Resurrection is a wish, a religious belief, a myth as old as recorded history and as current as the latest sci-fi movie. Apropos of the vernal equinox and its attendant holidays, Robert Fisher recounts many versions of the concept… The oldest recorded languages in the world, Sumerian and Ancient Egyptian, both preserve myths that explain the cycle of the seasons as a compromise according to which a god or goddess of fertility has been abducted by the god of the Underworld, bringing the sterility of fall and winter to the world above ground, but who then relinquishes his captive for the other half of the year, bringing spring and summer with the planting and harvest of crops and the birth and growth of sheep and cattle. Sometimes, as in the cases of Innana, in Mesopotamia, and of Osiris in Ancient Egypt, the goddess or god is killed, but brought back to life by other gods who want to preserve the natural cycle of the seasons. It is no accident that Easter is celebrated at the vernal equinox.
Resurrection is the restoration to life of someone who has died. This wish to bring back to life our loved ones, especially if we have lost a spouse or a child, must be as old as humanity itself. The story of the resurrection of Jesus is profoundly appealing, not only for the hope it gives people of eternal life, but also for the joy we feel it must have given Mary to have her son restored to her (though no such reunion is recorded in the Gospels or Acts).
It comes as a bit of a shock to many of us that Egyptian mythology for the most part lacks narrative texts that describe even the most important myths; instead, they must be reconstructed from references in ancient documents, for example funerary rites, that give tantalizing hints about episodes in myths. It was clear to the Ancient Egyptians what the scraps of narrative in rituals referred to, but not to us who live thousands of years after the Egyptian religion disappeared.
Nevertheless, it is clear that Osiris is one of the oldest gods in the pantheon – he is mentioned at the very beginning of Egyptian writing. His story became more and more elaborate as the centuries passed, until it evolved into a very moving myth about overcoming death, and other themes, too, such as order over chaos, and the cycle of the seasons (including the annual inundation of the Nile). The story also centers on the practice of mummification.
Osiris, perhaps originally concerned with fertility, was the god of the afterlife. In some way or other his brother Seth, god of the desert and chaos, became jealous of Osiris and murdered him. The full narratives that have come down to us are late, primarily through the Greek author Plutarch (46 – 120 AD), and perhaps draw upon folklore, but the story is as beautiful as it is strange.
According to one version, Seth lures Osiris with a gift: a richly decorated box, which will be given to him if he can fit inside. Osiris lies down in the box, the lid is slammed shut and welded in place with molten lead, and cast into the Nile. It floats away and eventually washes ashore in Byblos (in modern Lebanon), where a cedar grows around it. The tree is cut down to form the main pillar in the local king’s palace.
During the years when Osiris had disappeared, his wife, Isis, in the form of a kite, has been searching for him. She finds him in Byblos, removes the coffin and takes it back to Egypt for burial. Unfortunately, Seth discovers the corpse, dismembers it and scatters it over Egypt. Isis, however, recovers all the body parts, and reassembles them to form the first mummy. Osiris is then restored to life, but he is forever different from all other living beings, and becomes the ruler of the Underworld, that mysterious plane of existence that is the destination of souls.
When Osiris has been reassembled, Isis, again in her form as a kite, copulates with him and conceives their son, Horus. This scene is depicted in a frieze on the isle of Abydos, in the Nile, which had become a cult center for mummification, first for the Pharaohs, and later for anyone who could afford it. What is especially poignant about this myth is that, though brought back to life, Osiris is somehow permanently made alien by the process; alive yet forever exiled from the world of the ordinary living.
The Mummy (1932)
In a flashback to Ancient Egypt, we see a horrifyingly claustrophobic scene in which a living, breathing priest is tightly bandaged and buried alive, for the crime of attempting to resurrect the mummy of his illicit love, a royal princess. Thousands of years later the priest, Imhotep, is inadvertently resurrected when archeologists read spells from an ancient scroll. He manages to escape with the scroll and ten years later resurfaces as Ardath Bey, who has convinced himself that Helen Grosvenor is the reincarnation of his princess-lover. He plans to kill her, mummify her and then resurrect her using the Scroll of Thoth.
One haunting, creepy scene shows Imhotep/Ardath Bey bending over a pool of water in which floats the image of Helen Grosvenor. As he chants in his bass, hypnotic voice he closes his fist, which through his magic tightens around the young woman’s heart. Despite the horror of the scene, there a sense of the helplessness we feel in our pathetic efforts to thwart death, in this case, the effort leading to madness and utter insensitivity to the young woman’s life. This obsession to restore his lost love at any cost leaves a taste of futility: this lovely young woman would be a mindless creature controlled by his spells, not the recreation of the vibrant woman whom he fell in love with.
Here again is the resurrected person, to all appearances alive, but in reality forever remote. At the end of the story of Job, God gives him sons to replace the ones who died. But these new sons can never replace the beloved sons Job lost.
Underlying the process of mummification is dismemberment of the body and its reassembly using herbal compounds and resins. This, in turn, parallels the Ancient Egyptian belief that to enter the afterlife as a whole person, the constituents of a person, must be intact: the body, its life-force or soul (ka), its shadow, its personality (ba) and its akh, that is, its form in the afterlife, made of a combination of the preceding four attributes.
In grotesque parody of this dismemberment and reassembly, Dr Frankenstein has stitched together from graveyards and other sources body parts to reconstruct a man. He reanimates this creature by the use of electricity, somewhat in the manner of Luigi Galvani who in 1803 made the limb of an executed criminal twitch by applying a current. Parenthetically, this scene is re-enacted in Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus (1914), surely one of the oddest, most surreal novels ever written. A visitor is shown a pool in which is immersed the head of the great orator Georges-Jacques Danton (executed 1794). By switching on an electric current the muscles of the face contract and move to form the expressions for which he was famous when delivering his thundering speeches.
Like the rest of humanity, the monster had never asked to be born, but finds himself in this world, specifically European society, a very Gothic world full of operatic drama. Here we see perhaps the strongest portrayal of the theme of the otherness of the resurrected. Though alive, his appearance frightens everyone. A mob of peasants with torches traps him in a mill which they set afire and where he perishes in the rafters. His clumsy reactions to life are always misunderstood and invariably provoke murderous hostility.
Unlike other resurrected persons, he was not an integrated, whole human being, but rather a composite of parts taken from a number of deceased people, or to think of it in an Ancient Egyptian way, his ba, ka, and shadow had not been reassembled into a whole, consistent akh.
In 1974 Mel Brooks’s parody, Young Frankenstein, was released. In one scene the monster is trapped when he hears violin music that invokes visions of butterflies which he grasps at like a small child. The movie is very funny, but it often breaks the heart with scenes like this.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
A genuine example of resurrection comes with the alien who arrives on Earth with the intention of convincing humans to give up war and adopt robots that could enforce the peace. When he emerges from his spacecraft a trigger-happy soldier shoots him, but later he recovers in hospital thanks to a salve he brought with him that heals his wound immediately.
Later, the Army shoots Klaatu in a fusillade of bullets, but Gort, the robot, rescues him, takes him to his ship and places him in a device that can restore life. Klaatu is resurrected, but again he will never be the same: he tells us that the technique works in some cases, but the duration of the restoration to life is uncertain. With that, he leaves Earth with an ominous ultimatum: work out a system to end war, or we will destroy you. Klaatu vanishes into outer space, to an after-life, leaving humanity behind.
Many simply can never accept the loss of a loved one. They are driven to seek technical solutions that, though highly ingenious, are faute de mieux. On this route, too, lies the sadness of producing only a simulacrum, no matter how convincing or clever.
Jules Verne in his Carpathian Castle (1893) tells how Count Franz de Télek visits Transylvania and finds the castle of Baron Rodolphe de Gortz, a former rival for the heart of a famous prima donna, La Stilla. Although she had died years before, Count Télek hears her voice and sees her moving about a room in the castle. It is revealed, however, that Baron de Gortz, who had never recovered from her death, has devised a way to bring her back to a semblance of life through sound recordings and motion pictures. Keeping in mind that this story was written over a century ago, we must try to imagine its impact when these inventions were in their infancy. Even in our day, Yoda appears as a three-dimensional hologram in color and sound, perhaps with access to artificial intelligence that simulates his thought. This is much more convincing, but we never lose sight of the fact that Yoda is no longer among the living. Adolfo Bioy-Casares wrote a novel, The Invention of Morel (1940), which has the atmosphere of strangeness and dark mystery characteristic of the stories of his friend, fellow Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges. The nameless visitor to a remote island in the Pacific is a fugitive. Among the tourists he sees a woman, Faustine, who appears at sunset and has the same conversation, in French, with her friend, Morel. The fugitive begins to fall in love with her. Faustine ignores his attempts to draw her into conversation. He also notices that the other people on the island look right through him as if he were not there. The tourists at times vanish, then reappear in the evening. Overhead in the sky he sees two suns and two moons.
One day the fugitive overhears Morel explaining to the tourists that he has invented a machine that has been recording them without interruption for a week, and that the machine will take their souls. They will be given eternal life, as the film of their last week will loop over and over. Morel adds that in this way he will be with his love, Faustine, forever.
The whole system of projectors and speakers is powered by the wind and tides that generate electricity, an endless sources of energy. When the projection of certain days and nights overlaps with the actual positions of the sun and moon, duplicate suns and moons are produced.
The fugitive learns how to add his image to the recordings so that Faustine acts as if she is in love with him. He recognizes this as a type of resurrection, limited and artificial, but superior to his own life. One day as he is dying he can only hope that in the future someone will discover Morel’s invention and improve it by finding a way to merge his soul with that of Faustine.
For all its strangeness and originality, the story is about the use of technology to achieve what eludes many people in life, true intimacy.
Very much in the same vein is the novel, Solaris by Polish science fiction writer Stanisław Lem, and the two films based on it, the first by the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (1972) and the second by Steven Soderburgh (2002). There are differences among the novel and two film versions, but the resurrections are in all three. Researchers on a space station circling the distant planet Solaris have discovered that the planet is one single intelligent organism; however, all attempts to communicate with it have failed.
After the suicide of a researcher, a psychiatrist is dispatched from Earth to investigate. He finds that the crew encounter on board the station people from their lives, some of whom are deceased. The psychiatrist himself meets his wife who, after an argument in which he was insensitive, committed suicide. Solaris has been reading their thoughts and reconstructing realistic replicas of important people from the memories of the researchers.
These “visitants” are unaware that they are creations of the mind of Solaris, and they have no memory (the psychiatrist’s wife, for example, is unaware that she committed suicide). One of the crew members is in favor of annihilating these replicas with extreme radiation, but the psychiatrist wants to save the “life” of the replica of his wife, something he was unable to do for his real wife on Earth. He feels Solaris has given him a second chance. Although the endings of the two films are a bit different, they share the unsettling mystery of what is real and what is in the mind of Solaris.
Since the replicas are so accurately similar to real people it is frightening for some, but the psychiatrist is overwhelmed by a yearning to bring back his wife to the living and undo his mistakes. Even knowing she is a replica, a figment of Solaris’s mind, the psychiatrist wants to believe she is real.At the very end of the Tarkovsky version of Solaris (1972), there is another resurrection. The psychiatrist finds himself on an island familiar from his childhood, and ahead he sees the dacha where he spent his summers, and inside he sees his father, who comes out to greet him. The son kneels down before his father and hugs him, recreating the scene of the return of the prodigal son, famously portrayed in a painting by Rembrandt. When in the parable the good son complains that he has not been treated as well as his brother who spent his father’s money on harlots, the father replies:
It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found. (Luke 15:32)
Here we enter dark territory and the realm of unforeseen consequences. Godsend has perhaps one of cinema’s most ironic titles. This is a horror movie with many twists and turns.
At the funeral of their eight-year-old son who died in a traffic accident, his parents are confronted by a geneticist who offers to bring their son back to life through cloning. They agree, and the new son is in appearance an exact double of their deceased son. When the new son reaches the age of eight frightening dreams and visions trouble his sleep and waking hours. His personality undergoes a drastic change
The new son is tormented by murderous impulses, as if he were being possessed by a demon. (The plot has some affinities with W. W. Jacobs’s 1902 story The Monkey’s Paw.)
Cloning can create a physiological doppelgänger, a genetically identical twin, but genes interact with the environment and experience, shaping the child in ways that are quite unpredictable. The replacement child would look the same in every detail, but not necessarily behave in the same way or see the world in the same way. In most cases, therefore, the cloned child would at most be a vivid reminder of the lost child, but in terms of individual personality may no more be a replacement than the new sons God bestows on Job. Besides, there will be gene mutations that may be harmless, but may also bring devastating debility. For the parents this cloned child could be profoundly tragic, because he was brought into the world to be the closest possible replacement for a lost child, yet his disability would be doubly painful as the parents helplessly watch this exact copy of their child suffer terrible maladies, and thus lose him a second time.
Losing loved ones is an unavoidable aspect of the human condition. Resurrection is a fantasy that is one of our defenses against this harsh reality. It may well be that in the future science will discover the key to restoring the dead to life. Yet, would such a resuscitated person really and truly be the original person or rather, because of the experience of death and resurrection, an impersonator?
– Robert L. Fisher
Oliver Sacks in the NYT Feb 19th last year wrote about his impending death:
“There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.”
This article is part of our issue BREAKING DORMANCY.