Not Julia Child. Not Martha Stewart or Nigella Lawson, and certainly not Rachael Ray. I’m talking Annapurna, Demeter, Ceres, Ukemochi-no-kami and Chicomecoatl . . . the goddesses of food and hospitality. Almost every culture has one. Some cultures have more than one: She who keeps the pots and the bellies full of nourishing food. She is the goddess who both personifies hunger and either acts to increase or diminish it, and she often does double duty as agricultural goddess or is closely associated with the gods and goddesses that influence the harvest. With the intervention of one of the Goddesses of Food like Annapurna, it is thought that cooks provide their guests with the energy needed to best follow their destinies. Furthermore, it is said that when food is cooked in the spirit of such holiness, it becomes alchemy. So, my fellow alchemists, let us pray. . . I mean cook.
But first, let’s consider what makes a goddess. Whether they exist as perfect forms somewhere in the cosmos or whether they reside on earth, for instance in the Himalayas, ultimately it is the humans who tend them who vest them with power. Some are fearsome and impersonal and must constantly be propitiated to keep them in good humor and others are more intimate with their human subjects and visit often for a game of dice or to heal the sick or bless the meal. Through personification of a force generally beyond the control of their human worshippers, gods allow humans knowledge of a process and, they believe, some ability to manipulate the outcome of events. So, the relationship between god and human is largely reciprocal. Humans vest the deity with efficacy and specific power and gods allow humans – through the act of worship – to influence or control the process they represent.
Some gods and goddesses were once alive – like the Cau Dai’s Victor Hugo and the Rastafarian Haile Selassie – and some goddesses are alive – quite literally – like Nepal’s Kumaris – prepubescent girls who represent the living form of the Goddess Taleju or Durga. Kumaris are chosen at the tender age of three or four and taken from their families into a palace-like home where they carry out ritual observances and are waited on hand and foot and only allowed to go outside on ceremonial occasions when they are carried through the streets on a grandly decorated bier. On the event of her first menstruation, it is thought that the spirit of the goddess leaves the Kumari and she is unceremoniously retired and returned to her family to live and work as an adolescent girl is expected to. So, contrary to many a fantasy, being a goddess isn’t such a great job. Indeed, there have been several cases and suits recently on the subject of the human rights abuses of Kumari girls – abduction, denial of education, imprisonment – have all been issues up for debate. The state has allowed certain changes in the customs to take place – such as allowing Kumari girls to be educated beginning in the 1990s – but slowly, modern democratic sensibilities are eroding the centuries old Kumari tradition and what we are witnessing is no less than the death of a goddess.
But goddesses have died before as the world saw with India’s Sitala – the Smallpox Goddess. Arising around 400 AD when the first major wave of smallpox swept through the subcontinent, she persisted until well into the 20th century when the natural disease was eradicated. Called Mariamman in the Tamil south, she was the goddess who both caused and cured high fevers, rashes and pustules – all of which are symptoms of the poxes. In the 1990s Sitala/Mariamman was reborn in the form of Amma – the AIDS Goddess the goddess who both infects humans with and protects them against the human immunodeficiency virus – HIV. Although not replacing public health education and good health practices, these goddesses serve to inform people about the diseases they preside over and through their transmitted knowledge allow their worshippers at least some control over issues like routes of infection, how to protect yourself from disease, symptoms and treatment – all issues that they had little or no control over prior to the birth of the goddess.
More than ten years after her birth, worship and tending of the AIDS-Amma is growing as HIV/AIDS continues to rip through southern India, leaving mounds of corpses in its wake. Having intimate knowledge of both viruses, I hope that someday health education and safer sex will retire the AIDS-Amma just as variolation and ring vaccination killed Sitala. So, gods and goddesses, we are seeing in the late 20th century and early 21st century, come and go as the environments and beliefs of the people that tend them change.
Although goddesses who personify diseases change as illnesses come and go, the goddesses who personify food and hospitality persist into modern times and urban lifestyles. Bronze statues of Annapurna are seen in many Indian kitchens and restaurants – even here in the United States – largely because the desire for a bountiful, delicious table persists even as living conditions evolve. Even as science has produced the fertilizers of the green revolution and the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that produce high yields of disease and pest resistant crops where they have been embraced, belief in and the tending of the gods and goddesses of the harvest and table continue. So, gratefully, Teilhard de Chardin and thinkers like him have – so far at least – been proved wrong. Belief has resisted the encroachment of science as the centerpiece of human life and electric lights and the other fruits of scientific practice have not replaced objects of worship or prayer in the life of man. Thus men and women around the world still offer or bow to their goddesses of food and hospitality before preparing an evening meal.
So as the contents of that pot slowly begins to thicken and a sauce is born, realize that like the alchemists of old you are engaging in the art of transformation. The elements at your command are the basic four that have persisted for millennia and are shared by cultures around the world. Cultures that all moved along the Great Silk Road either as points of origin for trade goods or as destinations for exotic spices, crafts and textiles. Flavors mystically swirl and combine across time and space and with a kiss from the goddess become a life-giving meal. (Photo of the AIDS-Amma in Procession by M.A. Sriram from The Hindu 12/09/2007)