Tuesday, February 12, 2013

On Dionysian Rites, Ancient Hebrew Rules and Creative Procrastination


From the "Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii.
In researching ancient Greek death practices for my next middle-grade book (Hades Speaks!), I came across a fascinating inscription. It adorned the body of what is believed to be an initiate of the Cult of Dionysus:

You have become a god instead of a mortal.
A kid, you fell into milk.
Rejoice, rejoice.
Journey on the right-hand road
to holy meadows and groves of Persephone.

It promises god-like immortality? Interesting.  We know very little about the mystery cults of Dionysus, Demeter and Cybele. Well, except that the ancients could seriously keep a secret. Nobody, it turns out, ever spilled the beans about what really went on in their ceremonies, which is why there were always rumors about wild, alcohol fueled orgies.

Kid, baby goat--it's all the same. To the ancients, anyway.
Still, you know what jumped out at me? The phrase, “A kid, you fell into milk” (the “kid” refers to a baby goat). It seemed to promise that the deceased would live in a land of overflowing abundance, like a baby goat falling into endless sustenance.

The phrasing reminded me of the Jewish injunction to “not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” Was there a connection?

The Torah actually makes the injunction about the kid in milk three different times.  Many Jews who stay Kosher point to this injunction as the basis for never mixing meat and dairy.

Briefly reading up on it, I’ve come to learn that interpretation on this issue may not be so cut and dried.  As one scholar puts it “…the wording and context of the Hebrew text seem to show that [a dietary rule] can hardly be the meaning which was originally intended.” (Emphasis mine). It turns out nobody actually knows exactly what was meant in that original command. Over time, it became understood as a dietary restriction.

Which got me wondering.  What if it was a coded reference entreating ancient Jews to beware the cults of Dionysus that promised you would be like a “kid falling into milk” if you underwent their rites?

What if by phrasing it in this way, the ancient Rabbis avoided what might have otherwise been seen as a confrontational assault on neighbors’ beliefs? What if what seems “coded” to us made perfect sense to ancient Jews trading with and living alongside followers of ancient Greek cults?

Most importantly, what if all these questions are just one more way for me to procrastinate on my research on Hades? (That’s the only one I can answer unequivocally.).

I imagine that there’s some biblical scholar somewhere laughing heartily at all my little musings.

But still! 

It’s much more fun to imagine some secret political/religious-mystery about all this rather than facing the fact that my propensity for procrastination has grown to biblical proportions.


 Sources:  Death in the Greek World:  From Homer to the Classical Age by M.S. Mirto

 “A Young Goat in Its Mother’s Milk”? Understanding an Ancient Prohibition," S. Schorch, Vetus Testamentum, 60/2010. 

4 comments:

Amalia T. Dillin said...

I don't think anyone is laughing. I think this is absolutely completely fascinating! And it would make a LOT of sense, if this were the reasoning behind it -- one more way to separate the Jews from the Pagan customs which surrounded them, and keep them on the right path. My mom isn't a biblical scholar, but she's a theologian and I think I'm going to ask her about this and see what she thinks!

AWESOME blog post today, Vicky!

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Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Thanks, Amalia--I'm curious what she will say!

Elizabeth O. Dulemba said...

Well, SOMEBODY is in research heaven right now!!! :) e