Here’s to your health!
Around the world, conventional greetings and farewells normally include wishes for good health, and often imply that health and all good things come from above. Today, few people know that the word “goodbye” is a shortened form of “God be with ye”, from Elizabethan times. This connection is more easy to see in countries whose language is based on Latin – Adio, Adios, Adeus, Adieu (‘to God”) in Italy, Spain, Portugal and France, respectively – because Roman Catholicism greatly influenced those languages. That’s not to suggest that leave-taking in those places expresses any more conscious religious feelings today than Goodbye does for English speakers; these expressions are all conventional formalities.
“Hello. How are you?” has no obvious connection to a loving thought, let alone anything spiritual, but it does help maintain the conventions of polite society – something that’s getting rarer. The expected answer to “How are you?” is “Fine, thank you” – implying that the question is a kindness. Maybe it was at some time. But a serious or honest answer is not expected. And changing the usual pattern would be the mark of someone who is either a stranger to the language, or is trying to be rude. Suppose you greeted a casual acquaintance, “Hello. How are you?” and she answered, “Why do you ask! Do you really want to know?” That’s not an appropriate response. Your reaction would be negative – discomfort, embarrassment, or annoyance. Asking seriously after a person’s well-being assumes some intimacy, and the right setting.
Openly religious societies do still name God directly in their greetings and farewells. In Islam, “I’ll see you later” is answered with “If God wills it”, and “How are you?” brings “Thanks be to God!” Fundamentalist Christians may insert a ‘”God bless you” into any greeting or conversation. But in mainstream America, “Thank God” seldom has any religious meaning.
It isn’t only greetings and farewells that involve wishes for health, and often references to the spirit world too. From the beginning of civilization, speech in all kind of ceremonies, celebrations and social get-togethers has included thanks to the gods for their good gifts, and invoked their blessings on the group’s activities, be they hunting or crop growing, seeking fertility and health, or fighting enemies. Considering how serious and vital these rituals of gratitude are, it seems strange that most of them also include strong drinks, and mind-altering substances. The drinks – libations – are not only offered to the gods; they are imbibed by the participants too. This has continued from the dawn of civilization into modern times, perhaps with gradually less attention to the libations and more to the imbibing.
“Libation” means ‘pouring out’. Being a gift to (and from) the gods, something considered particularly vital or pleasing must be chosen, including blood or milk or even water; but in most of the world libations have been alcoholic, and still are. This is surely because alcohol can bring so much enjoyment, and has been highly valued in all civilizations. The earliest evidence of its use is the production of rice wine in China, 9000 years ago! (See the recent National Geographic article by Andrew Curry, “Our 9,000-Year Love Affair with Booze“.)
Raising a glass to honor, celebrate, thank, or wish good health to someone – what we today call “toasting” – has a fascinating history, some of which dealt with dark, and sinister events. Today there are even toastmasters’ associations to help do it right. Those of us used to the casual bar scene suppose there’s no need for that, but such is a low class view, historically speaking. The traditions come from upper class manners, especially rulers. But for my purposes – i.e., looking for the spirit of the tradition – a few points stand out.
Here is Zeus holding a drinking bowl (crater) being filled by his cup-bearer Ganymede from a pitcher of wine. Zeus will take a drink, and pass the crater for his Olympic guests to share.
To raise a glass originally drew attention to the fact that the one making the toast drank from the same source offered to all those present. It’s a group drink, not an individual serving. This gesture increases the spirit of sociability, but that’s not the only reason for it in earthly cultures. Persian, Greek, Roman and other royal societies (but presumably not the immortal Olympians), knew there was always a risk that some sinister agent had poisoned the cup – an unexpected accompaniment to the joy of drinking. (Shakespeare’s Hamlet presents this dark fact in dramatic form, while Danny Kaye’s film The Court Jester has a comic scene about it.) Even in today’s non-noble democratic society, we’re all aware that there are risks inherent in that first drink, but relating to the poisonous effects of excess.
By the time of Plato, Greeks were expected to ‘pour out’ the first taste of a bowl as a ‘toast’, in remembrance of those in the underworld (Hades) who had fallen, and to honor the gods. The word toast in this situation derives from Roman times, when a few crumbs of toasted bread were added to wine, to lessen its acidity and enhance its flavor. So from being an improvement of the drink, the toast came to mean the drink itself, and all the cheer and ceremony that goes with it, up to the present.
Drinking parties were common among Plato’s contemporaries too, as illustrated in his dialogue Symposium, which literally means “together-drinking”. If the guests controlled their drinking properly, and took it slowly (helped by diluting with water the large pottery jar – amphora – holding the evening’s supply), it could open their hearts, encourage trust and bring fellowship. Moreover, Socrates, being a most spirit-oriented man, discussed the deeper blessings of Dionysos – the demi-god of wine (being born of Zeus by a mortal mother) – namely, the ways he could inspire men and women to rise above their selfish desires and seek what is eternal and truly good.
It seems ironic that Socrates, at the moment of death, asked the executioner who handed him the poison hemlock cup, if he might ‘pour out’ a little. But his wish to make that traditional gesture signaled both his gratitude to the gods for this painless death, and his confidence for a future in “a better place”. Here is Jacques-Louis David’s famous 1787 painting of the scene.
‘Pouring out’, and celebrating with wine also belong to the Abrahamic religions of the Middle East. Jewish Passover and Christian Easter services are celebrated with a communal cup. At the Last Supper, Jesus says the wine is his blood – a new covenant – which is ‘poured out’ for many, to put away their sins (Matt 26:28).
It’s true that orthodox Muslim societies, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran forbid making or consuming alcohol, which they claim proves their cultural superiority. I would note that the rule is widely ignored. More significant, though, is that the early Qu’ur-anic verses originally permitted drinking in moderation, but the Hadith (reported sayings of Prophet) later forbade all alcohol, perhaps because people were unwilling to control their drinking. (See Surahs 2:219, 4:43 and 5:90-91)
The Latin-based countries mentioned earlier toast with wishes for health – what English speakers call ‘salutations’ – ‘Salute!’, ‘Salud!’, ‘Saude!’ and ‘Sante!’ Interestingly, the same health meaning attaches to a military salute, which is about as formal as most Americans ever get. It may at first seem strange to connect military activity with wishes for health, because war is inherently unhealthy. But a nation’s ultimate existence sometimes depends on being protected from conquering enemies, which is primary to any people’s health. Wishing good health to those charged with carrying out this mission is perfectly appropriate, even though many may die or be injured.
I believe most of the formalities spoken of here, which we observe and partake of, are in some way linked to wishes for health, whether in greetings and leave-taking, or salutations, or celebrations of personal or group advancement, or life stages. This is expecially true when the formalities include drinking. I also believe the majority of such formalities are quite empty of thought about what true health means, how to achieve it, and where it ultimately comes from.
I’d like to believe these habitual formalities had a beginning, in some long-gone culture, when social relations were heartfelt and taken seriously, with good will and understanding – a culture to which we might one day return. This idealistic feeling comes from a personal belief that real health – i.e. spiritual health – is the ultimate purpose of the Creator’s divine providence, for every human being, including those who are made ill by their own foolish choices.
In John’s apocalyptic vision, the holy city, a “new Jerusalem” was seen coming down from heaven.
In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:2)
Health and wellness are primary goods, in all nations, in every society, however poor or allegedly well developed. But in the latter – especially in our country today – they are no longer considered a right for everyone. Increasingly those in the lower classes, whose health is already at risk for many reasons, receive less and less health care. Apparently forgotten are the rights with which, as the Founders claimed, God has endowed all humans. “Life” is the first named of those rights, without which the rest become meaningless. By extension, anything that sickens, poisons or shortens life is also a violation of this right.
Granted, these rights don’t guarantee that the state will keep every citizen alive and healthy. Rather, life and health are not to be taken away intentionally by the state, without due process of law, and certainly not by the few financiers who have turned all aspects of healthcare into debt creation, in their steady and successful efforts, over the past 50 years, to redistribute wealth upward to the few who own the debt. This “financial engineering” harms the economic health of the real economy, and puts the most creative minds to the service of the FIRE sector (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate), which turns what should be service industries into forces that control every aspect of the economy in unhealthy ways.
In healthcare as business, financialization brings the greatest loss of life and health to those already disadvantaged. This is not just, nor is it some unfortunate accident of the ‘natural laws of economics’, as alleged by those benefitting the most. There are no such natural laws; these outcomes result from intentional policies on the part of politicians and the financiers they support. A scholarly and readable recent book on these issues is Elisabeth Rosenthal, An American Sickness – How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back (2017). A lengthy sampling, including 10 “Economic Rules of the Dysfunctional Medical Market” can be seen here.
Understanding these economic and political facts is discouraging, but needed, to find pragmatic cures. However, let me reemphasize the point of this blogpost. It’s not primarily to consider and learn what is pragmatic, but rather to reconsider and possibly relearn the spirit and spirituality of health. The next time we’re toasting with friends, let’s ask someone we care about, “No, Really; How ARE you?” It might change both of us for the better.