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  • Michael Martin

Bread and Wine: Agriculture and Mysticism


detail of Plautilla Nelli’s 'Last Supper', c. 1570

A long time ago, it might have been at a lecture, I heard someone relate the myth of Zarathustra and how, in a dream state given from Ahura Mazda, he saw a golden blade cut through the earth and bring fertility to the soil. Zarathustra, inspired by the vision, gave to humanity the gift of the plough (my permaculture wonk friends will here decry this invention. I get it, I get it…).


Another part of the story has always intrigued me. Zarathustra, or so the story went, was also divinely inspired to begin the art of hybridization, deriving all the grains and grasses (monocotyledons for the botanically savvy) from the lily and the fruits (all dicotyledons) from the rose. This may be the most poetically true thing I’ve ever heard. Unfortunately, though the golden plough story is easy to locate, I have never had the good fortune to find the source of the lily and rose story. It may be that it is not part of Zarathustra’s tale. But that doesn’t matter.


Should we not be daily astounded at the gift of agriculture, which fostered not only the cultivation of plants and animal husbandry but the possibility of culture itself? There would be no culture without agriculture. Does human life without bread and wine even count as life? Is it not cause for wonder that bread and wine (to which we could add cheese-making and apiculture—milk and honey to you and me) through the gift of fermentation figure so prominently into so much of religious history?


Yeast is a mystery. In early modern England, when a huswife would set out a bowl of flour and water (sometimes with a little honey added) in order to catch the wild yeasts that inhabit the atmosphere, she didn’t know to call this mysterious substance “yeast” (which wasn’t isolated as a stand-alone product until the late-19th century). Instead, she called it by its true name: godisgood. God is good.


The gods, indeed, have ever been associated with fermentation. The Mystery cults of antiquity were religions of birth, death, and resurrection and entirely rooted in agricultural in their disclosure of the mysterion. The Eleusinian Mysteries, for example, celebrated the story of Demeter (the goddess of grain) and her search for her daughter Persephone. Persephone, captured by Hades and taken to the Underworld, seed-like entered into the womb of the earth, until, following her mother’s demands, she returned to the surface world bearing fertility and its attendant fecundity with her. Initiates into her Mysteries hoped for the same. The centerpiece of their initiation included a ritual meal of bread and barley water (aka “beer”) and a vision of the eternal Mother. In Apuleius’s Metamorphoses of Lucius, better known as The Golden Ass, we’re given many clues about the Mysteries, the vision of the eternal Mother not the least of them. Her image rises from the sea before the forlorn Lucius (here in a lovely translation by Elias Crim):


I am here, Lucius, in answer to your prayers, I, the universal mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of the ages, sovereign of divinities, queen over the dead, first of the heaven-dwelling, the sole godhead in a thousand shapes.


My will rules the shining heights of heaven, the wholesome sea winds, and the gloomy silences of the world below. All the world round am I worshipped in many guises, with a profusion of rites and names. The primordial Phrygians call me Pessinuntica, Mother of the Gods; the Athenians, sprung from their own soil, the Cecroprian Minerva; the island-dwelling Cyprians know me as Paphian Venus; among the archers of Crete I am Dictynnan Diana; to the triple-tongued Sicilians Stygian Prosperpine; and for the Eleusinians’ I am Actean Ceres. Some salute me as Juno, some as Bellona of the Battles; others as Hecate, others again as Rhamnubia. But both the races of Ethiopians who dwell in the land of morning sun and the Egyptians who excel in the ancient wisdom, they know me by my true name, Queen Isis.


I have come in pity for your plight, full of favor and goodwill. Cease now your weeping; lament no more. Your new day of liberation is about to dawn.”[1]



With the Dionysian Mysteries, wine made its way into Greek culture and religion. In addition, the cult of Dionysos was also associated with apiculture:

“[Dionysus] was said to have invented honey, and the ground upon which his handmaidens, the maenads, danced was said to have flowed with milk, wine, and the ‘nectar of bees.’ It was also said that honey dripped from the thyrsos staffs that the maenads carried.”[2]

There is some evidence that milk and honey—promised to the Israelites when still in Egyptian bondage (Exodus 3:17)—also figured into early Christian sacramental life.[3] Of course, monotheism wasn’t left out of the mysteries of bread and wine. Two of the Sabbath prayers emphasize this:

Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha-olam borei p'ri hagafen (Amein). Blessed are you, Lord, our God, king of the universe, Who creates the fruit of the vine (Amen).

and

Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha-olam hamotzi lechem min ha'aretz. (Amein). Blessed are you, Lord, our God, king of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth. (Amen).

The Eucharist makes all the things promised by the Mysteries and the Sabbath true in a way more real than real. Christ could have chosen anything as the vehicles for his flesh and blood. But he chose bread and wine.


And, sorry Aquinas, the Eucharist consists of bread and wine, the Body and the Blood.


St. Thomas can't believe I just said that.

As a biodynamic farmer, I have the undeserved honor of being able to participate in the cultivation of the soil and in taking care of animals, including bees. We live in an age where this sacred duty has all but been destroyed by agribusiness, government subsidies, and corporate manipulation to the point where agriculture is one of the primary engines of environmental degradation. This is a scandal (skandalon–a trap that draws the unwary into sin) in the truest biblical sense.


Our agricultural situation, I think, is mirrored by our current religious/spiritual malaise. It seems as if the gods have fled, though it is we who have fled from the gods. This was certainly the sentiment of the German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin. Trained to be a Lutheran pastor, Hölderlin slipped into madness. He often wrote of the flight of the gods—and the gods of ancient Greece and of Christendom are indistinguishable in his poetry. Yet he still found comfort, as he writes in the poem “Brod und Wein” (“Bread and Wine”):


Here, among men, and even now there’s a lack of those strong for

Joy’s extremity, but silent some thanks do live on.

Bread is a fruit of Earth, yet touched by the blessing of sunlight,

From the thundering god issues the gladness of wine.

Therefore, in tasting them we think of the Heavenly who once were

Here and shall come again, come when their advent is due;

Therefore also the poets in serious hymns to the wine-god,

Never idly devised, sound that most ancient one’s praise. (8.11–18) [4]


I think the time has come for new hymns to the wine-god.


Michael's latest book is Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at director@thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses.

[1] See “The Vision of Isis from Apuleius, The Golden Ass: Comments and Translation by Elias Crim” in Jesus the Imagination, Volume II: The Being of Marriage,


[2] Carl Kerényi, Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, trans Ralph Manheim (Princeton, 1976), 31.


[3] See Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy (Grand Rapids, 2009), 20.


[4] Friedrich Hölderlin, Poems and Fragments, trans. Michael Hamburger (Ann Arbor, 1967).