Humans often want to be seen as separate from the landscape. We are figure, it is ground. Our bodies are contained, closed, and solid. But if we shift our focus to body fluids, it becomes clear that humans and landscapes flow into each other. Sensual qualities such as color and viscosity can cause substances in our bodies and in our landscape to be “bundled” together (Keane 2005: 188, 2006: 200), and this affects our sense of “being-in-the-world.” We can then consider substances such as food, water, blood, milk, and semen to exist inside as well as outside the body, and to be transformable into each other.
A popular example of an island culture that mixes landscape and body fluids is the Bimin-Kuskusmin of Papua New Guiney. This tribe associates fluids in the body with an oil that comes out of a sacred hole in the forest. This association makes the entire forest a realm of immense ritual importance and spiritual power. The oil flows under the landscape itself in “the realm of the spirit world.” A ten-year initiation is required before a man can even set foot in the sacred place around the hole. The Bimin-Kuskusmin rub the oil into their skin like Greek athletes, causing it to shine with luminosity and seem divine. Poole (1986) quotes the tribe’s leader: “The oil is our blood, our semen, our bone, our heritage from our ancestors…our life.”
Body Historian Christopher Forth (2013) also demonstrates how qualities of our bodies point to important human-landscape connections. For example, we find fat residing in humans, animals, soil, and its products. Farmers since the time of Theophrastus distinguish between “fat” and “lean” soil. In Genesis 45: 18, abundant crops and livestock were examples of the “fat” of the land, and many times throughout the bible we read that this world is “flowing with milk and honey.”
Landscape substances intersect body substances in ancient Amerindian mythology as well. The famous anthropologist, Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff (1997), argues that rock crystals that adorned Inca temples were regarded as petrified semen. Moreover, the Yucatec civilization named their creator Itzamnaaj, which means “one who does itz.” Itz refers to “any magical secretion” such as semen, milk, sweat, tears, nectar, dew, sap, wax, and juice. Thus, the deity’s body was “a cosmological conduit of fluids that connects sky and earth” (Guernsey 2006: 131).
Sambia men of PNG associate semen with milk, mud, and white tree sap. They condition their masculinity on the secret ingestion of these fluids. For their “ritual rebirth” into manhood, initiates suck semen from the penis like an infant sucks milk from the breast. Semen lost during heterosexual sex is replenished by drinking white tree sap. Here we can be reminded of Aronofsky’s masterpiece, The Fountain (2006), where the sap found inside the tree of life is white and milky. It turns the protagonist into a bed of white flowers.
Hebrews also used the word semen to refer to oil (Ringgren 2006). In Israelite religion, one becomes king or high priestess when anointed with oil (Sommer 2009). A stone touched by oil can become endowed with life and with God. In Genesis 28.18 — 19, Jacob pours oil on the stone that signifies his vision of the stairway to heaven, and the stone then becomes a betyl, a residence for God.
In various genesis myths, the creation of the world is conceived of in terms of body fluids. Enki ejaculates the Tigris which gives birth to Sumarian civilization. Egypt’s creator god, Atun, ejaculates the twins, time and space, and then cries sentient beings into existence. In Japan, Father Sky and Mother Earth push their “jeweled spear” into the oily ocean of chaos, pull it out, and the mystical substance drips like lava into the ocean to form the self-hardening “land-of-rice-ears.” At Japan’s Takachiho Mountain, one can still see the earth dangle from the tip of this spear, like semen from a penis. Awajishima is known as the “first drop from the tip,” but besides its place in the myth-history, there is nothing extraordinary about this island’s location, size, or topography.
This may relate to Belden Lane’s (2001) observation that sacred places are often quite ordinary, set apart through mythology to become extraordinary. Sometimes the sacred mountain isn’t the highest or greatest, and the holy river isn’t the most pristine. Likewise, holy substances of the body are often the most ordinary, like blood and water. They are sacred precisely because they are everywhere, everyday, and life-sustaining. This attests to Rappaport’s (1999) observation that the notion of the sacred is capable of attaching itself to any object, landscape, practice, or institution.Manuel Vasquez (2011) says that this adaptability allows the sense of the sacred to operate on ever changing ecological and social conditions to produce well-being for the group.
Whether sacred or profane, body and landscape substances anchor subjective experiences in a shared material everyone knows and lives with. Without them, our relationships would be “airy as the clouds,” as Michel Serres (1995) puts it. Material substances “stabilize our relationships.” They also concretize spiritual, more-than-personal characteristics of the self.
Because fluid substances can be divided up without their parts losing any of the qualities of the original source (Carsten 2011), they become perfect symbols of the soul and for kinship. Prehistoric cultures pilgrimaged to rock quarries to find a special red ochre, which was believed to be petrified ancestral blood (Boivin reveals that some Aboriginal cultures believe it to be petrified vaginal blood). They rubbed this red mud onto their bodies as early uniforms and body art. For a community, Victor Turner stresses that “what is sought is unity, not the unity which represents a sum of fractions and is susceptible of division and subtraction, but an indivisible unity, “pure”, “primary”, “seamless”.”
We have seen how semen and sap relate to a class of white “milk-looking” substances inside and outside the body treated as food. Likewise, white rice in Japan is understood as hardened god-semen passed down to humans via the ancestral land, itself understood as self-hardening, onogoro, god-ejaculate. Like oil to the Bimin-Kuskusmin, rice is understood as a spirit force that flows beneath the landscape, blooming flowers. According to anthropologist Ohnuki-Tireney (1993), white rice, and the landscape of rice fields, is the most important substance to anchor Japanese identity through the disruptive flow of cultural reformations. She underscores that rice was money, “bread,” and rice fields meant status for Lords. In Shinto cosmology, each grain of rice is a god named Uka-no-kami, and it is the only type of grain given a soul. In one myth, the deity in charge of food is ritually slain and various grains come out of his corpse: “rice emerged from his abdomen, millet from his eyes, and wheat and beans from his anus…” This is one reason why the abdomen, which also houses the fetus, is where human life is thought to be located, and why hara-kiri is the well-known cultural institution of male suicide. Opening the stomach releases the soul.
So we can see how cultures and their rituals are affected by the ways substances in the body relate to substances in the landscape.
A few references:
Ballard and Goldman, (1998) Fluid Ontologies: Myth, Ritual, and Philosophy in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Bergin and Garvey, Connecticut.
Boivin, Nichole and Owoc, Mary Ann. 2004. Soils, Stones and Symbols: Cultural Perceptions of the Mineral World. UCL Press.
Chamberlain, B. (1981). The Kojiki. Tuttle Publishing, Tokyo.
Graves and Patai, Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis (New York, McGraw-Hill, 1966).
Ohnnki-Tierney, E.(1993). Rice As Self: Japanese Identities Through Time. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.