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Timothy R. SmithValenze takes us through a fascinating story of milk's impact on culture, maternity and agriculture and how humans harnessed it to meet their dietary needs.
—The Washington Post
“[C]omprehensive… covers everything from milk''s role in mythology to its effects on animal husbandry to its transformation into cheese.”—Catherine Price, Slate
— Catherine Price
". . . a serious work of history with great illustrations.”—Marion Nestle, The Atlantic.com
— Marion Nestle
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According to the great Hindu story of the Churning of the Ocean, milk assumes a pure and simple guise as a limitless source of bounty. The tale begins with the quest for an elixir of immortality, when Hindu gods took charge of a still chaotic world and decided to stir things up, literally. Using a snake as a rope and a mountaintop as a churning stick, they pulled and writhed as the sap from plants from the mountain mixed with water from the sea. As the swirling progressed, the ocean water turned to milk and then—following laws of an ordinary dairy—butter. From a rich, congealed mass emerged the sun, moon, and stars, along with Surabhi, the Cow of Plenty. Her offspring have assumed sacred status as four-legged carriers of perfection and reminders of this extravagant genesis.
In the beginning, there must have been milk. As first sustenance of all mammals, not just humans, we know that milk has been around for a very long time. There is no question that it was valued as a building block of civilizations. Ancient reliefs offer immediate proof in depictions of cows being milked and maternal figures nursing infants. Milk was considered so fundamental in ancient Egypt that its hieroglyph was similar to the verb "to make." Yet the history of milk is one of profound complexities rather than simple truths. Though ubiquitous, it was also scarce. Though utterly familiar, milk possessed mysterious powers. Given these two paradoxes, we should not be surprised by a history that generated contradictions and even conflict that qualify as both mundane and cosmic in their significance.
Milk was far from plentiful at the dawn of time, according to the human imagination. In most myths of creation, other elements—primarily water—precede its appearance and remain in abundance on earth. In the case of the Fulani myth of western Africa, the world emerges from a single drop. In Norse mythology, a single cow is responsible for feeding human ancestors. A principal exception to this rule of scarcity is the Hindu legend of the Churning of the Ocean; it is the only account that arrives at a relatively harmonious outcome, a point that will later seem mythical indeed as we learn more about the global distribution of milk throughout history.
Ancient religions communicated the universal desirability of milk through their stories and symbols. Milk meant survival, replenishment, and fecundity. Mentioned in Dionysian sacred rites of the ancient Mediterranean, the very idea of milk—along with the idiomatic expression of "milk and honey"—belonged to an imagined abundance of a messianic age, when a "universal mother shall give to mortals her best fruit" and "cause sweet fountains of white milk to burst forth." On a more daily basis, the most powerful deity of the ancient Near Eastern world, Isis, served as the primary vessel of this universal form of sustenance. A stately seated figure, her breasts exposed, Isis was commonly presented as the "giver of life" in the act of nursing an infant pharaoh. Though her husband, Osiris, also possessed a vital organ, Isis outlived him, making copies of his lost phallus (a casualty of his final battle), which she then distributed for use in worship. Her primary job as mother, maid, and matron, however, required that she protect young women and cheer on mothers and midwives in their jobs sustaining human life. The demand for her presence spawned a virtual cottage industry of reproductions in the form of figurines, amulets, lamps, and funerary monuments bearing her image. The Great Mother in her various guises, her two prominent breasts prompting people to hope for plenty, ranked as the most popular of all the ancient goddesses.
As a symbol of salvation, milk occupied an important place in popular religious festivals. Jars of milk surrounded the tomb of Osiris, husband of Isis, on the island of Philae. Priests gathered there to sing and pray, solemnly filling a libation bowl, one for each day of the year, with milk. For the common Egyptian, visiting this site constituted a sacred pilgrimage that could illuminate a lifetime. Another important ritual took place on the banks of the Nile, when Isis herself made a pilgrimage: priests and celebrants would transport her image to a ship in order to surround her with votaries before launching her, pilotless, into the sea. Herodotus noted that the Greeks borrowed festivals and processions from the Egyptians, providing another path of milky rituals across space and time. An account of a lengthy ceremony appears in Apuleius's celebrated story, The Golden Ass, which historians trust for its detailed description of elaborately attired people, priests, and animals who turned out for the event. In a long procession, priests sprinkled milk from a golden pitcher, and, just before shoving the ship from shore, poured milk upon the waves. It is not simply coincidence that this tale of transformation of Lucius into an ass and back again took place in the spring, a season replete with rose blossoms and an abundance of new milk.
As the source of the milk of life, Isis stirred deep emotions and a strong sense of identification in followers. It may be difficult for the modern-day Western reader to imagine a heartfelt attachment to a deity styled as a cow goddess, replete with horns on her head, yet it was exactly this vivid materiality that made Isis earthily available to her supplicants. How else can we explain the gigantic expression of a Mediterranean-wide adoration, which must account for the eighteen-ton granite statue (recognizable by its breasts) pulled out of the Bay of Alexandria in the 1960s? Images of Isis, defying containment, acquired attributes from other protectress goddesses and their animals—bulls, cows, griffons, sphinxes, and snakes, to name just a few. Popular demand must have driven the design of icons, evident from the "peasant woman" statue, an Isis who sits on the ground, one leg bent casually, while nursing a baby, an endearingly human form who must have been reenacting an ordinary pose for her followers. At the other end of the spectrum stood the astonishing Artemis of Ephesus, a Greek adaptation of the goddess, who bested the original by offering several dozen breasts. Some art historians have contended that these globular appendages were meant to be bull's testicles, which ancient people nailed to totem-like figures as tokens of fertility. But ever since Isis acquired her first heavily endowed chest, followers have voted in favor of hyperfemininity. Comments by contemporaries referred to her breasts, and subsequent copies of the statue added nipples to make the point even more aggressively. Fountains built in her image centuries later realized the fantasy that lay at the heart of "Beautiful Artemis" by assertively spouting endless streams of liquid into the air.
The spread of Isis worship across the Mediterranean spawned ardent rivalries and even physical conflict. Young women often donated cloaks to her Greek counterpart, Artemis—it was a common practice in Greek religions to provide all goddesses with new clothes, particularly at festival time—as gratitude for her help with conception and childbirth. The practice went too far, for sumptuary laws eventually strove to curb the competition and limit the yardage laid at her feet. In the Greek city of Sardis, where a cult formed around a temple dedicated to Artemis, local pride welled up in the fourth century B.C.E., when followers from Ephesus arrived with a shipload of garments. A group of defenders physically attacked the intruders; we are not told if the participants were male or female, though it seems likely that women were involved. The scuffle ended with death sentences for forty-five Sardis, suggesting that central authorities in Ephesus might have intervened. In view of this adaptable goddess's universality, such conflicts serve as forceful reminders of local attachments, proof of the investment adherents had made in making the religious site their own.
Nevertheless, the milk goddess migrated across the Near East while aspects of her identity surfaced repeatedly in other religions: as Ishtar, the "benevolent cow" of Mesopotamia, who suckled princes; as Hathor, the cow goddess so prevalent in Egyptian iconography; and as the Virgin Mary of Christianity, who displayed more than one attribute borrowed from the ancient Great Mother archetype. But as Christian traditions eclipsed paganism, the notion of an all-powerful mother fell on hard times. Religious authorities found such popular materiality, with its earthy female presence, intolerable and even repugnant. Images of women "giving suck" were struck down by Jewish prohibitions. The fathers of the early Christian Church also moved decisively against what was decried as pagan: divine cow images were zoomorphic rather than suitably philosophical and abstract. Later on, medieval monks would inveigh against vulgar identification with the animal world. Their account of "Woman Devoured by Serpents," a deeply misogynist tale, turned the friendly earthbound creatures associated with Isaic ceremonies into hideous attackers. Women who gave suck to all animals would meet the same end.
But what about the milk of salvation? As Gail Corrington has shown, the liquid of promise proved to be a durable commodity over centuries of religious history. The subject will resurface in a later chapter, but it is worth tracing its immediate fate in the ancient world. We know for a fact that the concept survived the reaction against polytheism, but under new auspices: it was transferred into the realm of male jurisdiction. Christ and the Church, not Mary, would become the official purveyors of milk. The breasts of Isis had signified nourishment; Mary's breasts now were said to represent the institution of the Catholic Church. Early Church Fathers wished to elevate the Virgin Mary to the level of an abstraction, along with the act of nursing and even her milk. As a metaphor, the heavenly liquid represented "logos"—the word of God—rather than food for all.
But popular belief and iconography seldom took orders from central authority. If we examine Christian art in the early medieval period, we can see signs of Isis's survival in the infant Christ's apparent enjoyment of his delectable drink. Sitting on Mary's lap, the baby raises his finger to his lips, as though taste-testing the milk of salvation emanating from his mother's breasts. In fact, an infant with a finger in his mouth was the ancient sign of Horus, son of Isis, who remained a celebrity among pagans during the time of Christ. Were artists deploying images of an old favorite as a way of promoting popular identification with Christianity? Or did this pose indicate that, no matter how rigid a stance Church Fathers might take, the consumer of milk might have the final say?
The more familiar profile of milk handed down by Greco-Roman mythology is one of absolute scarcity. Milk belonged to the gods; it was the elixir of immortality. One sip from the breast of the chief female goddess, Juno, could confer divinity and an endless life. Mortals might remind themselves of this fact by gazing at the heavens. According to legend, the stars of the Milky Way—plentiful but unobtainable—represented droplets of Juno's milk, scattered when Jupiter stealthily installed his illegitimate and mortal offspring, Hercules, at the breast of his sleeping wife. The infant's energetic sucking woke the goddess and she pulled away, startled. But it was too late to avoid a divine mess: her let-down reflex sent milk spraying into the heavens, where the fluid congealed into stars, and down to earth, where it sprouted lilies. Thus, one of the earliest interventions into maternal milk production, despite so little cooperation, results in spectacular universal distribution.
In truth, milk remained scarce in the ancient world, bounded as it had to be by gestational cycles of mammals (including human mothers), the suitability of various climates and geography, and the simple fact of its perishability. Ancient peoples did not drink milk, at least not ordinarily, but they were intent on collecting it for purposes of adding it to grains, separating out butterfat and heating it to make ghee, or turning it into cheese, the only way of preserving the nutritious liquid. Its use in religious ceremonies suggests a value above the ordinary. In terms of convenience, daily nutrition, and caloric content, the "first nurture of humans" in Classical Greece, according to Phyllis Pray Bober, were figs and acorns, "one sacred to Zeus, the other to Demeter." Homer's Odyssey referred to barley as "the marrow of men." And as far as a universal beverage existed, the ancients drank beer, not milk, which historians have identified as "the firstborn invention of culture" in Mesopotamia. Milk remained a seasonally available commodity that was associated with pastoral life and a very particular understanding of nature.
For philosophers of the ancient world, milk was nature; that is, milk and its properties provided a laboratory for witnessing the very mystery of life. When Aristotle set forth his explanation of how a foetus came into being inside the uterus, he turned to the analogy of curdling milk to make cheese, likening semen to rennet as an activating agent:
When the material secreted by the female in the uterus has been fixed by the semen of the male (this acts in the same way as rennet acts upon milk, for rennet is a kind of milk containing vital heat, which brings into one mass and fixes the similar material ...)—when, I say, the more solid part comes together, the liquid is separated o from it, and as the earthy parts solidify membranes form all round it.
Aristotle's cheese-making analogy was not unique to the ancient world. In the Book of Job, which experts believe grew through the accretions acquired over time, the same folksy image comes to the rescue when Job himself asks the Lord, "Hath thou not poured me out as milk, and curdled me like cheese?" The emergence of cheese from milk provided a dramatic demonstration of creation, different from fermentation and rotting, two other processes that would have been wondered at for their embodiment of mystery and potential.
Human breast milk also inspired wonder, though Aristotle once again did much to dispel the mystery by invoking a homely culinary metaphor. According to his theory of concoction, milk was blood in a different form, "cooked twice." When cooked yet again by the superior heat forces of men, blood changed into semen. But more than just a stovetop ingredient, breast milk was understood to be alive and active. Through its intimate relationship to blood, it was capable of conveying the very traits of its mother, including disposition and intelligence, to the ingesting infant (hence, the considerable concern of Romans in choosing appropriate wetnurses). Its curative powers were near miraculous and many: infertility, eye ailments, the fragility of old age, among others. Not only babies had a claim to this highly potent fluid, which was dispensed by the dropper-full and must have brought a fair price on the market.
Yet despite its wondrous impact on human well-being, the female breast and its milk helped to situate women a short step away from the beasts. In Aristotle's Historia animalium, female humans took their place in an eclectic list that included cows, sheep, horses, and whales as viviparous animals who nursed their young. Greek and Roman legends told of originating human characters who obtained milk from the wild: Zeus, who, with the help of some nymphs, nursed from a goat named Althea; and Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome, who nursed from a strangely cooperative she-wolf. The ancients did not draw a clear-cut boundary between beasts and human beings; having sex with animals, for example, would not have shocked their sensibilities, and neither would the exchange of animals and people at the breast of mothers. The human connection to milk-giving drew women into a liminal universe, where their natures became especially vulnerable to the siren call of wild.
The effort to grasp the nature of milk was thus inextricably tied to a similar effort to comprehend the nature of women. The prevailing view of the female gender in the ancient world depended on a hierarchy distinctive to the age. Differences between the sexes were not just a matter of differing degrees of "hotness" of men, mentioned above in relation to the superiority of semen to milk. (Though in a later century, Galen would construct a rigid hierarchy out of the gender difference of "hot" and "cold" and add an interesting feature—horns—to his description of the uterus. An indirect tribute to Isis?) For the early Greeks, whose views on the female sex were constructed around the story of the first woman, Pandora, another explanatory model ruled the day. Like Pandora, women were said to be unruly and potentially destructive. In biological terms, their condition was based on Hippocratic theories of bodily fluids characterizing them as "wetter" than men and thus closer to the state of nature. Their repeated fluxes of blood only served to underscore their lower state, reminding Hippocratic writers of the carnality of animal sacrifice. Their soft, porous bodies—their breasts being an outstanding example of "sponginess"—indicated that they were more "raw," less cooked or finished, and more subject to emotional excess and sexual appetite than their male counterparts. Described as a kind of "jar" (the word doubled for "womb" in the Greek), a woman was imagined to contain a tube-like passageway that stretched from the opening of the vagina to the nostrils. (In order to test a woman's unobstructed fertility, a healer could place garlic at one end of the "tube" to see if it could be smelled at the other.) From top to bottom, the female body suggested a thinly disguised reproductive organ with voracious orifices at both ends. The only reasonable response among men, the less volatile sex, was a kind of watchful mastery of Pandora's daughters.
Excerpted from MILK by Deborah Valenze Copyright © 2011 by Deborah Valenze. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted December 17, 2014
Posted December 17, 2014
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