Friday, February 22, 2019

The Ancient Antecedents of Ash Wednesday

Alice C. Linsley

The association of ashes with sacrifice at the archaic places of worship is well attested. The oldest places of worship were at elevated sites near permanent water sources. The Bible refers to these as the "high places." Burnt offerings were made at these sites and the ashes were used to purify (lustration). In Numbers 9:19, we read how the ashes of the sacrificed red heifer were used for "water of lustration." This explains why there is a linguistic relationship between the ancient word for high place and words for ashes or charcoal.

The word kar refers to a fortified site with a temple or shrine tended by priests. Karnak on the Nile and Carnak in Brittany are examples. In Dravidian, car means "sheltered together" and kari refers to a river. In Manding, kara means "to assemble." Among the Nilotic Luo, kar specifies a place with boundaries such as mud ramparts or stone fortifications. In Sumerian, é-kur refers to a mountain house, a pyramid, or an elevated temple. In Akkadian, a ruined high place was called karmu. There is a connection between karmu (ruin) and the Magyar/Hungarian word hamu (ashes).

Since the kar were places of burnt offering where ashes were used to purify, the term kar is often associated with charcoal and soot. The Turkish kara means "black." In Magyar/Hungarian, the word korom refers to soot, as does the Korean word kurim.

In the biblical literature we find many figures offering burnt sacrifice on mountains. The practice is older than Judaism. It seems to have pertained to a royal caste of sacrificing priests who were known as Habiru in ancient texts. In English Bibles Habiru is rendered as "Hebrew."

In our time, Ash Wednesday points participants to our mortality and to the hope of bodily resurrection. That hope comes through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Messiah who offered himself on a high hill shaped like a skull.

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