Food as a Symbol in Classical Greece
'You are what you eat' was as relevant an observation for the ancients as for more modern thinkers, argues Helen King
There are a number of things you can do with food apart from eating it. Human beings do not simply eat everything which can be made edible, while rejecting foods which are poisonous; on the contrary, out of the range of potential foods available to any given social group, only some will be classed as 'edible'. The accepted pattern of food use will both reflect and support a range of social and cultural factors. Parts of this pattern may be highly resistant to change, and carry a strong emotional charge. The proposal to move an item from the 'non-food' category to that of 'food' will evoke strong reactions bearing little relation to its nutrient value; think of our own horror at the thought of rat-burgers, or our characterisation of other national groups according to what seem to us to be exceptional choices of food ('the Frogs').
It follows that answers to questions about food behaviour will give us valuable information about the specific interests and beliefs of, and divisions within, any society. Who produces food? Where, how and by whom is it grown, distributed, stored and prepared? What potential food sources are rejected, and why? My concern here is predominantly with ancient Greek society, and with one of the last stages of the food process, that of consumption. The process of consumption links food as a biological need to food as a social fact.
An example taken from outside the ancient world is particularly valuable in emphasising the dangers of assuming that, in simple societies, food is grown only for the direct satisfaction of biological needs. The Kimam, a New Guinea people studied by L.M. Serpenti, live in a marginal coastal habitat in which islands for horticulture have literally to be created from mud. The crop which receives most attention in terms of discussion and time is the yam, which must be planted not only with special techniques but also with the correct rituals, performed by a ritual specialist. The part which the yam plays in the diet of these people is small, but it has a wide range of symbolic and ceremonial uses.
Only men can cultivate yams, and women must stay away from the implements used in yam gardens because they endanger the crop; like many other New Guinea societies, this one has a strong separation of male and female spheres of activity. Yams are discussed in similar terms to people, one stage in their growth in particular being equated with the delivery of a child from the womb and requiring the planters to observe taboos on foods, on sexual intercourse, and on contact with women: yams are 'men's babies'. It is thought to be both dangerous and disgusting to eat one's own yams; such behaviour is akin to incest. However, precisely because one cannot eat one's own, one must exchange them for the yams of others, much as one exchanges one's sisters for those of another group to acquire wives. Yams are exchanged in the context of final mortuary feasts held after the yam harvest. The yam, despite its minimal contribution to their diet, occupies a central place in Kimam culture.
Whatever is eaten, the act of eating is itself a social statement Commensality states unity; in the words of some eucharistic rites, 'Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in the one bread'. Meals may be celebratory or routine, formal or comparatively informal. M.I. Finley's classic study of Homeric society emphasises the frequent large-scale feasts, held to establish a bond between groups, to initiate amicable relations with a stranger, to preserve group unity and to mark occasions such as the burial of a hero.
More generally in ancient Greece, meals are shared with the gods, with parts being set aside for them. Libations are made to the gods before eating, but the main social institution in which gods and mortals eat together is that of animal sacrifice, in the burned thigh-bone and the smoke of spices. As the result of a trick played on Zeus long ago by the culture-hero Prometheus at a feast at Mekone, gods receive an inedible part, leaving the meat for mortals. Sacrifice brings men and gods together, uniting them in the act of consumption. However, it also states the degree to which they are believed to be separate, not only because each group receives different parts of the sacrificed beast, but because the meal recalls the past Golden Age, in which the groups shared not just a meal but a way of life. The division of the slaughtered beast according to strict rules of butchery also acts to define different groups within human society. An inner circle of sacrificers receives specified parts, while women generally participate only through male intermediaries who receive meat on their behalf. The proposal that eating may equally well serve to state division or unity can be supported by the structure of meals in specific Greek social groups. Decent Athenian women eat apart from their men, a spatial expression of the separate social spheres of the sexes; the unity of the male group is meanwhile strengthened by eating together in the andron, the men's dining room. The Spartan social structure revolves around the reduction in importance of the family, in favour of the male fighting unit comprised of men of all ages. These male groups eat together in syssitia, common messes.
A sys-sitos, or 'comrade", is literally 'one who shares sitos with you'. Sitos, meaning both grain and bread, is seen as the quintessentially human food: humanity is often glossed as 'men who eat sitos'. The origin of grain, the 'fruits of Demeter', lies at the heart of the Eleusinian mystery religion in which the initiate is shown a sheaf of grain, linking human and agricultural fertility, the life of the individual and the cycle of the agricultural year. Sitos is the product of the hard work of this cycle; the gods are spared from such labour, as indeed were the men of the past Golden Age, for whom food sprang from the ground spontaneously (Hesiod, Works and Days 117). It is also the product of the cooking process; the Greeks seem to have regarded some foods as partly cooked by their natural ripening, needing only 'taming' by agriculture and a little mortal intervention to finish making them fit for consumption.
To understand how essential sitos is for mortals, it is interesting to see what happens when men and gods have the opportunity of eating together in person. This happens to Odysseus and Calypso in Book 5 of the Odyssey where, although they can share a table, they have to eat different substances. The mortal man eats sitos, while Calypso dines on the food of the gods, ambrosia, which literally means 'not mortal'. The immortals thus eat immortal food. Elsewhere Homer suggests that food is directly related to mortality or immortality, through the intermediary of blood. The gods neither eat sitos nor drink wine; therefore they have no blood, and they are immortal (Iliad 5. 339342). When a god's flesh is cut, it is not blood but ichor – a substance explained only as being 'immortal blood' – which flows. Immortal food produces immortal blood, which in turn makes the person immortal.
From this line of reasoning follows an interesting question: can a mere mortal adopt an 'immortal' diet, and become a god? Although ambrosia was not available to be tested, classical Greek ethnography does raise the possibility of diets which approach that of the gods. The Greeks ranked modes of food preparation, not only regarding that which springs from the earth spontaneously as superior to the sitos which comes from hard agricultural labour, but also rating boiled food above roasted food, because it is more thoroughly cooked through. The Ethiopians described by Herodotus (3. 16-26) combine these in their miraculous 'Table of the Sun' where boiled meat can always be found, the spontaneous gift of the earth. As a result of this diet, they are not only the most beautiful but also 'the longest-lived of men'. The King of the Ethiopians asks a visiting Persian army what Persians eat; they reply that they eat wheat and rarely live beyond eighty. The Ethiopian is not surprised; he says that it is only to be expected that men who eat dung will die at a relatively early age. For him, sitos is 'dung', rotted food, which in the Greek scheme of things is even lower than roasted food.
Herodotus thus suggests that it is possible to modify the human diet so that one can become a little more like the gods, but his story of the Persian army's travels goes on to show that this is a dangerous path, unpredictable in the extreme. After meeting the long-lived Ethiopians, the Persians march beyond their territory to 'the ends of the earth'. Running out of sitos, the men turn first to their pack animals, then to grass and finally to cannibalism. In common with many other human groups, the Greeks were sure that other peoples ate one another. This behaviour was equated with that of the beasts, following Hesiod's comment that fish and beasts and winged birds eat one another, because they lack the humanising principle of justice (Works and Days 276-9). Cannibalism is a useful way of summarising uncivilised behaviour, of erecting a clear dietary boundary between 'us' and 'them'. Like the Persian army, the crew of Odysseus, marooned on the island of Helios, ran out of sitos and turned to foods forbidden to humans; here, the cattle of Helios (Odyssey 12. 260 ff.). Both groups die as a result of adopting a non-human diet. To be human is a precarious state, in which any attempt to transcend the mortal lot may lead to death.
Almost as bestial as cannibalism is the consumption of raw meat. The opposition between raw and cooked, isolated as a dominant image in a range of societies by Levi-Strauss' The Raw and the Cooked, has been shown to apply to ancient Greek thought. Cooking transforms the bestial diet into that of the civilised society: nature becomes culture. In Euripides' Bacchae, civilised behaviour is threatened from within society. Under the influence of the god Dionysos – regularly identified with the Other – his female followers eat raw animal flesh (138 f.), and once even suggest eating human flesh (1184). Elsewhere, women's food behaviour is represented as extreme in other ways. Most commonly, particularly in the plays of Aristophanes, they are seen as gluttons. As Foucault has recently shown, moderation in diet was linked by the ancient Greeks to moderation in all other areas of life, while control of self was thought necessary for the individual to be entrusted with control of others, whether in the context of the household, the city or the army. The belief that women cannot control their appetites therefore served to support their social position.
Eating is thus a social activity with social functions; but as important as who eats with whom and why is the catalogue of items which are, and are not, eaten. The classic case of a powerful food taboo is the prohibition on pork in the Jewish dietary code, as 'unclean' or an 'abomination'. Mary Douglas has interpreted this in terms of cognitive, rather than practical, need. The foods forbidden by Leviticus 11 are responses to the boundaries set up by the classificatory system. Certain features are grouped together to help make sense of a chaotic world; cloven hoofs are selected as going with chewing the cud. For this classification the pig is anomalous because, although it has cloven hoofs, it does not chew the cud. In Aristotle's classification of the animal kingdom, certain creatures are termed 'dualisers', because they share the features of two categories. An example is the seal, which lives between the land and the sea. Whatever features are selected, some animals will fall between categories and will then be seen either as disgusting, or as magically powerful. The only difficulty with this approach is that it is not always possible to see why a particular culture responds to its classificatory anomalies by taboo, while another regards such animals as foci of ritual.
For the Greeks, certain items are forbidden as food: other people, the 'cattle of Helios'. However, substances which are normally not eaten may be permitted or even encouraged in special circumstances. Detienne's study of spices has shown that substances with a socially acceptable use may be negatively valued in certain situations. Spices are positively valued if used as the gods' portion in sacrifice, or within legitimate marriage. Outside these contexts, or used in excess, they are dangerous, linked with seduction and hence with the destruction of marriage. The reverse also holds; substances usually taboo as food may in certain circumstances be seen as desirable. For example, dogs did not normally feature in the Greek diet. Their position in ancient thought is similar to that which they occupy in many other cultures, including our own. Because they are naturally predatory, yet used in the service of human society, they are somewhere between the class of 'wild animals' and that of 'people'; like the pig in Jewish classification, they are therefore given special treatment. They are generally not eaten – to eat a tame animal which shares in your life is almost akin to eating another person – but instead eat with humans. A vase of the late seventh or early six century BC, the 'Eurytios krater', depicts dogs tied to the feet of banqueting couches, dining on scraps of food thrown to them.
However, in the special context of Hippocratic gynaecological medicine of the fifth and fourth centuries Bc, dogs appear as a cure for certain conditions. Ancient medicine is in general greatly concerned with diet. Prescriptions do not just include specific substances to be taken to cure the disease, but extend into recommending whether food is boiled or roasted, which particular types of fish or meat are included in the diet, and how much water is added to one's wine. Some texts link the diet to the season, suggesting that when it is dry one should follow a wetter diet.
Another relevant factor may be age; it was generally believed that one dried out as one aged, so that the diet should be made wetter to compensate. The rationale behind specific food substances used in medical recipes may sometimes be reconstructed, and the use of dogs in Hippocratic gynaecology proves to be an interesting example. Here they occur in the context of medical intervention designed to help the woman to conceive – the main interest of these early medical texts. In a procedure called the fumigation, substances are placed in a heated jar and the fumes passed into the womb. In one version of this procedure, it is a puppy which has been disembowelled and stuffed with spices which is used as the main ingredient in the jar. Spices, as has been mentioned, are associated with marriage or seduction. In another procedure, the fat of puppies is cooked and eaten, again as a remedy for failure to conceive.
It seems that certain more positively valued features of the dog are being exploited here. In Greco-Roman literature two aspects of this animal are emphasised; its strong sexual appetites and the ease with which it gives birth. Both of these are echoed in language. The word for 'dog' or 'bitch', kuos, is used as slang for the genitalia of either sex, while kuein means 'to be pregnant'. The first woman, Pandora, has 'the mind of a bitch' according to Hesiod's account of her creation; this could suggest both sexual shamelessness, and the valued fecundity of the wild which civilisation wishes to emulate. To impart this fecundity to later women, medicine makes use of the dog. Here the anomalous animal moves from being taboo to being powerful: 'non-food' becomes 'food; and in so doing gains the power to restore order by enabling women to fulfil their roles as reproducers of society.
The use of the dog also underlines the position of women in Greek society by reminding them that they are as liminal to it as are dogs; not fully 'tamed; but always liable to run wild. Dogs and women occupy a similar classificatory position in Greek thought, as simultaneously outsiders and insiders, tamed by man in the service of culture. As Agamemnon remarks in Iliad 11. 427, there is nothing more like a bitch than a woman. Thus food uses and taboos reinforce cultural values in a complex interplay of imagery: who eats what, with whom, acts as a useful point of entry from which it may be possible to reach a deeper understanding of any society.
Helen King is Junior Research Fellow at Newnham College, Cambridge, and author of Tithones and the Tettix (Arethusa).
- M Detienne, The Gardens of Adonis: spices in Greek mythology (tr. J. Lloyd) (Harvester Press, 1977)
- M. Douglas, Purity and Danger: an analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966)
- M.I. Finley, The World of Odysseus (2nd edition) (Chatto and Windus, 1977)
- M. Foucault, Histoire de la Sexualité, Vol 2: L'usage des plaisirs (Gallimard, 1984)
- C. Levi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked (tr J. and D. Weightman) (Cape, 1970)
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