The Carnivalesque in Children’s Literature

Children’s literature academic Maria Nikolajeva categorises children’s fiction into three general forms: prelapsarian, carnivalesque and postlapsarian.

This post deals with the second category: stories in which characters temporarily take over from figures of authority and often make mischief, but control their own worlds for a time. These stories don’t conform to classic dramatic structure, which is why some picture books in particular seem completely off-the-wall and immune to what we generally understand as ‘the rules of story. Carnivalesque characters don’t go through any kind of character arc, there’s no big battle (as such) and nobody learns anything. Just as comedy goes by a different structure, so too, does the carnivalesque picture book. The carnivalesque story has quite a bit in common with comedy structure — it can only ever be short (i.e. picture book length). There isn’t enough in it to sustain a full-length novel, say.


  1. An Every Child is at home. There are commonly two children, a boy and a girl. Or maybe just one. More than two is hard to manage.
  2. The Every Children wish to have fun. They therefore start in a place of restriction or boredom.
  3. Appearance of an Ally in Fun. (The Cat in the Hat turns up.)
  4. Fun ensues. Hierarchy is completely overturned. The adults are no longer in charge!
  5. Fun culminates!
  6. Peak Fun! Somehow the author must think of a way for the fun to get wackier and wackier. The best carnivalesque stories are displays of imagination even beyond a child’s wildest dreams. The carnivalesque story takes the reader beyond what they can imagine themselves.
  7. Return to the Home state. Normal and safe hierarchy resumes, with adults in charge.

I have just described your typical carnivalesque picture book for preschoolers. However, full-length novels and films for older readers do contain elements of the carnivalesque, if not hewing closely to that picturebook carnivalesque story structure.


In a carnivalesque story, the lowest in societal hierarchy — in the medieval carnival a fool, in children’s books a child — is allowed to change places with the highest: a king, or an adult, and to become strong, rich, and brave, to perform heroic deeds, to have power. […] The necessary condition of carnival is the reestablishment of the original order, that is, return to normal life. Carnival is always a temporary, transitional phenomenon–so is childhood. Like the carnivalesque fool, the child can temporarily, by means of magic or his own imagination, become strong, beautiful, wise, learn to fly, trick the adults, and win over enemies. The end of carnival means return to the everyday, but the purpose of carnival is not only entertainment, but a rehearsal of a future moral and psychological transformation.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature

To borrow ten dollar words: The ‘carnivalesque’ children’s story features a plot in which child characters interrogate the normal subject positions created for children within socially dominant ideological frames.

In simpler language: A child breaks free of the rules, has fun for a while, then returns home. The carnivalesque plot is basically a home-away-home plot, even if the child never literally leaves home e.g. The Tiger Who Came To Tea, or The Cat In The Hat, in which fun walks in the door. In the Dr Seuss example, it is the mother who returns home, but the children have nevertheless been on a journey (of the imagination). The Desire of the children in these stories is simply to have fun for a while. They often start in a state of boredom.


Although the carnival looks like unmitigated fun, it is socially sanctioned and controlled, originally by the church. (In case you need a word to describe flip side of this: ‘abject’, which describes the taboo and whatever should be repressed.)

Originally, carnivals were particular festivals with unique rituals that mirrored and inverted the essential elements of religious meaning. “Christmas/Yuletide laughter” was a time people were permitted to laugh. At Easter it was known as “Paschal laughter”. This was originally a pastoral phenomenon, inextricably linked to a Christian phenomenon, designed by the church to cheer up the congregation. (A good word to use for rituals of this era is ‘Christianized’ — ‘adjusted to Christian beliefs’.) Paschal laughter was first mentioned in texts in the early 1500s. The priest would tell jokes from the alter to cheer everyone up. (Maybe this is related to April fool’s jokes.) At all other times people weren’t permitted to laugh in church. Laughter and ridicule were to a certain extent legalised and tolerated on other holidays as well. That’s why the rich body of parodic literature from the Middle Ages is connected to celebrations and holidays.

Carnival tales are best considered to have two sides. These tales celebrate the two most significant stages of human existence: birth and death. In stories for adults, the events of the story are seen as a rebirthing and a reaffirming process for the renewal of society. Think of a body in two different ways: One is to do with birthing and dying. The other is conceived, generated and born. Creation or destruction, one or the other at any given time.

In religious terms, one is seen as a vessel (a temporary state before salvation), the other is corporeal and organic. This is why churches focus on saving the soul. (This view of bodies has been historically terrible for women. Men also have bodily functions, but with women’s grotesque and confronting childbirth or regular bleeding, women’s bodies are a constant reminder that humans are corporeal, not magical.)


In the Hebraic tradition, it’s probably the Adam and Eve story: the ‘adult children’ prance about in an Arcadia, and do something they know they’re not supposed to do — eat an apple. They’re trying to discover where the boundaries lie.

John Milton seemed to like that story, too, with Paradise Lost — a poem about the ‘arch transgressor’ Satan. Milton was himself transgressive. He was anti-clerical, a radical heretic and a political revolutionary.

In Hellenic myth we have Prometheus and his transgressive bestowal of fire upon humanity.

In both the Hebraic and Hellenic traditions, the ‘birth of imagination’ came from an act of rebellion against the divine order of things. In Western culture, transgression and imagination are strongly linked.


Shakespeare is just one example of a storyteller who has played with the carnivalesque. For instance, all the spells and enchantments in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream create a carnivalesque atmosphere for the lovers in which the normal rules of life just don’t apply.


Mikhail Bakhtin was a Russian critic and philosopher. Bakhtin’s ideas are an evolution of the work of Francois Rabelais.

Mikhail Bakhtin’s four categories of the carnivalesque world:

  1. Familiar and free interaction between people: Unlikely people are brought together. They interact and express themselves freely.
  2. Eccentric behaviour: Unacceptable behaviour is welcomed and accepted. A character’s natural behaviour can be revealed without the consequences. (The idea that there’s a wild inner person behind a thin veneer is a Freudian way of looking at psychology.)
  3. Carnivalistic misalliances: Everything that may normally be separated reunites. Heaven and Hell, the young and the old, the powerful and the low-status, the rich and the poor, humans and animals etc.
  4. Sacrilegious: Carnival allows for sacrilegious events to occur without punishment. These plots are creative theatrical expressions of manifested life experiences in the form of sensual ritualistic performances.


Though Mikhail Bakhtin had four categories, John Stephens divides carnivalesque texts for children into three main types:

  1. Those which offer the characters ‘time out’ from the habitual constraints of society but incorporate a safe return to social normality (of which Where The Wild Things Are is one such example). Adults tend to be not present to intervene.
  2. Those which strive through simple mockery to dismantle socially received ideas and replace them with their opposite, privileging weakness over strength (Babette Cole’s Prince Cinders, Anthony Browne’s Willy The Wimp, Fungus the Bogeyman by Raymond Briggs)
  3. Those which are more recent, and perhaps British in origin, consist of books which are endemically subversive of such things as social authority, received paradigms of behaviour and morality, and major literary genres associated with children’s literature (Out Of The Oven by Jan Mark and Anthony Maitland, Wagstaffe the Wind-up Boy by Jan Needle).

Carolyn Daniel, in Voracious Children, explains that texts that transgress adult food rules generally fall into either the first or third of these types. For more on the importance of feasting in children’s literature, see Sex Equals Food In Children’s Literature.

It’s all related to this concept of carnival, which points earthwards rather than heavenwards. Eating and other bodily functions are to do with Bakhtin’s “material lower body stratum”.


Gross-out books are also a subcategory of carnivalesque tales, focusing on bodily functions. During childhood we learn to come to terms with how the body works, which parts are private. (There is still a dearth of literature which affords the same level of comfort with menstruation compared to the other bodily functions. That said, I wouldn’t like the ‘gross out’ treatment for menstruation, because of a long history of taboo and disgust around women’s body.)

Series such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid are not gross-out books per se, though characters like Fregley seem to revel in it. There are regular scenes in which Greg Heffley is disgusted by the human body, for instance when he visits the local pool. He is of course terrified of impending puberty.

The PhD thesis by B.F. Haynes (2009): Elements of Carnival and the Carnivalesque in Contemporary Australian Children’s Literature. The work of Paul Jennings and Andy Griffiths comes up again and again. These two authors have ‘focalised the role of bodily functioning as narrative device’.

The time for gross-out books is limited to a very narrow window of childhood (and some kids never enjoy them at all). What does this turn into? Well, discomfort with living in a body doesn’t disappear. In young adult literature it simply takes a different form.

The Bakhtinian concept of the medieval grotesque — a dark focus on the corporeal — combines easily with the carnivalesque in adolescent literature because of adolescents’ extreme anxieties about their physical bodies.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

As stand-out examples, Trites offers the works of:

  • Judy Blume
  • M.E. Kerr
  • Hadley Irwin
  • Richard Peck

Each of these authors ‘could be read as jesters parodying the adolescent body.’


  • is playful
  • is non-conforming
  • opposes authoritarianism and seriousness
  • is often manifested as a parody of prevailing literary forms and genres often has idiomatic discourse
  • is often rich in language which mocks authority, even though swearing is taboo in children’s literature (for example Dahl’s use of ‘pulled a pistol from her knickers’)
  • often stars a hero who is a bit of a clown or a fool

Maria Tatar has pointed out that children’s characters often begin from a place of boredom:

Look closely at children’s books and you will find that the heroic child often begins as a bored child, a child faced with the challenges of coping with the tedium of everyday life. … Oddly, the bored literary child often touches magic by falling asleep and dreaming about places like Oz, Wonderland, or Neverland. In real life, relief comes in the form of a story world rather than sleep.

Maria Tatar, Enchanted Hunters

Which — again — goes against much advice to writers — to create go-getter characters who want something specific and then go for it. Carnivalesque characters are different. They are generally just a stand-in for the child reader, with no real distinguishing characteristics of their own except for a fun body type (an animal in clothes, a rogue pet etc). These children have no more distinguishing characteristics than your average picturebook moose.


The fool is a useful character in a carnivalesque tale.

  • (The fool is most often gendered male.)
  • The fool is free to speak the truth as he sees it but in turn usually reflects those believes of the society he mocks.
  • In the upside-down story world of the carnivalesque, the fool provides the opposition to established order.
  • The fool provides laughter for everyone. Laughter negates authority. Bakhtin said that the fool ‘speaks the laughing truth’. (You can probably think of real life examples of people with large platforms, who alternate between ‘speaking the truth’ and also saying outlandish things.)
  • The fool’s message might be farce, satire or parody.
  • As you can see, the fool is rarely made of pure stupid. This character is almost mandatory in any successful comedy. Seinfeld’s Kramer is alternatively naive and also lives outside mainstream society and is therefore able to see some of its absurdity, revelling in fun inside his own apartment by setting up a wonderland replete with spa pool and so on, focusing heavily on his stomach (food). In SpongeBob Squarepants, Patrick is alternately flat out wrong about basic truths but as the story requires he is able to point out a lot of truths to SpongeBob, who is a different kind of naive. In Kath and Kim, Kath quite often has a handle on the real situation and is able to give pretty good advice to the younger women in the show, namely Sharon and Kim.
  • Bakhtin has broken the particular stupidities of the fool down into further subcategories:
    • simplicity (Patrick of SpongeBob Squarepants)
    • naivety (Kel of Kath and Kim)
    • generosity (Sharon of Kath and Kim)
    • misunderstanding of pernicious social convention (today sometimes coded as autistic)

Of course, every fool needs his ‘straight man’, so the King archetype is equally necessary in carnival. Another take on the King archetype is the Lord or Abbot of Misrule — the leader of youth groups who were important in organising processions, competitions etc.

Misrule doesn’t have to be a ‘fool’ — jesters and clowns are related archetypes.


Carnivalesque characters are often given props with which to have fun. In Where The Wild Things Are, the saucepan becomes a crown, which highlights the absurdity of the props of hierarchy. Speaking of Max…


carnivalesque wild things

Where The Wild Things Are is [the first kind of carnivalesque text in three important ways: Max’s behaviour is oppositional to normal socializing expectations; the ‘wild things’ in the illustrations are grotesques, and thus in essence parodies of the natural creatures usually encountered during a wilderness adventure; and the book clearly belongs to the ‘time out’ group, in that Max’s adventure is formally a parenthesis in his relationship with his mother. Roger H. Ford (1979) has suggested that the main characters in several of Sendak’s books are modelled on the folk-tale Trickster figure, dominated by selfish appetites and emotions, given to practical jokes, capable of heroism and generally unselfconscious. Max’s entry into the land of the wild things, whether we regard it as a dream or an act of the imagination, enables him to enjoy a time of unconcerned spontaneity free of the social constraints which define his behaviours in the world as ‘mischief’. Max’s attempt to construct a site for fantasy play in the opening illustration involves causing damage to property, as is foregrounded by the grossly oversized hammer with which he attempts to drive a huge nail into the wall. His second act of mischief is to attack the family dog with a kitchen fork, an actual breach of proper conduct going beyond the quasi-‘hanging’ of his teddy bear included in the first illustration. Max, then, still deeply immersed in the solipsism of childhood, has not yet learnt the first principle of freedom–that freedom of action is bounded by the rights of others. Carnivalesque texts, by breaching those boundaries, explore where they properly lie and the ideological bases for their determination, but without always necessarily redrawing those boundaries…The grotesque in this book is comic and droll rather than frightening, though this was not always perceived when the book was first published. …By giving comically grotesque forms to inner fears, the illustrations image the defeat of that fear. Moreover, Max is always in control. Swanton (1971) offers this as one reason why children do not find the book frightening.

Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction by John Stephens

John Stephens explains that the carnivalesque story is used not to question the values of the official world (that children being rude to their mothers needs to go punished before they are allowed to eat dinner), but to ‘define the values which may be at most implicit in some of the puzzling actions performed by those in power. In this respect, it is important to see that Max’s return and his mother’s gift of ‘supper’ are not causally linked but contiguous, since each is unconditional.’ Other authors of the era were writing quite different stories re parent/child power. For example, E. Nesbit. Stephens points out that modern books are not necessarily any better than Nesbit’s were, in that regard.


Pippi Longstocking, Swedish favourite, is the ultimate carnivalesque character, and a rare female example. Ramona Quimby, Junie B. Jones and various new female stars of chapter books and middle grade are filling a bit of a hole there, but I have heard literary agents lament that they have all but disappeared by the time the reader advances to young adult literature. If carnivalesque female characters exist, they tend to be the main character’s best friend.

Pippi Longstocking, Swedish favourite, is the ultimate carnivalesque character.
Pippi Longstocking, Swedish favourite, is the ultimate carnivalesque character.


You’ll notice in the picture below, carnivalesque children’s characters are often depicted in mid-air, mid-mischief. By the way, the inverse of a carnivalesque character is the underdog. Readers also love underdog characters, so long as they break free of that status.

Flying is a carnivalesque (fun) thing to do.


The O.G. of carnivalesque picture book characters.

In The Cat In The Hat, Theodore Geisel (Dr Seuss) slyly revealed that discipline and anarchy live on opposite sides of the same street. (Cheersome fact for writers: Though fun to read, it took a year and a half of struggle for Geisel to write.)

The Cat In The Hat is the ultimate carnivalesque character
The cat grins at the reader in complicity. Let’s have fun together!


The Darling Children, like their more anxious counterparts in The Cat In The Hat, move from the orderly routines of a space ruled by their mother to rowdy antics and alluring adventures in a story world that bears a distinct resemblance to the way we imagine the mind of a child.


The stand-out carnivalesque character from retro cartoon world would be Bugs Bunny, who is all about fun and over-turning whatever social hierarchy is in place.

Bugs Bunny ultimate carnivalesque character
What’s he poking fun at? Authority, no doubt.


Now I’ve given you all those examples of laughing, prancing characters, remember what I said above about the dark flip side of carnival.

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier is not a fun novel. Yet we use this story as a young adult literature example of the carnivalesque. When the main character decides not to sell chocolates, he is rebelling against the authority of an institution. This ultimately leads to his downfall. Perhaps a good way of summing up the carnivalesque is simply ‘disturbing the universe’.

In fact, the carnival is a way for people — including children — to come to grips with scary things.

Children are frequently involved as subjects and players [in carnivals], and not only during Halloween. Guaranteeing their survival is a central part of the story, and different festivities face up to dangers that can assail from any number of directions—sickness, animal predators, witchcraft, devils, cannibals, ogres, succubi, fire and flood and famine. The magical attempt to secure safety takes two predominant forms: either the participants impersonate the danger itself, as in the carnival masks and fancy dress of Halloween, and thus, cannibal-like, absorb its powers and deflect is ability to inflict harm; or they expose themselves and by surviving the ordeal, prove their invulnerability.

Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman

Mothers In Children’s Literature

“Mothers are either held up as paragons of selflessness, or they’re discounted and parodied. We often don’t see them in all their complexity.”

— Novelist Edan Lepucki contemplates motherhood.

The only time you truly become an adult is when you finally forgive your parents for being just as flawed as everyone else.
— Douglas Kennedy

It is partly a children’s book convention that you write from the kids’ point of view, so you cannot be entirely fair to the parents as well. If you are going to write about children of twelve and thirteen who have totally understanding and marvellous parents, there’ll be nothing to write about.

— Gillian Rubenstein

Early Peter Pan cover. Peter Pan considers mothers very overrated.

The subject of mothers is apparently very sensitive for Peter [Pan]: “Not only had he no mother, but he had not the slightest desire to have one. He thought them very over-rated persons”. This is rather a puzzling statement, since Peter’s desire is to have Wendy as his mother. But the desire is extremely ambivalent, and the Lost Boys can only speak of mothers in Peter’s absence, “the subject being forbidden by him as silly”. “Now, if Peter had ever quite had a mother, he no longer missed her. He could do very well without one. He had thought them out, and remembered only their bad points.” We know that Peter ran away the day he was born, because he heard his parents talk about what he was to be when he became a man, which was not his intention: “I don’t want ever to be a man…I want always to be a little boy and have fun”.

—From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature by Maria Nikolajeva


Frances Spufford writes that characters in fairytales are symbols.

A character in a story exists in particular before it exists in general. A wicked stepmother is a woman before she is a symbol of what a child might fear in motherhood. The story of Snow White therefore says things about gender, and the encounters of daughter, stepmother, father and lover, before it can become a picture of a psychological process.

—The Child That Books Built


The following notes draw heavily from the Kid You Not Podcast, Episode 11

The mother in children’s literature is generally ambivalent and ambiguous.

mothers are all slightly insane

Continue reading “Mothers In Children’s Literature”

Food And Sex In Children’s Literature

Food plays an important role in children’s literature, and is one difference between mainstream literature and literature for children. Food means all sorts of things throughout literature — sometimes it symbolizes good, other times evil.

Harriet The Spy Food quotation


Why All The Food in Children’s Literature?

The feasting fantasy in children’s literature is a particularly good vehicle for carrying culture’s socializing messages: it acts to seduce readers; through mimesis it “naturalizes” the lesson being taught; and, through the visceral pleasures (sometimes even jouissance) it produces, it “sweetens” the discourse and encourages unreflexive acceptance of the moral thus delivered. Hence, while ostensibly pandering to hedonism, a feasting fantasy frequently acts didactically. 

Voracious Children: Who eats who in children’s literature? by Carolyn Daniel

Bunyip Bluegum Without food everything is less than nothing

Here are a few things to bear in mind when you come across food in literature:

  1. All food in literature is symbolic, since made up people don’t actually need to eat anything.
  2. In Western philosophical thought (e.g. Freud), everything inside/edible is aligned with the self and is good. Everything outside/inedible is aligned with the other and is bad.
  3. Inside/self = mind/reason, outside/inedible = body/passion. This also leads to a whole nother discussion about phalluses that I’d rather erase from the history of Western thought, thanks. (It pits the masculine against the feminine in a way that supports an unhelpful gender binary. Also, femininity = thinness = mind over matter.)
  4. The ultimate ‘bad eater’ is the cannibal = the antithesis of humanity.
  5. Food is obviously culturally specific. Bear in mind that in the West, our list of acceptable proteins is quite narrow. A lot of this comes from the food rules as described in Leviticus. (Sheep, pigs, cattle, chickens = OK. Pretty much everything else = NOT OK.) In Jewish culture, no pigs either. Hindus, no beef.
  6. Some animals are accorded a sort of interim status similar to humans. In kidlit, dogs.
  7. Food fantasies were especially prevalent in England during the Victorian era (due to underfeeding of children) and during the world wars (due to rationing).
  8. Relatively expensive ice cream and chocolate products tend to be marketed at adult women whereas cheap sugary products are marketed at children, but in literature, children get to eat the expensive ones.


Some classic and well-known children’s books are famous for their celebration and proliferation of food and mealtimes:

The Wind In The Willows

Wind In The Willows food picnic illustration by Michael Hague
Illustration by Michael Hague

Many stories of Enid Blyton, such as the Famous Five Adventures and the Faraway Tree trilogy

“Soon they were all sitting on the rocky ledge, which was still warm, watching the sun go down into the lake. It was the most beautiful evening, with the lake as blue as a cornflower and the sky flecked with rosy clouds. They held their hard-boiled eggs in one hand and a piece of bread and butter in the other, munching happily. There was a dish of salt for everyone to dip their eggs into.

‘I don’t know why, but the meals we have on picnics always taste so much nicer than the ones we have indoors,’ said George.”
Enid Blyton, Five Go Off in a Caravan


The symbolic meaning of food which we see in Arcadia children’s books is present in travel instructions too. It has been noted that in no other children’s books do the characters eat as much and with such relish as in Enid Blyton’s adventure novels. In adult formula fiction, this corresponds to excessive drinking and sexual exploits. The reader partakes in behavior which is not wholly accepted in our society, an initiation into the “other” and the forbidden.

–Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

If you’ve ever read something about how to improve your memory for lists of objects, you may be familiar with the advice to play with size. For instance, if you’re heading to the shops and you need to buy apples, imagine a massive apple on top of the hill behind your house.

I believe picture books featuring oversized items are utilising the same quirk of the brain: massive items are memorable.

When it comes to massive food, the story conveys abundance. Examples:

Pippi Longstocking

Pippi Eating Food
from the cancelled Studio Ghibli animation project

Nikolajeva explains that we need to understand food in mythology before we can understand food in children’s literature:

According to most mythologists, meals in myths and folktales are circumlocutions of sexual intercourse, but we can reconstruct this meaning only partly from the existing texts. When folktales were incorporated into children’s literature, their motifs changed further, to suit pedagogical purposes, so that the original meaning has become still more obscure. It is therefore essential to understand what food represents in myth and folktale, before we can interpret its meaning in children’s fiction.

– Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature

We are told:

The most important role of food in myths to accentuate the contrast between nature and culture. The origin of food is in nature, but it is used within culture, and it is the result of the transition from nature to culture. Thus food neutralizes this basic contrast.

Cultures are made up of many different kinds of oppositions (own/alien, male/female, home/away, sacred/profane and so on). The opposition between ‘own and alien’ tends to be especially connected to food in ancient cultures. Whatever we eat is natural and genuine; whatever others eat is alien, unnatural and unclean. This can be seen in a the big three religions. In Judaism and Islam followers are not allowed to eat certain foods. Christians have rules about Lent.

So what’s the first step when cultures start to become civilized?


Angela Carter, in one of her deft and offhand sullies, famously remarked that a fairy tale is a story in which one king goes to visit another king to borrow a cup of sugar.

— Marina Warner

This hunger in fairy tales reveals its keen edge even more clearly against the historical background. Actual orphans and fairy tale foundlings coexisted in the eighteenth-century culture, and food was stodgy and often scanty.

— Marina Warner

A Brief History of Cannibalism, Real and Literary

The prohibition against eating human flesh is one of the first steps in human civilization. Cannibalism was universally accepted in the archaic world, but later started to be viewed as alien. Cannibalism is often connected with the Fall, that is the loss of immortality. In a myth, the so-called cultural hero terminates cannibalism by defeating the cannibal enemy.

— Maria Nikolajeva

Nikolajeva gives the examples of Tom Thumb (see Hop-o-my-thumb) and Hansel and Gretel as fairytales which foil cannibalism.

In one common myth a supreme deity punishes his children/spouse by cutting them into bits and throwing them down from heaven to earth or hiding them underground. Nutritious plants grow from the mutilated bodies.

An important mythical figure is the Progenitrix, the incarnation of Mother Earth, the origin of everything. In most myths, she teaches humans to sow and to bake bread.

— Maria Nikolajeva

The children’s literature equivalent of the Progenitrix are parents or other adults — usually the mother.

Hence, we must interpret all scenes in children’s fiction where the mother provides food not only and not in the first place as realistic details (as a traditional female role), but as a remnant of the human notion of the Progenitrix, the source of food and thus of procreation.

Marina Warner, in No Go The Bogeyman, offers further examples of cannibalism in storytelling, beginning with some very old tales:

  • The Juniper Tree from the Grimm collections, which is an 1800s take on an ancient tale pattern — Tereus in Philomena and Procne and Ovid’s tale of Philomel. Hera, Demeter, Hades, Hestia, Poseidon (of the Olympians); Jupiter, Zeus, Saturn and Kronos (of the Romans).
  • Tamara Queen of the Goths in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, which  played from 1592. The 1500s were a golden era for cannibal stories, especially on the stage.
  • Sleeping Beauty and Snow White are very similar tales at their core and in both of those you’ll find a cannibalistic grandmother (witch) figure — both are frustrated in their desire to eat offspring, but they both wanted to. You’ll have to go back to the Perrault versions to get the juicy cannibalistic bits — the stories tend to leave out part two of Sleeping Beauty for a young, contemporary audience.
  • The BFG by Roald Dahl, in which Sophie (and therefore the child reader) is terrified of being eaten by giants. This is straight out of fairytale.
  • Silence of the Lambs is not a children’s film but includes this cannibalistic element, also linking cannibalism to sex. For Hannibal Lecter, eating people is a sexual experience.
  • Jack and the Beanstalk, in which the giant in the castle in the sky wants to eat Englishmen, grinding their bones to make bread. Many cannibals have been ostracised from civilised society and live in the forest, but there’s another type of ‘ogre’ who lives in a castle. Jack and the Beanstalk is a good example of that kind.
  • Some versions of Little Red Riding Hood end with the cannibal joke in which LRRH eats her own grandmother.

I also offer:

  • Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl, which is for adults but studied in high schools around the English speaking world. (Is it just a coincidence that lambs keep coming up? Is it because lambs are delicious?) Dahl took a macabre delight in cannibalism and other deviance. (Most of it came out in his short stories for adults, but he gave children a taste.)
  • A contemporary take on the cannibal fairy tale — and a hugely successful  one at that — is the picture book Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner? If you’re a picture book author, how do you get away with cannibalism in today’s market? The pig and the goose are an excellent case study: In a Rosie’s Walk style of hero obliviousness, they have no idea that they’ve caused the downfall of the wolf (the wicked witch stand-in), and that he’s about to be consumed by his wolf cronies. In other words, you can cause cannibalism — just make it comical and make it accidental.

While we still see actual cannibals in contemporary stories, we’ve now got another kind of monster who functions in the same way: the pedophile or child abuser. Whatever we say about him, we can also say of the ancient cannibal.

So why all the cannibalism? What are we to make of them, really? What are they saying at a deeper level?

Symbolism and Motifs of Cannibalism

Here’s Nikolajeva’s take:

The meaning of cannibalism is that by eating up your enemy you inherit his powers. There exists a habit of eating up the eldest man in the tribe to inherit his wisdom. Later this changes into ritual meals. To eat a symbolical figure signifies receiving magical power. To eat and be eaten are two interchangeable notions, which is seen in the Christian tradition’s most important sacrament, the Holy Communion. Jesus prescribed that His “body” be eaten, symbolizing a union of those who eat and Him who is being eaten, which together signifies a victory over death and a promise of resurrection.

Food and Christianity

Unlike most of the world’s religions, Christians are able to eat anything. Christians are omnivorous. This is reflected in children’s literature.

  • The imagery of eating pervades the very language of the culture, its beliefs and its rites
  • It provokes anxiety about impurity — an anxiety that used to be partly contained for Catholics, by minor rules of abstinence, such as no meat on Fridays and fasting before communion, but is no longer.
  • The taboo on cannibalism — on eating your own kind–offers the apparently unbreakable standard of propriety and hence ethics. Yet it is always being broken though performance and metaphor, thus plunging the system of discrimination between the good and bad eaters into continual disarray.
  • Eating and being eaten inspires one of the most common games adults play with babies. (Animal noises, gobbling — this is used in Gremlins to comic effect when the Gremlins say ‘yum yum!’)
  • It’s instinctive to growl and grit your teeth and curl your fingers, as instinctive as kissing or crying.
  • Faire barbo is a French expression which refers to the ancient game of clenching your teeth and grunting and making as if to claw at a little baby in fun.

Marina Warner’s take on literary cannibalism is related but a little different. Whereas Nikolajeva highlights the link between ‘eating and being eaten’, Warner highlights the link between eating one’s children and giving birth to them as another kind of ‘cycle of life’. In The Juniper Tree, the ‘birthing’ and ‘eating’ symbolism is braided all the way throughout the story. The boy gets to live on through the father. The false mother is expelled and the true father is validated. The result is a patriarchal triumph of a sort not seen in the earlier Kronos version — the female is erased entirely — the father is both birther and nurturer in the end. The family itself is reborn. Biology is negated. The dead mother has no body (and nor does the evil step-mother).  The father’s link to his children is solid — and ‘link to one’s own children’ is the one thing men have never been able to take away from women, even in the most repressive and patriarchal of cultures. Instead we see it done in stories.

In short, a tale such as The Juniper Tree is all about a deep-seated question regarding family relationships:

  • Who do children belong to? To mothers or to fathers? How can they belong to both?
  • Who has control of the child’s identity?

The culture of primogeniture comes in here, too. This is the custom of leaving all the family wealth to the eldest child. This happened in my own extended family just one generation ago, so it’s hardly dead. It tends to happen in farming families, in which the farm would otherwise be dismantled if the assets were divided among multiple children. The idea behind primogeniture: The boy who inherits the farm provides for his extended family. (In practice this may not happen.)

Political activist Thomas Paine was against the culture of primogeniture and had this to say about it:

Aristocracy has never more than one child. The rest are begotten to be devoured.

The link between primogeniture and cannibalism is a fascinating one — metaphorical cannibalism.

Now for eroticism. There’s a fine line between love and hate. For more on that listen to the Real Crime Profile podcast with Laura Richards, a British criminal profiler and feminist activist who does a lot of work around coercive control. For women (more rarely a man), the people most likely to kill us are men who say they love us.

In that vein, Nikolajeva posits that cannibalism in storytelling can function as a sign of extreme love:

when a man (more rarely a woman) eats up his beloved, in order to own her completely. Here is once again a parallel between food and intercourse, oral and sexual satisfaction. In some myths, parents devour their children out of great love.

Nikolajeva isn’t using the term because it’s a recent concept, but she is describing ‘coercive control’.

When Women Eat Children

Think of the folktales in which a witch eats the children, or tries to. Most of the time, the children get away. Marina Warner points out that in Greek myth, there are no examples of women eating their children. Not on purpose. Nor are they duped into it. This seems a bit of an anomaly, because Greek women of myth engage in plenty of infanticide. Ancient Greeks obviously thought of mothers eating children quite separately from other methods of murder. Consider the act of eating one’s child as a kind of inverted birthing. Ownership via incorporation. This idea lingers in modern stories about giants and cannibal fathers.

From the Grimm collection, a good example of child-eating women is Hansel and Gretel. Closely related is Baba Yaga. In these tales, cannibalism symbolises death and resurrection — and a near death experience is a vital part of story structure. It comes at the end of the battle stage, right before the self-revelation.When someone almost eats you, that makes for a pretty good battle. Or maybe someone almost eats your children. There’s only one thing worse than someone else eating your children — and that’s being tricked into eating your own children, a la the Juniper Tree tales. Again, though, these women never actually get to eat the children. She is always easily duped. The trickster children get away.

Cannibalism and Sex

Hannibal Lecter is the standout example of cannibal eroticism. But what about in stories for children? Fairytales were not for children until the Grimm brothers bowdlerised them, so bear that in mind. (It was Charles Perrault who introduced the sex-cannibal link to Little Red Riding Hood, in a wry, knowing way.)

Fairytales are about all the various initiation rites, and these rites include sexual intercourse.

The sacred food [of myth] is developed into a magical agent in folktales: bread, milk, honey, apple, beans etc. As compared to myths, folktales have lost their secret sacred meaning. Folktales collected and retold for children have often acquired the opposite meaning. It is therefore necessary to go back to myth to clarity the function of food in fairy tales, often connected with prohibition against incest. Food as a part of a trial appears in many fairy tales; the hero takes food from home when departing on his quest. Many folktales reflect the dream of Cornucopia, described as a magical mill, tablecloth or bag. Food can also be a means of enchantment, when the hero is transformed by eating or drinking something.

— Maria Nikolajeva

I believe Nikolajeva is talking about food as cycle of life, which is what Marina Warner was talking about vis a vis The Juniper Tree pattern of tale. Warner also says that in these early myths, cannibalism functions as a motif to dramatise the struggle for survival within the family.

Marina Warner sees cannibalism — overall — as a metaphor for the internal states and private knowledge.

Mythic cannibals who started off as sexually indifferent grew more sexual over time. A good example of that is Polyphemus (the Greek guy with the eye in the middle of his forehead).

The Hierarchy of Cannibals

In fairytale there’s a distinction between eating someone raw or ‘as carrion’. Even better than that, cooking them is the most genteel kind of cannibalism. Sushi is one step down, followed by eating them as carrion, in which you are the worst kind of beast.  (But if you are tricked into eating your own children, you’re absolved, and in fact you’ll get them back and live happily ever after.)

For the word lovers among you:

  • Anthropophage — someone who eats humans
  • Omophage — someone who only eats their own kind. (Well, I guess that’s okay then…)
  • Infantiphage — someone who eats babies

Basically, there’s no sex in traditional children’s literature, so we have lots of food instead.

In The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature, Maria Nikolajeva describes this function of food in literature by summarising Forster (1985), though numerous others have said similar:

In fiction [food] mainly has a social function; food “draws characters together, but they seldom require it physiologically, seldom enjoy it, and never digest it unless specially asked to do so”. … For all that Forster denies the characters of mainstream fiction the joys of food, they are all the more explicit in children’s fiction. … Food in children’s fiction is the equivalent of sex in the mainstream. Still more important is that for child protagonists, food is the essential link between themselves and the surrounding adults who have the power to provide food or to deny it. Food symbolizes love and care or lack thereof. A number of well-known children’s texts, from Hansel and Gretel to Where The Wild Things Are, rotate around this theme. Last but not least, food in children’s fiction is, much more often than in the mainstream, used for characterization. James Bond may be characterized through his passion for “shaken, not stirred,” but we are more likely to remember Winnie-the-Pooh through his passion for “hunny”.


Marina Warner has this to say, after describing early childhood games in which the parent pretends to eat the child, or tuck them into bed as if putting them into an oven:

The same impulse can arise in adult love-making, but orality there is not usually accompanied by monster faces or jaw-snapping and munching sounds. In sex, the eating fantasy does not often twist and turn through comic exaggerations and parodic beastliness. As Adam Phillips has commented, ‘If…kissing could be described as aim-inhibited eating, we should also consider the more nonsensical option that eating can also be, as Freud will imply, aim-inhibited kissing.’

The interplay of these two ways of connection sometimes tilts, in the changing representations of poetry, play, images and songs, towards eating, sometimes towards kissing; in today’s climate, the public emphasis falls on food. Food may stand in for sex, the oral gratifications perhaps interchangeable at a psychic level, but in terms of shared, overt expression, the promised satisfactions of food eclipse mutual exchanges of kisses and caresses. And these satisfactions include power over the hungry, control of the consumer.

— No Go the Bogeyman

Since sex and death (violence) are intertwined in mainstream stories, it is food and death which are intertwined in stories for children.

Jonah and the Whale
Jonah and the Whale

In traditional (mythic) stories, food has its own particular symbolic function:

Food is an indispensable part of the initiation rite, since it is closely connected to death and resurrection. Death in a rite of passage is often represented by the novice being eaten up by a monster (Jonah and the Whale is an example), which during the rite itself is staged by the novice entering a cave or a hut (for instance the famous Russian hut on chicken legs, inhabited by Baby Yaga). Resurrection is represented by the novice being invited to participate in a meal in the Otherworld, the realm of death. By accepting food from the Otherworld, the hero gains passage into it (the Holy Communion is a remnant of this archaic rite, as is the Jewish Sabbath meal). The Russian folktale hero Ivan replies to Baba Yaga’s threats of eating him up:”What is the good of eating a tired traveller? Let me first have some food and drink and a bath.” He pronounces himself ready to accept witch food and go through a symbolic purification.

From Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva


by Rima Staines
illustration of Baba Yaga by Rima Staines

I’m reminded of Spirited Away, in which Chihiro must eat a berry in order not to disappear. When her parents eat food from this Otherworld, they turn into pigs, becoming part of this Otherworld.

Spirited Away Eating The Berry



When the character of a children’s book departs from home (a necessary part of initiation), food can serve as a link back home. Since food emphasizes affinity, “own” food, food from home is especially important. It is also important that the mother packs the food and, as in folktale, supplies it with her blessing. This security of home, represented by food, is to be found in all types of children’s fiction, including adventure books, where home is treated more like a prison.

– from Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva


Since food from home gives security it can also function as a trial. When protagonists meet other characters, they are often invited to a meal or are encouraged to share their food with strangers, who become friends and helpers. In both cases, shared food is a sign of union. Food becomes a token of belonging together in a quest or struggle, or belonging to a particular group, good or evil. It can also be a passkey into the Otherworld, as in Alice In Wonderland. Finally, it can enchant, corrupt and even destroy.

– from Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva

Edmond drinks hot chocolate and eats Turkish delight offered by the evil witch. He is now under her spell.
Edmond drinks hot chocolate and eats Turkish delight offered by the evil witch. He is now under her spell.

…this was enchanted Turkish Delight and…anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves.

–The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

If that’s not a symbol for the evils of drug addiction, what is? In fact, C.S. Lewis was influenced by The Arabian Nights, in which sherbet and Turkish delight are evil confections. C.S. Lewis himself disliked these foods as a child, which together form his reason for using Turkish delight when painting young Edmond as the Judas of the story.

On the other hand, Lucy has shared food with Mr Tumnus:

During her first stay in Narnia, Lucy is invited to tea with Mr. Tumnus, the faun. He promises her “toast–and sardines–and cake”. Indeed, on the table there is “a nice brown egg, lightly boiled, for each of them” [Nikolajeva explains that during the war, eggs were rationed.] and then buttered toast, and then toast with honey, and then a sugar-topped cake.”


Did C.S. Lewis realise that what he was doing was the kidlit equivalent of sex? Nikolajeva thinks he probably did know, but propriety prevented him from admitting it in his essay “On three ways of writing for children“.

CS Lewis Sex Food

A shared meal–which we all know in its refined form as the Holy Communion–is the foremost symbol for affinity. Lewis was well-acquainted with mythology. The faun is the first person Lucy meets in Narnia. Our previous experience of stories prompts us that food comes from the good. Thus we immediately assume that the faun is a good creature. As it is, it is not totally true, since the faun is running the White Witch’s errand and tries to deceive Lucy. At the same time, the shared meal prevents the faun from turning in Lucy to his ruler. When you have broken bread with someone, you are committed. A shared meal is a covenant.


Later, the meal with the Beavers continues the affinity, showing the Beavers are friends.

“I must bring you where we can have ea real talk and also dinner”…everyone…was very glad to hear the word ‘dinner’.


In The Child That Books Built, Francis Spufford writes of the religiosity of C.S. Lewis, which obviously had an influence on his work:

Lewis took a completely orthodox but rather marginal point of Christian doctrine, and made it central to his belief. It was axiomatic that no sinful act could bring the sinner any substantial reward. You might be tempted by the idea that the sin would bring you a full, overflowing pleasure, but when you actually succumbed, you’d find out that all you got was flat, empty sensation. The apples of Sodom taste of ashes. This happened because sins were parodies, or perversions, of the legitimate pleasures God had ordained for human beings. In that case, reasoned Lewis, if you resisted sins in this life, every pleasure they held out delusively to you now, would be supplied in reality and in overwhelming abundance in the greater life to come. Every pleasure, though we might no longer recognise them as sexual once they have shed their mortal connections with biology.



In the book Language and Ideology In Children’s Literature, John Stephens writes of so-called interrogative texts — texts which question authority, and introduces the concept of the material bodily principle:

The interrogative texts of children’s literature allow a significant space for what Bakhtin termed ‘the material bodily principle’ — the human body and its concerns with food and drink (commonly in hyperbolic forms of gluttony and deprivation), sexuality (usually displaced into questions of undress) and excretion (usually displaced into opportunities for getting dirty).


Stephens continues:

Meals and feasts, for example, are an important part of human culture, and have a unique and significant role in children’s literature. Official meals, that is, meals conducted at times and places determined by adult authority, reinforce the existing patterns of things and social hierarchies, and assert certain values as stable, normal and moral. An early reference in Five Children and It to the children being ‘caught and cleaned for tea’ discloses, despite its jokiness, the prevailing attitude that meals are part of the process whereby children are civilized and socialized in order to take their place in adult society. Katz has observed that the practice of using meals as a measure of a child’s adjustment to the social order is especially pronounced in English children’s literature. The carnivalesque children’s feast — whether ‘midnight feast’ or birthday party or food-fight — celebrates a temporary liberation from official control over the time, place and manner in which food is consumed. In Five Children and It, where food is of central concern to the main characters without being carnivalized, the baby is allowed to be revolting at mealtimes but a somewhat arch distance is maintained when the older children, compelled to eat invisible food, regress to primitive methods.

Five Children And It Cookies Cover



Charlotte's Web cover

The focus on animals and their nature may explain a[nother] common feature of children’s texts, especially those intended for younger readers. Their characters are often centrally concerned with questions about food. In well-known fairy tales, Little Red Riding Hood brings food to her grandmother but is threatened with becoming the meal herself, and Hansel and Gretel become possible meals after they nibble parts of the witch’s house. Meanwhile, Peter Rabbit has his dangerous adventure because he can’t resist Mr. McGregor’s vegetables even though his father was made into a pie by Mrs. McGregor. And In Where The Wild Things Are, Max is sent to his room because he threatens to devour his mother, discovers that the Wild Things want to eat him up because they love him, and is drawn back home by the smell of good things to eat.

Eating is less central in longer works of fiction, but it’s still an important subject. For instance, Charlotte’s Web focuses attention on descriptions of Wilbur’s slop. Charlotte’s methods of killing her food, and Templeton the rat’s pleasure in the feast available at the fair.

In these and many other texts, the fact that human beings eat creatures that once lived but were too weak to protect themselves suggests some ambiguity about the degree to which one is a human eater, like one’s parents, or an animal-like food, like the “little lambs” and “little pigs” adults so often tell children they are. The focus on eating raises the question of children’s’ animality in an especially intense way.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature by Reimer and Nodelman


The dream about the Land of Plenty–Cocayne or Schlarafflenland–has haunted humanity for many centuries. One of the earliest literary descriptions of this paradise is to be found in the German Hans Sachs’s verse from mid-16th century. 19th-century German picture books especially depicted travels into elaborate lands of sweets and cakes, with the inevitable didactic conseqeunce of stomach ache.

Twentieth century children’s writers are much more liberal in their Schlaraffenland variations. The most famous contemporary tale of Schlaraffenland is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The title itself may be seen as an allusion to early children’s books about gluttony. As in many such books, the story starts with a description of poverty and hunger. […] The big family does not starve, but “every one of them…went about from morning till night with a horrible empty feeling in their tummies.” […] The description of the Schlaraffenland matches the traditional stories: rivers and waterfalls of hot chooclate, trees and flowers of “soft, minty sugar”, a pink boat made of “an enormous boiled sweet” […] It is almost inevitable to assume that Roald Dahl read a good deal of Schlaraffenland tales as a child.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory


See also: The Wind On The Moon for another well-known story of gluttony.

In this story, sickly interest in food is a natural sign of immaturity. The girls are too young to have control over their bodies and still less over their emotional needs.


Nikolajeva explains that children have a subconscious fear of hunger, which can be used to good effect in stories.

Death as such is an abstract notion for most young readers. Hunger on the other hand is something everyone has experience, at least on a very modest scale. To be hungry, not to get food, is a tangible threat. However, it can also be translated into more symbolic notions. Hunger [can be] hunger for love and warmth.

Children of earlier eras were rarely fully satiated. As an example, this is typical food for children in the 1700s, from the menu of a London foundling hospital (orphanage):

  • gruell for breakfast
  • potatoes for lunch
  • milk and bread for supper on Monday
  • milk porridge, boiled mutton and bread on Tuesday
  • broth-rice milk, bread and cheese on Wednesday
  • gruel, boiled pork and bread on Thursday (And this was in pork season).
  • milk porridge, dumplins, milk and bread on Friday
  • Gruell, hasty puddings and bread and cheese on Saturday
  • Broth, Road pork and bread on Sunday (the climax)

This menu is basic, but far better than many children got.


The overriding image of a happy family round the table has remained static, fixed in the culture, as something that should happen, something that is essential to the wellbeing of the family and the nation. This is prevalent in all kinds of different media. Many Happy Returns of the Day, for example, an iconic Victorian painting (1856) by William Powell Frith, demonstrates the importance of ritual and celebration in family life, gathered together and marking occasions of private meaning. Such imagery plays a crucial part in naturalising the family meal in the same way as certain types of meals or recipes are handed down the generations and thus create tradition, nostalgia and a sense of belonging.

Cowpie, gruel and midnight feasts: food in popular children’s literature

This particular ideology may influence how things work in your own family. This post from advice columnist Captain Awkward highlights the ways in which a family can construct a narrative about What Tight Families Do, and also the problems this can lead to when adult children develop different diets.

If you take a look at various photography projects, like What Dinnertime Looks Like Around The World, you’ll get a more accurate view of how families gather for dinner.


Nothing says ‘nonchalant’ like wolfing down food. There’s no better way to make a baddie look truly psychopathic than to put him in a middle of a gruesome scene then have him pick up an apple and eat it. All the normal characters — and perhaps the audience — have churning stomachs. Yet the psychopath in question doesn’t bat an eyelid.

In this case, the juxtaposition is between the horror and the banality of satisfying a literal hunger, at the bottom of the hierarchy of needs. This most literal belly-filling hunger can also serve as a metaphor for other types of hunger: Perhaps the villain has a hunger for killing sprees or blood.

The insertion of food can also be used in different ways in fiction.


‘And I like your shoes.’

He tilted his foot to examine the craftsmanship. ‘Yes. Ducker’s in The Turl. They make a wooden thingy of your foot and keep it on a shelf for ever. Thousands of them down in a basement room, and most of  the people are long dead.’

‘How simply awful.’

‘I’m hungry,’ Pierrot said again.

– from Atonement by Ian McEwan


Food In Science Fiction: In future we will all eat lasers, from NPR

From the gingerbread house to the cornucopia: gastronomic utopia as social critique in Homecoming and The Hunger Games by Sarah Hardstaff

Fictional Characters With Food Issues from Book Riot

Food Riot, their sister website lists The Best Cakes From Children’s Literature. (Contrast this with my post on Stock-Yuck in Picture Books.)

The second half of Episode 61 of Bookrageous is about food in fiction. The hosts make reference to an article called Cooked Books’ which was in the New Yorker a few years ago. The author of that explains that there are four types of food in books.

  1. the writers for whom dishes are essentially interchangeable, mere stops on the ribbon of narrative, signs of life and social transactions rather than specific pleasures
  2. the writers who dish up very particular food to their characters to show who they are. Proust is this kind of writer, and Henry James is, too.
  3. the writers who are so greedy that they go on at length about the things their characters are eating, or are about to eat—serving it in front of us and then snatching it from our mouths
  4. and then there are writers, ever more numerous, who present on the page not just the result but the whole process—not just what people eat but how they make it, exactly how much garlic is chopped, and how, and when it is placed in the pan

Which of these types of food writing is most common in children’s literature? Has this changed over time? Can you think of children’s authors who fit each of the four categories?

Biblioklept has compiled a list of Literary Recipes.

From The Serpent’s Promise by Steve Jones:

Food is everywhere in the Bible. From the Forbidden Fruit to the Last Supper and from the Manna in the Desert to the Feeding of the Five Thousand the Good Book is obsessed with diet. It is set in a land of milk and honey but one also faced with famine; a place of feast and fast, of drunkenness and self-denial, and of marvellous showers of bread from the skies and the transformation of water into wine. Sacrificial banquets, with bread, oil, alcohol and meat are offered to the populace, with slices reserved for the priesthood and the choicest cuts saved for the deity. Women do the cooking. Many are honoured with culinary names; that of Rebecca, mother of Joseph, means ‘cow’ and the title of Rachel, matriarch of the Twelve Tribes, can be translated as ‘ewe’.