Mythical Food Symbolism

18 Oct

In “Momotaro – Story of the Peach Boy,” the protagonist, Momotaro, is a boy sent from the heavens inside a large peach. When he departs from home to conquer an island inhabited by ogres, his parents cook him millet dumplings, referred to as “suitable food for a warrior on a journey” (Momotaro, 21). On his journey, Momotaro acquires three new companions: the spotted dog, the monkey, and the pheasant, which each wish to accompany Peach-Boy but are at odds with the other animals. Eventually, the three animals are each are initiated in the “warlike expedition” (26) with their consumption of half a millet dumpling and work together to defeat the enemy ogres. The mythical empowerment of the millet dumplings to inspire feelings of camaraderie and strength in the warriors is a key element of the Momotaro tale that appears in every version of the myth.

The mythical symbolism of food as something that promotes a quality is something that still pervades modern culture. For example, the foods eaten during Chinese New Year celebrations today are traditionally chosen for their symbolic meanings. Most of the words for these foods are homonyms – they have the same pronunciation as other words, but different meanings. Whole fish is commonly eaten during Chinese New Year, because it is thought to increase prosperity – its pronunciation is the same as another word meaning “surplus” or “having leftover money.” Mandarin oranges are also eaten, though they are sometimes given as gifts, because they have the meaning of “gold” or “wealth.” Other foods include: glass noodles to increase longevity, whole chicken for completeness, fresh fruit for new beginnings, etc.

Food as a symbol has transcended time and different countries to become a common literary and cultural motif. Whether we are looking at a modern day Chinese New Year feast, or an ancient Japanese myth, we cannot forget the importance of food in these celebrations of culture.


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