Myth and Legend, Food in

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MYTH AND LEGEND, FOOD IN. Food imagery appears in the myths and legends of many cultures worldwide; for example, in the concept of the earth as a life-giving mother and as an explanation for agricultural innovation. Gifts of food were thought proper to propitiate the gods and ensure success in food production.

Across cultures, the germination of plants and their ripening and dying are identified with the cycle of human lifethe regeneration of the cosmos. The juxtaposition of life with death, fertility with infertility, and order with chaos is interwoven with the ideas of salvation and revival, of which woman is a symbol and the incarnation. For example, the Aztecs believed that the earth was female and called their goddess of fertility Tlazolteotl, Mother-Earth; similarly, other examples are the Celtic goddesses Aine and Anu (Danu, Dana), the Greek Demeter, the Hindu goddess Devi, and the Aboriginal deity Gunabibi, who was called the First Mother.

Egyptian myths about eternal forces of nature center on the male deity Osiris. His death at the hand of his brother Set and his resurrection, brought about by his wife Isis and his sister Nephtida, is associated with the cycle of plant vegetation and with the cereals that are sown after the harvest and regenerate with the coming of spring. The snake goddess Renenutet has custody over the harvest and field crops.

In ancient mythologies, everything is a gift of the gods' generosity, even the knowledge needed to improve food production. Examples appear cross-culturally: the Sumerian god Enlil makes a hoe and gives it to man so that he can cultivate land; the Chinese are taught how to cultivate land by the Divine Farmer, Shen-nung, who is the first to plow and sow grain, which rained from the sky or was dropped by the Purple Bird. A Hindu who sincerely worships goddess Devi is rewarded with rice by the household goddess, Annapurna; Indian bees make honey because of the divine intervention of the twin brothers Avins; and the Greek goddess Athena creates the olive tree from the depths of Attica's barren earth. The short poem in honor of Ninkasi, the Mesopotamian goddess of strong liquors, relates that it is due to her grace the dough rises when beer leaven is added to it, and that it is she who inspires bakers add sesame seed and herbs to bread.

In the epic of Gilgamesh, the goddess Ishtar asks her father, the god Anu, to use the heavenly bull to punish Gilgamesh. When Anu replies that the bull would not leave a single wheat grain on the earth for people, the goddess assures him that the grain reserves stored in the granaries of Uruk were sufficient to last for seven successive years of crop failure, and that they could sustain both people and cattle.

The association between humans and the gods endows food with a sacred quality, a mystical solidarity of man with plants and animals. When humans consume votive food they are in a way convinced that ultimately they consume a divine being. Offering food is a common practice in mythologies, and in order to prevent the wrath of the gods, priests were obliged to procure food for the sanctuaries.

Each deity has a liking for a particular food; for example, lettuce is the favorite vegetable of the Egyptian god Set. In Hindu mythology, the god Dharmathakur accepts only white offerings (rice, milk, poultry), while the demonic and semi-divine female Dakini acquires strength from raw meat. As a child, Krishna goes into peasants' houses and pinches butter from them as he is very fond of it. The Hindu made offerings of boiled rice mixed with sesame seed, milk, ghee, and honey to their mystical ancestors residing in the other world.

Before any undertaking, a Greek promised the gods he would make some offering to them in order to gain their support. If someone could not afford to buy a sacrificial animal, he made a cake baked in the shape of an ox, a cow, or a sheep. Replacement offerings were made to gods when cities were besieged by enemies, or when meat was in short supply.

Beer is a food product most frequently referred to in mythologies of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Scandinavia. Mesopotamian mythology in particular abounds in episodes with beer in the background. The goddess Inana makes the god Enki drunk with beer in order to steal the heavenly secrets away from him. In turn, in Greek mythology wine plays the most prominent role. On a holiday celebrated in December, when the new wine was stowed in granaries, the Greeks would kill a goat and sprinkle vine roots with its blood. Liquors were even thought to make the horrid existence in the underworld more pleasant; for example, in the Welsh underworld, in Annwn, there is a spring from which wine was flowing.

After his exhausting journey in search of the "herb of life" Gilgamesh falls into a deep sleep that lasts seven days. The host of that place, Ut-napishtim, says to his wife: "Start [to] bake bread and every day put one loaf next to his head and make a sign on wall so that you know how many times you have baked." The ritual meal in praise of Aboriginal deity Djanggawul was composed exclusively of fresh bread made of sago nut flour. Eating it formed a sacred bond of friendship between the participants of the feast.

In Greek mythology, ambrosia is the food that gives the Olympian gods eternal youth and beauty. Unlike nectar, which is a drink, ambrosia is probably a dish. It was believed to make even an ordinary person immortal. The Indian counterparts of ambrosia are amryta, the nectar found at the ocean bottom, and soma, a heavenly elixir that ensures immortality on earth. The Australian Aborigines told tales about an elixir of immortality, though this elixir had no name.

See also Art, Food in: Literature; Ancient Mediterranean Religions; Australian Aborigines; Beer; Bible, Food in the; Buddhism; Christianity; Coffee; Folklore, Food in; Greece, Ancient; Herodotus; Hinduism; Inca Empire; Islam; Judaism; Mesopotamia, Ancient; Religion and Food; Symbol, Food as; Tea; Wine in the Ancient World.


Black, Jeremy, and Anthony Green. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia : An Illustrated Dictionary. British Museum Press, 1992.

Campbell, John R., and Robert T. Marshall. The Science of Providing Milk for Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975.

Cotterell, Arthur. Mythology: An Encyclopedia of Gods and Legends from Ancient Greece and Rome, the Celts, and the Norselands. London: Southwater, 2000.

Hart, George. Egyptian Myths. The Legendary Past. British Museum Press, 1990.

Mudrooroo, Nyoongah. Aboriginal Mythology. New York: Aquarian, HarperCollins, 1994.

Michael Abdalla

Tea and Coffee in Mythology

In Chinese and Japanese cultures, tea is a frequent subject matter of legends. The tea plant was created from eyelids of a certain Buddhist monk, or sage, who, wanting to punish himself for falling asleep during meditation, cuts them off and discards them with contempt. Each eyelid gives rise to one tea shrub. According to the Japanese version of this legend, the eyelids belong to Bodhidharma (Daruma), who cuts them off as a preventive measure, since he wants to be unable to ever close his eyes.

The discovery of coffee is sometimes ascribed to goats. Coptic monks, who are compelled to observe a strict religious order of overnight prayers, notice that goats that had nibbled the leaves and fruit of wild coffee shrubs became excited and could not sleep at night. Thus, the monks follow the goats and, although they do not really like the taste of the leaves and bean, they are greatly satisfied with their unusual effect. Another, more poetic legend has Arabic origins: the first cup of this beverage was served to Muhammad by the Archangel Gabriel. The drink has an amazing effect. Right away Muhammad mounts his stallion, defeats forty knights in tournament, and lets forty Arabic ladies "taste the sweetness of love."