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I believe in general that a symbol, like a word, should have a clear definition, that it should mean something, but X is often the symbol for the unknown. In algebra, for example, it is used as the symbol for the unknown quantity and does not necessarily have a precise definition, which is not the same thing as saying it is undefined. It may be a real number, for instance, or a whole number, or a prime number less than 100. Likewise X in a magical equation can stand for a specific unknown – perhaps a manuscript that is sought whose title is unknown. In detective fiction, X often stands for an unknown person, either the person who commits the crime or some other enactor of an anonymous deed. You would not be using X in your magic to summon a criminal (at least I hope not), but X could stand for an unknown donor or other helper.
The X shaped rune gyfu means “A sign of hospitality and friendship, of joy and celebration.”* It may represent an offering to the gods or some other kind of gift. This interpretation of gyfu relates to another important intimation of the symbol X: as a mark on a map indicating the location of buried treasure. X can mean treasure or it can refer to the place that is sought, be it literal or metaphorical.
*D. Jason Cooper, Using the Runes. (Wellingborough, UK: The Aquarian Press), 1986.
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.
In 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.SourceBottero, Jean. The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
until the end, enjoy your life,spend it in happiness, not despair.Savor your food, make each of your daysa delight, bathe and anoint yourself,wear bright clothes that are sparkling clean,let music and dancing fill your house,love the child who holds you by the hand,and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.That is the best way for a man to live.
The scene sets out starkly the choice humans face of pursuing grand ambitions which may bring frustration and unfulfillment versus the abandonment of dreams for temporal pleasures.SourcesBlack, Jeremy and Anthony Green. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1992.Bottero, Jean.The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia, trans. Teresa Lavender Fagan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.Mitchell, Stephen.Gilgamesh: A new English version. New York: Free Press, 2004.
Although necessarily different from our beer, it was still essentially made from a base of various grains, first germinated and malted in damp conditions and then, once malting was completed, heated in water into which various aromatic products had been added. (Hops were unknown in that area, but dodder [probably a red vegetable dye–HMR] was used, and many other flavoring agents as well.) Then the mash was left to ferment.
The resulting brew was not very high in alcohol content, and was often further diluted with water, but it nonetheless produced in expansive feeling. Here is an excerpt from a drinking song, translated by Jeremy Black:
In the troughs made with bur grass, there is sweet beer. I will have the cupbearers, the boys and the brewers stand by. As I spin around the lake of beer, while feeling wonderful, feeling wonderful, while drinking beer, in a blissful mood, while drinking alcohol and feeling exhilarated, with joy in the heart and a contented liver — my heart is a heart filled with joy! I clothe my contented liver in a garment fit for a queen! The heart of Inana is happy once again; the heart of Inana is happy once again!
We are not done drinking in Mesopotamia. Next week more libations will be poured.SourcesBlack, J.A., Cunningham, G., Ebeling, J., Flückiger-Hawker, E., Robson, E., Taylor, J., and Zólyomi, G., The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/), Oxford 1998–2006.Bottero, Jean. The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia, trans. Teresa Lavender Fagan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.Hornsey, Ian Spencer. A History of Beer and Brewing. Cambridge, UK: Royal Chemistry Society, 2003.
What was cooking and eating like in Mesopotamia? Last week’s post gave some idea of the range of ingredients used by Mesopotamian chefs. It is not surprising that food in Mesopotamia was heavily spiced, given the evidence that even hunter-gatherers seasoned their food. What is interesting is the variety and sophistication of the cooking techniques.Meat was typically braised over a large open fire to seal in the juices, then deboned, trimmed of gristle, and cut into smaller pieces. It was then transferred to a large clay pot to simmer in broth and vegetables over a stove, somewhat like we would do with a crockpot. Regulated high heat cooking was done in a smaller metal pan. There are many descriptions for grain dishes cooked in broth and animal fat. Unleavened bread would be flattened and cooked quickly on hot clay surfaces or in ceramic cooking molds. Bread was leavened with beer or some other fermented mixture and baked in a dome oven. Over 200 varieties of bread are mentioned, many of which resemble cakes or pastries. Various shells and baskets made of bread were used as serving containers for meat. Salt was sometimes used for curing meat or fish. Fish might also be cut in thin pieces and dried. Fruits and vegetables might be dried in the sun or in slow ovens devised for this purpose. Since there was a ready supply of heat and sunshine, I wonder if cooks might have had a source of solar cooking, but this is not mentioned in any of my books. While trees were sparse in most of the region, particularly in the south, there was enough scrub vegetation for charcoal, which was produced for cooking.Fermented dairy products, surprisingly, were unknown, but milk had to be quickly processed in that hot climate. Milk products were usually consumed as cream, buttermilk, or cheese. Butter was clarified.Culinary records that survive emphasize cleanliness of hands and utensils and the need to wash certain ingredients thoroughly. None of the recommendations on hygienic food preparation are as complex as Jewish dietary laws, but there are indications that cleanliness was a concern. Pork was consumed (as was shellfish), but pigs are described as unclean in their habits, needing special care in raising. There are no explicit food taboos, although it seems that eating dogs or horses would not have occurred to anyone. (Europeans ate both.) There were strictures against eating certain foods on certain days or times of the year, and it is unclear whether this was for religious or other reasons.The table of the gods will be discussed in another section, but it is worth noting here that foods for the divine epicure were prepared simply. Meat was roasted; bread was basic. It seems that conservatism was the basis for this, the texts mentioning that foods for the gods are prepared according to the old ways. This is interesting to me because Pagans today offer old-fashioned libations to the Goddess: wine, mead, beer, water or fruit juice. It would not occur to me to offer her a cola, and I doubt anyone has ever given her a highball.Speaking of libations, next week’s post will talk about drinking in Mesopotamia.Source: The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia, by Jean Bottero (translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan), University of Chicago Press, 2004.
1,000 oxen1,000 calves and young lambs14,000 sheep and 200 oxen “from the flocks belonging to Ishtar, my mistress”1,000 fattened sheep1,000 lambs500 deer500 gazelles1,000 large birds1,000 geese and other fowl2,000 suki and qaribe birds (don’t know what those are)10,000 pigeons10,000 doves10,000 small birds10,000 fish10,000 locusts10,000 eggs10,000 measures of beer10,000 skins of winequantities of barley, wheat, sesame, carob, garlic, onions, lentils, turnips, milk, pomegranates, grapes, pistachios, almonds, figs, dates, roses, cumin, aniseed, watercress, and various other foods and spices which cannot be translated.
Sounds like quite a party! Next week I will discuss how all of this food might have been prepared.