Working with Substances: Bread

Santería priests work with bread in many contexts. There are only a few things that every oricha will eat: fruit, coconuts, the tamales called ekó, and bread. Seventeen rolls on a plate is a common offering to Babalú-Ayé, and in some house you even see them nailed to the inside of the door frame as a concrete prayer for a constant supply of food to enter the house. They are also placed in the bottom of the awán basket when they honor Babalú.

What could be more essential, more basic, than bread--that ancient mixture of wheat, water, leavening, and fire? Bread remains "the staff of life." And as a culinary imperative, it holds a special place in the imagination of many cultures. Bread is the most basic food, the sine qua non of Western cuisine. Some writers have even seen bread as the best symbol for human beings' transformational impact on nature. It is the raw, and then cooked, as Levi-Strauss pointed out. As a basic building block of the Cuban diet, its inclusion in the awán points to the centrality of Babalú-Ayé.

Bread starts out alive. The leavening grows, nourishing itself on the sugars in the wheat. The gas produced in the process creates the characteristic air holes. However, when you add fire and bake, the leavening dies, and the loaves are nothing but the skeleton of once living colony of yeasts. It's a bit like the coral stones so characteristic of Babalú's worship--like the one at the Sociedad Africana de Santa Bárbara. They start out as living organisms, but when removed, they too are skeletons--each one the long-lasting remnant of a former existence. More on that later...

So adding the bread to the awán basket invokes two very different aspects of Babalú-Ayé. It calls up a universal notion of sustenance, the daily bread, the material necessities that keep our bodies alive and moving. At the same time, it invokes that enduring, irreducible part of human being that remains present even after devastating violence or irreparable harm.

(Special thanks to filmmaker Madli Lääne of Estonia for the fantastic image. Check out her work, including the film Toma Uno about Cuba.)


  1. Very interesting, in all my travels in different parts of the world. You always see bread as the most basic staple of any diet. So then one can determine that bread in any society or religion is a respected and revered form of food.

  2. Benediction. The saying "to break bread" is almost a universally accepted way of alluding to not only sustenance, but community and sharing.


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