Food for the Gods

Bildschirmfoto 2016-12-22 um 12.57.15 Entretempo Collective, Sacred Food

The holiday season is upon us and for most who celebrate Christmas this means above all a whole lot of food. The Bible does not contain anything about potato salad with sausage or raclette. Christianity does not dictate what is eaten on Jesus’s birthday bash. Food does, however, play an important role in the Bible. For instance, the Old Testament devotes many verses to bread, from its various shapes and kinds to the parable of leaven: “The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened” (Matthew 13:33).

Almost all religions bear upon food, often linked with rituals. They contain certain do’s and don’ts (Islam prohibits pork); they symbolically charge food (bread as the body of Christ); but food in religious contexts is above all an important conduit for coming into contact with the supernatural via edible sacrificial offerings.

From time immemorial humans have sacrificed for the gods. The Epic of Gilgamesh from 2000 B.C. in Babylon tells of humans lavishing the deity, Namtar, with offerings so he would leave them be. We flatter gods with presents and can thereby influence them to our benefit. And anyway, who can resist good food?

Bildschirmfoto 2016-12-22 um 12.57.31 Dieu-Thanh Hong

Every god has its favorite dish. The Hindu god, Ganesha (with the elephant head), loves coconut. Islam’s Mohammed likes dates. And there are indigenous gods of the Andes who enjoy chewing on coca leaves. Practitioners of polytheistic religions make sacrifices for the god relevant to their situation.

In Vietnamese shops you often find a small red shrine on the floor with incense and a bowl of fruit in front of it. Some people mistake the figure of a fat sitting man with long earlobes for the Buddha. But it is actually Ong Dia, god of the earth, which is why he sits on the floor. Vietnamese people offer him fruit as a sacrifice for flourishing business. He makes sure the cash registers keep ringing. The god of the earth represents prosperity: when the soil was fertile the harvest was abundant.

The nine-day Indian festival in autumn, Navaratri, also has its origin in agriculture. It is an important festival for women in particular, as it is devoted to the arts ascribed to them, such as decoration, music and dance. At home they build a mini-museum with various small clay figures that retell mythological stories. The clay figures come from the tradition of making offerings to prevent riverbeds from silting up. Here they offer the gods all kinds of homemade baked goods. Then the women visit one another, admiring each other’s clay figures, while the children receive sweets as gifts. For them it is a nicer version of the American tradition of “trick or treat” on Halloween, without the “trick” of course.

Bildschirmfoto 2016-12-22 um 12.57.45 Tito Casal, Sacred Food

Much is attributed to food in religions because of its direct relation to human survival. As a basic need it affects everyone across lines of class and caste. When humans were still dependent on weather conditions and the season, unable to influence many factors of agricultural cultivation with technology, sacrifice and prayer were simply the only way to optimize.

The most well-known festival of sacrifice is possibly Eid al-Adha. On this day Muslims slaughter an animal and share it with the poor. This highest of feasts honors Ibrahim, who was willing to sacrifice his son, Ismael, for Allah. The same story is found in the Christian Bible in the telling of the sacrifice of Isaac, the son of Abraham. Allah saw Ibrahim’s resolve and stopped him from killing his son. In gratitude Ibrahim sacrificed a ram – the sacrificial feast was born.

Human sacrifice is the highest kind of sacrifice. In every ancient culture in the world, human sacrifices occurred, not least in order to eat humans in dire circumstances. Archaeologists found bones in China that hint at a rite in which young people were sacrificed to gods and ancestors. The Aztecs made large-scale human sacrifices to the god, Huitzilopochtli, the god of sun and war, to ensure the sun’s continuous rise and prevent the end of the world.

Bildschirmfoto 2016-12-22 um 12.58.03 Dieu-Thanh Hoang

Food offerings did not just go to the gods but also to the dead. The best-known example is the Mexican Day of the Dead, día de los muertos, on November 1. Homage is paid to the departed with all kinds of comestibles offered on altars; most notable are skulls of sugar, chocolate or marzipan. There is even pan de muerto, or dead bread.

The Taoist tradition is also familiar with commemorations of the dead. Images of departed family members are placed on the home altar with fruit and cake, so there is enough to eat in the realm of the dead. Even the dead get hungry sometimes.

But how do gods and the dead eat? Hinduisim has a divine messenger named Agni (Sanskrit for fire). He transmits the offering to the gods via rising smoke. Fire is, as in many other religions, an important bearer of the sacrifice, be it through the smell of a roasting animal or incense. Depending on the rite, people variously eat food offerings themselves, leave them for monks or let them decay.

In a secularized context the word “sacrifice” does not mean “gift,” but rather renunciation and self-denial for something higher. In the Third Reich, the act of sacrifice was misused for propagandistic purposes.  Opfersonntag (“sacrifice Sunday”) happened once a month; instead of a Sunday roast dinner consisted of a simple stew. Block wardens of the NSDAP went from door to door collecting money saved in support of the Winterhilfswerk, or winter relief charity drive. The Nazis introduced Opfersonntag to strengthen the will of the people by leading the population to believe that they would activate society for the better. Today this would be referred to as manipulation.

Bildschirmfoto 2016-12-22 um 12.58.18 Sarmista Pantham, Sacred Food

Since Christmas is coming, back to Jesus. In Christianity many foods have religious connotations, however there is no expectation to make sacrifices for God. No one has to make sacrificial offerings because God turned the tables in the New Testament, sacrificing himself for humanity through Jesus. The meal of the Last Supper, depending on one’s view either symbolic or real, served as the precursor to his ultimate sacrifice on the cross: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (John 6:51).

Tip: The exhibition, Sacred Food, runs through the end of the year at Entretempo Kitchen Gallery, with artistic contributions addressing the many faces of sacrifice today – from Rheinland-Pfalz in Germany to India, China and Brazil. It’s well worth a visit – don’t miss out!


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