Cuisine of Mesopotamia

January 31, 2014

Photo Luigi Chiesa

Surprisingly little is discussed about the enjoyment of food in ancient Mesopotamia, even though a rather extensive culinary record is extant. Once the Akkadians and Sumerians of this region began practicing irrigation, the rich soils and hot climate yielded a rich abundance of food that persisted for three millennia. At one time it was believed that agriculture began in this region. We now know this is not true, but the diversity and surfeit of human produced food, as well as the complexity of food preparation, is truly remarkable.

Over the next few weeks I will be writing about food, feasting, and drink in Mesopotamia. Most of the information presented here comes from Jean Bottero’s 2004 book The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia. As Bottero notes, all societies develop “routines and rituals, perhaps even myths, to regulate the use of food, indeed, to confer a value upon food that goes beyond the mere consumption of it…”

Here is the menu for a feast ordered by Assyrian King Assurnasirpa II (northern Mesopotamia circa 850 B.C.E.) to celebrate the conclusion of a large construction project. This feast was prepared for 69,570 people and included the king’s staff, the population of the city, guests invited from outside the city, plus all the workers who had participated in the project–and of course, all the gods.

1,000 oxen
1,000 calves and young lambs
14,000 sheep and 200 oxen “from the flocks belonging to Ishtar, my mistress”
1,000 fattened sheep
1,000 lambs
500 deer
500 gazelles
1,000 large birds
1,000 geese and other fowl
2,000 suki and qaribe birds (don’t know what those are)
10,000 pigeons
10,000 doves
10,000 small birds
10,000 fish
10,000 locusts
10,000 eggs
10,000 measures of beer
10,000 skins of wine

Photo Bohringer Friedrich.
Photo Bohringer Friedrich.

quantities of barley, wheat, sesame, carob, garlic, onions, lentils, turnips, milk, pomegranates, grapes, pistachios, almonds, figs, dates, roses, cumin, aniseed, watercress, and various other foods and spices which cannot be translated.

Sounds like quite a party! Next week I will discuss how all of this food might have been prepared.

Snake Dreaming

January 17, 2014

Greek healing goddess Hygeia with her snake. Photo by Sailko.
Greek healing goddess Hygeia with her snake. Photo by Sailko.

Wednesday’s teleseminar on Snake Dreaming with Susun Weed was a lot of fun. We talked about how snakes have historically been used in trance work and how you can bring snake energy into your healing and trance work today.

One topic that came up was snake phobias. There was speculation on the role of the Genesis story of Eve and the snake in the widespread prevalence of snake phobias.

We could put out a lot of theories about the origin of snake phobias, and the Christian vilification of snakes may indeed be a significant source, but when treating snake phobia – or practically any phobia – the origin is unimportant. Snake phobia is treated with a technique called Systematic Desensitization or Graduated Exposure. Basically this means starting out with a snake interaction that causes only minimal discomfort and building up to more significant interactions slowly over time. This could mean starting by looking at pictures of snakes, then videos of snakes, then going to a place where you can observe snakes behind glass (perhaps with a friend) until eventually you can tolerate handling nonpoisonous snakes or observing them in the wild. (If you can’t tolerate seeing a picture of a snake, you’ll have to start at an even more basic level, perhaps with the help of a therapist.) Listening to the audio of snakes slithering from my website Invoking Animal Magic may be helpful in the process of deflating a snake phobia, but be sure that you can tolerate pictures first. If you move quickly to a level of interaction that produces a great amount of anxiety, this ends up reinforcing the phobia.

The link to a replay of the teleseminar is here.

Agora (Review)

January 10, 2014

Agora is the Greek word for center, and this 2009 movie is about the many worlds that revolved around the fourth century Alexandrian philosopher Hypatia. There was Alexandria, Egypt as a center – perhaps the center – of learning and culture in the Roman Empire at that time. There was Alexandria as the center of religious and philosophical diversity. There was the maelstrom of repression and destruction by the Christian Empire directed toward Pagans which began before the birth of Hypatia and continued after her death. There was Hypatia as the celebrated center of philosophy in Alexandria, sought for her wisdom by scholars and government officials. And there was the quest for understanding how the universe functions which drove Hypatia.

So I really liked the title of this movie, but I have to say that overall I was not impressed. I did like how Hypatia was presented as obsessed with learning rather than with love, although the female porn theme of Hypatia’s devoted slave seemed a bit gratuitous to me. I also liked that the movie showed Christians of the Roman era as the intolerant fearful thugs they were, rather than the martyrs they liked to portray themselves as. The movie also underscores the repression and violence shown by Christians to the Jews. But the film was greatly marred for me by the long and frequent scenes of unremitting violence. You can’t tell this story without some violence, of course, but predictably Hollywood made gore the main course and filled in with bits of a story line here and there. I fast forwarded whenever they took out their swords and by doing so I think I watched the movie in well under half the advertised time. For some reason they toned down Hypatia’s death, which was supposed to be truly grisly. I don’t know whether they thought the audience couldn’t countenance such a beautiful actress being disfigured or if Hypatia’s actual death was too horrible for the film rating.

One theme in the movie got me thinking. Hypatia is portrayed as an atheist, which is implausible. She belonged to a Pagan philosophical school that acknowledged the gods as the driving force behind the perfection of the universe. But because she was an INTELLECTUAL and a LOGICAL person interested in SCIENCE and dedicated to the quest for KNOWLEDGE, the screenwriter evidently assumed she could not have entertained any religious notions. The Christians are accurately portrayed in the movie as opposing any thought conflicting with their ideology, but this does not necessarily mean that science is antithetical to all religion.

At one time science and religion did not exist in separate spheres. Before Christianity, Paganism was driven by the observation of nature. Or maybe that should be put in the opposite way: religion fueled a need to understand nature on a deeper level. The Babylonians developed their sophisticated mathematics to predict the wanderings of the planets, which in turn directed their magic. We can say that many of their theories turned out to be “wrong,” but that can be said for any understanding of science at any time. Theories get replaced over time with theories that are more correct, which get replaced down the line with theories that are still more correct.

There does not seem to be much interest among Pagans today in bringing a scientific understanding to our belief systems. I probably come as close as anybody with my incorporation of biological facts about animals into the folklore of my book Invoking Animal Magic, which is ironic since I don’t even have a background in the hard sciences.

I would like to see Paganism incorporate a more twenty-first century understanding of the world into our religion. Yes, today’s scientists can be incredibly narrow minded in how they see the world, but we don’t have to adopt their prejudices; we just need to steal their ideas.

A Nation of Women, Part VII

January 3, 2014

Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V Part VI

This is the final installment discussing Gunlog Fur’s A Nation of Women: Gender and Colonial Encounters Among the Delaware Indians. This installment again looks at how the Delaware viewed gender.

Fur insists that the Delaware men engaging in diplomacy as “women” were not berdache or two-spirit, the third-gender male in some Native American cultures such as Zuni, who adopts many feminine roles. Delaware men were adopting a feminine gender role in a limited context, not as a stable presentation across situations, and still thought of themselves as men. Moreover they referred to themselves when performing the feminine role as women and not as third-gender.

Fur does contend, however, that there was a beardache role in Delaware traditional culture. She bases this on a theory by anthropologist Will Roscoe which says that

…[M]inimum conditions for the emergence of a third (or fourth) gender role consisted of a gendered division of labor and productive responsibilities that offered women a possibility to specialize in the production and exchange of goods and food, a system of belief that did not view gender as determined by physical sex, and specific historical occurrences that opened the opportunity for the construction of multiple gender roles. Such conditions existed for both Delawares and Iroquois….

For me this is not sufficient. I would need to see some direct evidence rather than conformity to an anthropological theory to accept the idea that the berdache role was originally part of Delaware culture. I have also heard it speculated that a condition necessary for a third gender to emerge is subordination of women within that culture, which is clearly not the case with the Delaware. I have to wonder how a third gender could even have been structured in traditional Delaware culture. Not based on labor, because while labor was unquestionably gendered, these boundaries were crossed frequently. Not based on homosexual activity, because that appeared to be a not-uncommon phenomenon that did not call gender into question. Not based on dress, because men and women dressed essentially the same except in certain ceremonial capacities. Perhaps in ceremony there could have been a place for a third gender. However, Fur does tell us that during the late eighteenth century revival of traditional ceremony sex ratios were strictly adhered to, at least in the instance she describes. In this ceremony the rules on elder roles were bent to allow younger people to participate in a ceremonial capacity in order to keep the equal sex ratio intact. Although gender roles in many, perhaps even most, cases seem to have been flexible, there were instances when gender was tied to sex. This is germane to a point I will be making further on.

One thing is clear: if a third gender did exist it would have been negotiated based on needs of the community, not out of the spirit of “I gotta be me” that characterizes modern gay and transgender cultures. Elements of gender in indigenous societies cannot justifiably be pulled outside their context and applied to modern Eurocentric cultures, at least not with any theoretical integrity. Nonetheless Native beliefs about gender, as they are understood today, will doubtless continue to inform the transgender movement.

Native conceptions and experiences around gender can legitimately be utilized, however, to undermine gender theories that are presented in broad, absolute, and uncategorical terms. For example, one popular transgender theory says that to have gender fluidity, gender must be completely divorced from physical sex, with new concepts and categories introduced to reference essential biological functions such as childbirth. A careful reading of A Nation of Women does not give the impression that the Delaware considered sex irrelevant, despite the undeniable fluidity of sex roles. A feminist theory of gender abolition says that gender is always and only a hierarchy to enforce the subjugation of women. In the words of Elizabeth Hungerford, gender is “a complex social structure whose sole purpose is to distribute power and resources between the sexes. It does this unequally: see ubiquitous evidence of women’s oppression.” In Eurocentric culture – actually in most cultures – this is certainly the case. However in Delaware culture women did not occupy a subordinate place, despite the existence of a system of gender. As Fur sums it up “There was nothing subservient about Delaware women. Male and female roles were different but they did not constitute categories of a set asymmetry.”

The power of women and the flexibility of gender roles may provide a clue as to why Delaware people and culture managed to survive into the twenty-first century. It was the luck and misfortune of the Delaware to be occupying what was then the prime real estate in North America when European ships began arriving in large numbers. Yet despite early contact with settlers, numerous dislocations, and geographic fragmentation of communities, not to mention decimation of numbers due to disease and war, the Delaware survived. Fur says, “Without women’s participation in prophecy, cultural preservation, and adaptation, the Delawares could not have emerged as a nation or maintained an identity into this century.”