“Metaphysics is a restaurant where they give you a thirty thousand page menu, and no food” – Robert M. Pirsig
I just treated myself to a heavenly hibachi steak with tempura asparagus, shitake mushrooms, and wasabi mashed potatoes accompanied by a tasty Bordeaux and a few rounds of Halo with my son for dessert. I could die happy. Well, at least slightly lest angst-ridden than usual. In the warm glow of a good meal and the cultivation of marksmanship (and awareness of the need to be prepared in the event of alien invasion) in the next generation, I find myself wondering what our many mythological gods eat throughout history. I mean, it’s great to be divine and omnipotent, but what if the buffet sucks? Talk about making a hell out of heaven. Obviously, the epicurean inclinations of any particular set of gods is going to depend on their cultural preferences, but maybe we can pick up some dietary tips that will aid us in our own quest for enlightenment. What is on the immortal menu?
Contrary to popular expectations, the Greek gods (and by extension their Roman counterparts) are not dining on the finest gyros, dolmades, taramasalata, and baklava, which I would have thought of as a serious perk to being a Greek god. Apparently, the Greek pantheon subsists on a much more rudimentary diet of ambrosia and nectar. Mythological mastermind Thomas Bullfinch (1796-1867) remarked on their leisurely lifestyle up on Olympus, and was very careful to note their unique repast, “The gods had their separate dwellings; but all, when summoned, repaired to the palace of Jupiter, as did also those deities whose usual abode was the earth, the waters, or the underworld. It was also in the great hall of the palace of the Olympian king that the gods feasted each day on ambrosia and nectar, their food and drink, the latter being handed round by the lovely goddess Hebe. Here they conversed of the affairs of heaven and earth; and as they quaffed their nectar, Apollo, the god of music, delighted them with the tones of his lyre, to which the Muses sang in responsive strains. When the sun was set, the gods retired to sleep in their respective dwellings” (Bullfinch, 1855, p14). Incidentally, the goddess of eternal youth, Hebe (Greek for “prime of life”) was reputedly a babe, so good on the Greek gods. There is some scholarly argument over whether ambrosia and nectar are the same thing, but apparently, consuming ambrosia is what gave the gods their immortality. The trick here is that the Greek god’s did not have human blood, rather a golden fluid called ichor (generally toxic to mortals, but known to retain the immortal-life giving qualities of ambrosia). Now this sounds like some pretty tasty and nutrition packed stuff, but one wonders what it actually consists of, although according to Homer it was brought to Olympus by doves. Speculations concerning the contents of ambrosia and nectar range from ambrosia being a combination of honey, water, cheese, olive oil, and barley (with nectar being honey-wine) to a hallucinogenic mushroom called “fly agaric” (and nectar its pressed juice). The truth is, we never get a nice clear description of it, but one fact we are assured of is that it smells sweet, as many of the gods and goddesses use it as perfume. Jury is out on whether it also was used as a dessert topping and floor wax. Ancient Greek poet Pindar’s (522-443 B.C) first Olympian ode tells us the story of Tantalus (which is of course where we derive the term “tantalize”), who during a dinner meeting with Zeus, tried to steal some ambrosia leftovers and was condemned to Tartarus for his troubles, eternally unable to grab delicious fruit hanging over his head. The Greek gods really went in for those ironic punishments.
Yet if there was one of mortals esteemed by Olympus’ lords,
Tantalus was their darling, but he brook’d not his high rewards,
And his pride brought only o’erwhelming ruth.
For a massive stone o’er his brow
God hung; and he liveth now
Striving to fend it from him, astray from the joys of youth.
Powerless not to endure it, he liveth his life of grief
‘Neath a four-fold sorrow laden, because that he is a thief
To have stol’n from Heaven
And to boon friends given
The food and nectar of Gods, whereby
They forgave him death. Now if mortal men
Think to do a deed, and the Gods defy,
They err—for the Gods immortal banish’d his son again
To our short-lived span.
(Pindar, 1st Olympian Ode)
Hindu gods are thought to chow down on a glorious substance called amrita, and like ambrosia (to which it is etymologically related), it confers immortality. Amrita seems closely related to the earlier Vedic soma (which also appears in Zoroastrianism), and was also the name of a Hindu god.
This heavenly beverage was brought down to earth and bestowed on mortals by the god Soma, the personification of the soma plant, which the Hindus now identify with the Asclepias acida, or Sarcostemma viminale. This is a plant containing a milky juice of a sweetish subacid flavour, which, being mixed with honey and other ingredients, yielded to the enraptured Aryans the first fermented liquor their race had ever known. The poetic fire with which Burns sings the praises of John Barleycorn may help us, but only in a faint degree, to comprehend the tumult of delight and wonder, the devout ecstasy, with which the first draught of the miraculous soma possessed the souls of a simple race of water-drinking nomads. What a Vedic hymn would Burns have raised had he been one of them! But there was not wanting many a sacred poet to commemorate the glorious event, nor did it fail to be hallowed in the traditions of succeeding generations from the Ganges to the Atlantic. Among all the Indo-Europeans it gave rise to a multitude of myths and legends, having for their subject the simultaneous descent of fire, of the soul of man, and of the drink of the gods (Kelly, 1863, p34).
Now, an alternative explanation is that amrita (or soma) is created by a bunch of divine critters getting together and churning the oceans, and causing rain, the rainwater being identified as amrita. We call Asclepias acida by it’s more common name of “milkweed”, so if given a choice between nice fresh rainwater wrung from the ocean by Asuras and Devas, and the milky sap of a weed, I’ve got to go with the water, but different strokes for different folks as they say.
A Sanskrit poem tells how “once upon a time the Devas, or gods, and their opponents, the Asuras, made a truce, and joined together in churning the ocean to procure amrita, the drink of immortality. They took Mount Mandara for a churning-stick, and, wrapping the great serpent Sesha round it for a rope, they made the mountain spin round to and fro, the Devas pulling at the serpent’s tail, and the Asuras at its head.”f In this myth the churning-stick, with its flying serpent-cords, is the lightning, and the amrita, or drink of immortality, is simply the rain-water, which in Aryan folk-lore possesses the same healing virtues as the lightning. ” In Slavonic myths it is the water of life which restores the dead earth, a water brought by a bird from the depths of a gloomy cave.” It is the celestial soma or mead which Indra loves to drink; it is the ambrosial nectar of the Olympian gods ; it is the charmed water which in the Arabian Nights restores to human shape the victims of wicked sorcerers ; and it is the elixir of life which medieval philosophers tried to discover, and in quest of which Ponce De Leon traversed the wilds of Florida (Fiske, 1873, p63).
So a lot of the food of the gods seems to be wrapped up in keeping them alive forever. “The Vedic gods, like the Hellenic, live forever. The Soma inspires them with fresh vigour, as the soul of Zeus is refreshed and strengthened by the ambrosia and nectar of his heavenly banquets. So the Soma draught becomes in Northern Europe the cup of honey mingled with the blood of Qvasir, the wisest of all beings, who during his life had gone about the world doing the work of Prometheus for the wretched children of men” (Cox, 1883, p43). Now while the derivation of the Teutonic blood of Qvasir no doubt is related to ambrosia, amrita, and soma, the northern gods tended to have a more robust diet. Can’t fight Frost Giants on mead and magic immortality juice. Its hard to hoist a battle ax without tossing back a little meat. And while the ale and mead certainly flow in Valhalla (Odin himself sticks to wine), it appears that the honored warriors that hang out near Asgard are big fans of pork, fed a steady diet of pork stew made from the eternally regenerating flesh of the supernatural swine Saerimnir, cooked up by Chef to the Gods, Andhrimnir. Snorri Sturluson’s 13th Century Younger Edda (an Old Norse compilation of Scandinavian mythology recorded in Iceland) answers the question directly.
Then said Gangleri; Thou sayest that all those men, that have fallen in fight from the beginning of the world, are now come to Odin in Valhall; what has he to give them to eat? Methinks there should be there a very great throng. Then answers Har: True it is what thou sayest, a very great throng is there, but many more shall yet come, (thither) and still will it be thought too little when the wolf cometh; but never is there so great a band of men in Valhall, that the flesh of the boar that bight Saerimnir is not left over and above to them; he is sodden every day and whole again at even, but this asking that thou now askest, methinks few would be so wise as to be able to tell thee the truth hereof: Andhrimnir hight the cook but Eldhrimnir the kettle; so is it here said. “Andhrimnir serveth best of flesh; in Eldhrimnir but that few wot of, Saehrimnir sodden, on what the champions feed.” Then said Gangleri; Has Odinn the same food as the champions. Har answers: The meat that stands on his board he gives to two wolves which he hath, hight so Geri and Freki, and he needs no meat, wine is to him both meat and drink; as is here said. “Geri and Freki, But with wine only, sates the wartamer lordly in arms, the famous Father of hosts. Odinn for aye lives” (Dasent trans. Sturluson, 1883, p42-43).
China’s Taoist Eight Immortals are big fans of peaches. Rumor is that they also eat “rock marrow” (a clay like mineral substance), the fruit of the jade tree (either the flowers or the swollen, succulent leaves), and the “peaches of immortality”, not to mention a host of fabulous dishes that are rarely available at you finest restaurants, including “bears’ paws, monkeys’ lips, dragons’ liver, and phoenix marrow” (Werner, 1922, p137). This feast only happened once every 6000 years, so it makes sense that they went in for some serious delicacies.
It is said of the Queen-Mother of the West that she goes about with hair unkempt, with a bird’s beak and tiger ‘s teeth, and that she is skilled in playing the flute. Yet this is not her true figure, but that of a spirit who serves her, and rules over the Western sky. The Queen-Mother entertained King Mu in her castle by the Springs of Jade. And she gave him rock-marrow to drink and fed him with the fruit of the jade-trees. Then she sang him a song and taught him a magic formula by means of which one could obtain long life. The Queen-Mother of the West gathers the immortals around her, and gives them to eat of the peaches of long life ; and then they come to her with wagons with purple canopies, drawn by flying dragons. Ordinary mortals sink in the Weak Eiver when they try to cross. But she was kindly disposed to King Wu (Wilhelm, 1921, p99).
Egypt is thought to have been where man first deliberately attempted to cultivate grapes and make wine. Thus it is fitting that wine was a significant part of a balanced diet for the ancient Egyptian gods. Another important of the Egyptian god’s dinner was the “shens cake” (as detailed in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, although for the life of me, I cannot find any clear indication of what exactly it is made from). By and large, the average Egyptian god appeared to eat more or less what the average upper class Egyptian did, that is meat, water fowls, vegetables, and fruit, excepting of course the feared lion, hippopotamus, and crocodile hybrid god Ammit, “the Devourer of Souls”, who appeared to have something of a taste for human hearts. This means that all those offerings of food that are often left on the altars of our various gods are less likely to go to waste in Egypt. The Mayans and Aztecs thought pretty highly of the cacao bean (from whence chocolate is derived), but there is little mention of their gods subsisting on it, and its appellation as the “Food of the Gods” was actually applied by the Spanish, since they never had tasted anything so scrumptious. Then again, cacao beans were used as money in ancient Mesoamerica, so if they were anything like us, it might as well have been a god unto itself. All in all, considering the amount of food burnt in homage to our respective deities, one might reasonably assume our gods like a nice smoky flavor, but there is little indication across multiple mythologies that they are actually eating the offerings.
Ultimately, the conclusion I’ve come to is that, from an epicurean perspective, it really sucks to be a god. What good is it to be all-powerful with such a restrictive diet? Okay, the copious amounts of wine, mead, beer, and various other intoxicants imbibed by your average deity probably make up for the lack of variety in solid foods, but still, come on. It’s not like the gods have to worry about having heart attacks, high cholesterol, or too many preservatives. They are gods after all. Eat some bacon (the Scandinavian gods figured that one out, at least) or have a cheeseburger, some barbecued ribs, or at least a nice Cobb salad. And maybe that’s why they keep demanding those extensive sacrifices of tasty foodstuffs across the millennia. Alternatively, the lack of good chefs in heaven may explain why divinity is typically so grumpy and routinely flooding the world. If all I could eat was some honey-based mixture, peaches, milky sap, and pork stew, eventually I’d have a bit of an attitude as well. Perhaps humanity could have avoided a lot of catastrophic smiting if only we’d paid more attention to whipping up good meals for the gods, for as Oscar Wilde observed, “After a good dinner, one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives.” I may try this. Next confession will sound a little different. “Forgive me Father for I have sinned, but I have prepared the Lord a nice omelet”.
Bulfinch, Thomas, 1796-1867. The Age of Fable: Or, Beauties of Mythology. Boston: S. W. Tilton & co. [etc.], 1855.
Cox, George W. 1827-1902. An Introduction to the Science of Comparative Mythology And Folklore. 2d. ed. London: K. Paul, Trench, & co., 1883.
Dasent, George Webbe, Sir, 1817-1896, and 1179?-1241 Snorri Sturluson. The Prose: Or Younger Edda Commonly Ascribed to Snorri Sturluson. Stockholm: Norstedt and sons, 1842.
Fiske, John, 1842-1901. Myths And Myth-makers: Old Tales And Superstitions Interpreted by Comparative Mythology. Boston: J.R. Osgood and company, 1873.
Kelly, Walter Keating. Curiosities of Indo-European Tradition And Folk-lore. London: Chapman & Hall, 1863.
Pindar. Olympian Odes of Pindar. Cambridge: Macmillan & Bowes , 1906.
Werner, E. T. C. 1864-1954. Myths & Legends of China. London [etc.]: G. G. Harrap & co., ltd, 1922.
Wilhelm, Richard, 1873-1930. The Chinese Fairy Book. New York: Frederick A. Stokes company, 1921.