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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

What Constitutes Being?

Ontology, Part Two
Alice C. Linsley

What constitutes Being? That question has had different answers through the centuries. For the ancient Afro-Asiatics, blood constituted being. For Plato and Aristotle, ousia constituted being/existence. For Rene Descartes, it was awareness or cognizance. For Martin Heidegger, it was Being itself (Dasein).

In the most general sense, Being pertains to everything that is real. That which is not real has no Being. The question of Being has had a central place in philosophical conversations from the most ancient times to the present.

Asking about Being leads to consideration of contingent existence by reference to a necessary ground or to constituency. What constitutes the ground of Being? Is it consciousness? Is it living and breathing?

The Ancient Afro-Asiatics

For the ancient Afro-Asiatics, being is constituted by blood (dam in Hebrew). Ha-adam means "the man" or the "human being." Adam and Edom also refer to the color red and are related to the Hausa word odum, meaning red-brown. This is the skin tone of the peoples who lived along the Nile where red-brown clay deposits accumulated after rains washed red silt down from the Ethiopian highlands. This is the region of the world where Abraham's Kushite ancestors lived and it is from them that we receive the story of Adam and Eve as the first created human beings.[1] Adam was said to be made of the dust of the earth (Gen. 2:7).

Red-brown Nubians
Image: Arthur Brack

These Nubians resemble the red Nabatean warriors
who had long wavy hair and wore feathers.

Blood is the complex and somewhat mysterious transport system that allows communication and coordination between different parts of the human body. It nourishes organs and muscles. Without it, life as we know it could not exist. This is the meaning of Leviticus 17:11: “The life is in the Blood.”

By extension, blood is connected to bone since blood cells develop from hematopoietic stem cells and are formed in the bone. By extension, Eve also has being since she is made from Adam's rib bone. Upon seeing the woman for the first time, Adam declares, "This is now bone of my bones..." (Gen. 2:23). Eve was named by Adam and her name means “living” because she is said to be the mother of all living (Gen. 3:20). [2]

Blood and Binary Distinctions

The Afro-Asiatics associated maleness or the masculine principle with the Sun and femaleness or the feminine principle with the Moon. This intuitive association extends to semen and milk. The Sun inseminates the Earth and the Moon stimulates female reproduction and lactation. Because the moon affects water, tides, and body fluids in a repeating cycle there is a natural association of the Moon with the periodicity of the menstrual cycle. Many ancient peoples associated pregnancy with the moon, and in France menstruation is called “le moment de la lune.”

Archaic societies recognize and respect binary distinctions and derive meaning from the relationship of oppositions such as male-female; heaven-earth; life-death, and wet-dry. They observe the patterns in nature and align their thinking with those patterns. The Afro-Asiatics made a distinction also between the blood work of men in killing and the blood work of women in birthing. The two bloods represent the binary opposites of life and death. The shedding of blood in war, hunting, execution and animal sacrifice fell to warriors, hunters, rulers and priests. The shedding of blood in first intercourse, menses, and in childbirth fell to wives and midwives. The two bloods were never to mix or even to be present in the same space. Women didn’t participate in war, the hunt, and in ritual sacrifices, and they were isolated during menses. Likewise, men were not present in the birthing hut or at the circumcision of females (called Pharaonic circumcision).[3]

The binary aspect of blood is seen in the belief that it can both purify and pollute. The priest was not to come into contact with blood before his time of service in the temple. Contact with blood or a corpse caused him to be ritually impure. At the same time, spiritual contamination was cleansed by the blood of sacrificed lambs. Purity, holiness and blood are closely related concepts among the Afro-Asiatics, as is evident from linguistic study. The Hebrew thr means "to be pure" and corresponds to the Hausa/Hahm toro, meaning "to be clean." They are related to the Ethiopian Amarigna word anatara, which means "pure" and to the Tamil tiru, which means "holy." There is a relationship to the proto-Dravidian tor, meaning "blood." In some Kushitic languages mtoro means rain and toro refers to God. The Egyptian ntr, meaning deity, is related.

Blood and Kinship

Blood is the substance by which kinship is recognized. Even those who are not kin may form a brotherhood pact by the intentional mixing of bloods between two men, but never between male and female. The binary distinctions of male and female are maintained as part of the sacred tradition in tribal societies. This is the meaning of Eve’s statement that she has given birth to a man from the Lord (Gen. 4:1). She recognizes that her son’s being is like her own. Both are made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:27).

In the Bible, blood is the elemental substance of Being, just as water is the elemental substance of earth. Water and blood are often connected in the Bible (Ex. 4:9; Ex. 7:17; Is. 15:9; John 19:34; I John 5:6-8). There are over 385 biblical references to blood. Blood is perceived to have power. In Genesis 4:10, the blood of Abel cries to God from the ground where he was killed by his brother. Hebrews 9:22 says, “Without shedding of blood is no remission of sins.” Colossians 1:20 says that Jesus Christ has "made peace through the blood of His cross.”

The kinship of all humanity is asserted in Acts 17:26 which states, "And from one blood he made the whole world of humanity to be dwelling on the whole surface of the Earth and he marked out the times in his decrees and set the boundaries of the dwelling places of humanity."


Among the ancient Kushites "the mind-body problem" was framed in terms of the ka (body) and ba (mind/soul).The Ka was received from the mother and the Ba was received from the father. The Ba was considered eternal. Both Ka and Ba were necessary to being and life would cease were the two to become permanently separated. This was called the "second death" and is referred to in Revelation 2:11. To avoid the second death, the Nilotic peoples prayed, offered sacrifice and prepared the bodies of their dead in the hope that they might rise to life. Preserving the unity of Ba and Ka was the reason for mummification. This was especially important for rulers as they were expected to lead their people to immortality in the event that they should rise from the dead. This is the significance of the procession language used by St. Paul in speaking of Jesus' resurrection and ascension (Ephesians 4:8).

In ancient tombs the Ba is sometimes depicted as a human-headed bird flying out of the tomb to join with the Ka in the afterlife. Saint Augustine wrote "that the Egyptians alone believe in the resurrection, as they carefully preserved their dead bodies." ("Death, burial, and rebirth in the religions of antiquity", Jon Davies, Routledge, 1999, p. 27)

The Kushite and Egyptian rulers built thousands of tombs and funerary pyramids. Some of these are buried under the shifting sands, but 17 were recently identified using satellite technology. Egyptian archaeologists also discovered a 4400-year-old tomb, south of the cemetery of the pyramid builders at Giza, Egypt. The Egyptian Minister of Culture, Farouk Hosny, said the ancient tomb belonged to a priest named Rudj-Ka (or Rwd-Ka), and is dated to the 5th Dynasty - between 2465 and 2323 BC. Dr. Zahi Hawass said that Rudj-Ka had several titles and would have been an important member of the ancient Egyptian court.

The word Sheol is derived from the ancient Egyptian word Sheut (šwt), meaning shadow. This is the origin of the idea that the underworld is a place of shadows. The Egyptians believed that something of the dead person continues as a shadow beyond the grave. Small statues or figurines of deified rulers were painted black to portray their continued existence as shadows.

Life After Death

For thousands of years, in many different places around the world, members of the ruling class were buried in red ochre powder, a symbol of blood. This apparently represented the hope of life after death. The universal nature of this phenomena speaks of its great antiquity.[4]

Perhaps the oldest case (at least 50,000 years ago) involves the burial of a small boy in the Lebombo Mountains of Southern Africa. He was buried with a sea-shell pendant and covered in red ochre dust (ground hematite).

A man buried 45,000 years ago at La Chapelle-aux-Saints in southern France was packed in red ochre.

The Fox Lady of Doini Vestonice in Czechoslovakia was covered in red ochre at her burial 23,000 years ago.

The Red Lady of Paviland in Wales was buried in red ochre about 20,000 years ago. Her skeletal remains and burial artifacts are encrusted with the red ochre.

A 20,000 year old burial site in Bavaria reveals a thirty-year-old man entirely surrounded by a pile of mammoth tusks and nearly submerged in a mass of red ochre. Native Americans used red ochre for ceremonies and also to bury their dead.

P.L. Kirk reports that prehistoric Australian aboriginal burials reveal pink staining of the soil around the skeleton, indicating that red ochre had been sprinkled over the body. The remains of an adult male found at Lake Mungo in southeastern Australia were copiously sprinkled with red ochre.

Blood Guilt and Religious Leaders

Anxiety about the shedding of blood is very old. Early man had an intuitive anxiety about blood. The priesthood, which is one of the oldest known offices, likely developed as a response to the need to relieve blood guilt and anxiety. The priest’s work has always been related to blood. He performs the rituals that relieve the individual and the community of blood guilt. In Israel, the High Priest offered sacrifice to cover the sins of the people on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).

The priest is both contaminated by blood (thus the prohibition against contact with menstrual blood or corpses) and made pure by blood (such as shed by the spotless lamb when sacrificed).

Abraham received the ministry of the ruler-priest Melchizedek after returning from war (Gen. 14:18-20). Likely Melchizedek performed the cleansing rite that absolved Abraham from blood guilt.We note also that Melchizedek came with bread and wine, symbols associated even today with the priesthood.

When archaic man took life in the hunt, the spiritual leader (priest or shaman) offered prayers for the sacrifice of the animal.[5] The animal’s death meant life for the community and the prayers protected the community from the consequences of blood guilt.


1. The Hebrew rison adam means “ancestral man” and is adamu orisa in Hahm/Hausa languages of Nigeria. The Hausa word for human being is dan adam. The Sanskrit word for male human is manu which resembles the African adamu more closely than the Hebrew word adam.

2. Eve is derived from the Hebrew hay which means “living being.” It is related to the Hausa/Hahm word aye which means life, and also refers to the created world. The Hebrew iya which means “mother” corresponds to the Dravidian ka ayi (mother) and to the Hausa/Hahm eyi which menas “gave birth.”

3. Canadian Anthropologist Janice Boddy published a fascinating report on Pharaonic circumcision in American Ethnologist in Nov. 1982 titled "Womb as Oasis: The symbolic context of Pharaonic circumcision in rural Northern Sudan" (Vol.9, pgs. 682-698). Boddy sets forth her research on Pharaonic circumcision among the Sudanese. The practice of female circumcision parallels the circumcision of males and reflects the binary distinctions found throughout the Bible.

4. An anthropological principle holds that the universality or wide dispersion of a culture trait indicates that it is very old. An extant expression of this practice is found among the Red Ochre Men of Australia. John Greenway reports, "The cult is nearly universal in aboriginal Australia… In the deserts the Red Ochre cult moves right across the land in the course of a year, carrying its own ceremonies and myths, touching all tribes in its path, and working as a kind of ecclesiastical circuit court embodying all processes of the religious judiciary."

5. The two oldest religious offices are priest and shaman. These serve similar functions in their communities, but represent different worldviews. Underlying shamanism is the belief that there are powerful spirits who cause imbalance and disharmony in the world. The shaman’s role is to determine which spirits are at work in a given situation and to find ways to appease the spirits. This may or may not involve animal sacrifice. Underlying the priesthood is belief in a single supreme Spirit to whom humans must give an accounting, especially for the shedding of blood. In this view, one Great Spirit (God) holds the world in balance and it is human actions that cause disharmony. The vast assortment of ancient laws governing priestly ceremonies, sacrifices, and cleansing rituals clarifies the role of the priest as one who offers animal sacrifice according to sacred law.

Related reading: The Origins of Animal Sacrifice; Priests and Shamans, Introduction to Ontology, Objections to a Fundamentalist Reading of Genesis 1-5; What is a Priest?

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