Darn gods of famine, again.
Darn gods of famine, again.

Human history would seem to about wars, revolutions, kings, warlords, who’s religion is superior, and who was sleeping with who, given what we choose to write about. You’ve got to go with what gets the ratings, whether you’re a Greek philosopher, Confucian bureaucrat, or Franciscan monk, and folks do dig the blood and sex, the rampages of vast armies, a good guillotining, and divine smiting, lots of smiting. The truth is our history as a species consists mostly of trying not to starve to death. Its not glamourous. When somebody asks you what you did this weekend it sounds immeasurably cooler to say “I had an epic battle with a monster named Grendel”, than it does to admit you spent it fermenting fish or digging up potatoes, but for roughly 500,000 years, the trajectory of our evolution has more or less involved finding an adequate food source, and that’s why it took so long for us to get around to writing things down. We were mostly busy eating and not being eaten. Once we settled down on the farm and improved our penmanship, we started looking for things worth talking about, and the proper preparation of smoked buffalo and storage techniques for nuts and berries just wasn’t very entertaining. Since we’ve spent the better part of the last million years concerned with where the next meal would come from, and the agrarian lifestyle is no more than 15,000 years old, round about when it became the way to assure dinner would be served, we no doubt started inventing gods of famine to account for those times when the granaries or supermarket shelves were empty, otherwise we’d have to admit that the whole agricultural revolution and consequent population explosion was a pretty bad idea after all. From the ancient Greek personification of famine, Limos to the Third Horseman of the Christian apocalypse, we like to think that we can avert hunger as long as we understand its source. Know your enemy, I always say. Mostly apologetically, to my cheeseburger

Around the 8th Century B.C., Greek poet Hesiod was busy jotting down notes on mythology in the Theogeny , regarded as one of his earliest works, wherein he happens to discuss the genealogy of the Greek god, Limos (“Starvation”), reputed to be the daughter of Eris (“Strife or Discord”), to whom Bob Dobbs and the Church of the Subgenius still pay homage.

And Night bare hateful Doom (Moros) and black Fate (Ker), and Death and Sleep she bare, and she bare the tribe of Dreams: all these did dark Night bear, albeit mated unto none. Next bare she Blame (Momos), and painful Woe (Oizus), and the Hesperides, who tend the fair golden apples beyond glorious Okeanos, and the fruit-bearing trees: also the Moirai and the pitiless avenging Fates (Keres), Klotho, and Lachesis, and Atropos, which dispense unto men at birth the lot of weal or woe: which also deal with the transgressions of men and gods, and never cease from dread wrath until they render an evil retribution unto him that sinneth. Also Nemesis, to be the bane of mortal men, did deadly Night bear, and after Nemesis bare she Deceit and Love, and baleful Eld, and strong-souled Strife. And hateful Strife bare painful Toil, and Oblivion, and Famine, and tearful Griefs, and Wars, and Battles, and Murders, and Manslayings, and Quarrels, and False Speeches, and Disputes, and Lawlessness, and Ruin, of one character with one another, and Horkos, which most afflicteth men on Earth, when any of his will sweareth falsely (Hesiod, Theogeny, ff 211-238).

In Hesiod’s writings from Works and Days, he explains that Limos is the enemy of Demeter (goddess of the harvest) and elucidates the connection between idleness and starvation. Basically, he’s saying get out in the fields and grow something you lazy bastard. In a remarkable instance of prescience, Hesiod knew that unless motivated, we would probably spend all day on Facebook and Twitter.

That man is altogether best who considers all things himself and marks what will be better afterwards and at the end; and he, again, is good who listens to a good adviser; but whoever neither thinks for himself nor keeps in mind what another tells him, he is an unprofitable man. But do you at any rate, always remembering my charge, work, high-born Perses, that Hunger may hate you, and venerable Demeter richly crowned may love you and fill your barn with food; for Hunger is altogether a meet comrade for the sluggard. Both gods and men are angry with a man who lives idle, for in nature he is like the stingless drones who waste the labour of the bees, eating without working; but let it be your care to order your work properly, that in the right season your barns may be full of victual. Through work men grow rich in flocks and substance, and working they are much better loved by the immortals. Work is no disgrace: it is idleness which is a disgrace. But if you work, the idle will soon envy you as you grow rich, for fame and renown attend on wealth. And whatever be your lot, work is best for you, if you turn your misguided mind away from other men’s property to your work and attend to your livelihood as I bid you. An evil shame is the needy man’s companion, shame which both greatly harms and prospers men: shame is with poverty, but confidence with wealth (Hesiod, Works and Days, ff. 293).

St. John the Evangelist’s Book of Revelation similarly ranked famine among the big nasties of the Christian apocalypse, citing him as the black horse riding third horsemen, set to arrive with the breaking of the third seal.

When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come and see!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a day’s wages, and three quarts of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!” (Revelations 6:3-4, New Testament).

As are many things in the Book of Revelation, these statements seem a bit cryptic. Scholars have been arguing about who the “John” that authored the Revelations actually was since roughly 200 A.D., but it appears to have been written on the Greek island of Patmos, somewhere around 90 A.D., at roughly the same time that the Roman Empire was reaching its greatest expanse. The references can therefore reasonably be interpreted through the lens of a Mediterranean world dominated by Rome, possibly suggesting that the third horseman of the apocalypse represents some sort of economic commentary.

Lest this rider should not be sufficiently identified by his equipment, there comes from the midst a voice, the protest of Nature against the horrors of famine. The voice fixes a maximum price for the main foodstuffs. The denarius, the ‘silver franc’ of the Empire, was the daily wage and a choenix of wheat the average daily consumption of the workman. Barley was largely the food of the poor, as being relatively cheaper than wheat, in N.T. times the proportionate cost was probably as three to one…The proclamation, then, forbids famine prices, ensuring to the labourer a sufficiency of bread, and warning the world against such a rise in the price of cereals as would deprive men of the necessaries of life. A similar embargo is laid on any attempt to destroy the liquid food of the people—the prohibition is addressed to the nameless rider who represents Death. The oliveyards and vineyards are not to suffer to such an extent as seriously to interfere with the supply. Wheat and barley, oil and wine, were the staple food both of Palestine and Asia Minor, and the voice deprecates any heavy loss in these crops. Yet the very cry reveals the presence of relative hardships, and the danger of worse things (Swete, 1906, p86).

In East Africa, Bantu ethnic and linguistic groups recognize the Chiruwi or Chitowe as the harbinger of famine. Half flesh, half wax (and reportedly if he turns his wax side to you, he effectively disappears), the Chitowe is not revered, rather supplicated when necessary. Interestingly, while he has a relation to pestilence (just like the horseman of the apocalypse), he actually can be coaxed (or rather wrestled) into sharing a wealth of lore about herbal medicine. Of course, the association of pestilence and famine are obvious, one usually entailing the other.

Mtanga was never a man and the name is only another word for Mulungu. However, both meanings would seem to have been lost sight of in more recent times, since, in Dr. Hetherwick’s Yao vocabulary we only find Mtanga, a hobgoblin. This definition would also suit Chitowe who is enumerated along with Mtanga by Dr. Macdonald, but figures in fairy tales as a kind of monstrous being, with only one arm, one leg, one eye, etc., the rest of his body being made of wax. He is associated with famine. . . .He is invoked by the women, on the day of initiating their fields, when the new crop has begun to grow. Chitowe may become a child or a young woman. In this disguise he visits villages and tells whether the coming year will bring food or famine. He receives their hospitality, but throws the food over his shoulder without eating it. Chitowe is a child or subject of Mtanga, and some speak of several Chitowe who are messengers of Mtanga. The Nyanja bogy, Chiruwi (the word is translated in Scott’s Dictionary, ‘a mysterious thing’), is probably the same as Chitowe; he is constructed as above described, and, in addition, carries an axe. He is in the habit of meeting travellers and wrestling with them in lonely places; if the traveller falls, he returns no more to his village—he dies.’ If, on the contrary, he throws Chiruwi, he says, ‘ I will kill you, Chiruwi,’ and Chiruwi entreats for his life, promising to show the man lots of medicines. Then the man lets him go, ‘and Chiruwi goes on before and says this tree is for such a disease, and that tree is for such a disease ‘ — in short, gives him a lecture on materia medica, which proves exceedingly useful (Werner, 1906, p60).

The Aztecs had Apiztetl (“Hungry God”), a decidedly unpleasant god of famine, not that the Aztecs sported a whole lot of cuddly gods in the first place. The Polynesians have Changoro. The indigenous Japanese ethnic group called the Ainu also have a god of famine, whose antics are related in various folktales.

It being so, this year being a year, there is not one single fish; thou thyself art not guilty that there are no fish I am the god of famine. Being so, I have, on purpose and in jest, not shown a single fish. So then, going yesterday to angle in thy lake, thou didst this not of thyself. I sent thee. I sent thee, and yesterday, though thou didst angle, yet couldst thou catch nothing. So, when about to end this jest, I let myself be caught by thee. I am no true fish; the god of famine am I. Being the god of famine on purpose, wishing to see thy intelligence, transformed into a fish, I let myself be pulled out. Thereafter, had understanding not been in thee and hadst thou eaten, thou wouldst have died. However, indeed, the guardian spirit of the rich man of Otista being mighty, now thou hast not eaten me. So now thou hast destroyed me utterly. Having done this, to-morrow when thou risest, naming the god of famine and when thou raisest an ‘inau’, then thou wilt see”. Such words in a dream, I heard. The next day I rose. Having risen I reflected: Really some god jesting with me, has done this. Thus I remained in thought. Thus I thought, and likewise that the dream had been given me by that god. Such being the case, after the dream, trusting to this dream, made I an ‘inau’. Naming the god of famine, made that ‘inau’. Afterwards I lived as usual. I living thus, the god of famine had been really abashed by me in my turn; again my estate was abundant in fish; more fish were there than every season there had been. When there was much fish, catching I dried them (Pilsudski, 1912).

Starvation seems like a bad way to go. I mean, not so bad as being cannibalized, but still pretty unpleasant. Its nice to be able to credit some malign monster with this year’s crop failure, as that assigns a certain intelligence to the whole operation that may be appeased, and consequently disaster can be averted in the future, assuming the king stashed enough grain to get you through. Otherwise you have to start worrying about climate change, over-irrigation, salinity, weather, locusts, and all manner of things that determine whether the harvest goes well. Easier to have a focal point in a supernatural nasty, otherwise farmers could get fairly neurotic. A farmer has to be an individual of strong intestinal fortitude to avoid an ulcer, for as author Brian Brett said, “Farming is a profession of hope”. Anthropomorphizing forces that are outside of our control (e.g. “lord willing and the crick don’t rise”) is a means of controlling the disorderly and uncooperative universe that would as soon furnish you with a bumper crop as wipe out your field with an early frost. That’s why we came up with farmer’s almanacs. They’re really just handy statistical references to give you the odds on your team based on past performance. This makes one wonder why we don’t have anthropomorphized representations of all life’s insanities, thereby bringing a little order to other parts of our lives. Stoddard King probably would have argued that we would be better served by alternatives to the gods of famine, noting “Of all the pestilence’s dire, Including famine, flood, and fire; By Satan and his imps rehearsed, The neighbors’ children are the worst”.

Hesiod. Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns, And Homerica: With an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. [New and rev. ed.] Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959.
Hesiod. The Poems And Fragments Done Into English Prose With Introd. And Appendices. Ox.: Clarendon Press, 1908.
Piłsudski, Bronisław. Materials for the Study of the Ainu Language And Folklore. Cracow: Imperial academy of sciences (Spasowicz fund), 1912.
Swete, Henry Barclay, 1835-1917. The Apocalypse of St. John. 2d. ed. London: Macmillan and co., limited, 1906.
Werner, Alice, 1859-1935. The Natives of British Central Africa. London: Constable, 1906.