Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Food of the gods

I recently read Wells’s Food of the Gods. It occurs to me that one often overlooked thing separating contemporary religious belief from the beliefs of past ages is its relationship to food. In neither Christianity nor Islam does God eat food (in fact something the reverse is the case with Christianity, where God, though ineffable and immaterial, is mysteriously eaten as food by His worshippers). God does not need physical sustenance the way mortals do. Yet Homer’s gods ate and drank—Ambrosia and Nectar respectively; and most earlier religions include the practice of sacrificing animals to the gods, in order (as the belief was) that those gods might eat.

The concept of an immortality drink is attested in at least two Indo-European areas: Greek and Sanskrit. The Greek ἀμβροσία (ambrosia) is semantically linked to the Sanskrit अमृत (amrita) as both words denote a drink that gods use to achieve immortality. The two words may be derived from the same Indo-European form *ṇ-mṛ-to- : immortal (n- : negative prefix equivalent to the prefix a- in both Greek and Sanskrit; mṛ : zero grade of *mer- : to die; and -to- : adjectival suffix). However, the connection that has derived ambrosia from the Greek prefix a- ("not") and the word brotos ("mortal"), hence the food or drink of the immortals, has been found merely coincidental by some modern linguists.
That we should eat immortality to become immortal is part of the same belief structure that says 'I eat bison to become strong as a bison; I eat lion to become brave as a lion.' But food is broken down in the stomach, and that which is immortal cannot be broken down. Might as well swallow gold pellets. Still, I like the way the long-lost Indo-European word *ṇ-mṛ-to- both means and more-or-less sounds the same as the current English word immortal. That's neat. The real moral is: language is immortal.

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