A Meditation Upon the Mythology
& Biblical Associations of the Rock Rose
identified as Jeremiah's "Balm of Gilead"
The Pink Rock Rose Cistus incanus creticus is an evergreen subshrub long in our garden, which has a natural range extending from southern Europe through northern Africa into the Holy Land & Lebanon.
The resinous "balm" exuded by this shrub led to it being regarded throughout part of its native range (especially in Spain, Italy, & Greece) as one & the same with the biblical "Balm of Gilead." It is not an unreasonable surmise, as this flower's Mediterranian range indeed extends as far as the lands of the patriarchs.
Other Cistus species share this association with the Balm, & one of these, the Spanish Crimson-spot Gum Rock Rose (Cistus ladanifer maculatus) is even today a major source of essential oils believed to have medicinal properties. The perfumed component marketed as Labdanum could well be one & the same with Gilead's balm. And very Crimson-spot rock-rose grows today even on Mount Carmel.
However, the Balm of Gilead may instead (or additionally) have been a small tree or large shrub, Commiphora opobalsamum, common around the Red Sea, associated with mystical & alchemical beliefs & practices, its oily sap having many useful properties.
As this tree did not range into Europe, Catholics looked to their own environment for plants they could key to biblical flora, & in this case their choice may not have been off the mark. C. incanus creticus though threatened by loss of habitat grows to this day in Syria & Jordan alongside the similar white-flowering C. salvifolius, both of which exude the famed resins on hot days. So rock roses really might have provided the very "balm" which Jeremiah associated with Gilead.
Curiously, today, belief in its healing sacredness is not shared by Muslim & Bedouin peoples who consider its chief value to be as forage for sheep or camels; so its legendary status is largely sustained in Mediterranean Europe, where it has an economic value. Its continued use as an incense is today primarily from resin harvests in Greece.
It's by no means entirely Catholic in its mythic importance, for in mystical Judaism the Balm of Gilead has some lingering meaning as a name for the Divine Shekhinah, feminine presence of God. Even in Jeremiah's day there was an obvious association of the Gileadite Balm with a hypostatic, metaphoric, & female divine presence.
Jeremiah lamented, "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of the Daughter of my People?" [Jr 8:22].
That the Balm was itself called "Physician" indicates its personification or close affinity with a Mother Goddess of Life & Death, of sickness & healing. The "daughter" Jeremiah speaks of is a bride of God, to whom the balm was sacred, although as Jeremiah would have it, only God himself, & not the Balm, is the source of healing, & the Bride could expect no healing unless first She turned toward Her husband, God.
Isaiah as well as Jeremiah & other of the prophets pretty much all assume the collective community of Israel is this "Bride"; that Zion is in truth Mother Zion; that Wisdom is a beautiful maiden who sets banquets for the faithful; & thus to this day the Sabbath celebrates the Shabbat Bride, to whom the closing Proverbs to "the Perfect Woman" are read weekly at Sabbath family feasts.
Within a monotheistic context this duality is rendered less than heretical by avoiding the term "Goddess" for God's Bride, who is addressed Kallah (Bride), Perfect Woman, the Divine Shekhinah, Malkhuth ("Kingdom" but by a close pun "Queen"), but never actually addressed as Goddess. Heresy is avoided, but the essential human need for a Mother Goddess preserved, by transforming what is obviously a very ancient Hebrew Goddess into "merely" a kabbalistic emanation of God (a perceivable fragment of the impercievable Absolute), or by assuming She is merely a poetic expression for the Community of Israel but not as a literal Bride.
Even for Jeremiah, the concept of the Daughter of My People coopted or subdued the Goddess Anath. Jeremiah was from Anath's sacred city of Anathoth. Jewish women came to Jeremiah to criticisize him for his failure to honor "the Queen of Heaven" [Jr 7:18], by which they meant Anath, whom modern archeologists have shown had Her shrine within Yahweh's Temple compound at Bethel, & who continued to be worshipped as Yahweh's Bride among the Bethelite Jews of Elephantine even after the final loss of the Jerusalem Temple.
In the time of Kings, queenmothers of Israel oversaw the Goddess cult in Asherah groves upon sacred hilltops, & Solomon built not only Yahweh's Temple, but Ashtoreth's [1 Ki 11:33], Ashtoreth being a name of Virgin Anath the daughter of the All-Mother Asherah. Asherah was occasionally even to be found within the Jerusalem Temple itself [2 Ki 21:4, 7]. As a generality, in the times of Judges & Kings, Yahwists did not interfer with Anath & Asherah worship unless Baal was also worshipped, for the Goddess might be coopted as Yahweh's bride, but the Baal cult was an outright rival.
So we learn that right up to the time of Jeremiah it was normal that Jewish women, assisted by their husbands, prepared Goddess feasts, & all Israel thrived when both Yahweh & Anath were honored. This is confirmed by the prophet Hosea, but while Hosea's love for a priestess of an orgiastic grove can be read as a fable of God & faithless humanity, when Jeremiah is criticized by the women of his own community for disrespecting the Queen of Heaven, there is no question but that the cultic activity they speak to him about was a literal & purely Jewish (but not Yahwist) aspect of Jewish religious life as overseen primarily by women.
Anath was said to be redolent of perfumes, & the Balm of Gilead was assuredly among the odors associated with Her nearness. That there was an Anath virgin cult in Gilead is made clear by the story of Jephtah's daughter [Jg 11:31ff], called the Gileadite Virgin, or the Virgin of Mizpeh, nameless in scripture but known from extrabiblical sources as Sheila. When Jephtah swore a battle-oath to God that for victory in battle, he promised God that he would sacrifice the first thing he saw upon returning home. He could not know that the first thing he would see was to be his daughter rushing to greet him.
When she learned of his oath, she consoled him & asked only that she be allowed to spend two months in the mountainous wilds with other virgins, there to bid farewell to her friends & to wail in lamentation amidst the hilltop groves. Anath was Herself a "wailing woman" as well as a huntress. Elsewhere in scripture there are further intimations of this woodland virgin cult among ancient Jews, as when "the daughter of Zion" or "daughter of the troops" [Micah 5:1] prays to the Hills & Mountain [6:1-2], invoking the divine names of Moses, Aaron & Miriam [6:4], then this Daughter wars successfully against her enemies [7:8-10] & gives a special blessing to those "who dwell solitarily in the wood" [7:14].
Sheila, the Virgin of Mizpeh, lived two months in the forest with her virgin companions, then came down from the hillside to her father, and was slain for God [Jg 11:36-39; Josephus Antiquities V 8:9-10]. Even the trees lowered their branches to weep, & beasts came to wail for her [PseudoPhilo 40:3, 7], hinting at the Mizpeh huntress's attribute as Queen of Beasts, or priestess thereto. Her tomb, upon which Sheila's name was engraved, & into which her own virgin companions placed her [PsPh 40:8; Jerahmeel 59:8], was thereafter a pilgrimage site for groups of Jewish virgins [Judges 11:40], undertaken in the month of Tammuz, Tammuz being Ishtar's fertility daemon whose name slipped into the Jewish Lunar calandar, & for whom Jewish women wailed at the gates of the Temple [Ezek 8:14].
The tale of the Gileadite Virgin & her tomb recurs & recurs in exact parallels on the Peloponessus & regions of the Aegean Sea, where many such virgin-tombs were noted by Pausanias as signal pilgrimage sites. The most famous of the type were tombs belonging to Iphegenia, virgin priestess of Artemis, sacrificed by Agamemnon for victories at Troy.
The Virgin of Mizpeh was herself worshipped as a Goddess well into the common era. Epiphanius noted that in Sebaste (Samaria) she was deified & had an annual festival in Her honor [Panarion 55.1.10], while at Neapolis (Shechem) she received sacrifices & was identified with Core the Maid, i.e., Persephone.
Anath (like Inanna before her) was the Mother of Plantlife, & healing herbs all belonged to Her. Jeremiah had something of a "vertically divided ego" in that he deplored the idea of a Goddess having parity with God, but he at the same time believed in the hypostatic Daughter of Our People, for "Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?" [Jr 8:17], acknowledging Mother Zion as an erotic consort.
But whereas there was but one God, there were many of these hypostatic females, for every city had its own Ishtar. Thus the Balm of Gilead was useful also to the Divine Harlot: "Go up to Gilead & get balm, O virgin daughter of Egypt! In vain you multiply medicines; there is no healing for you" [46:11].
Bear in mind that when yahwist prophets spoke against the Goddess, they could not name Her by name, because the name of any divinity contained magic. Hence Hathor or Sekhmet becomes in Jeremiah's verse the "virgin daughter of Egypt," & when curses were laid against rival cults, rival symbols were turned against them. Hence a divinity of fire would be consumed in fire; or a Goddess of herblore & healing would become sick & find no cure for herself amidst Her sacred plants.
Jeremiah is saying in essence, in the first case, that Anath the Bride can find a Balm only in her husband Yahweh, rather than in Gilead. But Sekhmet the Lion-mother of Egypt, having wholly rejected Yahweh, can find no Balm in Gilead or anywhere.
So too the Harlot Babylon (an insulting Yahwist title for Zarpanit, the Akkadian Goddess) "is suddenly fallen & broken. Wail for her! Take balm for her pain, perhaps she may be healed. We would have healed Babylon, but she is not healed" [51:8-9]. The image of Zarpanit "broken" alludes subtly to Her cult as being mere idol worship, for idols may be broken. But as Anath was a bride of God, & was healed by God rather than by the Balm of Gilead, so too might Zarpanit have been healed, had She not rejected her suitor.
According to mystical tradition, whenever Israel goes into exile, with Jews scattered by the diaspora, the Mother or Divine Shekhinah cannot bare to be without Her children, & goes into exile with us. During this time God & His Bride are separated, & the world suffers in consequence. Only when He & She are reuinited face to face in cunubial bliss is a balance between Earth & Heaven restored, & the world is healed.
The ancient significance of the Balm of Gilead as an emblem of that exile is lent further evidence when Ishmaelite traders of Gilead are said to have dealt in this healing balm, trading it as far away as Egypt [Gn 37:25]. The association of the balm as desired in Egypt as well as throughout Israel is a unifying factor in Jeremiah's metaphoric thinking. When the Daughter of My People was exiled in Babylon, she longed for the Balm of Gilead, & this longing was that of a people in exile for the things & places of their lost homeland. So too it was the Ishmaelite balm traders who took Joseph into exile in Egypt, so this association of the Balm of Gilead with exiles & lamentations begins early.
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