Worshipping the Red Mushroom

The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross

by John M. Allegro
Doubleday, 376 pp., $7.95

The Encounter

by Malachi Martin
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 488 pp., $10.00

One of the most famous Upper Paleolithic paintings discovered in the great cave at Lascaux depicts a schematic figure of a bird-headed man, penis erect, holding his hands outstretched in the direction of a mortally wounded bison. The combination of imitative magic and fertility rite represented in that scene underlies much of what is known about the religion of early man in Europe. Yet few would assert that the legacy of Lascaux still influences the religious consciousness of Europeans today. In a slightly different form, however, this is what Dr. Allegro is stating in a remarkable study of the origins and nature of Christianity. “If rain in the desert,” he writes, “was the source of life, then moisture from heaven must only be a more abundant kind of spermatozoa. If the male organ ejaculated this precious fluid and made life in the woman, then above the skies the source of nature’s semen must be a mighty penis, as the earth that bore its offspring was the womb. It followed therefore that to induce the heavenly phallus man must stimulate it by sexual means, by singing, dancing, orgiastic displays, and above all by performing the copulatory act itself.” Thus at the heart of all religions lies the phallic cult, and neither Judaism nor its offshoot, Christianity, was exceptional.

Allegro’s search for supporting evidence leads him back to the religious records of the Sumerians, the people with the oldest known written language. As a philologist he has come to the belief that the Sumerians formed a linguistic and cultural bridge between the Semitic and Indo-Germanic peoples, and hence that a detailed study of their religious vocabulary would throw light on the background of both Semitic and Indo-Germanic religion. This is a novel approach to the study of the ultimate nature of Christianity and if the case could be proved the author would have deserved the esteem of his contemporaries. One is in any event interested that Sumerian words such as malck (“great”) and rig (“shepherd”) could conceivably lie behind the Latin magnus and rex; but other identifications appear more fanciful, and far too many Sumerian words seem to end by meaning “erect penis” or “vulva.”

In itself this would not be damning, as the mother earth element played an enormous part in primitive religion in Europe and North Africa, and the long barrows built to represent a womb must have evolved an extensive vocabulary among their builders. A more serious objection to Allegro’s hypothesis is, however, that in the Akkadian period (circa 2500 B.C.) Semitic names appearing in Sumerian are easily identifiable and stand out. In contrast, the il- and el- prefix common in Semitic theophoric names (e.g., Elohim) does not occur in Sumerian. The conclusion one would draw is that Sumerian and Semitic started as different languages, and that the presence of Semitic terms in Sumerian is in the nature of loan words.

Allegro, however, does not put too much weight on philological or historical argument …

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Letters

Allegrissimo April 22, 1971