There is probably no other food item in Slavic culture that would be viewed with so much reverence and respect as bread. “Bread is everything’s head.” They say in Russia and Ukraine. A piece of bread in a garbage can is the expression of utmost disrespect bordering with insult. The very process of its preparation was treated as sacred. Every Slavic holiday celebration involves consumption of one or the other form of bread: flatbread or large and puffy Karavay, pancakes, crepes, buns, or cookies. Pies and crepes or pancakes were considered a must-be dish at any memorial meal. Bread was commonly used as an offering to Deities and Spirits and as a gift to people. Special breads were baked for divination and to attract love, appease the Bear, and in order to be taken to the cemetery for the Ancestors.
A folk tale asks the listener: what is more precious: bread or gold? “Gold is more precious than bread” says the gypsy in the tale; “Bread is more precious than gold” says the farmer. The God hears their argument and gives each one thing they considered more precious: gold to the gypsy and bread to the farmer, and then leaves them both locked up separately from each other for several days. When the God checks on the gypsy, he is dead, yet the farmer is still alive and happy and even singing. The moral of this story teaches us that gold is only valuable when you’re surrounded by other people that could trade you bread for that gold; when you just have bread (food) on your table – you don’t really need any gold.
Slavic tales offer many versions as to how people learned to bake bread. Some legends suggest that grains were given to human race by dragons (winged snakes), and it was them who taught humans how to grow wheat and rye and prepare bread. Others believe it had to be the gift of the Gods. Finally, another legend even says that demons were the first ones to teach humans bake bread, as well as make beer and other alcoholic drinks based on grains.
Indeed, when you eat a slice of store-bought bread, it is hard to remember how much work had to be put into turning a hard seed of wheat into a puffy baked good on our dinnerplate. Farmers had to do it all from scratch: plow the earth, sow the, watch it grow, making sure there is enough rain to keep the soil moist; then harvest it, thresh it, grind it, and only then use it to prepare bread. Bad crops of grain meant starvation in winter, for grain could generally last longer than most fruits and vegetables. In early spring, when all the food preserved for the winter had been eaten, Slavic peasants had to survive on bread and kvass (a drink made on the base of rye bread), hence many customs associated with fasting during Lent.
In folk tradition, baking bread was often compared to birth of a human being (kind of like American saying “a bun in the oven” referring to pregnancy). For instance, a midwife could “re-bake” the prematurely born and sickly baby in order to make it healthier. For this, she would put the baby on a bread paddle and place it in a warm oven that was associated with mother’s womb. After some time, the baby was removed from the oven and henceforth viewed “born” again, in a better, healthier form. Later on, this ritual became mostly associated with Baba Yaga and Her habit of cooking children in the oven and eating them.
Bread crust, for it touched the hot metal of the bread pan, is associated with the Element of Fire, while the rest of it represents the life-giving power of Earth. These association allowed Russian healers use different parts of bread in healing various ailments. The dough, kneaded by hand, was considered a powerfully charged magical object, as the mistress who kneaded it added her own thoughts and wishes into the dough while she was at it. It was very common to recite incantations and prayers when kneading dough for a ritual bread: whether it was a wedding bread Karavay, Christmas cookies Kozuli, Christmas-time Kalach (a ring-shaped ritual bread), Spring Equinox buns “larks”, or an Easter bread Kulich or Paska.
Dishes and utensils that were used to make bread were considered sacred, as well. For instance, a barrel in which the dough was rising, kvashnya was used in some regions to “test” bride’s honesty before the wedding. A bride was offered to sit on kvashnya, yet she could only do so if she was a virgin, otherwise, if she tried to lie, kvashnya would be “punish” her with infertility and an unhappy life. While the test was purely psychological: admitting before your own and your future husband’s family that you are not a virgin or unleashing all the possible disasters upon your own and your family’s head, not too many brides dared lying to their families and sitting on kvashnya if they had something to hide.
As the most sacral form of food, bread symbolizes material wealth. While it is viewed as the gift from the God, it is also seen as an independent living creature or even an embodiment of a Deity. In Belarussian Polesye, if someone cursed, they added: “With due respect to the bright sun, mother earth, and the gift of God [bread]”. While it was believed that Ancestral souls visiting the house on holidays and memorial days enjoy the very scent of freshly-baked bread, a loaf of bread was always kept in the Red Corner (on the household altar). Bread on the table symbolized wealth (a gift from the God on the “hand of God”), readiness to welcome guests, as well as served as protective charm and symbol of God’s blessing and protection. Bread brought out on a towel with a dish of salt on top of it is a common symbol of hospitality (hence, the saying “greet someone with bread and salt” means welcome someone wholeheartedly). At Belarussian wedding, parents took over the role of Gods and blessed the newlywed with bread and salt, while accompanying the blessing ceremony with words: “I give you good luck and good fate, bread and salt, steers and cows; everything good that I have I am giving to you.” Generally, parental blessing with bread and salt is considered a must-be ritual at any Slavic wedding. Special towels are prepared for this bread: they are called bread-and-salt towels and are used to hold the bread during blessing. Such towels most commonly feature symbols of good luck, happiness, and prosperity. During engagement, the young couple had to place their hand on the bread as a sign of agreement, and in Yekaterinslavl “wedding ceremony for barge-pullers”, the whole ceremony consisted of the newlywed kissing the bread and swearing “On God and bread” to live peacefully.
A loaf of bread, and particularly its first slice or even crumb symbolized the human fate – it was believed that one’s strength, good health, and luck depend on it. Therefore, it was not allowed for one person to finish someone else’s piece of bread – you’d “eat” his or her power. For the same reasons one was not allowed to eat behind someone else’s back. The one who would give a piece of bread from the table to the dog was believed to become poor. A piece of bread could not be left on the table out of fear of weight loss: “the bread would eat the person instead or chase his or her soul in the Otherworld”. Crumbs falling out of mouth while eating foretell an upcoming death for the eater. When a bread crumb fell, one had to pick it up, kiss it and eat it or throw it in the fire. Belarussians used to say at this: “Please forgive me God”.
While it was man’s duty to cut and share bread, preparing dough and baking bread was considered primarily woman’s occupation. Women could not bake bread at “unholy”, transitional periods of their lives: during a menstrual period, after a sexual intercourse, and after birth. Bread could not be baked on great holidays (it should be prepared in advance), on Sundays, and sometimes on some other days of the week. Rising dough was believed to “fear” of sudden noises, arguments, and wind drafts, so people were not allowed to talk loudly, curse, sweep, or make other noise when the dough was rising, placed in the oven, and baked. No one could enter or leave the house when the oven was open (so that the draft would not deflate the dough). Flour, dough and bread were frequently crossed during preparation.
As a protective charm, bread was placed into the newborn’s cradle, given to travelers before they headed on the road, placed at the spot where the dead was laying (so that bread would “defeat” Death, and the deceased would not take fertility with him or her); bread and tools to prepare it (the barrel for the dough and a bread paddle) were taken outside before the storm to protect the fields; bread was carried around the burning building or thrown in the fire to prevent it from spreading.
Bread was left overnight at a place where the house was planned to be built to see if the place is fitting for construction; a loaf of bread was carried into the new house when moving. Ritual bread Krachun was rolled from threshold towards the table in Winter Solstice divination about the future year. In Zhitomir Region, Ukraine, a place for a new house was marked with a cross, next to which a table with bread on it was installed. This bread was cut into four portions: one was placed on the cross, so that Saints could eat and pray for happiness of those who would live here; second portion was placed under the table for house spirits, so that they would eat and not harm the household; third was eaten with a prayer to God about wealth and fertility of crops and animals; fourth was given to domestic animals, so that they would be healthy and full.
As a ritual gift, bread was given to carolers during Christmas celebrations; it was taken along when heading to propose; used to bless the newlywed and welcome guests; bread was brought along with bride’s dowry and shared in different ritual situations. Offerings of bread were left in the fields, woods, cemeteries, and other places. Bread, honey, and cheese are considered ancient Russian offerings to Rozhanitsy (Birthers).
Bread was used as an offering to the Ancestors: it was placed in a coffin, bread crumbs were cast on the grave for the birds, as they represented Ancestral souls, left on a cross. Steam rising from hot bread was considered food for the souls that could even reach the Otherworld; so was the first loaf, often marked with a cross. In Poltava County, such bread was broken in half and left on the household altar or a windowsill (an entrance into the Otherworld) for the Ancestors. Breaking of the bread in half is primarily related to the cult of the dead, and in Christianity it reminds of the Last Supper: Jesus broke the bread and shared it between people.
Bread that was forgotten in the oven was considered special: it was given to a person who missed someone dearly, so that he or she would forget his or her loved one. It was also used in healing.
Nowadays, often when having plenty and not needing to prepare the basic essential foods from scratch, people tend to forget the sacral meaning of foods like bread and treat it with less or no respect. In well-developed countries, tons of edible products are being thrown away every day, just because people did not feel like eating them at the moment. Starvation is hardly imagined by many of us, and bread – "everything’s head" is no longer honored as it once used to be.
Prepared by Olga Stanton
P.S. Some materials are taken from the articles by Toporkov, A.L., Plotnikova, A.A., and Bayburin, A.K., as well as the book by Larin, V.N. “World of Russian Cunning Man: The First Steps”