RED STRINGS & CONE CAKES

Each group, each clan, each family traces its roots back into the past.

For some, there is less ambiguity, for others, the waters of the gone ages are murky and treacherous. Most of the time, what we know is not what was. Myth entangles with facts, facts entangle with aspirations, and aspirations entangle with our fallible human nature.

We know what we think, but the genesis of our thoughts is steeped in the echos of myriad stories, memories, fragments, family lore, genetic ties, glimpses in dreams, books and art – our own personal Echoverse – complex, enigmatic, exalted, and all-encompassing. Our Echoverse is only a sliver of broader culture’s Echoverse, yet another layer of fantasy, stories, and beliefs enveloping it, adding complexity upon complexity and fragments upon fragments.

Turtles, as William James would say, all the way down.

The way the Echoverse shapes our reality is astounding. The fragments flesh out a reality that is multifaceted, magnificent, and magical. Unforgettable.

When I was a child, my grandmother used to take me to an old folk healer. Every time I was the least bit sick, or just in discomfort, she would grab my hand and drag me there to the great consternation of my Greek Orthodox priest grandfather (it was a blasphemy!) and my mother (it wasn’t science!).
Most of the old woman’s ‘treatments’ were for what my grandmother Mara feared the most – the ‘evil eye’. Everything and anything could be caused by its insidious influence – ailments, funk, bad mood, minor life failures, major life failures, disease or – god forbid! μὴ γένοιτο! – death!

I don’t remember much of what the old healer did, but one thing that I do is that she would extinguish burning matches in water, mutter a few words over it, make me drink it after. Slightly odd and awkward but it wasn’t the remedy that captured my childhood imagination. What truly mesmerized me was the absolute necessity of wearing something shiny – a glittering adornment meant to ‘deceive’ or distract the malevolent gaze of the evil eye. Alongside this shimmering token, a visible red string was the true power center of protection, believed to shield me from that very same malicious force.

Much later in life, the red string—a staple of Kabbalah—made me ponder how my grandmother and the ‘Μάντης’ or ‘гатачка’, both peasant women from the rural highlands of Northern Greece and Macedonia, would have known of its most potent symbol?

Where did these barely literate women, born in the late 1800s – or their spiritual ancestors – encounter not only Jews but Jews who practiced Kabbalah, the mystical sectarian undercurrent of Judaism, which would not have been familiar to the average Sephardim? Where and how did such cross-pollination of ideas occur? And why did the red string alone impart such trust in its protective power but not, let’s say, the Hamsa, the other powerful symbol of the Ancient Mediterranean? Why did one fragment resonate but not the other?

Or perhaps the red string is an echo from a wholly different world?

The Ancient Greek & Thracian tradition of wearing a red/white bracelet in the month of March, the ‘Martis‘ dates back to the Eleusinian Mysteries, to the ancient cults of Demeter & Persephone. A custom mentioned in Photios’ Lexicon, it described a belief that the white/red threads, kroke κρόκη, protected the children and youth from evil spirits and witchcraft. (Of course, the mysteries themselves were considered moonless nights of witchcraft, madness, and magical libations, echoes from Ancient Sumerian divine myths of Inanna and Dumuzid and his sacrifice to the underworld.)

Inanna & Dumuzid

Into which world does the red thread entangle us – the one of Kabbalah or the one of the Eleusinian Mysteries? Or perhaps it does indeed weave through time, all the way back to Sumer? How did a humble healer become a vessel of Persephone’s wisdom? By what obscure knowledge did she navigate unknown cultures? Just which fragments of the Echoverse placed that red string on my wrist?

Still, the red thread was not the sole object of my childhood that seemed to come from an ancient world.

For special holidays, my grandmother would make a dessert she called rocks, or rather, using the Macedonian diminutive form, ‘little rocks’. They were an unbaked mixture of walnuts, plain cookies, and some sweetener – sometimes raisins, sometimes honey, sometimes the sweet syrup from fig preserves or ultimately chocolate – all crushed and smushed together, occasionally soaked in rum (if she had it) or some other sweet fruit liquor. She would shape this chunky paste into ‘rocks’ – cone-like little peaks – and let them chill and harden.
Did I love those ‘little rocks’! Oh, with all my heart! They were decadent and delectable, the stuff of confectionery legends and grandmotherly affection – beloved, venerated, and devoured.

Only later did I find that, through the Echoversum, ‘little rocks’ were simply a XX century retelling – re-mixing, re-sweetening, re-eating – of an Ancient Egyptian sacrificial delicacy – the Wah Shat.

Rekhmire tomb art.

In the early 1800s, European adventurers discovered the tomb of Rekhmire – a Tjaty (usually translated as chancellor or prime minister) under the pharaohs Tuthmosis III and Amenophis II, during Egypt’s most prosperous and auspicious time. A mayor of the exalted city of Thebes, a High Priest of the glorious Theban Temple of Amun Ra and a priest at Karnak, Rekhmire came from a long line of Egyptian nobility. His lavishly and vividly decorated tomb had many well-preserved frescoes and reliefs, illuminating ancient Egyptian society, culture, and governance.

On the wall of the Longitudinal Hall, there was a fresco depicting a recipe for a sacrificial cone cake typically offered at the Temple of Amun*. As the frescoes narrated, the cone cakes were made from tiger nuts, mixed with liquid or honey, shaped into cones,** and readied for the god on behalf of Rekhmire.

Cone cakes recipe.

Sweet paste made into cones, a story, a recipe, an observance, seeping through the Echoversum to generations of women high in the mountains of Northern Greece? Life, belief, gods, sweets, red, protection, all weaving through time, in arcane ways?

Red thread from the Eleusinian mysteries, sweet cone cakes from 1500BC’s Egyptian kitchens, all the way to me.

Today I know coincidences are merely the ciphers of an inscrutable but absolute determinism. Or, rather, there are no coincidences.

A truth emerges: we are connected, linked by gossamer threads spanning epochs and cultures. Chance is but an undeciphered message in fate’s mystic/kabbalistic/hieroglyphic semiotics.

I see now that the boundaries between past, present and future dissolve like delicate sacrificial cakes on the tongue of a god.

I too am ephemeral, and yet eternal.

A fleeting speck, and an Echoversum unto myself.

*I like to believe that it may have also been Rekhmire’s favorite dessert, made by his grandmother!

**recipe

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