Common to virtually all religious doctrines is a belief in a deity or deities that transcend humankind in thought, power, and practice. Spirituality demands a supernatural constituent that is worthy of worship and often fear. This requires that there be a difference, as well as a distance between the human subject and the divine overlord. While the envisioned differences have often taken strange and grotesque forms, the gods have always been anthropomorphized to some extent. This allows for intellectual dialogue with humans and the possibility of human emulation. Central to almost all religious thought is the idea of achieving an oneness with the deity. While there may be argument as to whether this is a literal physical union or a more spiritual joining, it nevertheless implies a combining of human and divine attributes. Becoming godlike demands a change in behavior — not the least of which involves the choice of food. There seems to be in the collective conscience of humanity a remembrance of a time past when humans did commune with the gods. Equally universal is the desire to return to that blissful state. The ingestion of food was an obvious requirement for human life and it was logical and, in fact, necessary, to assume that the gods likewise required provender. But it was equally important to make a distinction between the nourishment required by humans and that required by a god.
A. Pythagoras (c. 582-507 BCE)
Pythagoras, with his orphic traditions, represents an early attempt at achieving a reunification with the gods. Pythagoras was born on the island of Samos about 582 BCE. Although he and his family were well off, they were at odds with Polykrates, the tyrannical ruler of the island. As a result, Pythagoras eventually left Samos and settled in southern Italy. Legend has it that he studied in Ionia, Israel, and Egypt. During his sojourn in Egypt, he was captured by the Babylonian invaders and spent some 13 years in Babylon, most likely around 530 BCE. This would have been immediately following the death of Daniel, but nevertheless in a close enough approximation to that era for him to have been influenced by Daniel's legacy. Tradition says that he explored from India in the East to Gaul in the West. He too saw dreams as divine revelations and adopted a vegetarian lifestyle that was emulated by his followers for hundreds of years. In fact, until the mid-19th century, vegetarians were termed Pythagoreans.
Pythagoras adopted and adapted Orphism, an older Greek religion. He saw earthly life as only a merciless round of pain and trouble (the product of evil). Although humans belong to the heavens and to the stars (as semi-gods), they were also bound to life by a cycle of death and rebirth. The goal of life was to escape from earthly existence and be released to eternal life. "Alas, what wickedness to swallow flesh into our own flesh, to fatten our greedy bodies by cramming in other bodies, to have one living creature fed by the death of another! In the midst of such wealth as earth, the best of mothers, provides, nothing forsooth satisfies you, but to behave like the Cyclopes, inflicting sorry wounds with cruel teeth! You cannot appease the hungry cravings of your wicked, gluttonous stomachs except by destroying some other life." — Ovid: Metamorphoses, translated by Mary M. Innes
The gods were not in need of the same foods on which humans subsisted. Hesiod, (c. 800 BCE), a poet of antiquity, described the dining habits of the gods: "immortals inhabiting the Olympian mansions feast ever on the pure and bloodless food of Ambrosia." Their beverage was the nectar of flowers.56
The French anthropologist Marcel Detienne continues: "The consumption of meat actually coincides with the offering to the gods of a domestic animal whose flesh is reserved for men, leaving to divinity the smoke of calcined bones and the scent of spices burned for the occasion. The division is thus clearly made on an alimentary plane between men and gods. Men receive the meat because they need to consume perishable flesh, of which they themselves consist, in order to live. Gods have the privilege of smells, perfumes, incorruptible substances that make up the superior foods reserved for the deathless powers."57
This concept is found numerous times in the Hebrew scripture. God is said to have "smelled a sweet savor" from the burnt offering presented by Noah following his deliverance from the Deluge (Genesis 8:21). Several passages in the Pentatuch refer to the required Jewish sacrifices as a "sweet savor unto the Lord."
To become godlike, godlike behavior is necessary. Since the gods live on "the nectar of flowers," and there was obviously no meat in that type of fare, it was also not the kind of substance that a human can live on. A compromise, however, was to eliminate meat altogether. Eating the flowers was almost as good as living on their nectar.
Ironically, it is possible that the offering of animal sacrifices first tempted humankind to taste animal flesh. The fire that invariably accompanied a sacrifice would leave at least a portion of the meat roasted. Since the gods did not consume the flesh, sampling that which remained after the fire had burnt out was most likely an irresistible temptation. Undoubtedly more than one supplicant tasted his oblation. Finding the fl avor satisfying, it takes no great stretch of the imagination to see the indulgence extended to other non-ceremonial occasions.
The early biblical record of offerings to God indicated that vegetation was unacceptable and that only a blood offering would suffice. This original rejection of vegetable produce may have hastened the ascendancy of meat as a more desirable fare. Hebrew ritual actually made provision for the priests to obtain much of their nourishment in this way.
Although the 6th century BC marked the first written commentary on a meat-free diet, oral tradition places the introduction of such a regimen at a far earlier date. Those Jews and Christians alike who take a literal approach to scriptural interpretation believe that Genesis 1:29-31 indicates that the original diet given to both humans and animals was meatless. "Then God said, 'I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground — everything that has the breath of life in it — I give every green plant for food.'And it was so."
The Garden of Eden described in Genesis 1 and 2, with its harmony between man and beast and its plant-based diet, is not unique to Judao-Christian thought. The Roman historian and poet Ovid wrote that: "The first millennium was the Age of Gold, No brass-lipped trumpets called, nor clanging swords. Spring was eternal, and gentle breezes caressed the flowers with clear warm air. Fields were always fertile ... streams of nectar flowed forth.
No blood stained men's lips ... until some futile brain envied the lions' diet and gulped down a feast of flesh to fill his greedy guts."58
That a belief in a "Garden of Eden" existence is an almost universal characteristic is evident from the mythology of diverse cultures, literally from all over the world. The legends of a majority of cultures recall a time in the dim and distant past when the gods lived among men, and man and animals lived in peace and harmony because there was neither need nor desire to sacrifice animal life to appetite. Michael Mountain remarks: "The Cheyenne people of North America also spoke of an eternal springtime in which the original people roamed, innocent and free, before the coming of the age of flood, war, and famine. Northern European peoples celebrated the age of the Peace of Frodi, when there was no strife and a magical mill ground out peace and plenty. In South America, the legends of the Caribs of Surinam tell of a time when the trees were forever in fruit and the animals lived in perfect harmony so that the little agouti played with the fur of the jaguar. The Krita Yuga, or Perfect Age, of India, and China's Age of Perfect Virtue are said to have been a time without sickness, suffering, or war. And the creation stories of the Middle East all tell of a time when humankind lived at peace with nature and with God in a Garden of Eden, free of sickness or death and without need for labor or toil."59
Many cultures also have a tradition of a return to a "Golden Age" when all things will live in peace and harmony.60,61 This is particularly true of Christian-Judaic philosophy that believes in an earth made new, where both man and animals revert to the Edenic state. "And the wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the suckling child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice'den. They shall not hurt of destroy in my holy mountain saith the Lord: for the whole earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea" (Isa 11:9).
It is not hard to understand that attempts to hasten the return to this blissful state have provided the impetus for the adoption of a vegetarian lifestyle among many of the faithful. Even those who see this as a distant and heavenly reward may come to adopt a plant-based existence, in anticipation of the heavenly culture to which they fervently aspire and that they believe the afterlife will provide.
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