Sacred Eating in Earth-Centered Ritual, Part One

May 16, 2011 by Categorized: Earthly Rites.

Greetings friends, from the finally spring-and-early-summer-lovely streets of the fiercely wild urban midwest! The rain has started to fall over the crabapple blossoms and the lilacs, and I am holed up at home with biscuits and coffee. The summer is coming in strong on the heels of hard thunderstorms and warm nights…the intrepid spouse and I have started to talk about what plants we might grow on our small porch this year. The roses have survived another Chicago winter, which is nothing short of miraculous. I have been harboring thoughts of fresh herbs and tomatoes and peppers, and beyond the confines of our porch the abundance of the farmer’s market, of greens and the amazing sudden redness of the fiery radish, of June strawberries and later on the total and utter awesomeness of summer peaches. Oh man. Peaches.

I’m not the only one whose thoughts have turned to fresh produce and nourishment. The topic of food has come up (and will come up again I’m sure) here a couple of times already. And so, inspired by the coming season of fruits and vegetables (evil satanic harvest though it may be), and by these recent posts, I thought I’d muck around a bit in the realm of sacred eating in the context of our rituals as Pagani.

So. Food is sacred.* Yep and yes and oh holy-cow-and-holy-apple-tree yes, food is sacred. When and if we pray over food, are we blessing it or is it blessing us? I think you know my answer to that. Within the context of my personal earth-centered theologies, food is sacred primarily because it comes from the Mama – delivered unto us by our god. We are fed from Her hands, and each grain and berry is infused with grace. The wealth and abundance of the planet spilling forth into our mouths and becoming our bodies. Miracles, every day. How remarkable that we can eat our god who then becomes us becoming Her becoming us. How remarkable that so many things that grow on the earth are not only delicious, but also nutritionally vital. And then the alchemy of our human creativity and Holy Listening (to the plants and animals we live with) in combination with the raw beauty of the Mama combining to create things like bread and wine? Holy holy. Every day.

So in light of these miracles, it’s no wonder that across a panoply of faith traditions, the act of eating is ritualized and sacralized. There are hundreds if not thousands of rites and rituals surrounding feasting, fasting or eating in liturgical settings (many books can be found on these traditions, spanning a wide variety of cultures and theologies…texts on the theological implications of the Christian eucharist alone could fill a modest library), though of course there are differences in what they say about how each religion considers food, the body, the earth, etc.

Now, because it is such a vasty and rich topic, I seem to have gotten in a little over my head, and have therefore cut this post into two parts.  Of course, even in these two posts, I cannot possibly address all aspects of the subject. After all, there are many good answers to the questions, and the questions are important enough to bear repeating: as earth-centered religionists, how do our theologies about food play out in our liturgical practices? And vice versa, what do our liturgical practices say about our theologies about food?

But to begin, what are we talking about specifically? Well, the first thing that probably comes to mind is a ritually shared meal of food and/or drink, like the Wiccan(ate) Cakes and Ale** rite, the Heathen blot or sumbel, or, of course, the Christian eucharist (which, it has been argued, bears striking similarities to and therefore may have roots in pre-Christian ritual meals commemorating a sacrificed god such as Dionysos, Attis, Osiris and Mithras***), among many others (for example, The Brotherhood of the Phoenix here in Chicago incorporates a rite wherein participants feed each other pieces of fruit near the end of the liturgy…and my friend Stevie says when she starts her own religion, the sacrament will be port and chocolate cupcakes, so be sure to look for that in the future). There are similarities and differences in the theological focus of each of these rites, but each do involve the sharing of food, with other human beings, with the earth, with the gods, etc.

Additionally, ritual feasting, such as in the Hellenic theoxenia and Roman lectisternium, or the Christian agape meal, is an example of ritual eating that may be more elaborate than the simple liturgical sharing of a piece of bread and/or sips of wine/ale/mead. And there are many other ways in which food can be incorporated into ritual, such as in an “edible altar.” For example, last year Johnny and I constructed our autumnal equinox altar to include fresh produce we’d acquired the day before at a local farmer’s market. At the end of the ritual, we invited participants to take as much food from the altar as they liked, and folks responded with enthusiasm, eating concord grapes and collecting turnips, apples, pears and squash. And I have to tell you, eating post-ritual concord grapes in the gloaming of evening around the altar has much to recommend it. Other friends of mine bake their Lammas blackberry cobbler directly in the flaming heart of their sacrificial wicker man. Table blessings might also constitute food rituals, and the theological implications of how table blessings are approached are something to consider…some traditions ask their gods to bless the food, others thank the Mama for providing the food, some thank the human hands that harvested and prepared the food, and some thank the food itself for the blessing it gives them or the sacrifice it’s made in feeding others.

So yes, sacred eating can mean and look like many things, but specifically to the Pagani, sacred shared food rites can be a beautiful way to embody a number of earth-centered theologies, including hospitality, kinship/communion (with the other humans present as well as with the Mama Herself), the heart-thunking reality of life for life that happens each time we eat (i.e. sacrifice), and thanksgiving/radical gratitude for the privilege of rocking on this mossy stone we call home, not to mention the enormous, stunning mystery that lives in the process of fermentation (a process that produces both bread and wine)…if you’ll forgive a promotional moment on behalf of my beloved Dionysos. I admit: I’m an unabashed, nigh-obsessive fan of ritual meals, and I feel pretty strongly about the necessity of food in the life of a religion in general and liturgy specifically. So much so, in fact, that I tend to want there to be sacred eating rites in pretty much every ritual ever. I’ve participated in weekly and monthly communion rites with different groups. My coven in Colorado celebrates Imbolc with a ritual meal of milk and blueberry preserves (the milk is fairly straightforward, but I admit the blueberries are strictly UPG), shares a truly incredible formal meal for our Samhain dumb supper, and sat around a small fire one memorable Lammas under the stars and ate roasted summer vegetables with our hands. The first coven I was a member of in Texas really mostly consisted of a bunch of amazing women I knew getting together and eating awesome food (and singing…but that’s a post for another day). I’m bound to all of these people because of these shared feasts, these rituals. Food is awesome, s’what I’m saying. Oh yaya.

But are food rituals themselves automatically earth-centered by default? That will be the driving question for the second half of this set of rain-addled thoughts. So in the meantime, y’all, be on the lookout for radishes, and stay fiercely beautiful, friends and beloveds, as I know you are so wont to do.

Eat food. Grok Earth.

Pray without ceasing.


*Food has become, of course, a controversial issue. Vegan vs. Lacto-ovo-vegetarian vs. Omnivorous? Locavore vs. Coconut oil in the Midwest? Mediterranean? Macrobiotic? Low-carb, Saturated Fat Paleo vs. USDA Low-fat? Raw milk vs. Pasteurization? Fermented foods? Sprouted foods? High-fiber whole foods? Processed foods? Raw vs. cooked? Organic vs. not-organic? To GMO or not to GMO? I’ve seen plenty of normally gentle people come relatively unglued over any number of these topics, and I’ve seen that because for the better part of my life I’ve been having these conversations, for a number of reasons. The first is my mom (hi Mom!), who in addition to spending a good portion of her nursing career as a nutritional consultant for diabetics, has also been a long time whole foods proponent who happened to pretty much successfully rehabilitate herself from a potentially crippling arthritic condition in her early twenties via the 70′s nutrition maven Adelle Davis‘ books. When I was five, my mom put the whole family on a macrobiotic diet for a year (a year of seaweed candy and brown rice…I would have sold my young immortal soul for a poptart). As an adult, I’ve been a part of many farm-shares, have made my own butter, yogurt, kombucha and bread, and have tried most of the familiar alternative nutrition systems. I’ve read Pollan and Fallon and Carol Adams. But there have also been a LOT of Processed Foodstuffs in my life. There are a lot of factors, including huge systemic issues, that go into how any particular individual or group eats. And, I’m fat, have been fat, and continue to be fat, and have a whole lot of opinions about being fat, and food naturally has a part to play in that continuing conversation. I’m saying food is complicated, and I know it. How does all of this relate to the topic at hand? Well, I think it’s important that whenever we talk about food and its relationship to notions of sacrality and earth-centered religion, it’s important to note that it *is* a complicated issue, so that we can continue to hold that reality in our minds when we consider the simultaneous reality that food is sacred, and that there are legitimate questions we as earth-centered religionists can and should be asking when we consider the food we eat and how we approach it spiritually. /caveat dance

**”At some point, however, a ritual will be done which is known as “Cakes and Wine” (or “Cakes and Ale,” “Cookies and Milk,”etc.). This involves the blessing of food and drink by (usually) the High Priestess and the High Priest, then passing them around for the congregation to enjoy (the food and drink are passed around; hardly ever the clergy — darn it). Some traditions offer libations to the ground when outdoors, or in a bowl when indoors, before consuming the food and drink. Whether this communal meal is done before or after a rite of passage is performed or a spell is cast, and whether the meal is accompanied by general or topical discussion (if any), depends upon a given group’s theory of the meal’s function: Is it for strengthening the coven members before doing magic, or for filling them with energy from the God and Goddess, or for relaxing and reviving after magic has been done?” – from “The Patterns of Wiccan Ritual” by Isaac Bonewits

***Please note: I am not mentioning this to delegitimize any religion or practice (as some are trying to do when they point out the pre-Christian elements in Christian liturgy). I do so because I think these links point to the persistence of the theological concept of sacrifice and the communion of human and divine through the act of eating the body of god, which I find extremely interesting.

Comment Feed

9 Responses

  1. the food and drink are passed around; hardly ever the clergy

    You’re obviously not moving in the right “circles”… ;)

  2. “I’m bound to all of these people because of these shared feasts, these rituals. Food is awesome, s’what I’m saying. Oh yaya.”

    Oh, yaya indeed!

    You know, I find I can remember more about the feasts I’ve shared than many of the rituals that preceded them.

    Of course, many of those rituals revolved around food. We used to do a dancing cornfield Green Man and Harvester dance for Lammas, culminating in a big old corn cookout. That thing had everything: drumming, cool props, a campfire, and of course, fresh corn on the cob. Who wouldn’t love that?

    Or there was the Samhain we celebrated by invoking the Spirit of the Deer–and, after a reenactment of the hunt, passed around a platter of roast venison hunted by one of the circle in place of “cakes.” (Though a vegetarian at the time, I did partake–the flesh of my God? How could I not?)

    As I think I’ve already hinted, I find Beltane strawberries overrated–the truly sacred, local ones aren’t ready until at least a month later, where I live. But May wine around a bonfire has its good memories, right up there with the “stone soup” my best friend’s coven uses to celebrate the autumn equinox.

    As you’ve already said, “Eat food. Grok Earth. Pray without ceasing.”

  3. Wow. Now I’m hungry. And I need to find something to write about other than food!



    As a Pagan Homesteader I’m delighted to see this post! Growing your own food is so spiritually rewarding I would love to see everyone try it, even if you have no land, many thing can grow indoors or on a balcony. I also recommend the Menonite cook book Simply in Season for those who want to eat seasonally, great for folks in a CSA. A CSA is the best way to afford organic veggies if you can’t grow them yourself.

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Continuing the Discussion

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