Updated: Aug 6
“Every creature eats. Only humans and gods dine.”
— Gwion Raven, The Magick of Food, Rituals, Offerings, and Why We Eat Together.
For all living beings, food is a requirement of existence but, for humans, food takes on a higher meaning. Unlike animals, insects, or other beings, humans are able to manipulate food. Our intellect (often thought of as bestowed upon us by the Gods), allowed our ancestors to build fires and cook rather than consuming ingredients raw. This simple act is often considered a direct link between man and God. Anthropological studies have traced offerings of food to the gods to every civilization. While practices may evolve, the intent behind the ritual often stays the same. Consider modern-day practices of saying grace before dining or preserving a small bite of the day’s foods for blessing in homes. While food as an offering is still considered food, there are many other symbolic attributes that have been bestowed upon food by cultural and religious codes.
“Symbolism is not an invention of any religion or teacher but a recognition of correspondences that do in fact exist between the physical universe and spiritual reality.”
— Arthur Osborne, The Incredible Sai Baba, The life and miracles of a modern-day saint.
As an object, food engages all our senses of sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch. It evokes strong emotional reactions (think comfort food) within individuals and builds upon community ethos. Most cultural celebrations, from recognized holidays to private special occasions, are performed with food at the center of a gathering. Think back to the Thanksgiving meal you may have recently shared with friends and family. Or the cake served at a birthday party. The emotional and visceral reactions that food evokes allows for it to represent more than just sustenance. The symbolic value impressed upon food can be defined broadly by two categories: restrictions and rituals.
Most religious dietary restrictions have been outlined in religious texts, such as the Vedas, the Qu’ran, or the Torah. Some restrictions are occasion-specific, such as fasting during Lent or Ramadan. Fasting represents both a sense of physical restraint from worldly objects (i.e. food) and an opportunity to derive spiritual purity, as fasting in the name of God allows one to become closer to God. Other restrictions are out of duty to reduce animal-derived suffering, thereby reducing the amount of suffering in the world, as with religions like Hinduism that considered the cow to be a sacred animal or Jains who are steadfast vegetarians. In this case, meat is symbolic of life itself and restraint from consuming meat allows for other living beings to live in peace.
When it comes to viewing food as a symbol within rituals, the examples are numerous. The Catholic Church’s practice of the Holy Communion involves elements of sacramental bread (which can be leavened or unleavened) and sacramental wine which are consecrated and consumed. The bread represents the body of Christ while the wine represents the blood of Christ. Some sects of the Catholic Church believe that the bread and wine actually take on the sacred nature of Christ’s body and blood while others view it strictly as symbolic. Jewish people eat matzah/matzo during the Passover Seder as a reminder of their hasty exodus from Egypt and the freedom which that brought them. Matzo is often considered a ‘poor man’s bread’, as it can be made simply by mixing flour and water. The consumption of matzo is a reminder to remain humble and to recall the suffering of their ancestors in servitude.
Other religions take the symbolism of food a step further from the literal or consecrated meaning. Zoroastrians (fire-worshippers who practice the teachings of the oldest recorded prophet on earth—Zoroaster) perform many rituals using food as the main element. For instance, they ward off the evil eye by circling their heads seven times with an egg which is then cracked to remove any bad vibes. Pomegranates are present at special occasions or ceremonies of worship as a symbol of the soul’s immortality, as it is evergreen. Pomegranate seeds are symbolic of prosperity. In fact, the pomegranate takes on religious significance in many religions from Islamic to Christian, as many holy texts reference the fruit as a symbol of prosperity and fertility. Symbols of pomegranate were even used to adorn ancient royal architecture.
While there is a clear link between religion and food, today’s use of food as a symbol has expanded beyond religious belief systems. For instance, one does not have to practice harvest-based worship rituals in order to associate pumpkins and apples with Thanksgiving. Food now occupies a space beyond the act of consumption for many humans, a species forever in search of greater meaning.
about the writer
Sabrina Medora is a national food writer and hospitality industry insider. Her passionate and thoughtful pieces have appeared in award-winning publications including Food & Wine, Eater, Heated, Plate Magazine, The Kitchn, Wine Enthusiast, and more. Medora has produced and hosted dynamic events with the James Beard Foundation as well as pop-up dinners with celebrity chefs and respected restaurants in Chicago, New York, Washington D.C., and Southern California.
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