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Of the sacred, I: saliva

[ by Charles Cameron — more on magical worldviews: first the curative power of saliva, Iran, India — then in the follow up, a breathtakingly beautiful tale a wise man told me ]

First off, a hat-tip to Shoshank Joshi, because were it not for his tweet, I might not have noticed Muhammad Sahimi’s post, stirred old memories, and written what follows.

The tweet:

Frankly, it was the mention of saliva in a religious context that caught my attentiont.


Sahimi’s post only mentions the Ayatollah Khamenei‘s saliva in passing, and is worth reading in its own right:

Some of the praise heaped on Khamenei is borderline blasphemy. But as the Prophet Muhammad said, “A ruler and his rule can survive blasphemy, but not injustice.” And terrible injustice is being done to a great nation and its people on a daily basis by Khamenei’s supporters. As far as the fate of the nation is concerned, the critical question is, Given that Khamenei is surrounded by minions, flatterers, and cronies who compete with each other to praise him lavishly, how realistic a view does he have of what is going on, either domestically or internationally? When his own chief of staff exaggerates and even lies about him, what type of information can he expect to receive? Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was surrounded by the same sort of coterie, and by the time he realized the gravity of the state’s situation in the fall of 1978, it was too late to reform his regime and put it on a democratic path.


So, Charles, saliva. WTF?


TF is this. Sahimi begins his article, in which mention is made of the sacred qualities attributed to Khamenei’s saliva, with the following observation:

Praising national leaders and elevating them to mythic levels is as old as human civilization. Iran is no exception; indeed, the phenomenon has a very long history in the country, as manifested by the many tales of kings’ bravery, vision, kindness, and generosity that one finds in the Persian literature. This practice continues — the difference is that it is now entering uncharted territory and reaching absurd heights.


Okay, okay, the Shahnameh.


But then Sahimi gives us these two paragraphs:

In addition to producing reactionary clerics to serve Khamenei and his power, Mesbah — as he is commonly known — has been the Supreme Leader’s exaggerator-in-chief. Here are a few examples:

“Ayatollah Khamenei’s saliva can cure diseases.” According to dogma, only a saint can possibly perform such “miracles.”

And I’m sorry — that absolutely isn’t “uncharted waters” — it’s definitely charted.


As Sahimi says, in fact, it’s dogma — or, I’d prefer to think, an archetypal feature of pre-scientific religious thought.

Consider this, from Susan Bayly, Saints, Goddesses and Kings: Muslims and Christians in South Indian Society, 1700-1900, (Cambridge South Asian Studies), p. 127:

The explanation for this is that throughout India bodily secretions, especially blood, semen, saliva and human wastes, are thought of as being charged with a form of power and energy which may be both menacing and protective. The god manifests his awesome potency with a great flow of blood; the individual’s wastes and secretions are a source of danger and pollution to others. Lesser beings accept saliva-impregnated leavings from their superiors, and so the Hindu devotee and so the Hindu devotee takes the divine ‘leavings’ or prasatam of the god as a token of fealty and a source of protective and transforming sacred energy.

In south India the pir’s devotees also perceive their lord’s saliva as a medium which carries and transmits his barakat. Here too the disciple seeks out contact with a transforming substance which would otherwise be conceived of as unclean and defiling…

So that’s the sacredness of a saint’s saliva attested to in both Hindu and Sufi traditions — but it was apparently also a part of Christian tradition, as this by turns charming and arresting quotation from the description of Saint Columban in Sean Kelly and Rosemary RogersSaints Preserve Us!: Everything You Need to Know About Every Saint You’ll Ever Need p. 67 attests:

He was known to everyone, and cut a distinctive figure — he shaved the front of his shoulder-length hair into a half-tonsure, squirrels nested in his cowl, and he wandered around brandishing his staff and downing oak trees with his fist While in France, Columban and his monks followed the Irish tradition, often criticized by many as being too severe: a monk who cut his finger badly while reaping had the wound cleaned by Our Saint’s saliva and was ordered back to work.


But wait — there’s more… and it’s beautiful.

5 Responses to “Of the sacred, I: saliva”

  1. Marcus Ranum Says:

    Chuck Norris’ saliva doesn’t heal – it kicks your ass. He used to chew tobacco, but when he spit it made so many holes in the sidewalk, the state of Texas begged him to stop.

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    Whew — I often write LOL but seldom laugh out loud — this time, I did. 

  3. Derek Robinson Says:

    From the sacred to the profane – I was reminded of the punk rock practice of bands and their audiences gobbing on each other as a sign, apparently, of solidarity and respect – http://punkrockplanet.com/spit/

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    Thanks, Derek:
    Your link is fascinating, and I had no idea about any of this until you told me.  But it’s pretty clear from the page you link to that the punk exchanges of spittle is what some scholars call “transgressive” — there’s a delight here in going beyond accepted boundaries? — and by way of response to your comment, I have a post coming up about an aspect of tantra that correlates both with this and with getting a deeper sense of how “religious violence” works.

  5. Charles Cameron Says:

    I’ve now posted my follow-up piece about saliva and transgressive tantra, but wanted to add the following quote here, as it fits better with this post than with the other.  It is taken from Paul Muller-Ortega’s essay, “On the Seal of Shambhu: A Poem by Abhinavagupta” in DG White, Tantra in Practice, Princeton UP:

    In the traditions of hatha yoga, a mudra carries the meaning of a variety of physical gestures or poses, or esoteric techniques of a specific sort that often include some sort of block (bandha) on the subtle energy of the body. In this sense, we encounter in the texts of yoga the famous khecari mudra, literally the “seal of flying through the void,” which was interpreted as a difficult technique for swallowing the tongue and thus tasting the nectar of immortality that drips down inside the accomplished yogin’s skull.

    The technique doesn’t require “swallowing the tongue” so much as curling it back.
    The nectar thus generated, called amrita, was a liquid which could be tasted – it is described as “sweet-tasting” in the tantric scriptures associated with Siva — and it is possible that a yogic adept’s saliva would be considered a vehicle for blessing on account of this practice. 
    As its name suggests, however, the aim of the technique is not simply physical but transcendent.

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