Spring FeverSaturday, March 23, 2013
Spring Rituals: Fertility Rites
Spring is a critical time in the life of a farming society. First, it marks the end of winter starvation. It also places great responsibility on farmers: crops have to be planted—not too soon or too late—or the entire community will starve the following winter. Limited supplies of seed corn left from the previous year often exacerbate the pressure. It is essential that everything be timed perfectly.
Almost every agricultural society has had some form of ritual to guarantee the success of the spring planting. Spring rituals, and the initiation rites that mark puberty, are obviously about fertility. Sex, eating, death and rebirth dance together, their movements blurring the boundaries that modern, non-mythic, peoples use to separate the concepts into more easily managed parts. Paul Wirtz described a puberty rite of the Marind-anim of what was then Dutch South New Guinea. After several days of orgies by adults, virginal initiates were brought to the center of the village, to a massive structure of logs. One specially-prepared girl stayed under that structure and had sex with all the male initiates. While she was lying with the last youth, all the logs came crashing down, killing them. Their bodies were then chopped up, cooked and eaten by the villagers.
The Liberian Poro society, up until the 1940s, combined sex, eating, death and rebirth in their initiation rites. Young men and women were circumcised and the excised parts dried, cooked, and eaten by initiates of the opposite sex. The male initiation, however, only began with circumcision. It was followed by a long period of isolation (up to four years), when the boys were supposed to be in the belly of the crocodile spirit. They received scars that represented passing through its teeth. When the ritual crocodile pregnancy ended, the youths were "reborn." The Poro's initiation process overcame their dread of vaginal castration during sex. Bruno Bettelheim saw a connection to the terror of the vagina dentata experienced by some mental patients. He wrote, "The rather unusual custom of eating part of the female genitalia might further suggest inordinate fear of or desire for the vagina, an emotion which is mastered through oral incorporation."
Castration, fertility and the cycle of birth and rebirth are the stuff of myth. Of course, they are not always displayed as obviously as in the case of the Poro society's initiation rites. Often, they are called upon to serve several functions in a society at the same time.
In Egyptian mythology, Isis and Osirus introduced farming to the world. Their jealous brother, Set, tricked Osirus into climbing into a sarcophagus Set had made, then sealed it with the help of 72 confederates, and tossed into the Nile. The sarcophagus drifted all the way to Phoenicia, where Isis eventually found it, sending it back to Egypt. Set, however, was boar hunting in the Nile delta when the body arrived. He ripped it into small fragments, throwing them far and wide. Isis managed to find all the pieces, except for Osirus' genitals. She reassembled Osirus and brought him back to life—almost.
A fish had swallowed Osirus' penis.
How does that detail of the myth fit into an agricultural myth? What do anthropophagic fish have to do with farming? Only in Egypt—where, each Spring, the Nile overflows its banks, flooding the fields—would this element of the story make sense. The severed organ, now part of the river, is able to continually fertilize the farmers' fields.
The absence of genitalia also helps to explain his new role as Lord of the Dead. The realm of the dead is the reverse side of the living, reproducing, world. You may recall that Persephone, daughter of Zeus and Demeter, had to stay with Hades in the underworld because, while visiting, she ate a pomegranate seed. Pomegranate seeds were a symbol of fecundity in ancient Greek and other Mediterranean cultures. After a time when Demeter prevented the crops from growing, Persephone was permitted to spend half of every year above ground—the Greek explanation for the ever-changing cycle of seasons.
A myth of the Marind-anim of Ceram, New Guinea, contains hints of the Osirus story. In it, Admeta killed a boar and found a coconut stuck on a tusk. He planted it, and six days later it flowered. When he cut a flower, he accidentally dripped some blood on it. That blood became the girl-child Hainuwele. When she grew up, she stood in the dancing-ground, giving gifts to the dancers. However, the dancers killed her and buried her there. When Admeta discovered the murder he disinterred her, cut her in small pieces and buried them in many places. He made a doorway to the dancing-ground out of her arms, and the dead Hainuwele called upon the murderers:
"Since you have killed," she said, "I will no longer live here. I shall leave this very day. Now you will have to come to me through this door." Those who were able to pass through it remained human beings. The others were changed into animals (pigs, birds, fish) or spirits. …after her going men would meet her only after their death, and she vanished from the surface of the Earth.
Here, again, is the murdered god, the dismemberment, the pieces of the body that yield the foods of later mortals. The source of human mortality is directly connected to an ancient ritual murder that is, simultaneously, the source of human nourishment. Killing and eating are inseparable. The package is tied up even more neatly by the reuse of Hainuwele's arms. The woman's arms become the entrance to the afterlife—the only way to approach divinity. The embrace of physical love is a metaphor for death and transfiguration.
People once believed that their kings were closer to their gods, or that their kings actually were gods. However, the crowns worn by kings were originally used to mark sacrificial animals. Again and again, in culture after culture, we see the sacrificial animal (or person) crowned and decorated as royalty (or rather, that royalty is crowned and decorated like sacrificial victims), then killed so that others might live and prosper.
Euripides had Iphigeneia, in speaking of her approaching death on the altar of Artemis, alluding to the process: "As the priest takes from the basket the barley; So may the fire blaze with the meal of purification, and my father will turn to the right and encircle the altar. …Put on my hair a wreath of garlands and on my head a crown." While she saw herself as means for others to live and prosper, in a general sense, most of these ritual sacrifices were intended to literally increase the yields of agriculture.
Originally, the kings of ancient Egypt served for thirty years, then were sacrificed and eaten at a feast called Sed. This was supposed to guarantee the fertility of their fields and the power of the next king. Over time (no doubt at the urging of later kings), other animals began to be sacrificed instead of royalty. Curiously, certain Hebrew demons were called Sedim. In the worship of Moloch, children were sacrificed to appease the Sedim.
A revisionist mode of thought—similar to the stories of Isaac and Iphigeneia—is apparent in xenophobic attitudes toward those who sacrificed human beings (especially children, in a process called "passing them through the fire") to the god Moloch. According to some scholars, the
…Moloch of the Old Testament was neither Milcom nor any of several other foreign deities who had similar names (e.g., Muluk) and were worshipped in neighboring regions. Rather, it was to the Jewish God Yahweh, himself, that human sacrifice was offered… Later Israelites apparently were so appalled by the practice that they tried to blot out their shame by changing the name of the god from Yahweh to Moloch (or Molech), as though human sacrifices had been offered only to a foreign deity.
Religions, as they evolve into—or are replaced by—new religions, must suppress the old ways—even if they are the ancestors of the new. At the same time, the past's essential character must be incorporated so that nothing important is lost (just like the spilling of blood beside the altar, so that life can return to its source).
We know that the meat eating is intimately tied to notions of sacrifice, and that the life taken is essential to the continued spiritual life of those who consume it. What happens when non-believers eat the meat of the sacrificial animals? Certainly, there is no incorporation of the sacred—but might some other kind of sin be involved? For instance, if an animal is sacrificed to a god in whom one does not believe, does that act of eating its sanctified or transubstantiated flesh constitute an unauthorized act of theophagy? Does eating such flesh, in some way, give authority to any idols to which the sacrifices were made? Christ equated the eating of meats sacrificed to idols with fornication. However, St. Paul hesitatingly disagreed. He wrote: "As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one." So, if the gods are false, there can be no recognition of them in the mere eating of their sacrificial meats. However, he continued his argument: "meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse."
He is, in effect, denying that some foods carry a magical burden—that eating them cannot be a path to the sacred. This is a rather odd position for St. Paul to take—considering the fact that he was the founder and promoter of a new religion whose central ritual is the magical transubstantiation of mere bread and wine into the flesh and blood of its God.
The Christian Rite of Communion is perhaps the most obvious example of symbolic cannibalism. Christ, warming to the idea of self-sacrifice, offered himself metaphorically to his dinner companions. The Last Supper was a kind of living will, in which Jesus bequeathed his legacy to the Apostles. His acquiescence to fate and elevation to a greater spiritual significance actually occur at that moment. The Passion on the cross can be seen as a formality, the logical conclusion of the promise made with symbolic flesh and blood.
The Romans were not indulging in any spiritual activities. It was a purely political act of expedience, although it appears that they did take some pleasure in it. Crucifixion was
…derived from a Carthaginian sacrificial rite that the Romans adopted and used mockingly against their defeated enemies. Later they applied it widely to low-class and non-Roman felons. Christ himself was mocked as a Jewish king by the crown of thorns and the inscription INRI. The Roman treatment of Christ can be seen as the degradation of a fallen king."
The story of the crucifixion of the King of Kings can be seen as the last in a long line of kings sacrificed according to the rules of ancient fertility cults. It may have been coincidental that this particular sacrifice took place so close to the vernal equinox—but that fact only made it easier to graft the growing Christian mythology onto older, tried and true myths.
When Paul, on the analogy of the mystery religions, evolved …the myth of a Savior who should die, be eaten, and rise again, he felt that the only explanation of the mysteries necessary was the story of Jesus…But as times changed, and as the church expanded and began to take in learned and intellectual men, the myth was no longer all-sufficient. The fundamental idea of the absorption of deity by killing and eating it became less obvious. Men began to speculate how the bread and wine could be the very body and blood of immolated God. And thus, turning to Aristotle or to other philosophers, they evolved the dogma of a transmutation…
The Eucharist, like the traditional Easter leg of lamb, is a symbolic eating of the Agnus Dei. According to Roman Catholic doctrine, the bread and wine are actually the flesh and blood of Christ; they are transubstantiated. The Roman Catholic Church does not accept the Eucharist as a symbol—it believes that beneath the surface appearance of this food is actual divine flesh. In the thirteenth century,
…[e]verything possible was done to make vivid to the people the reality of the body and blood. Thus the bread was made in the image of a man and pierced by the priest, just as the great god of the Aztecs had once been treated; hot water was used to increase the resemblance of wine to blood.
The Catholic Church was neither first nor alone in believing that genuine transubstantiation occurs.
Transmitted through the Orphic mystery cult, the tradition of partaking of the torn god's flesh and blood entered in a sublimated and symbolic form into the rites of Christianity. Even in the sixteenth century, men were excommunicated from the Lutheran church because they denied the doctrine of ubiquity—the physical presence of the blood and body of Christ in the consecrated host…
In the Byzantine Church, the Eucharist used to be cut from the center of a special loaf of bread. That piece was known as the Lamb. The Lamb was cut into smaller pieces in a series of symbolic shapes and arrangements. No crumb was lost or wasted. The Lamb, or body of Christ, was not the only "person" that was eaten, however.
Pseudo-Germanus… considers the entire loaf as a symbol of the body of the Virgin Mary. From this body, he tells us, the body of the Lord has been extracted… The remaining part of the loaf, which he specifically called "bread of the body of the Virgin," is distributed to the faithful… Mary was considered to be the symbol of the Church; so it may again be supposed that the symbolic distribution of her body meant communion with the body of the Church.
The Eucharist was not always the tiny, non-nutritive wafer we see today. In fact, Communion used to be part of a "love feast," in which all participants received real food. "Libations over sarcophagi led naturally to ritual meals over the tombs of the Christian martyrs, until, that is, Saint Ambrose [fourth century Bishop of Milan] forbade them, and substituted the symbolic meal of the eucharist."
Massimo Montanari wrote about the bread/body metaphor in the early Christian church:
A sermon of Augustine explained in careful detail the metaphorical analogy between the making of bread and the formation of a new Christian: "This bread retells your history. It began as a seed in the fields. The earth bore it and the rain nourished it and made it grow into a shoot. The work of man brought it to the threshing floor, beat it, winnowed it, put it in the granary, brought it to the mill, ground it, kneaded it and baked it in the oven. Remember that this is also your history. You did not exist and were created; you were brought to the threshing floor of the Lord and were threshed by the work of oxen (so I shall call the preachers of the Gospel). While awaiting catechism, you were like the grain kept in the granary. Then you were lined up for baptism. You underwent fasting and exorcism. You came to the baptismal fount. You were kneaded into a single dough. You were cooked in the oven of the Holy Ghost and became the true bread of God." The essence of bread was, however, Jesus Christ himself, "planted in the Virgin, fermented in the flesh, kneaded in the Passion, baked in the oven of the sepulchre, and seasoned in the churches where every day the Holy Host is served to the faithful."
The idea of transubstantiation achieved the status of reductio ad absurdum in the thirteenth century when Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln (later Saint Hugh of Lincoln) was viewing a sacred relic at Féchamp—the desiccated arm of Mary Magdalen. He shocked those present by taking a bite out of it—but defended his actions by saying, "if he could touch the body of Christ in the mass, he could certainly apply his teeth to the Magdalen's bones."
Christ was the "incarnation"—literally, God in the form of meat—and the fruit of Mary's womb. There is a nice symmetry in Christ's beginning and ending as foodstuffs for our nourishment. Is it a coincidence that the infant Jesus, destined to be eaten, was laid in a manger—a feeding trough for animals named for the verb "to eat?"
When the Magi visited the infant Jesus, they came bearing gifts. Today, we think of them only as precious gifts, suitable for a young king. However, at the time they carried immense symbolic value as well. Gold, obviously, was expensive—but it was also the color of the sun (and Christ was a new incarnation of solar deities like Apollo). Its most significant attribute, the characteristic that makes it desirable as a form of currency, is that is incorruptible. It does not rust or waste away. It is eternal—just like the young deity. What about the other two gifts, the frankincense and myrrh? "Though the whole range of spices was used for culinary purposes and in aphrodisiacs, it was frankincense and myrrh that were use almost exclusively for sacrifices"—and in funeral preparations, for anointing of bodies and masking the scent of decomposition.
Of course, the three wise men could not predict that the boy they visited was destined for sacrifice. In all probability, they—themselves—never existed. They functioned, in the story, to connect events from the life of Jesus to existing mystical ideas. The Gospels were written more than a generation after the crucifixion, and were molded by Paul's vision of the new church. By then, Paul had reconstructed the story of Jesus' life to fit as closely as possible the ancient prophesies and mythological structures that were the lingua franca of eastern Mediterranean spiritual life.
All religions build on fragments of previous religions, as ancient cities were built upon the rubble of still older cities. St. Peter's, in Rome, stands upon the spot where ancient worshippers of Attis sacrificed bulls. Muslims and Jews still fight over the Dome of the Rock, the supposed site of Isaac's near sacrifice. Both Artemis and Mary were virgins who were known as the "Queen of Heaven," and both—despite their virginity—were associated with childbirth. In Ephesus, the ruins of Artemis' great temple stand nearby the church that marks Mary's grave.
The Jesus story sounds very much like that of the Bacchus/Dionysus of the Orphics or of Adonis, Osirus of the Hellenistic Egypt, or even Sumerian Tammuz. That's because the basic ideas were in place, waiting (as it were) for incarnation.
Dionysus was believed to be actually within the substance of the wine and raw flesh that the worshippers consumed. A Persian Mithraic text reads: "He who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood will not be made one with me or I with him, the same shall not know salvation." Dionysus, like Christ, was sacrificed, and saved his followers through "…initiation in his mysteries …Did he not appear in the communal feast of his initiates as the model of those gods who offer themselves as victims … of sacrifice?"
The Romans were used—if not by Christ (to give substance to his sacrifice), then certainly by Paul, who actually molded the facts of Christ's short career into the passionate fulfilling of Jewish prophesy that it was to become.
This other Saint Hugh (not to be confused with the child martyr, supposedly killed by Jews in 1255) was one of the best-loved bishops in England, a confidant of three Kings (Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, and John). He is mentioned in the opening paragraph of the Magna Carta, although he had been dead for fifteen years (John had been one of St. Hugh’s pallbearers). Hugh was canonized in 1220.
After the talk, anticipating the kind of question people always have (but don't always ask), an additional -- shorter -- paper was read:
Discovering the Flavor of Human Flesh
The French diplomat/explorer Paul Morand knew William Bueller Seabrook had the requisite verbal skills, and suspected that he had the courage needed for the task. Morand knew tribes that still practiced cannibalism. He smoothed Seabrook's way with equipment, letters of introduction, transportation—everything he would need. Morand believed that the opportunity for such a trip was fast disappearing, telling him, "…you must …get yourself invited to dinner with the cannibals."
It made perfect sense to Seabrook. "I made up my mind before leaving New York that when it came the subject of cannibals I would either write nothing whatever about them, or I would know what I was writing about." His book, Jungle Ways, examined our subject in greater detail than most of us would admit to wanting to know.
Seabrook spoke with the Gueré tribe and, after asking about their source of human flesh, he posed a basic question. "To my asking why they ate it, they had returned the question back against me, saying 'Why shouldn't we eat it?'"
Rather than beginning with taste directly, he asked which parts they preferred. They replied
that for solid meat the loin cuts, the ribs, and the rump steak were the best. The liver, heart, and brains were tidbits, but tasted identically the same as those of all other animals. …as a matter of personal choice, the palm of the hand was the most tender and delicious morsel of all.
They said the flesh took long slow cooking to tenderize—but that was because they ate only mature men, other warriors they killed in combat. Convinced he was in the company of cannibals, and knowing the rarity of such experiences, he
felt in duty bound to make the most of it. [He received] a portion of stew with rice, …so highly seasoned with red pepper that fine shades of flavor might be lost to an unaccustomed palate.
However, the Gueré were wary of this white stranger and feared retaliation if the authorities learned of their cannibal feast. Seabrook later discovered that they'd served meat from an ape, not a man. He left Africa without achieving his goal, knowing he would have to write about his experiences as if he had been successful. He went to France to write the book, where he solved his problem:
…[a friend] obtained for me from a hospital interne at the Sorbonne a chunk of human meat from the body of the first healthy human carcass killed by accident, that they could dispose of as they chose. I cooked it …[and] ate a lot of it in the presence of witnesses.
Seabrook understood that the experience was limited by its cultural context, specifically the cooking itself. He decided to isolate the part of the meal that was truly unique.
He knew what he had to do.
Seabrook's writing hesitated at this point, as if at a threshold. If ignorance is bliss, there can be no return to the Garden of Eden after stepping outside. He was a gentleman, and he was giving his reader one last chance to avoid taking that step. "The raw meat," he wrote,
in appearance, was firm, slightly coarse-textured rather than smooth. In raw texture, both to the eye and to the touch, it resembled good beef. In color, however, it was slightly less red than beef. But it was reddish. It was not pinkish or grayish like mutton or pork. Through the red lean ran fine whitish fibers, interlacing, seeming to be stringy rather than fatty, suggesting that it might be tough. The solid fat was faintly yellow, as the fat of beef and mutton is. This yellow tinge was very faint, but it was not clear white as pork fat is. In smell it had what I can only describe as the familiar, characteristic smell of any good fresh meat of the larger domestic animals.
Preliminary observations completed, Seabrook continued the experiment. Once again, he tried to limit variables that might obscure the facts he was after. He
…prepare[d] the steak and roast in the simplest manner, as nearly as possible as we prepare meat at home. The small roast was spitted, since an oven was out of the question, and after it had been cooking for a while I set about grilling the steak. I tried to do it exactly as we do at home. It took longer, but that may have been partly because of the difference between gas flame and wood coals.
He did not say how he determined the cooking time. His perception of elapsed time might have been altered by the extreme nature of the experience. His cooking observations continued:
When the roast began to brown and the steak to turn blackish on the outside, I cut into them to have a look at the partially cooked interior. It had turned quite definitely paler than beef would turn. It was turning grayish as veal or lamb would, rather than dark reddish as a beef-steak turns. The fat was sizzling, becoming tender and yellower. Beyond what I have told, there was nothing special or unusual. It was nearly done and it looked and smelled good to eat.
Some readers at the time were bothered by the very thing that fascinates us: Seabrook's logical and dispassionate exploration and exposition of a subject most people consider to be the stuff of nightmares. An editorial in the Montgomery Advertiser summed up the general response:
It is not agreeable to think that an intelligent, educated member of the white race and of the American nation, has voluntarily descended to a scale lower than that observed by these lowly peoples. And not the least repugnant feature of this indescribably sordid affair is the levity, almost the pride, with which Seabrook has recounted to the representatives of the press his adventure in a new "experience."
Seabrook responded, with justifiable annoyance, "Those who might have forgiven me for eating a [N-word] couldn't forgive me for eating with one."
This was no monster, devoid of human feelings. Seabrook was a sensitive, intelligent person who had willingly put himself in one of the most psychologically-challenging positions imaginable. His description of the experience:
I sat down to it with my bottle of wine, a bowl of rice, salt and pepper at hand. I had thought about this and planned it for a long time, and now I was going to do it. I was going to do it, furthermore—I had promised and told myself—with a completely casual, open, and objective mind. But I was soon to discover that I had bluffed and deceived myself a little in pretending so detached an attitude. It was with, or rather after, the first mouthful, that I discovered there had been an unconscious bravado in me, a small bluff-hidden unconscious dread. For my first despicable reaction—so strong that it took complete precedence over any satisfaction or any fine points of gastronomic shading—was simply a feeling of thankful and immense relief. At any rate, it was perfectly good to eat! At any rate, it had no weird, startling, or unholy flavor. It was good to eat, and despite all the intelligent, academic detachment with which I had thought I was approaching the experience, my poor cowardly and prejudiced subconscious real self sighed with relief and patted itself on the back.
So, he did it.
Without any external compunction—no famine, shipwreck, siege or plane crash—he became a cannibal. This was almost fifty years before Arens' assertion that there never was a reliable eyewitness to any act of non-emergency cannibalism. Can a more reliable eyewitness be imagined?
Still, we are left with that nagging question: What does it taste like?
Seabrook was not finished with us, yet. He wrote:
I took a big swallow of wine, a helping of rice, and thoughtfully ate half the steak. And as I ate, I knew with increasing certainty what it was like. It was like good, fully developed veal, not young, but not yet beef. It was very definitely like that, and it was not like any other meat I had ever tasted. It was so nearly like good, fully developed veal that I think no person with a palate of ordinary, normal sensitiveness could distinguish it from veal. It was mild, good meat with no other sharply defined or highly characteristic taste such as for instance, goat, high game, and pork have. The steak was slightly tougher than prime veal, a little stringy, but not too tough or stringy to be agreeably edible. The roast, from which I cut and ate a central slice, was tender, and in color, texture, smell as well as taste, strengthened my certainty that of all the meats we habitually know, veal is the one meat to which this meat is accurately comparable. As for any other special taste or odor of a sort which would be surprising and make a person who had tasted it not knowing exclaim, "What is this?" it had absolutely none. And as for the "long pig" legend, repeated in a thousand stories and recopied in a hundred books, it was totally, completely false. It gives me great comfort here to be able to write thus categorically.
When word of Seabrook's deception by the Gueré leaked out, the press had a field day with the news. He could not, of course, reveal his real supplier of human flesh, so he had to endure the laughter from all of France.
Seabrook had one last surprise for us:
Daisy came to see me one day with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and said, "It was just too bad, you poor credulous little boy—and with all the trouble you took. I think you deserve to know what human flesh really tastes like, so I am giving you a dinner next week in my garden." …[O]ut on the lawn marched the major-domo followed by lackeys in knee-breeches and white gloves, bearing a charcoal brazier, silver dishes, and a platter of meat cut up to be grilled. We ate it and liked it. It looked and tasted exactly like fully developed veal or fine young baby beef. In other words, it looked and tasted exactly like human flesh."
According to Marjorie Worthington—Seabrook’s second wife—the cooking took place in Montmartre, at the apartment of a writer she called "Daniel Blanc."(Worthington, Marjorie. The Strange World of Willie Seabrook. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966, pp. 55-56.)
Seabrook did not do the cooking himself. The cook in the little apartment did the work—being told only that the meat "was a kind of wild goat that no one had ever eaten before." Seabrook sat by, taking careful notes about the process. (Worthington, p. 56)
His host’s wife came home while the meat was being cooked. She was a teetotaler and a vegetarian and was upset by the fact that Seabrook "had brought not only cognac and wine into the house—but meat." She was, however, curious about the "exotic African food," and wanted to try it—but Seabrook’s wife begged "them not to touch it because it was something utterly nasty." When Seabrook ate the cooked meat, Worthington became nauseous and had to leave the room. The next day Seabrook dictated while his wife typed the passages for Jungle Ways. "He told exactly what the human flesh tasted and looked like when it was cooked; but the repast, as he dictated it, was eaten in the heart of the African jungle with his black African hosts." (Worthington, p. 57)