What is Ritual VII: The Gift of Food

Last week, I laid out an argument for understanding ritual as the interplay of two axes of ritual purpose, between the commugenic, or community generating, and cosmogenic, or cosmos generating, purposes, and then the Gift giving / receiving axis. Along this plane, any all ritual actions occur. Depending on the purpose, the audience, the time of year, the time of day, certain aspects may be emphasized over others. However, all elements are referenced in ritual, even if they are referenced only by their absence.

Today I want to discuss the gifting axis, and what it means in ritual. Specifically, I want to discuss this as it relates to food; which I do not think gets thought about in terms of its relation to religion. The gift of food is the gift of life. The earliest requests made to deities by hunter-gatherers are offerings and prayers for a good hunt, so that food could be shared with the tribe. The earliest Proto-Indo-Europeans were a people defined by their domesticated animals. First horses, then cows, then pigs and finally fowl. They had a myth, reconstructed by Bruce Johnson,1 wherein the Gods first gave the people cattle, and anyone who isn’t people who have cattle have in the past stolen that cattle, which not only provided a justification for cattle raiding (a national past time among daughter Indo-European peoples from the Irish in the west to the Vedics in the east), but also laid down a primordial gift which would be the basis for all future gifts.

To understand why food is the center of all gifts one only needs to understand that the gift of food is the gift of life. One of the hardest things for moderns, particularly in the first world, to understand how precarious life was for our ancient ancestors. They lived on the knife edge of poverty, where one bad decision, or bad turn, meant the difference between prosperity and slow death by starvation. Our ancestors were motivated by their stomachs more than almost any impulse. At the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are the physiological – among which are breathing, water, sex, sleep, and food. A hungry man may be capable of a great many things in order to satisfy that hunger, but a starving man is good for nothing but more starving. We may feel divorced from that hunger, but our easy confidence is born from false assumptions of plenty and false faith in systems that have yet to truly be tested. Having never felt true hunger, and more importantly the doubt that such hunger could or would be satisfied, we don’t really have the same understanding our ancestors did. If there is a role for asceticism in Heathenry, and this essay is in no way advocating such, it is not in pursuit of some higher state of being, but rather in pursuit of that understanding that total need.

In Cuisine of Sacrifice among the Greeks, in the paper “At Man’s Table,” Marcel Detienne writes:

"But," says he, "the evil gastér is urging me." Gastér kakoergos, the ill-doing belly, gastér stugeré, the odious belly, gastér lugré, the contemptible belly, gastér oulomené, the deadly belly, the belly that "gives so much pain," that brings "so many painful cares to mortals, "-- this theme returns with an obsessive force in the Odyssey to denounce the curse of the "belly" the frightful need man suffers to eat in order to live, and in order to eat, to have what is necessary. Man is a "belly" or "slave of the belly" when, possessed by hunger, he can think only of ways of satisfying it. Jesper Svenbro has noted certain social implications of the "belly" in Homer and Hesiod. For example, the poet who depends on others - on his audience - for his subsistence, for want of sufficient resources at home to protect him from hunger, is necessarily reuced [sic] to the state of a belly; it is the gastér in some way that commands his song.

However, the term seems to us to have a more general value. It indicates the human condition in its totality.2

The importance of food to life and well-being cannot be over emphasized. And yet, its importance is often deemphasized today. We make offerings of food, not understanding that food is the gift we receive. Food centers the human universe, it unites us as families and communities. The block party, the backyard barbeque, Thanksgiving; all holidays are, in part, exercises in communal consumption. We take pride in our ability to provide food and our ability to prepare it. We celebrate with feasts, reward with treats, and punish by withholding supper. It has become a cliché to point out that families that eat together produce happy, healthy children, both physically and mentally, but yet, it is important to point out for the same reason it is important to spend time exploring the different effects of ritual. Food is commugenic, but it is also cosmogenic. For in the creation of food we imitate the same primal sacrifice of Wóden and his two brothers sacrificing Ymir. In order for life to continue, life must die.

At the center of any community is a table, and the center of any table is the food it is laden with. If you don’t understand this, you don’t understand religion.

  1. Johnson, Bruce. “The Indo-European Cattle-Raiding Myth.” 1976. History of Religions, V. 16, N. 1

  2. Detienne, Marcel. “At Mans Table.” In The Cuisine of Sacrifice Among the Greeks, 1989. P59

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