History

Monotheism in Ancient Egypt: The Story of Akhenaten
While most people associate monotheism with the three Abrahamic religions, the concept of a single, all powerful god was also promulgated in ancient Egypt.

While most people associate monotheism with the three Abrahamic religions, the concept of a single, all powerful god was also promulgated in ancient Egypt.

Monotheism has long been associated with Abrahamic religions. The first verse of the Shema, the most significant prayer in Judaism, states: “Hear O’ Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” The Islamic concept of Tawhid holds that God is singular and indivisible. In Christianity, the Trinity doctrine asserts that God is a singular entity with three persons. While these are our most familiar examples of monotheism, it isn’t limited to Abrahamic faiths. One of the most drastic shifts from polytheism to monotheism happened in a place you may not expect: ancient Egypt.

Atum: Father of the Gods

Thousands of years ago, Kemetic polytheism was the norm in Egypt. The Ancient History Encyclopedia describes ma’at, the essential balance that governed the universe according to the Kemetic worldview. Atum, the chief deity, once existed alone on a great hill standing in the primordial swirl of chaotic nothingness. From him came humanity as well as the progenitors of Kemet’s primary gods. Osiris, Isis, Set, and Nephthys were Atum’s great-grandchildren. He had scores of other descendants, including Horus, Anubis, Bastet, and Hathor.

Religious and Political Divisions

Kemet’s unification in 3150 B.C.E. started nearly 3,000 years of dynastic rule. Yet the northern and southern regions didn’t always coexist harmoniously. Each had a distinctive religious subculture, according to ancient history professor James K. Hoffmeier: The sun god Ra was preeminent in the northern Delta region, while the south venerated Amun.

Kemet’s civil war started in 2150 B.C.E and lasted about 150 years. Each region had its own pharaoh, with Memphis as the north’s seat of power and Thebes as the south’s capital. Mentuhotep II, a Theban monarch, ended the war by defeating the northern rulers and reunifying the north and south. Amenemhet I, who founded Kemet’s Twelfth Dynasty, combined the north’s and south’s chief gods into a single deity: Amun-Ra.

A Sun God’s Royal Devotee

Amun was the chief deity during the first part of the New Kingdom period starting in 1570 B.C.E. Historian Joshua J. Mark mentions that Amun’s depictions combined the most essential attributes of both Atum and Ra, resulting in a god that encompassed every aspect of creation. Amun’s cult was extremely popular, to the point where ancient Kemetic religion embodied monotheism.

Amenhotep IV, who came to power in 1353 B.C.E, would change all of that. About five years later, he abandoned his worship of Atum and became a devotee of Aten. He enacted sweeping religious reforms, instituting a monotheism with Aten as its deity. He erased other deities’ names from public monuments, ordered Amun’s priests to serve the new god, and sent his palace guards to destroy relics, idols, and texts devoted to Amun. Another Encyclopedia Britannica piece reveals that other gods suffered the same fate: Even Amun’s chief consort Mut and the word “gods” were removed from temples all over the land.

Amenhotep IV also changed his name to Akhenaten. Just for context, the name translates as “beneficial for Aten.” He dedicated several new temples to Aten, complete with iconography depicting the Aten sun disk shining its rays upon the royal family. In another Ancient History Encyclopedia article, Joshua J. Mark mentions that Akhenaten declared himself the living incarnation of Aten and his wife Nefertiti to be a god.

Uncertain Motives and a Complicated Legacy

What motivated Akhenaten to make such extreme changes? Political self-interest is one possibility: He could steal power and influence away from the Amun priesthood. Hoffmeier speculates that Akhenaten may have also experienced what he believed was a divine manifestation. Either way, his work was undone after he died. His son King Tut changed his name from Tutankhaten to Tutankhamun, and Aten’s temples were later dismantled. Yet the records left behind show a fascinating yet troubling pattern that would be repeated in other cultures throughout human history.

Why Women Propose on Leap Year Day
The year 2020 is a leap year, and there are many traditions and folklore surrounding both leap years and the date of February 29th.

The year 2020 is a leap year, and there are many traditions and folklore surrounding both leap years and the date of February 29th.

A leap year only comes around every four years ostensibly to synchronize the calendar year with the season, and 2020 is one of them. Non-leap years are called common years. The Gregorian calendar is not the only one that adds days to keep it on track. The Hebrew calendar adds a 13th month within its cycles to keep the seasons and calendar synchronous. On February 29, there are many traditions and folklore that make it fun.

Gender Role Reversals

Traditionally, men have proposed to women when it comes to marriage. There are a number of reasons for this, one of which is that a woman might appear desperate or too aggressive if they were the ones who proposed. The first legend of a woman having the option to propose is from the fifth century, when the patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick, granted permission to single women who had shy suitors to propose marriage. It’s thought that St. Brigid of Kildare requested that this tradition happen every leap year.

There’s another tradition that says Queen Margaret put a law on the books requiring a man to pay a fine if he turned the lady down, typically in the form of a pair of gloves, a flower and one pound. However, it’s unlikely that Queen Margaret actually did put the law into motion, because she was only five at the time the said law went into effect.

In Finland, the custom is that the man buys the woman fabrics for a skirt. In the 17th century, it is thought that women would wear a scarlet petticoat if they were going to take advantage of leap year and propose. This gave the potential groom fair warning.

Popular Culture

These traditions are most likely the precursor to Sadie Hawkins Day, which is the United States’ folk tradition celebrated on the first Saturday after November 9th. It’s a gender role reversal day when women and girls take the initiative to invite men on a date or even to propose marriage. Feminists of today believe the holiday is outdated, but some actually say that the tradition can empower women.

In 2010, Amy Adams starred in “Leap Year,” a movie that relates to the tradition of leap year. The character, Anna, follows her boyfriend to Dublin to propose on February 29. Through twists and turns, Anna is of course foiled, travels throughout Ireland and must face the truth about her relationship. It’s a fun and interesting movie.

Leap Year Traditions

In Greece, it’s considered unlucky to get married during the leap year. That must be rough on the wedding industry, because at least 20 percent of couples will avoid getting married during a leap year. In Greek culture, it’s also considered bad luck to start anything new during the leap year, whether it be baptizing a child, starting a business, or taking off on a journey. According to superstition, a marriage or engagement that begins in a leap year will undoubtedly end in a tragedy, such as divorce or death.

In Ukraine, the saint for February 29 is Cassian, who is said to have brought sickness to animals and people with a single gaze. According to legend, Cassian once refused to help a peasant get his cart out of the mud, which prompted God to limit Cassian to one saint’s day every four years. Ukrainians protect their animals and their families by staying inside on February 29. They also won’t marry on the day. 

In Today’s Culture

Many people wonder if women really need a special day or year to propose to their partner. There have been some interesting proposals that have reached fame on the television and radio. Women just get tired of waiting for their partner to take the first step. Depending on what your cultural background is, this will ultimately determine whether you feel comfortable taking the step toward marriage during a leap year.

 

Sacred Grounds: The Surprising Religious History of Coffee
The humble coffee bean has a surprising religious history that weaves together many fascinating tails and origin stories.

The humble coffee bean has a surprising religious history that weaves together many fascinating tails and origin stories.

Would you call your morning cup of coffee a mystical experience? In our quest to power up for the day, we probably don’t think about coffee’s origins. Yet this humble bean has a surprising religious history. It’s a fascinating and complex tale that began in Africa many centuries ago.

Coffee’s Ethiopian Origins

Coffee cultivation takes place in over 80 countries today, most of them located in tropical regions. One popular legend claims that an Ethiopian goat herder discovered the plant after noticing strange behavior out of his goats. After finding a green shrub decked with bright cherry-colored berries, he picked some of the fruit and brought it to a local monastery. The caffeine enabled the monks to stay awake, and the rest was history.

Except that it wasn’t really history.

Journalist Livia Gershon explains that the coffee plant did first grow wild in Ethiopia. However, the local tribespeople discovered it first. Thanks to its energizing properties, the bean was used as a sacrament in communal ceremonies. Hunters also imbibed it to stay alert and stave off hunger while seeking their prey. It eventually made its way to other parts of Africa, where other cultures found more uses for it. Some brewed a drink from the vivid red berries, while others roasted them in fat or chewed them without any prep. The Haya people of Tanzania even traded the beans as currency.

Java and Midnight Meditations

Just in case you thought the Ethiopian goat herder would get all the credit, there are two other myths about coffee’s origins. The Spruce‘s Lindsey Goodwin mentions one story in which a Sufi mystic finds and chews the berries during his journey through Ethiopia. Another tale claims that an exiled sheik on the verge of starvation discovered the plant in the wild. When he tossed the berries into his campfire, he fell in love with their aroma but found them too hard to chew. After trying to soften them in water, he drank the liquid and felt invigorated.

It’s hard to separate truth from myth, but we do know that Yemenite Sufi Muslims consumed coffee to keep alert during nighttime chanting rituals. Coffee eventually spread throughout the rest of the Muslim world, fueling Yemen’s economy for over 250 years. Many people drank it to stay awake during late-night Ramadan festivities, and coffeehouses sprung up to fuel the demand. More legends propagated about the bean’s origins, with some crediting Muhammed or the archangel Gabriel for gifting it to humanity.

Coffee Comes to Europe and America

Coffee was widely consumed in the Muslim world by the 1500s. Around this time, Europeans began encountering the drink during their travels. Although they found it bitter due to its initial lack of sugar, they loved its energizing effects. The drink soon came to Europe, where it was both loved and considered controversial. Just as in the Middle East, coffeehouses popped up in major cities throughout the continent. They became cultural centers and community meeting places, much like taverns were during America’s colonial era.

One often-repeated legend claims that several clerics asked Pope Clement VII to ban coffee, insisting that it was “Satan’s brew.” Yet when the pope tried coffee for himself, he enjoyed it so much that he gave it his blessing. From there, coffee came to the Americas, where early colonialists embraced the brew. “Coffee makes a man more reasonable, better able to concentrate and hardworking,” comments Laura Turner in the Washington Post. “No wonder people might see it going hand in hand with the Protestant work ethic.”

All Hail the Mighty Bean

Canada ranks third in the world for coffee consumption. For many of us, this bold brew is a must-have that fuels our bodies and minds. Whether or not we thank the divine for our daily drink, it certainly holds a revered place in our modern lives.

Avatar: The Journey of a Fascinating Loan Word
When someone says the word “avatar,” you may already hold a specific meaning in your head, but it communicates a vital concept developed in Hinduism.

When someone says the word “avatar,” you may already hold a specific meaning in your head, but it communicates a vital concept developed in Hinduism.

When someone says the word “avatar,” what images come to your mind? You may think of a picture that represents you in social media and other online spaces. Perhaps James Cameron’s 2009 film comes to mind. It’s easy to forget the word’s original religious origins, but it communicates a vital concept developed in Hinduism over thousands of years. To understand the journey of this simple word, we need to look at its roots and how it entered the English language.

Avatar: A Linguistic Trip Through History

Look up “avatar” in any dictionary and you’ll see words like “incarnation” and “manifestation.” While they convey some idea of its meaning, we need to look to its deeper roots. The Online Etymology Dictionary states that it comes from two Sanskrit roots: “ava,” which translates as “off” or “down,” and “tarati,” a verb that means “to cross over.”

The word “avatar” or the original Sanskrit “avatara” aren’t used as nouns in classic Vedic texts or the Upanishads. That doesn’t happen until about the 3rd century CE when the first Puranic stories were recorded in written form. In that literature, “avatar” denotes the physical appearance of a deity.

Vishnu and His Many Forms

Just as Christianity contains many denominations, Hinduism is full of philosophical diversity. Vaishnavism is one of its four major traditions, and its devotees believe that Vishnu is the supreme deity of the universe. He’s called the Preserver because he protects and maintains cosmic order. In classical Hindu art, he’s usually depicted with blue skin and four arms. Wearing a garland around his neck, he holds a conch, a lotus flower, a mace, and the Sudarshana Chakra–a spinning disk-like weapon.

Georgetown University’s Berkley Center explains that avatars are a huge part of Vaishnavism. While Vishnu may have assumed an infinite number of avatars, most believers focus on 10 primary incarnations. The first three were animals: Matsya the fish, Kurma the tortoise, and Varaha the boar. The fourth, Narasimha, was half-human and half-lion. The remaining six appear as humans: Vamana, Parashurama, Rama, Krishna, Buddha, and Kalki.

Vishnu assumes an avatar when the cosmic order is threatened and humans need his help. Krishna is the most famous, with heroic exploits that include slaying demons and protecting a village from a massive flood. Kalki, the final avatar, has not yet appeared. Various texts predict that he will arrive on a white horse with a fiery sword to end the Kali Yuga, the darkest age in history.

From Religion to the Virtual World

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary dates the first known English use of “avatar” to 1784. Sir William Jones, an 18th-century philologist, used it when discussing Vishnu’s 10 manifestations in the Asiatick Researches journal. English writers such as Lord Byron began to use this new loan word, and that’s when it took on new meaning. Like Vishnu appearing in the physical world, “avatar” also signified a concrete form of an abstract idea.

From there, it wasn’t much of a leap to the computing world. Inspired by its religious significance, game developer Richard Garriott named his 1985 release “Ultima 4: Quest of the Avatar.” Through a series of quests, players would become Avatars embodying one of eight virtues. Online networks borrowed the term, representing physical users in virtual spaces.

Borrowed Words, Transformed Meanings

Language is alive. It lived on the tongues of our ancestors in southern Africa around 200,000 years ago, and since then, it’s grown and branched into thousands of distinct versions. Human linguistic diversity would not be possible without the ability of language to change. Loan words are just one way that language evolves, but they are a testament to the powers of human connection and cultural sharing.

Solar and Lunar Eclipses: Astrological Portents of Change

Humans have watched the Sun and Moon for millennia. Our ancestors knew that these bodies of light allowed life on Earth to thrive, so they saw eclipses as mysterious and terrifying events. Yet modern astrology also assigns meanings to these celestial phenomena. Understanding how eclipses work in astrology requires a brief trip through science and history.

Eclipses 101: Back to Astronomy Class

Eclipses are spectacular yet simple events: one celestial body moving into the shadow of another. During solar ones, the Moon passes between us and the Sun, blocking its light. Lunar ones occur when the Moon travels behind Earth and passes through its shadow.

A total solar eclipse darkens the sky, and the combined sun and moon look like a dark disc with a brilliant outer corona. Space.com explains that a total lunar eclipse produces a crimson or coppery “blood moon.” Some sunlight still passes through our atmosphere, but only red light’s long wavelengths can reach and reflect on the Moon’s surface.

The Moon and the Sun also experience partial eclipses, when one body partly blocks our view of another. Annular solar ones happen when the Moon at apogee passes in front of the Sun, appearing as dark circles with outer rims of gold light. Penumbral lunar ones result from the Moon passing through our planet’s faint outer shadow.

Eclipses in Ancient Civilizations

Historian Gonzalo Rubio reveals that eclipses were often seen as omens in ancient times. Babylonians could track and eventually predict them, but the culture seemed to worry the most about lunar eclipses. They looked for other signs to determine whether an eclipse spelled trouble, particularly to their king. Sometimes, a substitute king would be coronated while an incantation was chanted to combat evil effects. If no other ill omens appeared, the substitute was put to death and the real king returned to his throne.

Eclipses could also signal a deity in trouble or the gods’ displeasure. One even prompted two opposing armies to call a truce. Atlas Obscura’s Natasha Frost discusses the Battle of the Eclipse on May 28, 585 BCE, during which the Medes and Lydians lay down their weapons after seeing a solar eclipse and believing it to be a sign from the gods to stop fighting. Eclipses also made their way into ancient mythologies. According to physics professor Roger Culver, many describe evil entities trying to harm or swallow the Sun: wolves, dragons, frogs, and even a decapitated demon.

Eclipses in Modern Astrology

AstroStyle explains that solar and lunar eclipses occur four to six times each year. It describes them as dramatic astrological turning points, each an agent of change that brings a bit of turbulence or a “cosmic kick in the pants” that signals the need to act.

Solar ones take place during new moons, while lunar ones happen at full moons. This important distinction explains the astrological energies they bring. The Moon sits between the Sun and Earth during solar eclipses, forming a straight line and creating a conjunction. These new moon eclipses signal beginnings, possibly dramatic ones that force us outside our comfort zones. Conjunctions also blend their celestial bodies’ energies, and in this case, it’s the Sun’s ego-focused influences with the emotional ones from the Moon.

On the other hand, lunar ones create an opposition between the Sun and Moon with our planet directly between them. Full moons signal completion, but the Sun-Moon opposition creates tension between logic and emotions. Hidden or “shadow” personality aspects can arise, or we may be called to bring closure to nonbeneficial situations or patterns.

Symbolism in the Heavens

Solar and lunar eclipses fascinate us even in the 21st century. We now know the science behind them, but they still hold special meaning in astrology. As portents, eclipses are seen as calls for growth, change, and closure.

Jewish Perspectives on Mental Health
Religions haven’t always handled mental illness with compassion and kindness, but how do modern Jewish Canadians deal with such challenges?

Religions haven’t always handled mental illness with compassion and kindness, but how do modern Jewish Canadians deal with such challenges?

The Canadian Mental Health Association states that one in five Canadians is impacted by mental illness each year. With Canada’s estimated 392,000 Jewish people comprising about 1% of the population, many Jewish individuals will also face mental health challenges. Religions haven’t always handled mental illness with compassion and kindness, but how do modern Jewish Canadians deal with such challenges? Answering this question requires an overall look at mental health in Canada and Jewish perspectives on the issue from both the past and present.

Mental Health Issues in Canada

Mental health in Canada is a complex picture. The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) estimates around 8% of adults will suffer from major depression and 5% with suffer from anxiety disorders. Even direr is the CMHA’s revelation that at least 50% of Canadians will have experienced mental illness by age 40, but nearly half of individuals dealing with anxiety or depression never seek professional help. While these figures are disturbing, they’re due to many factors, including lack of access to care, stigmas surrounding mental illness, and fear of discrimination.

Historical Jewish Perspectives

My Jewish Learning explains that classical Jewish texts encompass a wide range of viewpoints on mental illness. The Tanakh contains several Hebrew words that are often translated as “madness.” One key word from Deuteronomy is “shigaon,” an antecedent for the modern Yiddish term “meshuggeneh” that means “crazy.” This state of mind is framed as divine punishment for failing to heed God’s word. The Talmud discusses concepts such as mental competency in legal contexts, and the word “shoteh” denotes someone who is severely detached from reality.

On the other hand, it’s been suggested figures such as King David, Job, Hannah, and Elijah may have struggled with depression. These individuals are usually depicted in a more compassionate light. Chabad mentions the term “machalat hanefesh,” which refers to mental illness and is translated as “illness of the soul.” While it may not accurately reflect the involvement of the brain and body, this phrase can describe the depths of suffering that people experience.

Fighting Stigmas, Finding Answers

Nearly every religious or cultural community contains negative beliefs about mental illness. Some examples in contemporary English words include “crazy,” “idiot,” or “nutcase.” Dr. Neal A. Lester at Tolerance.org breaks down how these are damaging and ableist, describing the ways in which they can potentially dehumanize people with mental health struggles.

While similar stigmas exist within Jewish communities, there also seems to be a greater overall openness towards mental health challenges and solutions. My Jewish Learning discusses a few studies revealing that Jewish people tended to exhibit more positive attitudes towards counseling, psychotherapy, and other forms of professional mental health assistance. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism published the Reform Movement’s position on mental health, which calls for several objectives in government, synagogues, religious schools, youth programs, and communities to help those with mental health challenges:

  • Destigmatizing mental illness
  • Training and education
  • Greater community support
  • Better access to housing and care
  • Ensuring fair treatment, safety, and legal rights of mentally ill prisoners
  • Ending workplace discrimination
  • Increased focus on prevention and treatment

Changes are occurring within Orthodox Jewish communities as well. One key objective is removing harmful stigmas, which can lead to isolation and secrecy. Advocacy groups are taking the lead, such as Relief, which researches providers and offers referrals, and Chazkeinu, offering peer-led support for Jewish women.

Chemlah: Compassion and Mercy

While stigmas surrounding mental illness still remain, many Canadian Jewish communities strive to eliminate them and help those impacted receive the assistance they need. “Chemlah” is a Hebrew word that can reflect compassion in a divine sense, especially towards those who are vulnerable. Such compassion is essential to bring about understanding, support, and healing.

Thanatology: The Science of Death and Dying

Thanatology, the study of death, may help unpack our reactions as well as cultural and spiritual practices surrounding dying and grieving.

Are you afraid of death? How do you cope when a loved one dies? You may go to friends and family for solace, journal about your feelings, focus on other matters, or look to your religious beliefs for answers. These are common coping strategies in the face of death, but there’s often more lurking beneath the surface. Thanatology, the study of death and its psychological impacts, may help unpack our reactions as well as cultural and spiritual practices surrounding dying and grieving.

A Quick Overview of Thanatology

Oxford Dictionary defines thanatology as “the scientific study of death and the practices associated with it.” It is appropriately named after Thanatos, the Greek personification of death. The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying explains that Russian scientist Elie Metchnikoff stressed the importance of studying dying in the early 20th century. Yet it wasn’t until after World War II that anyone followed his suggestions. Some of the first texts include 1959’s “The Meaning of Death,” edited by Herman Feifel, and “The Psychology of Death,” published in 1972 by Robert Kastenbaum and Ruth Aisenberg.

Thanatology is an interdisciplinary field relying on science, medicine, psychology, and sociology, but it also draws from disciplines such as theological studies, history, economics, law enforcement, and philosophy. Its scope of interest covers how death impacts individuals, family groups, and societies. Besides the death event itself, thanatologists also examine the needs of terminally ill individuals and their families.

Religious Beliefs and the Death System

When a loved one dies, we rely on a collection of individuals and institutions to help. In 1977, Robert Kastenbaum coined the term “death system” for this interconnected matrix of people and groups. Depending on the society, the death system can include everything from hospitals to clergy. The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying breaks down its various functions:

  • Predicting and warning about death
  • Caring for dying individuals
  • Creating funerary customs and practices
  • Consolation for living family members
  • Making sense of death
  • Determining any morals and ethics of killing

Many of religion’s primary functions exist in relation to the death system. It attempts to explain what happens after we die, then suggests beliefs and practices for attaining the best afterlife outcomes. These ideas usually reflect what each society considers fair, just, and moral.

One great example of how a death system and culture interface comes from ancient Egypt. This society believed in immortality and viewed the world in terms of “ma’at,” a guiding principle that stressed truth, order, harmony, balance, and morality. While one’s good deeds or sins may have differed slightly according to class or profession, everyone was expected to deal honorably, honestly, and kindly with others. The Ancient History Encyclopedia explains that Kemetic people expected their hearts to be weighed against the Feather of Truth. Egypt’s Great Pyramids, elaborate funerary customs, religious hierarchy, and cultural beliefs supported its death system in hopes that the deceased would fare well in the afterlife.

Thanatology in Canada

While thanatology can look at wider cultural institutions and constructs, many study the field today to provide practical help to others. Courses and study programs are offered at King’s University College and Centennial College, with continuing education options becoming more prevalent. Career applications for thanatology often include bereavement counseling, palliative care, social work, and counseling and support for terminally ill people.

For much of human history, religion and culture have often been interconnected. A society’s attitudes toward death, funerary rituals, and religious practices can reflect quite a bit about its values. These may seem like disparate components on their own, but thanatology attempts to bring them together and view them as a systematic whole. When it comes to our faiths and spiritual beliefs, a deeper examination helps us comprehend how they may provide comfort or prepare us for our own mortality.

Religious Fasting: Understanding an Old Practice
Fasting has played an important role in many religious traditions, and current research has also uncovered numerous health benefits associated with it.

Fasting has played an important role in many religious traditions, and current research has also uncovered numerous health benefits associated with it.

Food is more than just sustenance for our bodies. A shared meal is an opportunity for social connection, and we naturally associate some dishes with comfort and well-being. Its preparation can be elevated to an art form, with the resulting cuisine a luxurious sensory experience. Yet at various times during the year, many people willingly give up food for short periods of time. Why do they do this? Learning about fasting and the reasons behind it may help us understand this practice.

What Is Fasting? It Depends on Who You Ask

Cultural Awareness International offers a quick summary of fasting. This custom is observed by Christian, Jewish and Muslim people as well as Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Taoists, and those in the Baha’i faith. CNN’s Drew Kann explains that repentance and atonement are key themes, such as in Judaism’s 25-hour Yom Kippur fast. During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims fast to exercise self-control, focus on spiritual things, and practice gratitude by providing food to those in need. Some Hindus fast to purify themselves and their bodies. The Canadian Encyclopedia mentions fasting as part of purification rituals in some Indigenous societies.

Christian fasting customs vary according to each denomination. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops directs the faithful to participate each Friday as well as on Ash Wednesday during Lent. The USCCB defines fasting as abstaining from meat and eating one regular meal plus two smaller food portions that are each less than half of a standard meal. Patheos editor Terry Mattingly reveals that it can take on many forms in different sects:

  • Eliminating certain foods, such as meat and dairy
  • Eating no food but consuming liquids
  • Skipping food and drink from dawn until dusk
  • Absolute intake avoidance, cutting out both solid food and liquids

Most belief systems have rules and restrictions for fasting. Exempt individuals include those who are sick, elderly, pregnant, menstruating, traveling, or have conditions such as diabetes or heart failure.

Fasting and Spiritual Enlightenment

Many religious traditions contain stories about revered figures who fasted to repent for sin, purify themselves, or achieve a closer connection to their deities. According to Gospel accounts, Jesus endured temptations while forgoing food and drink for 40 days and nights. Others include St. Catherine of Siena and English mystic Margery Kempe. In contemporary times, some New Age practitioners and celebrities embark on sabbaticals during which they avoid eating or drinking. Self magazine writer Korin Miller recounts Ashton Kutcher’s seven-day fast on a trip to Big Sky, Montana. Kutcher reported that he began having hallucinations early in his ordeal.

Attempts to achieve altered states of consciousness aren’t new. They’re a cornerstone of shamanic and mystic traditions around the globe. Yale University’s Explaining Human Culture project mentions that fasting has been used to induce visions, trances, or prophetic dreams. How can a lack of food change our mental perceptions? Livestrong’s Allison Stevens points to possible stupor and delirium triggered by chemical imbalances, and NPR’s Susan Brink cites hallucinations as one symptom of late-stage starvation. Yet short periods with limited food intake may have some benefits, as Healthline discusses. These include improved blood sugar and boosted brain functioning, which could account for reports of increased mental sharpness from some individuals who fast.

Know Your Limitations

Many belief systems around the world include fasting in their traditions. While these faiths name a variety of reasons for the custom, most emphasize achieving deeper spiritual connections or understanding the sacrifices others have made. In the meantime, it’s important to take stock of both your physical and mental well-being before attempting to restrict your intake. While physical actions can be of great spiritual importance, it is our minds and hearts that receive their benefits.

 

Consecrated Women in the Ancient Greco-Roman World
Swearing off marriage isn’t a new trend. Some consecrated roles predate both Catholic nuns and consecrated virgins by several centuries.

Swearing off marriage isn’t a new trend. Some consecrated roles predate both Catholic nuns and consecrated virgins by several centuries.

In December 2018, BBC News reported on the atypical wedding of an American Catholic named Jessie Hayes. Her ceremony had many traditional trappings such as a wedding dress, a ring, and a veil. The unusual part about this celebration was its purpose: to become a literal bride of Christ. Yet, swearing off marriage and sexuality isn’t a new trend. Some consecrated roles and religious orders in older pre-Christian cultures predate both Catholic nuns and consecrated virgins by several centuries.

Ancient Rome’s Vestal Virgins

Sworn to decades of faithful service, vestal virgins provided divine service to the goddess Vesta. The Ancient History Encyclopedia reveals that some ancient writers traced the founding of their order to the Roman king Numa Pompilius, who reigned between 717 and 673 B.C.E. Apparently, he intended them as a state-supported group of priestesses who earned salaries from Rome’s public treasury. Since Vesta was a goddess of the hearth and home, these priestesses were given reverence and held a special place in Roman society.

Chosen when they were between 6 and 10 years old, consecrated virgins each took a vow of chastity and served for 30 years. They would tend the sacred fire located within Vesta’s shrine in the Roman Forum. They also cared for religious objects, prepared food for ritual use, and officiated during the Vestalia feasts lasting between the 7th and 15th of June. These women were free to marry when their terms expired, yet few did so because most men believed it would bring bad luck. Consequently, most continued serving in the temple until they died or were too ill to perform their duties.

The Oracle of Delphi

While the vestal virgins were selected at young ages, some older women served in vital religious roles in ancient Greece. History Answers contributor Alice Barnes-Brown discusses the Pythia, also known as the Oracle of Delphi. The local shrine was built on a spot thought to house the carcass of a gigantic slain serpent called Python. Fumes would emit from below, causing powerful trances during which the god Apollo possessed an individual. Considering the critical nature of his knowledge, his ancient devotees believed that one trustworthy individual should communicate it to others.

Residing at the Oracle during the nine warmest months of the year, the Pythia washed in the revered Castalian Spring. Another Ancient History Encyclopedia piece discloses that she would descend to the adyton chamber below the temple, filled with smoke from burning laurel leaves and barley meal. Seated on a cauldron suspended over a deep crack within the earth, she’d inhale rising vapors and prophesize. Scientists aren’t sure what caused her religious visions, but a Live Science piece proposes possibilities such as a lack of oxygen or the presence of ethylene, methane, or benzene gases. The ethylene theory is popular because of its sweet aroma, which matches ancient descriptions of visits to the Oracle.

Like the vestal virgins, the Pythia was honored by those who sought her guidance. Barnes-Brown explains that young chaste women were originally selected to serve in this role. However, sexual assaults by male visitors led religious authorities to later choose older women for the position. These candidates were over the age of 50 and were former Delphi temple priestesses. Even so, any upstanding female Delphi resident could be selected. Donning traditional virginal garments, every Pythia renounced her ties to her former family, marriage, and home.

Sacred and Set Apart

Catholic nuns and consecrated virgins are familiar to modern Western societies. Nevertheless, these groups have precedents in the ancient Mediterranean world. Vestal virgins served the goddess Vesta and the Roman state while older women gave up their former lives to serve as Delphi’s Oracle. Both prove that some spiritual concepts in the human consciousness never go away.

The Legend of Turtle Island
Studying the Turtle Island story leads to some fascinating discoveries about both Indigenous peoples from the past as well as those in North America today.

Studying the Turtle Island story leads to some fascinating discoveries about both Indigenous peoples from the past as well as those in North America today.

Long before Canada became the country we know, Indigenous peoples flourished across the North American continent. From the Mi’kmaq groups near the shores of Cape Spear, to the Tlingit living around Mount Saint Elias, many distinct cultures descended from this land’s earliest inhabitants. As they developed into the Inuit and First Nations civilizations that were present when Europeans first arrived, some of these cultures told creation stories about a land known as Turtle Island. Studying the Turtle Island concept and story leads to some fascinating discoveries about both Indigenous peoples from the past, as well as those in North America today.

The Origins of Turtle Island 

Multiple Indigenous civilizations told stories in which the known world was called “Turtle Island.” The Turtle Island Native Network retells one common version from the Onondaga, one of the five original Iroquois nations. In many versions of the story, the ancient world is entirely comprised of oceans. Sky Woman falls through a hole in the heavens that was left behind from an uprooted tree. In their attempt to save her life, the creatures living in Earth’s waters dive deep beneath its surface to retrieve some dirt upon which she can stand. Turtle volunteers to carry the dirt on his back, completing Sky Woman’s rescue.

While the Iroquois versions are the most widely known, several other cultures’ mythos also contain Turtle Island stories:

  • The Lenape people of the Northeastern Woodlands region
  • Anishinaabe civilizations such as the Ojibwe and Potawatomi, and Algonquin
  • Cheyenne cultures in the Great Plains region of the United States

While the concept of a massive turtle carrying the world on its back can also be found in older Sanskrit and Chinese texts, it holds the most prominent place among Indigenous American groups. Furthermore, the Mayans developed a similar myth about Zipacna, a conceited and violent oversized crocodile thought to carry their land on his back and cause volcanic and seismic activity as he moved. In contrast, Turtle Island legends tend to portray the giant turtles as helpful, benevolent beings.

Turtle Island in a Modern Context 

Within the last few decades, “Turtle Island” has grown beyond a concept from Indigenous mythology and morphed into one with deeper symbolic meaning. Citing the desire to reclaim older cultural roots and acknowledge the sovereignty of Native civilizations prior to European colonialism, some use the term Turtle Island instead of North America. The America name originally derived from Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, but there were Native civilizations living in these lands long before Vespucci started exploring. The Manataka American Indian Council explains that some Indigenous people also use the term “Niiji” to refer to themselves in place of the word “Indian,” the latter being a moniker mistakenly given to Natives by Europeans believing that they’d landed in India.

The term “Turtle Island” has fallen into more widespread use as it’s being increasingly linked to Indigenous civil rights and environmental activism. One example mentioned in a June 2017 CBC article cites a grassroots group of First Nations activists mentioning “a crisis situation…on Turtle Island.” The activists staged a protest, calling for Canadians to address deeper issues from assimilation, colonization, and colonialism as Canada Day approached. Additionally, Native organizations such as the Indigenous Environmental Network and initiatives like the Turtle Island Solidarity Journey continue to focus on solutions to climate change while drawing attention to their connections to colonialism and environmental racism.

An Old Legend With New Interpretations

Indigenous cultures across North American either developed their own cosmogonic mythos to explain the universe’s origins or borrowed these beliefs from their neighbors. Within many of these civilizations, Turtle Island began as a creation story. With the impacts of European colonialism leading to both modern environmental concerns and civil rights issues, Turtle Island now holds potent symbolic meaning for many Indigenous people today.