Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Mystic Symbol of the Sycamore Fig in Early Christianity

It is amazing to go through the scientific literature relating to the sycamore fig and see that modern researchers are only catching up to what the most primitive tribesmen had long known - by cutting a few choice figs of this wild species the rest of the bunch 'miraculously' also reached full maturity.  Of course science has at long last succeeded in explaining why this occurs by means of dispassionate terminology.  The cutting of the fruit releases a gas - ethylene - which softens the hard outer shell of the fruit and those of its neighbors.  Nevertheless I am disappointed in my reading by the smug manner in which modern researchers assume that their ancient counterparts hadn't attributed the ripening to a similar process.

My opinion is that since the language of the ancients was metaphoric modern science wouldn't recognize the explanation even if they had it in their hand.  Indeed there is a pronounced interest in 'holy spirits' of various kinds in early Christianity and this might explain the 'aura canicularis' mockingly attributed to Marcion by Tertullian. In Against Marcion Book One the Church Father says that according to the Marcionites "in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar Christ Jesus vouchsafed to glide down from heaven, a salutary spirit" obviously paraphrasing the opening words of the gospel but adding mockingly the question in his own voice - "in what year of the elder Antoninus the aura canicularis of Marcion's salvation, whose opinion this was, breathed out from his own Pontus, I have forborne to inquire."

The reference here to the 'aura canicularis' goes back to an interest in the rising of Sirius the so-called 'Dog-star.'  As Wikipedia explains:

The ancient Greeks observed that the appearance of Sirius heralded the hot and dry summer, and feared that it caused plants to wilt, men to weaken, and women to become aroused. Due to its brightness, Sirius would have been noted to twinkle more in the unsettled weather conditions of early summer. To Greek observers, this signified certain emanations which caused its malignant influence. Anyone suffering its effects was said to be astroboletos (ἀστροβόλητος) or "star-struck". It was described as "burning" or "flaming" in literature. The season following the star's appearance came to be known as the Dog Days of summer. The inhabitants of the island of Ceos in the Aegean Sea would offer sacrifices to Sirius and Zeus to bring cooling breezes, and would await the reappearance of the star in summer.

The reader may be wondering what any of this might have to do with the cutting open of fruit.  Yet it is unmistakable that the ancients, like Pliny associated honey with the rising of Sirius as we read "this substance is engendered from the air, mostly at the rising of the constellations, and more especially when Sirius is shining." (Natural History 11.15)

Pliny understands that honey existed in the upper atmosphere as a kind of gas which bees collected as we read in full:

The second kind of honey is "summer honey," which, from the circumstance of its being produced at the most favourable season, has received the Greek name of horaion; it is generally made during the next thirty days after the solstice, while Sirius is shining in all its brilliancy. Nature has revealed in this substance most remarkable properties to mortals, were it not that the fraudulent propensities of man are apt to falsify and corrupt everything. For, after the rising of each constellation, and those of the highest rank more particularly, or after the appearance of the rainbow, if a shower does not ensue, but the dew becomes warmed by the sun's rays, a medicament, and not real honey, is produced; a gift sent from heaven for the cure of diseases of the eyes, ulcers, and maladies of the internal viscera. If this is taken at the rising of Sirius, and the rising of Venus, Jupiter, or Mercury should happen to fall on the same day, as often is the case, the sweetness of this substance, and the virtue which it possesses of restoring men to life, are not inferior to those attributed to the nectar of the gods.

The crop of honey is most abundant if gathered at full moon, and it is richest when the weather is fine. In all honey, that which flows of itself, like must or oil, has received from us the name of acetum. The summer honey is the most esteemed of all, from the fact of its being made when the weather is driest: it is looked upon as the most serviceable when made from thyme; it is then of a golden colour, and of a most delicious flavour. The honey that we see formed in the calix of flowers is of a rich and unctuous nature; that which is made from rosemary is thick, while that which is candied is little esteemed. Thyme honey does not coagulate, and on being touched will draw out into thin viscous threads, a thing which is the principal proof of its heaviness. When honey shows no tenacity, and the drops immediately part from one another, it is looked upon as a sign of its worthlessness. The other proofs of its goodness are the fine aroma of its smell, its being of a sweetness that closely borders on the sour, and being glutinous and pellucid.

Cassius Dionysius is of opinion that in the summer gathering the tenth part of the honey ought to be left for the bees if the hives should happen to be well filled, and even if not, still in the same proportion; while, on the other hand, if there is but little in them, he recommends that it should not be touched at all. The people of Attica have fixed the period for commencing this gathering at the first ripening of the wild fig; others have made it the day that is sacred to Vulcan. (ibid 11.14 - 15)

We must not lose sight of the fact that wasps are essential in the natural ripening of the sycamore fig.  This would not have been lost on the ancients (while modern theologians by comparison often can't even figure out what type of tree Zacchaeus was sitting in!).

Aristotle 'confirms' that bees make 'honey' from figs (Histor. Animal. 9).  This clearly results from a natural observation associated with the natural life of bees and wild figs.  Aristotle tells his readers that:

When honey runs short they expel the drones, and the bee-keepers supply the bees with figs and sweet-tasting articles of food. The elder bees do the indoor work, and are rough and hairy from staying indoors; the young bees do the outer carrying, and are comparatively smooth.

This phenomenon can be observed in the nature documentary I posted yesterday.  The bees do indeed collect a sweet nectar from the sycamore fig but it is not a honey.  As noted in the film, the bees use it to make repairs to the hive.  This must also be the same substance described as 'bee-bread' (κήρινθος) by Aristotle in the same section:

They have also another food which is called bee-bread (κήρινθος); this is scarcer than honey and has a sweet figlike taste; this they carry as they do the wax on their legs.

My guess is that Aristotle has mistaken the food given to larva for some sap taken by bees from a sycamore fig (hence the fig-like taste).  Nevertheless it is worth noting that κήρινθος (= Cerinthus) is a name of an obscure Egyptian heretic.  This likely goes back to a comparison of the blood of the castrated initiate (see below) with the sap of the newly ripened sycamore fig which apparently takes four days to 'mature' after cutting.

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