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Hellenic Offerings: Bread and Cakes

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In his Works and Days, Hesiod refers to humans as "men who eat bread," and both wheat and barley bread was a staple of the Ancient Greek diet.  It isn't surprising that grain, bread, and cakes play an important role in Hellenic religion as well.


Barley grains were used in purification ceremonies.  During religious processions, tricorn baskets of barley were carried by kanephoroi (basket-carriers), unmarried maidens, in a ritual that also served to present girls of marriageable age to potential suitors at religious festivals.  At the bottom of the baskets of barley were the ritual knives used to perform the animal sacrifice.  Before the ritual act, the kanephoroi would allow the gathered worshippers to take a handful of barley, and as a group they would cast the grains upon the altar, any objects brought for burnt offerings, and the sacrificial victim to purify them.


The most common religious offering by the poor was pelanos, a simple porridge of water and barley, sometimes sweetened with honey.  Healing deities and rustic gods were also traditionally offered pelanos because they were primarily associated with the needs of the poor.  As time passed and travel became more widespread, a monetary offering to shrines and temples in lieu of this traditional porridge also came to be called pelanos.


Pemmata were flat round cakes made with water and flour, and were widely consumed during religious festivals and private banquets.  They were given in offering to Zeus, Demeter, and Athena, and were even thrown in graves during funerals as offerings to the dead.


Itrion was a light, crumbly cake or biscuit made with flour, sesame seeds, and honey.  Crumbled itria were also used to bind together pankarpia, spherical balls of boiled dried fruit and honey that were traditionally given in offering to the domestic aspects of Zeus in the household.


The Ancient Greeks were also fond of cheesecake.  The fifth-century BC physician Aegimus even wrote a book on the various preparation of cheesecake, a work that is referenced by Athenaeus, but sadly has been lost to time.  Plakous was the most common cheesecake, and was a layered cake of creamed cheese and sheets of wheat flour dough and sweetened with honey.  It was offered alongside sacrifices as trapezomata (table offerings that could be consumed by priests), and was given in offering to Apollon on the occasion of a boy's first haircut.  Kribinai were Spartan cheesecakes formed into the shape of a woman's breast, and were eaten during women's religious festivals and carried in bridal processions at wedding feasts.  Amphiphontes were round cheesecakes of a type slightly more familiar to us in the modern day, and were decorated with lit candles and given in offering to Artemis during her full moon festival in the Attic month of Mounukhion in the spring.


Kreion was a sweet loaf of bread served with honey, and given by Argive brides to their bridegrooms as part of the wedding ceremony.


Elaphos was a stag-shaped biscuit made with spelt flour, sesame seeds, and honey, and was given in offering to Artemis during the Elaphebolia festival as a symbolic representation of a stag sacrifice.


Myllos was a sesame cake in the shape of female genitalia made in the Greek colonies in Sicily.  It was traditionally given in offering to Demeter and Persephone.


Melitoutta were cakes made with milk and honey, and were traditionally given in offering to the dead and the spirits and deities of the Underworld during funeral rites.  In myth, Psykhe took melitoutta with her during her quest to the Underworld to feed and pacify Kerberos, the three-headed hound of Hades.


Pyramis was a pyramid-shaped pie that was given as a reward to those who managed to stay awake during nighttime religious vigils (pannykhis).


Basynias was a honey and spelt flour cake into which was mixed pomegranate seeds, and it was decorated with a dried fig and three nuts.  This was given in offering to Iris, the rainbow messenger-goddess, by the people of Delos.


Enkhytos was a creamed cheese and spelt flour dough extruded through a funnel as spiral sticks into a large vat of hot oil or lard.  These were typically served with honey at festivals.


Diakonion was a round cake of barley meal given in offering to Apollon by Athenian boys twice a year as part of the Eiresione ceremony, where they go door to door giving out decorated sticks as a blessing to their neighbors and receiving money in return.

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It amazes me sometimes how pervasive certain traditions are world wide.  The laws of hospitality, the offering of bread and salt, things that simply seem to be integrated into all walks of life(probably not all, but it sometimes seems that way).  Thanks for sharing.

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Eventually I'll get around to posting about the Greek concept of xenia, hospitality and the guest/host relationship, and ritualized friendship as it relates to the foreign guest-friend, and the almost kinship-like bond that such relationships form.  It really is fascinating how these subjects cross through many cultures.

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