Delirious Melons: Watermelons, Cucumbers, and Gourds in Early Christian Polemics

As a child, every year during the week leading up to Halloween I would sit in front of the television and watch the drama of Shulz’s It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown painfully unfold before my eyes. With increasing consternation I’d witness Linus’s perennial misplaced faith decimated as he waited in vain for the Great Pumpkin to rise out of the pumpkin patch, fly through the air, and deliver toys to all the good little children in the world.

Of course, every year Linus’s gullible sister Sally, betrayed by her brother’s cultish fanaticism, unleashed her rage toward Linus for tricking her into yet another year of utter disappointment:

I was robbed! I spent the whole night waiting for the Great Pumpkin when I would’ve been out for Tricks or Treats! HALLOWEEN IS OVER AND I MISSED IT! You blockhead! You kept me up all night waiting for the Great Pumpkin, and all that came was a BEAGLE! I didn’t get a chance to go out for Tricks or Treats, and it was all YOUR fault! I’LL SUE! What a fool I was! I could have had candy, apples, and gum; and cookies and money and all sorts of things! But NO! I had to listen to YOU! You blockhead! What a fool I was! Tricks or Treats comes only once a year, and I miss it by sitting in a pumpkin patch with a blockhead! YOU OWE ME RESTITUTION!

So, from an early age I associated the pumpkin with disappointment. It became a symbol of deception, a sacrament of folly, a seal of derision. But it wasn’t until my study of patristics that I came to realize that this association has a prominent place in ancient Christian polemics. For example, in his famous diatribe against Valentinus’s imagined system of emanations, Irenaeus of Lyons chose to lob metaphorical gourds, cucumbers, and melons at his opponents:

Iu, Iu! Pheu, Pheu!—for well may we utter these tragic exclamations at such a pitch of audacity in the coining of names as he has displayed without a blush, in devising a nomenclature for his system of falsehood. For when he declares, “there is a certain Proarche before all things, surpassing all thought, whom I call Monotes” and again, “with this Monotes there co-exists a power which I also call Henotes,” it is quite obvious that he confesses the things which have been said to be his own invention, and that he himself has given names to his scheme of things, which had never been previously suggested by any other. It is obvious also that he himself is the one who has had sufficient audacity to coin these names; so that, unless he had appeared in the world, the truth would still have been destitute of a name. But, in that case, nothing hinders any other, in dealing with the same subject, to affix names after such a fashion as the following: There is a certain Proarche, royal, surpassing all thought, a power existing before every other substance, and extended into space in every direction. But along with it there exists a power which I term a Gourd; and along with this Gourd there exists a power which again I term Utter-Emptiness. This Gourd and Emptiness, since they are one, produced (and yet did not simply produce, so as to be apart from themselves) a fruit, everywhere visible, eatable, and delicious, which fruit-language calls a Cucumber. Along with this Cucumber exists a power of the same essence, which again I call a Melon. These powers, the Gourd, Utter-Emptiness, the Cucumber, and the Melon, brought forth the remaining multitude of the delirious melons of Valentinus. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.11.4)

Clearly in Irenaeus’s day gourds, cucumbers, and melons grew wild and free— “everywhere visible, eatable, and delicious.” This is, in fact, in keeping with Sir David Livingston’s discovery of watermelons in central Africa, where he found melon upon melon as far as the eye could see. It is equally clear that they served as ready weapons of derision—natural vehicles for communicating one’s negative estimation of another’s ideas.

This use of melons as means of mockery is seen in polemical statements in the writings of Tertullian of Carthage. In his treatise On the Soul 32, he wrote, “But the fact is Empedocles, who used to dream that he was a god and on that account, I suppose, disdained to have it thought that he had ever before been merely some hero, declares in so many words: ‘I once was Thamnus, and a fish.’ Why not rather a melon, seeing that he was such a fool?” Clearly Tertullian—like Irenaeus before him—associated melons with folly.

In Against Marcion 2.18 Tertullian commented on the insanity of the Israelites’ longing for a return to Egypt: “When, again, the law took somewhat away from men’s food, by pronouncing unclean certain animals which were once blessed, you should understand this to be a measure for encouraging continence, and recognize in it a bridle imposed on that appetite which, while eating angels’ food, craved after the cucumbers and melons of the Egyptians.” Tertullian intentionally left out other foods mentioned in Numbers 11:5 (e.g., delicious leeks and aromatic onions). This was most likely done to highlight the utter folly of the Israelites, as cucumbers and melons were already associated with idiocy in North Africa.

Perhaps the greatest passage in Tertullian illustrating the early polemical use of melons is Against Marcion 4.40—“Then, having taken the bread and given it to His disciples, He made it His own body, by saying, ‘This is my body,’ that is, the figure of my body. A figure, however, there could not have been, unless there were first a veritable body. An empty thing, or phantom, is incapable of a figure. If, however, as Marcion might say, He pretended the bread was His body, because He lacked the truth of bodily substance, it follows that He must have sacrificed bread for us. It would contribute very well to the support of Marcion’s theory of a phantom body, that bread should have been crucified! But why call His body bread, and not rather some other edible thing, say, a melon, which Marcion must have had in lieu of a heart!”

At the close of the patristic period, Augustine of Hippo denounced the Manichaeans for worshiping melons as divine. He wrote, “Tell me then, first, where you get the doctrine that part of God, as you call it, exists in corn, beans, cabbage, and flowers and fruits. From the beauty of the color, say they, and the sweetness of the taste. . . . Why do you look upon a yellow melon as part of the treasures of God, and not rancid bacon fat or the yolk of an egg?” (Augustine, On the Morals of the Manichaeans 16 [39]). The heretics’ love of melons was so extreme, that Augustine rebuked them thusly: “You feel so much more for melons than for men. Rather than hurt the melons, you would have a man ruined!” (17 [62]).

Augustine’s close association between melons and false teaching is vividly illustrated in his condemnation of the Manichaean “Elect,” who allowed their non-elect followers to conduct necessary labors forbidden to the Elect for the sake of the Elect. In return, those servants who had great merit would be reincarnated as food, and not just any food. Augustine wrote:

If they possess greater merit, they shall enter into melons or cucumbers, or some eatables which you will masticate, that they may be quickly purified by your digestion. . . . For if the faith of the gospel had any connection with such nonsense, the Lord should have said, not, ‘I was hungry, and ye gave me meat;’ but, ‘Ye were hungry, and ye ate me,’ or, ‘I was hungry, and I ate you.’ For, by your absurdities, a man will not be received into the kingdom of God for the service of giving food to the saints, but, because he has eaten them and belched them out, or has himself been eaten and belched into heaven. (Augustine, Reply to Faustus the Manichaean 5.10)

What can we conclude about these telling examples of watermelons, cucumbers, and gourds in early Christian polemics? The fact is that the vines of melons and gourds snake their way deep into the world of Church Fathers. If appeals to Holy Scripture, apostolic tradition, and episcopal authority all failed to convince heretics, the Fathers turned to a different trio of arms. Whenever their polemic called for sarcasm, they wielded the blunt cucumber like a sharp sword. When the Fathers were stirred with indignation, they hurled lush melons like fiery cannon balls. And when they wanted to expose the ridiculous doctrines of heretics, the early Fathers tossed misshapen gourds like explosive hand grenades.

Sadly, as the Dark Ages closed in, the skill of wielding cucumbers and gourds came to an abrupt end. Like so many strange and interesting doctrines of the infant Church, the brief storm of delirious melons abruptly ceased, leaving behind nothing but a fading watermark in the pages of unread history.

[Original post: 12-22-2009]

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