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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. He is more interested in the universal phallic cult of which he believes the Near Eastern religions are expressions. This is centered around a sacred mushroom, or, more specifically, the slightly poisonous fly-agaric which represents to worshippers the semen implanted by “the mighty penis” on earth. Ancient connections existed between the serpent and the mushroom in folklore, so that “the whole Eden story is mushroom-based mythology.” Thence it is only a short step to the conclusion that the whole Bible and Christianity are derived from the same source. Eden was the “Garden of Sex,” Jesus “the semen that saves,” Peter a name derived from the Aramaic word pitra, “mushroom.”

Mushroom nomenclature is always occurring in the Bible, not least in familiar passages where the meaning had seemed reasonably clear-cut. Thus Allegro interprets 2 Kings 9:30-31, telling of the encounter between Jezebel and Jehu, as: “in the words, ‘Is it peace, you Zimri, murderer of your master?’, it is not difficult to see a word-play on the plant name Cotyledon, which we have already noticed as derived from the Sumerian Gu-tal-en-dun, ball and socket: penis and vulva,” and that it is thus related to the sexual characteristics of the mushroom imagery.

The New Testament is treated similarly. Accepting that the Christians were indeed a sect “hated for their abominations” (Tacitus, Annales, xv. 44), Allegro insists that one must penetrate the surface tale of Jesus’ ministry and look instead for the cryptogram or pun in any given text. Usually the searcher will be rewarded by a mushroom meaning understood hitherto only by the secret devotees of early Christianity, and this is preferable to the pseudo-translations of modern scholars. The actual stories about Jesus are no more real historically than those concerning Adam and Eve.

Thus for nearly 2,000 years Christians have been worshipping a red mushroom and it’s high time the fairy story was exploded. When, however, every allowance has been made for references to sacred dancing in the Acts of John, to Christian cryptograms on the wall near the Shrine of St. Peter beneath the Vatican, and to the more esoteric practices credited to some of the Gnostic sects in the second century, we are still far from the sect of psychedelic dervishes that the author would represent the early Christians to have been.

Like other radical critics of the past, men such as Drews and van Manen who described Jesus in terms of psychopathy, Allegro fails to understand history and historical evidence. It is not merely that the New Testament (or for that matter the Old Testament) does not read like cryptography, but that what it relates can be checked against other contemporary sources. Pontius Pilate was as real as the inscription recording his office as Prefect of Judaea found at Caesarea; the names Jesus, Miriam, Lazarus, and many others were the ordinary Palestinian names of the first century and their counterparts have been dug up from the Mount Scopus cemetery which was abandoned in A.D. 70. Gabbatha (Jn. 19:13) was literally the “raised place” near the Roman headquarters in the Temple area where the trial of Jesus took place. The veracity of Acts is demonstrated by the author’s thorough knowledge of the provincial administration of the Julio-Claudian era. There is no trace of the literary devices of a later forger. Whatever else may be said of the New Testament it cannot be dismissed as myth. Its foundations will not be undermined by Allegro’s phallic on-slaught.

To proclaim the historic truth of the New Testament, however, is one thing: to assert its relevance to our own day is quite another. All the great religions of mankind have been born in the Ancient World. Have they really anything to say to modern industrial man? This is the question which Dr. Martin wrestles with, against the negative conclusion that impels his acceptance. There are no mushrooms in The Encounter, just historical analysis and a suggestion of prophetic genius. If prolix and at times diffuse, it is also an exciting, up-to-the-minute, and above all an honest book, that tries and within limits succeeds in going to the heart of the present weaknesses of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. “It is abundantly clear,” he writes, “that these religions are finished as major influences. As predominant systems of thought, worship, ethical inspiration and of judgment on human affairs, they are excluded forever from human affairs.” They may depart protestingly, but depart they will. Their claim to dominance as saviors of man from the evil within him has been shown to be false.

In each case the main reason for failure was that early in their history they were confronted with a set of circumstances that demanded decision. The decision they took determined their future history. For both Jews and Christians it was the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. In the two generations that followed, the Jews under the leadership of the Rabbi Akiba made obedience to the Law the touchstone of their being. But Akiba had assumed that the Temple and Jerusalem would also be restored, and when that did not happen, Judaism retained the hard core of its past without the means of further development. The result was the ghetto, and today Judaism finds itself split among the diminishing minority who still abide by the Law, a great many more who use Judaism as a useful identification tag, and the secular state of Israel. The Knesset is hardly a substitute for the Temple.

The Christian moment of crisis resulting from the same event had even more far-reaching effects. It ceased to be an opposition religion to Judaism and turned west, to become in due course the religion of Western man, enjoying his dominance, but at a price. The catastrophic nature of its moral decline is demonstrated in the author’s view by the equivocation of Pius XII in face of the nameless horror of the concentration camps, when compared with Leo I’s selfless confrontation with Attila to turn the Huns from the gates of Rome. For Islam, also, prosperity has contributed to its present ineffectiveness. The cohesive conquering religion of the Arabs became fossilized in a formal system of law and morality which, confined to certain geographical areas, has forfeited its relevance even among those who claim to profess it.

There is a sweep and a grandeur about the author’s analysis. “Absolutist, unique, total, transcendental. These are the four terms that fittingly describe the religious dominance of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.” All claim that man can only be himself, attain his objectives, and avoid mortal dangers if he accepts the religious version of these values. Otherwise, like an outlaw, he is left to his own devices to grapple with forces in raw and naked collision. Religion claims to save him from this fatal encounter. Today, however, confronted by the test of actual events, these claims are proving hollow. Religious explanations have been found wanting. Man’s faith is rooted in this life. He is concerned with his relations with his fellow men and not with God or Heaven. Pope Paul VI contented himself with oblique references to Christianity when he addressed the United Nations.

All this is indeed true. Man’s conquest of his environment has opened up possibilities and dangers unparalleled in the past, and at this juncture in his history the old anchors provided by religion no longer hold. Can anything of the old faiths survive? Many have been asking the same question, but few so reluctantly as the author. A less schematic thinker, however, might have been able to be more positive as well. As it is, realities are sometimes sacrificed by Dr. Martin to a preordained scheme into which they must be fitted.

It is not true, for instance, that at the time of the Arab invasions Christianity was urban and Western in outlook. Dr. Martin forgets the Syrian and Coptic monks and the Christian missions to Ethiopia and Nubia. What was truer was that many of these Eastern Christians preferred the protection of a Moslem government to the nagging persecution of Orthodoxy and Latin Christianity. The existence of large numbers of Christians as subjects in their midst also influenced the development of Islam from conquering army to Moslem state. Today the multifarious churches, particularly in southern Africa, vigorous in their own sectarian life, demonstrate that Christianity does not inevitably have to assume Western forms.

One must ask whether, when looked at closely, the options that the author assumes to have been open to the great religions were real options. Is it conceivable that Judaism in the aftermath of the fall of Jerusalem had the choice of reverting to the Judaism of the Prophetic Era, or to have spiritualized itself so thoroughly as to abandon circumcision as a sine qua non of its being, or to have come to terms with the Christians? Or, alternatively, that the Christians could have identified themselves wholly with Judaism or carried through a separation even more thorough than they did from their Jewish parentage; or that on the death of the Prophet, Islam could have returned to the deserts, or at the other extreme, grown into a great secular empire embracing the whole of the Mediterranean world?

The great “ifs” of history are always fascinating and sometimes not unprofitable. In American history the future would have been different if during the War of 1812 the British had been able to establish Tecumseh in an autonomous state south of Lake Erie. Lessons from contact with an independent yet underdeveloped people at that stage in the nation’s history might have done something to avert the present tragedy of Vietnam. But the alternatives which Dr. Martin places so strikingly before the religions of our day did not exist. After A.D. 70 Torah was all that was left to Judaism, while rejection by the Pharisees forced the Christians to turn their missions to the Jewish Dispersion in the Greek-speaking parts of the Roman Empire, and thus ultimately become a Western religion. Islam down to the fifteenth century was far from confined to a restricted geographical area, as Dr. Martin asserts. From Central Asia to Indonesia it was on the advance. Even today in Black Africa it continues to make more converts than all the Christian missions combined.

These are faults of diagnosis and they raise the question whether Dr. Martin’s conclusions are any more soundly based than Dr. Allegro’s. Christianity together with the other great religions of the world faces crisis, mainly because its doctrines like theirs were formalized in a pre-scientific age and mean little to people today. In addition, Augustinian morality and ethics which for fifteen hundred years were normative in the West depended on a false eschatology, derived from the hopes nurtured by Jews of a fiery vengeance on their pagan oppressors. Under the stress of two world wars this system has collapsed with no alternative but hedonism yet in sight.

Christianity has, however, faced crisis before, and for the believer, as Dr. Martin himself shows, no holds are barred and no problem is too daunting. It may be that the legacy of the Greek Fathers with their optimistic view of man and their belief in the possibility of fulfilment for all may have more to offer man than any form of traditional Western theology. And if there is at least some assurance of the historical truth of the original ministry and message of Jesus, the Christian may still have something to say to his contemporaries.

Man does not relish being without God and without hope in the world. The desperation of the Yippies and other way-out movements is a reminder of this. There is in our day an unrequited search for wholeness. The crisis then could also be a challenge. In this view the remedies which Dr. Martin proposes, such as genuine ecumenism stripped of implicit claims of dominance, the recognition of common ground in all the great religions, and belief that God dwells in man his beloved, take on a new meaning. Encounter is a landmark in contemporary religious writing. So long as Christians can write such books, there is less need to despair.

Letters

Allegrissimo April 22, 1971

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