(Essay) Eating the Flesh of the Goddess: Demeter and the “Bread of Life” By Harita Meenee

Demeter holding ears of wheat above an altar. 470-450 BCE. Capua, Italy. Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale, 12. Photo by Harita Meenee

Demeter holding ears of wheat above an altar. 470-450 BCE. Capua, Italy. Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale, 12. Photo by Harita Meenee

“I am the bread of life.” This phrase is put in the mouth of Jesus in the Gospel According to John. [1] Again and again he declares himself to be “the true bread from heaven,” “the bread of God which … gives life to the world,” “the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever.” “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world,” he solemnly announces.[2]

Yet the “bread of life” did not come down from heaven; it came from the hands of women and was one of the most important kinds of food in antiquity, sustaining people in good as well as in hard times. Interestingly, the word for wheat, sitos, became synonymous with “food.”

The bread, in a way, was also the flesh of the Goddess: the very name of Demeter came to be identified with it, as well as with the grain. [3] She also had the titles Sito (“of the wheat”) and Megalartos or Megalomazos (“with big loafs”).[4] The Megalartia was the festival celebrated in her honor on the sacred island of Delos in the Aegean Sea. Even a month was named Megalartios after her. [5]

The bread must have been considered sacred since prehistoric times, since the oven became the principal feature of prehistoric European shrines, according to Marija Gimbutas. Some miniature shrines contained one or more figurines which grind grain and prepare dough. The same author maintains that loafs prepared in temples were dedicated to a goddess and used in her rituals; those were marked with multiple lozenges and snake spirals were probably used as an offering to the Earth Mother. [6]

Gimbutas’s theories are considered controversial, partly because it is hard to penetrate into traditions lost in the mists of time. Yet the religious importance of the bread is well documented in later antiquity: loafs and cakes for ritual purposes were baked in symbolic forms, such as those of animals and flowers.

During classical times and beyond something similar happened during the festival of Skirophoria, honoring Athena, Demeter and Persephone, which took place in the early summer. The purpose of the celebration was to enhance the growth of vegetation. Women threw into chasms dedicated to the goddess of agriculture phalluses and snakes (also phallic symbols) made of dough, as well as piglets. It is not hard to discern in this custom another representation of the Sacred Marriage, since both the clefts of the earth and the piglets are symbols of the vagina—in fact the ancient Greek word for piglet is delphax, deriving from delphys, “womb.”

Three months after the Skirophoria, the women-only festival of Thesmophoria occurred, again in honor of Demeter. At this time, what had remained from the thrown objects was retrieved and then ground and mixed with grains which would be sown in the fields. [7] In the Hellenic colonies of Sicily during the same celebration another interesting offering was made: bread was kneaded with honey and sesame and shaped as a vulva-—a natural symbol of fertility!

The religious significance of the loaf is so powerful that it was never lost; it was carried into Christianity and continues up to our day undiminished. Thus, in the Greek Orthodox Church pieces of bread called artos are offered after the Sunday service to all those who attend it. Crumbs of bread are added to sweet wine and consumed as “the body and the blood of Christ” by those who take communion. As the new religion forcefully replaced the old one, the flesh of the Goddess was turned into the body of the Young God, while wine, the precious gift of Dionysus, was transformed into Jesus’ blood.

Yet the connection between the loaf and the Sacred Feminine persisted through the centuries, transferred on to the Virgin Mary, another archetypal Mother. The Greeks usually refer to Mary using her title Panaghia, “All-Holy”—perhaps it is not a coincidence that the same adjective was attributed to some of the priestesses in Eleusis. [8] In medieval times, bread was offered to the Mother of God and was also named panaghia. This custom occurred in the palace of the Byzantine emperors, as well as in some monasteries, where the loaf was placed on a special tray called panaghiarion.

Interestingly, every year, at the time of the autumn equinox, when the Eleusinian Mysteries were once celebrated, women in Eleusis still bake special breads and dedicate them to Mary, in order to ensure a good harvest. Surprisingly, even the phalluses made of dough, ancient offerings to the Goddess, found their way into modern Greek culture. Once a year, they figure prominently at the traditional, Dionysian Carnival of Tyrnavos, in Central Greece. Present-day “pilgrims” cheerfully consume them, in an atmosphere of revelry reminiscent of the fertility festivals of times past…

 

See (Meet Mago Contributor) Harita Meenee

NOTES

[1] John 6: 35.

[2] Ibid. 6: 32-33, 6:51.

[3] Hesychius of Alexandria, Dictionary, s.v. “Demeter,” “sitos.” Henry G. Liddell and Robert Scott, Great Dictionary of the Greek Language, s.v. “Demeter.”

[4] Sito: Athenaeus 416B. Megalomazos: Athenaeus 109B.

[5] Liddell and Scott, Great Dictionary of the Greek Language, s.v. “megalartia,” “Megalartios.”

[6] Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989), 147.

[7] Vlassis G. Rassias, Festivals and Rituals of the Greeks (Athens: Anikhti Poli, 1997), 110, Karabouzis, The Ancient Attic Calendar and Festivals, s.v. “Skira or Skirophoria.”

[8] According to the dictionary of Hesychius, “Panaghia: priestess who does not sleep with a man.” For more information on these priestesses of Eleusis see Dimitrios N. Goudis, The Mysteries of Eleusis, 2nd ed. (Athens: Demiourgia, 1994), 124.

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