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Alleluia! Easter Soups
(e-SoupSong 24: April 1, 2002)
ONCE UPON A TIME, as the Apostles' creed goes, "Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord...was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father almighty."
That matter-of-fact account, however, leaves out all the catastrophic swings of horror and joy that Christians experienced that first Easter...and have relived each year since as the central mystery of faith. According to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, it began one fair Sunday in early spring when 33-year-old Jesus arrived in Jerusalem for Passover week, enthusiastically welcomed by the people. He spent the week teaching, healing, and setting priorities straight at the Jewish Temple--all of which dyspeptically upset "the establishment." Then, on Thursday, he celebrated the Passover feast with his disciples and went to pray in a garden just outside the city walls. At that point, Jerusalem's chief priests sent armed guards to arrest him for questioning on matters of blasphemy. Then, so incredibly fast--in less than a day--Jesus was jerked back and forth among legal jurisdictions: first questioned by priests...then by the Governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate...by Herod, tetrarch of Christ's home state of Galilee...back to Pilate...and finally back to the priests and the people--who not only called for him to be sentenced to crucifixion, but also refused him legal pardon. Then, all according to law, he was whipped, mocked, and executed. All this in less than a day.
I can't even imagine the shattering finality of that death to his followers. One day spiritual ecstasy and certainty...hours later, and almost out of the blue, the extinction of their leader and with him their hopes, dreams, and faith--"for," as John remarks, "as yet the disciples knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead."
In fact, these disciples--every one of them!--literally disappear from the story for a couple days. Luke says they "stood afar off" during the crucifixion. John notes they were afraid for their lives and went into hiding; Mark says "they mourned and wept." That's it. Period. Otherwise, it was outsider Joseph of Arimathaea who got Pilate's permission to take the body, wrap it in linen, and seal it in a cave. And come Easter Sunday, it was Mary Magdalene and other women who went to that cave and discovered the stone rolled away; who heard the good news from an angel of the Lord; who saw the risen Christ himself; and who raced off to tell the disciples.
And what did these women say to the disciples? What Christians everywhere say on Easter Sunday: "Alleluia. Christ is risen." Yet it was stunning news that almost couldn't be processed. Matthew talks about the disciples "doubting"; Mark, about them "not believing"; Luke says they didn't even recognize Christ at Emmaus; John tells how Thomas asked for grisly proof. It was only after talking with Christ that they believed what they saw and "went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following." And they did a great job, too. Today, over 2 billion people consider themselves Christians, about 1/3 of the world population.
But notice I haven't said one word about Carnival, Cheese Week, Clean Monday, Fat Tuesday/Shrovetide, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Mezza Quaresima, Mothering Sunday/Rejoicing Sunday, Palm/Passion/Carlings Sunday, Maundy Thursday, or Holy Saturday? And nothing about Easter being named after a Teutonic goddess...or about Easter eggs and Easter bunnies? Fact is, all these things came well after the fact. They're all rituals and customs that developed over time so people could understand, remember, and celebrate the central mystery. And food, as always, plays a huge role in these processes--including soup.
WHAT ABOUT THOSE EASTER BUNNIES...AND HOW ABOUT ALL THOSE CUSTOMS?
Let's start with Eostre, that Teutonic deity who the Venerable Bede, of all people, identified with the month of April and Christ's passion (De Temporum Ratione, 8th century AD England). She's as good a goddess as any to sum up man's primeval understanding and mythmaking of earth's natural cycles. In the beginning, of course, prehistoric (and nontropical) man just looked around at things: he watched nature die in winter then miraculously come back to life in the spring. Over time, he made the "life/birth" connection with the childbearers in his tribe and personified the process as a Supernatural Woman: think Isis, the Slavic Makosh, Norse Freya, classical Demeter and Ceres, Aztec Tlazoteotl...and Eostre, all fertility earth mothers who birthed new lifegiving food in the spring. What about when food didn't grow? Clearly, the goddess was weak and/or angry--and likely needed food/incentives herself in order to be fertile. In his myths, early man would tell stories of a god-king sacrificed for the renewal of the land--for example, the Neolithic "sorrowful god," Osiris, Tammuz, Orpheus, and Baldur. In his own little village, he was more direct: offering food to the earth mother, including freshly killed humans when food animals were too precious to sacrifice. Remember ancient Tolland Man, dug out of a Danish peat bog in the 1950s? He'd been ritually strangled in the name of fertility: in poet Seamus Heaney's words, he was "Bridegroom to the goddess."
So when Christ's disciples "went forth, and preached every where" some 2,000 years ago, they were running into heathens who were already pretty comfortable with the main outlines of a death/rebirth story. Disciples said a "son of God" was sacrificed at the very end of winter and reborn at the very beginning of spring...and these heathens could relate. Disciples said that this particular sacrifice meant ETERNAL joy and salvation. Well, what's not to like? Conversions came pretty easily, all things considered. And, of course, it seemed pretty natural to these converts to attach their old "rebirth" customs to the new holiday of resurrection.
Eggs? You bet--they've symbolized rebirth and regeneration since ancient man first domesticated chickens.
Bread? Yep--sheafs of wheat were ritually sacrificed on domestic altars from earliest times; also cakes and boiled, salted wheat.
Easter bunnies? Naturellement. These prolific little critters were big time sacred to fertility goddesses in general, and to Eostre in particular.
Soup? No, not yet.
So much for Easter egg hunts, rabbit tales, and all the fabulous breads and cakes that are baked during the Easter season. Now, what about "new" customs--the ones that grew directly out of Christ's passion and that take us from Carnival through Lent and through all the days of Holy Week to Easter Sunday?
Ah, a more curious history than you would suppose.
Lent, for example. The earliest Christians celebrated a short, tough Lent: either for one day...or 40 hours...or two days...they didn't eat a bite or take a sip of anything. Eusebius reports that St. Irenaeius was annoyed by these variations and in 190 AD urged Pope St. Victor I to lay down the law on precisely how long people should fast. A couple years later Tertullian echoed the same sentiments, sneering a bit that common Catholic practice was a mere 2 days (the so-called Passion Feast for "the days on which the bridegroom was taken away") instead of the tougher 2-week fast of his own schizmatic Montanist sect.
It wasn't until the 4th century that the church declared a much longer, but less severe fast at the Council of Nicea (325 AD). St. Athanasius actually nailed the 40 days, when he urged his flock in 331 AD to fast for 40 full days--to commemorate Jesus's 40 days of fasting and temptation in the desert...and his 40 hours in the tomb. Pope Gregory laid it down as church law in 604 AD...and by 653 the Council of Toledo was ready to refuse communion to anyone who didn't fast for 40 days. Let's not even talk about Charlemagne's 9th century edict that these recalcitrants be put to death.
By the 7th century, anyway, Lent meant for Catholics no meat, no eggs, no milk nor butter nor cheese, no sex for 40 days. In "Beppo," Byron put it this way:
"And thus they bid farewell to carnal dishes,It was worse if you were Orthodox: all the above, plus no fish (except shellfish), no wine, and no olive oil...and for 48 days. But the important thing was, now there was a benchmark: Lent was a fixed star in the constellation of this moveable feast--and Easter-related customs were now free to develop and take root in church calendars.
CARNIVAL (culminating in Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Fasching, Fastnacht, Shrovetide, Apokria)
Never doubt that Easter's first custom is Carnival. Think about it. Hints of spring are in the air; you're tired of winter; and now, on Ash Wednesday, you're about to sail into a 40-day season of penitence and fasting. What's a good Christian to do? Carne vale, of course--or, translated, say "goodbye to meat" in one big blast. Since it's the end of winter, food stocks are way down, but the hens are still laying and the cows are still giving milk for butter and cheese...and if you can't slaughter a pig, you can at least use up the salted meat.
Carnival was one big food frenzy: Lots of meat everywhere. Sweet eggy breads, like English pancakes, German kuchen, Polish paczki, Portuguese sonhos, Italian omelets and fried dough. Greeks methodically progressed from a week of bingeing, to a week of finishing off the meat, to a last week of finishing off the cheese.
Tight-lipped soup, understandably, played a minor role in shake-and-shimmy Carnival festivities.
Soup comes into its own during Lent. It may not be the best soup you've ever eaten, but it is King: austere, thick, filling, hot, often beany--and not highly seasoned as the whole point is penitence and mortification of the flesh.
Cheating during Lent? Oh yes, always. And lots of shady rationalizations too. The church rule was no "meat"--so fish, mollusks, crab were okay because they were "cold blooded." Then, upon reflection, cold-blooded turtles and frogs were declared okay too, though their meat is pretty meaty. Then snails--actually raised at convents and monasteries as food for Lent. Iguanas and alligators. Then newborn rabbits, somehow. Creative interpretation reached a new level, however, with 11th-century aristocratic monks at the St. Gall monastery in Switzerland. These epicures shipped in exotic seafoods for Lent, including a whale; they declared beavers cold blooded; and they specially reclassified ducks, geese, partridges, and pheasants as "feathered fish" for the duration of the Lenten season.
Over time, too, some cultures just changed the Lenten rules.
PALM SUNDAY/CARLINGS SUNDAY
Palm Sunday begins Holy Week, the last week of Lent, and commemorates the day Christ arrived in Jerusalem for Passover week, when people strewed palms in his path to welcome him. Also called Passion Sunday, it is the time when Christians begin to turn their thoughts away from their own sins and toward Christ's suffering on the cross. It is also a time when England thinks of...peas. Why peas? Likely by accident--because "Passion" sounded like Middle English "Peason." So in Northern England and Scotland, dried peas became associated with the day and (stay with me here) came to be called "carlings" after the purple mourning draperies--Care in Middle English--that were placed on church altars that day. In any event, these dried carlings are still sold in packages, and in villages like Teesside are steeped in water over Friday night then boiled with fat bacon on Saturday evening, and served hot or cold in pubs and hospitals on Sunday with salt and vinegar.
In the South of France, by contrast, people recall the tradition of Christ walking through fields of chickpeas on Palm Sunday and serve chickpea soup.
MAUNDY THURSDAY/GREEN THURSDAY
Maundy Thursday recalls the Last Supper and Christ washing the feet of his disciples. It's called "Maundy Thursday" from the "mandate" of humility Christ laid down after the foot washing. It's called "Green Thursday" from the Germanic word "grunen" (to mourn) and also, likely, from the bitter herbs that were part of the traditional Jewish Passover dinner. Accordingly, many people still eat green soups of these herbs in honor of the day.
On this day of Christ's crucifixion, many people by tradition would eat nothing at all. Those who did remembered the vinegar: "Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar: and they filled a sponge with vinegar, and put it upon hyssop, and put it to his mouth." It was the last ministration. "When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost." As a consequence, and in all honor:
In the Swabian district of Germany, however, people traditionally made a clear soup with maultaschen or "snout pockets"--wonderfully fat stuffed noodles. And the stuffing? Since medieval times, stuffed with meat--prompting critics to ask, "Do you think God is so dumb that he can't see through the noodle dough?"
Alleluia! This culmination of the Easter season, when Christ rose from the dead, is full of joy and is celebrated at a table now cleared of Lenten austerities. No surprise, then, that soup is positively bristling with all the forbidden foods--and often serves to break the Lenten fast while preparations are underway for the extravagant Easter feast that follows of meat roasts, egg and cheese dishes, creamy concoctions, sweet buns, and fabulous cakes.
REFLECTIONS ON THE SEASON
In the course of my research this month I came across a London newspaper article written at Easter time some 60 years ago--in the very darkest days of the blitz during World War II. It seemed to me that of all the poems and songs, homilies and essays I had read, none captured the meaning and emotion of Easter as thoughtfully as this piece. The author, Charles Hesselgrave, focused on an Easter subject that is seldom addressed: the 40-hour entombment of Christ, when his "change from death to life culminated in the obscurity of the tomb." Mr. Hesselgrave, like the disciples before him, was at that time close to despair: "Around us at this Easter time," he said, "the darkness and confusion of human affairs are almost beyond parallel. A crisis in history has, no doubt, been reached. We seem to see not only the disruption of international and national life, but the clashing ideals of races, the spread and deepening of hatred and strife, the failure of human capacity for organization to hold in check the elemental passions and aspirations of mankind, and even the breakdown of Christianity itself."
Likely entombed himself in London's cavernous underground tube, where so many sought shelter from the bombs , Mr. Hesselgrave thought about Christ stirring into life in the darkness of the cave, reflecting that "all great beginnings are thus conditioned and surrounded. ...Out of the mothering womb of time has come forth the human race through its various stages, progressing through barbarism, primitive civilization, and the historic era." It's clear that he doubts, that he has trouble believing in a message of hope, as the disciples did at first. But ultimately he takes comfort that some as yet unknown stirrings of a new life will "result in a higher order scarcely to be apprehended until the growth directed by the Unseen Mind has brought some reorganization out of the old chaos."
I want to take comfort from this message too as, around us at this Easter time, we seem likewise at a crisis in history. Swords are drawn between cultures, not nations, on issues of values, customs, and deeply held beliefs. Young people on all sides, passionate in their convictions, are using weapons or turning themselves into living bombs out of anger and hatred, slaughtering thousands of innocents. So many killed last September...this Passover...yesterday on Easter Sunday. Beyond the joy we take in our holidays and with our families at holiday feasts, can we hope that, in Mr. Hesselgrave's words, "the patient, brooding spirit of man, inspired by hope and faith in the Divine Order, will yet bring to power and dominion the living principles of international brotherhood and service now obscured in the bitterness and darkness of war and racial strife"?
Resources: Bede's A History of the English Church and People; The Book of Common Prayer; Lord Byron's "Beppo"; Carol Field's Celebrating Italy; Alice Hazeltine and Elva Smith's The Easter Book of Legends and Stories; The Holy Bible; Internet resources like www.englishheathenism.homestead.com, www.godecookery.com/jeanne/jeanne2.htm, www.goddessherself.com/whoyou.htm, and www.newadvent.org/cathen/091529.htm; Carl Gustav Jung's Man and His Symbols; Charles Kightly's The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain; George A. Megas' Greek Calendar Customs; Susan Tracy Rice's Easter: It's History, Celebration, Spirit, and Significance as Related in Prose and Verse--including Charles E. Hesselgrave's "While It Was Yet Dark"; Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir's Matarast; Milo Shannon-Thornberry's The Alternate Celebrations Catalogue; Richard Thonger's A Calendar of German Customs; Evelyn Birge Vitz' A Continual Feast; and a large variety of newspaper and magazine articles. Above all thanks to Vivian Efthymiopoulou for her insight, recipes, and wise counsel.* * *
NEXT MONTH: SOUP AT THE BEAUTY SHOP...makes you want to curl up and dye.