by Harita Meenee
Two stand foremost among humans:
Goddess Demeter—call her Earth if you like—
who nourishes mortals with solid food;
the other one came later, Semele’s son,
who discovered the liquor of the grape,
and brought it to mortals, giving
the poor fellows surcease of sorrow…
Strange as it may sound today, religion and food were once intimately connected. Ensuring adequate provisions for survival has been a major concern since the dawn of humanity. Since all food ultimately comes from the Earth, it came to be regarded as a generous Mother Goddess who nourishes her offspring, human or otherwise. As such, she had to be propitiated and thanked, in order to continue providing. It is barely stretching the imagination to think that rituals and offerings may have first been invented for this purpose.
It is well known that in the Greek tradition, the Earth Goddess, called Gaia (or Ge), is the “mother of the blessed gods and mortal humans,” the “all-giving” and “all-nourishing bringer of fruit,” as revealed in the Orphic hymn in her honor. She also appeared as Demeter, the Olympian goddess of agriculture, whose name is interpreted as “Earth Mother” (Ge Meter). She continued to represent Gaia’s bountiful aspects until the violent destruction of her cult in the late 4th and 5th c. CE.
Those who practiced the Orphic Mysteries sung a hymn which vividly echoes Demeter’s life-sustaining essence, her power to offer prosperity, happiness, and even health:
Deo, universal mother, goddess
with many names, venerable Demeter,
nurturer of children, source of happiness.
Wealth-offering goddess, nourishing the corn, giver of all,
joyful in peace and in laborious work,
creating abundance in seeds and heaps of grain,
mistress of the threshing floor, with fresh fruit filled.
You dwell in Eleusinian holy vales,
delightful, lovely, nurturing all people,
you, the first who yoked the oxen to the plough
and offered mortals pleasant, happy lives.
Giver of growth, Bacchus’s companion in feasts,
splendidly honored, bearer of the torch.
Pure, delighted with the summer sickles,
chthonic yet manifest, favorable to all;
mother of good offspring, children-loving,
venerable, maiden who nourishes boys.
Yoking your chariot with serpent reins
dancing around your throne in bacchic frenzy,
mother of one, goddess with many children,
reverenced by mortals, many are your forms,
filled with flowers and sacred leaves.
Come, oh blessed one, pure,
with summer fruit,
bringing desirable order and peace,
joyful riches, too, along with our queen, Health.
The Sacred Marriage
The Orphic hymn calls Demeter “mistress of the threshing floor,” “delighted with the summer sickles,” “pregnant with summer fruit” revealing her intimate connection with the season of the harvest. Other descriptions, though, are unfamiliar and somewhat unsettling. She appears as “Bacchus’s companion in feasts,” “yoking her chariot with serpent reins, dancing around her throne in bacchic frenzy.” This ecstatic image brings to mind the Maenads, worshippers of Dionysus, often half-naked, communing with the Divine as they released their sexual energy in unbridled dancing.
Such a portrayal seems strange at first, since Demeter is usually portrayed as a modest mother, her sensual aspects hardly appearing in myths. Yet her sexuality and her role as provider of food are closely interconnected. Hesiod narrates how she “was joined in sweet love with the hero Iasion in a thrice- ploughed field in the rich land of Crete, and bare Ploutos.” Not surprisingly Ploutos means “wealth,” since in an agricultural society prosperity relies heavily upon the fertility of the earth.
As in many other myths, we can discern here the motif of the Sacred Marriage. A similar theme was repeated during the Eleusinian Mysteries, where the priest cried out “Hye kye!,” while libations where being poured. Hye means “rain!,” a command, a call to Zeus, who was once the lover of Demeter. Kye means “conceive!” This ritual cry revealed the notion that the Earth Goddess will be impregnated by precipitation, symbolizing the sperm of the Sky God. There is some evidence that the Hieros Gamos between the two was ceremonially re- enacted during the Mysteries at Eleusis, although scholars debate this idea.
The same concept is manifest in a fragment from the Danaids, a now lost play of the famous poet Aeschylus. There Gaia, also called Chthon, is united with the Sky God Uranus:
The pure Uranus longs to mate with Chthon,
and Gaia, in love, marriage seeks
thus rain falling from the moist Sky
impregnates her and she bears for humankind
grass for sheep and the wealth of Demeter.
The body of a woman and the body of the Earth seemed similar to the ancient mind: the one gave birth to human children, the other to plants. They both ensured the continuation of life. In Greece up to this day agricultural products are sometimes called gennimata, “things born” from the land.
The Bread, the Phallus and the Vulva
“I am the bread of life.” This phrase is put in the mouth of Jesus in the Gospel According to John. 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.
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. She also had the titles Sito (“of the wheat”) and Megalartos or Megalomazos (“with big loaves”). 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.
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 loaves 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.
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: loaves 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 (emblems of the male genital) 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. 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. 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…
Preparing an Ancient Recipe
For those who would like to enjoy the gift of Demeter similarly to the ancient Greeks, menu designer and award-winning cookbook writer George-Alexander Lafkas has created a delicious recipe! It is inspired by the information provided by Athenaeus, the 2nd-3rd CE c. author: “Empeptas is a hollow and symmetrical wheaten bread, similar to the so-called crepides, in which small pies with cheese are placed.” The crepides were pies in the shape of a shoe, similar to the present-day peynirli frequently eaten in Greece.
Wheaten Bread Stuffed with Meat and Cheese
6 small wheat bread rolls (or 1 medium sized loaf of wheat bread)
3 liters (0.8 gallon) water
2 tablespoons olive oil
200 grams (7 oz) veal filet
400 grams (14 oz) lamb leg
300 grams (10 5/8 oz) grated Kasseri cheese (yellow, soft, non-salty Greek cheese)*
200 grams (7 oz) grated Gruyere cheese (yellow, hard, salty cheese)
5-6 cloves of garlic
parsley spearmint dill salt, pepper
1. Wash both meats thoroughly, put in a casserole dish and boil in water and olive oil. After boiling well, strain and save the broth, which should be about ½ -1 liter (17-34 oz). Boil the broth again adding all the cheese, as well as garlic, parsley, spearmint, dill, salt and pepper. Let the sauce boil until it thickens, while stirring so that the cheese won’t burn on the bottom of the casserole.
2. Cut a horizontal slice on the top of each bread roll and remove all crumb—the slice will later be used as a cover. Chop the meat, fill the bread rolls with it and pour the broth over.
3. Cover the rolls with the slice of bread and wrap in aluminum foil. Bake at medium heat for approximately half an hour, until bread crusts over, its surface hardening.
* Substitute another 300gms of Gruyere if you can't get Kasseri cheese
Recipe ©George-Alexander Lafkas, recipe translation ©Harita Meenee
I'm planning on making this for vegetarian friends, and will substitute brown lentils for the 600 gms of meat, or maybe a mixture of brown and green lentils.
 Semele’s son is Dionysus—notice that he is identified by his mother’s name, not his father’s. The above verses are from Euripides’ Bacchae 274-281, translated by the author.
 Hesychius of Alexandria, Dictionary (Athens: Georgiadis, 1975), s.v. “Demeter.” Henry G. Liddell and Robert Scott, authors of the Great Dictionary of the Greek Language (Athens: Ioannis Sideris, s.v. “Demeter”), also mention this etymology, although they do not agree with it.
 The word corn is used here to mean “wheat.”
 Orphic Hymn 40 to Demeter, translated by the author.
 Hesiod, Theogony 969, translated by the author.
Aristotle in Synesius, Dio 10.
 Aeschylus in the Danaids, fragment 43, quoted in Athenaeus 13, translated by the author.
 John 6: 35.
 Ibid. 6: 32-33, 6:51.
 Hesychius of Alexandria, Dictionary, s.v. “Demeter,” “sitos.” Henry G. Liddell and Robert Scott, Great Dictionary of the Greek Language, s.v. “Demeter.”
 Sito: Athenaeus 416B. Megalomazos: Athenaeus 109B.
 Liddell and Scott, Great Dictionary of the Greek Language, s.v. “megalartia,” “Megalartios.”
 Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989),147.
 Vlassis G. Rassias, Festivals and Rituals of the Greeks (Athens: Anikhti Poli, 1997), 110, Karabouzis, The Ancient Attic Calendar and Festivals, s.v. “Scira or Scirophoria.”
 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.
 Athenaeus 9, 14
 George-Alexander Lafkas, Ancient Greek Recipes (Athens: Eleusis, 2004). Recipe translated by Harita Meenee and published here with permission of the author.
Latest posts by Harita Meenee (see all)
- Women, Power and Religion in Ancient Athens - 4th November 2007
- Eating the Flesh of the Goddess: Demeter and the “Bread of Life” - 7th August 2007