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The Bible and English Literature by Northrop Frye - Full Lecture 6

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Gerard Beckers, Chris Rodgers
Bill Somerville
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Ted Glickman
Robert Sandler
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Bob Rodgers
Robert Fysh (2008)
Jane Widdicombe

Northrop Frye and Michael Dolzani

Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University




Pastoral, agricultural and urban imagery provide a model for the goals of human work by creating a vision of the natural world transformed into the image of human desire. The earlier pastoral period of Israelite society, with its images of shepherd, sheepfold and sacrificial lamb, tends to be idealized in the Old Testament, and the Israelites in the Promised Land settled down to an agricultural economy with some trepidation. A further cause for uneasiness was the proximity of the agricultural fertility rites of the surrounding heathen nations. The harvest and vintage symbolism, with its imagery of bread and wine, was often connected in heathen rites with the figure of the dying god, who represented the renewing powers of nature. The temptation for the Israelites to participate in these practices, to worship gods of the natural cycle instead of Yahweh, who is not a fertility god but the God of all creation, prompted a good deal of invective in the Old Testament.

Program Lecture Outline: Key Facts

  1. The idealizing of the original pastoral relationship in the Old Testament, as reflected in the stories of Cain (farmer) and Abel (shepherd), of Abraham and Isaac (substitution of the ram). Passover as a festival that is pastoral in imagery.
  2. Then, the establishing, with some reluctance, of an agricultural pattern of life, as reflected in the story of Noah. Festivals of harvest and vintage respectively: Pentecost and the Jewish festival of 'booths'.
  3. Harvest and vintage as apocalyptic symbols. Animal body and blood identified with vegetable bread and wine. The Eucharist.
  4. Entry into the Promised Land after the Exodus. Canaan, the red land'. Temptation of Canaanite fertility rituals.
  5. Central type of such rituals: the dying god cult. Based on the principle of sympathetic magic. Tammuz, Adonis, etc. The 'Gardens of Adonis'. Hadad-Rimmon.

Biblical Passages Cited

Genesis 4.—Cain and Abel

Genesis 8:20-22.—Noah, the removal of the curse from the ground, promise of unending 'seedtime and harvest'.

Genesis 9:20-27.—Noah's drunkenness.

Exodus 3:8.—Promise of 'milk and honey'.

Numbers 13:24.—The first symbol of Canaan, an enormous bunch of grapes.

Joshua 5:12.—Manna ceases on the settlement of Canaan.

Ezekiel 8:14.—Women weeping for Tammuz in the Temple at Jerusalem.

Zechariah 12:10-11.—'me whom they have pierced'. Hadad Rimmon.

John 19:37.—'him whom they have pierced'.

The Teacher's Perspective

We start once again with the tables of Biblical imagery in The Great Code on pp. 166­67. The 'Animal' and 'Vegetable' categories give us this program's pastoral and agricultural images in schematic form:


Class or Group Form


Manifest Demonic

Parody Demonic


Sheepfold or Flock

1) Shepherd 
2) Lamb
(Body and Blood)

(see Program 10) 

Beasts of Prey or Fertility

Deified Animal


Harvest and Vintage

Bread & Wine 
(First Fruits)

Harvest and Vintage of Wrath

gods and Earth-Mothers


Notice that discussion of the manifest demonic form of animal imagery is postponed to program 10, because of its tendency to expand into the political and cosmological dimensions. In addition, much of the content of pastoral imagery is sacrificial, and is thus subsumed into the next program's discussion of sacrifice: that is the reason the bulk of this program is taken up with agricultural imagery's very important figure of the dying god.

Before passing over to that image, however, the teacher may have the class note a couple of things about various pastoral images. Two good possibilities for animated classroom discussion are Byron's poetic drama Cain and Blake's two poems on the lamb and the tiger. The question in Cain is whether the God of that drama, of whom Byron says in the preface that he is as close to the God portrayed in the Old Testament as Byron could make him, is a malicious being with a lust for the sacrifice 'not without blood'.

Given the irony surrounding the figure of Cain within the poem, students should not be too quick to assume that the answer is an unequivocal 'yes'. The contrast in Blake's poems between the ideal image of the lamb and the burning beast of prey is not uncomplicated either: the central question, 'Did he who made the Lamb make thee?' can be answered neither with the simple 'no' of the world of Innocence nor with the simple 'yes' of the world of Experience. The Great Code (p. 151) cites also the ass as an ideal animal image, in conjunction with which the teacher might have the class read Edith Sitwell's haunting poem 'Ass Face'.

The teacher may have the class take a look at Isaiah 53 within the Bible itself, the celebrated passage about the 'man of sorrows'. The 'man of sorrows' is a sacrificial figure, and thus relevant to program 8 as well: he is identified with the tree of life ('as a root out of dry ground') and with the sacrificial lamb ('brought as a lamb to the slaughter'). For antitypes of this imagery, see John 1:29, the 'Lamb of God', and Revelation 5:6, 12:11, and 13:8.

One may say, yielding to the temptation of the obvious pun, that agricultural imagery is fertile with literary associations. Students will find much to think about by examining Dylan Thomas' short, enigmatic poem 'This bread I break', which illustrates perfectly what Prof. Frye means about the identification of the various categories of imagery with one another. The teacher may ask the class whether the ending seems affirmative or ironic: critics themselves do not agree on this question, but one may say that there seem to be elements both of a vision of apocalyptic communion and of demonic identification, in which each form of life must live upon the destruction of another.

The dying god can be found almost everywhere in poetry. The most immediate example is T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, which of course cites Frazer's The Golden Bough in its notes. A very important poetic convention, the pastoral elegy, is organized around the figure of the dying god: information may be found in Prof. Frye's essay 'Literature as context: Milton's Lycidas' in his book Fables of Identity.

A final suggestion: the schematic form of our Biblical table of imagery can be a temptation for the students to begin thinking solely in terms of structure rather than of function. The teacher naturally will want to avoid this. A very important theme of this program is that of the goals of human work, for which pastoral, agricultural and urban imagery provide the models. That is, although these images are units of literary design, they are not simply aesthetic, but are actual instruments or social tools for the transformation of the given world into the world of human desire. Likewise, although they are natural images, the revelation articulated by the Bible's imagery is not a scientific knowledge, whose purpose is to understand nature, but a concerned knowledge whose purpose is to help transform it into a world of human meaning.

Supplementary Reading

1. Biblical Passages

Isaiah 17:10-11.—Condemnation of 'gardens of Adonis'.

I Kings 18:28.—Contest of Elijah and the priests of Baal. Example of 'sympathetic magic': the priests gash themselves for rain. (See also program 8).

Hosea 7:14.—'They gashed themselves for corn and wine'. The AV has 'assemble themselves', a mistranslation. (See also program 8).

Matthew 26:26-29.—The Last Supper.

John 2.—'New wine' at Cana.

John 15:1.—Jesus as the 'true vine'.

Isaiah 53.—The 'man of sorrows': 'like a lamb to the slaughter'.

Revelation 5:6.—The Lamb (and the seven eyes of God: see program 9).

Revelation 12:11.—The 'blood of the Lamb'

Revelation 13:8.—'the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world'.

John 1:29.—the Lamb of God.

2.    Corresponding Passages in The Great Code.

Chapter Six. Metaphor II: Imagery.

p. 139. Pastoral, agricultural and urban as apocalyptic imagery. i.e., images of the goals of human work.

pp. 142-44. Pastoral and agricultural imagery.

pp. 152-53. Dying god cults.

Chapter Three. Metaphor I.

pp. 66-70. The earth-mother and her male protege, the dying god.

pp. 72. Sources of apocalyptic imagery; human work and the upper half of the natural cycle.

3. Other

The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer. See volume 3, The Dying God.

Suggested Essay or Discussion Questions

  1. How has the Bible affected the 'work ethic' of western culture? What have been some of the negative effects of a vision of the transforming of nature into civilization?
  2. Have there also been some positive effects? What about the ideal of a 'pastoral simplicity' that seems latent in both pastoral and agricultural imagery? Does the presence in the Bible of such a vision of simple living in harmony with nature balance or simply contradict its conviction that nature was made for man?
  3. Pastoral and agricultural imagery centers largely around eating and drinking. What might such 'lower' bodily functions become as truly apocalyptic images? Why is the central ritual of Christianity, the Eucharist, that of symbolically eating the body and blood of a divine man? Is there a connection with the Bible's preference for the sacrifice 'worth blood'? What are the implications of the sacramental word 'communion'?
  4. Whitman's When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed is a pastoral elegy on the assassination of Lincoln, which suggests that prominent cultural figures who die at the height of their powers are naturally mourned in the imagery of the dying god. Why should this be so? Are there other examples? (Answers may range from the Keats of Shelly's Adonais to Phil Ochs' folk ballad 'Crucifixion').
  5. Many writers consider the metaphors and typology of the Bible a powerful influence on American historical consciousness. What pastoral and agricultural implications seem to be evoked by the title of such a book as Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land: The Myth of the West in American Literature?




The dying god is the agricultural version of a victim figure around whom clusters the imagery of sacrifice. Such sacrificial imagery may also be associated with the king, who himself originally might have been considered a god whose strength was bound up with the fertility of the land. Eventually, instead of sacrificing the king, some kind of substitute was offered instead, his firstborn son, an animal, firstfruits of harvest etc. But the feeling that only the original human sacrifice is fully adequate persisted, and it is against this background that Israel's God emerges, a God who is not a god of fertility but of all creation, and who eventually rejects the idea of human sacrifice.

Program Lecture Outline: Key Facts

  1. The contest in I Kings 18 between the priests of the fertility god Baal and Elijah, prophet of Yahweh, God of all creation. The priests gash themselves for rain; sympathetic magic.
  2. The root of this is the idea of sacrifice and the sacrificial victim—originally perhaps the divine king who represented the fertility of the land.
  3. Eventually, a series of substitutes: foremost was the eldest son; then animals (Abraham and Isaac, story of Passover); then firstfruits.
  4. Every so often, though, the feeling that the god wants full payment: the king of Moab sacrifices his eldest son to Chemosh and thereby succeeds in battle against Israel.
  5. Israel rejected human sacrifice to God, but retained it as fulfillment of a vow: Jephthah's daughter.
  6. Micah 6:6. This verse is regarded as a great moral breakthrough in human history. The idea of sacrificing the firstborn to God rejected.

Biblical Passages Cited

I Kings 18.—Elijah and the priests of Baal.

Hosea 7:14.—'gashed themselves for corn and wine'.

Exodus 34:19-20.—The firstborn dedicated to the Lord.

II Kings 3:26-27.—The king of Moab's triumph over Israel by the sacrifice of his eldest son.

Joshua 6:26.—Curse on Jericho; required sacrifice of an eldest son.

I Kings 16:34.—The sacrifice fulfilled by the rebuilder of Jericho.

Judges 11.—The story of Jephthah's daughter.

Micah 6:6.—Rejection of the idea of human sacrifice to God.

The Teacher's Perspective

In addition to the broader discussion of the imagery of sacrifice in this program, our series examines elsewhere the particular sacrificial figures of the dying god and the king. We glanced at the dying god figure in our discussion of agricultural imagery in the previous program: the dying god is almost inevitably linked with agricultural imagery, because vegetation, unlike animals or humans, goes through a visible cycle of death and renewal. Program 13 will examine sacrificial imagery as it became attached to the figure of the king. But the present program tries to reach some understanding of the nature of sacrifice in general.

The teacher may find it helpful to make more explicit the pattern underlying the series of examples given in the lecture. One way to begin is by pointing out that sacrifice is a ritual, and like all rituals, consists of an outward form or ceremony and an inward movement of the heart that the ceremony expresses, or is supposed to express. The emphasis in any particular sacrifice obviously may fall on the one aspect or the other, and the Bible makes it quite clear that this is the root of the distinction between a good sacrifice and a bad one. Though the outward ritual may still be acceptable, or even necessary, the real effectiveness of the sacrifice lies in the inward movement of the heart towards God. In the words of Psalm 51, 'The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and contrite heart, 0 God, thou wilt not despise . . . Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offerings then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar!'

All this implies a subtle distinction between two aspects of sacrifice. The inner change of heart is a movement towards being united with God in some way, whether in a bond or covenant of obedience, as in the Old Testament, or through love, as in the New. This suggests that the contrasting motive for the outward ritual by itself is the kind of bargaining that Prof. Frye speaks of, the attempt to propitiate or manipulate an alienated deity, rather than an attempt to be united with him.

The teacher at this point may want to anticipate program 13 by pointing out that both attitudes have traditionally been applied to the doctrine of Christ's Atonement. It has been considered the appeasement of an angry or offended God the Father. But it has also been considered as the most perfect form of reaching out to become united with God, to the point not just of close relationship but of total identification: the root meaning of 'atonement' is actually 'at-onement' or 'making at one.

Concentration on the outward ritual always in fact risks idolatry: in some expressions of the Atonement doctrine Christ is considered a sacrifice to propitiate the devil. This suggests that to the degree that the sense of 'at-onement' diminishes, God becomes an aloof figure of persecution and wrath: in other words, the true meaning of the admonition to 'fear God' is that we should be afraid to stop loving him, for when we do, he will inevitably disappear, and we will find ourselves confronting a dark figure who can only be a form of the Accuser, Satan. The principle at work here is that any god worshipped only with superstitious appeasement and fear is no god at all, but a devil.

In the Old Testament, God does seem occasionally quite capable of accepting sacrifices that to us look barbaric, like that of the hanging of Saul's sons in I Kings 21. But Israel seems to have awakened earlier than its heathen neighbors to the insight that human sacrifice and true piety are ultimately incompatible. The pivotal story in this respect is of course the story of Abraham and Isaac. An almost sure way to raise a classroom discussion is to read or explain to the class what Kierkegaard made of this story in Fear and Trembling. In what spirit does Kierkegaard's Abraham agree to make his sacrifice, the teacher may ask: might the title of the book suggest more than one thing in answer to this question? The class might be asked to compare the very different attitude of a simpler work, Leonard Cohen's popular song, 'Story of Isaac'.

A final and very strongly recommended tactic for this program is to have the class read the catalogue of heathen gods in Milton's Paradise Lost, Book 1, lines 374-521. Milton has adopted the view that the heathen gods were really disguised devils: at this point, they are portrayed earlier in their career, as rebel angels newly thrown out of heaven. Here are the dying god figures and their female consorts, as well as, among others, the heathen god most closely associated with demonic sacrifice, Moloch, whose rites involved the sacrifice of children. Any copy of Milton with good annotation (like the Rinehart edition edited by Prof. Frye) will supply useful material at this point: 'Gehenna' and 'Tophet', for example, have passed into common usage as synonyms for hell.

Supplementary Reading

1. Biblical Passages

Psalm 51:16-20.—'The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit'.

Psalm 106:37-39.—'they sacrificed their sons and their daughters unto devils'.

I Corinthians 10:20.—'the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils'. Genesis 22.  The story of Abraham and Isaac.

II Kings 21. —The sacrifice of the seven sons of Saul.

I Kings 11:4-8.—Solomon turns to Ashtoreth, Chemosh, Moloch (Milcom is another name for Moloch).

Jeremiah 32:35.—Baal, Hinnom, Moloch.

Leviticus 20:1-5.—Death to whoever 'gives his seed' to Moloch.

II Kings 23:4-29.—Josiah destroys the cult of Moloch and other heathen gods and defiles Tophet.

2. Corresponding Passages in The Great Code

Chapter Seven. Myth II.

pp. 183-86. Sacrifice.

3. Other

The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell, Bollingen Series XVII, Princeton University Press, 1949. See Chapter II, section 4, 'Atonement With the Father'.

Suggested Essay or Discussion Questions

  1. Is human sacrifice an obsolete phenomenon? Under what circumstances is it likely to revive? Discuss the nature of several modern manifestations of it (examples may include the massacre in Jonestown, Guyana and the Nazi killings of the Jews).
  2. What does Allen Ginsberg mean in Howl when he talks about sacrifices to Moloch in America? How wide an application can the idea of human sacrifice possess? Can war, for example, be considered a type of it? Or capital punishment: see the ending to Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles.

Examine the various visions of human sacrifice in the following works of literature: Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis (compare to the story of Jephthah's daughter), H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, and Shirley Jackson's short story 'The Lottery'.


Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University



I was speaking of the pattern of imagery in the Bible and of its various categories, and particularly of the way in which three phases of history are reflected in Biblical imagery. And we saw that it is a characteristic of this type of image that the group form and the individual form are metaphorically identified with each other.

The ambiguity of the symbolism attached to the Messiah is that in each category he is regarded as both master and victim, as the shepherd of the flock and at the same time the sacrificial lamb. In the same way, his human function is that of a king, but he's a spiritual king, and in the physical world he is only a mock king put to death. In the urban phase we saw that the city is identified with the bride, Jerusalem, and the Temple that is the house of the god in the middle of the city is identified in the Gospels and in the Book of Revelation with the body of Christ. Jesus says in the Gospels: 'Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days'. And the Book of Revelation was insistent that in the New Jerusalem there is no Temple because the Body of Christ has replaced it.

There are various ramifications of this imagery that we need to look at. For one thing, the archetypes, so to speak, the original models of these three phases of Israelite civilization are established before the time that Israel appears on the historical scene: that is, before the time of Abraham. Almost the first story of the Bible is the story of the rivalry between the two sons of Adam, Cain and Abel. Cain is a farmer and Abel is a shepherd.

Disputes between a farmer and a shepherd are thousands of years older than the Bible. They go back to Sumerian times, but usually in Sumerian times it's the farmer who has the best of the argument, as would be very natural for a country that's dependent entirely on irrigation and is primarily an agricultural country. But in the Old Testament, the original pastoral relationship of wandering herds is idealized as the time when Israel was united with its God, and we find that idealizing of the pastoral life in the 23rd Psalm, in the imagery of the Good Shepherd attached to Christ and elsewhere.

Abel was murdered by Cain. He was a shepherd and his offering, we are told, was accepted by God; whereas Cain was a farmer, and his offering of the firstfruits of the crops was not accepted. We are not really told why this is so, but it establishes the types of a later liturgical pattern. The primary sacrifice is the sacrifice of the lamb, and that is the one that is first laid down for us in the story of Abraham's command to sacrifice his son Isaac, where at the last minute he is stopped from doing so and a ram is substituted. That story indicates that for Israel the sacrifice of a lamb is to replace the sacrifice of a son or of a human being.

And that is confirmed later on by the story of the Passover, which is the primary rite in the Jewish liturgy. The Passover offering is the offering with blood, which is the fundamental reason, at least insofar as there is a reason, why Abel's sacrifice is acceptable and Cain's is not. Eventually of course, the farmer's offerings of firstfruits were added and the calendar developed three major festivals: the Passover, which is pastoral in imagery; the festival of the harvest, which developed into the Jewish and Christian Pentecost; and the vintage festival, which became the feast of booths and, eventually, of the New Year in Judaism. But this imagery of harvest and vintage becomes established rather later, and apparently the story of Noah has something to do with the establishing of an agricultural pattern of life.

That is, after the Flood, Noah institutes a tremendous massacre of animals in honor of God, and God, we are told, highly approves of the smell: he says, 'That smells pretty good: I'd better take the curse off the ground that I put on it at the time of Adam's fall'. Then he promises Noah that there will be an unfailing cycle of seedtime and harvest, the basis of an agricultural program of life. So Noah turns into a farmer.

His first accomplishment—human nature being what it is—is to discover wine and get drunk. But nevertheless, the harvest and the vintage remain apocalyptic symbols, along with the symbolism of the Good Shepherd and of the city. And if we look through the Gospels we see very frequently how fond Jesus is of these metaphors of harvest and vintage for the coming of the last day, and the extent to which the animal elements of body and blood are identified with the corresponding vegetable ones of bread and wine. That comes into the pattern of the Eucharist that Jesus is recorded as establishing at the Last Supper, where he specifically identifies the wine with his blood.

After the pastoral period of the patriarchs, Israel descends into Egypt. There, God promises Moses from the burning bush that he will lead his people into a land flowing with milk and honey, which are not vegetable products. But what they eventually come into is a Promised Land in which they enter upon an agricultural economy. That of course meant that they were exposed to what the Old Testament writers regarded as contamination from the agricultural rites of the surrounding peoples.

It is with a certain amount of reluctance that Israel enters the Promised Land and embarks on an agricultural economy. If you look, for example, at Joshua 5:12: 'And the manna ceased on the morrow after they had eaten of the old corn of the land; neither had the children of Israel manna any more; but they did eat of the it of the land of Canaan that year'. Corn is seventeenth-century English for any kind of grain. And the first symbol of Cancan was an enormous bunch of grapes which the spies brought back from the Promised Land. In fact the word 'Canaan' itself means more or less 'the red land, and its Greek equivalent is phoenicia. It is supposed to have derived its name from another source, the purple dye from the murex shell fish. But the association of redness with the earth and the agricultural economy is fairly consistent throughout the Bible.

As for the urban life, the Israelites are represented first of all as apparently desert dwellers like the Bedouins. Yet their leaders, Abraham and Moses, are described as having come from the cities, one from Mesopotamia and the other from Egypt. There even seems to be some evidence that the word 'Hebrew', which used to be a somewhat pejorative term when used by outsiders, originally meant something more like 'proletariat' than the conventional name for a people. And certainly that is the role in which they appear in Egypt.

In any case, they are compelled to live beside neighbors with agricultural rites. I mentioned the law about not boiling a kid in its mother's milk, suggesting that it was a negative ritual, something that the Israelites were forbidden to do because their neighbors did it. That is true also of the various agricultural cults which had to do with encouraging the fertility of the soil by various rituals founded on the principle of sympathetic magic. That is, if you want it to rain, you pour water on the ground: that kind of imitation by magic and a ritual is the basis of what might have been called the dying god cult.

I take the phrase 'dying god' from Frazer, who investigated this question back in the 1890s. His thesis has been refuted so often that it is now time for it to come back into style again. He speaks of many Mediterranean religions as having been founded on the cult of a god who was fundamentally a god of the fertility of the earth, and more particularly of the vegetable fertility, though it is connected with animals as well. He was as a rule a male god, though there are exceptions, such as Persephone in Greek religion; and he is represented as related to a female principle of whom he is sometimes the son, sometimes the lover and sometimes the victim. he has various names in various countries. His name in Babylonia was Tammuz; in Syria, Adonis; in Asia Minor, Attis; in Egypt, Osiris; in Greece, Dionysus or sometimes Hyacinthus.

Now the myth associated with this god usually tells of his death. He is a victim either of the female principle he's attached to or of something representing the dead or sterile part of the year. Thus Adonis is killed by a boar who apparently represents the winter. In Ezekiel 8:14 we are shown one of the central rites of these dying god cults. Ezekiel represents himself as being in Babylon along with the captive Jews, and as being shown in a vision what is happening in the Temple of Jerusalem. The death of the god was each year ceremonially and ritually mourned by a group of women who represented the female principle of the dying god; and the female goddess represented in her turn the continuing fertility of the earth, which remained dormant throughout the winter or the late part of the summer. It was the chorus of women representing this female principle—the mother or the mistress, whichever she was thought of as being—that formed a central part of the ritual for the dying god. In verse 14, the angel who is showing Ezekiel all this in a vision 'brought me to the gate of the Lord's house which was towards the north; and, behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz'. That is, they were carrying on the cult of the dying god. That ritual maintained itself in surrounding countries down to the time of Christ; and even in the very late Book of Daniel, the persecution of the Jews just before the Maccabean rebellion is associated with the cult of the god beloved of women, that is, Tammuz or Adonis.

The cult was extremely common all over the Mediterranean. You can't look in Classical literature without seeing that. Theocritus of Sicily has an idyll on the festival of Adonis; and the cult of Attis, whose female principle was Cybele, was transferred to Rome during the Punic Wars of Hannibal, largely for political reasons. There it took the form, as most of these cults did, of a three-day spring festival. On the first day, an effigy representing the god was hung on a tree, and the effigy was supposed to die. The second was the day when the god was absent from the world, and the priests lashed themselves into orgiastic frenzies and castrated themselves as part of their sacrifice to their god: there's an ode of Catullus about that, which is a very powerful and very terrible poem. And then on the third day there was a ritual procession to the marshes or somewhere where the reborn god was supposed to be discovered.

There were other rituals of the same general type, connected with promoting the fertility of the soil. Again the women took the initiative in these cults, and would grow plants in pots and bring them along by forced growth. They would then throw the pots with the plants in them into the water as a rain charm. These were known as gardens of Adonis, and the throwing of the plants into the water was a regular part of the fertility ritual. You would expect the Hebrew prophets to take a very dim view of this practice. If you look at Isaiah 17:10-11: 'Because thou hast forgotten the God of thy salvation, and hast not been mindful of the rock of thy strength, therefore shalt thou plant pleasant plants, and shall set it with strange slips: in the day shalt thou make thy plant to grow, and in the morning shalt thou make thy seed to flourish: but the harvest shall be a heap in the day of grief and of desperate sorrow'. So the gardens of Adonis were obviously familiar to the Israelites, and the prophet here is attacking the practice as something that has nothing to do with the Israelite religion.

One of the great confrontations between the two cults is that between Jehovah and the fertility god Baal of the Syrians on the top of Mount Carmel. There is a great contest between Elijah and the priests of Baal as to which god is capable of bringing rain. I Kings 18 contains a wonderful scene in which the priests of Baal first of all knock themselves out trying to get their god to deliver rain out of an absolutely cloudless sky. And Elijah makes fun of them in the most approved charitable manner in verse 27: 'And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth and must be awaked'. 'Pursuing' is a euphemism which means, perhaps he is making water after all. But the priests are thereby moved to greater and greater efforts. In verse 28: 'And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets till the blood gushed out upon them'. This is sympathetic magic again: if you prick yourself and the blood flows, it suggests that what you need very badly at that point is rain.

Similarly, in Hosea 7:14—only here the King James translation lets you down, because the King James translators didn't know very much about dying god cults—'And they have not cried unto me with their heart when they howled upon their beds'. Then the King James Bible has: 'they assemble themselves for corn and wine', but that's wrong. What Hosea is saying is that they gashed themselves for corn and wine: that is, they cut themselves until the blood flowed.

Now the root of all this, which you can trace in the Bible also, is that the firstfruits of the crop should be offered to the god. It is assumed that the god, like the God of Noah, lives off the smell of the offerings: and he has to be fed first, otherwise disaster will result. Some of these cults seem to involve an original cult where the sacrificial victim was a human being. The human being might have been the leader of a society, the divine king, according to Frazer, or his eldest son, or later on, a criminal or a prisoner taken captive in battle.

And so we find a certain sequence of sacrificial victims. The original victim would be the divine king himself. That is, the king would be regarded as containing within himself the fertility of the land over which he rules, so that it would be only common sense to put him to death as soon as his strength begins to fail, because his virility and the fertility of his country are bound up together by sympathetic magic. But if you're going to put him to death as soon as his strength fails, there's no sense letting all that divinity go to waste; and so there could be a ritual banquet at which his body was eaten and his blood drunk, so that the divine essence passed into the body of his worshippers.

Well, whether that rite ever existed or not as an historical fact could not matter less. The point is that it is symbolically the right one to have there at the beginning of the sequence. Then follows the sacrifice of the king's eldest son, because it leads to a certain amount of social insecurity—for reasons I don't need to go into—if you keep putting a king to death as soon as his strength is alleged to fail. That is the stage recorded in the story of Abraham's order to sacrifice his son Isaac, an order which at the last moment is rescinded and the sacrifice transferred to the ram.

This is incorporated into the Israelite code, in the list of commandments given in Exodus 34. This is a set of commandments much older than the more familiar Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. Verse 19 says: 'All that openeth the womb is mine; and every firstling among thy cattle, whether ox or sheep, that is male'. Then it goes on to say that 'the firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb: and if thou redeem him not, then shalt thou break his neck. All the firstborn of thy sons thou shalt redeem'. That is, every first-born son is technically an offering to God. But the actual sacrifice is not to be carried through: he is to be redeemed, usually by a lamb, that being the pattern established in the story of Abraham and Isaac and in the story of the Passover.

We can see at work here the principle that offering to God as a sacrifice what you most want yourself gets to be inconvenient after awhile, so various substitutions are made. In fact, it is one of the motifs in Greek mythology associated with Prometheus. Prometheus' real sin was in persuading men that the gods didn't want any of the real meat when they offered a sacrifice: they'd be quite content with the entrails and the offal. And they were not. And so, every so often there comes the feeling that the deity wants the full payment and without cheating.

We get an example, which is ascribed again to one of the surrounding nations, in II Kings 3:27. Here Israel is attacking the central city of Moab, one of their neighboring enemies—'neighbor' and 'enemy' were practically the same word in the ancient world. And we are told that 'when the king of Moab saw that the battle was too sore for him, he took with him seven hundred men that drew swords, to break through even unto the King of Edom'—who was his ally at the time— 'but they could not. Then he took his eldest son that should have reigned in his stead and offered him for a burnt offering upon the wall. And there was great indignation against Israel: and they departed from him, and returned to their own land.' So when he is in a desperate situation, he makes the original offering of his own eldest son that should have reigned in his stead. And the last sentence is very clearly a clumsy editorial effort to conceal the fact that in the original story the stratagem worked, and the Israelites were in fact driven off.

The sacrifice of human beings in that context is what is prohibited in the Bible. Archeologists have discovered an inscription by this King Mesha of Moab who sacrificed his eldest son, and it's obvious from that inscription that his piety towards his god Chemosh was just as authentic as the Israelite piety towards Jehovah. But that was how his mind worked and how, in some context, the Israelite mind would have worked too: we are also told that after Jericho was taken by Joshua, a curse was put on the city that whoever rebuilt it would have to sacrifice his eldest son at the beginning and his youngest son at the end of the rebuilding of the city. Which is a terrible curse: the only thing is that trade routes are much more important than children; and Jericho is apparently one of the world's oldest inhabited sites. So the city was rebuilt, and the person who rebuilt it sacrificed his eldest son to begin the operation and his youngest son to finish it.

I suspect that the original cannibal feast, which is original in the sense of being symbolically original, may not have actually been practiced by any society. I think human beings only tend to cannibalism when they run out of other supplies of protein. And even a ritual banquet as solemn as that one would be might not have been carried through in quite so literal a way: we don't know. In any case, the Israelites were extremely familiar with the cult of human sacrifice, particularly the sacrifice of firstborn sons. And although that is condemned, they are much more neutral on the question of a sacrifice which is to fulfill a vow or a sacrifice of a prisoner taken in a war. That may be a sacrifice not merely acceptable to God but actually demanded by him. We find such a story in the Book of Judges, in the 11th chapter.

We notice that in the commandment in Exodus 34, female animals, whether animal or human, are lawfully ignored. But in the story of Jephthah, it says that he made a vow to sacrifice to God the first thing he saw when he came back from his battle if he won the battle. Notice that the psychological basis of sacrifice is very frequently a bargaining basis. The formula is do ut des—I give that you may give. That is what prayer in Homer, for example, very largely consists of. It consists of reminding the gods very pointedly that they have been very well fed by the hero's sacrifices in the past, and if they wish the supply to be continued, they'd better come through with some more victories. This is a typical folktale of a rash-vow type, where Jephthah says he will sacrifice the first thing that comes to meet him returning from the battle if he's victorious. And of course, the first thing to meet him is his only daughter.

In 11:37, his daughter says that he has to go through with the sacrifice, seeing that he has made the vow. 'And she said unto her father, Let this thing be done for me: let me alone two months, that I may go up and down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows. And he said, Go'. Then, at the end of the chapter, we are told that it was a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah four days in the year. So there are two things to notice there: one is her virginity, which makes her the unblemished and consequent, acceptable sacrificial victim; and the other is the fact that she becomes the center of a cult of mourning women. So the original religion associated with this story is clearly something much older than the Mosaic Code.

If you look at the Book of Zechariah, the second to last book in the Old Testament, right at the end in 12:10: 'And I will pour upon the house of David, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplication: and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn. In that day shall there be a great mourning in Jerusalem as the mourning of Hadad-rimmon in the valley of  Megiddon'.

Now Hadad-rimmon is simply another fertility god of this type, whose cult took the form of his death's being mourned by a group of women. One thing that is interesting about this prophecy in Zechariah is that the phrase 'they shall look upon me whom they have pierced' is quoted in the Gospel of John, which means that the authors of the Gospels were thoroughly familiar with the symbolism of dying god cults, and incorporated that symbolism into their accounts of the Passion. You remember that Jesus is followed to his execution by a mourning chorus of women, whom he addresses as 'daughters of Jerusalem'.

In the Book of Micah which is in the middle of the minor prophets, there is another reference which contains a verse often regarded—I think with considerable justification—as one of the great moral breakthroughs in history. In 6:6 Micah says: 'herewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with cakes of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath showed thee, 0 man, what is good: and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?'

Now what is fascinating about that seventh verse is that the question of whether one should not fall back on the original demand of the firstborn son as the sacrificial victim was still familiar enough for the prophet to refer to it as a moral problem. Of course what he was saying was that this whole bargaining basis of sacrifice, of making a reparation for something held done wrong and so forth, is utter nonsense and that one has to get to a new level of apprehension altogether. But before he says that, he says that it is possible that people around him are still wondering whether, in the event of a sufficiently difficult situation, they ought not to fall back on the original rite.