I have been reading John Newton’s book “The Roots of Civilisation: Plants that changed the world” which is filled with interesting facts about ,well, the plants that not only changed, but shaped our world, our present day societies. I love the mix of history and biology that Newton provides.
In the chapter on cereals I learned that the word ‘cereal’ is derived from Ceres, the Roman incarnation of Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest. Also that Prince Millet (millet being a member of the grass family, of which all cereals are members) was the celestial ancestor of the Chou emperors of China, and the Dogon people of Mali believed that millet was stolen from the gods.
To me, considering that a cereal, a means that sustains life, is so valuable as to be associated with gods, makes much more sense than to associate a cold metals or gems such as gold or diamonds which we incredulously choose these days! In fact a milled life was a term used by the Greeks for an ordered society – this despite the fact that the actual milling was done by women and slaves! In Egypt, a loaf of bread shaped like the eye of Horus was found at Thebes and dated around 1500 BC.
Rice, according to the legend of Wisnu, the lord of the underworld, in Bali was “born” when Wisnu raped Mother Earth to fertilise her – rice was the result!
Maybe we have come a long way from those first gruels and slurries humankind made from cracked grains, but it is still an important part of our existence. Riots still break out over shortages of rice and other cereals as we have seen in recent years. The planting, sowing and harvesting of grain is still as important to us as it was to the ancients.
So next time we break bread with someone, I for one will remember that the word companaticum, the root of our word companion, means one who breaks bread with another, and be grateful for the not just my daily bread, but the porridge, congee, couscous and pastas that fill our plates as well.