The god provided the first, man the second, and woman the third. Of the human contributions, woman’s was the most powerful and evoked most wonder among the ancients. They believed that it was menstrual blood that formed the embryo.
Pliny describes the process thus:
Women who do not menstruate, records the same author, do not bear children, since the raw material of conception is not present in the womb. On the other hand, a woman who menstruates during pregnancy is likely to bring forth “a sickly or still-born offspring, or one full of bloody matter”. The best time for conceiving was thought to be at the beginning or end of a menstrual period,2 which is why in the story of David and Bathsheba in the Old Testament it is said specifically that the lovers had their illicit intercourse just after Bathsheba had menstruated (II Sam 11:4).
Galen, the second century physician, has a rather more sophisticated theory of the generative process, but still sees semen and menstrual blood as its main factors. The semen, he thought, drew to itself just as much blood as it could deal with, using it as food with which to build the foetus.3 The Old Testament rules for the menstruant (Lev 15:19—25) emphasize the sacred nature of the blood.
Whilst in that condition, everything the woman touches is reckoned “unclean” and this “uncleanness” can communicate itself to other people. A man having intercourse with her at this time renders himself liable to the same seven—day period of ritual disqualification as his wife. It has to be emphasized that this “uncleanness” has nothing to do with morals or hygiene. It is a religious state of taboo. A woman bearing a son is similarly “defiled” (having a daughter requires fourteen days separation), as is a man coming in contact with a dead body (Num 19:11).
A priest is rendered “unclean” by touching a reptile or insect, or involuntarily discharging semen (Lev 22 4,). Rachel used her real or pretended menstrual condition to prevent her sorely pressed father Laban from discovering his stolen property. When he finally caught up with his runaway daughter and son-in-law, Laban searched their tents seeking some household gods Rachel had taken.
She put them under her camel saddle and begged to be excused from rising since the “manner of women was upon her” (Gen 31 :341). Even to have touched the saddle would have rendered Laban “unclean”.
Menses could affect almost everything, by remote influence as well as direct contact.
He relates a few of them and leaves us in no doubt about the fear and wonder that attended this monthly phenomenon in the eyes of the ancients. Of course, coming from the seat of creation, the womb, menstrual blood was credited with wonderful healing powers. It could cure gout, scrofitla, parotid tumours, abscesses, erysipelas, boils, eye— fluxes, hydrophobia, and epilepsy, whilst quartan fever, according to one source, could be counteracted by sexual intercourse with a woman just beginning her period.
On the other hand, such a source of power was dangerous. Under the principle of like repelling like, which played an important part in ancient philosophy, menses was also considered to be an abortifacient. A smear of the blood could bring about a miscarriage, and even to step over a stain could bring about the same dire effect.5 Similarly, it could abort fruit trees, dry up seed, blight crops, turn wine sour, as well as send dogs mad, rust metals, and dull mirrors. This last effect, incidentally, could be reversed by having the woman stare at the back of the mirror until the shine on the front was restored.6
The distinguishing feature of menstrual blood was its dark color, contrasting with the brighter, oxygenated blood of the rest of the body. Thus dark red, purple, violet, and similar hues came to have a special significance, being so closely associated with fertility.
Kings and magistrates wore purple garments, and the Latin purpura came to mean not only the robes themselves but the high dignity they conferred.7
Most prized of all was Tyrian purple, whose “highest glory”, according to Pliny, “consists in the color of congealed blood, blackish at first glance but gleaming when held up to the light; this is the origin of Homer’s phrase, ‘blood of purple hue’ “8 Further dyeing of a scarlet fabric with Tyrian purple produced the rich color called in Greek husginon, the Sumerian origin of which shows that it meant properly “blue blood”,9 another popular mark of the aristocracy.
The same origin can be found for the “Hyacinth”, in
Greek mythology the name of the youth accidentally slain by his
friend Apollo, and from whose spilt blood there grew the flower of
that name.10 Pliny offers a further connection between purple and
menstrual blood when he says that the latter adversely affects this
color, another example of like repelling like.11
The name basiisk actually means, “womb—blood”,15 that is, menses. Pliny adds that some people call it “Saturn’s blood”, which looks like a reminiscence of the same verbal origin, since the name Saturn is partly composed of a Sumerian word ShA-TUR, “womb”.16 One important characteristic of “Saturn’s Blood” was that it was of the color and consistency of pitch.17
The ancients saw a close relationship between this substance and menstrual blood, apparently believing that it was the earth’s equivalent of human menses. Particularly noted in this connection were the lumps of bitumen that periodically rose to the surface of the Dead Sea, “in shape and size”, according to Josephus, “like decapitated bulls”.
He goes on,
This tradition is mentioned
also by Tacitus,19 referring to other ancient
authorities among whom, we know, was one Poseidonius of second-first-century BC. So the relationship between pitch and menses was
already well—established and can now be further supported
As Josephus says,
Dioscorides lists at some length the remedial characteristics of asphaitos, including that it is effective for “strangulations of the womb”, and that, taken along with wine and castor oil, “it drives out menses”.22
The Judean bitumen is the best, according to the same authority, and he notes that “it shines like purple”. The inhabitants of Judea must have been well aware that the extraordinary rift valley of the Dead Sea was far lower than the surrounding country. In fact, as we know, the ground there is the lowest place on earth, some thirteen hundred feet below sea—level.
It was small wonder, then, that the menstrual discharge of the womb of mother earth should be borne the comparatively short distance to the surface of the Dead Sea, and that it should have required the application of the menses of other wombs to loosen its sticky grip. Perhaps the Dead Sea’s proximity to the centre of the earth, and thus the seat of knowledge, played some part in the establishment along its western shores of the Essen settlement at Qumran, the home of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Certainly the blistering heat of the summer months, combined with the belief that there one stood closer than anywhere else to the eternal fires of Hades, had a large part in the formulation of the Sodom and Gomorrah myths, and their overthrow with fire and brimstone (Gen 19:24). Further evidence of how close the ground here is to the fermenting heat of the earth’s centre was recognized in the presence of hot springs on the east side of the Dead Sea, at a place called Callirrhoe. It was thence that the dying Herod was carried to try to find some relief from the pains that wracked his dropsical, gangrenous body.23
As late as the last century, popular local belief held that the hot water was released from the lower regions by evil spirits, merely to stop it being available to assuage the pains of the damned in hell. Another legend said that King Solomon sent a servant to open the springs when he discovered how thin was the crust of the earth at this point. However, lest the threats of the subterranean devils deter his messenger, the wise monarch saw to it that he was stone deaf.24
Near by stood Herod’s great palace fortress Machaerus, and in its grounds, says Josephus, “grew a plant of Rue, of an amazing size; indeed in height and thickness no fig-tree surpassed it”.25 Rue was regarded as the prime abortifacient, as its various names now make clear.26 Pliny said that it would open the womb, promote menstruation, bringing away the after-birth and dead fetus, good for “womb— strangling”, for the genitals and anus, and at all costs to be avoided by pregnant women.27
Josephus’ digression to speak of a particular Rue plant in a topographical account of the Machaerus fortress as it bore on a vital Roman campaign in Transjordan, is strange, to say the least. But we have already seen, when describing the high priest’s head—gear, that the introduction by this author of plant physiology and folk-lore into an otherwise non-botanical discussion usually implies some hidden reference to a matter which he is reluctant to bring fully into the open.
Immediately following the description of the giant-sized Rue and its comparison with a fig, Josephus says that in a ravine to the north of the fortress town, was to be found a magic plant called by the name of the ravine, Baaras. What he says about the plant tallies in some respects with traditional accounts of the Mandrake, which we have identified with the Holy Plant, the sacred fungus. One method of drawing it from the ground safely was to tie a dog to it, then call the animal to follow.
The animal sprang to obey, pulling out the Mandrake, and promptly died,
The canine sacrifice was well worth the prize, since,
Of more immediate interest is the alternative method offered for capturing the root.
Thus the releasing agents for the Mandrake were the same as for the Dead Sea’s bitumen.
Furthermore, the Rue which shared some of the medicinal and I abortive characteristics of pitch, was highly regarded in antiquity as an antidote to poisons, particularly of serpents and fimgi.30 We may therefore suspect that in Josephus’ mention of the hot spring of Machaerus, the giant Rue and the Mandrake in the same passage, he is quietly expressing a currently held belief that this particular location by the Dead Sea held a special relevance for the Holy Plant and its antidote.
One or two other references support this idea, as we shall see. The ancients recognized a homogeneity between mineral pitch and the resin of trees, particularly the pine, to which the name “pitch” more properly belongs. Thus Greek has the term pissasphaltos, that is, as Pliny remarks, “pitch combined with bitumen”,31 and this author states that bitumen is commonly adulterated with vegetable pitch.32
Acacia was another tree whose resinous sap was compared with human menses. Pliny says that its “purple gum” had the best tonic and cooling properties and “checked excessive menstruation”33 The Arabs are said to make amulets from the gum of the Acacia with the idea that it is the tree’s menstrual blood, and that they may thereby avail themselves of its power.34
The Acacia shared honors with the Cedar for providing wood for the furniture of the Jewish sanctuary, and was even used to construct the ark itself (Deut 10:3; Exod a:5; etc). Another property shared by both bitumen and resin is their inflammability. Both are sources of fire, a necessary ingredient of generation. As we said earlier, the Sumerian ideogram for “love” consisted of a burning torch in a womb.35
The dull-red tip of the penis was thought of as a fiery brand igniting the furnace of the uterus, as the sun each evening set alight the bituminous heart of the earth. As Job says, “As for the earth, out of it comes bread; but underneath it is turned up as by fire” (Job 28 :). So a pine-torch was carried in wedding processions, as the virgins of the New Testament parable of the Kingdom bore their lamps to meet the bridegroom (Matt 25). In the same way, torch-carrying formed part of the fertility rites of Bacchus.36
The same symbolism lies behind the seven-branched candlestick before the Holy of Holies in the Jewish temple (Exod 25:3 if.).
The phallic nature of the lamps is illustrated by the terminology of its biblical description, beginning with the base as the “loins” out of which the “stalk” rises with its seven arms.
On the top of each was “a cup shaped like an almond”, consisting of a “rounded knob”, or “capital”, and a “flower”, or “bud”. It is as difficult to envisage this ornamentation in literal terms as it is Josephus’ description of the High Priest’s phallic head—gear. However, the reference to the “almond” is a clue to the intended symbolism of the whole, since the name of the tree derives from a Sumerian original meaning “stretched penis”,37 an allusion to the tree’s being the first to show its blossom.38
The erection of the male organ was its “awakening” and in Sumerian the idea was used to express sunrise.39
The lamps before the Holy of Holies in the Temple find expression today in the lighted candles before the Virgin Mary in the Catholic Church. The fertility significance of the practice is particularly clear in the fire ritual of Holy Saturday, as the Church prepares for the rising of the Christ on Easter Day. “New fire” is struck from a flint as a prelude to the ceremonies, and coals lit from it outside the church.
The fire is blessed and brought into the church, eventually to light one candle in which five grains of incense have been placed. Towards the climax of the ritual, the biblical Creation story having been read, the part played by the creative waters are rehearsed before the baptismal font.
Prayer is offered that God,
After breathing again three times on the water, he goes on, “and make the whole substance of this water fruitful for regeneration”.
The classical example of the ever-burning fire before
a virgin goddess is the cult of Hestia-Vesta, the Greek and Roman
representations of the hearth-deity. The names and cults of the
goddesses differ in some respects but their origin is the same. The
Greek Hestia’s name is also the common word for “fireplace” and
“home”, as well as for the central fire of the universe. Euripides
calls her “the Lady of Fire”.40
As recompense for this great sacrifice,
Not only was Hestia honored in the council-chambers, but at every banquet wine was poured for her at the beginning and end of the meal.43
For she was the first and the last of the children of Zeus, the beginning and end of the god’s creation. Legend had it that the god swallowed each of his children at the moment of birth, but was ultimately forced to disgorge them. Hestia, being the first—born was the last to be regurgitated, and so merited this title.44
This fancy is simply an attempt to put into mythical terms a central feature of the old fertility philosophy. It was believed that the first-born of the womb was the strongest of all the progeny because it was formed from menstrual blood at its most powerful. Next in excellence to the firstborn of the young woman, stood the child of an older woman conceiving for the first time, just prior to menopause.
The idea seems to have been that for some reason irregular menstrual discharge was more powerful than that which occurred at normal monthly intervals. So an adolescent girl’s first period, like that of the older woman who had retained her virginity, was “spontaneous”, and thus all-powerful.
It is strong enough, says Pliny,
Menstruation was, naturally enough, connected with the moon, the “queen of stars” whose periodic waxing and waning controlled the blood of humans and sap of plants.
As Pliny puts it:
Should menstrual discharge occur when the moon was not visible the blood was reckoned to have uncontrollable power:
In biblical mythology this idea of the potency of the first and last menses is expressed in stories of heroes born to aged, previously barren or virgin mothers, like Isaac (Gen 17), Samuel (I Sam i), and Jesus. The New Testament describes the god—hero, like Hestia, as “the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev 22:13), and “the first-born of all creation” (Col i :i).
Jesus is also “the first—born of many brethren” (Rom 8:28), since participation in the mystery of ingesting the Jesus— fungus, was to avail oneself of the power of his primogeniture. It will be appreciated that this sacred virginity, attributed somewhat incongruously to goddesses who spend most of their mythical lives leaping in and out of bed with gods and mortals, is not primarily or even essentially to do with having intact hymens.
Their “virginity” lay in the power of their wombs to produce offspring whose excellence derived from menstrual blood perpetually at its most powerful. The Roman version of the hearth-cult demonstrates certain features which are probably more primitive than the Greek. The central feature of the Vesta worship was the maintenance of an ever-burning sacred fire48 by virgins, called Vestals.
Originally representing the royal house, these maids, at first two, then four and later six in number,49 were called “princesses” and given special privileges in accordance with their assumed rank. They dressed as brides, indicative of their virginity, and were between the ages of six and ten,50 serving for five years,51 that is, until the onset of puberty and marriageable age. In historical times this period of service was extended to thirty years, perhaps with the idea of bringing them into the second most powerful period of their reproductive lives.
Marriage was permitted after their time of service but was unusual, being considered unlucky.52 The girls were released from parental control when they were admitted to the sacred office of Vestal, but thereafter came under the charge of the high—priest, the pontifex maximus. It was he who received them into the Order, taking each candidate by the hand and pronouncing a formula of admission over her.
Her hair was then cut off and hung
upon a certain tree.
She also had the care of certain objects in the shrine. Since no one but the Vestals was allowed to enter the inner sanctum, little is known of the rituals and the holy objects of the shrine. As with most information about the mystery cults, accounts that have come down stem largely from guesswork. At the time of the Roman New Year, our Eastertide, a ceremony of extinguishing and relighting the sacred fire was enacted.
The Church strikes “new fire” from a flint; the Vestals used a fire— drill boring into a block of wood, an invention attributed to Hermes,53 with whom the hearth— goddess was associated. The shrine itself was a domed building, representing a potter’s or refiner’s furnace. Fire, in fertility philosophy, not only engendered new life, it purified the old. It is the Semitic word for a refiner’s crucible that underlies the New Testament conception of “temptation”, properly54 “testing, trial”.
So, for the theologians, the eternal fires of hell became the place of purging of the souls of the dead, and later Judaism and Christianity embodied this aspect of the fertility cult into their moral teaching. The shape of the Vesta shrine had another significance for the mushroom cult, since it also represented the domed canopy of the expanded cap of the Amanita muscaria.
Inside the shrine was preserved a thunderbolt cast down by Zeus, it was said, at the founding of the city of Troy.55
To judge from the tradition that this votive object was a replica of the patron goddess Pallas Athena, whose name and epithet both mean vulva”,56 and bearing in mind the traditional shape of the divine thunderbolt, a kind of dumb-bell or divided hemispheres, (z),57 it seems reasonable to assume that the Palladium, as this venerated relic was called, was in fact a representation of the sacred mushroom. Fire and fertility are similarly connected in the person of the Greek goddess of child-birth, Eileithyia.
She is depicted standing with one arm raised holding a pine-torch, the other outstretched with open palm, a gesture of prayer for an easy delivery.58 She was the daughter of Zeus and Hera, “semen” and “womb”, and the name seems to be an amalgam of two elements which otherwise appear in Greek names for the Pine, Elate and Thuia. Both in origin mean “fluid of generation”, that is, “menses”.60
Confirmation of this comes from the botanist Theophrastus who says of the resinous extraction of Silver-fir (Elate) that “it is what the prophets call ‘the menses of Eileithyia’, and for which they make atonement”.61 Thus, in Eileithyia we have a personification of menstrual blood, cedar resin, and creative fire. The common Sumerian word for “Cedar” is ERIN, and this appears in another Greek word for “torch”, helene, or helanë. Here also is the source and meaning of the name of the Greek heroine and goddess, Helen.62
As we saw earlier, she is portrayed in classical mythology as the daughter of Nemesis (or Leda) and Zeus, the result of her father’s mating with her mother in the form of a swan. She was thus born from an egg, like her brothers Pollux and Castor. Nemesis, whose name has come down as the personification of divine retribution, is identical in meaning with the Sumerian original of Nectar, the “fate—decider”, which otherwise appears as Mandrake, the sacred mushroom, or as the Seinites called it, “the egg plant”.63
A further link between Helen and Nectar appears in the drink Nectarion, wine spiced with a wonderful drug called Helenion, named after the good queen Helen. Legend has it that on one occasion when a supper party in the palace of Menelaus looked like being wrecked on the rocks of immoderate grief that followed the recounting of a particularly harrowing tale, Helen laced the company’s wine with “a drug to quiet all pain and strife, and bring forgetfulness of every ill”.
Homer describes this pain-killer further:
Pliny says that Helenion had its origins in the queen’s “tears”, adding, for good measure, that it was particularly popular in the island of Helene. 65 One supposes it was especially favored among the ladies, for it was reputed “to preserve physical charm, and to keep unimpaired the fresh complexion of our women, whether of the face or of the rest of the body.
Moreover, it is supposed that, by its use, they gain a
kind of attractiveness and sex—appeal (veneremque conciliari)”. It
also killed mice.66
As Pliny says,
It is to the gum of the pine that an Accadian incantation is directed:
The “little-ones” and its parallel phrase “seeds—of—a—Pine” are clearly substitute-words for some magic vegetation too powerful even to be given their proper names. Their manner of “engendering” by sacred prostitutes and their resinous origin leave little doubt that it is the Amanita muscaria that is here involved, the “fate-deciding” Nectar.
The name by which the incantation addresses the pine-resin,
kukru, is another link with the “swan” motif of the myth of Helen’s
birth. Both names go back to a Sumerian phrase meaning “pod”: in the
case of the Pine referring to that species which have kernels like
small lice “pods”, earning the name of”louse_tree” 68; and as
regards the “swan”, because like other fertility-birds, its name was
connected with the “womb- pod”.69
Furthermore, the cap has an extremely bitter, “fiery” taste, and a combination of both characteristics is partly responsible for the “burning coal” imagery of Isaiah:
Josephus describes the Baaras plant of Machaerus as “flame-coloured and towards evening emitting a brilliant light”.71 It is the same kind of conception that underlies the vision of the “son of man” standing in the midst of the seven golden lamp-stands, ‘his face “like the sun shining in full strength” (Rev I:12ff.), and of Moses whose face “shone because he had been talking with God” (Exod 34:29).
In later chapters we shall be looking in more detail at the allusions in names and color to the striking deep red or purple cap of the Amanita muscaria.
Even the white flecking caused by the fragments of
the volva adhering to the surface was the subject of special
epithets, not only on account of the peculiar coloring effect but
because the “scabby” aspect reminded the myth—makers of skin
diseases, particularly leprosy.
The equivalent of such menstrual blood in human women could only be found in that of virgins, and females having their first child. Here, also, was another reason for seeing the product of the “virgin” vulva of the mushroom a very special growth endued with abnormal power. If the sacred fungus was related by name and gestation to the female organs, the cult which centered on the Amanita muscaria depended in large measure on female participation.
We have now to look at the role of the cultic prostitute in this and
related religious practices.