Give us this day our daily dose: Ergot, LSD and the Israelites
Every day, in hundreds of languages, millions of people ask God to “give us this day our daily bread”, which is rather more ‘day’ than is strictly necessary. Certain things are so familiar that we never think about them, and while the Lord’s Prayer may be the most well known passage in all scripture, it contains the most obscure word in the entire Bible, found nowhere else in the book, nor in Greek literature generally: epiousion. What does this curious word mean?
The epi- takes the bread ‘beyond’, as in epitaph and epilogue, and -ousion appears to be from the root ousia (meaning ‘being’ or ‘essence’). St. Jerome translated epiousion into Latin as ‘supersubstantialem’ (i.e. ‘more real/higher existence’).[i] Certainly, it was something more rarified than your standard daily crusty loaf. Sources contemporary with the gospels equate it to manna, which was called “bread from heaven” in Exodus.[ii] [iii]
Manna is the most exalted substance in the Old Testament, but not simply because it fed the Israelites. It was one of two foods collected in the desert during the flight from Egypt, the other being quails that helpfully came to ground every night to be rounded up in great numbers.[iv] Though this seems like a much more remarkable provenance, they are not called “angel food” or “bread from heaven”.[v] Nor are they remarked upon much, whereas manna is of profound theological significance.
At evening you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be satisfied with bread [manna]: and you shall know that I am Yahweh your God.[vi]
This verse specifically connects a feeling of satisfaction to the manna but not the meat, implying that it satisfied in a way that quail did not. Maybe the miracle of “angel food” is not where it comes from, but rather where it takes you to:
All the people are seeing the voices, and the flames, and the sound of the trumpet.[vii]
Revelatory experiences are the stuff of scripture, but this vision at the foot of Mount Sinai is different, being the only collective apocalypse in the Old Testament. Elsewhere individuals invariably experience their visions alone, and collective visions are extremely rare in world mythology generally. It only happens to everyone together in the Bible when they are all eating manna at the same time. Moreover, it’s also the only example of synaesthesia in the Bible. Hebrew prophets often see sights and hear sounds, but they don’t see sounds. People don’t normally see sounds, unless they have, for example, taken psychedelics. For that matter, we don’t normally see mountains blazing in light unless we’re on psychedelics. A fire that burns and does not consume is clearly not fire, though it would be a good metaphor for the colourful geometric patterns that flicker around the objects of one’s attention in psychedelic states.
So what is manna?
Though we might imagine it falling like sacks of humanitarian aid, the description resembles a plant secretion that hardens into resinous pellets the size of coriander seeds:
It was like coriander seed, white; and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.[viii]
In another description it seems to drip from the plant and form flakes on the ground where it splashes:
When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor.[ix]
It also has a rapid rate of decay:
Moses said, “Let no man leave of it till the morning.” Notwithstanding they hearkened not unto Moses; but some of them left of it until the morning, and it bred worms, and stank: and Moses was wroth with them.[x]
Presumably it wouldn’t have been beyond an omnipotent deity to provide food that had a longer shelf-life. He could also have whipped up something that didn’t require preparation, but manna is only consumed after a three-step process. It is “ground in mills, or beat in a mortar”.[xi] It is baked and boiled:
“Tomorrow is to be a day of sabbath rest [said Moses] […] So bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil. Save whatever is left and keep it until morning.” So they saved it until morning, as Moses commanded, and it did not stink or get maggots in it.[xii]
Any guess as to its identity can only be speculative several thousand years on, but such rapid decay suggests a fungal infection, and so does the fact that heat arrests the process. One fungal secretion endemic to the area is ergot, and it emerges from its dormancy at the onset of spring, which is just when the Israelites first encounter manna.[xiii] [xiv] It contains LSA, which is related to LSD in its structure and its effects, and can cause synaesthesia. In the Medieval period, grain supplies contaminated with ergot occasionally triggered outbreaks of collective madness and visionary experience, in a phenomenon known as St. Anthony’s Fire.[xv]
The first stage of ergot infection produces a honeydew with a honey taste (like manna). It dries on the plant to form whitish resinous pellets about the size of coriander seeds (like manna), and where it drips it forms a white frosty scale (like manna). Ergot is famously toxic, but easily converted into a safe psychoactive preparation. According to Albert Hofmann, who produced LSD from ergot, such an operation was “well within the range of possibilities open to Early Man”.[xvi] If the secretion is ground up then boiled, it is easy to separate off the insoluble toxic compounds, and evaporating the resulting solution produces mind-blowing crystals.[xvii] If manna was in fact ergot, it seems that someone knew exactly what they were doing, as Exodus describes it being ground up, boiled and baked.
At the end of the wanderings in the wilderness, Moses orders that a stash of manna be safeguarded:
Fill an omer of it to be kept/cultivated for your generations; that they may see the bread wherewith I have fed you in the wilderness.[xviii]
The command is clear enough, but then the prophet repeats himself the following line with a slightly different command:
“Take a pot, and put an omer full of manna therein, and lay it up before Yahweh, to be kept for your generations.” As Yahweh commanded Moses, so Aaron laid it up before the Testimony, to be kept.[xix]
Why would Moses give a command twice, and in two slightly different ways? And given that the first stipulates that manna be seen by generations to come, why does the second place it behind two veils where it can’t be seen by anyone except the High Priest? Stranger still, this command is issued – and followed – before the Ark has been constructed or even mentioned. How can it be placed before the Testimony if the Testimony hasn’t been built yet?
Something stinks here, as stinky as yesterday’s manna. Textual scholars agree that the chronological glitch indicates that this is one of the many parts of the Bible where text written at a later date has been inserted into the narrative (another being the introduction of a lawcode into a story of flight and revelation that had nothing to do with law at all).[xx] Whatever the reason, the second command renders the first both redundant and unworkable, and it was the second that became dogma while the first was broken. Manna ended up in the Tabernacle, never to be seen again by those outside of it. It is not mentioned again until the New Testament describes it still ensconced inside the Holy of Holies. Manna may have been cultivated for a millennium and a half, but if so it was kept from the general population.
There are further psychoactive recipes described in the Good Book (and unpacked in another good book called Neuro-Apocalypse). All of them were kept in the Tabernacle, off-limits to anyone outside of the priestly caste. The incense contained a wide range of GABA receptor agonists, opioid receptor agonists, and both dopamine and serotonin boosters. The recipe for the “bread of presences” is unknown, but we do know that it was active at a dose the size of a bean, and even that was too much for some of the priests.[xxi] The holy massage oil synergized powerful psychedelics with the enzyme inhibitors required to unlock them, as well as chemicals related to MDMA. The oil is called shemen ha-mishcach, where mashach is ‘wipe’ (related to ‘massage’ in English). ‘The anointed one’ is mashiyach in Hebrew, or messiah in English, though the promise he brings has changed over time.
[i] Pope Benedict XVI/Cardinal Ratzinger on The Meaning of “Our Daily Bread” Adoremus, Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy Online Edition – July – August 2007 Vol. 13, No. 5 Retrieved on 7 November 2015 from www.adoremus.org/0707BXVI_Jesus.html
[ii] The Second Book of Baruch
[iii] The Intertextual Jesus: Scripture in Q Allison, D. C. Jr. (Harrisburg: 2000) pp. 51-52
[iv] Exodus 6:13
[v] Psalm 78:25
[vi] Exodus 16:12 (with my substitution of ‘filled’ for another meaning of the same Hebrew word ‘satisfied’)
[vii] Exodus 20:18 (YLT)
[viii] Exodus 16:31
[ix] Exodus 16
[x] Exodus 16:1-20 (NIV)
[xi] Numbers 11:8
[xii] Exodus 16:23-24 (NIV)
[xiii] A Laboratory Guide to the Identification of Claviceps purpurea and Claviceps africana in Grass and Sorghum Seed Samples Alderman, S. (Oregon Department of Agriculture: 1999)
[xiv] Midrash Mekilta Exodus 16:
[xv] Drugs Across the Spectrum Goldberg, R. (Belmont, CA: 2003) p. 259
[xvi] The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries Wasson, G. et al (Berkely: 2008) p. 43
[xvii] LSD and Ololiuhqui Postscriptum: The Secret of the Eleusinian Mysteries Revealed in Pharmacotheon: Entheogenic Drugs, Their Plant Sources and History Ott, J. (California: 1996)
[xviii] Exodus 16:32
[xix] Exodus 16:33-34
[xx] The Original Place of the Priestly Manna Story in Exodus 16 Baden, J., Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 122 (2010): 491–504. p. 501
[xxi] Tractate Yoma 4