We Are What We Eat: Food Choices in Earth Religion

Nature gave us a world full of beauty and pleasure to delight and nurture us. All She asks is that we appreciate these many wonders, that we dance, sing, feast, make music, and love, all in Her honor.

Editorial Note:
I had not heard from my friend (and former PanGaia columnist) Judy Harrow in several years when she emailed me this essay, which she wanted to submit for this issue. I was so excited to hear from her that I responded by giving her a call at once. During our conversation, she expressed the hope that, since she was feeling better, she would soon be able to write and participate in the Pagan community more. I promised to publish her essay, expressed my enthusiasm for her improved health, and said good-bye.

Less than a month later, I was shocked to hear of her death in her sleep at the age of 69. Judy was one of the most unique, compassionate, and loving Pagans I have had the pleasure to know, and I wish to honor her memory by highlighting her words here.

Good journey to the Summerlands, Judy. Come back to us soon.
Anne Newkirk Niven

I eat every day. You probably do, too. The mundane routines of grocery shopping, cooking, eating, and dishwashing take hours out of each week. There’s no activity more ordinary, none more secular. And yet, these very acts directly connect my body to the body of Mother Earth. By eating, I accept Her gifts. For a tree-hugging Pagan like me, the process of feeding myself, done with care and attention, is profoundly spiritual.

Pagans are polytheists. We acknowledge many God/desses, each of Whom calls to different people. Neither people nor God/desses are interchangeable parts. As a British Traditional Wiccan, I give reverence to Mother Earth, and I do my best to live my life in accord with that relationship. Other Pagans, following other God/desses, may make some quite different choices. There is no one true way to be Pagan or to be holy. And so, beyond a central principle of harmlessness, Paganism upholds a high-choice ethic. That freedom implies the responsibility to think about our choices.

I am an omnivore. But I’m not writing this to convert anybody to my lifestyle. Instead, I am trying to persuade everybody to eat, and to live all of their lives, authentically and with integrity. Eating, or doing anything, consciously and conscientiously is the opposite of blindly following either old habits or new fads.

Here’s why I choose to be an omnivore.

  1. To honor my body: practicality. Pagans recognize and honor the Sacred Spirit that dwells in the manifest world, in all living things, including our own bodies. To honor my body, I need to start by eating a healthy, nutritious, well-balanced diet of whole, natural foods — the foods that are closest to the way the Mother presents them to us.

    Cooking is a meditation on Mother Earth’s generosity. When I can, I take the time to cook with respect and care for the ingredients, and to eat with pleasure and gratitude. Eating is communion with Her. By simply offering our thanks, we make that communion conscious.

    I don’t grow my own vegetables, make cheese from scratch, or bake fresh bread every week. I need to balance other realities: budget, time and energy constraints, and accessibility. Even though I can’t do everything perfectly, I do what I can, as well as I can.
     
  2. To honor the Earth: pleasure. Contrary to current popular opinion, pleasure is a valid spiritual path. The mystics of “mainstream” religions often equate spirituality with the avoidance of sensory gratification. To them, this material world is unreliable. They believe that pleasure attracts our attention to the material and temporal, and away from spirituality. To detach from the senses, they cultivate indifference to both pleasure and pain. People do trance out to escape harsh circumstances, including those that are self-inflicted. (Psychologists call it “dissociation.”) It also reinforces the dualistic belief that Spirit and matter are opposites.

    To me, Spirit permeates this manifest world. That belief points me to a very different road: the Path of Pleasure. Centuries ago, the Greek Pagan philosopher, Apikoros (341–270 BCE) taught his students to gratefully enjoy all good and beautiful things. This included good food, which is why “Epicurean” has now become a synonym for “gourmet.” But Apikoros meant all the sensual pleasures, of nature and of the arts, the sunset and the concert as much as the feast. He also discouraged imbalance and excess, advocating instead moderate and rational enjoyment of all harmless pleasures.

    As a Pagan, I seek to follow his teachings. I believe that Mother Nature gave us our bodily senses, and also gave us a world full of beauty and pleasure to delight and nurture us. All She asks is that we notice and appreciate these many wonders, that we dance, sing, feast, make music and love, all in Her honor, even in the bad times. Truly, all acts of love and pleasure are Her rituals!

    Any wholehearted embrace of life requires a corresponding acceptance of death. Whatever lives will surely die. Death is part of the life cycle, clearing space for life’s continuous renewal. Everything in Nature is an absolutely and equally sacred part of that whole, plant and animal alike. In time, my body will feed the Earth, continuing the cycle of life.

    My Pagan religion teaches personal freedom and responsibility, specifically forbidding restriction of any harmless activity. I do not deprive myself of any of life’s pleasures without good reason. From my perspective, asceticism — needlessly refusing any legitimate pleasure — is the sin of ingratitude. Thus, I am not a vegetarian or vegan, although I respect the lifelong sacrifice made by my vegetarian friends. They are living their beliefs; I am living mine.
     
  3. To honor community: sharing. In the ritual of my Tradition, we bless and share cakes and wine. Sharing food is a primal bond, both with other people and with the Earth. Hospitality and generosity are widely-recognized virtues.

    Sharing in the context of polytheistic diversity requires maximizing choice for all who share the meal, seeing to the comfort of all who share the feast. Many have to avoid certain foods for medical reasons. For them, avoiding harm requires accepting some limits. But some food restrictions do active harm, by making it impossible to exchange hospitality. In addition, detailed restrictions train people to yield their free will to external authority, even in tiny and trivial details of daily life.

I loudly and proudly claim my sacred Pagan freedom in all aspects of my life! Unless my action would harm someone, I do what I will. “My skin, my bones, my heretic heart, are my authority.”

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