A month ago I wrote a piece discussing Cyclical Time and the way it affected the ancients’ understanding of history. Let’s look at that concept again, but this time focus on how it shaped the everyday lives of the ancients. Along the way we can attempt to answer one of those vexing questions from biblical studies: why exactly does God Hate Shrimp?
Ritual and Myth
Pullquote: To remember is to re-live.
Everybody who was once a Christian or Jew should recognize the importance ritual play in religion. The central rituals — communion, Passover Seder — each invoke the sacred myths of the faith. By reenacting the sacred scenes of the Last Supper or Exodus, believers become participants in these holy myths.
In the ancient world, one of the most popular myths to invoke was the cosmogony, or the creation of the cosmos. For example, ancient Mesopotamian weddings were reenactments of the union of sky god and earth goddess. The binding of the participants became a recapitulation of the act of creation. Being monotheists, the ancient Jewish creation myth was a little more complicated.
Here the universe is described as chaos “without form and void,” a seething mass of undifferentiated matter envisioned as deep and roiling waters. The purpose of the creator god is to separate this formless void into meaningful categories. In other religions, this takes the mythic form of the God defeating chaos in the form of a monster: Ba’al defeating the sea-dragon Tiamat in the Canaanite myths, or Odin defeating the ice giant Ymir in Norse myths.
In these myths, the god generally separated the slain monster into component parts and used them to form the world: a skull for the dome of the sky, blood becomes rivers and streams, etc. The creature of chaos gets partitioned and defined into component categories: order from chaos. The Hebrew myth in Genesis 1:1 seems to be later and a bit more advanced, so we jump straight to the division without the slaughter: God “separated light from darkness,” and gave them the names night and day. God separated the water with the firmament, creating the oceans and land.
Pullquote: Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you.
God then caused the earth to bring forth creatures to populate these various regions: fish for the oceans, birds for the skies and animals for the land “according to their kinds.” These “kinds” became the focus of some of the ancient Jewish priests. They established categories of animals, with each category based around same ideal characteristics. Fish, for example, should live in the water, have fins and have scales. Winged insects should fly, not walk. Hoofed animals should have cloven hooves and chew a cud.
Creatures that fulfilled these definitions were clean, creatures that didn’t became unclean. Cleanliness was therefore a function of purity: things that were purely within one category were clean, while things that straddled the line between categories were an abomination — a confusion of categories, and were thus unclean. So the ancient Jews ate fish, a category that had been established at creation, but shunned shrimp, which lacked fins and scales yet lived in the water. They stayed pure by staying within the categories.
By staying within the lines of these categories and not coming into contact with anything unclean, the ancient might participate in the process of creation. They were imitating or reenacting the process of division and ordering that brought the universe into being. This is what Eliade called Eternal Return, a way by which the ancient participant might return to the mythical age.
In imitating the exemplary acts of a god or of a mythic hero, or simply by recounting their adventures, the man of an archaic society detaches himself from profane time and magically re-enters the Great Time, the sacred time. (Mircea Eliade, “Myths, Dreams and Mysteries”)
I’ve heard this theory from a number of sources, but it does leave a few questions unanswered. Mainly, if God brought forth clean animals, where did all these unclean animals come from? Christians would likely blame the Fall, but this doesn’t seem to be an important Jewish concept. It was only much later in Jewish history that Satan become a major figure, so he’s out. Does this point to some lost elements of polytheism?
Vorjack is a librarian/archivist and a public historian, living with his wife in history-soaked Albany, New York.