With the holidays come all the extra opportunities for festive eating and drinking. Here’s Augustine imagining a cheesy paradise:
Fidelis promissor reddes Verecundo pro rure illo eius Cassiciaco, ubi ab aestu saeculi requievimus in te, amoenitatem sempiterne virentis paradisi tui, quoniam dimisisti ei peccata super terram in monte incaseato, monte tuo, monte uberi (Augustine, Confessions 9.3.5)
You are faithful in your promise—and for the use of his villa in Cassiciacum where we rested in you apart from the strain of this world—you are rewarding Verecundus with the delights of your eternally green garden. You have forgiven his earthly sins on the mountain where there is cheese, your mountain, the mountain of abundance.
The phrase in monte incaseato can strike the reader as odd. Thomas Williams renders it as “the mountain flowing with milk.” Sarah Ruden highlights and amplifies the wordplay with the site of Verecundus’s villa and translates it as “the mountain of Cassiciacum’s choice cheese.” Both Williams and Ruden note that it’s a citation of Ps 68:16-17 (67:16-17) in the Old Latin. Both Williams and J.J. O’Donnell cite Augustine’s explanation of this verse in the Enarrationes in Psalmos 67:22:
Hunc autem montem consequenter dicit “montem Dei, montem uberem, montem incaseatum, vel montem pinguem” … Sed quem montem intellegere debemus “montem Dei, montem uberem, montem incaseatum,” nisi eumdem Dominum Christum … Ipse est mons incaseatus, propter parvulos gratia tamquam lacte nutriendos; nam et ipsum lac, unde fit caseus, miro modo significat gratiam; manat quippe ex abundantia viscerum maternorum, et misericordia delectabili parvulis gratis infunditur.
This mountain is suitably called, “the mountain of God, the mountain of abundance, the mountain where there is cheese,” or “the mountain of fat.” … How ought we to understand this mountain to be anything other than Christ the Lord? … He is the mountain of cheese, since his little ones are fed with grace as with milk … For milk itself from which comes cheese, miraculously symbolizes grace, gushing abundantly from the breasts of mothers and poured forth upon the little ones with delicious compassion.
How did this mountain of cheese get into Augustine’s Psalter? As is so often the case with the interesting, odd, or otherwise noteworthy renderings in the Old Latin or Vulgate Psalms, the cheese was delivered via the Septuagint.
Here are the relevant phrases in the Masoretic text of Ps 68:16-17, with the word in question underlined:
har gabnūnnîm har-bāšān
hāhār ḥāmad ʾĕlōhîm lǝšibtô
The word in question here, gabnūnnîm, derives from the root g.b.n., which occurs sparingly in the Hebrew Bible. It is used in reference to a person with a hunched back (Lev 21:20) and in its form here, the plural of gabnōn, extends that meaning metaphorically to describe the shape of a mountain. Consequently, the NRSV renders gabnūnnîm in Ps 68 as “many-peaked.” Here’s my translation:
mountain of God, mountain of Bashan
humpbacked mountain, mountain of Bashan
the mountain where God desires to make his dwelling.
However, the root g.b.n. can also refer to curds or cheese—(as it still does in Modern Hebrew, gǝbînâ)—and as the parallelism in Job 10:10 shows:
hălōʾ keḥālāb tattîkēnî
Haven’t you poured me out like milk?
And congealed me like cheese?
Faced with gabnūnnîm in Psalm 68, the LXX chose the tasty fermented dairy food:
ὄρος τοῦ θεοῦ, ὄρος πῖον,
ὄρος τετυρωμένον, ὄρος πῖον.
τὸ ὄρος, ὃ εὐδόκησεν ὁ θεὸς κατοικεῖν ἐν αὐτῷ;
God’s mountain, a fertile mountain,
a curdled mountain, a fertile mountain
the mountain on which God has chosen to dwell
This is what we see in the Old Latin quoted by Augustine:
montem dei, montem uberem,
mons incaseatum, mons pinguem (Augustine’s text)
mountain of God, mountain of abundance,
mountain where there is cheese, mountain of fat
For comparison, here’s the Old Latin edition of Sabatier:
montem dei, montem uberum.
montem caseatum, montem uberem (Sabatier edition)
mountain of God, mountain of abundance,
cheesy (or curdled) mountain, mountain of abundance
Ever the party-pooper, Jerome leaves no traces of cheese on the mountain in the Vulgate:
mons Dei mons pinguis
mons excelsus mons pinguis
mountain of God, mountain of fat,
high mountain, mountain of fat.
The imagery of uninhabited land full of processed or manufactured food can be found in several places in the Hebrew Bible, most notably the repeated reference to Canaan as “the land flowing with milk and honey,” but also visions of the hills flowing with sweet wine (Amos 9:13) and mountains flowing with milk (Joel 3:18). The utopian vision of a mountain with food ready to hand has a long life. Harry McClintock’s famous 1928 recording of the “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” describes hens who lay soft-boiled eggs, revels in the “the little streams of alcohol” that “come a-trickling down the rocks” and “a lake of stew, and of whiskey too” where “you can paddle all around ‘em in a big canoe.”
As always, whatever mountain you choose to graze on this holiday season, consume responsibly.
Thomas M. Bolin is Professor of Religious Studies & Classical Studies at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin.