On the last day of the month, as the moon disappeared, Sumerians gathered to celebrate family ties, everyone bringing food to share. The ancestors also took part in these gatherings. The ceremony was called kishiga meaning “food on the ground” by the Sumerians and later kispu by the Akkadians. “Food on the ground” probably referred to the practice of leaving offerings for the dead on the bare earth. The dead were believed to be slight waifs needing little food or water, but they still required regular feedings. Unfortunately we do not know exactly what food was served, but it was probably simple rather than elaborate fare and no doubt included bread and beer.The timing of the monthly gathering at the disappearance of the moon is curious, because it suggests that menstrual seclusion might not have been practiced among the Sumerians. In most nonindustrial societies women either naturally bled at the disappearing moon, or herbal and other remedies were used to encourage this to happen. The presence of menstruating women at this gathering would mean there were no fears about menstruating women being vulnerable to ghosts, no fears about menstruating women spoiling food, and probably no special diet for menstruating women as well. Either that, or women who were menstruating did not take part in the ceremony and left food preparation to non-menstruating women (or even men). Still another possibility is that the women in menstrual seclusion ate special foods that were prepared for the meal with the ancestors, and they took part in the ceremony not by being present but by having the blessed food brought to them. This last conjecture is plausible because in one myth the gods have a banquet in heaven which the goddess Ereshkigal cannot attend as she is needed at her post in the underworld, and the gods invite her to send a representative to bring banquet food to her. The eating of the food, not presence at the table, counts as participation.The kispu occurred at other times during the year in addition to the monthly holy day, and sometimes the kispu was a state holiday sponsored by the king. He would arrange this meal to honor past kings (including kings from former dynasties), the dead subjects of the kingdom who might not have descendents to make the required offerings, and those soldiers who died in service to the king.The monthly meal for relatives dead and alive was not the same as the funerary meal for the newly deceased. In this ceremony, of which we know very little, bodies were usually buried with food and water. Additional food offerings might be left on the graves, and sometimes there was a clay straw leading from the deceased’s mouth to the surface as a conduit for water.We will wrap up this exploration of the cuisine of Mesopotamia with a look at the food of the gods.SourcesBlack, Jeremy and Anthony Green. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. Teresa Lavender Fagan, trans. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1992.Bottero, Jean. The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.Bottero, Jean. Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia. Teresa Lavender Fagan, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.Grahn, Judy. Blood, Bread, and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.
Freyja as Goddess of the DeadApril 5, 2013
Books on Germanic lore usually stress the loving and abundant side of Frejya’s nature and only mention in passing, if at all, her association with death. Cooper cautions “In the necromantic form she has a greed for wealth and can kill by magic. She is an entrapping goddess – better to stay with her side of lust and love.” There are probably several reasons for the hesitation of many to fully explore Frejya’s character. The first is that the god Odin is clearly a shamanic deity whose connections with the lands of the dead are more extensively delineated in written texts. Another reason has to do with Christian disapproval of goddesses and female power. At times a nurturing goddess would be absorbed into the Virgin Mary or declared a saint, but Frejya’s power over death is clearly incompatible with Christianity. We have to keep in mind that Germanic lore was written down for the first time after the Christian conversion by later generations of Christians, after the old religion had been partially dismantled and suppressed. But the male scribes may have ignored Frejya’s necromantic side simply because, as males, there were long-held taboos that kept certain knowledge away from them. Frejya’s cult was probably a feminine one. Frejya’s death aspect is hugely important. Ancestor worship was the basis for ancient religions across Europe, not just with the Germanic tribes. The accumulated knowledge of the society rested with living elders and with those who had passed on. The world of the dead was the source of most divination, healing, spells, songs, and sacred stories. It was also the place where women went to connect with the spirit of their next child, which is why Frejya as goddess of fertility must also be goddess of the dead.The Germanic practice of voyaging to the lands of the dead is called Seidr (SAYTHE). This is not a straightforward journey even for a god or his priest. The living do not belong in these lands and so must travel in disguise, as one who has died. The gods have accomplished this journey by riding a special animal that is allowed to move freely between the worlds, by taking the form of a mouse, by carrying a sprig of mistletoe which is a plant symbolizing death, by borrowing the falcon-feather cape of Frejya, by drawing blood through a self-inflicted wound, and by carrying the branch of a tree that bleeds red sap such as the alder. Sometimes a priest can travel by obtaining a spell from his mother, who for him was the original portal into the world of the living.None of this applies to the daughters of Freyja. The priestess who has reached menarche has right of passage by virtue of her ability to bleed, and so she can enter and leave Freyja’s death-world unmolested.In the next post I will talk about a few of Freyja’s other associations and her relation to the goddess Frigga.