Monthly Archives: March 2014

Food for the Gods

Sumerian worshiper.

Sumerian worshiper. Photo Rosemaniakos.

In the ancient Mesopotamian view of the universe, humans were created as servants for the gods. In recognition of their status as mortals, not gods, each city built elaborate temples where they performed essential rites to the greater beings. One core duty for the temple staff was the preparation and dedication of food.

By any measure, the gods had humongous appetites. They ate four meals a day: two large and two small meals. At the temple complex in Uruk, one of the smaller daily meals included six sheep, eight lambs, one steer, seven ducks, eight geese, four dormice, four pigs, thirty pigeons, three ostrich eggs, and three duck eggs. Ishtar and three major deities received a total of thirty loaves of bread apiece per day, with minor deities each receiving fifteen. Grapes, figs, dates and candy were also served, along with the ubiquitous beer. Apparently the gods didn’t have to eat their vegetables, because none are mentioned.

In order to understand the process of feeding the gods, it is necessary to move out of a Judeo-Christian concept of offering. As Jean Bottero explains,

Biblical sacrifice, the idea of which we have become more or less accustomed to, is basically a negative gesture: it deprives us – and we willingly accept this deprivation – of something we reserve for God without his having a need or use for it. In Mesopotamia, on the other hand, sacrifice, offerings to the gods, were positive actions: what was given to them, they needed.

bull.grainIn order to understand the role of food in religious life, it is also necessary to move out of contemporary constructs about food. We think of food as fuel or sustenance, we think of food as sensory enjoyment, we think of certain foods as symbolic, and we think of shared food as a means of social cohesion. For Mesopotamians food was all of these things, but it was something more. Food was imbued with certain powers, particularly the power of life. The various prayers and ceremonies involved in the harvesting, milling, butchering, and preparing of food enhanced these powers and added new ones. Recall that when Inanna is trapped in the underworld unable to save herself, the god Enki sends his representatives down to revive her with the “bread of life” and “water of life.” Recall also from the previous post that Ereshkigal participated in an important ceremony not by being present but by partaking in the food that was served. Throughout Sumerian and Akkadian myth the idea is implied but not specifically spelled out that food is a means of disseminating power.

Millers, farmers, herders, and others donated the basic ingredients to meet the voracious appetites of the gods. There were specifications about how animals destined for the temple should be raised and fed. All of the meat was high quality and some of it was exceptional. Special prayers were spoken when butchering temple animals or when milling grain that would be used for temple bread. Though high quality ingredients were used in food preparation, and meals were served on the finest platters and vessels by priests or priestesses dressed in immaculate clothing, the recipes themselves were basic. Meat was grilled or boiled rather than simmered in the elaborate sauces that characterized Mesopotamian cooking from the empire stage onward, at least for people with means. The gods were believed to be traditionalists in their culinary tastes, preferring food as it was prepared in prehistory.

What finally became of all that food? The accounting involved in meeting the meal specifications for the gods must have been daunting in itself. In fact, we have learned much about the feeding of the gods by making inferences from temple accounting records, which are extensive. The food could not have been left outside the city once the gods had gorged themselves without creating a huge problem with lions, hyenas, and other scavengers. Nor could this much food have been consumed by the what must have been a large temple staff. Though Mesopotamian cultures in historic times, and even in the archaeological records of prehistory, were highly class stratified, this food would not have been destined for the tables of aristocrats. As mentioned a few posts back, rich men employed an extensive kitchen staff to prepare elaborate meals catering to their sophisticated tastes. They would not have eaten such simple food except when participating in religious rites. Unfortunately the temple accountants did not see a need to document how the food was disbursed once the gods had eaten their share. Probably it was given away.


Bottero, Jean. The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Temple complex in city of Uruk. Drawing Lamassu Design.

Temple complex in city of Uruk. Drawing Lamassu Design.

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Feasting with the Dead

Mosaic from royal tomb. Photo Alma E. Guinness

Mosaic from royal tomb. Photo Alma E. Guinness

On the last day of the month, as the moon disappeared, Sumerians gathered to celebrate family ties, everyone bringing food to share. The ancestors also took part in these gatherings. The ceremony was called kishiga meaning “food on the ground” by the Sumerians and later kispu by the Akkadians. “Food on the ground” probably referred to the practice of leaving offerings for the dead on the bare earth. The dead were believed to be slight waifs needing little food or water, but they still required regular feedings. Unfortunately we do not know exactly what food was served, but it was probably simple rather than elaborate fare and no doubt included bread and beer.

The timing of the monthly gathering at the disappearance of the moon is curious, because it suggests that menstrual seclusion might not have been practiced among the Sumerians. In most nonindustrial societies women either naturally bled at the disappearing moon, or herbal and other remedies were used to encourage this to happen. The presence of menstruating women at this gathering would mean there were no fears about menstruating women being vulnerable to ghosts, no fears about menstruating women spoiling food, and probably no special diet for menstruating women as well. Either that, or women who were menstruating did not take part in the ceremony and left food preparation to non-menstruating women (or even men). Still another possibility is that the women in menstrual seclusion ate special foods that were prepared for the meal with the ancestors, and they took part in the ceremony not by being present but by having the blessed food brought to them. This last conjecture is plausible because in one myth the gods have a banquet in heaven which the goddess Ereshkigal cannot attend as she is needed at her post in the underworld, and the gods invite her to send a representative to bring banquet food to her. The eating of the food, not presence at the table, counts as participation.

The kispu occurred at other times during the year in addition to the monthly holy day, and sometimes the kispu was a state holiday sponsored by the king. He would arrange this meal to honor past kings (including kings from former dynasties), the dead subjects of the kingdom who might not have descendents to make the required offerings, and those soldiers who died in service to the king.

The monthly meal for relatives dead and alive was not the same as the funerary meal for the newly deceased. In this ceremony, of which we know very little, bodies were usually buried with food and water. Additional food offerings might be left on the graves, and sometimes there was a clay straw leading from the deceased’s mouth to the surface as a conduit for water.

We will wrap up this exploration of the cuisine of Mesopotamia with a look at the food of the gods.


Black, Jeremy and Anthony Green. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. Teresa Lavender Fagan, trans. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1992.

Bottero, Jean. The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Bottero, Jean. Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia. Teresa Lavender Fagan, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Grahn, Judy. Blood, Bread, and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.

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Following a Pagan Path

Review: Starcat’s Corner: Essays on Pagan Living
by N. Starcat Shields
Moon Books, 2013.

A friend called me on the phone awhile back, excited about some people she had met on an airplane. “They had a little girl who was named – what’s the name of your cat again?”

“Samhain?” I said.

“Yeah that’s right, Samhain. They had a two-year-old girl who was named the same name as your cat. I never heard that word in my life before I met your cat, and now I’m hearing it a second time.”

“Oh, so those people were witches,” I said.

“What do you mean, witches?”

“You know, witches. You’ve been to ritual with me and you know what a witch is. Samhain is Irish for Halloween, and who’s going to name their kid Halloween besides a witch?”

“But no, they couldn’t have been witches,” she replied. “These were normal people.”

So I guess I’m not “normal people,” I thought to myself. Leaving aside that troublesome revelation, this conversation illustrates the preconceptions people continue to hold about witches, even people who understand that we are followers of an Earth-based religion, and we don’t worship the devil, and we fly around on airplanes, not brooms. Witches are still surrounded by an aura of differentness, considered more foreign than an inhabitant of the most secluded village on Earth, unless that villager also happens to be a witch. We can be glamorous, or spooky, or impenetrable, but at any rate we are not normal.

These stereotypes are silly. A witch has far more in common with her fellow Earth citizens than most people imagine. This is beautifully illustrated in N. Starcat Shields’ book Starcat’s Corner: Essays on Pagan Living. In this collection of short essays spanning ten years we follow Starcat as she confronts the challenges of living, some of which are endemic to American life at the turn of the millennium and others which are timeless. She struggles with being a parent, reacting to a natural disaster, hanging out at the hospital while a loved one receives critical medical care. She searches for meaningful employment, makes important financial decisions, visits the chiropractor, and accepts the loss of a beloved animal companion. Her perspective on all of these things is very different from that of a Methodist or a Mormon, not to mention that of an atheist, but she successfully weathers the crises, complexities and banalities of living with decision-making processes that most would consider unconventional.

Starcat says that the genesis of these essays was a question that was posed at Vermont Witch Camp: “How do you live your earth-based spirituality, day in and day out, particularly in a culture that doesn’t share your values?” While the question became the premise for an interesting book, I have to say that I don’t think much of the question itself. To me it evokes too much of the politically correct smugness I have noted in some Pagan circles: the idea that we are the good people with the high values surrounded by a sea of the unenlightened who don’t share those values. If you’ve spent a lot of time in different Pagan communities, you know what I’m talking about.

“How could witches be judgmental?” my friend who doesn’t think witches can be normal asks me incredulously. The implication behind the question is that as people near the bottom of the scorn pile, perhaps only a step above criminals, we witches should know better. I could provide a list of reading material showing that in this respect, as well as in any other, witches are completely normal.

But Starcat’s Corner is not like that, as she reveals herself to be more interested in helping people than judging them. She is the kind of witch we all want to be. I’ll close this review with a short excerpt from Starcat’s Corner:

The negative, or shadow side, of seeking is that we may become perpetual students. Either we absorb some of the teachings and then move on, never content to delve deeply into a particular source of wisdom, or perhaps we continue to study one area so intently that our life becomes imbalanced. We are so focused on the seeking itself that we never allow ourselves to come to any conclusions about what we believe. In order to avoid being stuck in this mode, you might devote yourself to a particular set of teachings for a year and a day. If you are studying on your own, write an article or research paper that encompasses what you’ve been learning. These actions will help you shift from a mode of constant movement and passive receiving into a place of more depth and active sharing.

The positive part of seeking is the innocence of the beginner’s mind. In yoga, we are encouraged to approach each pose, or asana, as if it is the first time we have practiced it. This keeps the mind on the present moment. If we are truly seeking and open to finding wisdom, we are never jaded or cynical. We are able to take in that which we see, fully and with an open mind and heart.


The Emerald Tablet of Hermes

Isaac Newton is considered one of the greatest minds of the Enlightenment and the founder of modern physics. Along with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, he set the foundations for calculus. He is best known for his observations on how gravity behaves, the so-called laws of gravity. As Professor Richard Wolfson of Middlebury College emphatically put it during a lecture on modern physics, Newton stated for the very first time that the laws on earth are the same for the rest of the universe.

I don’t want to diminish Newton’s standing as one of the greatest contributors to math and physics, but listening to this lecture I couldn’t help but think how wrong is the assumption that Newton was the first to run across this principle. This is a very old metaphysical concept, implicit in the literature of the Akkadians and found among the ancient Greeks as well. It is explicitly set out as a cornerstone of alchemical philosophy in “The Emerald Tablet of Hermes,” probably written in the eighth century and attributed to earlier Egyptian sources. This is the teaching that starts out That which is above is as that which is below, and that which is below is as that which is above, for performing the miracles of the one thing.

Listening to Professor Wolfson attribute to Newton not only the foundation of calculus and physics but the core of alchemy, I felt inspired to look up the Tablet of Hermes and read it again. So I went to Sacred Texts, where as expected I found several translations. Imagine my amusement at finding one of the earliest English translations to have been done by Newton! This translation is dated 1680, and Newton published his famous physics treatise in 1687. Obviously, Newton’s genius lies in formulating the ancient truths in a scientific and mathematical framework.

Here is Newton’s translation of the Hermes tablet:

Tis true without lying, certain & most true.
That wch is below is like that wch is above & that wch is above is like yt wch is below to do ye miracles of one only thing.
And as all things have been & arose from one by ye mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation.
The Sun is its father, the moon its mother,
the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth its nourse.
The father of all perfection in ye whole world is here.
Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth.
Seperate thou ye earth from ye fire, ye subtile from the gross sweetly wth great indoustry.
It ascends from ye earth to ye heaven & again it desends to ye earth and receives ye force of things superior & inferior.
By this means you shall have ye glory of ye whole world & thereby all obscurity shall fly from you.
Its force is above all force. ffor it vanquishes every subtile thing & penetrates every solid thing.
So was ye world created.
From this are & do come admirable adaptaions whereof ye means (Or process) is here in this.
Hence I am called Hermes Trismegist, having the three parts of ye philosophy of ye whole world.
That wch I have said of ye operation of ye Sun is accomplished & ended.

Footnote: Here’s another article I found while preparing this one, which talks about the scientific community’s uneasiness with the metaphysical influences on Newton’s work, observing “Newton’s alchemy is a bit of an embarrassment to modern scholars.”