Previous month:
November 2014
Next month:
January 2015

December 2014

"Into the Woods" series, 41: The Folklore of Goats

''So much to see!'' by photographer Adrienne Elliot

In myths all around the world the goat is associated with wilderness. The Greco-Roman gods who inhabited the forest depths and remote mountaintops roamed the backlands with goat companions, and appeared in the Pan, a sculpture by Wendy Froudform of goat-men themselves: Pan, Silvanus, Faunus, Bacchus, Dionysis, goat lovers all. Female goats were sacred to Artemis/Diana, goddess of female independence and the hunt, and goat milk was a common offering with which to honor or propitiate her.

In Sumerian myth, goats belonged to Marduk, the ancient god of magic and patron deity of Babylon, and were regarded as potent, uncanny beings due to this association.  Agni, the Vedic god of fire, rides a chariot pulled by goats in some Hindu tales; as does Thor, the god of thunder, strength, and virility in Scandinavian myth. Thor's goats, called Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr, are slaughtered and feasted on each night, but when their bones are carefully gathered together these magical goats return to life.

The Yule Goat, found across northern Europe, is a straw figure traditionally made from the very last sheaf of grain to be harvested each year. It can range in size from tiny to huge, and has magical properties. The custom is pagan in origin, but has been become attached to A Swedish Yule Goat, 1917Christmas lore in a number of northern countries: Father Christmas is sometimes pictured as riding on the back of a goat in Scandinavia, for example, and "going Yule goat" refers to the custom of carolling or wassailing. In some regions, a man dressed as a goat accompanies the singers as they go from house to house; he is a Trickster figure, playing pranks on households not sufficiently hospitable. In other traditions, the Yule Goat is a gentle, invisible spirit who watches to make sure the winter rituals are correctly carried out, or a figure who, like Santa Claus today, distributes presents to children.

Yule Goat by John Bauer

Yule Goat in Gefle, Sweden, 2009

The Krampus is a relative of the Yule Goat, but he is far less benign. Known largely in Alpine regions, he's a hairy, frightening beast-man with the horns and hooves of a goat, wearing rattles and bells around his waist. He distributes gifts to good children and drags the naughty ones off into the forest.

Krampus figures photographed by Charles Fregere

Oldgoatshome

The symbolism attached to goats varies a great deal around the world. In some places, they represent gentleness, endurance, spiritual purity, and sacrifice; in others, independence, lust, virility, fertility, The Gidleigh Goat by David Wyattcreative vigor, and stubbornness. Those born in the Chinese year of the goat are said to be shy, creative, and prone to perfectionism, while in Persian myth, goats symbolize leadership, forcefulness, and strength. This range reflects the nature of goat themselves. Though they were among the earliest of animals to be domesticated by humankind, they are also among the quickest to return to a feral state when opportunity arises.

In old stories ranging from Aesop's Fables to fairy tales and nursery rhymes, goats are cannier than sheep (think, for example, of the clever Three Billy Goats Gruff), and though they're generally not full Trickster characters, they tend to retain an edge of Trickster's wiliness and wildness. Even in more recent stories for children -- such as Heidi, the classic by Johanna Spyri (which I adored as a child) -- they represent our connection to nature and life lived in tune with nature's cycles...carrying the echo of goat-legged Pan wherever they roam the mountains, and wherever we follow. 

Heidi and the Goats by Jessie Wilcox Smith

Goat sketch by Diego Rivera

"From sunrise to sunset, I was in the forest, sometimes far from the house, with my goat who watched me as a mother does a child," wrote Mexican painter Diego Rivera (in My Art, My Life). "All the animals in the forest became my friends, even dangerous and poisonous ones. Thanks to my goat-mother and my Indian nurse, I have always enjoyed the trust of animals -- a precious gift. I still love animals infinitely more than human beings."

Girls Combing the Beads of Goats by Richard Doyle

Katrina PlotnikovaImagery above: goats photographed by Adrienne Elliot, a sculpture of Pan by Wendy Froud, a Swedish Yule Goat photographed in 1917,  "Yule Goat" by John Bauer (1882-1918),  a straw Yule Goat in Sweden (2009), a photograph of Krumpus figures by Charles Fregere (from his brilliant Wilder Mann series), "Old Goats Home" by David Wyatt (initial sketch for a painting), "The Gidleigh Goat" by David Wyatt (Gidleigh is a village close to Chagford), "Heidi and the Goats" by Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935), a goat sketch by Diego Rivera (1886-1957), "Girls Combing the Beards of Goats" by Richard Doyle (1834-1883), and a goat image from the Russian surrealist photographer Katerina Plotnikova.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Today, some warm, smoky music from Brazil for a cold December morning on Dartmoor....

Above: "Ainda Bem" by Marisa Monte, from Rio de Janeiro. Monte trained as an opera singer in Rome before returning to Brazil to sing jazz, blues, samba, and other forms of popular music. She's recorded ten albums over twenty-five years, including Verdade Uma Ilusão (2014).

Below: "Atrás da Porta" by Ana Cañas, a singer from from São Paulo. This video is part of Projeto Studio62's "minimalista" series, presenting the songs of Brazilian composer Chico Buarque in a raw and intimate way. Cañas has recorded four albums, the most recent of which is Coração Inevitável (2013).

Next:

The wonderful singer/songwriter Maria Gadú, with a minimalist version of her own song, "Veja Bem, Meu Bem," for Projeto Studio62. Gadú started singing in the bars of São Paulo was she was thirteen, recorded her first album in 2009, and released her fifth (called Nós) last year.

Next:

A burst of color and sunshine from Luísa Maita, raised in a musical family in São Paulo. "Alento" comes from her terrific debut album, Lero-Lero (2010).

And last, for something just a little bit different:

Maria Gadú again, with a gorgeous version of Pink's "Who Knew." She reminds me of the great Joan Armatrading here....


On Dragons

Leviathan by Arthur Rackham

Dragon by Arthur Rackham

Here's one more exquisite passage from Alison Hawthorne Deming's Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit (discussed in Tuesday's post). It comes from her essay "Dragons," which I recommend reading in full:

Dragon by Arthur Rackham"Earth is teeming  with creatures great and small, tame and wild, endangered and endangering, hideous and gorgeous. Animals are a manifestation of the planet's imagining, and dragons are a manifestation of Earth's imagining that takes place in the human mind. We're not the only animals that can carry other animals in mind. Who hasn't seen a dog running in his sleep after inner prey? Is only his body imagining the rabbit he chases when his paws gallop through the snoring or is his mind too capable of conjuring the cottontail? It's impossible to know. But I'm convinced that all the animal sentience in the world makes for a massive contemplative practice that is humming along at any given moment -- the crow perched on a spruce surveying the meadows, the bobcat trotting down a woods lane in a moving meditation, the humpback whale going tailfins up on a deep and sonorous dive, the crickets percussing their endless hum, the squirrels dismantling pinecones like manic monks with their prayer beads, the Jersey cows chewing their cuds while they lie under maple trees and stare at the dandelions, the elephants rumbling out their hellos to each other across the savanna, the rabbits dancing for mystical joy in the rain as I have seen them do in the desert, the dragons lunging from storybook pages and TV screens and medieval engravings -- all of them an expression of Earth's spirituality, the something greater than rock and light and water, the something beyond matter that seeks to be. A creature of the senses that drinks in the world, a creature of an inwardness that seeks its own ends separate from external factors. Aren't we all, all of us, animals here together, double agents in our own bodies?"

Zoologies by Alison Hawthorne DemingWords: The passage by Alison Hawthorne Deming above is from Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit (Milkweed Editons, 2014), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The dragon illustrations above are by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). The quotes in the picture captions are from "On Fairy-Stories" by J.R.R. Tolkien (1939), The Farthest Shore by Ursula Le Guin (1972), Coraline by Neil Gaiman (2oo2), and Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (1929). Run your cursor over the images to read them.


Fairy Tales, Then & Now

The Frog Prince by Marianne Stokes

I loved The Diane Rehm Show on public radio when I lived in the States, so it was a thrill to learn that the show would be devoting a segment to "the history and modern relevance of fairy tales" this week. Fairy tales are usually covered in the media in a shallow (and sometimes deeply ignorant) way, but I trusted Ms. Rehm to do much better than this -- particularly as the guests she'd lined up were Maria Tatar, Marina Warner, and Ellen Kushner. Perfect! And, indeed, it was a splendid discussion. If you missed it, go here to have a listen.

(For those of you unfamiliar with the show, Diane Rehm's voice sounds strained because of spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological voice disorder that almost ended her career. Instead, she returned to the radio and used her show as a platform to raise public awareness of the condition. A remarkable woman.)

Snow White by Marianne Stokes

And on the subject of fairy tales:

I hope you haven't missed Marina Warner's excellent new book, Once Upon a Time: A Short History of the Fairy Tale, which just came out in October from Oxford University Press. "The more one knows fairy tales," she notes, "the less fantastical they appear; they can be vehicles of the grimmest realism, expressing hope against all the odds with gritted teeth." 

Edited to add: I also recommend Warner's article "How Fairy Tales Grew Up," published in The Guardian this week.

The editors of Mirror, Mirrored (Gwarlingo Press) are planning a limited edition volume of Grimms Fairy Tales illustrated by contemporary artists from a wide range of disciplines, with an Introduction by Karen Joy Fowler. They are running a crowd-funding campaign for it now, with some lovely art as donation rewards.

And last: Go here to watch a video of Philip Pullman discussing the enduring power of stories in a clip from the BBC's Newsnight programme.

Marianne Stokes

The illustrations in this post are by Marianne Stokes (1855-1927) -- a painter who, though little known today, was considered one of the leading women artists of Victorian England.

Born in Austria, Marianne studied in Munich and Paris, lived in arts colonies in Brittany and Denmark, then settled in St. Ives, Cornwall with her British husband, landscape painter Adrian Stokes. In Cornwall, she was part of the lively Newlyn group of plein air artists (along with her close friend Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes), until falling under the spell of Pre-Raphaelitism from the 1890s onward. The Stokes then lived and worked in London, with frequent painting trips abroad -- spending half their year in rural Austria, Hungry, and the Tartra Mountain villages between Slovakia and Poland. If you'd like to know more, I recommend Utmost Fidelity: The Painting Lives of Marianne and Adrian Stokes by Magdalen Evans.

Melisande by Marianne Stokes

Women's Worth by Marianne Stokes

lllustrations above: "The Frog Prince," "Snow White,"  an untitled magazine cover illustration from 1907, and "Melisande." The tapestry design is "Women's Worth" (based on a Schiller poem), created for Morris & Co. in 1912.


On Animals and the Human Spirit

Animal guide

I've just read Zoologies, a new collection of essays on animals, natural history, life, and art by Alison Hawthorne Deming, which I highly recommend. Here's a passage from Deming's Introduction to give you a taste:

"Animals surrounded our ancestors. Animals were their food, clothes, adversaries, companions, jokes, and their gods. In the Paleolithic period of the Great Hunt, Joseph Campbell writes, 'man's ubiquitous nearest neighbors were the beasts in their various species; it was those animals who were his teachers, illustrating in their manners of life the powers and patternings of nature.' In this age of mass extinction and the industrialization of life, it is hard to touch the skin of this long and deep companionship. Now we surround the animals and crowd them from their homes. They are the core of what we are as creatures, sharing a biological world and inhabiting our inner lives, though most days they feel peripheral -- a wag from the dog, an ankle embrace from the cat, the pleasure of sighting a house finch feeding outside the window, the thrill of spotting a hedgehog waddling along a path in Prague or a fox trotting across an urban campus in Denver. Animality and humanity are one, expressions of the planet's brilliant inventiveness, and yet the animals are leaving the world and not returning.

Devon woods

"What do animals mean to the contemporary imagination? We do not know. Or we have forgotten. Or we are too busy to notice. Or we experience psychic numbing to cope with the scale of extinctions and we feel nothing. Or we begin through our grief to realize how much we love our fellow creatures and tend to them. Or we write about them, trying to figure out what the experience of animals is and how they came to be so ingrained in human mind and emotion, to remember what it feels like to be embedded in the family of animals, to see the ways animals inhabit and limn our lives, entering our days and nights, unannounced and essential."

Devon woods

It's a wonderful book, beautifully composed, dark and painful in places, transcendent in others, and never sentimental. Deming discusses elephants and ants, pigs and oyster, and the animal nature of human beings. "I am tired," she writes, "of the conventional palette with which the lives of animals are painted. Most renderings feel too saturated with gratuitous piety, weighted down by ceaseless elegy, or boastful about heroic encounters on the last islands of wilderness. I want something closer to the marrow of our lived days, as in childhood, when an animal story or encounter could make me wonderstruck."

In these wide-ranging, incisive essays, she has amply achieved this.

Devon woods

Devon woods

Zoologies by Alison Hawthorne Deming Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit by Alison Hawthorne Deming was published by Milkweed Editons, US, 2014. (I recommend the author's previous books as well, especially Writing the Sacred Into the Real.)  A few related posts: "The Dance of Joy & Grief," "The Peace of Wild Things," "Wild Neighbors,"  "Daily Myth," "Holding the World in Balance," and "Animalness.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Today, works by the great French composer Darius Milhaud (1892-1974). Born in Marseilles, he studied at the Paris Conservatory (where he was a member of Les Six), spent two years in Brazil as a young man, then returned to France where he composed interstitial music borrowing from many musical styles (classical, Brazilian, jazz, folk, and more), including music for the opera and ballet -- until, being Jewish, he was forced into exile in America during World War II. After the war, he taught alternate years at Mills College in California and the Paris Conservatory.

I have an old clipping in my files passed to me many years ago by Ellen Kusher (working then as the host of a late night music show for WGBH Radio in Boston) containing my favorite passage about Milhaud. I'm afraid I don't know who the author is, but I think about these words every time I hear Milhaud's music:

Darius Milhaud"Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Darius Milhaud's life and work -- and the feature most irreconcilable with popular notions of creativity -- is that he was in all aspects a truly happy man: this despite a crippling disease that kept him bed- and wheelchair-ridden, and in almost constant pain, for nearly half his life. He spurned the heart-on-sleeve negativism of much of the 'serious art' of the 20th century, attributing it to the influence of Richard Wagner, to whose music he took an early and permanent dislike.

"In 1958, a young a troubled student from provincial France wrote Milhaud of his consternation at Wagner's reputed dictum that art springs from suffering, unhappiness and frustration; Mihaud answered: ''I am glad you decided to write to me about your problem; here is my point of view, if you want it. I had a marvelously happy childhood. My wife is my companion, my collaborator; we are the best of friends and this gives me great happiness. My son is a painter who works incessantly, and he is sweet and loving to his parents. Thus I can say that I've had a happy life, and if I compose, it's because I am in love with music and wouldn't know how to do anything else....Your Wagner quote proves to me once again he was an idiot.  You will probably think I've been very lucky, and you're right. But even if a composer does have a difficult and unhappy life, he still writes out of love (look at Schubert), and it's in love that he finds consolation and a reason for living. The idea that you can only make a work of art out of repression, semi-hysteria, or having your nose constantly out of joint, seems to me one of the most infantile and superficial notions one can have.' "

Amen.

Above: Milhaud's "Sonata No. 1 for Viola and Piano, Op. 240 - Movements III and IV," a lovely composition (with folk influences) performed by Spencer Martin (viola) and Xiao Hu (piano).

Below: Milhaud and his beloved wife, Madeleine, introduce "Caramel Mou," a delightful, jazz-inflected piece created in Paris between the wars. In this remarkable film footage (from a documentary aired in 1965), Milhaud explains what it's all about....

And last:

"Scaramouche," inspired by the music of Brazil, performed by the wonderful Spanish brothers Víctor and Luís del Valle on pianos, with Enrique Llopis and Raúl Benavent on percussion. How often do you see classical musicians look like they're having this much fun...?

If you'd like a little more this morning, here's the first overture from Milhaud's "The Creation of the World" (1923), performed  by the Orchestre National de France, conducted by Leonard Bernstein at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris in 1976. This is music for a twenty-minute ballet inspired by African mythology, originally commissioned by the Ballets suédois, a Swiss dance ensemble based in Paris.


Literary food

Once Upon a Time apple pie crust from the Food in Literature blog

A friend has ribbed me gently for writing about the magic of cooking when she knows I have a deep adversion to cooking myself (with a very few exceptions), and have been known to live on popcorn and coffee when left to my own devices. Mea culpa.

I love fine dining, I'm an adventurous eater, and I care about the ethical and ecological dimensions of the food that's on my plate...but I truly hate to cook, and do it as seldom as I can possibly get away with. (This is, er, not entirely unconnected with having nearly burned my grandmother's kitchen down when I was a kid.)

Fortunately I am married to very good cook, and our daughter is a professional chef & pastry chef in London, trained in a Michelin Star kitchen and deeply interested in food politics. Food is, as a result, a constant topic in our house -- and my love of fine cooking is not diminished by not being a practitioner of the art myself, just as my love of music is not lessened by the fact that I don't play an instrument. Some of us are musicians and some of us are the appreciative audience; some of us are wizards of the kitchen and some of us are happy eaters (and dish-washers).

Regency dish-washerThe dishwasher at work (after a Jane Austen themed dinner party).

Now, with that Full Disclosure aside, here's one last post on food to end the week: a look at blogs and websites combining literature and food in interesting ways. Here are a few of my favorites...and suggestions of others are very welcome.

* The Paper and Salt blog, by Nicole in New York City,  is "part historical discussion, part food and recipe blog, part literary fangirl attempts to recreate and reinterpret the dishes that iconic authors discuss in their letters, diaries, essays, and fiction." The Jane Austen Brown Pudding Tarts and L. Frank Baum Ginger Cake with Butterscotch Sauce below are two of the recipes on Paper and Salt, which has run for almost three years now, covering writers from the 18th to 21st centuries.

Jane Austen post on the Paper and Salt blog

L Frank Baum on the Paper and Salt blog

* In the "Fictitious Dishes" series, Brooklyn designer Dinah Fried has recreated food scenes from books ranging from Moby Dick and The Chronicles of Narnia to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Follow the link to see examples of her work, or seek out her book Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature’s Most Memorable Meals, containing fifty such photographs.

Below, Fried composes place settings for Charles Dicken's Oliver Twist and Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.

Oliver Twist's meal by Dinah Fried

Alice in Wonderland by Dinah Fried

* Cara Nicoletti's Yummy Books started as a Brooklyn book club in 2008, turned into a supper club in 2009 and then a  "literary food" blog in 2010. Nicoletti (a butcher, former pastry-chef, and writer) explains her combined focus on food and books like this:

"There is nothing as engrossing as the eating of a truly great meal and nothing that nourishes my spirit quite like the reading of a good book. Hemingway himself once said 'I have discovered that there is romance in food when romance has disappeared from everywhere else.' Perhaps it is because of this symbiosis that, for me at least, some of the most romantic, most poignant scenes in literature are scenes of cooking and eating." 

Pictured below, Nicolleti's food-and-book pairing for Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.

Haruki Murakami food-and-book paiting on the Yummy Books blog

* Eat This Poem, by Nicole Gulatta in Los Angeles, is written in a similar vein but focuses more on poetry, and on literary city guides "for bookworms who love to eat."

Gulatta says that she launched her blog in 2012 "as a way to fuse two of my passions, food and writing. I hope you'll stay a while (preferably with a hot mug of tea or coffee in hand) as we explore how poetry moves from page to plate, and inspires our palates along the way."

Pictured below, an onion tart in homage to Pablo Neruda's poem "Ode to the Onion."

An Onion Tart inspired by a Pablo Neruda poem from the Eat This Poem blog

* The Black Letters, a lovely literary blog  by the "ravening bibliophiles" Emera and Kakaner, occassionally strays into "The Bibliophile's Kitchen," where you can sample Honey Oatmeal Scones inspired by Roald Dahl's Matilda, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell Black Forest Raven Cake and other delights. I was fortunate enough to meet this blog's talented young authors in London this summer, and can't wait to see what they "cook up" next.

Matilda Honey Oatmeal Scones from The Black Letters blog

Black Forest Raven Cake on the Black Letters blog

* On her Food in Literature blog, Bryton Taylor notes food reference in adult and children's fiction, gives advice for book-themed parties, and offers literary recipes -- including the Snow White Apple Pie pictured in process at the top of this post, Ogden’s Olde FireWhiskey from the Harry Potter series, and Twice Baked Honey Cake that might have been served in Tolkien's Hobbiton.

Twice Baked Honey Cake from the Food in Literature blog

* For a more scholarly approach to the subject, try the Literary Food Studies blog by Vivian N. Halloran, an associate professor at Indiana University. The blog is devoted, she explains, to "discussing food in multiple genres -- from blogs, to culinary memoirs (with and without recipes), chefographies, fiction, poetry, investigative journalism and cook books -- and from a variety of perspectives. My approach to food studies is interdisciplinary, but this blog focuses on literary criticism; I consider how the texts under discussion embody, challenge, or expand our assumptions about what makes for beautiful, thought-provoking, compelling, and/or moving writing about food."

Also, if you love good food blogs with dazzling photographs, try A Fantatical Foodie -- which isn't a literary blog per se, but the author is a friend of the family (formerly of Chagford, now living in Bristol) and her food is just incredibly good.

Bon appetit!

Howard's Vanilla Bean & Honey Panne Cotta with Bitter Chocolate GanacheHappily eating a scrumptious dessert of Howard's concoction: Vanilla Bean & Honey Panne Cotta with Bitter Chocolate Ganache


Into the Woods" series, 40: The Folklore of Food

Walter Crane

In her gorgeous essay "In Praise of the Cooks," Midori Snyder combines a memoir of her father (a fine French cook) with an exploration of the alchemy of the kitchen:

Faeries in the kitchen by Wendy Froud"The very best of cooks are sorcerers, wizards, shamans and tricksters," she writes. "They must be, for they are capable of powerful acts of transformation. All manner of life, mammal, aquatic, vegetable, seeds and nuts pass through their hands and are transformed by spells — some secret, some written in books annotated with splashes of grease and broth. For years after my father's death, I was convinced I could take my hisstained, handwritten recipes, dip them in hot water, and there would be enough residue of the dish on those pages to create consommé. Master cooks are alchemists, turning the lead of a gnarled root vegetable into the whipped froth of a purée, hazelnuts into digestive liqueur, a secret combination of spices and chilies into a mole paste that burns and soothes at the same time. From a bin brimming with hundreds of choices they can sense the ripe cantaloupe, the juicy peach and the blueberries that have lingered long enough on the bush to become sweet. I am in awe of their skill, their secret knowledge, the inexplicable way I can follow my father's recipe and not have it taste anything like his, missing that one secret ingredient, those whispered spells that transformed his dish into something sublime."

Wendy Froud

Ari Berk focuses on lore of milk, bread, and honey in his delicious essay "On Simple Things":

''Troll with Bread'' sculpture by Wendy Froud"I am living in Devon, England at the moment," he begins, "in a medieval barn on the edge of the Dartmoor. In the small of hours of the night, in such a house, the mind rambles backwards and forwards in time, imagining the daily routines, the days and nights, the bread and butter, of the people that have lived here and used this place over the last six hundred years. A barn is a building of necessary things, of basics, life's staples about which much custom, curiosity and belief have formed; a place where a bowl of milk or a bit of bread is justly left for the little gods who watch over the farm and its immediate vicinity, but nowhere much farther than that. In the lore of offerings and sacrifice, the high rites of the gods and common custom of house fairies share a wide frontier. In studying such beliefs, we may discern that the humblest of offerings is indeed a sacred thing.

"So here is the lore of The Basics, three foods that remain effective indicators of the land's condition. If these are unspoiled, and readily available, all with the land and the people living on it is well. Here are three foods ancient and primal: one given, one found, one formed. Milk, honey and bread."

(I highly recommend reading Midori and Ari's pieces in full.)

Crumbs III by Jeanie Tomanek

Sketch of Chocolate Pot & Whisk, mid 1660s

My friend Thomas Hine, who ran the Westcountry Folklore blog (until we lost him in 2012), passed on this bit of local lore, recorded in 1888:

"A belief was long current in Devon and Cornwall, and perhaps still lingers both there and in other remote parts of the country, that at midnight, on Christmas Eve, the cattle in their stalls fall down on their knees in adoration of the infant Saviour, in the same manner as the legend reports them to have done in the stable at Bethlehem. Bees were also said to sing in their hives at the same time, and bread baked on Christmas Eve, it was averred, never became mouldy. All nature was thus supposed to unite in celebrating the birth of Christ, and partake in the general joy which the anniversary of the Nativity inspired."

And mythologist William G. Doty notes the following in his review of Nectar and Ambrosia: An Encyclopedia of Food by Tamra Andrews:

The oldest surviving English cookbook"Swearing by onions? And leeks? Well, these were one of the earliest types of plants cultivated. Symbolism includes the (to some) offensive scents, as well as the pearl-in-the-oyster concept of enfolding major significances down theah. In fact, for the Druids and ancient Egyptians, each layer of the root represented a layer of the known-worlds, and one swore oaths with one's right hand on one, considered as a token of eternity. Today I'm most fond of slowly simmered leeks with anchovy dressing.

"Garlic had its problems because of its strong aromas: in Zoroastrian myth, the god of light, Ahura Mazda, smelled delightful, but his evil counterpart, Ahriman smelled like a garlic bulb, 'putrid and rotten.' Poor onion relatives, they have often been thought of negatively in mythological terms, considered polluting in more than one culture. Certainly apotropaic (averting evil), as I recall from my childhood in New Mexico, where during winter months, children sometimes appeared in classrooms with a large clove strung on a string around the neck.

"Ginger, on the other hand, was considered the herb of paradise, and was cultivated in the Far East since antiquity as something that brought one close to the deities, and used to flavor meats, oils, tea, and wine. It was linked with the solar fire, as was cinnamon, and it was one of the key ingredients of magical practices, including love-lore."

17th century sugar pie recipe

Paradise Now by Jacqueline MorreauApples, in world-wide mythic traditions, are a symbol of immortality, of knowledge, and of love in its various guises: spiritual, sexual, and romantic. They were used in Norse fertility spells (being sacred to the goddess Frigga), and in British hedgerow magic for seeking of knowledge or making love charms. The folk custom of "bobbing for apples" on Samhain/All Hallow's Eve is believed to have derived from a Druidic ritual for divination. Grain represents youth, springtime, and rebirth; and wine (called "the blood of the grape") has been a symbol of ecstasy and communion going back at least to the rites of Dionysus. In Japan, the god Inari is credited with the creation of rice, appearing there as an old man with two rice bundles sometime around 800 BC. In China, rice was placed in the mouths of the dead and sacrificed to the ancestors. Leftover rice could not be discarded, for it was sacred to the Chinese god of thunder.

The Seven Ravens illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger and Warwick Goble

There are numerous mythic taboos concerning food, such as the ancient belief that visitors to the realm of the gods or of the dead must not partake of food or drink if they ever hope to go home again. In Greek myth, Persephone, the daughter of Demeter (goddess of the seedgrain and the fruitfulness of earth) is rescued from the underworld where's she been imprisoned by Hades, the Lord of Death — but she has eaten several fateful pomegranate seeds and so must return to dwell with him for a third (or a half) of every year. Similar stories can be found in myths and legends from around the world, such as a Finnish tale from The Kalevala in which Väinämöinen journeys to the land of the dead in search of the words for a magical spell. He is able to return home only because he refuses to drink a tankard of beer.

Fairy feast by Arthur Rackham

In British fairy stories and ballads, human visitors to the fairy realm are warned they must not touch food or drink -- for those who do are trapped in Faerie forever, or else sent home again only to waste away and die, pining for another taste. Many are the legends of taboo foods eaten with dire consequences, ranging from forbidden fruits sacred to various gods to certain delicacies (such as rowanberries) that belong exclusively to the fairies. The most famous of these tales, of course, is the story of Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. (Biblical scholars are divided on whether or not this fruit was actually an apple.)

Goblin Market illustration by Arthur Rackham

Trickster tales often involve food -- forbidden and otherwise -- for Trickster is a figure of prodigious appetites. In some such stories, Coyote or Anansi or B'rer Rabbit or Loki makes use of his wits and wiles in order to obtain a nice full belly; in others, Trickster is undone by the enormity of his greed and ends the story with his hunger unmitigated.

The Bear and the Bees by Walter Crane

There are numerous mythological stories (and concurrent spiritual beliefs) involving the ritual "eating of the god" -- ranging from the ritualized consumption of the flesh of Bear, Deer, and other animal gods -- to feasting on the gods that dwell in the first harvest of grain or corn -- to the Christian sacrament of communion, partaking of the flesh and blood of Christ. (See Food for Thought by Louis Marin for a provocative exploration of this subject.) Some myths are teaching tales intended to inculcate a proper attitude of respect and gratitude for the gift of food taken from the flesh of another living creature. There are many tales of this sort in the Celtic, Aboriginal, and Native American traditions, and also among the Ainu of Japan.  The Three Bears by L. Leslie Brooke"In the Ainu world," notes Gary Snyder (in The Practice of the Wild), "a few human houses are in a valley by a little river. Food is often foraged in the local area, but some of the creatures come down from the inner mountains and up from the deeps of the sea. The animal or fish (or plant) that allows itself to be killed or gathered, and then enters the house to be consumed, is called a 'visitor,' marapto. Bear sends his friends the deer down to visit humans. Orca [the Killer Whale] sends his friends the salmon up the streams. When they arrive their 'armor is broken' -- they are killed -- enabling them to shake off their fur or scale coats and step out as invisible spirit beings. They are then delighted by witnessing the human entertainments -- sake and music. (They love music.) Having enjoyed their visit, they return to the deep sea or the inner mountains and report, 'We had a wonderful time with the human beings.' The others are then prompted themselves to go on visits. Thus if the humans do not neglect proper hospitality, the beings will be reborn and return over and over."

Green Corn Moon by Jeanie TomanekIn addition to ritual feasting, abstaining from food is an important practice in various mythic and spiritual traditions around the world. In vision-quest ceremonies found from North America to Siberia, periods of fasting in the wilderness serve to break down the barriers between the human world and the spirit realm, allowing the quester or shamanic initiate to speak directly to the spirits or Gods. In ancient Ireland, "fasting against" a person was a legal procedure through which the faster could compel the person fasted against to grant a petition or pay a debt; we can still see remnants of this tradition in the hunger strikes of political prisoners today.  "Black Fasts" were believed to have the power to cast spells of misfortune, disease, and even death. In a famous English court case of 1538, a woman was convicted of causing a man to break his neck through the power of her fast. Food had power in the old mythic tradition...

And food still has power in sacred tales and practices found all around the world today. Navajo poet Luci Tapahanso, for example, offers the following words of advice rooted in her people's traditional ways: "Think about good things when preparing meals. It is much more than physical nourishment. The way the cook (or cooks) thinks and feels become a part of the meal. Food that is prepared with careful thought, contentment, and good memories tastes so good and nurtures the mind and spirit, as well as the body. Once my mother chased me out of the kitchen because it is disheartening to think of eating something cooked by an angry person." 

Tseping ny Roxanne Swentzell

For books about food myth, lore, history, and customs worldwide, I recommend the Tama Andrews book mentioned above (Nectar and Ambrosia: An Encyclopedia of Food) and The Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Visser. Are there any others that you'd like to add? Book suggestions welcome, as are other bits of food lore and your own experience with "the magic of food."

Likewise, what works of mythic fiction or art do you think use food lore & myth particularly well? My own favorites: Chocolat and The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harris, The Stars Dispose and The Stars Compel by Michaela Roessner (cooking magic in Renaissance Italy!), The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni, The Kitchen God's Wife by Amy Tan, and The Honey Month by Amal El-Mohtar. If we expand the list to include herbalism and hedgerow medicines, I'll add The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce. I'm also charmed by the notable obsession with food to be found in the excellent collection of Italian Folktales edited by Italo Calvino.

A 15th century herbalThe picture at the top of the post comes from "Sing a Song of Sixpence" illustrated by Walter Crane (1845-1915). The faery and troll sculptures are by my friend and neighbor Wendy Froud (a splendid cook herself), photographed by Toby Froud. The other images, listed in order,  are: "Crumbs" by Jeanie Tomanek, a chocolate pot and whisk sketch on a 17th century manuscript, the oldest surviving English cookbook (late 14th century),  a 17th century recipe for sugar pie, "Paradise Now" by Jacqueline Morreau, "The Seven Ravens" illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger and Warwick Goble (1862-1943), "Fairy Feast" and "Goblin Market" by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), "The Bear and the Bees" (from Aesop's Fables) by Walter Crane (1845-1915), "The Three Bears" by L. Leslie Brooke (1862-1940), "Green Corn Moon" by  Jeanie Tomanek, "Tse-ping" by Native American sculptor Roxanne Swentzell (from the Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico), and a 15th century herbal. The recipe manuscripts come from the Wellcome Library's digital collection of 16th-19th century medicinal and culinary recipes. The Luci Taphanso quote above comes from her lovely collection of tales and poems Sáanni Dahataal: The Women Are Singing.


'Tis the season to give...

Now that the Hedgespoken project is fully funded, here's another Chagford crowd-funding campaign that needs our help. Proper Job is Chagford's recyling center (and so much more), and they desperately need a new van. Have a look at the charming video above (by Annabel Allison, who filmed Hedgespoken's video too) and see what it's all about.

Please donate if you can, or help to boost the signal, in support of recycling, sustainability, and community. Even if you live far away, wouldn't it be nice to know a community van was rolling down the lanes between the Devon hedgerows in part because of you?