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Why did Christianity practice eating books?
Why did Christianity practice eating books?

Since ancient times, an unusual and incomprehensible ritual to many modern people has been practiced in Christian culture - eating a book. Who needed it and why?

Origins and roots

The book has always been considered a special subject and endowed with supernatural properties. Eating a book is one of the options for initiation, communion with divine knowledge, the highest truth. The idea of ​​spiritual appropriation is combined with the act of material acquisition. Hence the well-known stable expressions "spiritual food", "absorb knowledge", "absorb information", "feast of the soul."

In pagan ritual magic, the swallowing of sacred letters was practiced. In the Old Testament tradition, the absorption of the sacred text was part of the rite of passage into the prophets. “Son of man! Feed your womb and fill your womb with this scroll that I give you! " - said in the "Book of the Prophet Ezekiel" (Eze 3: 3).

The origins of this ritual are also found in the famous episode of the Apocalypse, where John the Theologian takes the Word of God into himself: “And I saw another mighty Angel descending from heaven … he had an open book in his hand. And I went to the Angel and said to him: Give me a book. He said to me: take it and eat it; it will be bitter in your belly, but in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey”(Revelation 10: 9).

This stunning scene is best known for its famous engraving by the German Renaissance titan Albrecht Durer. Saint John is depicted on the island of Patmos, where he writes down the text of Revelation. Pens and inkwell are visible next to the open manuscript.

Albrecht Durer

A similar interpretation of the same plot as a religious ecstasy was given by the French engraver Jean Duve. To eat the small book handed by the Angel means to accept the word of God with faith. "Eat" is tantamount to making a part of yourself: your consciousness, worldview, experience.

Jean Duve

The episode of John's partaking of a book sent from heaven is presented in such 16th century written records as the Augusburg Book of Miracles and the Bible commissioned by the Palatine Count Ottinrich.

Miniature from the Augsburg Book of Miracles, ca Matthias Gerung

The same canonical plot of the Apocalypse is rare, but still found on temple frescoes - for example, in the Padua Catholic Cathedral (Italy) or the Athos Monastery of Dionysiates (Greece). Despite the confessional differences and the chronological remoteness of the images, the essence of the episode is unchanged: eating a book is identified with the acquisition, acceptance, and appropriation of higher knowledge.

Giusto de Menabuoi Fragment of a fresco from the Athos Monastery of Dionysiates, 17th century

Spiritual food

Rejecting worldly vanity, God-pleasing and soul-saving reading was likened to the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist (Holy Communion). Such reading was understood as a "spiritual meal." Words that are bitter in taste guide you on the righteous path, protect you from temptation, and strengthen you in faith.

Here is how the spiritual formation of St. Abraham of Smolensk is described: "He fed on the word of God, like a hardworking bee, flying around all flowers, bringing and preparing sweet food for himself." The same is in the biography of Ephraim the Syrian: “No one is as worthy of this book as Ephraim the Syrian,” said the angel and put the book of mysteries into his mouth. The method of gaining the divine gift in the life of Roman the Sweet Songwriter is similar. In a dream, the Most Holy Theotokos appeared to him, gave him a charter (lat. Charta - an old manuscript, document) and said: "Take this charter and eat it."

Bertram von Minden

The motive of "communion with words" is present in many ancient Russian religious writings. So, in the "Word of Daniel the Imprisoned" we read: "Put a small vessel under the sculpting a drop of my tongue, and accumulate it more smoothly than the honey of the words of my mouth."

The emblematic engraving on the back of the title page of Simeon of Polotsk's Soulful Lunch depicts a book on the throne, framed by a biblical quote: “Man will not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Back of the title page of Simeon Polotsky's book "Soul Lunch", 1681

In Byzantium, the following order of teaching literacy was practiced. The boys were brought to church, wrote in ink on a diskos (liturgical vessel) 24 letters of the Greek alphabet, washed off the writing with wine and gave the children a drink, “dissolved” in wine. The procedure was accompanied by the reading of portions of the New Testament.

It is funny and sad at the same time

Since the late Middle Ages, the ritual of eating a book has been played in an accusatory manner. A striking example is the satire on monks by the German engraver Hans Sebald Beham. The churchman is held back by the allegorical figures of Pride, Self-will and Greed. Driven by Poverty, the peasant tries in vain to "feed" the cleric with the Truth in the form of an open folio.

Hans Sebald Beham

Interesting are the plots of paired woodcuts by the German master Matthias Gerung from the unfinished cycle "The Apocalypse and Satirical Allegories of the Church" as a set of illustrations for the polemic commentary on the Apocalypse by the theologian Sebastian Meyer (1539). Images based on the same piece of text were intended to be viewed in parallel. The first engraving is a traditional episode of the eating of a book by Saint John.

Matthias Gerung

The paired engraving depicts Christian theologian and preacher Martin Luther in the form of a stern angel of Revelation with a smoking book, which the king and his subjects cautiously approach.

Matthias Gerung

An exotic shameful punishment is known - the public devouring of immoral, heretical and politically incorrect writings by their authors. Since the book contains "ideological poison" - so let the writer himself be poisoned by it. As a "concession", the person being punished was sometimes allowed to pre-cook the offending volume. The oldest execution of this kind is considered to be the forced eating by a Saxon of Jost Weisbrodt of his rebellious pamphlet in 1523.

Ritual transformation

In the future, the ritual procedure for eating a book takes on more and more perverted and bizarre forms, distorting its original meaning. So, the Ethiopian emperor Menelik II (1844-1913) too zealously and literally believed in the healing power of the Bible, using its pages for food as a medicine. Such a thoughtless attitude towards shrines, a lack of understanding of their true essence is mentioned in one of the letters to A.S. Pushkin: "A scientist without talent is like that poor mullah who cut and ate the Koran, thinking to be filled with the spirit of Magometov."

In the last century, the apocalyptic visions of John the Theologian were projected onto the negative tendencies of the era: "the uprising of machines", the foreshadowing of environmental catastrophes, militant atheism, and the rampant of fascism. The Angel of the Last by Nicholas Roerich has a scroll book instead of a codex book - an indication of the timeless, everlasting meaning of the ancient plot.

Nicholas Roerich

The artist Herbhard Fugel, founder of the German Society for Christian Art, included the episode of John the Theologian eating the book in his series of illustrations for Catholic school Bibles, on the basis of which he then created frescoes for the monastery in Scheiern. Pursuing missionary and educational goals, Fugel deprives images of complex religious symbolism, making them extremely simple and laconic.

Gerbhard Fugel

In the modern world, "book meals" are cast into protest actions. Spanish artist Abel Ascona became famous for his performances "Eating the Koran", "Eating the Torah", "Eating the Bible" in protest against religious radicalism. As conceived by Ascona, this is a symbol of the need to "feed yourself with fiction, lies and fear."

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