Friday, July 9, 2010

Staff of Life

It should come as no surprise that sometimes, various breads and bread-like treats should be invested with spiritual meaning. After all, John 6:35 (KJV) says:

And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.

John 6:48-58 goes even further, explaining in metaphor what Jesus would later make concrete at the Last Supper: this is My body, this is My blood.

As we all know, Catholics and some mainline Protestants remember this every Sunday when they take Communion. Indeed, the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation has it that the bread (host) given during this rite is literally the same as the body of Christ.

While this cannibalistic theophagy may turn you off, you certainly like snacking on tasty little cakes, no?

Unsurprisingly, France has plenty of those to offer.

The Madeleine (Magdalene) is one such cake. It's biggest claim to fame is that it kicks off Proust's ten-volume In Search of Lost Time, where he describes it as having the form of "a pilgrim's shell". In one traditional form it is indeed scallop-shaped. The pilgrims Proust refers to are those on their way to Santiago de Compostela, who affix this scallop to their staves as they make their way towards the holy destination. The scallop, as we have discussed, is associated with Aphrodite and its vaguely feminine forms may evoke a woman's sex; one often sees stoups for Holy Water in the form of a scallop (in France, at least). The origin of the Madeleine is in dispute, but most agree the name comes from inventor Madeleine Paulmier. Whether she was an 18th or 19th century figure is uncertain, but in either case they are native to the Lorraine region of France.

Another cookie with more direct religious overtones is the so-called "navette", which among other things means "barque" or "little boat". This hard cake is associated with Provence, especially Marseilles, and there are several theories as to its origin. Ean Begg speculates that it comes from the little cakes offered to Isis and that the barque here refers to the barque of Isis. Another speculation is that it recalls the legend that has the three Marys (including Magdalene) landing in France at what is now Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer; in a similar vein the boat is said to be a metaphor for the word of Christ landing on the shores of France. Others still say it commemorates the founding of Marseilles by Phoenicians.

The navette is associated with the Saint Victor Abbey, especially its Candlemas celebrations. There is a legend that a polychrome, wooden statue of the Virgin, crowned and slightly battered, washed up on the shores of a lake near the abbey sometime towards the end of the 13th century. Some took her to be a protectress of people who plied the waves, sailors, fishermen, etc. To commemorate this legend, one Monsieur Aveyrous decided to give his biscuit the form of a boat. Finally, the metal container that is used to carry incense in the Catholic liturgy is in French referred to as a "navette". Come to think of it, the scallop shell form used for stoups is also used in Western iconography as a kind of boat (think of Botticelli's Bith of Venus), bringing us back to Madeleine, or Magdalene, who arrived in Provence in a tiny little boat....

Whatever the case, most of these theories give spiritual origins; not so shocking when we consider again that the "main man" of Western Civ is metaphorically referred to as bread and consumed in bread form in the Communion rite.

There are other cakes that come to mind. For a long time I was a great devotee of the "galette St. Michel", a small buttery cookie, not especially delicious. I liked it because it was the only cookie I'd ever seen which featured such a striking design: St Michael standing on the Devil's neck, thrusting a lance into the vanquished rebel. This cookie is from Brittany and may recall a Breton legend where the Devil, jealous of St. Michael, challenges the latter to....a jumping contest. Ready, set, go! The Devil plummeted into a canyon, but Michael, borne by pinions of air, floated safely across, coming to land on a mountaintop that still bears his footprint (shades of the Dome of the Rock, said to bear Mohammed's footprint). Devil, as Jack Black said so wisely, You can't win!

This was all triggered by a recent random encounter with an Oreo. A Canadian colleague was eating some and I wondered where she'd gotten them (being in France and all) and apparently, our office vending machine, um, vends them. So I bought myself a packet and before consuming it, looked at it closely in nostalgia. Lo and behold, I noticed that the Oreo name was surmounted by a Cross of Lorraine and what appeared to be 12 Maltese crosses. Those latter are in fact four-leafed clovers but the Cross of Lorraine is just that. It's a copy of the Nabisco logo, in fact. Maybe I've read too many of Boyd Rice's esoteric writings, but that Cross of Lorraine always geeks me out on the Merovingian mythos.

Funny that these symbols have also stoked the paranoid fantasies of the truly deluded. Researching this symbolism I came across people calling this the "Illuminati cookie" because the Cross of Lorraine is the symbol of the 33rd degree Mason or because the Nabisco logo could be seen as an eye in a pyramid. Trouble is, the Cross of Lorraine is not a Masonic symbol. It is symbol associated with Joan of Arc though. Maybe food companies have a thing for her. We recently posted about Joan of Arc beans made by Underwood.

Finally, I was at a wedding in Barcelona in June and at a dinner hosted by the bride's parents, the mother told us of a festival in her village in honor of Saint Agatha. It involved quite a few things, but what stands out is that the people of the village baked cakes shaped like breasts, brought them to the church to be blessed, then distributed them afterwards. Agatha, patron of bakers, among other things, is often pictured holding her own breasts on a platter, which were sliced off in her martyrdom.

So, sometimes cigar is just a cigar, but a loaf of bread can be something else...

Another coincidence is that the only Jack Chick cartoon tract I own is called "The Death Cookie" and relates how the Devil has tricked Catholics into worshipping the host instead of Jesus himself. Aside from the literal Devil thing, he may have a valid theological point, but since I'd just as soon not promote Jack Chick, let's just leave it at that.

Coming back to France, how could I forget the galette des rois? This cake is consumed on and around Epiphany to honor the Three Wise Men. It can be like a large donut or a disc, but inside there is always a "fève", or bean, which is now not literally a bean but a small porcelain figure that could be anything from a soccer ball to a Smurf, or even a religious figure such as a shepherd or a Wise Man.

The person who receives the slice of galette with the fève then gets to wear a crown and is "king for a day". I'm too afraid to peep into my copy of The Golden Bough to cite the many pre-Christian precedents for this idea of the temporary king, they're far too plentiful. The festival I mentioned earlier about the bread breasts of Saint Agatha also featured electing two young girls as queens of the festival. It occurs to me that Miss America pageants, where a young beauty is crowned as the queen, as well as the whole homecoming/prom king and queen business, certainly have forgotten roots in these pagan festivals. The king for a day idea can also be traced back to the Roman Saturnalia via the Medieval Feast of Fools.

Bon appetit!


  1. I've heard, but cannot substantiate (so take it for what it's worth), that the historiographies of Saints Agatha and Lucy have been conflated due to their similar iconographies (platter of breasts versus a platter of eyes).

    Or maybe it's just me whose confused the pair.

    (There is a joke to be had somewhere in that confusion ... Something along the lines of "Stop staring at my breasts!" she said. "But I bought that I was looking you in the eye?" I replied.)

  2. The galette des rois sounds like Mardi Gras king cake.

  3. Yeah, the King Cake and the Galette des rois are one and the same, although in some places it's eaten around Epiphany while elsewhere it's associated with Carnaval and Mardi Gras.

    Apparently, from what I managed to find after your 1st comment, St. Lucy was inspired by Agatha's example; Agatha is an important element in Lucy's story. Their iconography is pretty similiar....

    I wonder if this is due to the visual metaphor? That a circle with a dot in the middle could be an eye....or a breast....

    There's a film I years ago, called Gothic, where one of the protagonists (Byron, perhaps Shelley), looks at Mary Shelley's bare breasts and the nipples become eyes that blink at him. I wonder how far we could go with that idea, can you think of other breast/eye conflations?


    Ha, ha! No seriously, I don't have any good examples.

    The guy who suggested the Lucy/Agatha confusion to me a few yrs back is flying in from England next week...he's an art historian, and I'll have to ask him more about this!

  5. Oh yeah, forgot about Rene Magritte!

  6. What is required in order to have Jesus ABIDE in us and we in Him?

    Can we do it:

    1. By accepting Him as our our own personal Lord and Savior ?
    No. Where does the Bible say that?

    2. By the grace of GOD only? Sola Gracias?
    No. Where does the Bible say that?

    3. By faith in GOD alone? Sola Fides?
    No. Where does the Bible say that?

    It is simple common sense that since He commanded that we must do something, then doesn't it stand to reason that He would also tell us how to do it?

    Jesus was very clear in what we must do in order to have Him ABIDE in us and we in Him.

    Jesus left this command for us in John 6:53-57:

    53 "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you (the taken away branch);

    54 he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.


    57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me."

  7. John, I neither agree nor disagree with you because I am not a Christian in the strictest sense of the word.

    That said, as you can tell from this site, I'm very interested in Catholicism and despite certain problems with it, the politics and policies of the Vatican, for example, the cover-ups of sexual abuse, for another, I respect the traditions, especially on the level of popular beliefs.

    My only response to your comments, I say this without sarcasm or disrespect, is that quoting the Bible is always problematic, especially with such enigmatic passages as this: I mean, having Jesus abide within by drinking his blood....literally? I take that as metaphor. But what does it mean, exactly?

    My real quibble is that the people with other positions than your own can also quote passages that support or appear to support their theology.

    So, anyway, thanks for the comment but don't expect any converts soon! As far as I know (and I may be wrong) but Gid's the agnostic son of Southern Baptists and me....?

    Best wishes to you in Australia!

  8. Michael, you keep stripping verses out of context. The "abide" thing is from John 15. There is no need to read John 15:4 all by itself and then jump back to John 6 in search for a question that was not asked. Instead, just keep reading the text in order, and you'll see that John 15:10 answers your question.

    On the other hand, I will say that I find midrasih-ian pursuits quite fascinating. Have you read Ben Asher (spelling?)?

    Although I will say that

  9. ...[continuing my comment] I find the midrash approach quite fascinating, similar to some techniques we've advocated her on LoS for "reading" news events.

  10. Sorry for the mishmash on the midrash and the Ben Ash(er) ... I was trying to post from a phone while holding a baby. And I clearly have not mastered that technique yet.

  11. (While holding a *sleeping* baby, that is. Key detail, omitted.)

  12. How is that baby, btw? And momma? Slee-deprivation?

    Looked into the Midrash Kabbala, another extremely convoluted and complex Jewish tradition. Very daunting!

    Are you referring to Aaron ben Moses ben Asher?

    One day I'd love to go to a Jewish Studies program and spend a year or two getting into the history of Judaism. Like I said, so intricate and daunting, I can't even imagine where to start....

  13. Baby & mama are great! And actually, there's mostly lots of good sleep 'round here.

    Midrash is really fascinating, tho' I know pretty much nothing about it. There is, I think, something in common between the midrash approach and Michael's approach toward interpreting the Bible (though they use different tools & derive different conclusions)--and I think that we, as I said, have done something similar in our CAD methodologies (although your more recent works take a fundamentally different approach, more historical in nature). And in all cases the approaches reveal some underlying assumptions, assumptions about who wrote the Bible, for example. I dunno that I'm smart enough to really explain whats I'm trying to say, so I'll just shud'up about it & meditate on the thoughts my ownself.


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