To the Cradle from the Grave
In The Masks of God, his study of comparative mythology, Joseph Campbell offers a description of Neanderthal burials which implies a strange equation of tomb and womb. Skeletons have been found, he tells us, "interred with supplies (suggesting the idea of another life), accompanied by animal sacrifice (wild ox, bison, and wild goat), with attention to an East–West axis (the path of the sun, which is reborn from the same earth in which the dead are placed), in flexed position (as though within the womb), or in a sleeping posture . . ." We can't know what stories the Neanderthals told around their fires, but the myths and fictions that survive from written history seem to make similar connections, linking "[s]leep and death, awakening and resurrection, the grave as a return to the mother for rebirth." Indeed when we talk of our ancestors as cavemen, of their era as the dawn of time, of the birth of humanity, we are constructing our own modern myth, with that cave as grave and cradle, a stony Paleolithic tomb and womb combined. We picture fire within that cave, symbolic spark of Promethean awareness ("Prometheus," in Greek, is literally "Foresight"). We picture, with Plato, humanity huddled round the fire, watching the flicker of light and shadow on the wall, trying to make sense of the shifting suggestions of form.
To die is to sleep, the myth seems to be saying, to be entombed among flickering dreams until we wake again. Sleep and death, birth and awakening, are fused in tales from across the world, from throughout history. There's the Chinese legend of P'an–ku, for example, a primal deity who hatches from the cosmic egg only to die, his breath, his blood, his muscles and veins, all of him, becoming the substance of the world, the wind and the clouds, the strata of rock and earth, the rivers; his death is the birth of the world. There are the metamorphoses of Greek myths — Narcissus, Hyacinth, Daphne — where death is not an end but a transformation to a new life. There are folktales or fantasy stories which take the Hindu or Buddhist concept of reincarnation as a springboard. Anna Tambour's story "Strange Incidents in Foreign Parts," in Electric Velocipede #9 for instance, has a protagonist who dies and is reborn as an eggplant. Yes, an eggplant.
There's an animistic theme which informs these tales, a suggestion that death is only a dissolution of the individual back into the collective soul from which they came, from which they'll re–emerge in a new form. We tend to think of the Phoenix as the archetypal symbol of death and resurrection, to talk of rising, Phoenix–like, from the ashes. But the Phoenix which hatches from an egg incubated in fire is not the same Phoenix which builds that pyre of a nest, which dies upon that fire. That Phoenix dies so a new Phoenix can be hatched. If there is a sense of reincarnation, it is not as a restoration of the individual but as what the Buddhists would call a rebecoming.
Against these tales where rebirth is a rebecoming though, there are tales of resurrection, rebirth as a singular and seminal event, a moment of apotheosis for a unique redeemer figure — Jesus Christ or his fictional analogues, allegories like Aslan in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, or derivatives like Neo in The Matrix. When we tell the story of the stone rolled away from outside Christ's tomb with a painted egg rolled down a hill at Easter, we make a connection back to that old imagery of the womb and the tomb; that egg, in which a soul (or a symbol of the soul, a bird) is nascent, is rather reminiscent of P'an–Ku or the Phoenix. There is more than a hint here surely, in that painted egg, of nature's regeneration, of the dawn with its chorus of birdsong, or the Spring with its gaudy coat of many flowers. Note the darkness in the hour of Christ's death, the eternal winter from which Narnia must be saved; even the land is cold and dark . . . dead. The hero in these resurrection tales returns with the sun at his back and Summer at his heels, with light and warmth, with fire.
"The sleeper must awake," Paul Atreides hears during his melange delirium in the film version of Frank Herbert's Dune, a delirium which takes him to the verge of death and from which he awakens as a new man, the messianic Muad'Dib. Of course the sleeper must awake; in this tale he is the king, the great leader of his people, dead, lost, prophesied, or all of the above. He's King Arthur, in his Avalonian cave, promised to return in Albion's hour of need. He's the great giant Finn MacChuill, the sleeping spirit of Eire who James Joyce sought to stir with the weird words of Finnegan's Wake. He's the "Head Apollo" Philip K Dick claimed was "about to return" in his end–notes to Valis. Maybe even Gandalf, in his return from certain death, all clad in white, transformed in the crucible of his battle with the Balrog, has an air of the Anointed One to him.
Where tales of death and rebecoming offer a holistic view of a world of ephemeral forms in flux, tales of death and resurrection offer a promise that a hero can survive, that a person of destiny can harrow death, come out the other side. In Christian mythology we have the raising of the dead out of the grave on the Day of Judgement — which is, of course, a tale of death and rebirth in its own right — but these resurrections are more than that. These are tales of heroes, conquerors, individuals who have the power to transcend death.
In reality such tales have a dark side.