Book Note:Food and Transformation in Ancient Mediterranean Literature

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Meredith J C Warren, Food and Transformation in Ancient Mediterranean Literature. Writings from the Greco-Roman World Supplement Series 14. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2019. 206 pages.

When Alice takes her tumble down the rabbit hole, she lands in a liminal hallway, lined with doors she can’t open or fit through. She is trapped between the real world and the world of Wonderland. “‘Oh,’ said Alice, ‘how I wish I could shut up like a telescope! I think I could, if I only knew how to begin.’”[1] As luck would have it, there appear before her a small bottle labelled “DRINK ME” and a small cake with the words “EAT ME” spelled out in currants.[2] Alice eats the EAT ME cake and drinks the DRINK ME drink. When she has, she discovers she understands now how to “shut up like a telescope.” Alice is able to fit through the doors into Wonderland and enters, beginning her adventures in that other world.

I use this example when I try to explain to non-specialists what it is this book discusses. For people without familiarity with 4 Ezra, Joseph and Aseneth, the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas, and the other ancient texts I go through in my book, Alice is an accessible example that conveniently points out what happens when a person consumes food belonging to another world. Because she has eaten and drunk, Alice’s physical appearance changes; she gains access to Wonderland in a way that she could not before she ingested the items provided by the liminal room. In Alice’s case, as in the examples from antiquity, it isn’t explained exactly why it would be that food works this way. The text takes for granted that we readers can follow along. And once you recognize what’s happening, you begin to catch glimpses of hierophagy in a range of texts.

Hierophagy is the word I chose to describe this genre of transformational eating. A colleague suggested it to me years ago; it’s been used only once or twice elsewhere and no one had ever defined it, so I decided to take it on. I define hierophagy as a mechanism by which characters in narrative cross boundaries from one realm to another through ingesting some item from that other realm. Hierophagy results in three specific types of transformations: (A) the binding of the eater to the place of origin of the food; (B) the transformation of the eater either in terms of behaviour or physical appearance; and/or (C) the transmission of new knowledge.

So given this definition, I could point you to other examples from contemporary cinema and literature: the Turkish delight in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe; the red pill in The Matrix; both the buffet and the small morsel of ingested food in Spirited Away – you can probably come up with others. But for me, what was fascinating was how prevalent but overlooked the genre was in literature from a range of religious contexts in the ancient Mediterranean world, and in particular in texts where the example of eating caused trouble for scholars.

I got interested in the transformative nature of food more than ten years ago. I was writing a Master’s thesis on the ancient Jewish romance novel, Joseph and Aseneth and like everyone else who’s wrestled with that fascinating text, I was having trouble with a scene toward the middle of the book. In that scene, our heroine Aseneth receives a heavenly visitor into her room. This visitor makes a honeycomb appear as if by magic, and feeds some of it to her, asking if she’s understood. I puzzled over how to understand what I was reading, and how ancient readers of the scene could possibly have created meaning of it. The text seemed to take for granted the clarity of what it described. I became fascinated not with possible historical or ritual parallels to Aseneth’s taste of honey, but with literary ones. My Master’s came and went, and even though I wrote on other foodie topics for my PhD and first book, I couldn’t stop thinking about that honeycomb. In trying to find an explanation for that scene and how it worked, I tumbled into a rabbit hole of my own, finding many more examples and even bigger questions.

Those bigger questions have to do with the embodied experience of ingestion and its associated experience, taste. In other words, if transformational eating like hierophagy is something that ancient authors took for granted, why is it that eating or tasting other-worldly food has such a profound effect? What makes taste or ingestion functionally transformative? Part of why hierophagy functions is because of the accepted division between the mortal and immortal realms, or between the upper world and the underworld; these categories are often reflected in the food each type of being consumes. Angels and gods consume heavenly food like nectar, while human beings consume mortal, perishable food. Behaviour like fasting, for example, creates space for the divine realm to punctuate the human realm in part because of this kind of distinction; on the flip-side, angels visiting mortals can get pretty anxious about whether they might have to eat mortal food, such as in Testament of Abraham 4, where, when faced with a dinner invitation, the Archangel Michael has to summon up a consuming demon to sit in his mouth to eat everything he puts in it, so that Michael neither insults his mortal host nor taints himself with corruptible food. That division between divine and mortal, heaven and earth, is part of what makes eating other-worldly food so transformative: in crossing culinary boundaries, eaters also cross cosmological ones.

Then there is the question of taste. Alice’s DRINK ME bottle has “a sort of mixed flavor of cherry-tart, custard, pineapple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast” (Carroll, 7). For many of the texts I cover in Food and Transformation, taste is also an important factor, signifying the markedness of the ingested item and signaling the transformation to come. Perpetua wakes up from her vision with the sweet taste of the cheese she’s been fed still in her mouth; Revelation’s scroll starts out sweet but in John’s belly it tastes bitter; and Aseneth, of course, eats honey itself. Sweetness is commonly associated with divine foods, like nectar (e.g. Porphyry, De Antro Nymphorum 15-19) or manna (e.g. Wis Sol 19:21), so this isn’t really surprising. But it shows that taste works symbolically to alert the reader to the transformative properties of the ingested item, since, as Caroline Korsmeyer notes, our understanding of what a taste means is governed by cultural categories (Making Sense of Taste 90-91). Apart from the symbolic association of the flavours of ingested items, though, the sense of taste is itself operative in hierophagy. Taste is the most intimate of the senses because of how private it is: in tasting we internalize the sense object and take it into ourselves. The body is penetrated by the sense object such that it becomes a part of us (Kilgour, From Cannibalism to Communion 25). This is why eating and tasting are so fundamental to how hierophagy functions: they transform what was external or alien into what is internal and intimate. Through ingesting otherworldly food, eaters are bound to that realm, or internalize other-worldly knowledge, aspects which are sometimes physically manifested by bodily changes, like Aseneth’s shining face after she consumes the honeycomb.

For me, these sensory questions only make me hungry for more. Taste is at the very beginning of its exploration in biblical and classical studies, and my work on hierophagy has whet my appetite to continue my work on taste and meaning-creation in ancient literature.

Dr Meredith Warren is Lecturer in Biblical and Religious Studies at the University of Sheffield, and the Director of the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies. She researches food and taste, along with other sensory experiences, in ancient Jewish and Christian literature. In July 2020 Dr Warren will host a workshop called What the Body Knows: Embodied Senses & Meaning-Creation in the Biblical Imagination.

[1] Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (New York: Samuel Gabriel Sons, 1916), 6.

[2] Carroll, Wonderland, 7–8.

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