalem enthronement ritual was influenced, even if only indirectly, by Egyptian ideas of kingship. At least as a matter of court rhetoric, the king was declared to be the son of God, and could be called an elohim, a god.”

    Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt (Cornell University Press, 2005), Jan Assmann:
    “In the Hellenistic Isis religion, the goddess embodied her adherents’ hope for eternal life, and she brought a great deal from her Egyptian past to this role. It was she who had awakened Osiris to new life through the power of her magical spells. And since, according to Egyptian belief, every individual became an Osiris by means of the mortuary rituals, his hope for immortality depended on Isis as well. There is good reason to think that ancient Egyptian burial customs lived on in the Hellenistic Isis mysteries, though in the latter case, they were enacted and interpreted not as a burial of the deceased but as an initiation of the living.

    When Lucius, who has been transformed back from an ass into a man, wishes to be initiated into the mysteries of Isis, the priest advises caution: “For the doorbolt of the netherworld and its saving protection lie in the hand of the goddess, and the ordination itself is celebrated as the reflection of a voluntary death and a salvation granted upon request. For when a lifetime is over and men stand on the threshold where light ends, then the goddess calls back from the netherworld those to whom the great mystery of religion was confidently entrusted, and she sets those who have in a certain sense been reborn through their providence once again on the course of a new life.” Initiation thus clearly had the sense of a prefiguration of death…

    When the day of the initiation finally comes, Lucius is first bathed (baptized), and the priest “expresses the forgiveness of the gods.” The bath thus has the sacramental sense of a remission of sins. On the evening of the same day, there is the initiation…”

    Lucius is transformed into an ass and goes through suffering and an underworld journey. He’s eventually saved by Isis who transforms him back into a human and he’s initiated into her mysteries. After his initiation, he is cloaked and crowned like in a royal coronation ritual.

    Apuleius’ The Metamorphoses: The Golden Ass, Book XI:
    “When dawn came and the ceremony was complete, I emerged wearing twelve robes as a sign of consecration, sacred dress indeed… I held a burning torch in my right hand, and my head was gracefully garlanded with a wreath of gleaming palm leaves projecting outwards like rays of light. Adorned thus in the likeness of the Sun…”

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