Bread, Symbolism of

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BREAD, SYMBOLISM OF. Bread is among the most popular foods in the world. Whether it is leavened or unleavened, made into loaves or cakes, baked, steamed, or fried in oil, bread is universal. Whatever the grain, bread occupies an important place in every civilization. It has exceptional nutritional value, and as the only nearly perfect product for human nourishment, can be consumed by itself. It is made from flour, water, salt, yeast, and sometimes additives.

Farming has had a profound affect on the religious beliefs of agricultural communities, and the symbolism of wheat is deeply associated with the symbolism of bread. Since the Neolithic period, mythology and ritual representation have tended to be identified with plant life because the mystery of human birth and death was in many respects similar to the life cycle of plants.

The growth of settlements, which ethnologists refer to as the "great turning point for humanity" and which was indirectly inspired by the search for bread (agriculture was only a means to this end), helped define social and economic institutions (the growth of property rights, the use of wheat as a form of exchange value, and so on). Planting and harvesting as well as the events that endanger crops (flood, drought) were perceived as key events in agricultural life.

During its life cycle the grain of wheat dies and is reborn months later in the form of a spike capable of providing sustenance to human beings. Wheat is the quintessential nutritional plant. It was believed to contain the mystery of life and death and thus it became a sacred plant. One of the essential features of the Neolithic era was plant cultivation. This led to a way of life that had previously been unimaginable and gave birth to new beliefs that completely altered the spiritual universe of humankind.

Religious connections with the animal world were replaced by what might be called a mystical solidarity between humankind and vegetation. Moreover, female sacredness and the female principle in general assumed greater importance because of women's influential role in agriculture. Women's fertility was associated with that of the earth, and women were responsible for the abundance of the harvest because of their knowledge of the mystery of creation. During the fertility festivals in Syracuse (Sicily), loaves of sesame bread shaped like female genital organs were handed out.

This sacred and divine dimension of the wheat spike helped associate it with the symbolism of resurrection. Examples survive on bas-reliefs from the temple of Isis, the Egyptian nature goddess and wife and sister of Osiris, in Philae, an island in the Nile, in which the mummy of Osiris, god of the underworld, presents spikes of wheat watered by a priest, symbolizing the new wheat that will soon grow. This same symbolism is found on clay statuettes of Osiris that contain wheat kernels, which were placed in graves to ensure the survival of the dead.

This close relationship between the celebration of the seasons, the death and rebirth of the god, and the possibility of a life beyond the grave clearly illustrates the connection between wheat and Osiris and the manifest symbolism of resurrection, which he represented in Egyptian religion. Ancient Egypt was far from unique, however, for cereal plants were associated with divinities in nearly all cultures, such as the Greek goddess Demeter and the Roman goddess Ceres.

In the Old Testament wheat and bread are symbols of the fecundity of the earth. The New Testament associates the fruits of the eartha gift of God to humankindwith the symbolism of wheat and associates the gifts of God with the hearts of humans (grace), especially in the parable of the good seed and the bad seed. Bread becomes the symbol of the supreme gift from God to humankindeternal life, the body of Christ in the Eucharist: "Take this and eat, for this is my body."

In Hebrew "Bethlehem" means 'house of bread'. The city is located seven kilometers (five miles) south of Jerusalem and is considered the place of origin of the house of David and the birthplace of Jesus. In the Old Testament the Eternal sends manna to the Hebrews when they are crossing the desert (Exodus). Manna symbolizes bread and prefigures the Christian Eucharist. It is a sign of the generosity of God toward humankind. Jewish matzoh is an unleavened bread that is eaten to commemorate this event. In the Roman Catholic faith, unleavened bread is used to prepare the hosts for the Eucharist. The Orthodox Church uses leavened bread.

In imperial Rome bakers (pistores ) celebrated 9 June, the Vestalies, in honor of the Roman goddess Vesta. In the Fastes the Roman poet Ovid describes how the Romans came to worship Jupiter Pistor or Jupiter the Baker. According to Ovid, when the Gauls attacked Rome in 387 b.c.e., the Romans invoked Jupiter, and the great god counseled them to throw what was most precious to them over the walls. While praying to Ceres, they prepared small loaves of bread with the remains of their flour and threw the loaves at their assailants. Seeing this, the Gauls believed Rome was well provisioned and had the wherewithal to withstand a lengthy siege, so they abandoned their assault of the city. In recognition the Romans built a temple to Jupiter Pistor that associated the symbolism of wheat (life, death, and rebirth) with the destiny of the city.

Bread is not associated only with spirituality and the afterlife, however. Even in antiquity the production of bread was associated with procreation. The process of loading, baking, and unloading the oven parallels copulation, pregnancy, and childbirth. In Hebrew and Chaldean the word zera has several meanings referring to the seed of the plant, to sperm, and to human progeny. Hebrew zera became the Greek sperma, Latin semen, and English "seed." Latin placenta was the name of a much appreciated pastry served on feast days in ancient Rome. Leaven, which plays the role of the grain or seed, is also referred to as "mother" in English and madre in Spanish. In Egypt the basket in which dough is left to rest is known as a coffin. Various popular expressions associate bread with the concept of procreation. In France a young woman who found herself pregnant before marriage was said to have "borrowed a loaf from the batch." In England the expression "a bun in the oven" refers to a woman's pregnancy. Bread symbolizes the forces of life, and an element of eroticism is associated with its manufacture. The French word four (once forn ) for oven is derived from church Latin fornicatio, in turn derived from fornix, which literally meant a vault but figuratively meant a prostitute. In ancient Rome, prostitutes fornicated with clients in vaulted rooms that resembled ovens.

The French word miche, used for a round bread loaf, also signifies breast or buttocks, and a bâtard is a thick French baguette. In English buns refer to the buttocks as well as various small round rolls. In Italy, in the region around Naples, a small bread loaf is known as an "angel's penis," and in Germany Brotleib can refer to the female body.

The sickle is often associated with wheat and bread because of its role in the harvest, but it is also associated with the god Saturn, the mistletoe of the Druids, and the silver bow that belonged to Artemis, the sister of the sun god Apollo. That is why, in connection with grain, the sickle fulfills one of the functions of the moon, for the harvest ends a life cycle that begins with the death of the kernel of wheat. Like the scythe, the sickle serves as a positive end to the cycle for it signifies the harvest and nourishment, both physical and spiritual. It also prefigures the symbolism of wheat, the bread of the future, and other promises of transformation.

Bread is an object of belief and superstition in many cultures. The Hittites believed that the bread served to soldiers preserved them from impotence and that leavened bread helped ward off epidemics (providing it was placed in a special barrel). In Belgium during the Middle Ages, bread kneaded on Christmas Eve protected the home against lightning. In many places people give newlyweds bread and salt to express the hope for health and prosperity. In Russia a saltcellar is placed on top of the loaf of bread, which is presented to the couple by one of their mothers.

Many other ancient beliefs have continued into the twenty-first century. In Sweden it is customary to prepare a flat round bread pierced with a hole when a daughter is born, and the bread is eaten the day she gets married. In Hamburg, Germany, a highly suggestive, triphallic bread is offered to the bride and groom on their wedding day. For centuries Christians have made the sign of the cross on the crust of a loaf of bread before cutting it.

Throwing bread out or placing it upside down on the table supposedly brings bad luck. This superstition is connected to an ancient belief that bread turned toward the entrails of the earth, therefore toward hell, attracts evil spirits. In another medieval belief, bakers refused to have any physical contact with or even to serve the executioner of Paris, a man who inspired fear and was held in contempt by the people of the city. Ultimately the king was forced to issue an edict that compelled the bakers to serve the executioner. In protest and as a sign of their dissatisfaction, the bakers turned the executioner's loaf upside down on the rack to distinguish it from the others.

Various powers are attributed to bread blessed by a priest. At the end of the feast in honor of Saint Joseph in Sicily, guests are sent home with a piece of consecrated bread to keep in the house to bring fertility and good fortune in the coming year. On the Feast of Saint Calogero, Sicilians bring ex-votos made of bread covered with poppy seeds to church to be blessed. Islanders keep consecrated bread to throw upon the stormy waters for the safe return of fishermen at sea. Kulich (Russian Easter bread), a domed cylindrical loaf, is decorated with religious Easter symbols (notably XB for Khristos Voskrese or Christ is Risen), surrounded with dyed eggs, topped with a beeswax candle, and taken to church to be blessed. According to popular belief, the sign of a perfectly baked kulich is that it will never mold; some say it will last for a year. Kulich is shared with the departed when, on Easter Monday, families go to the cemetery to picnic on the gravesites. In Russia true bliny, yeast-based pancakes prepared only once a year during Maslenitsa or Butter Week (Mardi Gras), represent the sunround, golden, and warmand symbolize the arrival of spring. One is always left in the window for the departed.

Kutya, a sweetened wheat-berry pudding, is traditionally the first or last food eaten on Christmas. Though more of a porridge than a bread, kutya, which is decorated with a cross of almond slices on top, is taken to gravesites or even thrown into the open grave. It is also given to propitiate Father Frost. Kutya bears an uncanny resemblance to cuccìa, a Sicilian wheat-berry pudding served on the feast of Saint Lucy, when traditionally no milled grain is eaten. (Saint Lucy was a blinded martyr, and under the Julian calendar her feast day was on the darkest day of the year, the first day of winter; it is celebrated on 13 December under the Gregorian calendar.)

For centuries bread has been a formidable political and economic weapon, and from ancient Rome onward, those in power have always kept a watchful eye on its availability. Roman bakers, for example, were closely regulated and under the control of the state. The Roman state went so far as to nationalize the baking industry. In France over a millennium and a half later, repeated famines triggered the French Revolution. Napoleon's letters during his campaigns attest to the emperor's extreme preoccupation with the supply of bread to Paris. The weight and price of bread was still regulated by the state in France in the twenty-first century.

Ancient breads have been a source of inspiration. They are a rich trove of ideas for bakers in the twenty-first century. While the techniques for making bread have changed, the human stomach has not. Industrial methods of production and freezing have led to the creation of new bread types, but industrially produced bread will never replace artisanal bread, which has undergone something of a renaissance in the United States in the early twenty-first century. The new gastronomy emphasizes quality much more than quantity.

A symbolic foodstuff international in scope, bread is the quintessential human food. Its history underlies a large part of the history of the human race, the simplest perhaps in the history of everyday life and eating. It connects people to culture, to tradition, and sometimes to religion.

See also Baking ; Bread ; Metaphor, Food as ; Symbol, Food as ; Wheat .


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Lionel Poilâne