Part I: The Intrusion of Death
Towards The Identity
Of The Forbidden Fruit:
(1) According To Tradition
Hast thou eaten of the
whereof I commanded thee that
thou shouldest not eat?
In the sweat of thy face
shalt thou eat bread,
till thou return unto the ground;
for out of it wast thou taken:
for dust thou art,
and unto dust shalt thou return.
I do not really
think that we shall ever be allowed to identify the poison with
any certainty, for that would be to invite a search for an antidote.
With our present sophisticated techniques of investigation, we
might succeed! And my feeling is that the Lord would never allow
such a thing to happen, because the consequences for man would
be much the same as having allowed access to the Tree of Life
which in the circumstances would have been worse than death.
Our minds being what they are,
however, it is difficult not to find ourselves wondering whether
a single poison really could be responsible for the sorry plight
in which man now finds himself both physically and spiritually,
and whether such a poison could be derived from the mere eating
of some particular fruit that
was: (1) good for food,
(2) pleasant in appearance, (3) in some way desirable to make
one wise (possibly enhancing perception), as Genesis 3:6 tells
I think it is not altogether impossible
that the royal physician to Henry II of France, Dr. Jean Fernel,
was correct in his belief that if the plants and herbs of the
world were examined with sufficient thoroughness, we would find
a remedy "for each and every human illness that exists."
(134) Whether he
really meant that some single remedy would ultimately be found
for all sicknesses alike is not clear, but I have the impression
that this was in the back of his mind. A single cure implies
a single cause at the first.
Nearly a century ago, J. Cynddylan
Jones suggested that "in the leaves of the Tree of Life
was medicine for all forms of sickness." * He said, "Today,
healing virtues are distributed in hundreds of plants, specific
plants being remedies for specific diseases; but in the Tree
of Life were probably concentrated the medicinal virtues of all
the vegetable creation, and special virtues of its own in addition,
and thus it was a universal panacea against all the evils of
Even now we have
some remedies (aspirin, for example) that have an extraordinarily
wide application against all kinds of ills, which therefore certainly
demonstrate that a single substance can be effective against
a very broad range of common human ailments. Thus, it is not
so entirely unreasonable to assume that at the very root of all
human sickness there might lie some single basic defect in the
body responsible for all other ills. If ever some plant extract
should be found which could supply the single antidote, we should
probably find, in effect, that we had discovered the identity
of the Tree of Life.
It will be well to set forth the
characteristics that the poison in this fruit must have had in
order to cause the effects which Genesis seems to indicate it
did. These are as follows:
(a) It must be a protoplasmic
poison, a poison that ultimately causes the death of cells, and
therefore the death of the body.
(b) It must have a more immediate short range
effect, such that a perceptive individual would very quickly
observe its effects in others or in himself. It might be expected
that the effect would in some way heighten awareness of one's
(c) It must be obtainable from a fruit that
is otherwise good for food and pleasant to look at.
(d) It must produce an effect that is inheritable.
If I am interpreting the
134. Sherrington, Sir Charles, Man On His
Nature Cambridge University Press, 1963, p.33, 34.
2 of 14
* Jones, J. C., PrimevaI Revelation: Studies in Genesis 1-VIII,
London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1897, p.210.
circumstances in Genesis
correctly, the inheritable effect should be male sex-linked.
(e) It must have a detrimental effect not merely
on the body but also on behaviour, contributing as a consequence
to man's moral, not simply to his physical, deterioration.
(f) It must be potent in very small quantities,
and ought to be capable of being neutralized in its physical
effects but not in its moral effects, by some plant extract such
as might have been derived from the Tree of Life.
There are two
other considerations which it ought to satisfy. We should expect
to find shadowy recollections of its characteristics reflected
in the traditions of antiquity. And we should expect to find
intimations of its identity in other parts of Scripture.
Having set forth these specifications,
it may occur at once to a thoughtful reader that alcohol satisfies
the requirements. It is very tempting to make this equation.
Tradition, what we know of the etiology of alcoholism, and the
intimations in Scripture, all combine to reinforce this conclusion.
Yet, personally, I doubt whether it was actually alcohol, at
least not the common ethyl alcohol. Perhaps it was one of the
higher alcohols which are far more potent. But I do believe that
alcohol provides the most complete paradigm of the poison
of which we currently have knowledge, and I believe that grapes
as the source of the poison provide the best paradigm of the
It is important to underscore the
fact that a paradigm is not to be taken as the thing itself but
only as a useful parallel. I want to emphasize this, because
I have some doubts whether grapes or their by-product (ethyl
alcohol) as we now know them, are precisely to be equated with
the forbidden fruit or with the poison it was capable of generating.
My reasons for saying this are chiefly that I have not yet been
able to satisfy myself completely about certain statements in
Scripture which it seems to me could hardly have been made (approving
the use of wine and of grapes) if the latter really were the
original forbidden fruit which has caused all our ills.
The most serious of errors often
arise by assuming as identical, things which merely correspond
in obvious ways. The more nearly things are similar without being
identical, the greater may be the danger of equating them. The
more nearly a lie approaches the truth, the more dangerous it
can be. So I should like to repeat that I do not yet believe
that grapes, as we now have them, were the forbidden fruit or
that alcohol was really the poison which introduced death to
the human race ‹ though I believe they may come remarkably
close to it.
Thus we can usefully discuss the
reality of that crucial event with some such fruit or by-product
as a model, because it is close enough in
many remarkable ways
to assist our imagination, and it assuredly demonstrates that
such a situation could indeed have existed with precisely the
consequences to Adam and to Eve and to their descendants which
the Genesis record clearly indicates.
Having due regard, then, to the
above cautionary observations, consider first the following gleanings
from the literature of antiquity both pagan and Jewish; and then
(in Chapter 11) some observations regarding what is known about
alcohol and the etiology of alcoholism as a disease. Following
this (in Chapter 12), we will examine certain intimations in
Scripture which are interestingly illuminated if we assume that
the fatal poison shared many of the characteristics of alcohol
in its effect on both the body and the spirit of man.
Many of the
nations of antiquity have traditions of the Fall of man and relate
the event in one way or another to the eating of a food or the
drinking of a fruit extract. These traditions sometimes confuse
the circumstances by assuming that what the tempter said was
actually true; that the Tree of Knowledge was a tree whose fruit
brought not only benefit to the eater in the form of a superior
kind of wisdom (which in a sense it did) but also a higher
kind of life (immortality like that of the gods). (135) Sometimes they state
categorically that the offending substance was the juice of a
fruit or an extract like the sap from a tree, and that it poisoned
the body. Some of them clearly indicate that the result was inebriation,
but they attach to this a kind of benefit in that the individual
then transcends the ordinary limitations of human experience
and enters into special communion with the gods. In some cases
the plant or tree is identified by name, though the precise nomenclature
of the original is not always clear in modern terminology.
The earliest of such non-biblical
traditions are to be found among the Cuneiform tablets of Sumeria
and Babylonia. Here are some extracts from such early records
as reported in the literature at the time when they were first
found. It is necessary to say this because later collections
of Cuneiform inscriptions do not always translate these same
tablets in precisely the same way, and in some cases the names
of the deities have been spelled differently. In 1895 Dr. T.
G. Pinches, one of the earliest notable Cuneiform scholars in
England, reported the finding of a tablet which begins thus:
In Eridu grew a dark vine
In a glorious place it was brought forth.
134. See in Notes at the end of this chapter
* Pinches, T. G. "On certain Inscriptions and Records Referring
to Babylonia and Elam," Transactions of the Victoria
Institute, London, vol.29, 1895, p.44.
is not very much to go on, but the tablet as a whole is clearly
a reference to the beginnings of human history. The "glorious
place" seems obviously to refer to the Garden of Eden. The
problem here, however, is to decide whether this dark tree ‹
perhaps the word shady might be equally appropriate ‹
was the Tree of Knowledge which was forbidden before the
Fall or the Tree of Life which was forbidden after the
Fall. The tablet does not state whether the tree was forbidden
‹ only that it was there; and therefore we really have no
clue as to which of the two trees the writer had in mind: only
that it was a vine.
The following year, W. St. Chad
Boscawen published a translation of a fragment of a tablet which
reads as follows: *
(1) The great gods, all of them determiners of Fate,
(2) Entered, and death-like the god Sar filled.
(3) In sin one with the other in compact joins.
(4) The command was established in the Garden of the god.
(5) The asnan fruit they ate, they broke in two:
(6) Its stalk they destroyed;
(7) The sweet juice which injures the body.
(8) Great is their sin. Themselves they exalted
(9) To Merodach, their redeemer, he appointed their fate.
by Boscawen, himself no mean Cuneiform scholar, the picture seems
clearly to reflect the circumstances of the Fall and to connect
it with an act of disobedience which was viewed as a great sin.
I had considerable difficulty in tracking down the source of
this excerpt from the Cuneiform literature, chiefly because ‹
when I did finally find it ‹ modern renderings are substantially
different. This is actually a translation of the last nine lines
of Tablet III of an Akkadian creation tablet. The same passage
(1.130-139) as translated by E. A. Speiser reads as follows:**
(1) All the great gods who decree the fates
(2) They entered before Anshar, filling (Ubshukirma)
(3) They kissed one another in the Assembly
(4) They held converse as they (sat down) to the banquet
(5) They ate festive bread, poured (the wine)
* Boscawen, W. St. Chad, The Bible and
the Monuments, London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1896, p.89.
** Speiser, E. A., "Akkadian Myths and Epics" in Ancient
Near Eastern Texts, edited by James B. Pritchard, Princeton,
1969, p.65, 66.
(6) They wetted their drinking-tubes
with sweet intoxicant.
(7) As they drank the strong drink, (their) bodies swelled
(8) They became very languid as their spirits rose
(9) For Marduk, their avenger, they fixed the decrees.
It will be seen
that there are marked differences between the two renderings.
We have numbered the lines in order to assist the reader to see
to what extent they match.
It seems important to examine this circumstance
with care for several reasons. First of all, it should be understood
that there are problems even yet in the reading of the Cuneiform
text. The problems arise from the fact that each Cuneiform sign
does not represent a letter of an alphabet which always has the
same sound value, but may have as many as twenty different sound
values. For example, the sign may
be read with the following sound values: UM, UMU, UD, TAM,
PAR, HISH, and some other alternatives. There are certain
guides to indicate to the reader which particular sound value
the sign is carrying in any given circumstance. But these indications
are not always clearly understood even by modern Cuneiform scholars,
and different scholars sometimes adopt different readings for
the same sign. Let me illustrate in completely modern terms what
can be involved in translating a tablet. Let us suppose some
particular sign could be read either as CR1 or HOC,
and this sign in a particular sentence could be followed
by a second sign which is known to have two alternative values
which are KEY and KET. I suspect that if it were
known that the tablet was recording something to do with a game,
an English Cuneiform scholar would almost certainly read it as
CRICKET; whereas a Canadian Cuneiform scholar would almost
certainly read it as HOCKEY.
Any such analogy can be misleading,
but this is the nature of the problem, and when we compare the
renderings of earlier scholars with those of later scholars we
sometimes have an analogous bias, only the bias is not between
English and Canadian sporting interests but between a not unnatural
tendency among earlier scholars to look for reflections of the
biblical story in contrast to the almost total indifference ‹
indeed, even hostility ‹ towards such a goal among modern
scholars. Looking at the two renderings by Boscawen and Speiser,
one has to admit that Speiser's knowledge of Cuneiform was far
greater than that of his predecessors because he was standing
on their shoulders. On the other hand, it must be admitted that
Boscawen's rendering makes much better sense on the whole.
At any rate, even Speiser's translation,
if we use Boscawen's as a background, does suggest that a beverage
described as a sweet intoxicant with harmful effects both on
body and spirit was involved. And
admittedly, it is not
easy to discern the figures of Adam and Eve since the chief characters
in this little play are said to have been "all the great
In a most useful little handbook
on Archaeology and the Bible, S. L. Caiger gives a translation
of a small fragment of a Cuneiform tablet, which also seems to
have some bearing on the Fall, though it, too, is far from clear
as to its meaning: *
My King the cassia plant approached;
He plucked, he ate,
Then Ninharsag in the name of Enki
Uttered a curse:
"The face of life, until he dies, shall he not see."
This same extract
is rendered slightly differently by S. N. Kramer, but the import
of the words is essentially the same.†
The identity of the fruit as coming from a cassia plant does
not help us very much. But we do note that the effect was to
exclude the eater from the presence of his god until he has paid
the penalty of death.
Figure 4. The Seal of Adam and Eve and the Serpent
We have to conclude, I think, that
the only light at present available to us from the Cuneiform
literature is very indistinct, a rather odd circumstance in view
of the tremendous number of tablets that have been translated.
It is to the pictorial representations of the Fall that we have
to turn in order to find any unequivocal reflection of the Genesis
Babylonian seal, one of many seals that have been discovered
by archaeologists, reproduced in Fig. 4 as a line drawing taken
* Caiger, S. L., Bible and Spade,
Oxford, 1936, p.19.
† Kramer, S. N., From
the Tablets of Sumer, Indian Hills, Colorado, Falcon's Wing
Press, 1956, p.174.
from George Smith's The
Chaldean Account of Genesis (published in 1880), * clearly
shows the temptation scene, with the tree in the centre, an erect
serpent standing presumably behind Eve. The forbidden tree looks
suspiciously like a trained vine with two clusters of grapes.
Adam and Eve are each reaching out a hand towards the fruit.
The shape of the tree itself which tempts one to assume it might
be a vine, may not of course signify anything more than the artist's
sense of symmetry.
In 1932 E. A. Speiser
of the University Museum of Pennsylvania, discovered a seal near
the bottom of the Tepe Gawra Mound twelve miles from Nineveh.
He dated this seal at about 3500 B.C. It is the picture of a
naked man and a naked woman walking as if utterly downcast and
brokenhearted, followed by a serpent. The seal is about one inch
in diameter, engraved on stone, and is now in the University
Museum in Philadelphia. Speiser considers it to be "strongly
suggestive of the Adam and Eve story." It is shown below
in Fig. 5.†
* Smith, George, The Chaldean Account of
Genesis, new edition, revised and corrected by A. H. Sayce,
London, Sampson, Manton, Searle & Rivington, 1880, p.88.
† Speiser, E. A., quoted by H. H. Halley, Pocket
Bible Handbook, Chicago, published privately, 19th edition,
in the matter of pictorial representations from the earliest
periods we therefore admittedly have little enough to go on.
From later millennia (B.C.) we do seem to have more specific
data. Many years ago, Francois Lenormant reported the finding
of a curiously painted vase of Phoenician manufacture, probably
of the sixth or seventh century B.C. * This had been discovered
in an ancient sepulchre in Cyprus. It exhibits a leafy tree "from
the branches of which hang two large clusters of fruit"
while a great serpent advances with an undulating motion towards
Journal of Archaeology some years ago carried an article
by Nelson Glueck reporting on the general findings in Palestine
and elsewhere during the years of excavation immediately prior
to 1933. He mentions that:†
In one of the two tombs discovered
southwest of the Jewish colony of Hadra, a lead coffin was found.
On one side it is decorated with an arch which rests upon two
twisted columns. Under the arch a naked body holds a serpent
in his right hand and a bunch of grapes in his left.
A coffin seems
a particularly appropriate setting for a picture of a man in
his youth, naked, and holding in either hand the elements out
of which physical death may have found its way into human experience.
The tradition of the forbidden fruit as being the product of
a vine is widespread, though it is not always a grapevine that
is in view. The Jewish people themselves, however, seem to have
favoured the grape as the offending fruit, and this concept is
clearly reflected in the Book of Enoch. The Book of
Enoch has always had a special interest for the Christian
because it is the one book quoted from in the New Testament which
is non-canonical and is not bound with the Bible even when the
Apocrypha is included. The allusions to it are not infrequent
and it is generally held that the title, "the Son of Man,"
was taken from it. In Chapter 32 the writer of the book tells
how he went in search of the Garden of Eden and he says (verses
3 and 4):
And I came to the garden of
righteousness, and I saw the mingled diversity of those trees;
many and large trees are planted there, of goodly fragrance,
large, very beautiful and glorious, also the tree of wisdom;
eating of it one learns great wisdom.
It is like the carob-tree and its
fruit is like the clusters of the vine, very good.
* Lenormant, F., in Contemporary Review,
Sept., 1879, p.155.
† Glueck, Nelson,
"Palestinian and Syrian Archaeology," American Journal
of Archaeology, Jan-Mar., 1933, p.164.
The writer of the book then goes on to tell how he
questioned his angelic guide about this particular tree (verses
5 and 6):
And I said, "This tree
is beautiful. How beautiful and pleasant to look at!"
Then the holy angel Raphael who
was with me, answered and said unto me, "This is the tree
of wisdom from which thy old father and thy aged mother who were
before thee, ate, and they learned wisdom, and their eyes were
opened, and they learned that they were naked, and they were
driven out of the garden."
Paul Isaac Hershon
in his Rabbinical Commentary on Genesis, states that against
Genesis 3:6 and the words "the Tree was good for food,"
there is this rabbinical comment: *
Some of the sages say that it
was a fig tree and that was why they plucked the leaves from
the fig tree to cover their shame; for as soon as they had eaten
of the tree of knowledge their eyes were opened, and they were
ashamed to go about naked.
But some sages say that the tree
was a vine. Eve pressed the grapes and gave Adam red wine to
drink, as red as blood.
The same author,
in another work, in commenting on Genesis 1:27 quoted from the
Talmudic Tractate Sanhedrin (folio 70, col. 1) as follows:†
The Holy One, blessed be He!
said to Noah, Thou shouldest have taken warning from Adam ("the
man of the earth") and not have indulged in the use of wine
as he did. Hence Noah is called (Gen. 9:20) "the man of
the earth." This accords with the Rabbi who maintains that
the forbidden tree was a vine.
Louis Ginsberg in his Legends of the Jews, Origen in commenting
on Genesis 9:20 maintained that Noah's vine was an off-shoot
of the Tree of Knowledge, and Ginsberg observes that the same
view is reflected in the Jerusalem Targum.‡
So far, then, we see various traditional
identifications of the tree. The Cuneiform
* Hershon, Paul Isaac, Commentary
on Genesis, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1885, p.27
† Hershon, Paul
Isaac, Genesis with a Talmudical Commentary, London, Bagster
and Sons, 1881, p.67.
‡ Ginsberg, Louis, The Legends of the Jews, Philadelphia,
Jewish Publication Association of America, 1955, vol.V,
From Creation to Exodus, p.190, note 59. Dr. Alfred Edersheim,
himself a Hebrew Christian and author of that great classic,
The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah [London, Longmans,
Green & Co., 1900], in a lesser known work of his, notes
that a number of rabbis held this view (See his The World
Before the Flood, London, Religious Tract Society, no date,
records speak of it
as a Cassia plant or an Asnan fruit. The Book of Enoch speaks
of it as a Carob tree. The Talmud favours the grape vine. There
is, of course, the famous apple which some scholars believe arose
from a mistranslation. It happens that in Latin the word for
an evil thing and the word for apple are the same,
malum. The tree of good and of evil in any Latin
rendering may possibly have been rendered by someone as a good
There is another tradition to which
Francois Lenormant refers: *
The most ancient name of Babylon
in the idiom of the first settlers in that region was "the
Place of the Tree of Life," and even on the coffins of enameled
clay of a date later than Alexander the Great, found at Warka
(the ancient Erech of the Bible and the Uruk of the inscriptions)
this Tree appears as the emblem of immortality. Strange to say,
one picture of it on an ancient Assyrian relic has been found
drawn with sufficient accuracy to enable us to recognize it as
the plant known as the Soma Tree by the Aryans of India, and
the Homa of the ancient Persians, the crushed branches of which
yield a draught offered as a libation to the gods as the water
It might be
argued that we have here better evidence to support a theory
that it was the Tree of Life which was a vine rather than the
Tree of Knowledge. But I think that Satan had something to do
with this confusion in tradition, even as he had much to do with
the confusion in Eve's mind. If we are dealing with a fruit capable
of fermentation, it is not surprising that the apparently
heightened prophetic insights which have often been claimed
by priests under the influence of alcohol might soon transform
something that was actually a poison into an ambrosia of the
The soma or horna tree is generally considered
to be the Asclepias acida, a tree associated in the Vedic
hymns with the god Soma, just as the Asnan fruit may have
been associated with the goddess Ashnan. It was important
in Vedic ceremony, in the words of one encyclopedia, "because
of its alcoholic character . ." In one hymn, those who have
drunk the juice of the plant are said to have exclaimed together,
"We have drunk the soma: we have become immortal: we have
entered the light: we have known the gods!" Such a sequence
reminds us of the assurances given by Satan when he tempted Eve
to take the forbidden fruit.
Dr. Gordon R. Wasson, in an interesting
paper on psycho-active drugs, speaks of the Indo-Aryans and the
Soma as follows: (136)
* Lenormant, Francois, The Beginnings of
History, New York, Scribners, 1891, p. 85, 86.
136. Wasson, Gordon R., "Fly Agaric (Amenita muscaria)
and Man," in Ethnopharmacological Search for Psycho-Active
Drugs, edited by Daniel H. Efron, published by U.S. Department
of Health, Education and Welfare, Public Health Services Publication,
no.1465, 1967, p.413.
Indo-European people who call themselves Aryans conquered the
Valley of the Indus in the middle of the second millennium B.C.
Their priests deified a plant which they called Soma, that has
never been identified: scholars have almost despaired of finding
it. The hymns that these priests composed have come down to us
as the Rig Veda, and many of them concern themselves with Soma.
Soma, was an hallucinogen. The juice was extracted from it in
the course of the liturgy and forthwith drunk by the priests
who regarded it as a divine inebriant. It could not have been
alcoholic for various reasons: for one thing, fermentation is
a slow process which the Vedic priests could not hurry.
As we shall see, Wasson's last
observation is not entirely justified, for there do exist fruit
extracts which will ferment within a few hours in warm weather.
One wonders whether such fruit juices were not originally drunk
simply because they were sweet and pleasant to the taste, and
that their intoxicating character after fermentation was an accidental
discovery. The undesirable effects of intoxication may have come
as a surprise in view of the original harmlessness and sweetness
of the extract. It may be that this circumstance was responsible
for the belief held by some people that this was really the work
of the devil, turning sweetness into bitterness and corrupting
man's taste. In some parts of the world it is specifically believed
that it was evil spirits who persuaded man to take the first
intoxicating liquor. Dr. S. H. Kellogg gives a tradition from
India which he believes owes nothing to borrowing from Christian
missionaries. His account is as follows: *
The Santals have a tradition
. . . that in the beginning they were not worshippers of demons
as they are now. They say that, very long ago, their first parents
were created by the Living God; and that they worshipped and
served Him at first: and that they were seduced from their allegiance
by an evil spirit Masang Buru, who persuaded them to drink an
intoxicating liquor from the fruit of a certain tree.
whole, there is a certain concordance in this testimony both
from pagan and Jewish sources. In the first place, man's down-fall
was associated with the eating of a fruit. This action brought
with it both a gain and a penalty. In some cases the gain is
a superior kind of wisdom, prophetic wisdom, and in others it
is "knowing the gods," whatever this signifies. On
the other hand, most of the traditions see it as an act of disobedience
which of necessity also involved the penalty death. The Rig Veda,
however, is an exception in
* Kellogg, S. H., Genesis and the Growth
of Religion, London, Macmillan, 1892, p. 60, 61.
this regard, for though
the drink was intoxicating, it also was supposed to have guaranteed
In spite of this kind of contradiction,
one has a feeling there is a link between all these accounts
and that they bear witness to the fact that the human race is
truly one and had one father Adam and one mother Eve, a knowledge
of whose early history thus became the common property of all
their descendants, i.e., mankind. The inconsistencies and contradictions
of these traditions may actually strengthen our confidence in
the original account in Genesis in the same way that a certain
type of contradiction in the testimony of several witnesses to
a crime may furnish the best proof that they have not borrowed
their story from one another but are recollecting the original
event without collusion among themselves.
Two facts seem to stand out: the
fruit of some kind of tree was involved and the extract of the
fruit was an intoxicant, a poison; whether it was some form of
alcohol or not is a moot point, but it is a not unreasonable
135. (See p.4) The nations of antiquity often have traditions
that seem to be reflections of the two Trees in the Garden of
Eden, though the role of the two trees is sometimes reversed.
There was in the old world in classical times a very widespread
association in certain festivals between the drinking of an alcoholic
beverage (which might be seen as a recollection of the forbidden
fruit) and the acquisition of immortality (which would seem to
be related rather to the Tree of Life). The ancient gods of Greece
and Rome drank fermented wine (nectar) or ate a food associated
with such wine (ambrosia) to preserve their immortality.
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
Previous Chapter Next
Ambrosia was commonly described
as the "food of the gods," and nectar as the "drink
of the gods." There is no question that both were related
and sometimes the terms were used interchangeably, or reversed
in meaning. The ancient Greek Poetess, Sappho (seventh century
B.C.) and Anaxandridas (d. 520 B.C.) both say that ambrosia was
a drink. Homer refers to it however as like an ointment or an
oil for anointing the bodies of the dead to preserve them from
corruption, whereas he describes nectar as resembling red wine
and states that its continued use brings immortality [Iliad,
XIV, 170; and XIX, 38].
The word ambrosia is held
by some authorities to be of Greek origin, composed of a
(not) and brotos (mortal), i.e., not mortal, immortal.
Liddell and Scott suggest an etymological connection with the
Latin root MORT-.
Homer also refers to ambrosia as
being an unguent for the treating of wounds, an observation again
reflected in the widespread use of fermented wine in the same
connection. This practice is observed in Luke 10:34, where the
good Samaritan treated the severely wounded man that he found
beside the road on his way to Jericho by "pouring oil and
wine" into his wounds.
Ambrosia was a central element
in several Festivals observed in Greece (and elsewhere) in connection
with Dionysus, "the god of peasants." It was a time
of celebration for the grape harvest and, according to Johannes
Tzetzes (c. 1120‹1183) a Greek author who wrote commentaries
on Homer and Hesiod, it was held when the must of the newly harvested
grapes had fermented. Other non-Hellenic peoples adopted these
festivals but turned them into orgies which the more sober Greeks
felt were "scandalous."
Hindu mythology has a drink termed
Amrita, believed to be derived from Sanskrit a-
(not) and a root word related to the Latin mort-, and
the Greek brot-. The gods of the Scandinavian pantheon
preserved their perpetual youth by eating apples guarded by one
named Idun. It is tempting to see this guardian figure
as a corruption of the word Eden!
Clearly, there has been preserved
among the nations a certain connection between alcohol and immortality,
a reversal of the biblical connection obviously, and perhaps
an illustration of just the kind of reversal that mythology experienced
when it made the serpent the symbol of health.