The Lore of Simple Things In Myth And Legend

by Ari Berk

I am living in Devon, England at the moment, in a medieval barn on the edge of the Dartmoor. In the small of hours of the night, in such a house, the mind rambles backwards and forwards in time, imagining the daily routines, the days and nights, the bread and butter, of the people that have lived here and used this place over the last six hundred years.A barn is a building of necessary things, of basics, life’s staples about which much custom, curiosity and belief have formed; a place where a bowl of milk or a bit of bread is justly left for the little gods who watch over the farm and its immediate vicinity, but nowhere much farther than that. In the lore of offerings and sacrifice, the high rites of the gods and common custom of house fairies share a wide frontier. In studying such beliefs, we may discern that the humblest of offerings is indeed a sacred thing.

So here is the lore of The Basics, three foods that remain effective indicators of the land’s condition. If these are unspoiled, and readily available, all with the land and the people living on it is well. Here are three foods ancient and primal: one given, one found, one formed. Milk, honey and bread. Bon appetit.

Milk of Nourishment

Of all the many naturally produced substances on the earth, milk is the single one whose primary purpose is to nourish living creatures. Many societies still rely on milk and milk products as their main food. These include numerous tribes of Central Asia, the Sami (or Lapp) people, the Todas of India, and many African tribes. All cultures rely on the milk of the mother, or her surrogate, as food for infants (though this is often supplemented by the milk of other creatures). In Italy and in nearly all of early modern Europe,it is believed that a baby may take on characteristics of the milk–provider. Because of this, it is thought that only a nurse of the best character should be hired. In Poland, if a child returns to the breast after being weaned, it will stammer when it begins to speak.

In the Bible, Israel is referred to as "the land of milk and honey." In Judaism, the physical Torah is likened to milk in rabbinic literature. For this reason, Jews eat milk products on Shavuot, the holiday commemorating and celebrating the giving of the Torah.

Milk is also revered as one of the special gifts of Allah: "You have in cattle a lesson: we give you to drink from that which is in their bellies betwixt chyme and blood — the pure milk — easy to swallow for those who drink." In the funeral rites of ancient Egypt, it was sung that milk should never be far from the mouths of the dead. In the Egyptian Pyramid texts, Ra is asked to bestow the milk of Isis upon the deceased, thereby rendering them a surrogate child of the goddess. Utterance 406 requests abundance on behalf of the dead:

Greetings to thee RA in thy beauty, in thy beauties,
in thy places, in thy two-thirds gold.
Mayest thou bring the milk of Isis to (name of the dead), and the flood of Nephthys,
the swishing of the lake, the primaeval flood of the ocean,
life, prosperity, health, happiness,
bread, beer, clothing, food, that N. may live thereof

Milking cattle, Tomb of Kagemni at Sakkara, Egypt

Both nourishment and sweetness are asked for to strengthen the act of remembrance and after–life body of the deceased in the otherworld. Also, the active part of the living in the care of the dead form rites of catharsis by which the pain of loss of eased.

In the Greek play Orestes by Euripides, Helen must make offerings at the tomb of her sister but cannot make the visit herself. She sends her daughter Hermione to make the offering in her place, a gift of hair and a libation for the dead Clytemnestra:

True; thou hast convinced me, maiden. Yes, I will send my daughter;for thou art right. (Calling) Hermione, my child, come forth beforethe palace; (HERMIONE and attendants come out of the palace.) takethese libations and these tresses of mine in thy hands, and go pourround Clytemnestra’s tomb a mingled cup of honey, milk, and frothingwine; then stand upon the heaped-up grave, and proclaim therefrom,"Helen, thy sister, sends thee these libations as her gift, fearingherself to approach thy tomb from terror of the Argive mob"; and bidher harbour kindly thoughts towards me and thee and my husband; towardsthese two wretched sufferers, too, whom Heaven hath afflicted. Likewisepromise that I will pay in full whatever funeral gifts are due fromme to a sister. Now go, my child, and tarry not; and soon as thouhast made the offering at the tomb, bethink thee of thy return. (HELENgoes into the palace as HERMIONE and her attendants depart with the offerings.)

Likewise, in Book X of the Odyssey, offerings including milk are made to Teiresias. Such offerings do not here form the rites of family, but are a magical invocation of the dead enacted so that the dead might be questioned upon an important matter.

When you have reached this spot, as I now tell you, dig a trench a cubit or so in length, breadth, and depth, and pour into it as a drink–offering to all the dead, first, honey mixed with milk, then wine, and in the third place water–sprinkling white barley meal over the whole. Moreover you must offer many prayers to the poor feeble ghosts, and promise them that when you get back to Ithaca you will sacrifice a barren heifer to them, the best you have, and will load the pyre with good things.More particularly you must promise that Teiresias shall have a black sheep all to himself, the finest in all your flocks.

When you shall have thus besought the ghosts with your prayers, offer them a ram and a black ewe, bending their heads towards Erebus; but yourself turn away from them as though you would make towards the river. On this, many dead men’s ghosts will come to you, and you must tell your men to skin the two sheep that you have just killed, and offer them as a burnt sacrifice with prayers to Hades and to Proserpine. Then draw your sword and sit there, so as to prevent any other poor ghost from coming near thesplit blood before Teiresias shall have answered your questions. The seer will presently come to you, and will tell you about your voyage — what stages you are to make, and how you are to sail the sea so as to reach your home.

The Roman festival of Pales (an ancient Italian shepherd divinity of uncertain sex, to whom the day was sacred), took place on April twenty–first, in both country and city.

Baskets of millet, millet cakes, and milk were offered to Pales, whose wooden statue, standing near the farmhouse, seems to have been splashed with milk. A feast followed in which shepherds and god took part.The shepherds then prayed to Pales to keep away evil influences —wolves, disease, hunger — and to bring good influences to bear — water, food, health to man and to flocks; they repeated the prayer four times, facing the East,while they cleansed their hands in fresh dew. The people drank wine boiled down until it was thick and then mixed with milk. After this, the farmer, his family, and his flocks leaped through bonfires made of straw, a rite which, as they believed, would make women prolific. The worshipers, eating and drinking, lay about on the grass.