The origins of Easter (part 2)

Fun fact #4: the “bitter herbs” of the Passover meal were probably lettuce

William Propp translates Exodus 12:8: “And they will eat the meat in this night, fire-roasted; with unleavened bread and bitter lettuce they will eat.” He points out in his notes that Biblical botany is notoriously difficult. The Vulgate translates the word in question “as lactucae agrestes, ‘lettuce of the field,’ and Samaritans still eat wild lettuce for Pesah . . . the linguistic cognates point in the same direction.” The Mishnah permits lettuce, endive and chervil.

As Propp points out, whatever it may have originally denoted, the term employed here became synonymous with bitterness in general, for example in Lamentations 3:15. “Late Jews invariably saw the bitter herbs of Pesah as recalling the Hebrews’ travails in Egypt . . . This might be a very ancient tradition.” But any element possessing such symbolical significance is bound to have more than one meaning. Other scholars cited by Propp believe that this wild lettuce might have had a magical function in warding off misfortune.

Lettuce is a weed: that is to say, it’s a quick-growing annual that flourishes in disturbed ground. The wild form is edible only for a very brief period in the spring – two or three days – before it turns bitter. It occurs to me that this might help explain its use in a festival where everything is supposed to be prepared and eaten in haste. “If the species in question sprouted in the springtime,” Propp observes, “it may simply have been part of the holiday’s seasonal symbolism. Or lettuce may have been a pungent condiment that ultimately became canonical.” Given that the lunar and not the solar calendar determined when the holiday would fall, it seems extremely unlikely that it would regularly coincide with the period of greatest edibility for wild lettuce. Thus, this characteristic of fleeting non-bitterness likely remained merely part of the symbolic gestalt.

But bitterness, which so lends itself to ascetic uses, may also possess more meanings than Propp admits. Bitter herbs such as wormwood were revered throughout the ancient world for their preservative and medicinal effects. Properties traditionally ascribed to lettuce include calmative, hypnotic, sedative and analgesic effects. The milky sap of wild lettuce is said to possess mild opiatelike effects – effects enhanced by its addition to beer or wine. According to Maude Grieve (A Modern Herbal, Dover, 1971 [1931]), “The Ancients held the lettuce in high esteem for its cooling and refreshing properties. The Emperor Augustus attributed his recovery from a dangerous illness to it, built an altar to it, and erected a statue in its honor.”

So here’s the narrow thread by which I connect wild lettuce with Easter: the common practice in the ancient world of using bitter herbs as preservatives and additional inebriants in wine and beer (we still use hops in this way). The wine of the new covenant, which the followers of Yeshua incorporated into Christianity’s central, theophagic rite, may well have been brewed with the “herbs of affliction.” But in that case, isn’t “affliction” a mistranslation?

Not necessarily. Prepared in stronger doses, metheglins (herbed wines) served as medicines for specific ailments. Such medicine would have been both bitter and welcome at the same time – which is largely how the ancient Hebrews understood the figurative medicine that their national deity doled out when needed. Bitter herbs were part of a whole complex of ascetic ritual elements, and the fact that they grew best wild – cultivated lettuce has much weaker properties – must’ve strengthened their association with the practice of a periodic chastising/healing/renewing return to original creation (“wilderness”).

Fun fact #5: the identity of the deity (Christ) with the sacrificial animal (lamb) has ample precedent in the ancient Near East

In The Hills of Adonis (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1968), the very erudite travel writer Colin Thubron sheds some light on the ancient Yahweh-followers’ taboo against eating pork. “The most complex of the animals holy to Astarte was the pig, which the Phoenicians called alpha, ‘the cruel.’ It is thought that during the cutting of the corn a wild swine taking refuge in the dwindling sheaves may have been hailed as god of the harvest; whatever the reason, swine and harvest are linked, and Adonis, at some early stage, perhaps embodied both. In primitive times, it seems, a boar was consecrated as the god and worshipped by a chorus of women who impersonated sows; each year the boar was killed and torn in pieces, his death mourned and his resurrection hailed in the deification of a new boar. Early man saw little distinction between the deity and his sacrifice. A god-king was killed and replaced, and his successor after him. Thus if Adonis was a boar as well as a vegetation spirit, he must suffer death from a boar; and from this mystery – the offering of the god to himself – the classic legend crystallized.”

This illuminates the whole incident of the golden calf and the altar (Exodus 32): recall that the covenant between Israel and Yahweh was performed with the blood of twelve bullocks, one for each tribe. But scholars also note that the Holy of Holies in the ancient temple in the northern kingdom of Israel was topped by the statue of a bull, just as the ark in Solomon’s temple was topped by an anthropomorphic couple, the seraphim (who by the way were probably portrayed in the common position of the hieros gamos – that is to say, in a lovers’ embrace). In Israel, the spirit of Yahweh was envisioned as resting upon this statue of a bull. Thus the story about the golden calf (like many others in the Pentateuch) was intended as a smear against Judah’s rivals. But in fact, this use of bull or calf symbolism borrows directly from the religion of Baal. The story of the golden calf reflects genuine discomfort about the ever-present danger of identifying Yahweh with the sacrificial animal – anathema to followers of his fanatically iconoclastic cult.

Needless to say, the notion of sacrifice as expiation is as Jewish as it is pagan. But the identification of God with the sacrifice represented a radical break with tradition. Christianity departs most fundamentally from its parent religion in the notion of divine incarnation, deicide and resurrection.

The authors of the New Testament were as vicious in their use of propaganda to slight their rabbinical rivals as the priestly redactors of the Torah had been against the practices of the northern kingdom; the fact that the ritual murder of God is fathered upon “the Jews” is the cruelest stroke of all. But it’s interesting that, while the accounts of the trial, crucifixion and resurrection vary widely from one gospel to another, the details of the Eucharist are nearly identical. Most New Testament scholars conclude from this that they represent Rabbi Yeshua’s own midrash; it’s too original, they say, to have plausibly originated otherwise than in the manner described. Pesah is above all a day for remembrance. This, says Yeshua, is how we are to remember him. Not on the cross but in the cup, in the breaking of bread.

What does it mean to incorporate the flesh of god into our own bodies? What does it say about a god that his flesh can be so consumed?

There’s considerable scholarly disagreement about the origin of the fish symbol in Christianity; the ancient Near Eastern dieties Atargatis and Dagon were both worshipped in fish form, and the grounds of their temples included ponds with sacred fish which were periodically consumed by the priests in a theophagic rite. But nearly every element of the Christ myth has ancient antecedents; perhaps they were necessary (the believer thinks) to prepare people’s minds for the coming of Christ. To the skeptic, the prior existence of such themes colored what people saw and how they remembered it. In any case, the most likely direct source for the popularity of the fish symbol can be found in the logical identification of the Eucharist with that other memorable feast of the gospels: the loaves and fishes of Matt 14:13-21. The disciples had been promised that they would become “fishers of people” – and they feed the people with the miraculous wine and bread and fish that permit unending consumption.

This story clearly embodies the transcendent, utopian dimension of the sacral feast. Aside from those who question the historical existence of Yeshua altogether, scholars are unanimous about his eschatology. Whatever else he may have believed, the idea that the utopian “kingdom of god is at hand” almost certainly formed the core of his teaching.

When we eat the sacrifice, we share a meal with God. But to people who believe that God enters into the sacrifice, eating the sacrificial flesh is an entheogenic experience. The Gospel of Thomas, older than the four canonical gospels, attributes the following saying (#3) to Rabbi Yeshua: “If those who lead you say to you, ‘See, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father.”

I quoted this same passage in a post last December (see there for the citation), which also dealt with the book’s explicit treatment of the intoxicating qualities of Yeshua’s teaching. Intimate knowledge of the godhead is not merely nourishing; it is mind-altering. “Because you have drunk,” says Yeshua (Thomas 13), “you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring which I measured out.” We can of course argue about how literally this image might have been meant. It’s worth remembering that the worship of Dionysius included the sacramental use of hallucinogenic mushrooms, while the Eleusinian mysteries apparently involved consumption of a non-toxic extract of ergot, which would’ve been similar to LSD in its effects. However, like the Plains Indians, the early Christians seem to have been more interested in the use of sensory deprivation, pain and starvation as routes to achieving altered states of consciousness.

Fun fact #6: the image of the Messiah astride a donkey echoes very ancient Middle Eastern practices and (possibly) Egyptian beliefs about enlightenment

Matthew 21:5 quotes Zech 9:9, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.” According to the renowned scholar W.F. Albright, in the notes to his translation, with C.S. Mann, of Matthew for the Anchor Bible (1971), the very same language about donkeys was found in the Mari text, a cuneiform tablet from the Mesopotamian city of Haran dating back to the 18th century B.C. “It speaks of the donkey sacrifice as ratifying a treaty between the Apirus (=Hebrews) and various local kings. The figure of the donkey, in the same three words as in the Mari text, occurs again in Gen 49:11 as well as in the text of Zech 9:9.”

The context in Zechariah is explicitly Messianic, referring to the blood of the covenant in v.11, which becomes transformed into wine by v.17: “The Lord of hosts will protect them, and they shall devour, and tread down the sling stones, and they shall drink and roar as if drunk with wine, and be full like a bowl, drenched like the corners of the altar.” In Genesis, the context is Jacob/Israel’s blessing of his sons; it is Judah who is described as “Binding his foal unto the vine, and his ass’s colt unto the choice vine; he washed his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes.”

But if the Middle Eastern milieu shaped the imagery of the Bible, Egyptian theology was the major source of its core teachings (including monotheism; Memphite theology was functionally monotheistic, despite frequent claims to the contrary). The nearly 4,000 year-old Egyptian text contained in Berlin Papyrus 3024 contains the dialogue of a man with his soul, or as Bika Reed translates the title: Rebel in the Soul: A Dialogue Between Doubt and Mystical Knowledge (Inner Traditions, 1987). The despairing protagonist cries out to his soul,

But in this body, which is yours,
I am the progeny of the great ass Iai!
In you I call forth the Other
O Soul unawakened!
I am the progeny of Iai,
A fire which will never cool
I cause the Other to burst forth
O soul in flame!

Reed notes that “IAI, the Great Ass, is an aspect of the sun ‘god’ with ass’s ears. We find his image in the Book of the Gates . . . [which] depicts the progression of the sun through the night. The twelve hours of the Dark Night are depicted as regions of the Underworld. Each region is an ‘hour’ of the Night and has its gate. To pass the gate, one has to know the name of its Guardian.
“The consciousness moves through the Underworld in a process of slow animation. . . . Iai is found in the section known as the Ninth Hour. In this Ninth Hour, a crisis threatens the progress of the boat [of the Sun]. A double monster, half snake, half crocodile, Shes-Shes, faces the boat.” Iai is offered as bait. “Without the self-sacrifice of Iai, the Barque of the Sun will never traverse the night to the light of dawn.”

As in the story of Balaam’s ass (Num 22:21-33), the donkey is identified with a form of recalcitrance that leads to understanding. Reed riffs: “The act of awakening is inseperable from the act of rebellion. Iai rises, symbolizing the sun circumscibed by ass’s ears. He confronts the Abyss, portrayed as a double monster: His own static, fathomless duality unreconciled. As a double being, sun and ass, Iai is the embodiment of an opposition of forces: a cross. Iai is a cross in human form. The sun is confined between the ears of the rebellious and traditionally recalcitrant ‘Ass.’ In the Gospels, Christ appears mounted on the Ass. It is the Ninth Hour: and about the ninth hour, Jesus called with a loud voice, ‘My God, My god, why hast thou forsaken me?'”

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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