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The book Milk: A Local and Global History, written by Valenza, offers a unique outlook on human development through the history of milk. Being a part of many discussions in cultural, religious, and scientific contexts, milk had remained a product of high value for many centuries, appearing in works of philosophers, priests, and travelers. The history of milk’s production, use, and portrayal reveals many fascinating statements about animals and humans, gender roles, and the perception of life and reproduction. The history of religious movements is especially intriguing as the depiction of milk in most ancient religious beliefs had a sacral position. In this case, this fluid was not viewed as a product of consumption but as a source of vitality and immense physical and mental strength (Valenze, 2011). The examples of using milk as a symbol for life creation could be found in the mythologies of Hindu, Mediterranean, Greek, and even European cultures.
History of Milk in Culture
The purpose of milk in different religions followed a similar pattern. Milk represented human life, as it nourished and maintained the health of people and animals. Moreover, milk was a source of knowledge both of the material world and the world of god. In some religions, its sacred purpose was to deliver the word of god to those who are worthy. Finally, the portrayal of milk in religious movements where it was equated with physical strength granted to warriors and people in need can also be found in many cultures. The history of milk in religion shows these symbolic connections and reveals its sacred nature.
The first type of representation of milk deals with its ability to give and maintain one’s life. This description of both animal and human milk can be found in many ancient religions of the world. For example, Valenze (2011) starts describing the presence of milk in ancient faiths with a legend “The Churning of the Primordial Ocean of Milk,” in which milk brought life to the universe and also became a source of all existing things – the sun, the moon, and the stars (p. 13). The connection between milk and life creation is not surprising as mammals, including humans, have to breastfeed their offspring at the beginning of their lives. Thus, the legends of milk being a source of vitality spread across other elements of the world, resulting in oceans of milk being used as a symbol and as the main world-making substance. The similarity of the noun “milk” and the verb “to make” is, therefore, not incidental as well (Valenze, 2011).
The differences in religious depictions of milk being either plentiful or scarce had the same purpose of it making it the ingredient for one’s survival. While the production of milk in ancient societies was not developed to offer this substance as a common beverage, the legends about its abundance remained a part of many cultures. For example, the mythology of the North is based on a sacred cow that is “responsible for feeding human ancestors” (Valenze, 2011, p. 14). Here, the cow and its milk are the sources of life for every human and the symbol of universal motherhood. The faith of the western Africa peoples also notes the importance of milk and even state that it’s one single drop created the whole world (Valenze, 2011). Again, the use of milk in these legends is directly connected to the process of feeding infants. By using milk as a source of all living things, these religions reveal their system of values deeply rooted in the respect for motherhood and the feminine nature of nurture and life sustainment.
The power of milk, however, was not limited to the process of creating and sustaining lives. Some religions also believed that this substance could grant immortality to people. For instance, Roman myths portrayed their goddesses as having milk with divine properties. According to one legend, the milk of Juno scattered across the sky, creating stars, and poured down on the earth, giving seed to white lilies (Valenze, 2011). Hercules who sucked this milk was granted immortality and inhuman strength as well. The milk from non-human species could also be a source of energy, as was believed by the Eastern cultures. Here, the author presents an example of Genghis Khan and his Mongolian army, who, according to diplomats’ reports, “were avid drinkers of milk” (Valenze, 2011, pp. 37-38). Mare’s milk was believed to bring great power to their bodies as it was a source of protein and fat which helped them to survive in the harsh weather of the prairie.
Here, the difference between people’s use of milk for consumption and ritual purposes also shows the variety of nations’ religious practices. Westerners who viewed milk as a source of divine power did drink it as often as people from Eastern cultures. Mare’s milk popular in Mongolia and Central Asia was seen as a drink of uncultured savages (Valenze, 2011). The origins of these diverse beliefs lie in different religious beginnings of these nations. The concept of using milk only for rituals and not for drinking was incomprehensible to “Saracens” as their life depended on this product rich in nutrients. Their use of mare’s milk, on the other hand, was treated poorly by Christians, who did not approve of horse milking (Valenze, 2011). Nevertheless, their culture also viewed milk as a unique substance.
During the Middle Ages, Christianity treated milk as a liquid that could have sacred powers. However, these properties were not connected to physical or inhuman strength, being linked to the god’s wisdom instead. Bernard of Clairvaux, for example, drank the milk of the Virgin Mary and gained knowledge about true spirituality and “the right way to holiness” (Valenze, 2011, p. 42). While the modern Christian religion does not have the same level of physicality as it tries to avoid such concepts of milk sucking, this legend provides an insight into the historical development of this belief system. When Mary had a more prominent position than Jesus in this religion, her depiction as a holy mother allowed for such descriptions of milk and its properties (Valenze, 2011).
Through the ages, the description of milk and its qualities have changed drastically and were influenced by different religions. Many ancient beliefs viewed this liquid as a source of life, which was not limited to animals and humans, creating cosmic entities and the world as a whole. Later, some religions and cultures thought that milk could grant people immortality and power. The divine knowledge transferred with milk was also one of its qualities according to some Western beliefs. Interestingly, animal milk represented by the symbol of the cow appeared in different religions and was not treated as inferior to that of humans. The difference in showing the natural process of milk sucking in different faiths also reveals their attitude towards motherhood and feminine nature, which was praised in many ancient cultures and shunned by Christianity.
Valenze, D. (2011). Milk: A local and global history. Ann Arbor, MI: Yale University Press.