Feast And Fast In A Pagan Worldview (Or How To Appreciate Your Sustenance)
When one thinks of fasting, or restricting foods for religious purposes, it is usually accompanied by a feeling of discomfort. Only repressive religions, ones that mandate against pleasure, would suggest such things, right? Paganism is about the body, and food, and the earth, being sacred, right? Why would any Pagan willingly take part in food abstinence?
There are two connotations to the word "fast", and I am only addressing one in this article on seasonal Pagan fasting. One meaning refers to abstaining from all food (or most foods) entirely for a period of time, and it is done for purposes of bodily purification and to achieve an altered state. This is a tool of the mystic, and those who don't follow that path can happily go their whole lives without bothering to fast in this sense. I'm referring to the other meaning of "fasting", which is to voluntarily give up a particular sort of food for a ritually set period of time, for religious purposes.
The Catholics have Lent, which in medieval times was rigidly enforced in all Christian countries as civil law. During this time, no food product from a land animal was permitted, although fish and seafood was acceptable. The reason for this was not that these foods were bad; in fact, they were considered far more valuable than the ordinary staples of grain and beans. (Medieval clerics wouldn't have demanded a fast of grain and beans, because it would have starved the entire populace.) It was done in order to give a better appreciation of these foods, so that when you got them again, you would be properly thankful for their presence in your life. The medieval Catholic calendar mandated "Lenten" fasting every Friday, and in some cases every Wednesday too, as well as the month of Lent itself. Monastics were supposed to observe a Lenten diet at all times. Of course, this was only spottily observed in some times and places, but the idea remained strong.
Modern Americans tend not to appreciate their food at all. A huge variety of it comes prepackaged at the store, some of it sprayed and grown by methods that destroy the soil, some of it organic but expensive. The consumer has no idea whether it was grown outside or in a greenhouse. Meat comes in packages, wrapped carefully in such a way as to allow people to forget that it was ever a living being who gave its life for yours, and whose spirit and sacrifice ought to be respected. We don't like to think of the days when food wasn't a convenience, or readily available to anyone with or without land. We waste huge amounts of food, more than any country in the world. The waste from our food production and consumption could feed enough people and livestock for a small third world country.
Think about what it would be like to "fast" from certain foods during certain times of the year. It would be an inconvenience, yes. It might even make you think about what you're eating, and why you take it for granted. There is no naturally grown food on this planet that is not sacred, because it all - including the plants - gives its life for you. We are living creatures, and on this planet, life feeds on life. We cannot sustain ourselves healthily on a diet that was never alive, but that means we must remember to be grateful and appreciative. What's always around is often taken for granted. When we have it again, we are more glad of its existence. Done mindfully, in this way, fasting from specific foods is not about self-deprivation, but about acknowledgement and thankfulness.
Another reason for fasting is to honor the ancestors. This is much of the reason for Judaism's Passover "yeast fast", where no leavened bread can be eaten in honor of the Hebrew slaves who had no leavening for their loaves during their exodus from Egypt. Our ancestors all lived with the natural feast-and-fast cycle of subsistence agriculture, where every food is plenty at some times of the year and nonexistent, or at least difficult to come by, at others. Every kind of food naturally waxes and wanes throughout the year, but today that waxing and waning is artificially aided by agribusiness's ability to grow things in climates thousands of miles away and truck them to the grocery store near you. I can buy tomatoes in February, grown by underpaid Mexican workers whose children have brain defects from huge pesticide absorption. The natural cycle of the year hardly matters in the supermarket.
I am not suggesting that we should all go back to subsistence farming, only that we may take for granted the lifestyle that allows us this luxury. Our ancestors often starved when there wasn't enough from their own harvests. To remind ourselves how lucky we are can also be an impetus to waste less food in our own practices. When we partake, if only for a short while, in the restrictions of their diet, we are thankful for their survival in the face of those restrictions....and perhaps we might be more willing to think about what our descendants will eat, hundreds of years from now, and what they will think of us.
In the Pagan fasting system that is suggested in this article, all of the basic foods have a time of year where they are sacred and plentiful, and a time during which they are abstinence foods and should be avoided. Because we as modern Americans have access to such a wide variety of foods all year, there is no major food group that is excused and none which is elevated. Every part of your diet needs to be appreciated. There are two levels of Pagan fasting, by this method: seasonal fasting and climatic fasting. You can do either, or both. Seasonal fasting is more suited to an omnivorous diet, as about half of the abstinence foods are animal-based. Climatic fasting can be utilized by anyone.
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I. Seasonal Fasting
Seasonal fasting is abstaining from foods that would normally grow in your climate, but that would not have been in season for our ancestors. As I've said before, all foods naturally wax and wane throughout the year. There's very little that can be had fresh all year round with little effort, at least not in the world before technological refrigeration, mass food transit, greenhouse technology, and preservatives. With seasonal fasting, you are abstaining from the foods that would not have been available to you had you lived hundreds of years ago.
You can do this one of two ways: You can use the food calendar of our traditional Northern European ancestors, which is the ritual base on which Neo-Paganism is laid. Or, alternately - and in my mind a more thoughtful option - you can use the food calendar of the climate you live in. What this means is that you would abstain from foods that you wouldn't be able to grow yourself at a specific time of the year, were you gardening and farming sustainably and nontechnologically in the fashion of our foreparents. How do you find out what grows and doesn't grow in your area? Talk to local organic gardeners, homesteaders, organic farmers, and the local cooperative extension experts. Ask them what they can grow without modern technology, and when.
Where I live - New England - we are a lot closer to the European seasonal round of our ancestors than if I lived in, say, Arizona. If anything, we're a little cold for it. In Britain, the day for the blessing of the plows is in late February; here, in late February, if you swing a pickaxe at the frozen earth, it bounces. We're actually closer to Scandinavian and German climates. Still, the traditional wheel of the year is close enough that I can utilize it and still fit well with my climate. Keeping this in mind, I'll go around the Pagan food calendar as it would have traditionally been in most parts of northern Europe, and you can adapt it to your own needs.
Each eighth of the year has a sacred food, meaning that it was plentiful at that time and sometimes was the main sustaining food for the population. Each eighth of the year also has foods which are unavailable, or at least difficult to find. The sacred food of the time should make a special appearance in the feast at each high holiday, if possible.
When to abstain from the specific foods, and for how long? That's up to you. It could be for three days, or a whole week, or longer. Monastic types might like to abstain from these foods for the entire eighth of the year. One suggestion might be to do your fasting periods for one week, leading up to the high holiday that ends the season, where you might include the former abstinence food as part of the holiday feast. This works particularly well for those times of year where a food goes from being an abstinence food to being a sacred food in the next segment.
On the other hand, if it feels more right to you to have your fasting earlier in that specific time-season, that's all right too. It might be that it's more appropriate to your climate to do it that way. For example, if both my household and another one a hundred miles further south were following the traditional foods of the wheel of the year, fruit season for us doesn't begin until late June. Fruit is the abstinence food of the Beltane-to-Solstice season, and then it becomes the sacred food of the summer Solstice. However, in the more southerly farm, the strawberries come ripe around the first of June, and they would prefer to do their fruit fasting in early May so that it will feel more in tune with their climate.
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In our tradition, the Pagan year starts at Yule, the beginning of winter and the darkest day. At this time, our European ancestors were getting ready for the long, cold season. Yule was the last feast of abundance, and after all the celebrations were over - and some took several days - it was time to batten down and hole up and hope that you'd preserved enough to keep you through to spring. The sacred food of this time is hunted meat as opposed to domestic meat. The herds had been thinned out down to the bare minimum in the last segment of the year, and the remainder were your breeding stock, mostly pregnant females and a few choice males, none of whom you'd be willing to eat. The slaughtered animals would have been either already eaten or turned into salted or brined or cured or dried meat. So for the next seven and a half weeks, if you wanted fresh, you went out into the bitter cold and dark and hunted it yourself.
Most of us no longer eat much game, unless we are hunters (or friends of hunters), but for purposes of symbolism, I count animals such as turkeys, ducks, geese and rabbits - which were originally hunted wild but eventually domesticated - as game animals for fasting. Basically, if it's wild in your area and can be hunted, it counts, even if the ones you actually eat are domestic varieties raised for slaughter. Venison, of course, counts, as does buffalo, ranched or not.
What you wouldn't have are fresh above-ground vegetables. These would have been preserved as much as possible - usually by drying - but your supply would get sparser and sparser as you approached Imbolc and the depths of winter. You also wouldn't have any fresh greens, such as lettuce or other salad ingredients. The sole exceptions might be kale and leeks, which will in some (but not all) climates winter into February, which was referred to by the Saxons as Kale-monath because it was all they had left to eat by that time. However, for the most part, there was nothing in the way of fresh vegetation. There would be root vegetables, saved in a root cellar, but above-ground vegetation and greens are the proper abstinence food for this period.
Another proper abstinence food for this season is fish. While ocean fish is technically available year round, for our northern European ancestors (again, you'd adjust this if you were working with a different climate, whether current or ancestral) this stretch of the winter was the worst of all for ocean sailing. Storms created too much danger for fishing boats to be out much, and of course river fish would be hibernating under ice. So fish, too, should be avoided.
So, for a practical example, you might begin a seven-day fast on January 25. During this week, you would create meat-based meals around turkey, duck, goose, rabbit and buffalo. You would have root vegetables, kale, or leeks instead of salad or tomatoes. Then, on Imbolc, you might have a special meal that used not only the sacred food of the next season, but also possibly the foods that you had just been abstaining from.
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The next section of the year runs from Imbolc to Ostara, and is also mostly hard winter, which begins to wane as March draws on. This is the time of the egg, when chickens who aren't living under eclectic lights get into peak production. In natural chicken-raising (which makes them less prolific producers but gives them a longer lifespan), traditional breeds of chickens quit laying when the day-length declines to nothing, and then start up again as the days get longer. By Ostara, the animals are still pregnant or (in the case of sheep) have just given birth to little lambs, which are too new to have much meat on them. Only the desperately starving would eat creatures so small, when giving them a couple more months of nursing could bring them through to the spring grass, and get them significantly larger. However, you still have your supply of dried meat, fruit, grain and beans, and root vegetables. Then, as the day length turns, the hens start to lay more and more, and you're flooded with egg protein. They will sit some of them, and turn them into chicks, but even with your choice birds setting, there's plenty of little suns-in-a-shell to eat.
What you won't be doing is killing off your egg-laying poultry. Your roosters will likely all have gone down by this time, except for the valuable breeders, so you'd have no chicken to eat. Chicken is one of the abstinence foods of this time, which is a good way to give thanks to the Hen Goddess and her gift of egg protein.
You also wouldn't have much in the way of dairy products. Milking animals must bear young yearly in order to continue making milk, and during the last portion of their gestation their milk supply slowly dries to nothing, in order to keep nutrients for the growing fetus. The animals that have dropped by this time - usually sheep - don't have much of a milk supply, although Oimelc is named for ewe's milk. Goats can drop earlier than Beltane, but they would also have nursing kids taking most of the milk. There would be some hard cheese still left from the fall, but little else. Early spring is a dry time for milk, so dairy products would be another abstinence food for this time. Make sure to check package labels for dry milk or whey.
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At Ostara, eggs are aplenty, some young cockerels are old enough to be served up fried, and milk is gushing forth from all your milkers. May was called Thrimilchimonath by the Saxons, because you had to milk three times a day to get it all. At this point, your cows and goats are at their peak of milk, and are making enough for their young and your family as well. You go from having no milk to suddenly having too much; we start making yogurt and cheese as fast as we can in milk season. Milk is the sacred food of this season.
One thing that you don't have is a lot of red meat. While some spring lambs would have been slaughtered at Ostara, most of the new generation is not yet weaned or is being fattened for a fall butchering. Late spring is a time of abstinence from mammalian meat. Here we let the hoofed and trottered creatures who feed us rest, and give them time to wean their young.
Our ancestors would also have run out of the their root crops by this time; the last wrinkled carrots and turnips would have gone into the stewpots, and everyone would be hunting the woods for the first shoots of edible greens. So the other abstinence food of this time period is root vegetables. Yes, this means potatoes. The root vegetables represent the dark, earthy, underground side of the Green Man, and at this time of the waxing sun we are concentrating instead on welcoming his above-ground side.
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At Beltane, the world is springing new again, and green is rushing over the land like a blanket. The sacred food of Beltane is greens, especially those that come up in the spring and early summer. This is when the lettuces grow thick, spinach has been around for a while, and it's time to deal with planting succeeding rows of salad mixtures. Greens spring up fast, like the Green Man, and they bolt just as quickly if you don't eat them in time. Early summer is a race to get as much salad into yourself as possible before they get bitter and have to be fed to the goats. For our ancestors, it was a rush to get as many green vitamins into themselves after the hard winter. They didn't have the concept of vitamins, but they knew that greens replenished the health of those grown pale and wan from a winter of not having any.
What is in short supply now is fruit. The dried fruit left over from the fall harvest would be gone by now, and the fruit season is yet to spring into bloom at Beltane. So fruit is an abstinence food of this time. Make sure to check package labels for things like high fructose corn syrup, which is a fruit product. So are natural fruit flavorings. So, obviously, is juice.
It is also appropriate at this time to abstain from one of the two great sustenance foods of our ancestors: dried beans. They would have been running out of the dried beans harvested in the fall. Fresh green and fava beans are acceptable, but no dried bean product. For those of you who think, "Well, that's fine, I don't eat dried beans anyway," check all your product labels for soy products. They are all made from soybeans, the staple dried bean of Asia.
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The Summer Solstice in late June heralds, in our part of the world, the fruit season. First it's the strawberries, then the raspberries, then blackberries, then blueberries in July, and finally the mulberries and elderberries. By Lammas, the first tree fruits are starting to get around to ripening. After six months of living on dried fruit, our ancestors were hungry for its sweetness, and this is the sacred food of this season.
However, by this time our ancestors were running out of grains, the carbohydrate staple of most peoples. There are medieval laments about how the world is full in bloom, and yet there is no bread at this time. The first harvest would not be until Lammas, and last year's supply of grain would have been used up. The abstinence food for this season is grain, and I would include seeds and nuts as well. This also covers seed-based, nut-based, and grain-based oils, which are in a whole lot of foods, and nut butters. (Olive oil is acceptable, as it is made from a fruit.) To find out how to survive even for a few days on such a diet - most people use grains as their staple - talk to people who eat gluten-free due to medical issues such as celiac disease. By Lammas, you will be good and thankful for the gift of the Grain God.
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Lammas is the time of the first grain harvest, and it is sacred to John Barleycorn in all his forms. This was when the sheaves of grain were harvested and brought in with great ceremony, and everyone gave thanks for the dying and reborn god who feeds us all. Grains, beans, and seeds are the sacred foods of this season, and domestic meat is proscribed, both because of the emphasis on the sacredness of plant life, and because the young animals are not yet ready for slaughter. So no domestic red meat is eaten at this time, although poultry and game is in fair supply. Eat a lot of bread instead.
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Mabon is the time when the harvest comes on fast and furious. The first sacred food of this time are above-ground vegetables, which are all coming ripe in succession and must be eaten or preserved. The second sacred food is chicken meat, because the chickens have been fattened through the summer, and it's time to take down the ones that you don't intend to keep for layers or breeding roosters. The third sacred food of Mabon is nuts, which are coming ripe at this time.
This is generally a time of plenty, and it seems odd to have anything be proscribed, but there is no hunted meat for this season. Herne's furred and hoofed wild creatures are having their rut in the woods, and deserve to be left alone. The smaller wild creatures are putting together their store of winter supplies, and if they are not allowed to do this properly, they will perish early. Lack of small wild creatures means, first, that they would not be there for hunting when our ancestors needed them later in the year, and also that they would not be there for larger predators to eat. Wolves who can't get deer will go after your sheep, so this is the time to honor the wild things and leave them alone. As we discussed earlier, one can symbolically include those animals that are still hunted wild, even if we generally eat their domestic cousins - rabbits, turkeys, ducks, and geese.
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Samhain is the holiday of death, and not only because the leaves are falling and it's getting colder. It's also the time when the butchering of large domestic animals was done. The grass of the fields was dying, and the last of it had been dried for hay. There was rarely enough hay to overwinter all the herds, or even most of them, so all the ones not chosen to be breeders had to go. The weather was just right for butchering, especially large-animal butchering that might take two days - not cold enough to freeze, but cold enough to hang a carcass out overnight in the trees and have it keep chilled and safe.
The first sacred food of this time of year is domestic red meat of any kind. The second sacred food of this season are root vegetables, the dark underground side of the Green Man, the one who knows the depths and the underworld. Root vegetables were harvested now, in the late fall, and stored in root cellars, to feed people and animals until spring.
The days get darker and darker at this time of year, until Yule which is the shortest and darkest day of all. This is the time when your chickens will start to quit laying. In fact, the Yule holidays are the one time of year when we might actually have to buy eggs from the store to add to all those delicious pastries that we want to make. In reality, there probably wouldn't be many eggs at all in the winter pastries, because the hens are taking their yearly break. So the abstinence food of the Samhain to Yule period is eggs.
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II. Climatic Fasting
We live in a world of food that comes to us from across many borders, and even many oceans. In fact, for most Americans, more than three-quarters of the food that they consume was not grown locally to where they live. That may be because all food plants have climate zones where they do all right, and ones where they won't grow. You don't have orange trees in Vermont, or apple trees in Florida. Those products must be imported, at a certain amount of expense. Growing seasons can be extended, and tender plants protected, with the aid of greenhouses, but those were not common until recent centuries.
Our ancestors did import and export food, starting in ancient times, but it wasn't as convenient. Foods not grown in one's climate were expensive and only available at certain times of the year - the period after the harvest, wherever they were from. The rest of the year, you just couldn't get any, especially if the trade routes were closed due to weather conditions. To create climatic fasting requires that you take a hard look at your diet and figure out what things actually grow, or can be grown, in your climate. Figure out where they do grow, and when they would have been imported to your area. During the time of year that you wouldn't be able to get them - assuming that your saved stocks had run out - schedule a fast at that time.
As an example, if you live in a cold northern climate, find out when the Florida orange harvest is happening. Assume that you'd have been able to get oranges imported to you at some point after that. However, in the eighth of the year previous to that, you'd likely have had none at all, and that would be a good time to schedule a fast of citrus fruits, or even all fruits not grown in your area. If you use a lot of soy products in your diet, find out if they would have grown in your climate. If not, when would they have been harvested and imported? When would you likely have run out?
If you want to be even stricter, you can fast from foods developed in other continents that our ancestors would not have had access to, or any modern varieties of plant and animal. That will leave you with a day or more of finding heirloom or unchanged varieties of everything, plant and animal. It may give you a better picture of the ingenuity of our ancestors. If you fast from foods developed in other cultures than your ancestral one, and/or the one practiced in the area in which you live, it would be appropriate to break that fast with a prayer of thanks to the gods and spirits of the donating culture.
Climatic fasting can be successfully utilized by anyone, even vegans. In fact, it can give vegetarian and vegan folks a better understanding of how much of the food that they consume is imported, or transplanted from other cultures, and what it would be like to have to make do in the absence of food choices created by modern technology. You can also fast from wasting food - be aware of how much food you are consuming, and choose to prepare no more food than you can actually eat, and eat everything that is prepared, so that there will be no waste. If you are already a farmer or homesteader and grow a lot of your food, you can choose to fast from foods grown in greenhouses, or foods that are not native to the area - and, of course, you can do seasonal fasting with foods that you buy in rather than grow. If you are doing sustainable farming, growing only what is native to your area with the aid of greenhouses, not using modern preservation methods, and eating only what you grow, then my hat is off to you and you don't need this article, being as you are already probably quite appreciative of whatever food comes into season.
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Many cultures have a cycle of fast and feast, from Muslim Ramadan where no food can be eaten during the day, to many other cultures around the world. We Pagans, being an earth- based religion, ought to be designing our ritual taboos in ways that bring us closer to an understanding of the earth and how She works, given her own way. By participating in the food calendar of the year, we get closer to that understanding. It's also true that sometimes importance is driven home by absence and inconvenience, and the deliberate hole in our menu might make us more genuinely grateful for the eventual blessing. Try it, just once, for a day or three. That's all it takes - thoughtfulness and mindfulness - to make an impact on your life.
Of course, after reading this article, many folks pointed out to me that "fasting" doesn't just have to be about food. It can be about giving up something that it important to you, for a period of time, in order to better appreciate its presence in your life when it returns. While there are many jokes made about Catholics giving things up for Lent, it is a custom that we Pagans ought to think about occasionally. Give it some consideration; sometimes the soul needs to experience a bit of privation in order to really know abundance.