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Category: Balkans

Selz: Plant of Birth or Plant of Life in the Etana Legend?

“The story of Etana, one of the oldest tales in a Semitic language, was, as I have argued elsewhere, modeled after the then extant Sumerian tales of the Gilgamesh Epic.

Gilgamesh’s search for “the plant of life,” the ú-nam-ti-la (šammu ša balāti) was, however, replaced by Etana’s search for the plant of birth-giving (šammu ša alādi). The entire story runs as follows:

British Museum K. 19530, Library of Ashurbanipal (reigned 669-631 BCE), excavated from Kouyunjik by Austen Henry Layard. Neo-Assyrian 7th Century BCE, Nineveh.  This cuneiform tablet details the legend of Etana, a mythological king of Kish.  http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=287204&partId=1&searchText=WCT28297&page=1 http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/c/cuneiform_the_legend_of_etana.aspx This image is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

British Museum K. 19530, Library of Ashurbanipal (reigned 669-631 BCE), excavated from Kouyunjik by Austen Henry Layard. Neo-Assyrian 7th Century BCE, Nineveh.
This cuneiform tablet details the legend of Etana, a mythological king of Kish.
http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=287204&partId=1&searchText=WCT28297&page=1
http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/c/cuneiform_the_legend_of_etana.aspx
This image is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

The gods build the first city Kish, but kingship is still in heaven. A ruler is wanted (and found). Due to an illness, Etana’s wife is unable to conceive. The plant of birth is wanted.

In the ensuing episode eagle and snake swore an oath of friendship. Suddenly the eagle plans to eat up the snake’s children; a baby eagle, with the name of Atrahasīs opposes this plan, but eagle executes it.

Now, the weeping snake seeks justice from the sun-god. With the god’s help the eagle is trapped in a burrow, and now the eagle turns to the sun-god for help. He receives the answer that, because of the taboo-violation he cannot help, but will send someone else.

Etana prays daily for the plant of birth and in a dream the sun-god tells Etana to approach the eagle. In order to get the eagle’s support Etana helps him out of his trap.

BM 89767, Limestone cylinder seal illustrating the myth of Etana, shepherd and legendary king of Kish, who was translated to heaven by an eagle to obtain the plant of life.  This seal portrays Etana’s ascent, witnessed by a shepherd, a dog, goats and sheep. Dated 2250 BCE, this seal was excavated by Hormuz Rassam, and came from an old, previously unregistered collection acquired before 1884.  Dominique Collon, Catalogue of the Western Asiatic Seals in the British Museum: Cylinder Seals II: Akkadian, Post-Akkadian, Ur III Periods, II, London, British Museum Press, 1982.  R.M. Boehner, Die Entwicklung der Glyptic wahrend der Akkad-Zeit, 4, Berlin, 1965.  Alfred Jeremias, Das Alte Testament im Lichte des Alten Orients: Handbuch zur biblisch-orientalischen Altertumskunde, Leipzig, JC Hinrichs, 1906.  Also AN128085001, 1983, 0101.299.  This image is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.  © The Trustees of the British Museum. http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?partid=1&assetid=128085001&objectid=368707

BM 89767, Limestone cylinder seal illustrating the myth of Etana, shepherd and legendary king of Kish, who was translated to heaven by an eagle to obtain the plant of life.
This seal portrays Etana’s ascent, witnessed by a shepherd, a dog, goats and sheep. Dated 2250 BCE, this seal was excavated by Hormuzd Rassam, and came from an old, previously unregistered collection acquired before 1884.
Dominique Collon, Catalogue of the Western Asiatic Seals in the British Museum: Cylinder Seals II: Akkadian, Post-Akkadian, Ur III Periods, II, London, British Museum Press, 1982.
R.M. Boehner, Die Entwicklung der Glyptic wahrend der Akkad-Zeit, 4, Berlin, 1965.
Alfred Jeremias, Das Alte Testament im Lichte des Alten Orients: Handbuch zur biblisch-orientalischen Altertumskunde, Leipzig, JC Hinrichs, 1906.
Also AN128085001, 1983, 0101.299.
This image is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.
© The Trustees of the British Museum.
http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?partid=1&assetid=128085001&objectid=368707

Now the eagle, carrying Etana on his back, ascends to the heavens. On the uppermost level of the heavens Etana becomes afraid and the eagle takes him back to the earth.

The end of the story is missing, but that Etana finally got hold of the plant of birth is very likely, since other sources mention his son.

To summarize: I have tried to show that some features of the Enoch tradition are a re-writing of very ancient concepts. I do not claim that they all can be explained assuming dependencies, as earlier scholarship has done.

I do not intend to idolize “origins,” but what might eventually come out of such a research—if the topics mentioned here are thoroughly worked out and elaborated in detail—is, that our texts implicate many more meanings than tradition may have supposed.

In my opinion there can be little doubt that the official transmission of texts in Mesopotamia was supplemented by a wealth of oral tradition. Indeed, the situation may be comparable to the one attested in the (still) living oral tradition on Enoch in the Balkanian vernaculars.”

This Akkadian clay tablet, dated to circa 1900-1600 BCE, preserves a partial version of the Sumerian Legend of Etana.  Held by the Morgan Library.  http://www.codex99.com/typography/1.html

This Akkadian clay tablet, dated to circa 1900-1600 BCE, preserves a partial version of the Sumerian Legend of Etana.
Held by the Morgan Library.
http://www.codex99.com/typography/1.html

(See G.J. Selz, “Die Etana-Erzählung: Ursprung und Tradition eines der ältesten epischen Texte in einer semitischen Sprache,” Acta Sumerologica (Japan) 20 (1998): pp. 135-79.

A different opinion is expressed by P. Steinkeller, “Early Semitic Literature and Third Millennium Seals with Mythological Motifs,” in Literature and Literary Language at Ebla (ed. P. Fronzaroli; Quaderni di Semitistica 18; Florence: Dipartimento di linguistica Università di Firenze, 1992), pp. 243-75 and pls. 1-8.

Further remarks on the ruler’s ascension to heaven are discussed by G.J. Selz, “Der sogenannte ‘geflügelte Tempel’ und die ‘Himmelfahrt’ der Herrscher: Spekulationen über ein ungelöstes Problem der altakkadischen Glyptik und dessen möglichen rituellen Hintergrund,” in Studi sul Vicino Oriente Antico dedicati alla memoria di Luigi Cagni (ed. S. Graziani; Naples: Istituto Universitario Orientale, 2000, pp. 961-83.)

Gebhard J. Selz, “Of Heroes and Sages–Considerations of the Early Mesopotamian Background of Some Enochic Traditions,” in Armin Lange, et alThe Dead Sea Scrolls in Context, v. 2, Brill, 2011, pp. 799-800.

Selz: Enoch Derives from 3d Millennium BCE Mesopotamia

” … [He who saw the deep, the] foundation of the country, who knew [the secrets], was wise in everything! …

he saw the secret and uncovered the hidden,

he brought back a message from the antediluvian age.”

From the introduction to the Gilgamesh Epic, A.R. George, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts (2 vols.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 1:539.

“The general framework of the “Mesopotamian Background of the Enoch Figure” is quite well established.

Since the initial comparison of Berossos’ account of Mesopotamian antediluvian kings and heroes to the biblical patriarchs a vast literature has evolved that discusses the possible transfer and adaptation of such Mesopotamian topics as ascent to heaven, the flood story, primeval wisdom, dream-vision, divination and astronomy.

I argue in this paper that the respective traditions reach back to a third millennium “origin.”

Enoch, described in Genesis 5:22-25 as great-grandson of Adam, father of Methuselah and great-grand-father of Noah, lived 365 years and “he walked with God: and he was not, for God took him.”

William Blake, Enoch, lithograph, 1807 (four known copies). William Blake's only known lithograph illustrating Genesis 5:24,

William Blake, Enoch, lithograph, 1807 (four known copies).
William Blake’s only known lithograph illustrating Genesis 5:24, “Enoch walked with God; then was no more, because God took him away.”
This work is in the public domain in the United States, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bereshit_(parsha)#/media/File:William_Blake_Enoch_Lithograph_1807.jpg

Enoch became a central figure in early Jewish mystical speculations; Enoch, or the Ethiopic Enoch, is one of the earliest non-biblical texts from the Second Temple period and, at least in part, was originally written in Aramaic as demonstrated by the fragments found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

(See H.S. Kvanvig, Roots of Apocalyptic: The Mesopotamian Background of the Enoch Figure and the Son of Man (WMANT 61, Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchner, 1988), p. 35: “Astronomy, cosmology, mythical geography, divination . . . are subjects which in a Jewish setting appear for the first time in the Enochic sources, at least in a so extensive form.”)

(J.C. VanderKam, An Introduction to Early Judaism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), pp. 88-94; see also J.J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature (New York: Crossroad, 1992), esp. the chapter on “The Early Enoch Literature,”pp. 43-84.)

(On 1 Enoch see J.T. Milik, The Books of Enoch: Aramaic Fragments of Qumrân Cave 4 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1976) and cf. the review by J.C. Greenfield and M.E. Stone, “The Books of Enoch and the Traditions of Enoch,” Numen 26 (1979): pp. 89-103.

A modern translation of the text is now published by G.W.E. Nickelsburg and J.C. VanderKam, Enoch: A New Translation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004).

For the religious-historical framework of the book see J.C. VanderKam and P. Flint, The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Their Significance for Understanding the Bible, Judaism, Jesus, and Christianity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002); cf. also VanderKam, Introduction.

William Blake, Jacob's Dream, c. 1805 AD. Currently held at the British Museum, London. Commissioned and acquired from William Blake by Thomas Butts. Also available at the William Blake Archive. This work is in the public domain in the United States, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blake_jacobsladder.jpg

William Blake, Jacob’s Dream, c. 1805 CE. Currently held at the British Museum, London. Commissioned and acquired from William Blake by Thomas Butts.
Also available at the William Blake Archive.
This work is in the public domain in the United States, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blake_jacobsladder.jpg

A thorough study of the Enochic literature should, of course, also take into consideration the many references to Enoch in the so-called apocryphal literature. There are presently two recommendable translations: OTP and AOT.)

They prove that the Astronomical Enoch and the Book of the Watchers are among the earliest texts collected in Enoch.

Enoch belongs to the Old Slavonic biblical tradition—a tradition that is still very much alive in the popular religion of the Balkans.

(At the time when I finished this article I was not yet able to check The Old Testament Apocrypha in the Slavonic Tradition: Continuity and Diversity (ed. L. DiTommaso and C. Böttrich with the assistance of M. Swoboda; TSAJ 140; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, forthcoming 2011).

Indeed, as F. Badalanova Geller was able to demonstrate, there is an oral tradition still alive in contemporary Bulgaria, incorporating various pieces from the Jewish and apocryphal traditions, which has also considerable impact on orthodox iconography.

(F. Badalanova Geller, “Cultural Transfer and Text Transmission: The Case of the Enoch Apocryphic Tradition” (lecture delivered at the Conference “Multilingualism in Central Asia, Near and Middle East from Antiquity to Early Modern Times” at the Center for Studies in Asian Cultures and Social Anthropology at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna, 2 March 2010). I wish to express my gratitude to Dr. Badalanova Geller for fruitful discussions and additional references.)

She further calls the underlying (oral) stories “the Epic of Enoch,” arguing methodologically along the lines of V. Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale.

(V. Propp, Morphology of the Folk Tale (trans. L. Scott; 2nd ed.; Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968).

This “epic” was certainly also related to the tradition of the kabbalistic-rabbinic Enoch which, like other hermetic literature, describes Enoch as Metatron, featuring him as the “Great Scribe” (safra rabba: Tg. Yer.).

(Tg. Yer. to Genesis 5:24; see also b. Hag. 15a; see further A.A. Orlov, The Enoch-Metatron Tradition (TSAJ 107; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005), pp. 50-9, esp. 51.)

It cannot be the purpose of this paper to take the entire Enochic tradition into consideration; the references to Enoch are manifold in the so-called apocryphal tradition.

(Concerning the book of Jubilees, Kvanvig, Roots, p. 146, writes e.g.: “Jubilees deals with a tradition about the origin of Babylonian science. This science was revealed to men in primordial time. The revelators were angels who descended from heaven and acted as sages among men. Enoch as the first sage is found in Pseudo-Eupolemus.”)

We only mention here that “the instructor” Enoch, Idris in Arabic, is attested in the Qur’an (19:56–57; 21:85–86) as a prophet, and that in Muslim lore, like in Judaism, he is also connected with the invention of astronomy.

We may further mention persisting traditions in Classical Antiquity, especially Claudius Aelianus, who mentions the miraculous birth of Gilgamesh.”

(Claudius Aelianus, De Natura Animalium 12.21: “At any rate an Eagle fostered a baby. And I want to tell the whole story, so that I may have evidence of my proposition. When Seuechoros was king of Babylon the Chaldeans foretold that the son born of his daughter would wrest the kingdom from his grandfather.

Frontispiece of Claudius Aelianus, dated 1556. Born circa 175 CE and died circa 235 CE, he was born at Praeneste. A Roman author and teacher of rhetoric, his two chief works are cherished for their quotations from earlier authors, whose works are lost to history. He wrote De Natura Animalium and Varia Historia, though significant fragments of other works, On Providence and Divine Manifestations, are also preserved in the early medieval encyclopedia, The Suda. http://www.summagallicana.it/lessico/e/Eliano%20o%20Claudio%20Eliano.htm

Frontispiece of Claudius Aelianus, dated 1556 CE. Born circa 175 CE and died circa 235 CE, he was born at Praeneste. A Roman author and teacher of rhetoric, his two chief works are cherished for their quotations from earlier authors, whose works are lost to history. He wrote De Natura Animalium and Varia Historia, though significant fragments of other works, On Providence and Divine Manifestations, are also preserved in the early medieval encyclopedia, The Suda.
http://www.summagallicana.it/lessico/e/Eliano%20o%20Claudio%20Eliano.htm

This made him afraid and (if I may be allowed the small jest) he played Acrisius to his daughter: he put the strictest of watches upon her. For all that, since fate was cleverer than the king of Babylon, the girl became a mother, being pregnant by some obscure man.

So the guards from fear of the king hurled the infant from the citadel, for that was where the aforesaid girl was imprisoned. Now an Eagle which saw with its piercing eye the child while still falling, before it was dashed on the earth, flew beneath it, flung its back under it, and conveyed it to some garden and set it down with the utmost care.

But when the keeper of the place saw the pretty baby he fell in love with it and nursed it; and it was called Gilgamos and became king of Babylon.”)

(Claudius Aelianus, On the Characteristics of Animals [trans. A.F. Schofield; 3 vols.; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958-1959], 3:39–41). We may further note that in the subsequent text Aelianus explicitly refers to Achaemenes, the legendary founder of the first Persian dynasty, who is also said “to be raised by an eagle.”)

Gebhard J. Selz, “Of Heroes and Sages–Considerations of the Early Mesopotamian Background of Some Enochic Traditions,” in Armin Lange, et alThe Dead Sea Scrolls in Context, v. 2, Brill, 2011, pp. 779-781.

Fish Symbolism Spanning Cultures and Eras

“For those who hold that the Grail story is essentially, and fundamentally, Christian, finding its root in Eucharistic symbolism, the title is naturally connected with the use of the Fish symbol in early Christianity: the Icthys anagram, as applied to Christ, the title ‘Fishers of Men,’ bestowed upon the Apostles, the Papal ring of the Fisherman–though it must be noted that no manipulation of the Christian symbolism avails satisfactorily to account for the lamentable condition into which the bearer of the title has fallen.” 2

[ … ]

So far as the present state of our knowledge goes we can affirm with certainty that the Fish is a Life symbol of immemorial antiquity, and that the title of Fisher has, from the earliest ages, been associated with Deities who were held to be specially connected with the origin and preservation of Life.

In Indian cosmogony Manu finds a little fish in the water in which he would wash his hands; it asks, and receives, his protection, asserting that when grown to full size it will save Manu from the universal deluge. This is Jhasa, the greatest of all fish. 1

The first Avatar of Vishnu the Creator is a Fish. At the great feast in honour of this god, held on the twelfth day of the first month of the Indian year, Vishnu is represented under the form of a golden Fish, and addressed in the following terms:

“Wie Du, O Gott, in Gestalt eines Fisches die in der Unterwelt befindlichen Veden gerettet hast, so rette auch mich 2.”

The Fish Avatar was afterwards transferred to Buddha.

In Buddhist religion the symbols of the Fish and Fisher are freely employed. Thus in Buddhist monasteries we find drums and gongs in the shape of a fish, but the true meaning of the symbol, while still regarded as sacred, has been lost, and the explanations, like the explanations of the Grail romances, are often fantastic afterthoughts.

In the Māhāyana scriptures Buddha is referred to as the Fisherman who draws fish from the ocean of Samsara to the light of Salvation. There are figures and pictures which represent Buddha in the act of fishing, an attitude which, unless interpreted in a symbolic sense, would be utterly at variance with the tenets of the Buddhist religion. 1

This also holds good for Chinese Buddhism. The goddess Kwanyin (= Avalokiteśvara), the female Deity of Mercy and Salvation, is depicted either on, or holding, a Fish.

In the Han palace of Kun-Ming-Ch’ih there was a Fish carved in jade to which in time of drought sacrifices were offered, the prayers being always answered.

Both in India and China the Fish is employed in funeral rites. In India a crystal bowl with Fish handles was found in a reputed tomb of Buddha.

In China the symbol is found on stone slabs enclosing the coffin, on bronze urns, vases, etc. Even as the Babylonians had the Fish, or Fisher, god, Oannes who revealed to them the arts of Writing, Agriculture, etc., and was, as Eisler puts it, ‘teacher and lord of all wisdom,’ so the Chinese Fu-Hi, who is pictured with the mystic tablets containing the mysteries of Heaven and Earth, is, with his consort and retinue, represented as having a fish’s tail 2.

The writer of the article in The Open Court asserts that “the Fish was sacred to those deities who were supposed to lead men back from the shadows of death to life 3.”

If this be really the case we can understand the connection of the symbol first with Orpheus, later with Christ, as Eisler remarks:

“Orpheus is connected with nearly all the mystery, and a great many of the ordinary chthonic, cults in Greece and Italy. Christianity took its first tentative steps into the reluctant world of Graeco-Roman Paganism under the benevolent patronage of Orpheus.” 1

There is thus little reason to doubt that, if we regard the Fish as a Divine Life symbol, of immemorial antiquity, we shall not go very far astray.

We may note here that there was a fish known to the Semites by the name of Adonis, although as the title signifies ‘Lord,’ and is generic rather than specific, too much stress cannot be laid upon it.

It is more interesting to know that in Babylonian cosmology Adapa the Wise, the son of Ea, is represented as a Fisher. 2

In the ancient Sumerian laments for Tammuz, previously referred to, that god is frequently addressed as Divine Lamgar, Lord of the Net, the nearest equivalent I have so far found to our ‘Fisher King.’ 3

Whether the phrase is here used in an actual or a symbolic sense the connection of idea is sufficiently striking.

In the opinion of the most recent writers on the subject the Christian Fish symbolism derives directly from the Jewish, the Jews, on their side having borrowed freely from Syrian belief and practice. 4

What may be regarded as the central point of Jewish Fish symbolism is the tradition that, at the end of the world, Messias will catch the great Fish Leviathan, and divide its flesh as food among the faithful.

As a foreshadowing of this Messianic Feast the Jews were in the habit of eating fish upon the Sabbath. During the Captivity, under the influence of the worship of the goddess Atargatis, they transferred the ceremony to the Friday, the eve of the Sabbath, a position which it has retained to the present day.

Eisler remarks that “in Galicia one can see Israelite families in spite of their being reduced to the extremest misery, procuring on Fridays a single gudgeon, to eat, divided into fragments, at night-fall.

In the 16th century Rabbi Solomon Luria protested strongly against this practice. Fish, he declared, should be eaten on the Sabbath itself, not on the Eve.” 1

This Jewish custom appears to have been adopted by the primitive Church, and early Christians, on their side, celebrated a Sacramental Fish-meal. The Catacombs supply us with numerous illustrations, fully described by the two writers referred to.

The elements of this mystic meal were Fish, Bread, and Wine, the last being represented in the Messianic tradition: “At the end of the meal God will give to the most worthy, i.e., to King David, the Cup of Blessing–one of fabulous dimensions.” 2

Fish play an important part in Mystery Cults, as being the ‘holy’ food. Upon a tablet dedicated to the Phrygian Mater Magna we find Fish and Cup; and Dölger, speaking of a votive tablet discovered in the Balkans, says, “Hier ist der Fisch immer und immer wieder allzu deutlich als die heilige Speise eines Mysterien-Kultes hervorgehoben.” 3

Now I would submit that here, and not in Celtic Folk-lore, is to be found the source of Borron’s Fish-meal. Let us consider the circumstances. Joseph and his followers, in the course of their wanderings, find themselves in danger of famine. The position is somewhat curious, as apparently the leaders have no idea of the condition of their followers till the latter appeal to Brons. 1

Brons informs Joseph, who prays for aid and counsel from the Grail. A Voice from Heaven bids him send his brother-in-law, Brons, to catch a fish.

Meanwhile he, Joseph, is to prepare a table, set the Grail, covered with a cloth, in the centre opposite his own seat, and the fish which Brons shall catch, on the other side.

He does this, and the seats are filled–“Si s’i asieent une grant partie et plus i ot de cels qui n’i sistrent mie, que de cels qui sistrent.”

Those who are seated at the table are conscious of a great “douceur,” and “l’accomplissement de lor cuers,” the rest feel nothing.

Now compare this with the Irish story of the Salmon of Wisdom 2.

Finn Mac Cumhail enters the service of his namesake, Finn Eger, who for seven years had remained by the Boyne watching the Salmon of Lynn Feic, which it had been foretold Finn should catch.

The younger lad, who conceals his name, catches the fish. He is set to watch it while it roasts but is warned not to eat it. Touching it with his thumb he is burned, and puts his thumb in his mouth to cool it.

Immediately he becomes possessed of all knowledge, and thereafter has only to chew his thumb to obtain wisdom.

Mr Nutt remarks: “The incident in Borron’s poem has been recast in the mould of mediaeval Christian Symbolism, but I think the older myth can still be clearly discerned, and is wholly responsible for the incident as found in the Conte du Graal.”

But when these words were written we were in ignorance of the Sacramental Fish-meal, common alike to Jewish, Christian, and Mystery Cults, a meal which offers a far closer parallel to Borron’s romance than does the Finn story, in which, beyond the catching of a fish, there is absolutely no point of contact with our romance, neither Joseph nor Brons derives wisdom from the eating thereof; it is not they who detect the sinners, the severance between the good and the evil is brought about automatically.

The Finn story has no common meal, and no idea of spiritual blessings such as are connected therewith.

In the case of the Messianic Fish-meal, on the other hand, the parallel is striking; in both cases it is a communal meal, in both cases the privilege of sharing it is the reward of the faithful, in both cases it is a foretaste of the bliss of Paradise.

Furthermore, as remarked above, the practice was at one time of very widespread prevalence.

Now whence did Borron derive his knowledge, from Jewish, Christian or Mystery sources?

This is a question not very easy to decide. In view of the pronounced Christian tone of Borron’s romance I should feel inclined to exclude the first, also the Jewish Fish-meal seems to have been of a more open, general and less symbolic character than the Christian; it was frankly an anticipation of a promised future bliss, obtainable by all.

Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, knows nothing of the Sacred Fish-meal, so far as I am aware it forms no part of any Apocalyptic expectation, and where this special symbolism does occur it is often under conditions which place its interpretation outside the recognized category of Christian belief.

A noted instance in point is the famous epitaph of Bishop Aberkios, over the correct interpretation of which scholars have spent much time and ingenuity. 1 In this curious text Aberkios, after mentioning his journeys, says:

“Paul I had as my guide,

Faith however always went ahead and set before me as food a Fish from a Fountain, a huge one, a clean one,

Which a Holy Virgin has caught.

This she gave to the friends ever to eat as food,

Having good Wine, and offering it watered together with Bread.”

Aberkios had this engraved when 72 years of age in truth.

Whoever can understand this let him pray for Aberkios.”

Eisler (I am here quoting from the Quest article) remarks, “As the last line of our quotation gives us quite plainly to understand, a number of words which we have italicized are obviously used in an unusual, metaphorical, sense, that is to say as terms of the Christian Mystery language.”

While Harnack, admitting that the Christian character of the text is indisputable, adds significantly: “aber das Christentum der Grosskirche ist es nicht.”

Thus it is possible that, to the various points of doubtful orthodoxy which scholars have noted as characteristic of the Grail romances, Borron’s Fish-meal should also be added.

Should it be objected that the dependence of a medieval romance upon a Jewish tradition of such antiquity is scarcely probable, I would draw attention to the Voyage of Saint Brandan, where the monks, during their prolonged wanderings, annually ‘kept their Resurrection,’ i.e., celebrate their Easter Mass, on the back of a great Fish. 1

On their first meeting with this monster Saint Brandan tells them it is the greatest of all fishes, and is named Jastoni, a name which bears a curious resemblance to the Jhasa of the Indian tradition cited above. 2

In this last instance the connection of the Fish with life, renewed and sustained, is undeniable.

The original source of such a symbol is most probably to be found in the belief, referred to in a previous chapter, 1 that all life comes from the water, but that a more sensual and less abstract idea was also operative appears from the close connection of the Fish with the goddess Astarte or Atargatis, a connection here shared by the Dove.

Cumont, in his Les Religions Orientales dans le Paganisme Romain, says:

“Two animals were held in general reverence, namely, Dove and Fish.

Countless flocks of Doves greeted the traveller when he stepped on shore at Askalon, and in the outer courts of all the temples of Astarte one might see the flutter of their white wings.

The Fish were preserved in ponds near to the Temple, and superstitious dread forbade their capture, for the goddess punished such sacrilege, smiting the offender with ulcers and tumours.” 2

But at certain mystic banquets priests and initiates partook of this otherwise forbidden food, in the belief that they thus partook of the flesh of the goddess. “

Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance, 1920, pp. 118-26.

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