All Christians, no matter how they celebrate the expiation of Christ, recognize the instigation of that ordinance by the Savior during the Passover (Pesach) in Jerusalem just prior to his crucifixion.
And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body.
And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it;
For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. (Matthew 26:26-28.)
If they pay attention in classes, Latter-day Saints will have learned about the historical roots of Passover in the events of the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt, which included a hastily consumed meal that came to be known in Jewish tradition as Seder.
Since Seder includes the ritual consumption of certain foods, it seems appropriate that Christ would choose that occasion to instigate another eating ritual to encourage his followers to recall his primary mission to Earth: the resurrection of all and salvation for those who seek it.
Looking deeper into the past
Christians believe that the Sacrament originated with Christ. Hence, no investigation of the ordinance goes beyond that point.
What most Christians and Latter-day Saints do not know is that the origins of the Sacrament, like most Christian conventions, are to be found much further back in time, in ancient custom and tradition. In fact, there is credible evidence that its roots go much deeper into ancient tradition than most consider. This evidence points to the source of such rituals in the heaven-spanning specters that once dominated Earth’s skies.
As it turns out, the scriptures tell us of a ritual meal consumed by idolatrous Israelites that is clearly a prototype of the Sacrament, leading to the surprising conclusion that the Savior borrowed a custom or tradition that was already ancient in his day, and then adopted and adapted it to use as an ordinance.
To understand the ancient origins of the Sacrament, we must go back in time to the reign of judges in Israel after the conquest of Canaan and the Philistines by Joshua’s armies.
Shortly after Joshua’s death, the Israelites began worshipping the gods of their neighbors. In Judges we read:
And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD, and served Baalim:
And they forsook the LORD God of their fathers, which brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods, of the gods of the people that were round about them, and bowed themselves unto them, and provoked the LORD to anger.
And they forsook the LORD, and served Baal and Ashtaroth. (Judges 2:11, 12, 13.)
And the children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the LORD, and served Baalim, and Ashtaroth, and the gods of Syria, and the gods of Zidon, and the gods of Moab, and the gods of the children of Ammon, and the gods of the Philistines, and forsook the LORD, and served not him. (Judges 10:6.)
Here we have an unequivocal statement that the Israelites adopted the idolatrous worship of neighboring cultures. Indeed, one might argue that they never actually abandoned the beliefs and practices that they learned while in bondage in Egypt.
Even though the generation that followed Moses out of Egypt had long passed away by the era covered in Judges, the text clearly indicates that they passed on to their children a tendency to accept idolatrous beliefs and practices, suggesting that vestiges of idolatry bridged the gap from one generation to another, down through the ages.
On the earth, as in heaven
Of course, we’ve learned elsewhere that those idolatrous traditions were based entirely in ancient astral events. They were symbolic of things that were once seen to happen in Earth’s tumultuous skies.
More specifically, we know that Baal (Apollo) was Mars and Ashtaroth (Ishtar, Aphrodite) was Venus, the two primary actors in the Polar Configuration.
These idolatrous practices flourished over time to become an integral part of Israelite culture. Indeed, they endured on into the epoch of the Israelite monarchy where Yahweh was no longer revered as the only god. In fact, he was worshipped as one of many gods.
For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Zidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites.
And Solomon did evil in the sight of the LORD, and went not fully after the LORD, as did David his father.
Then did Solomon build an high place for Chemosh, the abomination of Moab, in the hill that is before Jerusalem, and for Molech, the abomination of the children of Ammon.
And likewise did he for all his strange wives, which burnt incense and sacrificed unto their gods. (1 Kings 11:5-8.)
And the high places that were before Jerusalem, which were on the right hand of the mount of corruption, which Solomon the king of Israel had builded for Ashtoreth the abomination of the Zidonians, and for Chemosh the abomination of the Moabites, and for Milcom the abomination of the children of Ammon, did the king defile. (2 Kings 23:13.)
Thus we see that the customs, rituals and practices attendant to the worship of those idols was fully integrated into Israelite culture for many generations, insomuch that they became an indistinguishable part of the religion Moses had originally given them.
We see the pervasiveness of such practices many generations later in events recorded by the prophet Jeremiah.
Therefore pray not thou for this people, neither lift up cry nor prayer for them, neither make intercession to me: for I will not hear thee.
Seest thou not what they do in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem?
The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire and the women knead their dough, to make cakes to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto other gods, that they may provoke me to anger. (Jeremiah 7:16-18.)
The Lord condemned Israel through Jeremiah for their perfidy. In addition to practicing the abominable ritual of child sacrifice to the heathen god Moloch, Jeremiah’s account explains that they worshipped “the queen of heaven,” making “cakes” and “drink offerings.”
The queen was a star and a planet
This Queen of Heaven that Jeremiah despised was none other than Ashtoreth, mentioned in the quotes from 1st and 2nd Kings. She was the great star goddess (Venus) of antiquity, the mother of the son (Mars) of god (Saturn).
As an aside, it is worthy of note that the Roman Catholics adopted the imagery of the Queen of Heaven for their worship of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ. In that role, she is an ideal fit for all the imagery and veneration of her prototype in nearly every ancient culture since they all had an equivalent goddess they worshipped as the Queen of Heaven and the mother of god, whether she was called Ashtoreth, Ishtar, Isis, or some other title. Thus, when Christianity was taken to other “gentile” cultures, they readily accepted the Virgin Mary imagery. This was even true for Mesoamerican peoples such as the Inca, Maya and Aztecs.
A ritual meal
Of particular interest in our quest to understand the origins of the Sacrament is the practice of making cakes and drink offerings mentioned in the preceding verses.
In the following verses we learn that in spite of Jeremiah’s pleas to abandon such rituals, the people vowed to continue them because they were traditional.
Then all the men which knew that their wives had burned incense unto other gods, and all the women that stood by, a great multitude, even all the people that dwelt in the land of Egypt, in Pathros, answered Jeremiah, saying,
As for the word that thou hast spoken unto us in the name of the LORD, we will not hearken unto thee.
But we will certainly do whatsoever thing goeth forth out of our own mouth, to burn incense unto the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto her, as we have done, we, and our fathers, our kings, and our princes, in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem: for then had we plenty of victuals, and were well, and saw no evil.
But since we left off to burn incense to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto her, we have wanted all things, and have been consumed by the sword and by the famine.
And when we burned incense to the queen of heaven, and poured out drink offerings unto her, did we make her cakes to worship her, and pour out drink offerings unto her, without our men? (Jeremiah 44:15-19, italics added.)
These cakes and drinks they made were not simply used as an offering placed upon some alter or set aside in a shrine. They were ultimately consumed ritually, just as were all the animal sacrifices of the Israelites.
As is the case for all such rituals or rites, they were done to recall some aspect of the ancient configuration that once stood above the Earth.
Hot cross buns and the Queen of Heaven
Another curious connection to these rites is found in European pre-history. When the northern tribes of Israel ultimately migrated into Europe, they took these traditions with them. So it should not surprise us to learn that the traditions of many European cultures preserve vestiges of these practices.
Our holiday now connected with the Savior’s resurrection, Easter, is just such a tradition. It began as a celebration, a holiday (holy day) consecrated to the Queen of Heaven: Aster, Astarte, Ishtar or Ashtoreth. One custom connected with that holiday is the making of hot cross buns. In effect, buns were made that bore the image of the goddess, which was a cross.
The cross placed on the hot cross buns is the same image that history tells us was placed on the cakes made by the women of Jerusalem in the Jeremiah text. Not only that, the European tradition indicates that those cakes were made to be eaten, just as are their equivalents today. The cross was the explicit ancient symbol of the star goddess since she ultimately assumed the form of the cross in heaven. The “cakes” or buns were made in the image of the goddess.
Here we see a discharging Venus forming four arms or streams, setting behind the darker orb Mars and in front of the larger face of Saturn. This is the archetypal image replicated in the hot cross buns of Easter.
Learning the lessons of history
So, we learn yet another connection of the idolatrous practices of the ancients to our modern cultural traditions which serves to demonstrate how pervasive and enduring are these traditional practices. Just as with the Christmas traditions — in fact, the traditions of all holidays (holy days), which all harken back to celestial events — they endure in one form or another in contemporary culture, even after memory of the origins are long lost and forgotten in hoary antiquity.
And so it was with the worship of the Queen of Heaven, the great star goddess of antiquity. When the ancient Israelites ate the cakes and drank the drink offering, they made a covenant to remember her, to recall how she brought the heavens to life and lit the Earth with her glory, as well as nurturing the child (Mars) she bore. Cakes and beer or wine were chosen because those were ultimately the edible fruits of the Earth over which Venus ruled. Hence, she was the prototype of Mother Nature as well.
She was called the Queen of Heaven for good reason. Sumerian texts tell of her “terrifying glory,” invoking Inanna (Venus) as the goddess of “the Light of the World”, “the Amazement of the Lands”, “the Radiant Star” and “Great Light.” They depict the goddess “clothed in radiance,” saying that the world stood in “fear and trembling at [her] tempestuous radiance.”
So, when the Savior wished to initiate an ordinance that would remind his followers of his role as Redeemer and “light of the world,” the thought of adopting this ritual to the light goddess naturally came to him. Not only was the ritual customary in his culture, making it an easy transition for his followers, he must have known that similar customs in other cultures would pave the way for adopting the ritual among converts to the ‘new’ religion, Christianity.
Supportive of this thesis is the fact that the cross once seen in heaven emanating from the sky goddess became the principle symbol of Christ in the emerging Catholic and Eastern Orthodox religions. Clearly, converts from paganism to Christianity had no problem with applying both the cross symbol of their sky goddess and the ritual meal commemorating her to the worship of the real Son of God, the Savior in their new religion.
When we take the Sacrament, we covenant to remember the Savior and the role he plays in creation and more particularly in our redemption. He chose to have the bread represent his body and the water to represent his blood, a logical and natural adaptation of the original offering to the meaning of the Christian Sacrament.
Thus we see that the archetypal ordinance, the predecessor of the Sacrament, served the same function in the religions of all ancient cultures as it does in Christianity.
Learning new lessons from the past
Such knowledge teaches us many things. We learn that our practices and beliefs are not that much different from those of cultures we have heretofore seen as strange and esoteric, completely unrelated to the gospel. We see that the gospel can easily be adapted to the traditions of almost any culture because its rituals arise from common roots in ancient celestial events and conditions. Indeed, one may say that all gospel ordinances came into being in a similar manner and for similar reasons.
We learn that Christian ordinances serve to connect us to our ancestors in a very intimate way, even though they may have been somewhat altered and misapplied by less enlightened cultures. We learn that the Savior found nothing improper in borrowing those traditions and adapting them to correct religious practice in order to make it easier for the wayward human race to embrace his gospel and its ordinances.
Thus, the hue and cry among Christians and some Mormons that holidays like Christmas and Easter — even Halloween — are pagan rites, and thus beneath our dignity as followers of Christ and worthy only of our contempt, is flawed. These are valid traditional celebrations that have been adapted as Christian holidays.
Borrowing: a time honored tradition
Moreover — and perhaps the most important lesson we should learn from all this — when Joseph Smith borrowed the vestiges of ancient temple rites and ritual from Masonry, the only institution on the American frontier in the early 1800s that retained some semblance of those rites and ordinances and adapted them for use in LDS temples, he was merely following the Savior’s pattern in such things.
This also partially explains the presence of idolatrous icons all over modern LDS temples, including the statue of the Greek Aphrodite that stands watch over the veil in the Celestial Room of the Salt Lake Temple.
Such issues are only a problem for those who do not understand the origin and purpose of such practices or icons and the methodology that allows their adoption and adaptation as necessary or useful. When seen in the revelatory light of a proper view of history, there is no need for concern or anxiety at these measures.
Now we can see them in their true role as cultural traditions meant to remind us of things our culture has forgotten, vestiges of a past that entirely elud us today. Their whole purpose is to help us recall our past, one most Saints seem intent on ignoring even though their founding prophet did all he could to resurrect that knowledge.
The ancients would surely be appalled at our ignorance and disregard for the messages they labored to communicate to us down through the ages by means of the symbolism in their texts and the iconography of their sacred temples, tombs and monuments. Given that the true gospel was restored via revelation to Latter-day Saints in this dispensation, our present level of ignorance places added condemnation upon us.
If we forget their origins and true meaning, which most of us have, then these ordinances are only harmless, if somewhat meaningful, rituals. But when we study our past and learn its lessons, these practices serve to immeasurably enrich our lives and further our commitment to our religion and our Savior while connecting us to the beliefs and traditions our ancestors embraced.
This is the primary benefit of learning truth, the correct version of the present, the past and the future—as the Lord put it to Joseph Smith, “things as they are, as they were and as they are to come.”
© Anthony E. Larson, 2005