Here is a bottle of strawberry Fanta, candy red and gleaming like a liquefied Ferrari. Pop the cap and the fizz is brief, bestowing neither blessing nor enlightenment. Yet in Thailand, this soft drink — descended from a concoction of apple scraps and whey, improvised in Nazi Germany during the Second World War as a substitute for Coca-Cola — is one of the most popular offerings to make to the spirits who walk our world, only occasionally glimpsed by human eyes. Bring a bottle, unsipped, to a little spirit house, any of the countless across the country perched on sidewalks and outside homes, beauty salons and McDonald’s alike, and leave a straw poking out. The spirits will come, and maybe they will be pleased and protect you.
Note that there is no difference, ingredients-wise, between the Fanta in the fridge at the 7-Eleven and the Fanta of the spirits. And yet this soft drink, this corporate, engineered product that brings in more than a billion dollars in sales each year, has been transformed. It is no longer something merely to be consumed; it has brokered an encounter with the beyond.
This shift from the profane to the sacred is at once astounding and utterly ordinary. Throughout history we have turned repeatedly to food as perhaps our most favoured form of communicating with the sublime. Four thousand years ago, the Sumerians baked date-syrup cakes for the goddess Inanna; the early settlers of Ireland buried pots of butter in bogs, possibly to placate supernatural forces, in the fifth century B.C. In Brazil, acarajés, black-eyed pea fritters split and stuffed with shrimp, are traditionally sold by followers of Iansã, the orisha (deity) of war, winds and lightning, and many vendors to this day set aside nine fritters for her on their platters, as recounted by the Brazilian religious studies scholar Patrícia Rodrigues de Souza in “Candomblé’s Eating Myths: Religion Stated in Food Language” (2018).
Sometimes, consecrated food is eaten by those who’ve offered it, as in India, where batashas, featherweight crisps of molten sugar dropped in a pan, are first presented to the Hindu gods and then “consumed by the worshiper to bridge the gap between mortality and divinity,” the Bengali American food historian Chitrita Banerji writes in “The Hour of the Goddess” (2001) — adding that, in her childhood memory, even the most familiar of foods “somehow became extra delicious” once sanctified. Other times, it is enough simply to invoke the celestial before a meal, as with the saying of grace, which whether phrased as an imperative (“Bless us, O Lord, and these, thy gifts”) or a milder, less demanding thank-you lends the food a spiritual aura by acknowledging that its origins, like the origins of all things, lie in a higher power, without whose sanction we could not eat.
In 1979, a group of classical scholars and ethnobotanists writing in the Journal of Psychedelic Drugs proposed a new word, “entheogen,” meaning that which brings the presence of God within us. The term was specific to the kind of mind-disrupting, naturally occurring pharmaceuticals used in a religious context to yield cosmic visions and flay the soul, such as the crimson-capped fly agaric mushrooms consumed by shamans along the Arctic Circle and ayahuasca, a pulpy Amazonian brew of vines and bark that in recent years has drawn seekers from Brooklyn to Silicon Valley into a liturgy of vomit and tears. Science tells us that these visions have an earthly cause: compounds that block or trigger certain neurotransmitters, sending our brains into overdrive.
How to explain, then, the exaltation that comes with ingesting substances that have no such chemical profile — that are endowed only with our perception of the divine? From around the 18th to the early 20th centuries, Catholic pilgrims in Europe would eat small devotional images of the Madonna, Jesus or a saint printed in sheets like postage stamps, long preceding avant-garde chefs and their menus of edible ink. Since at least the 14th century, Buddhists in Tibet have observed a practice of swallowing tiny scrolls containing mantras that might be written in a paste of turmeric, frankincense or camphor, according to Frances Garrett, a Buddhist studies scholar in Canada. In Tanzania, as recorded by the German social anthropologist Hanna Nieber, healers inscribe verses from the Quran in saffron-hued ink on a plate, then rinse it and give the water, now rich with the holy word, to their patients as medicine.
These are not marginal rituals. When, at weekly Mass, many of the world’s more than 1.3 billion Catholics, about a sixth of the global population, eat a wafer of bread that has become the body of Christ — not in symbol but physical fact, through the mystery of transubstantiation — they are literally bringing God within. (The Aztecs who came to power in 14th-century Mesoamerica consumed their deities, too, shaped out of a dough of maize, amaranth and black maguey syrup, scandalising friars newly arrived from Spain in the early 16th century, who saw this as a subverted sacrament.) So urgent is the Eucharist to Catholics that in 2018, when Venezuela was in economic free fall and suffering severe food shortages, neighbouring Colombia donated to the predominantly Catholic country a quarter-million communion wafers so that people could properly celebrate Easter.
The British religious studies scholar Graham Harvey has gone so far as to suggest that religion “ought to be defined not as believing but as eating.” Food has always been central to the way we articulate our sense of the cosmic order and, through it, our identities as individuals and peoples. We eat this, not that; we share a meal with you but not them; we feed on God or let God feed on us. Food is a basic necessity, profane in function, serving to sustain our instinctual, animal selves. It only becomes sacred when we believe those selves are worth sustaining.
What do you feed a god? A bull, thought the ancient Greeks, its horns gilded and its neck draped in wreaths, signalling its glorified status. They led it gently to the altar and coaxed it to bow its head, as a sign of consent, before the slaughter. Then they butchered it, swaddled the great thighbones in fat and burned them, so the gods could feast on the smoke, the immaterial and thus everlasting part of the animal. It was the humans who took succour from the flesh — who, as the French classicist and anthropologist Jean-Pierre Vernant has written, ate the part that had been merely cooked, “softened and weakened to enable the puny forces of the human body to assimilate it.” This meal, almost the only occasion on which the Greeks would eat meat, was at once a moment of connection between the gods, in their timelessness, and humans, defenceless before death, and a reminder of all that divided them.
To offer an animal to the gods was to offer life itself, and a life approximate in size and power to one’s own. Some peoples took this a step further, like the Aztecs, who smeared the mouths of their stone idols with the blood of humans, many of them enemies captured at war, but also figures chosen from their community who are believed to have accepted the fate as an honour. The victims were relieved of their still-beating hearts with obsidian knives at a rate, historians estimate, of thousands (maybe tens of thousands) a year. Those left among the living occasionally offered their own blood in tribute, drawn with thorns plunged into the ears or tongue.
But spilling blood has not always been a prerequisite for worship. To the Nuer, cattle farmers for centuries in what is today South Sudan and Ethiopia, an ox was a suitable gift for the gods, but so, too, the small prickly fruit known as Cucumis prophetarum, or globe cucumber, green striped when young and ripening to a sunny yellow. The fruit was blessed, then “slain by the spear,” as the British social anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard documents in “Nuer Religion” (1956): cut in two, with one half (the bad part) discarded and the other half pulped and rubbed over the worshipers’ skin before being stashed in the thatched roof of a byre, or hut. This was no lesser a sacrifice, for the cucumber was understood to be the ox, to become it within the context of the rite.
The cucumber stands in for the ox, which stands in for the human: a life for a life for a life. “The greatest peril of life lies in the fact that human food consists entirely of souls,” the Inuit elder Ivaluardjuk told the Danish Inuit explorer Knud Rasmussen, as cited in Rasmussen’s “Intellectual Culture of the Iglulik Eskimos” (1929). The earliest societies of hunter-gatherers had no known tradition of ritual slaughter; even what was considered the necessary killing of animals for food was “not viewed as a desirable or laudable act but as an encroachment into a nonhuman realm, forced upon man by the struggle for sustenance,” the German ethnologist Adolf Ellegard Jensen has written. Instead, the hunters of old downplayed the deaths of their prey and even attempted to absolve themselves of responsibility, blaming an errant arrow, say, or the wrath of the sun.
Only with the emergence of herding and farming communities — when we stopped living alongside nature and started imposing our will on it — did ritual killing become the anchor of many religious ceremonies. Scholars believe that the ancient Greeks never sacrificed wild animals, only domesticated ones, often reared expressly for this destiny, befitting the artifice of the ritual as a staged realisation of the violence that underlies our interactions with the world. The Maori scholar Te Pakaka Tawhai once wrote that the purpose of religious activity in his culture was “to seek to enter the domain of the superbeing and do violence with impunity.” There is violence in hunting animals but arguably also in uprooting plants, for in both cases we turn other living things into objects for our use, as if they were subordinate to and existed only for us.
In “Food, Sex & Strangers: Understanding Religion as Everyday Life” (2013), Harvey argues, “It is possible that religion began as a kind of interspecies etiquette — especially when members of one species needed to eat members of another.” No wonder, then, that in Genesis the story of humanity’s fall from grace is framed around an act of eating, sinking teeth into the fruits of the earth.
Today, the majority of us have been liberated from hunger. The world produces enough food to feed everyone, although it’s not distributed equally and hundreds of millions of people cannot always count on the next meal. With privilege has come distance from the origins of our food and the labour required to harvest it. In industrialised countries, some encounter food only at the supermarket: meat trapped in plastic, vegetables scrubbed of dirt. There is little suggestion of violence, of scrabbling for survival. Death stays in the wings. The Canadian classicist Margaret Visser writes in “The Rituals of Dinner” (1991), “Sacrifice, because it dwells on the death, is a concept often shocking to the secular modern Western mind — to people who calmly organise daily hecatombs of beasts, and who are among the most death-dealing carnivores the world has ever seen.” For our ancestors, to perform a sacrifice was to come face to face with death, but also to cheat it, to make a pact with God: Take this life in my stead.
Yet whoever said that God wanted a life in the first place? Omnipotent and omnipresent, God already possesses everything — depending on your cosmic perspective, God is everything. “God gets the life,” Evans-Pritchard writes. “But what advantage is that to him? All the beasts of the field are his and the cattle on a thousand hills. So he gets nothing.” This notion of a hungry god: Maybe it’s just our own sense of guilt over what we have to do to survive, projected onto the only kind of superior being we can imagine, one who shares our likeness or at least our clamorous wants. For if we resemble God, that’s another hedge against death, a promise that the divine, with its promise of eternal life, already dwells within us.
It is a banality of the modern day to say, “Nothing is sacred.” In fact, the opposite is true: Secularism has not banished the sacred but made it infinite. Unmoored from religion, we flail for meaning and seek new forms of exaltation. We turn ordinary objects into holy grails, making pilgrimages to restaurants ranked among the world’s best (and helmed by chefs not so jokingly compared to gods) or stand in line for hours for breakfast burritos, barbecue or matcha crème brûlée doughnuts, then post pictures on Instagram as proof of our devotions. Marketing strategists use the term “sacred consumption” to describe how customers can be taught to revere products and brands as totems, and to imagine that buying things is the way to satisfy a longing for ritual and community.
If this seems indulgent, that’s a moral judgment. Indeed, what we eat reveals what we value. Some of us refuse meat, eggs or even honey, restrict ourselves to ingredients available within a prescribed radius or reject processed foods, in the name of stopping the exploitation and abuse of animals, protecting the environment, fighting capitalism or just sticking it to the man. Others see the body as a temple and allow only the purest of foods to breach its barrier, whether organic, macrobiotic, raw or gluten free (even without an allergy), in pursuit of quelled anxiety, an immaculate complexion or eternal youth — another way of cheating death.
Why does food still hold so much symbolic power? Consider that it was once a form of capital and exchanged as currency. Over 5,000 years ago, Mesopotamian workers were paid in beer; more than half the cash income of the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618 to 907) in China came from the production and sale of salt. Today, incarcerated people in the United States barter packages of ramen noodles. The ancient sacrifice of an ox was more than simply spilled blood: A farmer’s oxen were a measure and generator of wealth. A 2019 paper by the Canadian archaeologist Amy Bogaard, the Italian economic historian Mattia Fochesato and the American economist Samuel Bowles presents evidence that the use of oxen as specialised traction animals was the beginning of economic inequality, enabling some farmers to cultivate more land than others.
So there was something wanton, even brazenly wasteful in sacrificing an ox to the gods — a loss of not only the animal’s life but the potentiality it represented for human success and survival. The French philosopher Georges Bataille notes in “The Accursed Share” (1949) that in a world given over to “profitable activity,” in which objects and beings are recognised only for their use value, food that is given to the gods is “consumed profitlessly,” an act that effectively short-circuits the system. If, as the French social scientist Émile Durkheim has written, “work is the pre-eminent form of profane activity” because “it has no apparent aim other than meeting the secular needs of life,” offering food to the gods is wholly unproductive. It is almost a renunciation, as if we could cede the part of ourselves that relies on fleshly sustenance so that only the essential remains.
When we treat food as sacred, whether in the ways of old or in accordance with a personal code, we are still, in a sense, being wanton. We are saying no to a tidy vision of life in which we are ever progressing toward a material goal, ever accumulating more goods, ever consuming. We are not saving for tomorrow, or thinking about tomorrow at all. We feast on the present, on not what is possible but what is. We eat as if this were our only meal.