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Origins of the Jews?

“Babylonia, on the other hand, continued the even tenor of her way. More successful at the end of her independent political career than her northern rival had been, she retained her faith, and remained the unswerving worshipper of Merodach, the great god of Babylon, to whom her priests attributed yet greater powers, and with whom all the other gods were to all appearance identified.

This tendency to monotheism, however, never reached the culminating point–never became absolute–except, naturally, in the minds of those who, dissociating themselves, for philosophical reasons, from the superstitious teaching of the priests of Babylonia, decided for themselves that there was but one God, and worshipped Him.

That orthodox Jews at that period may have found, in consequence of this monotheistic tendency, converts, is not by any means improbable–indeed, the names met with during the later period imply that converts to Judaism were made.

Thus we see, from the various inscriptions, both Babylonian and Assyrian–the former of an extremely early period–the growth and development, with at least one branching off, of one of the most important religious systems of the ancient world.

It is not so important for modern religion as the development of the beliefs of the Hebrews, but as the creed of the people from which the Hebrew nation sprang, and from which, therefore, it had its beginnings, both corporeal and spiritual, it is such as no student of modern religious systems can afford to neglect.

Its legends, and therefore its teachings, as will be seen in these pages, ultimately permeated the Semitic West, and may in some cases even had penetrated Europe, not only through heathen Greece, but also through the early Christians, who, being so many centuries nearer the time of the Assyro-Babylonians, and also nearer the territory which they anciently occupied, than we are, were far better acquainted than the people of the present day with the legends and ideas which they possessed.”

Theophilus G. Pinches, The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, London, 1906, pp. 7-9.

Human Sacrifice in Ancient Babylon

” … All the younger gods, who displaced the elder gods as one year displaces another, were deities of fertility, battle, lightning, fire, and the sun; it is possible, therefore, that Ashur was like Merodach, son of Ea, god of the deep, a form of Tammuz in origin.

His spirit was in the solar wheel which revolved at times of seasonal change. In Scotland it was believed that on the morning of May Day (Beltaine) the rising sun revolved three times. The younger god was a spring sun god and fire god. Great bonfires were lit to strengthen him, or as a ceremony of riddance; the old year was burned out.

Indeed the god himself might be burned (that is, the old god), so that he might renew his youth. Melkarth was burned at Tyre. Hercules burned himself on a mountain top, and his soul ascended to heaven as an eagle.

These fiery rites were evidently not unknown in Babylonia and Assyria. When, according to Biblical narrative, Nebuchadnezzar “made an image of gold” which he set up “in the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon,” he commanded:

“O people, nations, and languages… at the time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of musick… fall down and worship the golden image.”

Certain Jews who had been “set over the affairs of the province of Babylonia,” namely, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego,” refused to adore the idol.

They were punished by being thrown into “a burning fiery furnace”, which was heated “seven times more than it was wont to be heated.” They came forth uninjured.

In the Koran it is related that Abraham destroyed the images of Chaldean gods; he “brake them all in pieces except the biggest of them; that they might lay the blame on that.” According to the commentators the Chaldaeans were at the time “abroad in the fields, celebrating a great festival.”

To punish the offender Nimrod had a great pyre erected at Cuthah.

“Then they bound Abraham, and putting him into an engine, shot him into the midst of the fire, from which he was preserved by the angel Gabriel, who was sent to his assistance.”

Eastern Christians were wont to set apart in the Syrian calendar the 25th of January to commemorate Abraham’s escape from Nimrod’s pyre.

It is evident that the Babylonian fire ceremony was observed in the spring season, and that human beings were sacrificed to the sun god. A mock king may have been burned to perpetuate the ancient sacrifice of real kings, who were incarnations of the god.

Isaiah makes reference to the sacrificial burning of kings in Assyria:

“For through the voice of the Lord shall the Assyrian be beaten down, which smote with a rod. And in every place where the grounded staff shall pass, which the Lord shall lay upon him, it shall be with tabrets and harps: and in battles of shaking will he fight with it.

For Tophet is ordained of old; yea, for the king it is prepared: he hath made it deep and large: the pile thereof is fire and much wood: the breath of the Lord, like a stream of brimstone, doth kindle it.”

When Nineveh was about to fall, and with it the Assyrian Empire, the legendary king, Sardanapalus, who was reputed to have founded Tarsus, burned himself, with his wives, concubines, and eunuchs, on a pyre in his palace. Zimri, who reigned over Israel for seven days, “burnt the king’s house over him with fire.”

Saul, another fallen king, was burned after death, and his bones were buried “under the oak in Jabesh”.

In Europe the oak was associated with gods of fertility and lightning, including Jupiter and Thor. The ceremony of burning Saul is of special interest. Asa, the orthodox king of Judah, was, after death, “laid in the bed which was filled with sweet odours and divers kinds of spices prepared by the apothecaries’ art: and they made a very great burning for him” (2 Chronicles, xvi, 14).

Jehoram, the heretic king of Judah, who “walked in the way of the kings of Israel,” died of “an incurable disease. And his people made no burning for him like the burning of his fathers” (2 Chronicles, xxi, 18, 19).

The conclusion suggested by the comparative study of the beliefs of neighbouring peoples, and the evidence afforded by Assyrian sculptures, is that Ashur was a highly developed form of the god of fertility, who was sustained, or aided in his conflicts with demons, by the fires and sacrifices of his worshippers.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, pp. 348-51.

Nether Cuthah

” … In the Descent of Ishtar the Babylonian Underworld is called Cuthah.

This city had a famous cemetery, like Abydos in Egypt, where many pious and orthodox worshippers sought sepulture. The local god was Nergal, who symbolized the destructive power of the sun and the sand storm; he was a gloomy, vengeful deity, attended by the spirits of tempest, weariness, pestilence, and disease, and was propitiated because he was dreaded.

In Nether Cuthah, as Ea-bani informed Gilgamesh, the worm devoured the dead amidst the dust and thick darkness.

It is evident that this Underworld was modelled on the grave. In early times men believed that the spirits of the dead hovered in or about the place of sepulture. They were therefore provided with “houses” to protect them, in the same manner as the living were protected in their houses above the ground.

The enemies of the human ghosts were the earth spirits. Weapons were laid beside the dead in their graves so that they might wage war against demons when necessary.

The corpse was also charmed, against attack, by the magical and protecting ornaments which were worn by the living–necklaces, armlets, ear-rings, &c.

Even face paint was provided, probably as a charm against the evil eye and other subtle influences.

So long as corpses were left in their graves, the spirits of the dead were, it would appear, believed to be safe. But they required food and refreshment. Food vessels and drinking urns were therefore included in the funerary furniture, and the dead were given food offerings at regular intervals.

Once a year the living held feasts in the burial ground, and invited the ghosts to share in the repast. This custom was observed in Babylonia, and is not yet obsolete in Egypt; Moslems and Coptic Christians alike hold annual all-night feasts in their cemeteries.

[ … ]

According to Babylonian belief, the dead who were not properly buried roamed through the streets searching for food, eating refuse and drinking impure water.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915.

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.

The Universe as a Book

The Christians went even further. The thought that the divinity had written a book moved them to imagine that he had written two, and that the other one was the universe.

At the beginning of the Seventeenth century, Francis Bacon declared in his Advancement of Learning that God offered us two books so that we would not fall into error: the first, the volume of the Scriptures, reveals His will; the second, the volume of the creatures, reveals His power and is the key to the former. Bacon intended much more than the making of a metaphor; he believed that the world was reducible to essential forms (temperatures, densities, weights, colors), which formed, in limited number, an abecedarium naturae or series of letters with which the universal text is written.

[…]

Two hundred years passed, and the Scot Carlyle, in various places in his books, particularly in the essay on Cagliostro, went beyond Bacon’s hypothesis; he said that universal history was a Sacred Scripture that we decipher and write uncertainly, and in which we too are written. Later, León Bloy would write:

“There is no human being on earth who is capable of declaring who he is. No one knows what he come to this world to do, to what his acts, feelings, ideas correspond, or what his real name is, his imperishable Name in the registry of Light … History is an immense liturgical text, where the i’s and the periods are not worth less than the versicles or whole chapters, but the importance of both is undeterminable and is profoundly hidden.” (L’Ame de Napoleon, 1912).

The world, according to Mallarmé, exists for a book; according to Bloy, we are the versicles or words or letters of a magic book, and that incessant book is the only thing in the world: more exactly, it is the world.”

Note 3: Galileo’s works abound with the concept of the universe as a book. The second section of Favaro’s anthology (Galileo Galilei: Pensieri, motti e sentenze; Florence, 1949) is entitled “Il libro della Natura.” I quote the following paragraph: Philosophy is written in that very large book that is continually opened before our eyes (I mean the universe), but which is not understood unless first one studies the language and knows the characters in which it is written. The language of that book is mathematical and the characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures.”

–Jorge Luis Borges, “On the Cult of Books.”

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