Hel’s Dish: some thoughts on hunger, anorexia and the Goddess

by Geraldine Charles

She condemned him
To Hunger —
But infinite, insatiable Hunger,
The agony of Hunger as a frenzy.

From Tales from Ovid, Ted Hughes

I set myself the task of writing about hunger and the Goddess without any clear idea of which Goddesses I would write of, but my Google search ("Goddess +hunger") quickly turned up Hel or Hela, certainly a Scandinavian Goddess but also connected to other northern European countries. And what a Goddess!  It is likely that her name gave us the English “Hell”, for she is Queen of the Dead, and Goddess of the underworld; she dwells beneath the roots of the sacred world tree and, according to some tales, was given dominion over all nine worlds, sending those who die of sickness or old age to one or other of them.  Half her body is blue/black (which reminds me immediately of the Cailleach Bheur, who is often depicted entirely blue). According to mythology, Hel’s dish is called Hungr and her knife Sullt (starvation).

Other tales remind me of British Goddesses – Hel is said to be a sister of the serpent Jörmungandr – as Keridwen is sometimes seen as the sister of a serpent in Lake Tegid (Lake Bala, in Wales), if not the serpent herself.  Like Keridwen with her cauldron, there’s also an idea that the dead are transformed, or reborn, after a spell in Hel’s domain. Another similarity to Celtic tales is found within the story of how Hel, as Maiden (for she’s a triple Goddess, of course), has to come to her future husband’s palace “neither naked nor clothed, neither riding nor walking, neither alone nor with companions, in neither light nor darkness.”[1]

Hel – the place – seems to be identical at root to that known to the Greeks as Hades (Gothic “halja”)[2], another cold, dreary afterworld. Her name may also be connected to Holland - the Netherlands[3] - and according to Barbara Walker[4] Hel – also called Holda or Hulda - is probably related to Nehalennia, many of whose altars were found at the mouth of the Rhine.

But probably the Goddess many of us would immediately think of in connection with both food and hunger is Demeter, who wanders the earth disguised as an old woman (or, some say, retires to a cave) after the abduction of Kore, or Persephone, her daughter.  During this period winter settles over the world and the earth bears no fruit.  Just as sown seed must rot in the earth and die before it can bear new fruit, so the earth appears to die and then return to life.  Again, just as with Hel, the cauldron or womb provides rebirth and transformation.

In a less well-known hymn to Demeter by Callimachus, we’re told how she was the first to cut straw and “holy sheaves of corn-ears” and taught the art of agriculture to Triptolemus (perhaps a memory of how women invented it?)  Somewhere in Thessaly, we’re told, a beautiful grove of trees had been planted by the Pelasgians, with Pine, Elm, Pear and Apple trees; a place Demeter loved.  But one Erysichthon took a gang of men and cut down a beautiful, tall poplar, which cried out as it was felled. Demeter appeared in the guise of her priestess, Nicippe, and asked him to desist but Erysichthon, far from apologising, threatened the lady, saying he would build a dwelling and banquet hall from the wood.  At once, Demeter changed into her goddess shape, whereupon Erysichthon’s workmen ran away.  But Demeter cursed Erysichthon with a strong, burning hunger, so that no matter how much he ate, he hungered for more.  “And even as … a wax doll in the sun, yea, even more … he wasted to the very sinews; only sinews and bones had the poor man left.”[5]

Erysichthon’s name, according to Robert Graves, means something like “Earth Tearer”, so the hymn may well commemorate an earlier time, when it was unthinkable – an act akin to rape - to till the soil without permission from the Goddess.[6]

A Goddess of Anorexia?

After reading these tales, does it not seem a horrible irony that the Goddess Ana, one of our most ancient mothers, has also recently become the so-called Goddess of Anorexia?

Hard to believe?  Here’s an extract from “The Creed of Ana”, given on a “Pro-Ana” website:

“I believe that I am the most vile, worthless and useless person ever to have existed on this planet, and that I am totally unworthy of anyone's time and attention.

I believe in perfection and strive to attain it.
I believe in hell, because I sometimes think that I'm living in it.”

And, for good measure, and from the same website, a few of the “commandments”:

“If you aren't thin you aren't attractive.
Being thin is more important than being healthy.
Thou shall not eat without feeling guilty.
Thou shall not eat fattening food without punishing oneself afterwards.
You can never be too thin.
Being thin and not eating are signs of true will power and success.”

These quotes come from an extremely well-designed, obviously professional website, and I make no apology for lifting them without reference, for I don’t want to encourage anyone else to visit the site.  I found some photos too, intended to inspire the reader into greater efforts of starvation, but couldn’t bring myself to take any.

I found some strange bedfellows while looking for other Pro-Ana websites – this time Googling “Goddess Ana”; I shouldn’t have been surprised to find links to the Glastonbury Goddess Conference, along with other Goddess sites. To me this simply underlines the question:  what sickness of the soul - or of our culture - causes a young woman to prefer death to a reasonable body size, and to shudder in horror at even a normal-sized woman, let alone a plump, fertile Goddess such as Willendorf.  The modern ideal, it seems, is closer to Gimbutas' "stiff nudes" - those death Goddesses that Joan Marler describes as "... thin, bony and dressed in white, the color of death."[7]

Are we not, by rejecting food, refusing her bounty, rejecting the Mother, She who transformed the very body of earth, Her body, into food?  I hardly need mention that women who get below a certain weight, and most anorexics, lose their fertility – far from “these sacred images of the life-giving, nourishing and regenerating powers of the universe”, as Baring & Cashford describe the Mother Goddess figures of the Paleolithic. And not always so ancient:

 ‘Take my breast that you may drink, so that you may live again’ says Hathor

(Baring & Cashford p254)[8]

Yet, by arguing for their “right” to starve themselves, and even borrowing a Goddess figure to help give themselves the strength to do so, are these (usually) young women not actually mediating the patriarchal rejection of the mother, of the fat, fertile woman, through their own bodies?

Modern theories about anorexia stress the requirement in Western culture for women to be slim; I understand that today’s models are about 20 pounds lighter than they were expected to be in the 1950s and 60s. A young woman with little self-esteem is almost forced to starve herself into acceptability (remember the creed  … “I believe that I am the most vile, worthless and useless person ever to have existed on this planet, and that I am totally unworthy of anyone's time and attention.”)

Not that eating disorders are new – a number of saints were renowned for living on next to nothing – as then, women who manage this today are considered to be achievers. To the Church, women were slaves to their appetites, just as today we equate fat with a deplorable lack of self-control and try to hide the evidence of our “sinfulness” with stupid crash diets that slim away our very heart muscle.  There’s at least one popular diet that allows you so many “sins” a day. So, from our modern-day fasting saints, a few more tips:

"Sabotage your food. Make it with too much water, too little sugar, an ingredient you don't care for. Add too much salt or pepper before you eat. You will eat less of it if it tastes bad."

 "Food associations. Find something that makes you feel vaguely ill or unpleasant, get a picture of it, and put the picture beside your food. Switch pictures frequently and make sure to look at the pictures while you eat. After a while you may began to associate food itself with unpleasantness, which will make you less inclined to eat."

It is easy to be shocked at these suggestions, particularly in a world where many people starve involuntarily, through poverty, war and the deliberate policies of some Western governments. But why? Pro-Ana websites are widely condemned for providing support for anorexics to stay that way rather than accept the regimes imposed by the medical profession, which also sound and feel awfully like punishment. No-one is really addressing the root cause of this problem – and body size is a subject many, if not most, women know affects them too.  Indeed, if I’m to be totally honest, there was a little part of me that was intrigued, that wondered, despite the horror:

Would it work for me? Could I become thin by following these suggestions? After all, I’m not in much danger of anorexia … but then, of course, anorexia is just part of a wide sprectrum of eating disorders, and I willingly admit to having had an abnormal relationship to food for as long as I can remember.  Although my own besetting “sin” is to overeat under stress and when unhappy. 

"Most women in our culture," writes Susan Bordo, "are 'disordered' when it comes to issues of self-worth, self-entitlement, self-nourishment, and comfort with their own bodies; eating disorders, far from being ... anomalous, are utterly continuous with a dominant element of the experience of being female in this culture."[9]

What could that dominant element be?  I wondered if I could write a whole article without using the word "patriarchal" but I see I have not managed to do so and already used it above.  Enough said?  Let's leave the last word to the excellent Athana, whose Radical Goddess Thealogy Blog is definitely worth a visit.  She could be talking of one of the hells women experience, and of the torture of hunger forced on us by so many expectations and so little joy.  I wish the Pro-Anas a real Goddess to protect and strengthen them, and some real joy for themselves.

"Nothing exposes the deep, gaping canyon betwixt Goddess and God more clearly than Hell. Originally "Hel" was a Goddess to whose warm, loving womb we all return at death. But when God the Father stepped on stage, he twisted Hel's Loving Womb, contorting it into a vast, underground torture chamber."[10]

©Geraldine Charles

References

  1. Ted Hughes, 1997, Tales from Ovid: Twenty-four Passages from the "Metamorphoses" , Faber & Faber
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hel_(being) [accessed 18 August 2007] - Bishop Wulfila uses the Gothic word Halja to translate the Greek "Hades
  3. http://www.pantheon.org/articles/h/holle.html [accessed 24 July 2007]
  4. Barbara Walker, 1983, The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, Harper & Row
  5. E. Cobham Brewer, 1898, Dictionary of Phrase and Fable
  6. Robert Graves, 1960, The Greek Myths, Volume I, Penguin
  7. http://www.pacifica.edu/gems/pgl/Bologn.pdf (The Body of Woman as Sacred Metaphor, Joan Marler), [accessed 10 August 2007] - link broken June 2017
  8. Anne Baring & Jules Cashford, 1991, The Myth of the Goddess, Penguin
  9. Susan Bordo, 2003, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, University of California Press
  10. http://godmotherascending.blogspot.com/ [accessed 20 August 2007]
Geraldine Charles

Geraldine Charles

Geraldine is the founder and editor of Goddess Pages. She is also a Priestess of the Goddess, a founder member of the Glastonbury Goddess Temple and a former Glastonbury Goddess Conference ceremonialist.
A web designer and all-round computer person, Geraldine is responsible for a number of websites. In her spare time she writes articles and poems, loves researching Goddess in mythology and also produces artwork on her beloved computer. She also runs an online correspondence course called "Getting to know the Goddess". 
Geraldine Charles

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