I made the most of my Easter long weekend in Bologna –called « la grassa » (the fat) in Italy – the city being well known for its generous food. Indeed I participated to the guided tour organized by the bolonian archeological museum on the theme: « Demeter and Dionysus, or bread and wine. The symbolic meaning of food in the antique world».
In a general way, it seems that the bond between earth and nature are at the heart of Mediterranean antique cultures. Religions and cults reinforce the sacred dimension of the “earth fruits” considered as gifts of gods. Bread and wine are central during celebrations but also moments of transition – as entering in adult life or death.
With the guide Giulia, we travelled thru time and space between Egyptian civilization at the time of pharaohs and Greek civilization. This visit gave me an up-and-coming foretaste of the many stories and references that visitors will certainly be able to discover in the future « bio Mediterranean cluster » during 2015 Universal Exposition. But also, concerning the religious dimension of food, the information that visitors will be able to find at the Vatican pavilion « Not only bread ».
Have a nice reading !
Pharaoh, the first farmer of Egyptian civilization
Giulia first took us to the Egyptian section of the museum to see Horemheb pharaoh (who lived between Horemheb 1319 and 1295 before JC- who became pharaoh after the death of Tutankhamen) plowing the fields of the hereafter. The pharaoh, who was the ideal owner of all lands, was also considered the bond between nature and mankind. It’s also important to recall the importance of agriculture in the Egyptian civilization, that is at the basis of its prosperity in particular with the farming along the Nile delta, for instance with vineyards (Giulia was saying that Egyptian wines have a sweet taste).
Pharaoh plowing the field in the hereafter
Preparation of wine
Bread and wine: central elements of antique tables
We still have in common with Egyptian and Greek antique civilizations the central presence of bread and wine on our tables, the Mediterranean diet kept this specify going on! Bread and wine were served with meat, or vegetables, and for sweet with dried fruits such as figs. By the way, I discover that it was Egyptian who invented the process of bread making with rise. Before, bred was looking more like azyme bred. Indeed during their escape from Egypt, Jews are taking with them not risen bread in haste.
Banquets: food coming from gods, linking gods and nature
Banquets are presents in all antique civilization. For instance, in the bible you can find many moments of banquets. The tradition was to wash your feet’s and hands before the banquets. For Instance there is a scene where Jesus arrives and the owner doesn’t give him water to wash and that a woman cried on its feet’s to do so.
Giulia then brought us to Greek section of the museum (VI-V before JC) and explain us the tradition and proceeding of banquets. Greeks perceived food and earth products as coming from the gods. Banquets were organized the evening, were first held in being seated at table – and then with the influence growing exchanges of Orient Greek adopted the lying position. Women were eating apart. Musicians and story-tellers often came along.
Greek banquet was divided in two moments: the deipnon (degustation of breads, meats and vegetables) and
Symposium dedicated to wine degustation. In general women were not authorized to drink alcohol excepted during some celebration, where it was traditional to play alcohol games. Example: Dionysus feast to celebrate the passage form being a teenager to adulthood (at 11-13 years old, life expectancy being around 40).
Today wine still has this symbolical importance and is present in many moments of celebration where the second day was dedicated to drinking games.
Demeter, godess of the harvests
Demeter (she of the Grain in Greek) sister of Zeus is the goddess of harvest, who presided over grains and the fertility of the earth, but also of order, fertility and marriage. Indeed, according to Greeks, agriculture birth was made possible by her who teached it to mankind.
The legend tells that after the abduction of her daughter, Persephone, by Hades the god of death, Demeter went to earth to look for her. She was welcomed by king Celeos, and in order to thank him tried to made immortal her first son, and teached to his second son, Triptoleme, agriculture and bread making.
The Demeter cult was very important for Greek and bread and wine played a central role, as it can be still the case in some religions today. A rite of presentation and distribution of bread and wine for instance existed within this cult.
Yesterday, today and tomorrow!
At the end of the visit, talking with Giulia, I was thinking: how many common points between our modern Mediterranean society and antique ones! The role of bread and wine, their sacred dimension…however the bond with land and earth seen as “foster mother” seems to be much more reduced, certainly with the arrival of mass production and industrial revolution since the XIX century.
Thanks again to Giulia for the great visit!