Pumpkin spice and fully functional mythology

I think it’s cute that humanity’s favorite flavor is named after an ingredient it does not contain. I am talking about so-called the so-called pumpkin spice five, or PS-5. PS-5 is comprised of cinnamon, ginger, lemon peel, nutmeg cloves, and cardamom. Combine these, and you create the essence of pumpkin flavor.

Far, far away from PS-5 resides a being in whom PS-5 may be interested. I’m talking about pumpkins. What do the two have in common? In terms of macro-molecules, nothing. Pumpkins do not contain any cinnamon, ginger, lemon peel, nutmeg cloves, or cardamom.

Nor do these five substances contain any pumpkin. The two sets of substances do not intersect. As a Venn diagram, it would look like this:

The number of common elements is zero.
The number of common elements is zero.

Which brings us to an ever greater surprise. The flavors we love in actually pumpkin pies has nothing to do with the pumpkin. A pumpkin pie made of pure pumpkin would be a nauseating nightmare.

So the pumpkin in pumpkin spice is a trick. Calling PS-5 “pumpkin” anything is a trick. Analogy: It is like, after somebody sells a lot of cars painted with black and blue stripes, people start selling black and blue cookies as “car-style cookies.” There is no car-ness in black and blue. If the cookies were car shaped, that would work.

My eccentric friend says the worships PS-5. She knows very well that there is ZERO pumpkin in PS-5. It is because of this absence, she says, that she communes all the more deeply with the pumpkin spirit. Since there is no pumpkin in PS-5, we must create it ourselves. PS-5 forces us to schematize the absent referent ourselves. We become the pumpkin.

But there is a deeper basis for the western world’s worship of pumpkin spirit. We all love (and fear) jack-o’-lanterns. Of all the spooky, haunted friends that becomes active around Halloween—those personified essences of dry forests, smoke, cold wind, rustling brown leaves, scarecrows, and the Walker Behind the Rows—it is Jack-o’-Lantern who is its jolly King. His eternal grin is eternal. His smile is unchangeable. And these strong traits are horrifying, because they connote the grinning suicide unafraid of death. The grinning face who cuts its own throat, or immolates itself, or pulls the trigger … while grinning. Nothing is scarier than this.

Someone so gleefully powerful that their head remains grinning after decapitation. That person was a Hyper Alpha primate and had a formidable spirit. Fighters who are unafraid of pain and death are scary. You wouldn’t want to fight one in a closed space. People who hurt or kill themselves with glee are even scarier. They just don’t give a fuck.

Someone 100,000 years ago saw this—the grinning decapitated head of a comrade—and was so scarred that he had to compulsively “make” it again and again. Seeing the grinning head of a Hyper Alpha not on a body is probably a good thing.

Today, Jack is still the master of power. He is the King in power over all the holiday ceremonies and even space itself. And yet he is a tiny thing, smaller than a volleyball, and sits humbly on the ground, as a Walmart greeter. He is both God on High and the tiny babe of a poor homeless couple, sleeping amidst cow dung.


If we combine cinnamon, ginger, lemon peel, nutmeg cloves, and cardamom—we will not produce a pumpkin. We know this. Yet when we eat this no-pumpkin, we lovingly call it pumpkin. And this forces us to become the pumpkin. We invoke Pumpkin Ghost. We revere him as unstoppable power and as friendly baby—and we all love Pumpkin Baby. When we call PS-5 pumpkin spice, we dedicate that food to Pumpkin Baby, like prasadam to Lord Krishna. But in this case, we not only offer the food to the Lord, but also intend that the food transubstantiate, that the prasadam serve God by becoming God. The pumpkin spice religion thus combines both the offering mode of prasadam and the transubstantiation of Communion intended for our transformation.

The success of this little tangent shows that Joseph Campbell’s dream is possible. We can construct a myth that is full of deep feeling. The easily triggerable imprints of childhood are a good place to start. Picking images and their attached transporting somatic ecstasies, we can construct a myth from the bottom-up that cannot help but affect us. And that is the function of religion—to motivate the subject at the more compelling strata of feeling below the free but sterile level of ratiocination. Nobody can think themselves into a new state. The state, which is motive and will, precedes thinking. Thinking serves the passions. You hit the passions through art and, of course, real-life drama. But if you want to program your state, which is the Holy Grail of psychotherapy and self-help, you have to access the dark meat that drives you. And that is done through sensation, hardwired association, and feeling.