X - Religious Lamentation

Religious lamentation is a curious phenomenon. This sympathetic identification of the worshipper with a suffering god seems to be a necessary part of most religions, particularly those in which women play an active role. To see Catholic women, particularly in the Mediterranean countries, wracked with real grief at Eastertide as they contemplate the Crucifix and the wounds of their Lord, can leave little doubt that they are suffering real mental anguish.


Doubtless the female votaries of the goddess Ishtar, bemoaning the fate of her husband Tammuz, in whatever terms the myth was recounted throughout the ancient Near East, were as genuinely moved in their emotions as the tearful suppliant at the foot of the Cross.


There is apparently in human beings, and in women particularly, a capacity for sympathetic grief which demands dramatic expression, however artificially contrived the stimulant, however historically improbable the tragic events and persons they re-enact in their imaginations.


Aristotle, some twenty two centuries ago, defined tragedy as,

“the imitation of an action that is serious, and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself. . . with incidents arousing pity and terror, with which to accomplish its purgations of these emotions”.1

The psychologist will doubtless trace this female capacity for altruistic suffering to her sexual constitution. The curse pronounced upon womankind in Eden that she must find her physical fulfillment in pain has the ring of profound psychological truth:

“I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your sexual desire shall be to your man even while he rules over you”.


Certainly, ritual lamentation has a sexual significance as can now be demonstrated by its terminology. Whatever inward emotional satisfaction the practice of lamenting the dead god may have achieved, its objective intention was to bring him back to life.


In the case of agricultural communities, the dead god is but a personification of the fertility of the soil, deemed to have perished during the hot summer months but capable of being revivified under the influence of the autumn and spring rains, the spermatozoa of the father-god in heaven. Thus the lamentation ceremonies were intended to rejuvenate the dormant penis of the fertility deity.


The common Hebrew word for lamentation is qinah, used for a particularly compulsive rhythm of three heavy beats followed by an “echo” of two more. The word comes from the Sumerian GI-NA, “erect”, coalescing into one word GIN, with the same meaning. Followed by URA, “penis”, it is found in Greek as kinura and in Hebrew as kinnor, “harp” or “lyre”, properly, then, the musical instrument which had the power of causing sexual stimulation in the man, and in the god.2


The Hebrew kinnör was the harlot’s instrument, according to Isaiah (23:16), had the sound of the “rumbling of the bowels” (Isa i6 :i and was played by David to relieve the maniacal Saul (I Sam 16: i6, etc). If, in historical times, the vocal efforts of the kinura players could be considered melodious, ritual lamentation was not originally designed to appeal to the musical ear.


One of the Sumerian titles for the lamentation priest was 1-LU-BALAG-DI, the latter part of which, meaning “penisstirrer”, has a Semitic equivalent meaning “screech, roar, wail”, and is found in Arabic as the title of the peacock, “The Screecher”. This Semitic root is itself derived from a Sumerian phrase meaning “hurricane”, so we may assume that part of the idea of ritual lamentation was to imitate the storm-wind howling to its crescendo, an indication that the fertility god in the heavens was approaching his mighty orgasm and ejaculation.3


Presumably screaming was reckoned to have some erotic effect, and psychologically there may be some connection here with the extraordinary noise produced by teenage fans of pop-singers. The use of such tactics by female seducers of the Mandrake has perhaps found recognition in the long-standing tradition that when the magic plant is dragged from the ground it gives a demoniacal shriek.4


The root of kinura, “lyre”, and its cognates appears in Greek mythology as the name of the king of Cyprus, Cinyras. He is said to have founded the cult of Aphrodite in that island, and his name is given to the Cinyrades, priests of the Aphrodite-Astarte fertility cult in Paphos.

Cinyras is also reputed to have introduced sacred prostitution into Cyprus, and to have been a musician.5 The same idea of sexual stimulation appears in other musical terms, and in general where “praising” the god is involved. Indeed, our word “music”, as one of the arts of the Greek Muses, has at heart the Sumerian phrase for “raising the heart” which elsewhere indicates sexual stimulation.6


In the classical world, the god Dionysus shares honors with his adoptive brother Apollo as “leader of the Muses”. Another of his epithets was Dithurambos, Dithyramb, the original meaning of which has long been a mystery. It comes to be used of a Dionysiac song which possessed some infectious quality that led his votaries to take it up as a ritual chant. Later it became the subject for competition at Dionysiac festivals, and with its formalization it lost any spontaneity it may have possessed originally.


 Surviving fragments of the dithyramb show nothing to suggest its original connection with this fertility deity and his attributes.

However, it is now clear from its Sumerian source that “dithyramb” fits philologically into the pattern of other cultic musical terms, meaning literally, “chant for erection of the penis”.7 Incidentally this serves to confirm the opinion of the second-century writer Athenaeus that the god and this epithet Dithurambos were connected with the phallic deity Priapus, from whose name comes our word “priapism” or “erection of the penis”.8


It also confirms the suggestion that the Greek dithurambos is of the same root as the Latin triumpus, our “triumph”.9 This term was properly used of the victory procession through the capital city which was accorded a victorious general on his return from war. The wooden replica of the phallus which adorned his chariot emphasized the essentially virile nature of the “triumph”.10


The original significance of the Dithyramb is of some importance for the nature and origin of Dionysiac music, and, indeed, for the history of tragedy generally. At the beginning of the fifth century BC, tragedy formed part of the Great Dionysia, the Spring festival of Dionysus Eleuthereus. Three poets competed, each contributing three tragedies and one satyric play. The latter was performed by choruses of fifty singers in a circle, dressed as satyrs, part human, part bestial, and bearing before them huge replicas of the erect penis, as they sang dithyrambs.


The Greek word tragoidia, “tragedy”, has been connected with tragos, “goat”, either because the satyr chorus wore goat-skins, or because a goat was the prize offered the successful competitors.


In fact, the “goat” reference of the word is secondary; its prime significance as the Sumerian original now shows, was a “lament raised to stimulate fecundity”.

”Thus the original intention of the tragedy, the singing of ritual laments and dithyrambs, was erotic. One name by which Dionysus was known throughout the ancient world was Bacchus. A fourth-century BC hymn in honor of Dionysus contains the invocation: “Come to us, King Dithyramb, Bacchus, god of the holy chant.”12

The name Bacchus, Greek bak-khos, Latin bacchus is a shortened form of the Sumerian *BALAG_USh, “erect penis”, made by assimilating the middle 1 to the following consonant. The word BALAG is made up of two elements, BAL, “borer”, and AGA, “crown”, so the whole properly meant the tip of the penis, the glans, or, in other circumstances, the boring bit of a drill.13


The same loss of the I occurred in certain derivative forms. Thus, directly connected with erotic “lamentation”, Hebrew developed a verbal root b-k-h, “weep, bewail”, so that, for example, Ezekiel’s Tammuz-lamenters are mebakköth, a feminine participle of this verb. Latin, on the other hand, preserved the land gave us our word “plague”, properly a “stroke”, from plango, “beat (the breast, head, in lamentation), weep, bewail” In extant Sumerian texts BALAG, “penis” is used specifically for the erotic instrument itself, prefaced or followed with the word for the instrumentalist, NAR, “eroticist”.14


Her counterpart in Greek was the pallakis, Latin pellex, Hebrew pilegesh, where the word had come to mean, generally, concubine , or simply, young woman.


The female votaries of the phallus god Bacchus tere known as the Bacchantes, that is, those whose cult centered on the BALAG-AN-TA the “raised mushroom/penis”.16


They were characterized by extreme forms of religious excitement interspersed with periods of intense depression. At one moment whirling in a frenzied dance, tossing their heads, driving one another on with screaming and the wild clamor of musical instruments,17 at another sunk into the deepest lethargy, and a silence so intense as to become proverbial.18


The Bacchantes both possessed the god and were possessed by hi; theirs was a religious enthusiasm in the proper sense of the term, that is, “god-filled”.19 Having eaten the Bacchus or Dionysus, they took on his power and character as the Christians “carried in their bodies the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus might be manifested in their bodies” (II Cor 4:10).


As the Old Testament put it, by eating of the fruit of the tree of life, the initiates had become “like one of us”, the gods (Gen 3:22). Outsiders were forbidden on pain of death from attending the secret rites, as Pentheus found to his cost in the myth on which Euripides based his tragedy, The Bacchae. So traditional accounts of the details of the Dionysiac, like any other mysteries, are bound to be somewhat distorted if not purely imaginary.


This is particularly so in the all-important matter of the identity of the sacred meal through which the mystic union between god and worshipper was achieved. What we now know to have been the Amanita muscaria, is traditionally referred to as “fawns” or “little children”, supposed to have been pulled asunder and eaten raw while the blood was still warm.


The fact is that one of the names of the mushroom was “fawn” or “gazelle”, so called mainly from a similarity seen between the large, round, shining eyes of these animals (from which the name “gazelle” is derived), and the top of the mushroom.20


The biblical Song of Songs, which we can now begin to understand as a dramatic ode to the sacred mushroom and its seeker, describes the Shulammite in such terms:

“your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle” (Song of Sol 4:5, 7:3 [Heb. 4]).21

Another animal closely connected with the god and his votaries is the panther. In this case it is the color and markings of the skin that is the subject of comparison, corresponding to the dusky-red and white or yellowish spots of the Amanita muscaria, and even more to the closely related Amanita pantherina whose name is similarly derived.22


The “little children” reputed to have been torn apart by the raving Bacchantes will be of the same category as those “slain among the wadies, under the cleft rocks” by Isaiah’s “sons of witches” who sought for “smooth things” by pouring out to them drink and cereal offerings (Isa 57:5, 6). We have seen the use of this substitution-word previously in the Accadian incantation to the kukru-resin of the pine tree, whose “little ones”, or “pine-cones”, the cultic prostitutes had “en- gendered”.23


The same kind of distortion of facts in relation to secret fertility cults can be seen actually in operation in the Old Testament traditions. Towards the end of the seventh century BC the young King Josiah tried to purge Jerusalem 0f the old fertility worship. Among his acts of desecration was the defilement of Topheth “which is in the valley of the sons of Hinnom, that no one might bum his son or his daughter as an offering to Molech” (II Kgs 23 :10). J


eremiah also speaks of this Molech cult when he says of the wayward people of Jerusalem:

“They built the high places of Baal in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to offer up their Sons and daughters to Molech...

“(Jer 32:35)

The commentators have drawn horrifying pictures for us of wicked men pushing little Solly and Rachel on to the funeral pyre outside Jerusalem’s south wall for the benefit of this pagan deity Molech.


The clue to what was really intended, and indeed, what was probably written in the first editions of Kings and Jeremiah, is to be found in the corresponding passage in the Law. It appears in the context of regulations about sexual “perversions”, mainly concerning the degrees of family relationship within which the man may not have intercourse, mother, mother-in-law, sister, granddaughter, and soon.


It goes on:

You shall not give your seed to devote it to Molech. You shall not commit sodomy. You shall not commit buggery, and neither shall any woman have sexual relations with a beast; it is perversion.

(Lev i8 :21-23)

The English versions fall into the same trap as did the early redactors of II Kings and Jeremiah.


The Leviticus prohibition does not say “you shall not devote your children to Molech”, but, literally, “your seed”, that is, your spermatozoa.


The word “seed” can of course be extended to mean offspring, but the context shows that the burden of the law is that you should not pollute the god-given semen, after which Yahweh was named, by misusing it either in the anus of another male or genitals of an animal, or, in some way, by using it in the worship of the Molech.


The name Molech is philologically related to that group of mucilaginous herbs called “Mallow”, to the magic plant Moly, and the Greek Mukës, “mushroom”. The root of all lies in the idea of the erect penis, so we may reasonably infer that the practice here objected to involved the dedication in some way of human semen in a phallic rite probably connected with the sacred fungus.24


In the awful silence that fell over the Bacchanal periodically, made more profound doubtless by its contrast with the maniacal raving preceding it, we may have a clue to another of the curious features of Essenism reported by Josephus.

“No clamor or disturbance ever pollutes their dwelling;” he says, “they speak in turn, each making way for his neighbor. To persons outside the silence of those within appears like some awful mystery.“ 25

The explanation he offers, that the limitation of their rations to bare necessities imposed a restriction upon their efforts, hardly justifies his praise for their self-discipline, nor adequately accounts for the profound silence that seems. to the outsider like an “awful mystery”.


Nearer the truth, probably, is the comment of one scholar on the “Bacchic silence”:

“Is it”, he asks, “the exhaustion that follows upon over-exaltation, or is it the very zenith reached by the fight of the spirit when voices and sounds are hushed, and in rapt silence the soul feels closest to God? That this was a method for attaining the highest and deepest communion was known to the ancient theosophists, and this mysterious proverb suggests that it may have been known to the followers of the wild Thracian god.” 26

In fact, there was a more clinical reason for the Bacchic lethargy. The poisons contained in the cap of the Amanita muscaria promote periods of intense excitement, accompanied by delirium, hallucinations, and great animation, but these are followed by periods of deep depression.


To quote one witness to Amanita muscaria intoxication:

“The person intoxicated by Fly-Agaric (a popular name for the Amanita muscaria) sits quietly rocking from side to side, not even taking part in the conversation with his family. Suddenly his eyes dilate, he begins to gesticulate convulsively, converses with persons whom he imagines he sees, sings and dances. Then an interval of rest sets in again. Nevertheless, the Bacchanalian characteristic of uninhibited excitement succeeded by calm, was not a mere accident of drug therapy.


Eating the god made it possible to induce and to some extent control an experience which was fundamental to fertility philosophy.


The repeated bouts of drug-stimulated excitement were in the nature of violent and unnaturally prolonged sexual orgasms, whether or not they resulted in erection and ejaculation on the part of the men or spasmodic vaginal contractions by the women. As coitus is usually followed by sleep and a mildly depressive state of mind, so every Bacchic frenzy was followed by a time of calm.


Emotionally, and perhaps spiritually, these periods of physical relaxation were as essential to the mystic experience of the Dionysus worshipper as to the acts of human love. They were equally as necessary to the fertility cycle of the natural world. As sleep follows coitus, and a fresh-scented peace succeeds the storm, so too the land lies fallow after the “birth” of harvest.


The Jewish mythologists traced their obligatory rest-day, the Sabbath (“heart’s easement”),28 back to their god’s resting from his creative labors when he made the world (Gen 2:2f.).

But the Hebrew agriculturalist recognized a regular sabbatical rhythm in nature requiring a sabbath year after every six, when the fields might rest fallow to recoup their strength and restore the essential balance (Lev 2$;3f.). After forty-nine years, the “heart’s easement” applied to every side of human experience, familial, economic, as well as agricultural (Lev 25:8-17).


Perhaps as the pace of life increases we shall one day have to insist on all human beings re-appropriating this sabbatical year principle of the fertility philosophy and applying it like the Hebrew JubiLee to every aspect of our family, economic, and social lives.

The raising of the sacred fungus, then, necessitated the use of “cultic prostitutes” whose bodily excretions and sexual fascination were thought to engender the “little children”.


Compensation was required if the balance of nature were not to be impaired when the Holy Plant was lifted from the earth.


But these atoning sacrifices required no less the grace of the god, so that acceptance of his supreme gift required further sacrifice on his part. The ritualistic lamentation which marked ceremonies devoted to the raising of the sacred mushroom, was erotic in character, as, apparently, was all music and drama in its original intent.


The female votaries of the god Bacchus were the prime exponents of the fungus cult in the ancient world, and in their orgiastic excitement interspersed with periods of extreme lethargy, we see reflected the rhythms of sexual and agricultural experience.

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