Nancy Sherer researches...


"Take, eat, this is my body." Dinner conversation at Donner's Pass? Nope. Hannibal Lector humor? Wrong again.

These are the words that generate the Mystery of most sacred ritual of the Christian religion, Transubstantiation. This Mystery defies laws of science, changing the chemical structure of bread and wine into flesh and blood.

No Christian can take Communion, according to 1st Corinthians, unless they have faith that they are eating Christ's flesh and blood. Transubstantiation enables believers to dine on their deity. It would be inaccurate to say that this is just a Christian mystery.

Comparative mythology shows that this same communal meal of god-flesh is found globally and throughout decipherable history. It is no coincidence that the Last Supper was on the occasion of the Hebrew Passover and at the same time of year as the Dionysian Mysteries were celebrated.

Since the end of the 19th century when Sir James Frazier did his extensive research on comparative religion, mythographers have known that this sacrament was not introduced by Jesus Christ at his Last Supper with the Apostles, but rather was a prehistoric ritual and possibly universal to humankind.

However, mythographers, under the thumb of their Christian masters, remained amazed that the Christian ritual transcended other god-son rituals because they could not fit Jesus into the 'fertility cult' formula. I suspect the riddle would be more easily solved if the opposite line of logic had been followed -- that, like the Jesus myth, Attis, Dionysus, Adonis et al, offered spiritual renewal to their followers as well as mark the beginning of the new vegetation cycle.

There is no evidence that the Christian myth doesn't fit exactly into the formula that humans have communed to since the dawn of history. Ancient myths tell us that for thousands of years, man has eaten flesh of his gods. Jane Harrison writing in the late 19th Century explains the evolution of this practice in her book, "Themis."

The communal feast, the renewal of group unity, and the definition of the individual reborn as part of the social group is a symbolic feast. Christian Easter is not merely co-opting of fertility rites, but a symbolic death and reincarnation of Time, Community and the Individual as part of the community. However, we are still left with the question of why this symbolic gesture would take the form of cannibalism.

Some mythographers insist that at one time man/gods were actually sacrificed. Only in more enlightened times were sacred animals substituted for the human victim. Sir James Frazier gives many examples of this, but the best known is when Abraham, prepared to sacrifice Isaac, was instructed by god to sacrifice a sheep instead. Students of ancient Greece will recognize that King Penteus, symbolically standing in for Dionysus, was a human sacrifice.

From Scandinavia to South America, stories of humans being sacrificed to placate god are taken at face value, and might be true. While theories are titillating, the conclusions drawn from them are beside the point.

Mythologists are meticulous in pointing out that god-flesh is not part of the daily fare. It is valuable only as sustenance for the spirit, and is often taboo under normal circumstances. Just as the Hebrews didn't consider unleavened bread of Passover daily fare, neither is the communal wafer and wine expected to replace Easter breakfast. But there is reason to doubt whether the symbolic cannibalism originated as actual cannibalism.

Symbolic thought is the single ability that differentiates us from all other animals. Inability to understand symbolism is a defining trait in some human brain disorders. The symbolism of eating god-flesh may always, as it is now, have been sufficient to cleanse the community and usher in a new cycle.

Christians believe that Jesus was born, lived, was sacrificed, then resurrected with his original body after being dead for three days. (Although I can't make the math work out on that one -- there aren't three days from Friday evening until Sunday morning. But then, we are talking magic here, so why expect it to make sense?)

Like other sacred kings, his death somehow saved his devout followers from supernatural harm. His blood symbolically washed away the guilt of those who broke divine laws. Eating god-flesh, even symbolically seems to be the necessary ritual to spiritual renewal. By consuming god-flesh symbolically, communers believe they become god-like.

You are what you eat.

Food supply is of primary importance to religion, and the sacramental meal is of primary importance to the congregation. As Harrison points out in "Themis" the ancient word for good meant 'good to eat.' This is significant when looking at the first passages of Genesis. God was creating food sources during those six days of creation.

But sacred food is only for god to eat; like the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, the flesh and blood of the christ was only for god's consumption. Worshippers reenact the ritual of Christ's sacrifice by substituting bread and wine, but the purpose of reenactment is achieved.

As Harrison sums it up, "Here the social fact is trembling on the very verge of godhead. She (Themis) is the force that brings and binds men together, she is 'herd instinct,' the collective conscience, the social sanction. She is... social imperative.... It is the emphasis and representation of herd instinct, of the collective conscience, that constitutes religion."

While some Christian sects regularly offer god-flesh to their members, it is the Easter communion at the beginning of the new vegetation cycle that brings all members together. Believers who go to church occasionally, go on Easter Sunday. That the sacred meal consists, if only symbolically, of the god-food, human flesh and blood is key to the drama.

Magic, awe, and breaking the taboo of eating human flesh take the communers into the realm of the supernatural. By eating the food of gods, they can step outside of reality, beyond logic and reason, and believe that like the Year, they will overcome death. This is the stuff of which religion is made.

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For further reading:
"Themis" by Jane Harrison

To buy a copy click on book title

"Symbolic Species" by Terrence W. Deacon

"The Golden Bough" by Sir James Frazier

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Nancy Sherer

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