From Ritual to Romance
TAMMUZ AND ADONIS
PART 1. TAMMUZ
In the previous chapter we considered certain aspects of the
attitude assumed by our Aryan forefathers towards the great processes of Nature in their
ordered sequence of Birth, Growth, and Decay. We saw that while on one hand they, by
prayer and supplication, threw themselves upon the mercy of the Divinity, who, in their
belief, was responsible for the granting, or withholding, of the water, whether of rain,
or river, the constant supply of which was an essential condition of such ordered
sequence, they, on the other hand, believed that, by their own actions, they could
stimulate and assist the Divine activity. Hence the dramatic representations to which I
have referred, the performance, for instance, of such a drama as the Rishyaçriñga, the
ceremonial 'marriages,' and other exercises of what we now call sympathetic magic. To
quote a well-known passage from Sir J. G. Frazer: "They commonly believed that the
tie between the animal and vegetable world was even closer than it really is-to them the
principle of life and fertility, whether animal or vegetable, was one and indivisible.
Hence actions that induced fertility in the animal world were held to be equally
efficacious in stimulating the reproductive energies of the vegetable1." How
deeply this idea was rooted in the minds of our ancestors we, their descendants, may learn
from its survival to our own day. While much relating to the god and his precise position in the Sumerian -Babylonian
Pantheon still remains obscure, fragmentary cuneiform texts connected with the religious
services of the period have been discovered, and to a considerable extent deciphered, and
we are thus in a position to judge, from the prayers and invocations addressed to the
deity, what were the powers attributed to, and the benefits besought from, him. These
texts are of a uniform character; they are all 'Lamentations,' or 'Wailings,' having for
cause the disappearance of Tammuz from this upper earth, and the disastrous effects
produced upon animal and vegetable life by his absence. The woes of the land and the folk
are set forth in poignant detail, and Tammuz is passionately invoked to have pity upon his
worshippers, and to end their sufferings by a speedy return. This return, we find from
other texts, was effected by the action of a goddess, the mother, sister, or paramour, of
Tammuz, who, descending into the nether world, induced the youthful deity to return with
her to earth. It is perfectly clear from the texts which have been deciphered that Tammuz
is not to be regarded merely as representing the Spirit of Vegetation; his influence is
operative, not only in the vernal processes of Nature, as a Spring god, but in all its
reproductive energies, without distinction or limitation, he may be considered as an
embodiment of the Life principle, and his cult as a Life Cult.
While much relating to the god and his precise position in the Sumerian -Babylonian Pantheon still remains obscure, fragmentary cuneiform texts connected with the religious services of the period have been discovered, and to a considerable extent deciphered, and we are thus in a position to judge, from the prayers and invocations addressed to the deity, what were the powers attributed to, and the benefits besought from, him. These texts are of a uniform character; they are all 'Lamentations,' or 'Wailings,' having for their exciting cause the disappearance of Tammuz from this upper earth, and the disastrous effects produced upon animal and vegetable life by his absence. The woes of the land and the folk are set forth in poignant detail, and Tammuz is passionately invoked to have pity upon his worshippers, and to end their sufferings by a speedy return. This return, we find from other texts, was effected by the action of a goddess, the mother, sister, or paramour, of Tammuz, who, descending into the nether world, induced the youthful deity to return with her to earth. It is perfectly clear from the texts which have been deciphered that Tammuz is not to be regarded merely as representing the Spirit of Vegetation; his influence is operative, not only in the vernal processes of Nature, as a Spring god, but in all its reproductive energies, without distinction or limitation, he may be considered as an embodiment of the Life principle, and his cult as a Life Cult.Mr. Stephen Langdon inclines to believe that the original Tammuz typified the vivifying waters; he writes: "Since, in Babylonia as in Egypt, the fertility of the soil depended upon irrigation, it is but natural to expect that the youthful god who represents the birth and death of nature, would represent the beneficent waters which flooded the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates in the late winter, and which ebbed away, and nearly disappeared, in the canals and rivers in the period of Summer drought. We find therefore that the theologians regarded this youthful divinity as belonging to the cult of Eridu, centre of the worship of Ea, lord of the nether sea5." In a note to this passage Mr Langdon adds: "He appears in the great theological list as Dami-zi, ab-zu, 'Tammuz of the nether sea,' i.e., 'the faithful son of the fresh waters which come from the earth6."
This is very clearly brought out in the beautiful Lament for Tammuz, published by Mr Langdon in Tammuz and Ishtar, and also in Sumerian and Babylonian Psalms7.
"In Eanna, high and low, there is weeping,Can anything be more expressive of the community of life animating the whole of Nature than this poignantly worded lament?
A point which differentiates the worship of Tammuz from the kindred, and better known, cult of Adonis, is the fact that we have no liturgical record of the celebration of the resurrection of the deity; it certainly took place, for the effects are referred to:
"Where grass was not, there grass is eaten,While this distinctly implies the revival of vegetable and animal life, those features (i.e., resurrection and sacred marriage), which made the Adonis ritual one of rejoicing as much as of lamentation, are absent from liturgical remains of the Tammuz cult9.
A detail which has attracted the attention of scholars is the lack of any artistic representation of this ritual, a lack which is the more striking in view of the important position which these 'Wailings for Tammuz' occupy in the extant remains of Babylonian liturgies. On this point Mr Langdon makes an interesting suggestion: "It is probable that the service of wailing for the dying god, the descent of the mother, and the resurrection, were attended by mysterious rituals. The actual mysteries may have been performed in a secret chamber, and consequently the scenes were forbidden in Art. This would account for the surprising dearth of archaeological evidence concerning a cult upon which the very life of mankind was supposed to depend10."
In view of the fact that my suggestion as to the possible later development of these Life Cults as Mysteries has aroused considerable opposition, it is well to bear in mind that such development is held by those best acquainted with the earliest forms of the ritual to have been not merely possible, but to have actually taken place, and that at a very remote date. Mr Langdon quotes a passage referring to "Kings who in their day played the role of Tammuz in the mystery of this cult"; he considers that here we have to do with kings who, by a symbolic act, escaped the final penalty of sacrifice as representative of the Dying God11.
The full importance of the evidence above set forth will become more clearly apparent as we proceed with our investigation; here I would simply draw attention to the fact that we now possess definite proof that, at a period of some 3000 years B.C., the idea of a Being upon whose life and reproductive activities the very existence of Nature and its corresponding energies was held to depend, yet who was himself subject to the vicissitudes of declining powers and death, like an ordinary mortal, had already assumed a fixed, and practically final, form; further, that this form was specially crystallized in ritual observances. In our study of the later manifestations of this cult we shall find that this central idea is always, and unalterably, the same, and is, moreover, frequently accompanied by a remarkable correspondence of detail. The chain of evidence is already strong, and we may justly claim that the links added by further research strengthen, while they lengthen, that chain.
PART II. ADONISWhile it is only of comparatively recent date that information as to the exact character of the worship directed to Tammuz has been available and the material we at present possess is but fragmentary in character, the corresponding cult of the Phoenician-Greek divinity we know as Adonis has for some years been the subject of scholarly research. Not only have the details of the ritual been examined and discussed, and the surviving artistic evidence described and illustrated, but from the anthropological side attention has been forcibly directed to its importance as a factor in the elucidation of certain widespread Folk-beliefs and practices12.
We know now that the worship of Adonis, which enjoyed among the Greeks a popularity extending to our own day, was originally of Phoenician origin, its principal centres being the cities of Byblos, and Aphaka. From Phoenicia it spread to the Greek islands, the earliest evidence of the worship being found in Cyprus, and from thence to the mainland, where it established itself firmly. The records of the cult go back to 700 B.C., but it may quite possibly be of much earlier date. Mr. Langdon suggests that the worship of the divinity we know as Adonis, may, under another name, reach back to an antiquity equal with that we can now ascribe to the cult of Tammuz. In its fully evolved classical form the cult of Adonis offers, as it were, a halfway house, between the fragmentary relics of Aryan and Babylonian antiquity, and the wealth of Medieval and Modern survivals to which the ingenuity and patience of contemporary scholars have directed our attention.
We all know the mythological tale popularly attached to the name of Adonis; that he was a fair youth, beloved of Aphrodite, who, wounded in the thigh by a wild boar, died of his wound. The goddess, in despair at his death, by her prayers won from Zeus the boon that Adonis be allowed to return to earth for a portion of each Year, and henceforward the youthful god divides his time between the goddess of Hades, Persephone, and Aphrodite. But the importance assumed by the story, the elaborate ceremonial with which the death of Adonis was mourned, and his restoration to life fêted, the date and character of the celebrations, all leave no doubt that the personage with whom we are dealing was no mere favourite of a goddess, but one with whose life and well-being the ordinary processes of Nature, whether animal or vegetable, were closely and intimately concerned. In fact the central figure of these rites, by whatever name he may be called, is the somewhat elusive and impersonal entity, who represents in anthropomorphic form the principle of animate Nature, upon whose preservation, and unimpaired energies, the life of man, directly, and indirectly, depends13.
Before proceeding to examine these rites there is one point, to which I have alluded earlier, in another connection, upon which our minds must be quite clear, i.e., the nature of the injury suffered. Writers upon the subject are of one accord in considering the usual account to be but a euphemistic veiling of the truth, while the close relation between the stories of Adonis and Attis, and the practices associated with the cult, place beyond any shadow of a doubt the fact that the true reason for this universal mourning was the cessation, or suspension, by injury or death, of the reproductive energy of the god upon whose virile activity vegetable life directly, and human life indirectly, depended14.
What we have need to seize and to insist upon is the overpowering influence which the sense of Life, the need for Life, the essential Sanctity of the Life-giving faculty, exercised upon primitive religions. Vellay puts this well when he says: "En réalité c'est sur la conception de la vie physique, considérée dans son origine, et dans son action, et dans le double principe qui l'anime, que repose tout le cycle religieux des peuples Orientaux de I'Antiquité15."
Professor von Schroeder says even more precisely and emphatically: "In der Religion der Arischen Urzeit ist Alles auf Lebensbejahung gerichtet, Mann kann den Phallus als ihr Beherrschendes Symbol betrachten16." And in spite of the strong opposition to this cult manifested in Indian literature, beginning with the Rig-Veda, and ripening to fruition in the Upanishads, in spite of the rise of Buddhism, with its opposing dictum of renunciation, the 'Life-Cult' asserted its essential vitality against all opposition, and under modified forms represents the 'popular' religion of India to this day.
Each and all of the ritual dramas, reconstructed in the pages of Mysterium und Mimus bear, more or less distinctly, the stamp of their 'Fertility' origin17, while outside India the pages of Frazer and Mannhardt, and numerous other writers on Folk-lore and Ethnology, record the widespread, and persistent, survival of these rites, and their successful defiance of the spread of civilization.
It is to this special group of belief and practice that the Adonis (and more especially its Phrygian counterpart the Attis) worship belong, and even when transplanted to the more restrained and cultured environment of the Greek mainland, they still retained their primitive character. Farnell, in his Cults of the Greek States, refers to the worship of Adonis as, a ritual that the more austere State religion of Greece probably failed to purify, the saner minds, bred in a religious atmosphere that was, on the whole, genial, and temperate, revolted from the din of cymbals and drums, the meaningless ecstasies of sorrow and joy, that marked the new religion18."
It is, I submit, indispensable for the purposes of our investigation that the essential character and significance of the cults with which we are dealing should not be evaded or ignored, but faced, frankly admitted and held in mind during the progress of our enquiry.
Having now determined the general character of the ritual, what were the specific details?
The date of the feast seems to have varied in different countries; thus in Greece it was celebrated in the Spring, the moment of the birth of Vegetation; according to Saint Jerome, in Palestine the celebration fell in June, when plant life was in its first full luxuriance. In Cyprus, at the autumnal equinox, i.e., the beginning of the year in the Syro-Macedonian calendar, the death of Adonis falling on the 23rd of September, his resurrection on the 1st of October, the beginning of a New Year. This would seem to indicate that here Adonis was considered, as Vellay suggests, less as the god of Vegetation than as the superior and nameless Lord of Life (Adonis= Syriac Adôn Lord), under whose protection the year was placed19. He is the Eniautos Daimon.
In the same way as the dates varied, so, also, did the order of the ritual; generally speaking the elaborate ceremonies of mourning for the dead god, and committing his effigy to the waves, preceded the joyous celebration of his resurrection, but in Alexandria the sequence was otherwise; the feast began with the solemn and joyous celebration of the nuptials of Adonis and Aphrodite, at the conclusion of which a Head, of papyrus, representing the god, was, with every show of mourning, committed to the waves, and borne within seven days by a current (always to be counted upon at that season of the year) to Byblos, where it was received and welcomed with popular rejoicing20. The duration of the feast varied from two days, as at Alexandria, to seven or eight.
Connected with the longer period of the feast were the so-called 'Gardens of Adonis,' baskets, or pans, planted with quick growing seeds, which speedily come to fruition, and as speedily wither. In the modern survivals of the cult three days form the general term for the flowering of these gardens21.
The most noticeable feature of the ritual was the prominence assigned to women; "ce sont les femmes qui le pleurent, et qui l'accompagnent à sa tombe. Elles sanglotent éperdument pendant les nuits, - c'est leur dieu plus que tout autre, et seules elles veulent pleurer sa mort, et chanter sa résurrection22.''
Thus in the tenth century the festival received the Arabic name of EI-Bûgat, or 'The Festival of the Weeping Women23.'
One very curious practice during these celebrations was that of cutting off the hair in honour of the god; women who hesitated to make this sacrifice must offer themselves to strangers, either in the temple, or on the market-place, the gold received as the price of their favours being offered to the goddess. This obligation only lasted for one day24. It was also customary for the priests of Adonis to mutilate themselves in imitation of the god, a distinct proof, if one were needed, of the traditional cause of his death25.
Turning from a consideration of the Adonis ritual, its details, and significance, to an examination of the Grail romances, we find that their mise-en-scène provides a striking series of parallels with the Classical celebrations, parallels, which instead of vanishing, as parallels have occasionally an awkward habit of doing, before closer investigation, rather gain in force the more closely they are studied.
Thus the central figure is either a dead knight on a bier (as in the Gawain versions), or a wounded king on a litter; when wounded the injury corresponds with that suffered by Adonis and Attis26.
Closely connected with the wounding of the king is the destruction which has fallen on the land, which will be removed when the king is healed. The version of Sone de Nansai is here of extreme interest ; the position is stated with so much clearness and precision that the conclusion cannot be evaded -we are face to face with the dreaded calamity which it was the aim of the Adonis ritual to avert, the temporary suspension of all the reproductive energies of Nature27.
While the condition of the king is the cause of general and vociferous lamentation, a special feature, never satisfactorily accounted for, is the presence of a weeping woman, or several weeping women. Thus in the interpolated visit of Gawain to the Grail castle, found in the C group of Perceval MSS., the Grail-bearer weeps piteously, as she does also in Diû Crône28.
In the version of the prose Lancelot Gawain, during the night, sees twelve maidens come to the door of the chamberwhere the Grail is kept, kneel down, and weep bitterly, in fact behave precisely as did the classical mourners for Adonis - "Elles sanglotent éperdument pendant la nuit29,"- behaviour for which the text, as it now stands, provides no shadow of explanation or excuse. The Grail is here the most revered of Christian relics, the dwellers in the castle of Corbenic have all that heart can desire, with the additional prestige of being the guardians of the Grail; if the feature be not a belated survival, which has lost its meaning, it defies any explanation whatsoever.
In Diû Crône alone, where the Grail-bearer and her maidens are the sole living beings in an abode of the Dead, is any explanation of the 'Weeping Women' attempted, but an interpolated passage in the Heralds' College MS. of the Perceval states that when the Quest is achieved, the hero shall learn the cause of the maiden's grief, and also the explanation of the Dead Knight upon the bier:
"del graal q'vient aprésOf course in the Perceval there is neither a Weeping Maiden, nor a Bier, and the passage must therefore be either an unintelligent addition by a scribe familiar with the Gawain versions, or an interpolation from a source which did contain the features in question. So far as the texts at our disposal are concerned, both features belong exclusively to the Gawain, and not to the Perceval Quest. The interpolation is significant as it indicates a surviving sense of the importance of this feature.
In the Perlesvaus we have the curious detail of a maiden who has lost her hair as a result of the hero's failure to ask the question, and the consequent sickness of the Fisher King. The occurrence of this detail may be purely fortuitous, but at the same time it is admissible to point out that the Adonis cults do provide us with a parallel in the enforced loss of hair by the women taking part in these rites, while no explanation of this curious feature has so far as I am aware been suggested by critics of the text30.
We may also note the fact that the Grail castle is always situated in the close vicinity of water, either on or near the sea, or on the banks of an important river. In two cases the final home of the Grail is in a monastery situated upon an island. The presence of water, either sea, or river, is an important feature in the Adonis cult, the effigy of the dead god being, not buried in the earth, but thrown into the water31.
It will thus be seen that, in suggesting a form of Nature worship, analogous to this well-known cult, as the possible ultimate source from which the incidents and mise-en-scène of the Grail stories were derived, we are relying not upon an isolated parallel, but upon a group of parallels, which alike in incident and intention offer, not merely a resemblance to, but also an explanation of the perplexing problems of the Grail literature. We must now consider the question whether incidents so remote in time may fairly and justly be utilized in this manner.
1 Cf. Frazer, Adonis, Attis, Osiris, p.