Under The Spell Of Food

The superstitious have long used staples like bread and salt to keep restless spirits at bay.

October 31, 2001|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Today, candy will be shared to ward off mischief. But for centuries, food has been used to drive away evil and bring good luck.

Kitchen staples - including salt, apples, bread and corn - have a long history in superstitious lore, as aids in exorcising demons and enhancing prosperity. Some stories are familiar, while others may surprise you.

Rubbing apples before taking a bite is a ritual that allegedly removes the evil that might be inside. (And you thought worms were a problem!) It dates back to the days of Adam and Eve and their run-in with the forbidden fruit.

Scattering protein-rich beans around the house is another way to kick out unwanted guests of the spiritlike variety and a practice that the Japanese still celebrate at a winter festival called Setsubun.

Native Americans once believed that an ear of corn placed alongside a newborn prevented paranormal kidnappers from capturing the child's soul.

Old wives' tales from England spin yarns about onions absorbing illness, so, left out in a room, they are thought to get rid of germs.

Garlic hung on one's body or on the door repels vampires and the evil eye, although people may avoid you for more obvious reasons. Mediterranean and Eastern European countries are filled with folklore about the aromatic bulb.

Brought over by Irish immigrants in the 1840s, Halloween is derived from an ancient Celtic harvest festival (Samhain) honoring the dead and celebrating the Celtic new year.

In its evolution from those origins into our modern dress-up day, this popular holiday went through several costume changes: Samhain, All Saints' Day, Hallowmas, All Hallows Eve, Mischief Night, Nut Crack Night.

But what remained constant was the prominence of certain edibles. Traditionally, nuts, pumpkins and other foods synonymous with life and fertility were on the must-have list (and plentiful in a good harvest season). They still have strong resonance in modern celebrations, though with less ritualistic overtones.

"Many things can be used for protection," says Dawn Showalter, a manager at the Turning Wheel bookstore in Pasadena, "as long as you add it to your recipe with intent, either verbally or mentally. It's the intent that counts." Her store stocks books on occult practices as well as Wiccan accessories, spices and pagan artwork.

Showalter says that Halloween is steeped in tradition. "Pumpkin bread and spells are a part of American culture," she says. "They date back to a time when we were ruled by the moon and everything revolved around the protection and abundance of harvest."

Some foods seem to be universally prized for their protective properties. Of these, bread and salt are the most pervasive.

Bread's baked goodness is supposedly very effective against danger and death.

Bread, the staff of life, is a basic food for many people around the world. "That may be one reason why bread, perhaps more than any other food, is surrounded by superstition, myth and symbolism," says Kathlyn Gay in her book Keep the Buttered Side Up: Food Superstitions From Around the World (Walker and Co., 1995, $8.95).

Seventeenth-century Europeans used to tuck bread crusts in their pockets or under their pillows. A Dictionary of Superstitions records a saying from 1648: "In your Pocket for a trust, Carrie nothing but a Crust: For that holy piece of Bread, Charmes the danger, and the dread."

"The breaking of bread creates bonds," says Pete Jelen, an artist in residence at the Turning Wheel bookstore who makes sculptures of mythological scenes. "It's cross-cultural and earthy. It celebrates the sustenance of life."

Salt was a highly valuable commodity in the ancient world because of its powers of preservation. Greeks and Romans put a pinch of it on their babies' tongues in return for the gods' protection.

In Ireland and Scotland, three handfuls of salt were sprinkled on corpses for purification.

Traditional Hawaiian folklore says you should sprinkle salt on yourself after returning from a funeral, to make sure evil spirits lingering over the dead won't follow you into your house.

At least one food dear to Marylanders possesses mystical energy - crabs. In Japan, legend has it crab shells function as protective amulets. When one is placed over a doorway, it is supposed to drive away evil spirits while keeping the people inside healthy.

In more exotic locales, food acts as a major deterrent to evil - both as a protective element and as an offering of appeasement to evil spirits. In Borneo, Indians use a ghost-busting gum called asafetida.

Stories about paranormal villains are reminders of times past when fear of the unknown breathed life into supernatural legends. Nowadays, you'd catch such creepy crawlies only on episodes of The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Or you could check out A Field Guide to Demons, Fairies, Fallen Angels, and Other Subversive Spirits by Carol K. Mack and Dinah Mack (Henry Holt and Co., 1998, $15). Some examples:

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