Life, death, and rebirth are inevitable. – Rig Veda
Article by Tamar Lalenya
As we approach the vernal equinox, and winter turns to spring, the theme of rebirth is all around us. Fruit trees that were denuded are now abloom and ablaze in shades of white, pink, purple, lavender, red, and tender green leaves. We breathe deeply of air that seems somehow more fresh and experience a quickening of the pulse; our ears buzz with the sounds of birds and bees and our minds are alive with thoughts of all that they suggest.
Long before we learned to plant and cultivate we became aware that things died in winter, which came to symbolize death, only to be reborn with the inevitable arrival of spring, which came to symbolize rebirth. In addition to leading to the development of agriculture, this observable phenomenon led our ancient ancestors intuitively to recognize within themselves a correspondence with nature, and to surmise that what is true for the lily and the deciduous tree might also be true for human beings, that we too are reborn in some form when we die.
The theme of rebirth can be found in nearly every ancient belief system; mythology, philosophy, and religion continue to feature prominently in all modern religions. The concept of reincarnation, that our soul is reborn into a different body after death, is found in ancient religion and modern alike, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Kabbalah, Gnosticism, Taoism, and Rosicrucianism, to name just a few.
The lotus flower was considered a symbol of rebirth by the ancient Egyptians and is a prominent symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism. The goal of Buddhism is to transcend the cycle of life, death, and rebirth by achieving enlightenment. Shakyamuni Buddha (Siddhartha) used the lotus to symbolize the simultaneity of cause and effect because it blooms and seeds at the same time. In Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, a Japanese sect based upon the Lotus Sutra that began in Japan in the 1200s, practitioners chant “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo,” which loosely translates as fusion with the mystic entity of all phenomena simultaneously manifesting cause and effect. (Full disclosure: I was born into this sect and still practice.)
In Christianity we see rebirth symbolized by Easter and the Resurrection, which has its roots in the pagan vernal equinox festivals, such as the Celtic Beltane and that of Oestre/Ostara, the Anglo-Saxon fertility goddess with Germanic roots, and goes as far back as the Zoroastrians in Babylon 4,500 years ago. As the founders of the Church sought to convert pagans they adopted and adapted their festivals and holidays, incorporating pagan rituals, myths, and symbols of spring such as rabbits, eggs, and lilies. Another ancient influence on modern Christian Easter was the Egyptian Festival of Isis. The theme of the trinity and resurrection are also prevalent in the story of Isis, Osiris, and Horus, as is, you guessed it, rebirth.
In ancient Rome we see rebirth associated with the myth of Bacchus. The original rock star, Bacchus (Dionysus to the Greeks), may be best known for introducing grape cultivation and the art of winemaking to Egypt, and throwing a killer party. However, as the god of harvest he was also associated with death and rebirth and was introduced to the mysteries of resurrection by his grandmother, the Goddess Cybele.
Two ancient symbols of rebirth are the Phoenix and the Ourobouros. The Phoenix is a mythological bird that lives for 500 years, dies by combustion, and is reborn from its own ashes. The word Phoenix is Greek, but we see this symbol by different names in Japan, China, Tibet, Russia, Iran, and Turkey.
The Ourobouros, a snake eating its own tail, symbolizes the eternal return or the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. This symbol, with ancient Egyptian, Greek, and later Norse roots was also associated with Gnosticism, Hermeticism, and alchemy. Carl Jung considered the Ourobouros an archetypal symbol of individuation, as it devours and then rebirths itself and represents the assimilation of the shadow.
Tarot cards, first seen in Italy in the 1400s, but speculated by some to have originated in ancient Egypt, are rife with symbols of rebirth. Snakes, salamanders, and lilies are but a few. Snakes shedding skin and the ability of salamanders to regenerate limbs and tails make them both symbolic of life, death, and rebirth, as do lilies and their association with spring.
There are thousands of decks out there, but for the purpose of this article I refer to the Rider Waite deck. The cards that I feel represent life, death, and rebirth the most are The Wheel of Fortune—symbolizing the ever-turning wheel of karma and featuring snakes and a Phoenix, the Death card— representing not just death but simultaneous rebirth, the Judgement card—showing people who have already died being resurrected, The Magician—with lilies and an Ourobouros around his waist, and the Empress—symbolizing spring and fertility.
The Fool’s Journey, an allegory associated with the Major Arcana, or the twenty-two trumps, tells the story of the Fool’s Journey toward enlightenment and each of the twenty-one other cards in the Major Arcana represent a person or event he encounters along the way. It’s ultimately a story of rebirth, as it represents the psychological death of the ego and subsequent birth of the authentic self.
In more recent times, we see this same mythology played out in the idol worship of the famous. We “build them up” (birth) only to “knock them down” (death) after which they are resurrected in some form, either as a comeback or as a legend after death.
We will all be reborn in some way, and perhaps modern science holds a key to this ancient truth. The study of energy and quantum physics has revealed that energy never dies, it only changes form. Our bodies contain the dust from ancient exploding stars that have made it to this planet, and the dust that we will become will eventually be reborn in some form.