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Dairy and Religion


I’ve talked about the origins of cheese and the technology developed by ancient cheesemakers, but as it turns out, there’s even more to the history of cheese and dairy to consider: religion. The more research I do, the more I realize how big a role cheese and milk played in the our human history, so it only makes sense that they would also play a role in religions throughout time. Most of them are surprising at first but then make a lot of sense when you think about it. Take comfort in the fact people have been devoted to cheese for thousands of years. You’re simply holding true to tradition!

The Sumerians and the Goddess Inanna

Once again, I have to give major props to Paul Kindstedt, author of Cheese and Culture, for perfectly blending the interests of history and cheese enthusiasts. In a recent Gastropod podcast, Kindstedt discussed how cheese played a role in the religion of the Sumerians in Uruk, the first city-state ever created. Yes—civilization grew with cheese.

The story goes that the goddess Inanna had to choose between a farmer and a shepherd to marry. The shepherd Dumuzi gave her a sales pitch focusing on the all different kinds of dairy he had to offer: milk, yogurt, and, of course, cheese. In honor of Inanna’s love of dairy (she ended up choosing Dumuzi), the people of Uruk would bring offerings of butter and cheese to her temple daily.

Government officials made contracts with shepherds to look carefully after sacred flocks and ensured the offerings went through the proper series of rites and rituals. Rather than let all the butter and cheese go to rot, they would be distributed to others working for the government. Getting paid in cheese doesn’t sound so bad.

Rome and Bloodless Offerings

Denarius coin, circa 137 BCE, showing Romulus and Remus suckling from the she-wolf under the Ficus Ruminalis.

Denarius coin, circa 137 BCE, showing Romulus and Remus suckling from the she-wolf under the Ficus Ruminalis.

We’ve all heard about—and seen, if you’ve watched HBO’s Rome—bloody sacrifices to the gods. It’s true that Romans killed animals and offered them up to the gods, but not every religion centered around violence. Take a couple of popular bloodless sacrifices: cheesecake and coagulated milk.

Roman writer Varro discussed the temple of Rumina (goddess of shepherds) and the famous fig tree that grew nearby, the Ficus Ruminalis. According to Roman legend, the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus (with milk!) did so under this fig tree, making the tree and the temple revered in early Rome. People brought offerings of milk to the temple. Varro also mentions fig sap that coagulated milk, but it’s unclear if the priests were making cheese or simply offering coagulated milk to Rumina. It might just have to remain one of history’s great mysteries.

Another Roman writer, Cato, wrote out multiple cake recipes in his agricultural writing. Cakes were another popular bloodless offering to gods, and one of Romans’ favorite cakes to offer up? Cheesecake! In fact, Cato’s first cake recipe is a cheesecake to offer to the gods during important agricultural seasons. Cato considered these offerings essential to winning the gods’ favor and having a great harvest. Makes sense. Cheesecake is a pretty good incentive.

Mongols and Mare’s Milk

Considering how essential horses were to the medieval Mongolian way of life, and how fermented mare’s milk is still their signature drink to this day, it makes sense that milk would figure into their religious ceremonies. This fermented mare’s milk is often called either kumis or airag. The 13th-century monk William of Rubruck—a Flemish explorer/missionary on par with Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo—wrote of his visit to the Mongolian people, and gives us juicy details about how they lived and their culture.

William describes how, after the death of a Mongol warrior, the kumis (or, as the monk transliterated, cosmos) and meat were left on the the man’s tomb for him to drink and eat in the afterlife. He also describes how the mare’s milk was sprinkled on religious statues of cows and mares inside the house and then on the ground outside.

One particular passage from William’s account stuck out to me, where he explains that anyone who does not follow the Mongolian religion typically refuses the drink:

“He asked us if we would drink cosmos, or mare’s milk; for the Christians, Ruthenians, Greeks, and Alans who live among them, and who wish to follow strictly their religion, drink it not; for of a truth they consider themselves to be no longer Christians if they drink it.”

Drinking mare’s milk was tantamount to abandoning Christiany for an entirely different religion, which speaks volumes about just how important it was not only to Mongolian spiritual life but also to that of outsiders as well.

Patron Saints of Cheese

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There are three Christian saints in particular who deal with dairy. For the first two, I had a difficult time finding too much information about. Saint Bartholomew is apparently the patron saint of Florentine cheesemakers. But, on further investigation, nobody really knows why he is. According to the Guilde Internationale des Fromagers, Saint Lucio-Uguzon is also a saint of cheese. He discovered how to make his cheese production more efficient and gave all the extra away to those in need.

My favorite is Saint Brigid of Ireland, the patron saint of dairymaids and dairy workers. She was born to a slave mother, and like Saint Lucio, she would give away produce and dairy to the poor. The legend goes that one day she gave away so much milk and butter away that there was none left for her family. Afraid that her mother would be upset, Brigid prayed and when her mother dropped by, the dairy was full of milk and butter. Another miracle attributed to Brigid says that water she gave out the poor would turn into milk when they drank it. Not wine, but still a good trick.

What other lengths have humans gone to in the name of cheese? There’s a lot more buried out there in the world, but whatever the case, I think we can safely say that with cheese so deeply embedded in our cultural history, there’s nothing we can do but love it.

Feature Photo Credit: “Fantasy church altar with candles” by Unholy Vault Design | Shutterstock + culture cheese image

Gabrielle Roman

Gabrielle Roman is earning her Master's in Publishing and Writing at Emerson College in Boston. She is originally from Kansas City and misses the BBQ but the Thai food is good consolation. Her favorite hobby is cuddling with her puppy.