Wendy Froud
Dolls by Wendy Froud, photograph by Toby Froud

The Lore of Simple Things—
Milk, Honey and Bread
In Myth And Legend (Continued)

Bread of the Body

In more than Christian ritual, bread has long stood for the body. It is a composite food, simply assembled, and the food most often offered as sacrifice in religious rituals over the centuries. While we can focus on bread itself, it is impossible to completely isolate bread lore from grain lore. Gods of vegetation, wheat, barley, corn are important parts of the history of bread's related symbolism and inform its significance as a ritual offering. In the rites of Adonis, the Syrian vegetation god, his bones were said to be ground on a mill then scattered to the winds. In Egypt, Osiris's resurrection was prefigured and represented by sowing miniature sarcophagi with seeds that would sprout. In such lore, bread is a symbol of metamorphosis (seed to grain, grain made into bread), a product of cooperative effort (the farmer, the miller, the baker), and is the most obvious of our three foods that has a seasonal /cyclical existence.

Communion with the vegetation deities of Pagan belief was taken in the form of many substances, but bread was paramount. In the Mysteries of Dionysos, the initiate partook of a cake or makaria (literally "a blessedness"). This similarity of custom offended Tertullian who, discussing the communion and baptismal rites of the Mithraic mysteries, put down 'the oblation of bread' among initiates as the work of the devil 'who copies certain things of those that be divine,' claiming a singular privilege for Christians that had been a long since been a commonplace for Pagans.

Passover Feast

"The Israelites Gathering Manna"
Ercole de' Roberti, 1490's

The ritual use of bread often embodies an act of remembrance. In Jewish tradition, during Passover, bread appears many times in the story and related custom of the holiday. Also known as The Feast of Unleavened Bread, Jews are forbidden from having anything leavened in their homes during the days of Passover. This is done in remembrance ofthose Jews, centuries ago, who fled from Egypt. Their flight from Egypt was so hasty they had no time to wait for their bread to rise. The unleavened bread, called matzah, is eaten as part of the Passover ritual.

The use of bread at Passover is carried over into the New Testament, and is used to establish new rituals that break with strictly Judaic custom and hearken back instead to pre-Christian practice wherein the body of the god is sacrificed and distributed among the celebrants.

On Thursday morning Jesus called to him the twelve disciples, and he said to them, This is God's remembrance day, and we will eat the paschal supper all alone. And then he said to Peter, James and John, Go now into Jerusalem and there prepare the pasch. And the disciples said, Where would you have us go to find the place where we may have the feast prepared? And Jesus said, Go by the fountain gate and you will see a man who has a pitcher in his hand. Speak unto him and say: This is the first day of unleavened bread; The Lord would have you set apart your banquet hall where he may eat his last passover with the twelve, Then Jesus sat with his disciples at the table of the feast and said, Behold the lesson of the hour:  . . .Then Jesus took a loaf of bread that had been broken not and said, This loaf is symbol of my body, and the bread is symbol of the bread of life; And as I break this loaf, so shall my flesh be broken as a pattern for the sons of men; for men must freely give their bodies up in willing sacrifice for other men. And as you eat this bread, so shall you eat the bread of life, and never die. And then he gave to each a piece of bread to eat. From henceforth shall this bread be called Remembrance bread . . .

Meister des Hausbuchs

"Last Supper," Meister des Hausbuchs, 1480's

The liturgical use of bread stretches back to an early Church in which adherents themselves contributed, bringing their own bread and wine to the altar. Increasing emphasis on and reverence for the Eucharist led to use of specially prepared altar breads. These hosts become smaller and thinner in the Church of the West. A bit of doctrinal history: the medieval church, responding to the growth of heresies, instituted the requirement that the Eucharist be performed with church–produced white wafers because in the 11th–12th c., the Church codified the doctrine of transubstantiation to insist that the bread was the body of Christ, not a symbol. A white wafer that dissolved on the tongue did away with troublesome questions about what it meant to 'chew' God up and swallow him. It also eliminated variations in the 'body' of Christ and symbolized that the Eucharist was the presentation of the bloodless body — the blood was separate in the wine.


In Mexico, Pan del Muerto, Bread of the Dead, is made as an offering to the deceased during the Los Dias de los Muertos. Most often, the bread is circular and decorated with a cross of bones covered with sugar. Though seemingly simple, the bread is a complex symbol, linking the living with the deceased through the communal bond of shared sustenance and remembrance. Such relationships are mirrored in many stories where bread creates a bond between the living and dead, or between earthly and otherworldly people.

Two stories in particular emphasize the depiction of the offering of bread as prelude to a relationship with an otherworldly person. In "The Story of Long Snake" from the Xhosa of Africa, bread is given to Long Snake at the advice of his mother. Because of refusing knowledge from an elder sister, the younger sister's actions begin problems; a retributive cycle of events that sever an Otherworldly relationship.

Once upon a time a certain girl left her father's place, and went to the village of Long Snake. Having arrived at the village of Long Snake she remained there, but the owner of the place was absent. The only person present was the mother of the owner of the place. Then in the evening the mother of Long Snake gave that girl some millet, and told her to grind it. After it was ground she made bread. When it was ready the mother of Long Snake said: "Carry this bread into the house of Long Snake."


A short time after that girl went into the house, the owner of the place arrived. Then she gave him bread and fermented milk, and he ate. When they had finished the food they went to sleep. Then early in the morning Long Snake went away, because in the daytime he lived in the open country. The girl went to the house of the parents of Long Snake. The mother of Long Snake clothed her with a very beautiful robe. After she was dressed she called for an axe, and went to cut firewood. Having arrived in the open fields she did not cut the firewood, but she threw away the axe and ran to her father's place. When she arrived at her father's place, her sister asked for where she had got that beautiful robe. She told her, and her sister said: "I am going to that village too."


The girl said: "Just listen, and I will tell you the custom of that village." But her sister said in reply: "I do not want you to tell me anything, because you yourself were not warned before you went." Then she set off at once, and went on till she arrived in the evening at the village of Long Snake. When she sat down the mother of Long Snake gave her millet, telling her to grind it and make bread. When it was ready she took it into the house of Long Snake. Then in the evening the owner of the place arrived, and the girl gave him bread and fermented milk. When they had finished eating they went to sleep, and early in the morning Long Snake went away.


Then the girl went to the house of Long Snake's parents. His mother clothed that girl also in the same manner as she had dressed the elder one. Then she borrowed an axe and went to cut fuel. In doing so she made an excuse to run away. On this day, however, the man went after his wives, and arrived at his father–in–law's place as the sun was setting. They went out of the house that the bridegroom might sleep in it. While he was eating, the people of the village piled up bundles of grass, and the bridegroom was burned in the house. In this manner he died.




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