|The Cream of Christ|
Issue #54 (February 1986)
Most Christians when asked for the meaning of Christ will make an effort to formulate some personal, mystical interpretation or else they will fall back lazily upon the official Church dogma. It seldom occurs to any of us to analyze the word itself.
Since everyone in medieval Europe was already a Christian (what else?), when the peasants referred to an ordinary person they called him a "Christian" just as we would call him a "fellow" or a "guy." Thus in Russia a peasant was called chryestanyi. Elsewhere the word acquired the connotation of one even simpler, in fact that of a simpleton, and the Swiss-French cretin (derived from Chrestin) was the village idiot.
Clearly we have fallen a long way down from the original Greek word, Christos, "one who is anointed." We know very little about that. Why was he anointed? What was he anointed with, and who did the anointing? The word has no connotation for the modern mind. What exactly is "anointing," anyway? The word derives from the Greek verb chrio, "I rub, I anoint," and is probably somehow related to the Greek word for hand, cheiros. This has exactly the same sense as the word "massage" as it is used today when "masseurs" rub oil on their clients' bodies with their hands.
Masso (I knead) in Greek is not very distant from the Hebrew m'chiqah (rub), but the Greek word most closely associated with christos is chrestos, meaning "good, health-bestowing." Oil and rubbing are related concepts in a number of languages. Lithuanian smarsas (fat) and Scandinavian smø> (as in smorgasbord) correspond to English "smear." Sanskrit ang, "smear," is the Latin ungere, "to anoint," and is the origin of our word "unguent." Perhaps even the Basque word gurin (butter) is related to the Indo-European root »GHREI, "to smear, to rub." But as we proceed in our semantic/etymological comparisons, another meaning begins to creep in. Margarine, the butter substitute, is an older word than most housewives suspect. It is another form of the Latin margaras, "oyster" — don't forget that margarine is originally white, not yellow, so a lump of margarine might very well resemble this humble creature — and from that of course comes the Latin word for pearl, margarita. And curiously enough, in olden times "pearl" was a poetic synonym for "Christ."
From the Hebrew word m'chiqah comes the word maschiach, "anointed," and this is our word "Messiah." But compare the latter with the Ancient Sumerian mashman, one of the earliest words for priest or exorcist (cf. the Sanskrit of Paleoasiatic SHAMAN), Arabic samna (butter), Assyrian shamash (the Sun-god, the Healer), Sumerian shemman (a mixer of oils), Arabic mahdi (Guided One, Messiah), Ethiopian madnani (Savior), perhaps even the Persian god, Mazda belogs here or even the Greek magos, Latin magus (magician, wise man). In Hebrew "cream" is shammanet which is related also to the root-word SH-M-SH, "servant, steward, priest, prostitute, angel." And with differing vowels we get SHEMESH or "Sun." And finally, the blue-veiled Tuaregs of Berber Africa call God Mesih. All these "layers" of meaning tell a rather interesting story about the human mind and its metaphysical preconceptions.
To digress briefly, "Jesus" is merely Latin for Jehoshua, Yashua, i.e. the Hebrew word Yeshu'a, "Jehovah is salvation." We see this same root in the Sumerian word shu, "save" and another Hebrew word yasha', (to be large, to save), which is probably the origin of the Greek iasomai, "to heal." We should bear in mind here that Nosios, "Healer" and Soter , "Savior" were common in Ancient Greece as epithets for kings and for the god Zeus.
But to return to our anointings. Chrisma (holy oil) in Later Latin was in Early Latin, cremor, "thick juice," and is just possible kin to the Egyptian kma (ointment) as well. Butter, cream, etc., and Salvation are to be equated because we arrive at these things by dint of "rising to the top", or purification. It is from such words that we also get soap (Cleanliness is next to Godliness). Compare Basque gazta, "cheese" and gaizkatze, "salvation" or Albanian gyalpe, "butter", Hebrew goel, "Redeemer"; Greek elpos, "oil" and elpis, "hope" — which bring us full circle. Finally, if you will notice, the same thing happens in English: salue is Middle English for "ointment" or "salve" and is also in fact the ultimate source of "Salvation" itself. The French for "Salvation" is salut, to which we might compare the French word for "soap" deriving from salbonr, "ointment." Let us go a step farther now. Alongside the Sumerian shemman, "a priest or mixer of oils" we have mash, shem, which are words meaning, most astonishingly of all, "semen." Similarly, alongside Greek smegma, "soap" and Hebrew sh-m-sh, "priest" there is also shammash, "penis." It is clear from the evidence of so many different language groups that roots for butter, oil, grease, unguent, salve, juice, etc. and roots for anointing, massaging, rubbing are related directly to the idea of HEALING and SALVATION. But preposterous as this may seem to some, the religious origins of the Arabs, Jews and Egyptians, which ultimately gave us Christianity, have roots in turn leading into the most primitive heart of Black Africa! For the Messiah is the "anointed one", and the anointing of kings and priests is an extremely ancient practice, ultimately reaching back, in all probability, to fertility rites (i.e. "health, healing") in which early shamans or medicine-men may have rubbed themselves with semen.
No doubt baptism (originally done with oils and perfumes) arose simply as an imitation of the anointing of kings, since the literally new-born, together with the "born-again" business common to many old religions, are so inordinately high in social status.
ED REHMUS, fresh from turning classical scholarship on its ear, weighs in this month with a Biblical bombshell. He is obviously trying for honorable mention in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.
Ed Rehmus was well-known within San Francisco Regional Mensa in the 70s through the 80s as the "weird" cover artist of the newsletter Intelligencer. He later created an irregular comic stric called "The Clonies." Ed also wrote the occational story for the Intelligencer.