The Lore of Simple Things—Milk, Honey and BreadIn Myth And Legend (Continued)

Dolls by Wendy Froud, photograph by Toby Froud

Bread of the Body

In the story from Cochiti Pueblo "Coyote Imitates Crow," Coyote’s body becomes a veritable picnic basket of useful tidbits for the other animals. Here, Coyote desires bread and corn–milk, but instead, his greed transforms him into food for others. In this manner he shows his god–like qualities, not through cleverness (which he is little bestowed with), but by becoming the sacrifice by which others may thrive.

Once there was a high bank of paper bread of all colors. At the bottom it was blue, then white, red, gray, and white. On the top of this high bank there was a crow, and at the bottom there was a little pond of sweet–corn milk. The crow sang,

High bank of paper bread, high bank of paper bread;
Pond of sweet–corn milk, pond of sweet–corn milk.

Every time, he bit a piece of paper bread off the bank he flew down to the sweet–corn pond to take a drink. Coyote came along and said, "How nicely you jump. Sing the song to me for I want to eat paper bread and drink the sweet–corn milk. I will do just as you do." "All right." He sang his song,

High bank of paper bread, high bank of paper bread;
Pond of sweet–corn milk, pond of sweet–corn milk.

Coyote listened and learned the song. He said, "All right, now I’ll start." "All right, you sing first." Coyote stood on top of the high bank and sang and ate. He said, "Now I’ll take a drink." He was singing and getting ready to jump at the end of his song. He jumped down and he fell straight into the pond and right there he died.Crow began to caw (for joy). She wanted his eyes. She took them out and shook them. They sounded like bells. She called, "Animals, whoever uses fur for nests, come and take it from Coyote who has done mischief." Wood rats and mice and chipmunks and squirrels came and took the fur from Coyote for nests. Crow said, "All the kinds of birds that eat meat, come and eat Coyote, for he has done mischief."The eagle and the vulture and the chicken hawk and hawk came, and they all ate him up. There was nothing left but his bones. Along came an old, old man with a carrying basket. He walked with a cane and he could hardly get along. He came to the place where Coyote’s bones were and said, "These will make a nice soup for grandmother." He put them in the basket, put it on his back, and took the bones home to his wife.

The ballad of "The Cruel Mother" identifies bread (as well as milk) with the comforts of a realized mother/child relationship. In the ballad, a young unwed girl goes to the forest alone and gives birth to two illegitimate children. She is high–born and must hide her pregnancy. Deep in the forest,

She lent her back unto a thorn,
And she’s got her twa bonny boys born.
She’s taen the ribbons frae her hair,
Bound their bodyes fast and sair.
She’s put them aneath a marble stane.
Thinking a maiden to gae hame.

Returning home, she looks out over the wall of her father’s castle and sees two little children playing ball. Her heart filled with guilt and longing, she calls out to them,

‘O bonny babies, if ye were mine,
I woud feed you with the white bread and wine.
‘I woud feed you wi the ferra cow’s milk,
And dress you in the finest silk.’

The ghosts of her children call back, replying,

O cruel mother, when we were thine,
We saw none of your bread and wine.
We saw none of your ferra cow’s milk,
Nor wore we of your finest silk.

Admitting her wrongdoing (as much to herself as to the children), she then asks what kind of punishment awaits her. The children reply matter of factly that she is to serve twenty–eight purgatorial years as punishment.

Seven years a fowl in the woods,
Seven years a fish in the floods.
Seven years to be a church bell,
Seven years a porter in hell.

It’s tempting to read these images as related to her crime. Perhaps the fowl represents the manner of the children’s death in the woods, like hunted birds. Are fish lost in the "flood" of the afterlife? As a church bell she would hear the singing of the churchgoers, call them to pray,but would be ever isolated from the rites of the church. A porter in hell surely speaks for itself: not quite in hell, not quite out of it. However tempted we are to interpret them individually, what all of these images share is a liminal quality. Like souls of children dying before their time, they are both of and not of this world.In any event, the milk, bread and wine also serve here as (withheld) images of comfort, acceptance and redemption no longer available to the abandoned and unshriven dead.

In the tale of "Black Robin" from North Wales, there is a reference to the use of bread for indicating the guilt of a suspect. At the well of Llanbedrog, you kneel, then throw a piece of bread into the well while naming a list of suspects. When the bread sinks, it means you’ve uttered the name of the guilty.

More references from Wales include the Breconshire belief that the Tylwyth Teg make gifts of bread to the peasantry which transform into toadstools the following morning. To avoid this, the bread was eaten in silence and darkness. In the well–known tale of The Shepherd of Myddvai a mortal man has to give the gift of bread to a fairy woman to prove his worth. He makes bread for her twice trying to catch her. Once is "hard-baked." Another, "Unbaked."But when he finds bread along the shore of the lake (below which the faeries live), she accepts it. However, it is a marriage doomed from the first, for she tells him that if he ever strikes her, she’ll return home to her people.

Needless to say, he strikes her three times and she departs but not before blessing their children and thus giving rise to a family of the greatest healers Wales has ever known. Bread seals the bargain, but perhaps the marriage isn’t the point. It’s about an exchange across the threshold that eventually leads to a bloodline receiving an otherworldly skill that will serve the community down through the ages.The marriage was never meant to last, only serve as a vehicle. The contract won by the gift of bread, the gift of one body to another across the veil of worlds, brings all this about.

Generally speaking, the fairies are quite picky about their food. In Germany, a spirit of the wood, a Forest–Wife, was given a loaf of new baked bread flavored with cumin and was heard to scream aloud, "They’ve baken for me cumin–bread, that on this house brings great distress!"Why the taste of cumin was so offensive I cannot guess, but all the fortune the peasant baker had went right out of his house and he was soon reduced to abject poverty.

"Hansel and Gretel," Kay Neilsen

Certainly one of the most well remembered images of bread in fairy tales appears in the story of "Hansel and Gretel." A hungry family, a cruel mother, a yielding father, a cannibal witch. But most important: a trail of breadcrumbs. What may we make of this? Bread as a path? As an offering to the forest? The breadcrumbs are eaten by birds and the children become lost. They follow a white bird to the house of a witch with an appetite, and they nibble at her house like little mice, hunger driving them (like their parents) to destroy a home.The witch feeds them, keeps them for a snack, but is tricked by Grethel who pushes her into the oven. So the witch learns a lesson too: never turn your back on a hungry kid. The witch vanquished, the children fill their pockets with treasure and head home helped by another bird (this time a duck) that carries them across the river. They return to their parents’ house and there is much rejoicing.

What shall we make of the meaning of bread in this story? Lack of it breaks the family? Those who hoard food should be tricked and killed? A little bread given to a bird goes a long way? Frankly, this has never been one of my favorite tales, though the image of leaving breadcrumbs — of starving people using good food to mark their path — has stayed with me for its irony if nothing else. Of course, there are plenty of ways we might find symbolism in this image, but to me, it raises more practical questions than it supplies metaphorical answers:Where were the family’s neighbors? Could no one spare that family a crumb? Or take the children in until things got better? And as for the roles relegated to old women in fairy tales, I find them highly problematic — full of the fears of male writers. I think the story is supposed to tell us something about the horror of living on islands, whether real or social, about the tremendous anxieties related to finding food and other life–sustaining resources, and about the consequences of living apart from our neighbors, not just other humans but the animalswith whom we share the storied land.

As we’ve seen, bread, milk and honey symbolize the health not only of the land, but of the communal ties of those who live upon it. Each one of these simple foods embodies a different aspect of community and communion — bees and village, milk and mothers, bread and grain and harvest and the journey of the rising year. In the Irish tale of "The Voyage of Maleduin," his boat, which has been rowing about in the Otherworld of the sea for a long time, comes to the Island of Mill,where the voyagers are witness to a purgatorial procession: lines of people with sacks upon their backs walking towards an enormous mill, each sack filled with all the grain the people of the world begrudgingly kept from others. Hell indeed. In all the lore relating to food, we learn that it must be freely given to both gods and all our neighbors, living and dead and in–between. We make a home wherever goodness and simple gifts are freely given to others.

What more might I tell you? Perhaps you wish to know why bread always falls butter side down? The great mysteries such as this— the reason you have no doubt been reading all this time — I leave untold for night is done and dawn comes early to the breakfast table. Here is bread from fire, and milk from beast. Now if you make a little honey in your heart for simple things, we’ll call our business done.