Wednesday 8 August 2012

The Sacrificial King

Whilst contemplating the harvest, and the implications to our Clan Mythos, I came across something interesting in a little book  examining the Pyramid Texts of  Sixth Dynasty  (2350- 2250 BC) ancient Egypt and the Coffin Texts of the following period.

It appears that in the Coffin text no 330 Osiris is depicted in his role as an agricultural deity, and in this extract he is seen  identifying  with the grain:

‘Whether I live or die I am Osiris
I enter in and reappear through you,
I decay in you, I grow in you,
I fall in you, I fall upon my side.
The gods are living in me, for I live and grow in the corn that sustains the honoured ones,
I cover the earth,
Whether I live or die I am barley,
I am not destroyed,
I have entered the Order,
I become master of the Order,
I emerge in the Order,
I make my form distinct,
I am the Lord of Chennet (Granary  of Memphis?).
I have entered into the Order,
I have reached it limits.........’

 Osiris had a direct relationship with the grain, and as the people’s relationship with the grain was aslso paramount, a relationship was undoubtedly forged also with the people. In fact Lewis Spence states that Osiris ‘was the culture-deity who introduced corn into Egypt.’  He also states that  ‘A representation of him at the temple of Philæ depicts corn-stalks growing out of his dead body – the body of Osiris (the grain) is torn to pieces, scattered through the land, and the  pieces  buried (or planted) in the earth, and the corn sprouts from it.’ This appears as an apparently   violent but temporary termination of this form   of divine life. The coffin texts support this, pointing to the custom  of preparing a figure of Osiris as a mummy from a linen bag which was then stuffed with corn. When this was watered, the corn would sprout through the meshes of the bag so that the god was seen to grow. Such a custom probably underlines a Coffin Text called “Spell for becoming barley”:

I am the plant of life
Which comes forth from Osiris,
Which grows from the ribs of Osiris,
Which allows the people to live,
Which makes the gods divine,
Which spiritualized the spirits
Which sustains the masters of wealth, and the masters of substance,
Which makes the pak cakes for the spirits,
Which enlivens the living,
Which strengthens the limbs of the living,
I live as corn, the life of the living,
I .... upon the rib of Geb (the earth)
But the love of me is in the sky, on earth and on the water and in the fields.
Now Isis is content for her [son} Horus, her god,
She is jubilant in him, her Horus, her god,
I am life appearing from Osiris.

What is also interesting, returning to text 330 which states ‘I decay in you, I grow in you,’  which appears to point to a direct relationship between deity, people and the grain, and therefore it appears that  partaking  of this offering one would share in the fate of the sacrificial king also. This ritual it appears was an important aspect of the relationship of the people, with the land and also deity. So via  this ritual  access was gained to the magic that ensured the repetition of this important aspect of survival year after year. And the blessing of their gods.

Contemplating the relationship that the people had with their mythology, one can't but help remember the weeping women of Biblical fame, condemned by Ezekiel for their lamentations for another agricultural deity, this time of Babylonian fame, This god also departed with the dying vegetation, and foregrounds, in this verse the importance of really engaging with the emotions brought about by the death of the god of the grain.

Ezekiel 8v14 states; 'Then he brought me to the entrance, to the north gate of the house of the Lord, and I saw women sitting there mourning for Tammuz' (New International Version) Here these women appear to be bringing the god's death, into the realm of experience by their weeping and wailing. 

According to Lewis Spence ‘Tammuz himself was cruelly disposed of by his lord, who “ground his bones in a mill, and scattered them to the wind” plainly a treatment meted out to the corn.’  Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Spence goes onto say that, ‘An Arabic writer relates that Tammuz was cruelly killed several times, but that he always came back to life again,’   Now I am sure you can see where I am heading! of course, Robert Burns tale of John Barleycorn, which is resurrected, and sung by many at this time of year.

I am not alone in seeing the relationship between the  Tammuz myth and John Barleycorn,  according to Spence, ‘Sir James Frazer brings forward the theory that the “Lamentation” of the ancient Babylonians were intended not as mourning for the decay of the vegetation, but to bewail the cruel treatment of the grain at harvest-time, and cites in this the connection the ballad of John Barleycorn, which we are told was based on an early English poem, probably itself of mythological origin.’  So, as with many a mythos, this one is many layered. Not only had this ritual to do with the survival of the people via the grain, and the re-appearance of the grain the following year, rooted in the death of the grain the year before. But also that these observances had a foot in the affairs of the people at the time  to give these observances  extra weight and import.

Returning again to the shores of the Nile, it does appear that Osiris ‘was generalized; he was all forms of growth. And on the other hand he was also a king, and was usually represented with the insignia of royalty. The king was mediator between the community and the sources of divine power.’ So we can see here how the king, and the sacrifice join hands. And then the sacrifice links king and people.

In chapter 175 of the book of the dead, we find a conversation between Osiris and the High God, here called Atum. Osiris finds himself in the underworld, and calls to Atum.
                        ‘Osirus    O Atum! What is this desert place I have come?
It has no water, it has no air,
It is depth unfathomable; it is black as the night.
I wander helplessly herein.
   Atum       You may live in peace of heart. I have provided illumination in place of                                                               water and air, and satisfaction and quiet in the place of bread and beer.                   
Thus spoke  Atum.
                       Osiris,   But shall I behold your face?
                       Atum I will not allow you to suffer sorrow
                       Osiris But every other god ha a place in the Boat of a Million of year.
                       Atum Your place now belongs to your son Horus.

The reason I am highlighting that portion of text is it wonderfully  highlights the need for things to move forward. The king hands over the sovereignty to his son, it is time for change. So as the sacrifice has  been put into place for the survival of the people, it appears that a ‘place’ has to be made for a successor. So the old king has to stand aside and let the new king take his place.
The text goes onto point to a discussion concerning the ordering of the universe.  The old power must give way to the younger, Osiris begs to see his son, but that is denied him.

Now I cannot help but think again of Sir James Frazer, and his sacrificial king, the king who lays down his life for the sake of his people.  According to the Wikipedia article; ‘This King was the incarnation of a dying and reviving god, a solar deity who underwent a mystic marriage to a goddess of the Earth, who died at the harvest, and was reincarnated in the spring. Frazer claims that this legend is central to almost all of the world’s mythologies. This sacrifice so that many can live of course also resonates with the tale of Jesus, still observed by many on a yearly basis.  

 So it is without a doubt that we find that time spent in the underworld by the god or goddess of agriculture, underscoring the dark months of the year appeared as a perennial observance by many of our ancestors.  However in an age when our lives do not depend on the return of the god or goddess from Hades,  Sheol,  or the underworld how do these mythologies fit into a contemporary setting?  It appears that as many of these tales are of a composite nature, fitting into the needs of the people of the time, we can therefore see how these can fit into a contemporary setting.

 So as on a personal level, my life does not depend upon the grain’s survival at this time in the history of mankind in such a direct way. Nor do I look, in the same way, at the grain, although as John Barleycorn shows, how great the many manifestations of the grain can be. Yet my personal health and wellbeing does depend on the way I deal with the light and dark half of the year. And an appreciation of the constant never ending cycle from death to life again is inescapable. Therefore  to make way for new, old ways need to die, and all the time we cling onto something that once was, we cannot re-germinate, and produce a new, inspirational younger in heart and mind being. Knowing that from the old king, springs a new one, from the old grain, germinates the new, and the old sun will be born again after it lets the earth rest and re-coup after its winters sleep.  So even though my connection with these observances may have taken another turning, the same need to observe changes remains. And by these connections, my life today is enriched.

Spence, L (1916, MCMXVI ) Myths & Legends of Babylonia & Assyria, George G. Harrap & Company, London.
Rundle Clark R. T (1959) Myth and Symbol In Ancient Egypt, Thames and Hudson, London