The polyvalence of the term “culture” reflects the wealth of meanings of the Latin verb colere: among them, to cultivate a field (cereals), to care for or adorn one’s body, to protect, to inhabit, to practice a virtue or study, to honor, to serve with a cult a certain god or a sanctuary. Hence there is the close relationship in Latin languages of words relating to agriculture, culture (customs and knowledge) and cult (religious or civic). They convey notions of attentive and prudent care given to the land, to the powers that govern it, to the people who inhabit it, and even to the moral and physical ground that I inhabit and that I must cultivate.
Of course, resonances differ from one language family to another. In Chinese, the term used for “(literary) culture,” wen, refers primarily to the observation and knowledge of signs, first celestial, then written. The character jiao designates a teaching, a doctrine, later a religion, and also applies to the idea of “civilizing” (jiaohua). Cultivating and plowing are actions particularly expressed by the character geng. Among others, Mencius (ca. 380-289 BC), one of the leading Confucian thinkers, insists on the close association between “the development [literally: the deepening] of plowing ” (shen geng), on the one hand, and “the culture of filial piety” (xiu xiao), on the other. In all the classical texts of Chinese antiquity, agrarian practices, ritual prescriptions and the observance of virtue constitute a triptych, one term of which cannot be neglected without damaging the other two.
How cereal crops have shaped societies and rituals
In much of the world, crops are mainly cereal crops. Admittedly, the food sources provided by legumes, oilseed crops or tuber crops are also linked to ways of doing things, to a worldview, to myths and to a memory on which the ethos of the group dependent on them is shaped. But legumes and, to a lesser extent, oilseeds are often crops connected with cereals, encouraged by their development.
Above all, one needs only to enunciate the terms “wheat,” “rice,” and “corn” to realize the extent to which major grains have been linked through the millennia to major civilizations. Moreover, wheat, rice and corn have an impressive number of congeners: barley, sorghum, oats, rye, millet, fonio (white or black), teff, or even Job’s tears, to which we can add the “pseudocereals,” such as quinoa, amaranth or buckwheat.
Now, both cereals and pseudocereals have seen their genetic profile transformed by human effort, to the point of becoming dependent on it. Humanity and cereals have co-evolved and we could say that they have mutually domesticated each other.
Since their nutritive capacity is remarkable, and since they are easily stored and transported, cereals have been essential vectors for the development of human societies. Their domestication, the improvement of their cultivation, the methods of cooking them, their uses in the kitchen – but also their role in the production of alcohol – the use of their straw, everything about them has had, and still has, a decisive influence on the demographic growth of humanity, on its technological advances, on the transformation of economic and political factors. The earliest definite signs of wild grain harvesting in the Near East date from about 23,000 years ago, or even earlier. About 10-12,000 years ago, crops began to be domesticated. Then they increased in productivity, especially when seeds and knowledge began to be spread and exchanged, disrupting earlier ways of life, although we have lost awareness of this today.
For the people who were themselves involved in it, cereal cultivation was both a servitude and a support for progress and technological transfer (in such areas as fertilization, irrigation, storage, mechanization, millstones, ovens). The servitude created by cultivation did not only derive from the fact that farmers had to bind themselves to a territory out of necessity, but also from the need to prepare the fields for sowing, to carry out hydraulic works for irrigation, to organize the harvests and to restart the endless annual cycle: all these needs prepared for the coercion exercised by the powerful, which in turn intensified the activity. At least in part, the origin of each of the following institutions can be traced to the transition to cereal crops: the division of labor, often by gender, social stratification, arithmetic, writing, taxation.
Cereals have also proved to be a ritual and religious vector of primary importance: suffice it to think of harvest festivals, propitiatory formulas pronounced against dangers encountered during sowing, locust invasions, or even religious celebrations in which a transformed cereal plays a fundamental role. The Christian Eucharist provides an obvious example of this. The rituals to propitiate rain celebrated by Andean communities show the solidarity sought between plants and other living things. The solidarity among farmers necessary for the transplanting of rice emerges in moments of particular intensity, while they sing the praises of nature transformed by collective activity. The día de los muertos, Corpus Christi, and Confucian offerings to ancestors give – or gave – solemn importance to the great rhythms of the year.
The biological cycles of cereal crops punctuated the lives of our farming ancestors and became embedded in networks of shared meanings: sowing was birth; cultivation of the soil was the learning process, the struggle; flowering was nuptials; harvesting was death and survival at the same time; seed formation was childbirth; straw, in its uses, hinted at shelter and protection; milling and baking were transformation, rebirth or reincarnation; alcohol (which was derived from cereals by fermentation very early) was a vector of fraternity, but also of dialogue with the spirits.
A meaningful feast for our days
Are we talking here only about the past? Should we nostalgically evoke farming societies and cultures that technology has largely rendered obsolete? Immersing oneself in the “cereal roots” of civilizations built up throughout history is not just an act of memory. Rather, it is a matter of identifying what still retains its original function today: the representations, hidden or explicit; the relationships with the soil, with life; the stories, beliefs or ways of doing things that condition our relationships with cereals as an expression of the living.
It thus becomes necessary to reflect on what seems to disappear, or more likely is transformed, while continuing to exist in our societies. And this all the more imperative because today we are experiencing a general crisis in the relationship of humanity with the various forms of life. Not all crises are “apocalyptic,” but the use of this term at least indicates a disjunction that calls for responses that are out of the ordinary. The systemic nature of such a crisis in the relationship of the human to life in general also requires understanding cultural diversity and biological diversity, social resilience and that of the natural environment as a whole.
Humans have cultivated grain and thought about this process in very different natural and social contexts, giving it a moral and spiritual value that is expressed through the practices and rituals that accompany such activity. As one Zoroastrian text states, “the one who sows grain sows justice.” One can hypothesize a “moral function” relating to the cultivation of grains: this undoubtedly led to a moralization or humanization of sacrificial practices, even though grains are part of the living, and their ritual use therefore continued to raise the question of the ultimate reasons for sacrificial obligation. The considerations developed in the Letter to the Hebrews on the sacrifices of the First Covenant, like those of Paul in the First Letter to the Corinthians on the ethical and communal character of the Eucharistic meal, testify that the use of cereals in a ritual context helped to conceive of the end of sacrificial obligation, and to replace it with a new way of relating to the divine
Fasting and feasting: the rhythms of existence
Grains will remain essential, probably irreplaceable elements of human nutrition, although they may be consumed in more thoughtful nutritional combinations than has sometimes been the case. This goes hand in hand with the great challenges of society: agriculture must feed the world and, to do so, it must ensure that its producers have the income and the means to protect the soil. Farmers have become fewer and must be recognized and remunerated, for what their activity involves is essential, indeed, vital. Maintaining a minimum number of farmers on all continents, but also safeguarding the knowledge and the transmission of knowledge organized around the various agricultural systems, serve as a guarantee for the future of humanity. Moreover, the way we obtain food, the way we eat together – or all too often, separately – has a nutritional, environmental, but also an ethical and civilizational impact: grains, rituals and knowledge will evolve, but above all they will continue to evolve together.
The gradual disappearance of traditional agricultural societies has certainly made metaphors based on cereal germination or harvest much less meaningful and evocative today than in the past. At the same time, these symbols are being reworked and reinterpreted as a function of new ways of being in which grain production and consumption continue to play a strategic role. For example, for the Christian tradition, “The Eucharistic life is about the real stuff: bread and hunger, food and pleasure, eating disorders and global food politics, private property and the common good.”
Today’s renewed interest in the origin and quality of food and the reform of consumption patterns revives ancient associations of images, stimulating the ability of cereals to become “sacramental.” From this point of view, the shared meal always possesses something sacramental; and an act such as breaking bread – sharing corn beer or eating sticky rice, which, by its adherence, speaks of communal and transgenerational solidarity – makes explicit and celebrates this sacramental energy that is found in potential in the meal.
All cultures, all religions experience the alternation of fasting and feasting, years of poor harvests and abundant harvests. It is undoubtedly a pity that this alternation has been so attenuated by the changes in civilization of the last half-century. It should be remembered, however, that the production of food is marked by an alternation – more or less marked – of abundance and lack, but also that the assimilation of each food is facilitated by the circulation of a “sense,” by the continuous movement of the relationship entertained with oneself, with the group and with the Other. Moreover, “fasting is today recognized from a medical point of view as capable of providing the body and health with a sort of pause in time, in order to allow, with a reasoned and reasonable practice, a better control of oneself both intellectually and physically. […]Humans can be well mentally only if in a body that is known, including a knowledge of how to control its excesses.” Fasting is a warning of a finiteness that we strive to disguise.
But cultures, traditions and religions do not only speak of fasting: they also speak of feasts, closely linked to meals, abundance and sharing. The feasts and the wisely controlled excesses that characterize them celebrate the continuity of life, of the group, the mastery of the resources necessary for existence and their sharing in a way that (ideally) satisfies everyone’s expectations. The basic cereal foods provide all the exalted dimensions, associated with the joys of the heart and the senses. If we look closely, the frenzy of consumption in our urbanized societies gives us a paradoxical truth: when we lose the sense and the rhythms of the alternation of fasting and feasting, then we can no longer practice the moderation that should characterize ordinary life. If daily and forced, abundance is no longer a feast, but a burden.
If global challenges continue to become more pressing, and even more distressing – as the crisis caused by Covid-19 has cruelly illustrated, and now also the crisis triggered by the war in Ukraine – should we not re-learn how to celebrate, to mark with the seal of gathering our shared mourning, our confirmed solidarities, our exits from winter? Then, the balance of fasting and feasting, like the food rituals associated with them, will recover an importance, an urgency, that only for a limited time has been obscured. Sowing and harvesting, famine and plenty, times of crisis and seasons of patient waiting will enable societies to rediscover themselves to be alive, and therefore infinitely fragile. We will always depend on the rhythms of cereals, which, often unobserved, mark the course of our existence.
DOI:La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.9 art. 4, 0922: 10.32009/22072446.0922.4
. This article summarizes some of the themes developed in the volume by A. Bonjean – B. Vermander, L’ Homme et le grain. Une histoire céréalière des civilisations, Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 2021. The work describes the progress and genetic, technological and ritual exchanges related to cereal crops from the Neolithic age to the present day. It also offers a prospective analysis from the scientific, social and mental changes that can be discerned today.
. Cf. Mencius IA5.
. This bond, however, is expressed differently than in republican Rome: one cannot imagine a Chinese general returning to plough his field, as Cincinnatus did. Even in ancient China, the social and spatial divisions between farmers and citizens were strongly marked. At the same time, the protest against political and moral decadence was expressed preferentially by a return to village life and agrarian practices: cf. the Dialogues of Confucius, 18.6 and 18.7, and numerous passages from Laozi.
. Cereals provide about 50 percent of human energy intake, in solid or liquid form; some 35 to 40 percent of their production is for animal feed; their use in biofuel production is increasing. Wheat, corn and rice now account for over 90 percent of cereal production, with corn accounting for the largest share in animal and industrial uses.
. These plants, although not graminaceous like cereals, also produce seeds which can be ground and reduced to flour.
. For an overview of how humanity has influenced and continues to influence the biological evolution of other living forms, both animal and plant, see B. Shapiro, Life As We Made It, New York, Basic Books, 2021.
 . Cf. I. Groman-Yaroslavski – E. Weiss – D. Nadel, “Composite Sickles and Cereal Harvesting Methods at 23,000-Years-Old Ohalo II, Israel”, in Plos One (https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0167151), November 23, 2016.
 . Cf. R. G. Allaby et al, “Geographic mosaics and changing rates of cereal domestication”, in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Biological Sciences 372 (1735) (https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2016.0429), October 23, 2017.
. On this mechanism of human self-domestication through the cultivation of cereals, see J. C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 2017. However, this book should be consulted with caution for its brilliant insights do not prevent a certain focus which sometimes affects the selection and exposition of the facts presented.
 . The ease with which cereal crops can be weighed and transported makes them a preferred means of taxation.
. Avesta, Vendidad, Fargard 3, v. 239.
. A. Bieler – L. Schottroff, The Eucharist. Bodies, Bread, and Resurrection, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2007, 127.
. D. Gaurier, “Les interdits alimentaires religieux: quel possible rapport avec une forme de sécurité alimentaire?”, in F. Collart Dutilleul (ed), Penser une démocratie alimentaire, vol. I, Costa Rica, Inida, 2013, 6.
. Russia and Ukraine produce, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC), almost 30 percent of global wheat exports, 14 percent of corn, 72 percent of sunflower oil and 15 percent of sunflower seeds. Serious supply problems are looming especially in Asia and Africa, with destabilizing political effects.