Magic (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
MAGIC. The English term "magic" (magie in French, Magie in German, and magija in Russian) comes from the Greek magikos, a term that referred to a class of priests in ancient Persia and Greece. Later the word was taken over by Christianity and applied to the kings ("magi") who traveled to pay their respects to the infant Jesus. It was not until the Middle Ages that the word "magic" took on negative connotations. In modern times, magic refers to witchcraft, sorcery, and the casting of spells. Magic is also part of rites and ceremonies that are connected with the belief in a supernatural influence on nature, animals, and human beings. The field of ethnology uses the term "magic" very widely, but the meaning of the term is not always clear. Witchcraft was opposed by official religions from ancient times, as, for example, the Indian "Laws of Manu" (sixth to fifth centuries B.C.E.) and the Roman "Laws of 12 Tables" (mid-fifth century B.C.E.). The position of Christianity was shown in the Codex of the Emperor Justinian (529). Among the East Slavs, witchcraft was considered a superstition and a relic of paganism and therefore a sin. There is a tradition of identifying magic with witchcraft and distinguishing "white magic" from "black magic." Around the turn of the twentieth century, A. Lemann and others associated magic with sorcery. Lemann formulated the most popular definition of magic: "Magic or witchcraft is every action provoked by superstitions." B. Malinovsky wrote that magic was from ancient times the province of specialists and that witchcraft or healing was the first profession.
The connection of magic with religion and religious rites has also been interpreted in many ways. Sir James George Frazer thought that magic was founded on men and women's belief in their own potential to influence nature; this stands in contrast to the concept of religion, which is built on a belief in supernatural beings (gods, spirits, ghosts) that control natural phenomena. Other theories assert that religion is inseparably linked with magic. S. A. Tokarev gave a description of religious rites that can be classified as magic rites, depending on their form and function. The division of magic by form proceeds from the psychological mechanism behind the use of magic forces, including establishing contact, initial (beginning), imitative magic, apotropaic magic (to avert evil), cleansing, and verbal magic. The division of magic according to function is linked to real-world or practical roots of magical beliefs: for example, medical magic is connected with folk medicine, love magic is connected with courting, trade magic is associated with hunting techniques, and agrarian magic is linked to primitive agronomics.
Food is associated with almost every kind of magic. Magic rites connected with food production, processing, and presentation reflected ancient beliefs and motifs that had lost their primary mythological meanings over time and had become inalienable elements of different religions. For example, it is no coincidence that figures from Slavic mythology were identified with Christian saints, such as Peroun, the god of rain, or in India Pardjanja, Pirva (Hettish), Perkons (Lettish), with St. Eliash; Veles, the god of cattle and wealth, with St. Vlasij; and Yarila, the god of fertility, with St. George. The roles of these figures are reflected in folklore, and especially in demonology. Traces of this type of folklore can still be found in modern times. For example, the Orthodox Church does not deny the presence of evil and other evil spirits in everyday life, but it does not support the spreading of superstitions among its followers. Nevertheless, such beliefs still exist and are reflected in ceremonies surrounding food production.
Beyond its main role of satisfying one of the vital requirements of the human organism, food plays a large symbolic role in every culture. Group meals and specific types of food are obligatory components of any festivity or event in most cultures. Depending on the societal and cultural context, food can be viewed as ritualistic, festive, sacred, funereal, prestigious, and non-prestigious. For example, many sacred rites are connected with the production of bread. It was common in many cultures to bless and to pray during bread baking and to put a cross on the bread before it was eaten. In Georgian beliefs, bread protected a child from evil spirits. Depending on the situation, a different number of loaves (accounts tell of anywhere from three to twenty-nine) could be used during magic actions. In Armenia, in order to protect her child from evil, a mother collected flour from seven families, baked bread (lavash in Armenian) in the shape of human being, put it under the pillow of the child, and on a certain day buried the bread. If a child became ill during the first forty days of life, he or she was passed through the hole made in a large loaf of bread. In Armenia bread was also seen as a form of sustenance in the afterlife: this belief was observed in a ceremony where fresh bread was offered for the deceased. The Udmurts often used similar magic. To return her child to health a mother baked bread three times in a day: the first time
In some rituals, bread was used to protect the human world from another one. Among eastern Slavs it was a custom to keep bread on the table that was in the "red" corner (red in Russia means beautiful) or iconostasis, a shelf on which icons were kept, regarded as a sacred place. Bread has upper and bottom sections; thus, turning bread over was forbidden, as it was believed that the bread could be "offended" by that act. Bread and salt were the obligatory foodstuffs involved in the Russian ritual of entering a new house. Among Russians, Ukrainians, and Belorussians (White Russians), only men could first enter a new house, with icons and bread in their arms as the main symbols of a new living space. They might also carry a pot of porridge or kneading trough with dough, which symbolized prosperity, abundance, and fertility. Over time these items were supplemented with such cultural symbols as poppy seeds, thistle, burdock, garlic, and religious texts, which were supposed to protect a house from evil spirits and witches. In northern Russia, peasants invited friends and neighbors to enter a new home and treated them to a good meal to protect the house from undesirable people.
Magic and magical acts, such as the casting of spells, have traditionally been connected with health. Thus, many rites included actions and language that were supposed to help maintain or attain a state of good health. Rites such as these stood in opposition to illness, death, and misfortune. The main elements of water, fire, earth, plants, and animals were considered symbols of health and played a prominent role in different magical ceremonies.
World folklore provides evidence of a close correlation between the universe and human beings. According to the the cosmological beliefs of the people of the Caucasian region, there is a Tree of Life at the back of beyond that connects with three vertical levels: a sky (the upper world), Earth (the middle world), and an underground kingdom (the lower world). The upper world is populated with gods, deities, birds, and fantastic beings. Earth is populated with people, animals, and plants, and the underground kingdom is a world of the dead, as well as devils, dragons, and deep waters. Fantastic horses, eagles, devils, dragons, animals, birds, and others beings were seen as means of communication among different levels or worlds. For example, in Caucasian-Iberian mythology there is an image of a deer with a large antler that holds up or supports the upper world.
Baking rituals in different countries reflected some of the beliefs about communication between the lower world, the human (middle) world, and the upper world. In one ritual, the Belorussians baked three pies as symbols of the three parts of the structure of the world; in modern times, these pies have taken on different religious significance. These pies can be either round, three-cornered, or oval in shape. One never cuts three-cornered and oval pies with a knife; rather, one divides them by hand into arbitrarily sized parts. Only the round pie, which in more recent times is dedicated to the Christian savior, is cut into sections with a knife in accordance with ancient rules. The final form or figure of the sliced pie is a circle divided into an eight-segment circle or mandala cosmological symbol of the universe. Thus, these three pies reflect in a symbolic form the vertical structure of mythological space.
Religious symbolism very often stems from magic practice, which supposed a transfer of symbolic qualities from one object to another. For example, eggs, rice, and pomegranates are traditional symbols of fertility and prosperity. An egg, as a symbol of life, was used for Easter festivities and also for many other ceremonies connected with food production. Russians, Ukrainians, and Belorussians prepared special pies or chicken with an egg inside for weddings. In Daghestan, women always baked fancy cakes with eggs inside in the springtime as a symbol of the revival of life. There is a tradition among the Crimean Karaims (Karais) of putting magic patterns of sun, moon, stars, and fish on Easter bread, which is made in the form of a sun.
Magic stemming from the upper world was thought to provide a possibility of survival in difficult situations, such as finding food when one is faced with starvation. An example is the fairy tale "Jack and the Beanstalk," which tells a story of the magical properties of three fava beans (Vicia faba). A. C. Andrews pointed out an abundance of bean stories and superstitions and attempted to explain these as being an adjunct of an original Indo-European totemism. He drew almost exclusively on classical sources from the Greeks, Romans, and other closely related Mediterranean peoples.
The earliest and most abundant mentions of bean superstitions came from Greek city-states. Literature from ancient Rome contains similar references. R. Rowlett and J. Mori analyzed the work of their predecessors, including A. C. Andrews, and discovered that "favistic" folktales about beans were not always connected with favism (1971, pp. 98-100).
The motif of communication with the upper world can be seen in the calendar ceremonies of eastern Slavs, who bake special bread with forty stripes, which recall Jesus's footsteps on the Day of Ascension (forty days after Easter). The eastern Slavs bake another type of breadi>onoochkeehat represents the cloth wrapped around Jesus' feet. Russian peasants put such bread in the rye field, believing that grain would provide strength. People in southern Russia baked similar bread on the fortieth day after an individual's death. Mourners put bread on the bench by the gate of the house, and people later ate it with honey. On that day some people ate pancakes at the nearest crossroads to prevent the deceased from returning home.
Magical food has been involved in many burial customs and rites that confirm a constant link between the living and the dead. For example, in many cultures magic rituals involved feeding deceased people, or more specifically, feeding their souls. Such symbolic actions were often performed on the stove in the home. Food was thrown about the house near the body of the deceased. Sometimes people placed food in the deceased's mouth, such as in the traditions of the Nganasans of Taymyr, Russia. Closely associated with these rites are the ceremonies that occurred after burial, because they include the same feeding of the souls. In addition to traditional funereal meals, many religions have ceremonies on special days that involve food and the deceased. Such celebrations are popular in Latin America. Mexicans have celebrations in August and November that involve the notion of spirits enjoying the smell of food. Persians put food on houses and roofs in the middle of March to encourage prosperity in the next year. B. Propp retraced the great role of the cult of ancestors in Russian agrarian festivals. Eastern Slavs celebrate "Parents' Saturdays" in accordance with the Orthodox calendar (Dzjady in White Russia) and the Japanese celebrate a Bon' Day. Russians always put out a glass of spirits with a piece of bread on the day of a funeral and on subsequent anniversaries. It is still a rule in Ukraine to have breakfast together with the deceased at the cemetery on the next morning after the funeral and to eat bread, sweets, and cakes and drink spirits. In Russia, visiting the cemetery on the second day after Easter (radunitsa) and sharing a meal with the deceased also became a custom: the meal was a painted Easter egg and sweet bread that were placed in the tomb.
Eastern Slav celebrations at Shrovetide and at Christmas were both devoted to the memory of the deceased. These days were observed by the preparation of such obligatory ritual dishes as bliny (pancakes) and kissel, made from oat, fruits, or berries. This tradition still exists among Russians. Ukrainians have a custom of preparing compote and small sweet pies with jam at funerals.
An example of using verbal cliché with magic purpose can be found in the texts of the Apocrypha, biblical books of dubious authenticity that are excluded from the Jewish and Protestant versions of the Old Testament. Nevertheless, apart from the fasts on Fridays established by the Orthodox Church, there was a tradition of fasting on the twelve "Temporary" Fridays, or "Vow" or "Big" Fridays, that were very popular among Orthodox adherents. Fasting on Fridays was a well-known practice of the use of the apocryphal texts as amulets, which was widespread in many cultures. The main role of the Apocrypha was to protect people from different troubles but only under the condition of fasting. Orthodox Christians kept fasts on these days to prevent unexpected misfortunes such as drought, bad harvests, infestations, and diseases.
The apocryphal Twelve Fridays were widespread in Russia in the guise of legends, spiritual verses, and tales dating from the eleventh century. Wandering (usually blind) minstrels sang the verses and advised followers to respect Fridays by "saint fasting and praying, faith and love, gentleness and humility." The verses warned that anybody who committed a breach of Fridays would be punished for generations to come.
In Russia the texts about the Twelve Fridays (as the texts "Dream of Our Lady") were also used for magical purposes and were worn on the body and used as amulets. However, such texts were not just magical; they were manifestations of piety in many provinces where they were distributed in the form of manuscript copies, apocryphas, and spiritual songs.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the texts of the Twelve Fridays could be found in many Russian provinces. They were dedicated to the main feasts of the Church calendar, and people fasted on Fridays before these holidays. Every Friday had a special grace and promised special preferences. The Twelve Fridays manuscript is still popular. People still believe that keeping fasts on these Fridays protects them against diseases and disasters.
See also Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts; Folklore, Food in; Religion and Food; Russia.
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