Okay, so let’s start by going back to the very beginning – women and wild food. Because once upon a time all food was wild – and it was the women who gathered it. And from harvest to preparation to consumption, no aspect of food production was left untouched by magical ritual. Many ecofeminists see the oppression of women and the exploitation of nature as fundamentally connected, but because the banning of magic, the subjugation of women, the domination of the earth – and the capitalist overtaking of food production – all went hand in hand, I see food magic as an important site for ecofeminist intervention.
Long before food was bought and sold for profit, our hunter-gatherer ancestors once roamed over the land, foraging the food freely provided by the fields and woodlands, rivers and oceans. And in every part of the world, before the advent of capitalism, women played a major role in agricultural production. For the most part, men were in charge of hunting and women were largely responsible for the harvesting and cultivation of plant foods as well the processes that accompanied it, cooking, baking, food processing, and food storage (basketry, pottery, and granaries).
And while there were exceptions, according to Eleanor Leacock ( Women’s Status in Egalitarian Society) and feminist author Silvia Federici, in these early cultures women were not yet second-class citizens. Federici states “they had access to land, the use of its resources and control over the crops they cultivated, all of which guaranteed their autonomy and economic independence from men.” Many of these early food economies are often referred to as “gift-giving” meaning food was seen as a ‘gift’ of mother nature, freely exchanged and distributed to all, and not surprisingly, war was virtually unknown!
It was with the shift to ownership of crop and land, that food became increasingly hoarded by the wealthy through imperialistic conquest. And while agriculture is believed to have been a boon, providing more food for all on a predictable basis – back then, this was hardly the case. Farming was estimated to produce only about three-fifths of the food gained from foraging— and it took way more work too! So why farm? Jacob L. Weisdorf of the Institute of Economics, University of Copenhagen, believes it was all about the money. Agriculture left the food supply in fewer and wealthier hands and its control was “ultimately necessary to the rise of modern civilisation by creating the foundation for the later process of industrialisation and sustained economic growth.”
And according to Federici, what this meant for women was that they had to be removed from the centre of food production and replaced with a ‘labour force’ that created food for profit. This set the stage for “the “housewifization of women” as their labour (and bodies) were transformed into “economic resources” for exploitation. This process was repeated with the colonisation of indigenous peoples whose access to the lands and territories which traditionally fed them was denied, and their gift giving economies, food gathering and distribution practices (i.e. potlatches) banned.
But the point of this post is recognising that in early gift-giving societies women’s work was about waaay more than food production. Food was sacred, and no aspect of harvesting, preparing, cooking, baking was left unblessed. All were part of a powerful “sympathetic” magic intended to honour and nourish the earth – thus providing prosperity and abundance for all.
Theirs was a deeply animistic world in which the earth was alive. For them “magic” meant knowledge of the workings of nature and each season, plant, tree and flower had a purpose. They were not separate from the web of life but in a reciprocal relationship with it. And they empowered and helped fertilize the earth by weaving magical symbols into gathering baskets, carving them into pots and creating ritual foods to be consumed in communal celebrations. Today de-toothed today as folklore, wives tales and quaint superstition, we’ve forgotten this food magic once formed the basis of an ancient religion that sought to harmonise with the life-giving powers of nature.
But for the new capitalist order to succeed, this reverence for the earth had to be replaced by obedience to the Church and State, and by the middle ages, women’s magic was designated as witchcraft and punishable by burning. Federici argues this persecution of women’s ‘old ways’ as witchcraft was necessary to the desacralization of nature, paving the way for its transformation into a lifeless “resource” for economic exploitation.
No longer could women paint or carve magical symbols on their hearths, pots and dishes. No more weaving corn dollies for fertility, or offering honey mead, milk, or eggs to fruit trees in wassailing rituals – or else! In her book, Caliban and the Witch Federici asks us to consider why this war was waged against magic and women? “Just what is supposed to be eliminated when these women are condemned to the stake?” Some were healers, herbalists and midwives, but many were just everyday women who stubbornly clung to the old ways. They observed the old nature holidays, left food offerings for their goddesses (often personifications of the earth), created magical crafts and baked sacred foods.
And according to Alex Knight, as she writes in “Who Were the Witches? – Patriarchal Terror and the Creation of Capitalism these women “represented a whole world that Europe’s new masters were anxious to destroy: a world with strong female leadership, a world rooted in local communities and knowledge, a world alive with magical possibilities…”
That’s why I see food magic as an eco-feminist practice, one that is deeply subversive to the patriarchy. (By this, I do not mean men in general, but a political and economic system that benefits the 1% off the backs of many.) Reclaiming the old ways of giving thanks and offering blessings, is part of our ancestral heritage, a legacy of ritually living in harmony with the earth, of recognizing the sacrality of all life, whether it be a berry, a jug of milk or a sheaf of grain. And it reminds us there was once a very different way of living, one in which women’s work was at the centre of a peaceful, egalitarian economy in which the earth freely fed and nourished all her children, no matter their ability to pay.
Today both the rewilding and ancestral skills movements are reviving many traditional female activities such as wild food harvesting, open-hearth cooking, food storage, pottery, weaving, fermenting, herbal medicines etc. While the goal is to reconnect with nature and find more sustainable ways of living, there is far more emphasis on reviving practical skills than on reviving spiritual practices such as women’s magic. (I want to acknowledge that there was also men’s hunting magic and rituals, but these also seem to be overlooked).
Few are the pottery and basket weaving classes that focus on the magical history of patterns and motifs originally intended to enhance the fertility of the land and promote a plentiful harvest. Few are the foraging courses which teach the arts of ceremonial gathering, the ancient devotions, prayers and songs to honour the earth. Few are the workshops which reconnect us to the old ways of blessing the hearth, the rituals of creating and offering sacred foods, dishes and feasts…
While food magic may seem like a bit of fun at best and primitive superstition at worst, I believe it has a great deal to teach us about living in balance with mother nature (and each other). If we wish to revive ancestral skills and wisdom can we really ignore what was a fundamental spiritual understanding of these early gift-giving societies? Our hunter-gatherer ancestors saw no division between themselves and nature, between spirit and the material world. Seeking balance with nature means more than just reviving practical skills and living sustainably, it means ritually acknowledging and thanking the earth for her life-giving gifts.