I know that I’m supposed to be a sort-of kind-of early modernist, and really ought to know the answer to this, but I’m stumped. Why did people in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries think that the Egyptians worshipped vegetables in general and leeks in particular? (Perhaps they did?)
Here’s Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan, ch.44:
For if it be enough to excuse it of idolatry to say it is no more bread, but God; why should not the same excuse serve the Egyptians, in case they had the faces to say the leeks and onions they worshipped were not very leeks and onions, but a divinity under their species or likeness?
Here’s Blaise Pascal, in the Pensées (and I’ve quoted this passage before:
He alone [ = God] is our true good. From the time we have forsaken him, it is a curious thing that nothing in nature has been capable of taking his place: stars, sky, earth, elements, plants, cabbages, leeks, animals, insects, calves, snakes, fever, plague, war famine, vice, adultery, incest. From the time he lost his true good, man can see it everywhere, even in his own destruction, though it is so contrary to God, reason, and nature, all at once.
And here’s David Hume, in the Natural History of Religion, §12:
How can you worship leeks and onions? we shall suppose a Sorbonnist to say to a priest of Sais. If we worship them, replies the latter; at least, we do not, at the same time, eat them. But what strange objects of adoration are cats and monkeys? says the learned doctor. They are at least as good as the relics or rotten bones of martyrs, answers his no less learned antagonist. Are you not mad, insists the Catholic, to cut one another’s throat about the preference of a cabbage or a cucumber? Yes, says the pagan; I allow it, if you will confess, that those are still madder, who fight about the preference among volumes of sophistry, ten thousand of which are not equal in value to one cabbage or cucumber.”
UPDATE [12.20pm]: This page might provide a clue or two, and points us towards Numbers 11:5: “We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick.” But nothing about worshipping.
There’s also Malebranche, from The Search after Truth, with a reference to this bit of the Bible:
“It is true that reason does not tell us that we ought to worship, for example, leeks and onions as the sovereign divinity, because they cannot make us entirely happy when we have them, or entirely wretched when we do not. Thus the pagans never honoured them as much as the great Jupiter, on whom all their deities depended. Nor as much as the sun, which our senses represent to us  as the universal cause, which gives life and movement to everything, and which you could not help regarding as a divinity if you assumed (like the pagan philosophers) that it included in its being the genuine causes of what it seems to bring about, not only in our body and in our spirit, but also in all the beings around us.”But even if you should not render sovereign honour to leeks and onions, you could still offer them some sort of restricted worship ï¿½ I mean think about them, and love them in a certain way. If it is true that they can give us a certain sort of happiness, then we should honour them in proportion to the good they can do. And it is certainly the case that people who accept the evidence of their senses think that these vegetables are capable of doing them good. For example, the Israelites would not have missed them so deeply in the desert, and they would not have considered themselves wretched for lack of them, if they had not imagined that they would in some way be made happy by having them.”
And here’s John Wesley, in Sermon 102, which really doesn’t make me warm to the man:
But that the generality of men were not one jot wiser in ancient times than they are at the present time we may easily gather from the most authentic records. One of the most ancient nations concerning whom we have any certain account is the Egyptian. And what conception can we have of their understanding and learning when we reflect upon the objects of their worship? These were not only the vilest of animals, as dogs and cats, but the leeks and onions that grew in their own gardens. Indeed, I knew a great man (whose manner was to treat with the foulest abuse all that dared to differ from him: I do not mean Dr. Johnson — he was a mere courtier compared to Mr. Hutchinson) who scurrilously abused all those who are so void of common sense as to believe any such thing concerning them. He peremptorily affirms, (but without condescending to give us any proof) that the ancient inhabitants of Egypt had a deep hidden meaning in all this. Let him believe it who can. I cannot believe it on any man bare assertion. I believe they had no deeper meaning in worshipping cats than our schoolboys have in baiting them. And I apprehend, the common Egyptians were just as wise three thousand years ago as the common ploughmen in England and Wales are at this day. I suppose their natural understanding like their stature, was on a level with ours, and their learning, their acquired knowledge, many degrees inferior to that of persons of the same rank either in France, Holland, or Germany.
Oh dear, it’s beaver-blogging all over again. Must. Stop. This. Now.