How has bread been symbolic culturally and religiously?

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Jamie Wheeler eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Almost every society in the world eats bread in some form: leavened or not, loaves, cakes, baked or fried. Grain is exceptionally nutritious and, unlike many other types of nutrition, can be consumed on its own. Breads are made from flour, water, salt, sometimes yeast, and other additives.

Two advancements in human history have contributed to the folklore and symbolism of bread: farming and settlements. Ethnologists call settlements the “great turning point for humanity,” and farming was responsible for the increased consumption of bread. Settlers used wheat as a commodity. Because wheat, and in turn, bread, was both a source of food and a source of income, natural phenomenon, like floods and droughts, were feared and mythologized in agricultural life. Likewise, good rain and sun were linked to positive omens and rewards for communal behavior.

The symbolism of wheat and the symbolism of bread are intertwind. Since the Neolithic period, (also known as the “New Stone Age,” circa 10,200 BC to 4,500-2000 BC), myths and rituals formed around plant life. People of this era observed that a grain of wheat dies but later is reborn as a spike, which is capable of providing humans sustenance. This was a great mystery to early people, and they came to revere wheat as sacred.

These now-more-stable societies developed religious connections with the animal world and created a sort of “mystical solidarity” between humans and vegetation. Women were closely linked to agriculture, and as such, sacredness was bestowed upon females. A woman’s fertility cycle was linked to the earth. Women, they thought, were responsible for the success (or lack thereof) of the harvest, as they were perceived to have knowledge about creation. Fertility festivals were common, and in places like Sicily, loves of vaginal-shaped bread were given out in celebration of women and the harvest.

The way in which wheat reproduces, from dying grain to rising spike, created associations with the idea of resurrection. In a bas-relief, found in Egypt in the temple of Isis, the god of the underworld, Orisis, presents wheat spikes which are watered by a priest, symbolizing that the wheat will grow. Additionally, on clay statutettes of Orisis, wheat kernels are embedded. These kernels were supposed to guarantee the survival of the dead.

Egypt was not alone in its reverence for wheat and its associated symbolism. For example, in Grrece, the goddess Demeter was associated with wheat, and in Italy, the Roman goddess Demeter was linked to the wheat harvest as well. In fact, divinities in nearly all cultures are associated with grain. In the Old Testament, bread is the symbol of fecundity, and in the New Testament, bread is associated with miracles, as when Jesus fed the multitudes with loaves and fishes. The symbolism here is that of God’s grace. Another New Testament parable is that of the “good and the bad seed.” (Matthew 13: 24-43). Perhaps most importantly, the body of Christ during the Eucharist is represented by grain. Handing each of his disciples a piece of bread during the Last Supper (found in both the gospels of Matthew and Luke), Christ says, “Take this and eat, for this this is my body. Do this in remembrance of me.”

 The word “Bethlehem,” the city where Jesus was born means “house of bread.” More symbolism associated with bread occurs in the Old Testament. For example, God send “mana” to the Hebrews when they are crossing the desert; they have nothing to eat during their exile, and bread is what God gives to sustain them. In Judiasm, “matzoh,”an unleavened bread, is eaten to commemorate this time of exile.

During imperial Roman times, bakers, known as “pistories,” celebrated the Vestialies, on the ninth of June to honor the goddess Vesta. In the Ovid, Roman poet Ovid tells of the worship of Jupiter the Baker. Bread played an important role during the attack of Rome by the Gauls in 287 BCE.  The Romans prepared small loaves which they hurled at their assailants. The Gauls had to conclude that Rome was so well-stocked that they could withstand a very lengthy attack indeed, if they could afford to use food as a weapon. The Gauls abandoned their siege; the Romans built a temple to Jupiter in gratitude.

It is not only in religious observations that the symbolism of bread occurs. For thousands of years, bread has been linked to procreation. The parallels are easy to understand: the baking process and the birthing process are similar: loading = conception, pregnancy = baking, and delivery = consumption. In Latin, “semen” means “seed” and refers to both plant seed and human semen. Bread equals life.

The life cycle also includes, of course, death. The sickle is used to harvest grain, but it is also depicted as the instrument carried by the embodiment of Death.

Source: Encyclopedia of Food & Culture, ©2003 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A food that is considered a staple in most civilizations, bread has literal, cultural, and religious significance. One interesting, but inconclusive, theory about bread is that it was one of the causes of the French Revolution of 1789. According to scientific research, a certain mold that formed on the grain that was in poor supply that year created a hallucinogenic effect upon the peasants, inciting them to violent behavior. At any rate, the statement "bread is life" carries much meaning for many cultures as it is a staple to the diet of people, providing necessary grains for their diets. In fact, wheat is "the quintessential nutritional plant." It is also considered an essential item socially.  In such Mediterranean countries as Italy, for instance, when someone comes to another's home, bread and wine are usually brought out for guests and people converse at a table with these items. This procedure is considered essential to politeness. In France, people believe,

Then there is the congeniality effect: “Remember that buying fresh bread on the way home is a simple way of showing loved ones that you have thought about them and of giving them pleasure during the day.

Certainly, bread is symbolic of life, going back to ancient times when it was believed to contain the mystery of life and death and thus it became a sacred plant. In Roman times, the Roman leaders used the political phrase panem et circenses, or "bread and circuses," meaning keep the people fed and entertained. For, anything could be done politically because no one will pay attention if stomachs are full and minds captivated with entertainment. In the meeting of the first Christians, they shared bread and wine in imitation of the Last Supper. Thus, in the Catholic Church's liturgy, a special act of consecration is that of the bread and wine used in the sacrament of the Eucharist, which involves their change (called transubstantiation) into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ when the priest speaks the Words of Institution. Most Protestant churches also have communion, but do not consider the hosts or bread as having gone through transubstantiation. So, the symbolism is more of sharing rather than the bestowing of life.

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