El Día de los Muertos… in Ancient Israel?
El Dia de los Muertos is a colorful Mexican celebration where the living celebrate their dead. For the last few years, I had the pleasure to attend el Dia de los Muertos in rural areas of Mexico. I truly enjoyed it. While Western societies have a tendency to forget about their dead, Mexicans stay very close to them.
The rituals honoring the dead in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica go back three thousand years. They have always included the creation of special dishes, playing music, and setting up altars. This celebration has very little to do with Halloween. There are no trick-or-treats, costumes, partying, and candies (OK, there is now some of that, but mainly in the cities!)
There are cempasuchil (i.e. marigold) flowers everywhere. Through their colors and scent, they are believed to bring souls back from the dead to the land of the living. And millions of monarch butterflies (mariposa) return to the remote forests of Michoacan at precisely this time of the year. And since pre-Hispanic times, the Purépecha Indians believe that human souls do not die, but continue to live in Mictlan, where their spirits can rest until the day they can return home to visit loved ones.
Elsewhere in Mexico, families gather in the cemeteries (called pantheon – literally “all the gods”) around tombs, usually in the evening, to celebrate their departed ones while playing music, eating and drinking. Walking through the cemetery is an opportunity to mingle with people and learn about the ones they lost. At home, they set up altars (indoor or outdoor) with candles, food, and photos of their beloved departed ones.
Few people are aware that the early Israelites not only practiced the cult of the dead, but also deified their powerful ones. In fact, the rituals of del Dia de los Muertos in Mexico are surprisingly similar to the ones that the early Israelites must have been following, some three thousand years ago, during the Bronze Age, precisely at the time when tradition claims Abraham lived. The main difference between now and then would be in the power that the early Israelites attributed to their dead.
A majority of biblical scholars now acknowledge that the cult of the dead was an integral part of early Israel. However, it wasn’t always the case. Writing in the late sixties, W.F. Albright, a pioneer in biblical archeology, explained how he came to change his mind:
In Cults of the Dead in Ancient Israel and Ugarit, Theodore J. Lewis, a prominent scholar on Ancient Israel, explains that if these practices were condemned in the name of Yahwism, it is most likely because these practices and rituals were solidly entrenched and needed to be prohibited:
Modern scholars tend to view the cult of the dead as remnants pagan practices that were foreign to Yahwism. They view these rituals and practices as leftovers from ancient pagan practices that existed in the land and would have inevitably come into conflict with an emerging Yahwism.
In reality, the only reason these practices and rituals were so pervasive is precisely because they gave rise to the God of Israel. And while the difference in the interpretation may seem subtle, the impact it has on our understanding of early Israel is immense.
We are truly on the wrong track when we think of Yahwism as a “foreign” or “new” religion. Instead, we must come to realize that Yahwism was born out of land and the cult of the dead. And this is precisely this paradigm that I have been exploring over the last two decades.
I will soon be releasing To be Done with Sodom, a non-fiction comic that explores the possibility that the God of Israel himself could have evolved out of the cult of the dead. I chose November 1st for the launch date for my non-fiction comic because it is also el Dia de los Muertos in Mexico.
Mark the day!
Albright, William Foxwell. 2001. Yahweh and the gods of Canaan: a historical analysis of two contrasting faiths. Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns. (Orig. pub. 1968.).
Lewis, Theodore J. 1989. Cults of the dead in ancient Israel and Ugarit. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press.