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A Conquest of Myth, A Conquest of Bread
Words by Siobhan Watters; Illustration by Ada Jusic
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Until commissioning the newsletter you’re about to read today by Siobhan Watters, I had never really considered the strong link that myth has to food and agriculture ─ perhaps because it’s so obvious that you miss the forest for the trees of knowledge of good and evil. The unnamed fruit of Adam and Eve is one foundational myth; the attempted sacrifice of Ishmael or Isaac (depending on who you ask) in place of a ram or lamb (also depending on who you ask) is another. In Han Chinese culture it’s harder to think of foods which don’t have a foundational myth than ones which do; in Ovid’s Metamorphoses people are always fucking turning into something, and often that thing is something edible
If myths are stories humans tell themselves to explain natural phenomena then it only goes to show what a high regard plants were held in by the ancients. We need myths to explain the sun and moon, and the weather and volcanoes, but we also need them to explain the bloody intensity of mulberries, or the sharp scent of mint. Now we’re awed by the unlimited progress of technology ─ 3D printing, human-mimicking robots, the Filet o Fish ─ but back then each one of these things were minor miracles. And consequently, the year long effort it takes to harvest them (a consequence of the deal struck by Persephone eating four pomegranate seeds) can be seen as the punishment of the gods on humankind for some obscure crime.
Today’s newsletter talks about the foundational myth of agriculture and what it says about humanity’s tendency to view working with the capricious earth as a curse rather than a blessing. Read The Georgics by Virgil, his paean to agriculture and farming, and you will glimpse another view of the ancients. Over five books Virgil recounts in extraordinary detail the effort farming takes, from finding the right tools to recognising the madness of horses (as an aside, the unlikely best translation of this is by that chronicler of madness, Werner Herzog). But in Virgil’s world the farmer is king, and the connection with the earth is a privilege: “How lucky, if they know their happiness, are farmers, more than lucky, they for whom, far from the clash of arms, the earth herself, most fair in dealing, freely lavishes an easy livelihood”. It is to Virgil’s engagement with the world around him, rather than easy foundational myths that we should be looking to. Building a food system that works for everyone would mean putting it back in our hands again, honouring ─ not with thanks but with good work conditions and pay ─ the farmers and factory workers alike who feed us.
A Conquest of Myth, A Conquest of Bread, by Siobhan Watters
“Shepherds camping in the fields, base objects of reproach, mere bellies!”
─ Hesiod’s Theogony
In myth, food often represents the distinction between gods and humans, and humans and animals. For the Greek poet Hesiod, the fact that we labour for food is a mark of humanity’s descent from divine favour, catalysed by Prometheus’ theft of fire from the gods. The human as we know it does not exist prior to this originary crime. According to Hesiod, humans fared far better before the titan’s intervention, for they shared a table with the divine and did not yet labour for food.
In Works and Days and Theogony, Hesiod recounts the passage of humans from the Golden Age to the Iron Age, where they are become no more than 'base objects, mere bellies.' This fall from grace began at a gathering of gods and humans at Mekone, where Prometheus attempts to trick Zeus by keeping back the best meat for humans during a sacrificial offering. In response, Zeus punishes Prometheus by hiding fire and the means of life (“βίον”) from humanity. The means of life are presumably the knowledge, techniques, or even automatic processes that had previously supplied humans with food, because although humans are called “grain-eating,” they evidently did not labour for it. Prometheus then steals back the flame to give to the now-helpless humans.
“To make up for the fire,” Zeus creates Pandora, the first woman and harbinger of toil and disease.
Before this, the various kinds of humanity lived on earth
without evils and without harsh labor,
without wretched diseases that give disasters to men.
But the woman took the great lid off the jar
and scattered what was inside.
There is an obvious parallel here to the banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden in the Bible, where labouring for food is punishment for acquiring divine knowledge. Both the Bible and Hesiod therefore exhibit an ambivalence towards food techniques that persists today. This ambivalence is captured in the separation of Prometheus’ gifts from Pandora’s curse. With the gift of fire and the means of life, Prometheus provides humans with life-sustaining food techniques, while Pandora shoulders the responsibility for all the attendant ills. That great woe followed from Prometheus’ gifts comes as no surprise in retrospect. The most significant technological developments of the Neolithic era—crop cultivation and animal domestication—had consequences. There was huge population growth but this new social productivity was often leveraged by non-producing classes like priests, bureaucrats, and warlords, and bodies diminished in strength and stature under the yoke of agriculture. Importantly, these technologies also paved the way for pests and zoonotic diseases, products of the density and new vectors of communication of settled life of which COVID-19 is only the newest breed.
In hearkening back to the Golden Age, Hesiod’s poem dreams of a time before the need for food ruled the human so absolutely. He bemoans the obligations created by the need for food: not only do you need to work to feed yourself, you must feed others and your storehouses. Despite Hesiod’s negativity towards the concept of labouring for food, Works and Days is considered a farmer's almanac or agricultural manual. It is thus, however unintentionally, that Hesiod reveals that Pandora is not just a consequence of life-giving and preserving food techniques; she also provides a significant tool of provisioning. Note that Pandora carried not a box, but a jar (pithos), the preeminent storage device of early agricultural societies. Her jar is the prototype of all containers that move, preserve, and transform food for humans, and a great many technologies besides. When Hesiod instructs, “Summer will not last forever; build your granaries” he is inciting the farmer to pour his hope of survival into Pandora’s jar.
If this myth is worth preserving, it is not for Hesiod’s idealistic and misogynistic account of the origin of humans. It’s for the reclamation of Pandora, who encapsulates the contradictions of our relationship to food: the benefits and consequences, the freedom and dependencies it creates. The jar that Hesiod paints as a symbol of disease and toil is also a symbol of security and surplus, the guarantor of life beyond harvest for the individual and collective. In the twenty first century, we must see the jar not as the work of another, but of ourselves; we must continue to respect and care for its contents, to protect against the ills and violence that grow there when left idly by. And if we seek emancipation, we must reverse a deep ambivalence in the Western psyche regarding food techniques, one that casts food labour as low, insignificant, or mythically and biblically as a punishment to humans who once lived on equal footing with the divine.
“Hunger is precisely in itself the demand to be something other than a belly.”—Sartre
Food is our first need. There is therefore no concept of freedom that does not admit or at least take for granted that a person must be fed if she is to be free. Yet Hesiod framed our necessity for food and the need to work for it as the antithesis of freedom. Arguably, before the pandemic, some of us lived as if we had attained his longed-for Golden Age. We did not work hard, directly, for food, and could find it ready-made at supermarkets and restaurants, so long as we had money to buy it. During the pandemic, however, money no longer gave us access to everything we needed, and for those that lost their wages, no access at all. For the millions of people turning to food banks during quarantine, the tenuous myth of freedom under capitalism was tested, and their dependence on the community brought into sharper relief.
Maybe the biggest recent challenge to this capitalist myth of freedom was the call by activists to see “looting” in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, not as a crime, but as an act of redistribution or mutual aid. Mutual aid is a term first popularised by anarchist Piotr Kropotkin. He argued that despite the “individualistic creeds” pressed on people in his time and ours, we have a stronger tendency to care for, share, and cooperate with others to ensure our survival than compete with them. He saw this tendency activated, in particular, during times of crisis. He also saw these moments as affording the rare opportunity of putting mutual aid practices at the centre of social organisation, beginning with what he called the “conquest of bread.”
Like Kropotkin, I believe that emancipation is won first through food. To achieve this we must take collective responsibility for our food system, and seek our own conquest of bread. According to Kropotkin, the revolutionary potential of this moment will fade utterly without it. “The picture is typical of all our revolutions,” he said of the French Revolution of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871, where measures to organise food distribution came too late. Separated by more than a century of technological development and globalisation, it’s difficult to see how Kropotkin’s program for revolution could be realised now. However, of his call to revolutionaries to ‘loot’ the food stores of a city and develop records for inventory and population, it is the latter directive that I think remains most important. To keep account and organise distribution under present conditions will require new literacies and new combinations of technologies to meet need on a large scale, while still allowing some form of direct participation in how our most basic need is managed.
We have seen glimpses in recent memory of how effective mutual aid organisation can be: in popular responses to disaster, like Hurricanes Katrina in 2005 and Sandy in 2012, and right now, in response to COVID-19. Relief organisers during Hurricane Sandy employed an array of tactics to meet need. Among the more intimate practices they undertook was canvassing affected neighbourhoods door-door and distributing donated food direct to neighbourhoods using U-Haul trucks. The food was cooked, an extra level of care for people without electricity or refrigeration. Under quarantine, we saw similar initiatives. In American urban centres from New Orleans to San Francisco, mutual aid organisations established communal kitchens and used Google Docs to match home cooks volunteering their kitchens and supplies or vehicles for transport, with other locals experiencing food insecurity. There were massive efforts to organise meals for frontline health care workers, and calls were made to feed protesters. Notably, Sandy relief organisers used social media, customer management software, and Amazon gift registries to manage volunteers and supplies for the relief effort. While it may seem counterintuitive, appropriating typically ‘capitalist’ technologies and infrastructure for revolutionary ends only affirms, as Kropotkin insists, that ideas for the revolution must grow out of “things as they actually exist now.” Taken as a blueprint for the revolution, these mutual aid efforts show that we need to balance what forms of media and technology we use to organise our relationship to food and each other so that we continue to know and take responsibility for how people are fed.
Where the state and capital fail in a crisis, popular calls for volunteers and donations, ad hoc distribution networks, and novel uses of existing technologies – these save lives and build community. A 'conquest of bread’ may include some of these tactics, and others I cannot even imagine because they will be spontaneous but no less organised responses to needs as they arise. What is certain, however, is that we must develop ways to interface with every level of the food system, so that we do not leave it open for future exploitation. We can no longer accept the scale and opacity of the system as an excuse for our inaction; we can no longer rely on Pandora’s jar to feed us without also taking account of the toil and disease visited on those that fill it. To put food out of sight and mind is the same as relinquishing responsibility for how it is produced and distributed; to collude in a system where Black, Indigenous and other people of colour are disproportionately tasked with feeding us without adequate working conditions or compensation.
To anyone longing for how things used to be before the pandemic, remember that this Golden Age, like Hesiod’s, rested on myth. It’s a place to which we cannot and should not return. I find encouragement, as Kropotkin does, in the demonstration of community and organisation achieved in times of crisis and hope both those marching and those watching from the sidelines can see what’s possible when we organise. We need a conquest of bread not just to fill bellies but to achieve a food system that is an expression of our freedom and humanity, in community with others. We must learn again that there is a social obligation created by feeding or being fed by others. Capitalism seemed to free us from this need, but that is the most pernicious myth of all.
Siobhan Watters is a PhD student in Communication based in London, ON, Canada. You can find her on Instagram and Academia.edu. Siobhan donated her fee to her local BLM chapter and Afri-Can FoodBasket in Toronto, ON.
The illustration is by Ada Jusic, who specialises in illustrations with a political or social context. You can find more of her illustrations at https://adajusic.com/. Ada was paid for her work.