Sunday, September 8, 2013

Cooking the Gods into Being

It’s a great scene in Book 3 of the Odyssey.  A blacksmith leafs gold round a heifer’s horns; there’s a procession of water, flowers, barley; an axe appears; women cry out; thigh pieces, fat and innards roast; and wine swirls in golden cups.  In the 21st century, do we have anything like this?  Maybe it’s Anthony Bourdain shooting a pig with a revolver in No Reservations: Cajun Country fused with meeting Vincent Price while writing about Paris’ glorious restaurant Lasserre in his A Treasury of Great Recipes: “It is everything a chic Parisian restaurant should be.  The food is beautiful, the service impeccable, and the best-dressed women in the fashion capital are to be seen there” (41).  (And by the way, yes, that Vincent Price: star of many a horror film, gourmand, and art collector.)
Of course, what Bourdain and Price don’t have are the gods who preside over sacrifices and feasts.  Though, to continue the above thought-experiment, consider Athena the equivalent of that divine figure Chairman Takeshi Kaga who lords over Iron Chef. In the Odyssey, to cut the throat of an animal and eat its flesh is to believe the world has meaning and the gods are present.  Athena savors the aroma of sacrifice, the aroma of humans believing in her and believing the world they live in to be shaped a particular way.  This is what it means to cook the gods and the world into being.  Let’s look at the story.
Telemachos has finally had a restful sleep and can’t wait to travel with Nestor’s son Peisistratus to Sparta and hear more stories of his father from King Menelaos and Helen.  So far, so good.  But for now he must wait as King Nestor prepares a sacrifice and a feast.  Hospitality sometimes requires putting off what we most wish to do in order to not insult our host.  Anyway, Nestor’s youngest daughter Polycaste is going to bathe him, rub him with oil, and then clothe him so that he looks like “an immortal god.”  There are worse reasons to wait.  But for a moment, let’s consider what it means to sacrifice, what it means to feast. 
The two go together throughout the Odyssey.  As Pierre Vidal Naquet points out in his essay Land and Sacrifice, “Pylos is the land of perpetual sacrifice, the model of a religious country,” and with that, a land of perpetual feasting (45).  The core myth exists in Hesiod’s Theogony, where gods and humans gather at Mekone.  Prometheus leads the reconciliation by, it seems, proposing that he butcher a great ox and serve it up to both parties.  A contest of wits ensues when Prometheus places a layer of delicious fat over bones, and then on the other side of the outstretched oxhide, he lays tender meats and innards under the animal’s stomach.  Well, well, which will Zeus choose . . . and yes, that is why “the tribes of men on earth / Burn white bones to the immortals upon smoking altars” (558-9).  Back to Pylos.
The blacksmith wraps gold around the horns, Aretus carries a bowl of water and a basket of barley, Nestor washes his hands, sprinkles barley, prays to Athena, cuts hair off “the victim’s head” and throws that on the fire.  A sacred realm has been marked, now the blood.

            These rites done, high-hearted Thrasymedes
            Came up and struck.  When the axe severed
            The sinews of the neck, and the heifer collapsed,
            The women raised the ritual cry, Nestor’s daughters,
            The wives of his sons, and his august wife,
            Eurydice, eldest of Clymenus’ daughters.
                                                               (Od. 3.492-7)

As you can tell, this is a family affair and the family being royal, this is the most regal of sacrifices.  I will point out that the ritual lamentation of women also figures prominently in funerals as with Patroclus and Hector in the Iliad.  Whether animal or human, the moment of death is marked by a voice pining its passing.  Now the cooking can begin.

                                                            At his side
            Were young men holding five-tined forks.
            When the thigh pieces were burned and the innards tasted,
            They carved up the rest, skewered the pieces,
            And roasted them holding the spits in their hands.
                                                                 (Od. 3.506-10)

This is grilling old-school style.  No lime-green Weber grill, no rack, no charcoal and lighter fluid, no black Weber smoker with applewood and hours of slow cooking.  No, this is hold the fork in your hand (a long fork) and put it to the fire until that meat drips sweet, sweet meat juice into the sparking flame.  Athena accepts the sacrifice, smells the firing fat and the world again comes into being.  By that phrase, I mean without certain rituals, without an understanding at Mekone or Pylos, the world as Nestor and Telemachos believe it to be wouldn’t come into existence.  I get it.
Almost every evening I’m cooking in the kitchen. Dr. Maya and Demian hang out and play in the living room, while the kitten scampers all between.  I might slowly sweat onions and carrots in duck fat, roast a chicken or a whole fish, steam corn in its husk, or slowly turn tomato paste and a sofrito into a dark mass of goodness.  Dr. Maya may sit at the counter and tell me stories of Alpha that day—what did Dr. Morrisson say?  What did Dr. Rainbow counter?  Demian may turn into a dragon or yeti or raptor or Harry Potter.  Either and anyway, when we sit down at the dinner table, raise our glasses for cheers and praise, we bring our family into existence.  We maintain a connection that makes our world meaningful to us, and it’s done with vegetables that have been gathered from the earth, an animal that has been slaughtered, and a sacred combination of fire, water, air and earth.  I can’t think of a better way to bring our life into reality.  I’m sure Nestor and Telemachos would agree.
--John Harvey

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Uta-napishti, Noah, and Ancient Story Telling

The Omega Profblog is pleased to present Alpha professor 
and Biblical scholar Larry Lyke for today's post!

Remember: Alpha is using a different translation which keeps the old Tablet numbers.
It also uses the name Uta-napishti instead of Utnapishtim.

            The story of Uta-napishti’s experience in the great deluge (Tablet XI) likely sounds familiar to most of us. Even if we haven’t read the biblical account of Noah’s flood, the motifs and much of the imagery of that account in Genesis 6-9 have infused popular culture to the point that everyone knows that Noah took on board two of every kind of animal (female and male) and that the flood lasted 40 days and 40 nights. We’ll say more about this popular version of Noah’s flood later. For now, we should acknowledge that when we read about Uta-napishti’s flood we likely start wondering if the flood account in Gilgamesh is dependent on the account in the Bible or, perhaps, the reverse.

Noah's Ark, by Edward Hicks

            The two accounts are so similar that the question of genetic relationship is natural and quite sound. While the divine motive for the flood in Gilgamesh remains obscure, it may be that the gods are attempting to save Uta-napishti from Enlil’s wrath (XI 36-39). If this reading is correct, then this account differs from Noah’s where God is fed up with humanity and Noah is saved due to his righteousness (Gen 6:8&9) This difference in motive for bringing the flood should not obscure the remarkable similarities that follow. Like Noah, Uta-napishti (and family) is singled out to survive the coming deluge. Both are told to gather animals to repopulate the post-diluvian world. Moreover, they get remarkably detailed instructions on how to build their respective boats and share the account of sending out birds to determine when the flood is over. The details of the boat building and the sequence and kinds of birds differ but these stories are too similar to dismiss the phenomenon as coincidence. To reinforce this sense of connection between the accounts, each includes an account of the survivor offering a sacrifice, the sweet smell of which pleases the god(s). Finally, each account records the divine regret brought on by the aftermath of the flood.
            For those with only vague knowledge of Genesis 6-9, this parallel account might seem unusual. However, we don’t need to turn to the Epic of Gilgamesh to find a parallel to the story of Noah’s flood. Indeed, Genesis 6-9 contains two differing accounts itself. In fact, these two biblical accounts differ at least as much from one another as the popular biblical version we discussed above differs from Uta-napishti’s flood. Moreover, the Uta-napishti flood story has its own Mesopotamian parallels in the Akkadian Atrahasis and the Sumerian Ziusudra myths.
            We don’t have time or space to detail all these myths let alone the two accounts that have been edited together in Genesis 6-9, but pointing out a few details of the latter should suffice. An attentive reader of Genesis 6-9 would likely be left with two very significant questions. Does the flood (actually the rain) last 40 days (Gen 7:12) or 150 days (Gen 8:1-2)? Additionally, just how many of each type of animal does Noah take on board with him? Is it two of each kind of animal (Gen 6:19-22) or two each of unclean animals and seven pairs of clean animals (Gen 7:2)?
            The mental gymnastics required to harmonize these two accounts are arduous. A simple solution to these (and more) questions is to realize that one of the biblical flood accounts comes from a priestly school of scribes who think that Noah took two pairs of ALL animals and that the flood/rain lasted 150 days. Because the priestly school did not consider sacrifice to be legitimate until much later (when Moses gets instruction in Exodus), it did not include a sacrifice at the end of the story. Had they done so, Noah would have exterminated all trace of the animals he sacrificed!
            Another flood story that has been combined with the priestly presumes that the flood/rain lasted 40 days, that Noah took two of each unclean animal and seven pairs of clean animals. This account includes the story of Noah’s sacrifice of ritually clean animals at the end of chapter 8. Only this version accounts for the extra animals required for the sacrifice and, clearly, does not share the priestly aversion to such practice this early in history.
            Now that we have three separate flood accounts in view (and two more from ancient Mesopotamia in mind), we might continue to speculate on the genetic relationship and issues of priority. Unfortunately, these are very difficult to determine . Later texts can contain older versions of a story than earlier texts. This is the nature of ancient story and textual transmission. If we had to speculate on priority, we have to recognize that the Uta-napishti account, and its Mesopotamian parallels, are likely the older. Moreover, the biblical account acknowledges that Abraham (if we accept the text at face value) was born in Mesopotamia where he and his ancestors worshiped alien gods (Joshua 24:2). It is not hard to imagine that a flood story came west with Abraham, or at least those whom he represents, and that the flood stories in Genesis are related in unspecified ways to ancient Mesopotamian antecedents.

            The question of genetic relationship, while of interest, draws our attention away from a much more intriguing and complicated issue. If we look at the larger complex of story telling in Gilgamesh and the early chapters of Genesis, we recognize a constellation of motifs and imagery that seems to be the real focus of these ancient texts.
            Again, we don’t have the luxury of going into great detail but there are a number of fascinating links between the early parts of Genesis and the Gilgamesh epic. Both stories seem to suggest the connection between sexuality (whether coming of age or sexual activity) and civilization. Enkidu’s liaison with Shamhat (the Prostitute) leads to being rejected by his animal friends and inexorably being drawn into human culture. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve become aware of their sexuality after becoming “knowledgeable” and, as a result, cover their nakedness. Before this event, we are to understand they have childlike innocence of their sexual nature. Moreover, each narrative implies that there is a significant loss in this step toward maturation.
            We have covered the connections between the flood accounts but what do these accounts suggest about the human situation? Among may things these stories connote, we see the acknowledgment that human society is flawed and, no matter how many times the gods try to start over, the flaws remain. The stories also reveal an ambivalence toward water as both life sustaining and threatening. Like its modern counterpart, ancient civilization could not sustain itself without water. Absent deep wells, modern pipelines, and canals, ancient civilizations flourished in river valleys. Of course, annual or occasional catastrophic floods meant that living with and near water had its “ups and downs”! In biblical language, “The lord giveth, the lord taketh away”. It may be that part of the value of flood stories was to suggest the possibility of renewal despite the catastrophic consequences of floods.
Sun god battles the ocean chaos monster.
From A.H. Layard's Monuments of Nineveh, 2nd Series, plate 19/83
(London, J. Murray, 1853)
            A much more subtle issue involved in the flood stories lies in this possible connection to renewal. Note that the introduction to the Epic of Gilgamesh (I 37-44) celebrates Gilgamesh for his heroic deeds that include his journey to Uta-napishti, his restoration of cult centers, and re-establishing the “rites of the cosmos”. Those familiar with Ancient Near Eastern culture recognize in these few lines a shorthand version of the celebration of creation that culminates in the establishment of religious cult and temple.
In Genesis we have hints of this notion in Genesis 1-2:4 where God’s mastery of the primordial muck (not an unformed void!) ends in founding the sabbath on day seven. This sequence seems also to inform the version of the flood that concludes with Noah’s sacrifice (see Uta-napishti’s similar actions). A quick read of Exodus 15 will sound remarkably similar with these images in mind as well. All of this suggests the profound religious quality of the Gilgamesh epic that is lost on modern readers.
            Finally, the Epic and Genesis include stories of snakes who rob humans, in one way or the other, of the opportunity for either immortality or, perhaps, eternal youth. These stories likely each are etiologies (stories of origins) of why snakes shed their skin on occasion. They seem to have a monopoly on self renewal, on which humans have, unfortunately, missed out!
            We could say much more about the connections between Genesis and the Epic but for now it is worth noting that they seem to share a common competence in the ways they tell stories and the significance these stories have for understanding who they are. While the motifs vary and their order changes, these are the conceptual DNA - the narrative building blocks - of these ancient cultures and how they narrate the origins of the imperfect world in which they live.

--Larry Lyke

Works cited

Andrew George, The Epic of Gilgamesh: The Babylonian Epic Poem and Other Texts in Akkadian and Sumerian (New York: Penguin Books, 1999). Translation.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Traveling to the Land of the Dead

During spring break of 2011, the Artists and Their Regions course travelled to cemeteries in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.  We had read Maria Theresa Hern├índez’s book Cemeteries of Ambivalent Desire, which focuses on a cemetery named San Isidro in Sugarland.  Professor Hern├índez came into our class and talked about the ethnic Mexicans, prisoners and slaves buried there.  She explained how difficult it was to enter because after years of development in Sugarland, the cemetery was now inside a sprawling subdivision.  When we drove there, it did prove impossible to get inside as the gate was locked and no one was around to let us in.  It’s not always so easy to travel to the underworld.

My grandparents are buried in White Chapel Cemetery in Troy, Michigan.  My mother’s parents in the ground, the ashes of my father’s parents rest in a mausoleum.  My parents are buried together in Harbor Springs, Michigan.  Five hours separate Troy and Harbor Springs, and I don’t always visit both burial sites when I return to the state.  My older children live in St. Clair Shores, also in Michigan, and sometimes they accompany me to the graves.  I haven’t been to White Chapel in years, this fall I’ll travel north and lay flowers at my parent’s headstone.

I’m always very moved when I read Gilgamesh’s pain at the loss of his friend Enkidu, in Herbert Mason’s version of the myth.  “He was no more a king / But just a man who now had lost his way” (54).  It’s a story that echoes through many cultures and across the millennia.  Odysseus travels to the underworld to find his way home, and unexpectedly meets his mother who he tries to embrace but cannot. 
Aeneas and the Sybil in the Underworld
Jan Breughel the Younger, 1630s
oil on copper
Aeneas finds his father in the land of the dead and also tries to touch him.  Orpheus journeys to Hades to bring back his wife who recently died from a snake bite.  His skills with voice and music win him his bride back from Pluto and Proserpina, but with a condition: he must not look back at her as he walks toward the light.  Of course, you know what happens.  Proserpina, also known as Persephone, has her own story where as a young girl she is abducted by Pluto, King of the Underworld, and taken down into darkness.  Her mother Demeter, distraught at her daughter’s disappearance, walks the earth looking for her.  Crops die, animals and humans wither as the mother of all that grows turns angrily upon the world until she receives news that Persephone is underground and may return if she has not eaten the fruit of that dark place.  Of course, you know what happens.

There are many more stories of the living travelling to the land of the dead.  It may be the most necessary and unavoidable ticket we purchase in our lifetime.  Gilgamesh yearns to talk to Utnapishtim, “the one who had survived the flood / And death itself, the one who knew the secret” (55).  When I fly into Pellston Airport, drive to Lakeview cemetery, besides marigolds, my mother’s favorite flowers, I’ll also bring news of our family, news of their grandchildren who miss them.  And, as always, I’ll pause and listen, believing for a moment I can hear them talk to me from the land of the dead, whispering all the secrets they know.
--John Harvey