Bread has been one of the primary staple foods in almost every culture. Archaeologists have found grinding stones dating back to around 30,000 BCE used to crush the grains of wild grasses and the roots cattails and ferns into a paste which could be placed over a fire and cooked as a kind of flatbread to provide vital carbohydrate-rich nutrition for the hunter-gatherers who followed herds of wild animals across the land. The world’s oldest evidence of bread-making has been found in a 14,500-year-old site in Jordan’s north-eastern desert. Around 10,000 BC, with the dawn of the Neolithic age and the spread of agriculture, grains became the mainstay of making bread and bread as we know it developed in the Neolithic Era in Mesopotamia. Clay tablets from Sumer describe wheat planting, harvesting and bread production.
Though the ancients had many types of grain, including barley, spelt and rye, they discovered that wheat made the best bread. Though they would not have known it, this is because wheat contains the highest levels of gluten, which binds the tiny carbon dioxide bubbles produced by the fermentation of the yeast, which enables the bread to rise well. Yeast is a common form of fungus and it occurs naturally on grapes and other organic substances including on the surface of cereal grains, so any dough left to rest leavens naturally. However, early breadmakers often used beer as a rising agent; evidence from pottery indicates that fermented grain water was turned into beer as early as 9500 BCE. Pliny the Elder reported that the Gauls and Iberians used the foam skimmed from beer called barm to produce “a lighter kind of bread than other peoples”.
The Religious Significance of Bread in the Ancient World
Bread has a significance beyond mere nutrition in many cultures. Bread is called ‘the staff of life’ and came to ritually symbolise all other food. Grain is one of the most important symbols of the nurturing Goddess, sacred to agricultural goddesses such as Demeter and Ceres. It was often seen as her son who awakens in the spring, grows through the summer and matures in the autumn, only to be harvested and die. The shed seeds lay dormant in the cold, winter earth, the belly of the Earth Mother, ready to shoot again in the spring. This was a never ending cycle of life, death and rebirth, a cycle also promised to worshippers. This story was recalled in songs among farming folk until recent times:
There were three men came out of the West
Their fortunes for to find,
And these three men made a solemn vow,
‘John Barleycorn must die’.
They’ve ploughed, they’ve sown, they’ve harrowed him in
Through plods of barley’s head,
And these three men made a solemn vow,
‘John Barleycorn is dead’.
They let him lie for a very long time,
‘Til the rains from heaven did fall,
And little Sir John sprung up his head
And so amazed them all.
They’ve let him stand until Mid-Summer’s Day
‘Til he looked both pale and wan,
And little Sir John’s grown a long, long beard
And so become a man.
They’ve hired men with the scythes so sharp
To cut him off at the knee,
They’ve rolled him and tied him by the way
Serving him most barbarously.
They’ve hired men with the sharpest hooks
Who’ve pricked him to the heart,
And the Loader, he has served him worse than that,
For he’s bound him to the cart.
They’ve wheeled him around and around a field
‘Til they came unto a barn,
And there they made a solemn oath
On poor John Barleycorn.
They’ve hired men with the crofting sticks
To cut him skin from bone,
And the Miller, he has served him worse than that,
For he’s ground him between two stones.
And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl,
And he’s brandy in the glass,
And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl
Proved the strongest man at last.
The huntsman he got off the fox
Oh so loudly to blow his horn,
And the tinker he can’t mend kettle nor pots
Without a little Barleycorn.
The narrative is clear- John Barleycorn, the spirit of the corn, is cut down and buried in the earth, seeming to be dead, but when the spring rains come he is resurrected and grows with the summer sun. With the late summer he begins to wither and weaken, and his head droops. He ages as autumn comes and his enemies cut him down. They tie him up on a cart (the sheaves of corn are gathered, tied and carted away), they beat him up (flail the grain), wash him, toss him about (winnow the grain), roast the marrow from his bones (scorch the grain) and grind him between two stones (mill the grain), then drink his blood (the alcohol brewed from the barley).
This echoes the story of the Egyptian Osiris imprisoned in a coffin (buried), dismembered and scattered (the corn is winnowed and the seeds scattered) and resurrected (the seed-corn grows in the spring). The followers of Osiris ate wheat cakes, marked with a cross (a sun symbol), which embodied the god.
In Greece and the near East, Adonis, Tammuz and Dumuzi are also torn apart, forced to go into the underworld and are resurrected in the spring. The death and rebirth of the Goddess Cybele’s lover Attis was celebrated at the spring equinox, first with a day of blood on Black Friday and culminated after three days in a day of rejoicing over his resurrection. Sound familiar? It gets more so. Attis was born of a human woman, a virgin named Nana on 25th December. He was known as a saviour of humankind by way of his sacrificial death, crucified on a pine tree so that his holy blood could pour down to redeem the earth.
Vegetation gods were often given the title ‘saviour’ because they give their lives so that mankind might live, often spoken of as incarnated gods, like Osiris and Dionysus. The flesh of such gods was eaten in the form of wheaten cakes.
For a thousand years before Christianity, Mithras was worshipped widely among the Persians, Indians, Romans and Greeks, up till around 400 CE. Mithras was born in a cave of a virgin mother, attended by shepherds, on December 25th and his religion spread with the Roman Empire and nearly took over the known world. He was the known as the ‘Light of the World’, ‘The Redeemer’ and ‘The Good Shepherd’. He baptised his followers and shared a Last Supper. An inscription on the temple of Mithras which lies beneath the Vatican reads: “He who will not eat of my body, nor drink of my blood, so that he may be one with me and I with him, shall not be saved,” a saying later attributed to Jesus. He travelled far and wide as a teacher and had twelve companions. He was buried in a tomb and rose again at the spring equinox, which was celebrated with great rejoicing.
In Mexico, the god Xiuhzilopoctli was commemorated in the festival of ‘eating the god’ when people ate a dough image of the god raised on a cross.
When vegetation gods die they are said to go into the underworld (the seed is planted beneath the earth). Here they often become kings of the underworld and the dead- Crom Dubh was underworld ruler of the mounds, Osiris was Lord of the Dead, Dumuzi was Lord of the Abyss, Adonis became the lover of the Queen of the Underworld and so on.
An ear of corn was the central mystery of the worship of Demeter at Eleusis. Bread was eaten at the rites of Artemis and Cybele and other earth and moon goddesses, often baked in circles and marked with a cross, representing the four directions, the four phases of the moon and the four solar festivals. This is still seen today in our hot crossed buns eaten at Easter, which was once the springtime celebration of the resurrection of the vegetation god, as well as the Christian’s communion wafers.
The bread is sometimes dipped in salt, which preserves foods and makes them incorruptible, representing permanence and immortality. It also symbolises wisdom and truth, and was formerly used in funeral rites to keep the soul safe from evil spirits. For the same reason it was placed on the tongues of newly born children. Bread and salt represented hospitality and to share them imposed obligations on both the giver and receiver, the sacred duties of host and guest.
Bread also has a symbolic roles in Judaism and Christianity. During the Jewish festival of Passover, only unleavened bread is eaten, in commemoration of the flight from slavery in Egypt. The Israelites did not have enough time to allow their bread to rise, and so ate only unleavened bread matzo.
In the Christian ritual of the Eucharist, bread is eaten as a sacrament either as a symbolic representation of the body of Christ or, as in the Catholic liturgy, as a real manifestation of the body of Christ.
More personal variously shaped and marked ritual breads were – and in some cases still are – used in many cultures and played a significant role in family, folk and annual ceremonies symbolising a desire for fertility, abundant crops, family prosperity and all good things. The round shape symbolises the cycle of life, the Sun, infinity, perfection and God. 
In many parts of Europe there are traditional designs of bread, baked at times of festival and celebration. Their designs are ancient and symbolic, and differ according to the time of year they are made. Designs vary locally, but each one is specific to its corresponding time, and is immediately recognized by local people for what it is. In Bulgaria, for example, every folk festival had its own bread, prepared and decorated in different ways. Traditionally the flour was sieved three times and the dough was mixed with ‘silent’ water – one brought by a maiden in absolute silence – in which flowers and herbs had been soaked. Different objects were represented on top. Christmas bread (Bogova pita or ‘Lord’s bread’) is decorated with varied representations such as pens full of sheep, wine casks, etc. depending on the occupation of the master of the house. Wedding breads are abundantly decorated with spirals, rosettes and figures of doves meant to symbolize good luck and blessings. Carol singers are given specially made rolls of bread which they string up on the tops of their shepherd’s crooks. In North-West Bulgaria, on the holiday of Mladentsi (the Day of the Holy Infants) the saint is venerated with a small loaf of bread shaped to represent a human figure. In Eastern Slovakia kračun or Christmas bread was enriched with various ingredients, such as various grains, garlic and chives, to ensure good health and good crops. A variety of figural breads were also prepared at Christmas, such as bread in the shape of birds for carol singers.
Ritual bread was often consecrated and broken cross wise.  Several pieces were usually left as an offering to God, and other pieces buried near animals pens and corn fields as a fertility blessing.
Ritual Consumption of Bread and Wine in Modern Pagan Ritual
Foods have always played a key part in rituals and the worship of the Gods. Without food we would not live at all, and its production was one of the central themes of ancient religions. Mysteriously, the small seed planted beneath the dark earth would shoot and grow into something that would provide a sustaining meal. It was as though by placing it in the womb of Mother Earth she would nourish and sustain it, magically transforming it just as a woman would nurture the seed in her womb to produce a child.
The dedication of the bread and wine is one of the central points of every modern Pagan ritual. Eating bread and drinking wine was an important part of the rites of harvest goddesses and vegetation gods throughout the world, and pre-dates Christianity by millennia.
Festival bread is made especially for the ritual. It is made with due ceremony and intent; buying a machine-made loaf from the supermarket just isn’t good enough as an offering to the Gods. In many parts of the world, different breads are made for different occasions, their shapes and varieties reflecting the festival and its symbolism. Traditional loaf-shapes are based upon binding knots or in the shape of suns and moons, animals and humans. [i] It would be appropriate to have a sun-shaped loaf for Midsummer, or one in the form of a sheaf of wheat for Lughnasa, and so on. Breads can be scored with symbols, runes or sigils that open up as the bread cooks.
Catholics believe that the bread and wine is the transubstantiated flesh and blood of God, in other words, the bread and wine become the flesh and blood of God with the act of consecration. For ancient Pagans, grain and wine were god-essences intrinsically. When we consecrate bread and wine in a ritual, we invoke this god-essence, the spiritual core of the food; through it, we absorb the power of the Gods. When we eat the bread, we take in the life-force of the Corn God and it nourishes us, physically and spiritually.[ii]
© Anna Franklin 2019
[i] Nigel Pennick, Natural Magic, Lear Books,
[ii] Nigel Pennick, Natural Magic, Lear Books,