Tag Archives: History of bread

Can you see me?

Gesta Danorum (“Deeds of the Danes”) is a patriotic work of Danish history, by the 12th century author Saxo Grammaticus (“Saxo the Literate”, literally “the Grammarian”).

It consists of sixteen books written in Latin and describes Danish history and to some degree Scandinavian history in general, from prehistory to the late 12th century. In addition, Gesta Danorum offers singular reflections on European affairs in the High Middle Ages from a unique Scandinavian perspective, supplementing what has been handed down by historians from Western and Southern Europe.

The sixteen books, in prose with an occasional excursion into poetry, can be categorized into two parts: Books 1-9, which deal with Norse mythology, and Books 10-16, which deal with medieval history. Book 9 ends with Gorm the Old, the first factual documented King of Denmark. The last three books (14-16), describe Danish conquests on the south shore of the Baltic Sea and wars against Slavic peoples (the Northern Crusades), are very valuable for the history of West Slavic tribes (Polabian Slavs, Pomeranians) and Slavic paganism. Book 14 contains a unique description of the temple at Rügen Island and Slavic pagan rituals that took place there.

The original name of the island Rügen or Danish Rugia at the Baltic Sea was Rujan (meaning red in Old Slavic); thus the name would in translation imply ‘The Red Island’. The autochthonous inhabitants of the island were the Slavic tribe, the Rujani, whose name was cognate with the island’s; thus translating as “people from Rujan” or “red people” or “redheads”??? After the destruction and/or assimilation of the Rujani by the Danes, in 1168, the original Slavic name of Rujan was corrupted as Rügen in German and Rugia in Danish.

According to Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus, and also Chronica Slavorum by Helmold, the main temple on the Island was located in Arcona, late renamed to Jaromarsburg. The temple was dedicated to the god Svantovit (Svetovid), the main Sun god of the Slavic pantheon, and was used from the 9th to the 12th century. It contained a giant wooden statue of Svantovit (Svetovid) depicting him with four heads (or one head with four faces) and a horn of plenty. 

The temple was also the seat of an oracle in which the chief priest predicted the future of his tribe by observing the behavior of a white horse identified with Svantevit (Svetovid) and casting dice (horse oracles have a long history in this region, being already attested in the writings of Tacitus). The temple also contained the treasury of the tribe and was defended by a group of 300 mounted warriors which formed the core of the tribal armed forces.

The main ritual was celebrated once a year, at the end of the harvest at the beginning of November (Samhain?). All the inhabitants of Arcona gathered in front of the temple on this occasion. On the eve of the celebration the priest, who contrary to the common people had long hear and beard, meticulously cleaned the chapel, to which only he himself had access. The ritual which took place the next day was described by Saxo like this:

The following day, when the people camped out by the temple doors, the priest took the horn from the statue’s hand and carefully examined it to see whether the drink in it was evaporating, which was taken to be a warning that the harvest would be poor the next year, in which case he [the priest] obligated the people to save something of their current harvest for next year.  If the drink did not disappear, that foretold a bountiful year.  Thus, depending on what the horn predicted, he ordered the people either to save their harvests or to use them till they be sated.  Next he poured the wine as an offering at the feet of the statue, filled the horn anew and pretended as if he had drunk to honor him [the God], while at the same time he asked with lofty words for success/good luck for himself and the people of the country, for riches and for victory, and after that he brought the horn to his lips and drank all of it in one gulp, and thereafter he filled the horn again and placed it in the statue’s right hand.


There was also there as an offering an oval-shaped honey cake which stood almost as tall as a man. The priest would place it between himself and the people and asked thereafter whether they could see him [from behind the cake].  When they answered him, he then wished them that next year they should not see him, whereby the meaning of this was such that he did not mean death to himself or the people but rather that the next year should be bountiful [i.e., and the cake bigger].

Next he blessed his people in the name of their God, told them that they should honor Him with frequent offerings, which he expected as a the right payment for [their] victories on the land and sea.  And when this was done, they spent the rest of the day on a great feast, where they ate the offerings [for the God], so that that which was consecrated for the God they themselves ate.  At this feast, it was believed pleasing to the God to get drunk and as a sin to remain sober.

You can find the description of this ritual in “The Handbook of Religions in Ancient Europe” By Lisbeth Bredholt Christensen, Olav Hammer, David Warburton.

The “oval bread” the Slavic priests at Arcona were hiding behind is still made in Serbia as a traditional Christmas cake. The bread is called “česnica” and is an oval bread which is decorated at most with the cross, making it look like the “Celtic cross”. 

This is actually the solar agricultural cross which symbolizes  solar year divided into four parts by two solstices and two equinoxes. Sometimes the cross will have small semi circles on the edges of the cross hands. These are called “hands of god”.  They represent the three months of every season. You can read more about the solar cross in my post “Two crosses“. Česnica can also contain additional decorations symbolizing various crops, farm animals…

The preparation of this bread used to be always accompanied by various rules and rituals all indicating the Pre-Christian origin of this bread: 

The česnica is baked on Christmas Eve or early Christmas morning by the head of household or the woman of the house. The person who will prepare the česnica must bathe before that. In eastern and southern Serbia, after they kneaded the dough for the česnica, the head of household or the woman of the house take hold with dough-stained hands of the fruit trees, beehives, and cattle to make them more fertile.

Dough is usually made with wheat flour. But the flour is taken only from a full sack or the flour is milled from the last sheaf of wheat from the previous harvest. The water for the dough is in some areas collected on Christmas Day before sunrise from a spring or a well, into which a handful of grain is thrown. It is called the “strong water” or “living water” and is believed to be imbued with beneficial power. Or the water for the dough is collected from three springs. 

A coin is put into the dough during the kneading, some families using the same coin from year to year; it may be a valuable piece. In some regions, little figures carved from cornel wood, representing chickens, oxen, cows, swine, bees, and the like, are also put into the dough. In other areas, the inserted objects include grains, broad beans, walnuts, tufts of wool, twigs, and splinters from various wooden buildings. In Semberija, families insert a piece of the first splinter produced in felling the badnjak (young oak tree which is the traditional Serbian Christmas tree). Badnjak is ceremonially burned through Christmas eve on the house fire. In Jadar, western Serbia, the number of embers of the badnjak equal to the sum of grain and livestock sorts grown by the family are taken out of the fire and placed on the česnica. Each of the sorts is associated with its own ember on that loaf. The sort whose ember retains its glow longer than the others should be the most productive in the coming year. In Bosnia, when the dough is shaped and ready for baking, a number of notches are cut in the upper surface of it, and seeds of various crops are placed into the notches. The more a notch has risen when the česnica is baked, the more productive the crop whose seed is in it will be in the following year. To ensure an abundance of grain, some people place a bowl filled with grain on the česnica.

All of this indicates that česnica is directly linked with fertility and particularly grain fertility. 

The word “česnica” could be derived either from the noun “čast” meaning honor, or “čest”, meaning “share”. Both roots describe this bread perfectly. It is a bread made in honor of Dabog, Triglav, the Sky father, the father of grain who was in Christianity replaced with Christ. The bread is also made to be shared. 

In Serbia Christmas dinner is the most festive meal of the year. It begins about noon, or even earlier. The family members seated at the table stand up when the head of household gives a sign. The head makes the Sign of the Cross and lights a candle, before blessing the gathered relatives and saying a prayer, after which they all kiss each other while saying, “Peace of God, Christ Is Born.” The head of the family and another man of the family hold the česnica between themselves, rotating it three times counterclockwise. The fact that česnica is turned three times shows that the bread was originally dedicated to Dabog – Triglav. The counterclockwise rotation of česnica is an example how an old Pre -Christian ceremonies and symbols which could not be eradicated where in Christianity turned into its opposites. Originally česnica must have been turned clockwise, to the right, the way the sun moves across the sky. Making people turn česnica counterclockwise implements magical way of destroying the symbol’s power by either turning it upside-down, or the other-way-round. We see this being used over and over again with Christianized pagan symbols, rituals and beliefs…Anyway, after it is rotated, the česnica is then carefully broken among the relatives, so that each of them gets his own piece of the bread, without a crumb falling off. Bread falling onto the ground, and throwing bread away are still considered a big sin in Serbia. 

Up to three pieces of the loaf may be set aside: one for the absent relatives (if there are such), one for a stranger who might join the family at the dinner, and one for the položajnik (polaznik), their first visitor on Christmas Day (if he is not present). The rest of the česnica is consumed during the dinner. The family member who finds the coin in his piece of the bread will supposedly be exceptionally lucky in the coming year. The head may try to buy the coin from this lucky relative. Each of the other objects hidden in the bread indicates the segment of the household economy in which the person who finds it in his share of the česnica will be especially successful. 

Now remember the giant bread from Saxo’s description of Slavic pagan fertility ritual? They are still made in Serbia too. These are giant communal česnica breads which are ceremonially broken and shared among all the members of the community. Or at least everyone quick enough to get a piece 🙂 

And we have ethnographic evidence that česnica breads were in the past used for the same “peekaboo” grain fertility ritual described by Saxo. 
In his dictionary, Vuk Karadzić says this about the verb “milati”: “I have heard that in Herzegovina people “milaju” at Christmas with česnica (large round flat Christmas bread, cake). This is what they do: Two people take česnica, one of them holds it in front of himself and asks the other: “Milam li se”? meaning “Am I visible? Can you see me? Am I sticking out from behind the cake?” The other man then says: “Milaš malo” meaning “you are visible a little, you are sticking out a little”. The man holding the bread then says “Danas malo a dogodine ni malo” meaning “This year a little, but next year hopefully not at all”. 
Ljubomir Pećo noted the same custom among Croats in the village Zabrđe in Bosnia. 
Similar custom was recorded in Old Serbia. Jastrebov, in “Obыčai i phsni tureckihь Serbovъ. S. Petersburgъ”, 1886, str. 41, upor. i RJA talks about the custom called “milanje”: A househusband hides behind a pile of breads and asks his family: “do you see me?”. The family members reply “We see you this year, but we hope not to see you at all next year”, meaning “We hope the grain harvest next year is so big, and that we can make so many breads, that you can hide completely behind them”. 
In some parts of Old Serbia and Makedonia, the househusband hiding behind the Christmas cake says “You see me now, but may god give such huge ears of wheat this year that you wont see me at all behind them. Sometimes the “milanje” ritual was performed in Serbia at the end of the harvest with newly harvested grain. In the village of Grmljani in Lika near Trebinje this ritual was performed during the threshing of grain on the threshing floor. A pile from newly threshed grain was made on the threshing floor. Two people would stand on the opposite sides of the pile. The first man would then ask the second: “Do you see me?” and the second would answer: “I don’t see you”, to which the first man would reply “May god give that you don’t see me next year either!”
The word “milanje” comes from “maljanje” which comes from “malo” meaning “a little”. So the meaning of “milanje” is “sticking out a little”…
This is a magical ritual which is performed with the intention to give god a hint to make the next years grain crop even bigger. In a way people are trying to trick god, as bread used in the ceremony is never big enough for a person hiding behind it to fully disappear from view, no matter how big the harvest was. 
This custom was also preserved as a a new year or all souls (samhain), end of harvest, thanksgiving tradition in some other Slavic nations. 
Ukrainians and Belarusians have the same custom, except that they use a shief of wheat instead of bread. 
Karpatho Rusyns have the same custom. In the article about Christmas and New Year customs of the Rusynes, written by Mykola Musinka on “carpatho-rusyn.org” we read that most magic customs were connected with Christmas Eve (Svjatyj vecur, Korocun, Vilija). On that day the husbandman covered the floor with straw. An unthreshed grain sheaf, usually oats (called in some localities “Didko” or “Diduch” meaning grandfather), was placed on the honorable seat at the table, i.e., “into the corner” under the icons. According to historical and ethnographic literature, in the archaic Slavic homes one corner was reserved for a representation of the pagan gods. Oats or straw were also used for decorating the festive table on which there had to be seeds from all crops. In the spring these very seeds were used in the first sowing. The oats and straw had a magical function in pagan society: they were expected to secure plenty of fodder and grain. Christianity provided another rationalization for the custom, stressing the birth of Jesus on straw and oats, thus transforming the two into symbols of that event. Also placed in the place of honor was the festive bread (korocun, kracun) decorated with wintergreen or periwinkle (barvinok) and various small figures. Prosperity was symbolized by a “mountain” of bread at the end of the table. At the beginning of the evening meal the husbandman hid behind this “mountain,” asking: “Can you see me from behind the bread mountain?” The children replied in a chorus: “We can’t,” after which the husbandman concluded: “Let us wish you’ll not see me either in the spring from within the hay or in the summer from within the wheat!”
So….
So lets recapitulate. 
Serbs are people whose main deity was once Dabog (giving god) also known as Hromi Daba, and Triglav (the three headed one). They have a special votive bread called “česnica” which they bake for Christmas, the Christianised Winter Solstice, the end of the solar year. They use this bread for magic ritual related to fertility and good fortune. The bread is round made from sweet dough. A coin is put into the dough during the kneading. In some regions, little figures carved from cornel wood, representing chickens, oxen, cows, swine, bees, and the like, are also put into the dough. In other areas, the inserted objects include grains, broad beans, walnuts, tufts of wool, twigs, and Christmas tree splinters… The bread is broken by family or community members and consumed during the Christmas dinner. The family member who finds the coin in his piece of the bread will supposedly be exceptionally lucky in the coming year. Each of the other objects hidden in the bread indicates the segment of the household economy in which the person who finds it in his share of the votive will be especially successful. This bread seams to have also been made at the beginning of November, for the thanksgiving ceremony marking the end of the harvest and the end of the agricultural and vegetative year. Saxo Gramaticus in the 12th century mentions this bread as the votive bread made by Pagan Slavic tribe known as Rujani, (red, redhead people???)  who lived on an island of Rujan (red, redhead people???) island, which lies just of the coast of South Baltic, which Slavs call Pomorje meaning seaside. People from Pomorje are known as Pomori, Pomorci. 
Now this is very interesting because:
The Irish are people whose main deity was once Dadga (giving god) who is believed to be another name of Crom Dubh, and who is possibly the god who was represented by three headed idol found in Ireland. The Irish have a special votive bread called Barmbrack which is today made for Halloween, Christianised Samhain. Samhain, which was originally celebrated at the beginning of November, was the thanksgiving ceremony marking the end of the harvest and the end of the agricultural and vegetative year. Barmbrack  traditionally contained various objects baked into the bread and was used as a sort of fortune-telling game. In the barmbrack were: a pea, a stick, a piece of cloth, a small coin (originally a silver sixpence) and a ring. Each item, when received in the slice, was supposed to carry a meaning to the person concerned: the pea, the person would not marry that year; the stick, would have an unhappy marriage or continually be in disputes; the cloth or rag, would have bad luck or be poor; the coin, would enjoy good fortune or be rich; and the ring, would be wed within the year. Samhain was also the time when Fomorians extract their taxes of corn, milk and live children. Fomorians were an evil race of people who came from across the sea and their name is said to mean “sea (seaside???) people”. Samhain is also the time when the Irish sacrificed first fruit, including first born children, to the evil god Crom Cruach (Crom Dubh). Samhain was also the time when a demon known as Aillén Tréchenn (from trí ceann, three-headed) came from Cruachan in Roscommon, and caused havoc in all of Ireland, especially Emain Macha (Armagh) and Tara.  O and in Irish the word “rua” means red-haired person. 
Do you think that this is all a coincidence? Or maybe there is some kind of connection here? 
But the best part is still to come: 
The etymology of the word “barmbrack”. In Ireland “barmbrack” is sometimes called “Bairín Breac”, and the term is also used as two words in its more common version. The official translation of “Bairín Breac” is 
bairín – a loaf – and breac – speckled (due to the raisins in it), hence it means a speckled loaf, a similar etymology to the Welsh “bara brith”. Bara brith comes from Welsh “bara” meaning bread and “brith” translating as speckled”
But this Welsh name could just be a direct transliteration of the Irish Bairín Breac. The Irish Laigin, who gave their name to the province of Leinster, used to rule the north Wales Llŷn Peninsula, which was named after them. So I believe that they might have brought this bread and the name with them. 
But that is beside the point. The important bit is that I don’t think that the translation of the “Bairín Breac” as “speckled bread” is correct. Sure now raisins are added to the dough, but I don’t think that the ancient Irish had access to grapes and raisins. I believe that this is a recent addition to the recipe and that originally the “Bairín Breac” was made from plain sweat leavened dough. I believe that the correct translation for “Bairín Breac” is patterned bread, bread which has patterns inscribed on it. Why? Because believe or not the word “breac“, apart from meaning speckled, which by the way also means patterned, has another very interesting meaning: carve, engrave, mark with letters, figures, to write…Now this is most interesting because it perfectly describes “česnica” which is always marked with letters, figures, patterns…Decorating of special votive breads with patterns has been practiced in the Balkans since early Neolithic. Special bread stamps were developed for stamping breads probably to standardize and make easier the inscription of the religious patterns used by all the members of the community. Some of the patterns and patterned stamps actually haven’t changed since neolithic and are still used on votive breads today. 
Vinča culture was one of the cultures which decorated their breads with patterns and which had bread stamps and votive breads. I mentioned one of these votive breads in my post about Newgrange, because a giant stone copy of the small Vinčan clay votive bread stands in front of the entrance into Newgrange. 
This is small Vinča votive clay bread:

This is giant Newgrange votive stone bread:
Both of these votive breads are decorated, inscribed with patterns and symbols. Both of them are “Bairín Breac”. Both of them are “česnica” breads. 
Now remember the Redhead Rujani people from South Baltic. On Samhain, they would bring a giant, inscribed, patterned česnica bread in front of the temple entrance, and the priest would hide behind it and would ask his people: “Do you see me”? Serbs performed the same ritual on Christmas day, the Christian replacement for Winter Solstice. 
Newgrange tumulus is aligned with the sunrise on the Winter Solstice so originally it was probably used for ceremonies on Winter solstice morning, beginning of the new Solar year. However Irish tradition strongly associates Newgrange with Samhain, so it is possible that the original alignment and use of Newgrange was over time forgotten and the date on which Newgrange was used for ceremonies shifted from Winter Solstice, the beginning of the new Solar year to Samhain evening, the beginning of the new Agricultural year. Regardless of how and when Newgrange was used for ceremonies, I believe that Newgrange was used as the temple of the divine marriage of Heaven and Earth, the marriage which produces grain, bread. Hopefully lots and lots of big breads, as big as the votive stone bread standing in front of the tumulus entrance. Or bigger. So is it possible that similar to the Slavic tradition, a pagan priest would come out of the Newgrange tumulus on Summer Solstice or Samhain, stand behind the giant votive stone bread and ask his people: “Do you see me?”. 
Well we will never know, but… 
Sources for “milanje” ritual in the Balkans:
Српски рjечник, истолкован њемачким и латинским риjечма” Вук Стефановић Караџић (Dictionary of Serbian language by Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic)
Srpski Mitoloski Recnik – Grupa Autora” (Serbian mythological dictionary)
Stara slovenska religija u svjetlu novijih istraživanja posebno balkanoloških” – Akademija nauka i umjetnosti Bosne i Hercegovine, 1979
Christmas in Croatia” by Dunja Rihtman-Auguštin
“Kalendar srpskih narodnih obicaja” by Mile Nedeljkovic. Not available online