Symbols in Stories from Around the World
Even prisoners are known to receive bread and water, the essentials for life.
Bread symbolizes spiritual nourishment and provides the way to break the bonds of spiritual and temporal death. In the Christian faith, bread represents the body of Christ. Jesus said that He was the “Bread of Life.” This has deeper meaning as Christ’s birthplace, Bethlehem, means “House of Bread.” There is also the phrase “breaking of bread” that is often symbolic of the death of a sacrificial victim. Ears of wheat within Christian faiths signifies Christ’s body and His rebirth.
Bread comes in many forms including wafers and manna. In Judaism, unleavened bread was eaten when the Jews fled Egypt as there was no time for the bread to rise. Yet, leavened bread represented multiplicity to this same group of people. These added blessings were best bestowed by the divine rather than by man.
The people of Israel gathered manna from the heavens to survive the 40 years in the wilderness before they made it to the Promised Land. The Bible describes the manna as being a white bread, like from coriander seed, and had a hint of honey. The Koran mentions manna and symbolizes God’s love.
In Japanese mythology, the first wheat grains came from the vagina of the goddess Oketsuhime no Kami after being killed. This wheat came from sacrifice and has brought life to all since that time. This goddess, also upon her death, created the first millet grains from her ears.
“The Mouse Bride,” a story from Norway, has three recent brides bake bread to impress the in-laws. The type of grain for the bread made the difference in who won that part of the contest. Rye and barley breads were no match for wheat. Rye, though it can last a long time, is viewed as food connected to the poor and used more as a last resort grain. Of course, plenty of people enjoy the taste of rye. As for barley, it was considered food for animals more so than for people. Interestingly, barley is associated with making beer and other alcoholic beverages.
For the Greeks, wheat was the symbol for the goddess Demeter, the Harvest-Mother. The Romans adopted different aspects and roles of Demeter and called her Cybele also known as Magna Mater or Great Mother. Cybele had influences from Anatolia, part of the current-day Turkey. No matter which country or culture for Cybele, she was sought out for fertility and life.
The Ancient Egyptians personified wheat as the Nepri or “the One who Lives and has Perished.” The growth cycle of wheat showed the continuous cycle of life and death. Egyptians connected wheat with the resurrection of the slain god Osiris. Loaves of bread were often placed near tombs as well as wheat-shaped mummies made from linen with the wheat growing out of them. These acts honored the lives that had passed from this life and continued onward into the next while giving ode to Osiris who could grant fertility and immortality. Alchemists used wheat to inspire life and considered a food of immortality.
There are too many stories to count that involve bread in some way. Sometimes the start of story’s conflict is when there is no food, usually saying that there was little to no bread in the home. Otherwise, the hero of the story bakes the bread, as already mentioned in “The Mouse Bride” from Norway as well as “Chief Five Heads” from Zimbabwe. Finally, the hero shares the bread despite having little to offer such as the poor couple in “Two Visiting Angels” told throughout Europe as well as the Greek version “Zeus and Hermes.” In searching for bread, the hero gains more than a handful of grains. By baking bread, the hero creates life—or one could say a better life—by winning a contest or impressing someone. By sharing bread, the hero proves to be kind and is awarded, again, with a better life such as the blessing of marriage, riches, or another kind of boon such as wisdom to share with others.
What stories do you know that involves bread? Do you know any that distinguish between the grains of the bread? Please comment below and share with others of this post.
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