Theophagy, Or How do you Like your God?

Ancient folk did not always want to be close to their gods. It really depended on the kind of god you worshipped. In a gross characterization we might suggest that ancient Assyrians and Babylonians preferred to keep their gods at a cautious distance unless needed. Mesopotamian deities (like their environment) were (was) unpredictable and capricious. And with moody gods, distance is on your side. The ancient Egyptians, on the other hand, with their steady and regular flooding of the Nile, felt that gods were friendly and helpful. It was good to have them near ⎯ indeed, as close as possible.

When it comes a step further than being close to a god, the options seem to be inhaling or ingesting a deity. Inspiration (breathing in) is a familiar enough religious concept today, as is theophagy, or eating deity. Theophagy is a regular practice in many branches of Christianity that believe in transubstantiation or consubstantiation. During these Eucharistic events, the communion elements are believed to either transform into or go along with the body of Christ. Christianity traces this concept to that of animal sacrifice where God was thought to consume the animal (or in very early culture, perhaps the human victim). Somewhere along the line the concept was reversed so that God could be consumed.

In preparing for my mythology class, I was reminded of Hesiod’s Theogany and the story of Cronus eating his children. This episode, dating from the eighth century B.C.E., has a jealous Cronos trying to prevent a takeover on the part of his kids by the extreme parenting measure of swallowing them. Not to worry, however! Zeus manages to be born on Crete and is able to free his siblings from the gut of his dysfunctional father. Cronus’ intention was to stop the gods by eating them while today theophagy is an attempt to absorb the deity. Ancient religions give us insights into modern religions, but only with a generous dose of evolution. It all depends on what you’re trying to accomplish by interacting with the gods.

Cronus has a little snack

5 thoughts on “Theophagy, Or How do you Like your God?

  1. Interesting, the next story from the Mahabharata I quote will be about theophagy of sorts. Stay tuned.

    But meanwhile, in “puja”, food is offered to the gods and then worshippers eat the food. Spittle is very dirty in Indian culture and eating food that others has touched is looked down on because you share spittle (saliva). So eating food of the gods, you say, “Even your spit is a great honor to me” Thus they eat the spit of the gods.

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  2. Fascinating post. Could take me a while to digest it.

    I once participated in a class regarding how child abuse affects a person’s concept of God. The goal was for the students to uncover their core beliefs about God. One of the first things the presenters said was that a person’s concept of God is the same as their concept of their parents. i.e. If the parent is distant, the child believes God is disinterested. If the parent is judgemental and abusive, the child believes in a harsh, judgemental harsh God. You get the idea. I see this reflected in what you are saying about an ancient culture’s physical environment and their concepts of God. Cool.

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    • Yes, Piper, I ran into this too, as a seminary student. I had a very interesting class where the professor discussed how an abusive parent creates a distorted image of God in a child’s mind. Coincidence? I think not.

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