Ritual, symbolism, folklore and ceremony – a brief history of cake - Lily Vanilli

Ritual, symbolism, folklore and ceremony – a brief history of cake

I’m a self-taught baker, and though that means I’ve had fifteen years of fairly valid imposter syndrome, there are also some aspects I’m thankful for and one is that from the very beginning I was able to pursue my education in any direction that interested me. From the time I was learning about sponges, I was also learning about sugar craft and armatures for cake sculptures, isomalt and food-grade silicone moulds. At the same time I was bringing cupcakes to east London, I was carving edible lobsters & roadkill cakes.

When I wrote my first 2 cookbooks, one was on unlocking the creativity that can be enjoyed when you master the science of baking and applying it to seasonal bakes, and the other was a b-movie-inspired, zombie-themed, comic book illustrated cake decorating book. I found inspiration in people like Antoine Careme and Alexis Soyer as much as Martha Stewart and Nigella. And I developed a healthy fascination with the history of cake.

I discovered it was loaded with symbolism and folklore, and that in most cultures and religions around the globe, throughout history people have historically consumed cake on ceremonial occasions. Cakes have often had a role in rituals and have been immortalised in myth.

In the west, our modern cakes have become a much more everyday item and we might feel they have lost much of their mysticism, but they’re still served at significant points in the life cycle like weddings and birthdays, and are often the centrepiece to a celebration or ceremony.

It’s one of the things I’ve always loved about my job – every day is somebody’s big day, and the cakes we bake mark significant life milestones. Cake, in our culture, remains an important symbol.

The history of cake is loaded with mythological, religious and often macabre associations. Cakes in the past have been assigned magical properties or great symbolism or imbued with powers of divination – and the further back you go, the more prominent the cake’s role in ritual. People in almost every culture and religion have historically attached symbolism to cakes, using them as offerings to Gods and spirits, to nourish the dead or select victims for sacrifice.

To take a brief look at the evolution of the modern western cake so far – cakes, as we know them either have an extremely long or surprisingly short history – depending on how you look at it and here the distinction is largely an etymological one. Evidence has been unearthed of food that can be described as cake from some of the very earliest civilisations – excavations in the remains of Neolithic lake villages in Switzerland revealed compacted crushed grains which had been baked which are referred to as early cakes. Here the term cake refers more to its compacted nature – it’s more akin in linguistic usage to a ‘cake’ of soap and as such a slightly misleading relation – whereas the modern inception we have of ‘cake’ as a light, risen sponge evolved from sweetened bread as recently as the mid-1800’s – coinciding with advances in oven design and accessibility as well as the shift from a yeast leavening to chemical.

Not to dismiss them entirely – these ancient compacted ‘cakes’ served much the same function as our modern cakes – often featuring as centrepieces to celebrations and great feasts, in the mid 1300’s,
Chaucer mentioned large cakes that were used in commemoration of special occasions. One was made with 13 kilograms of flour and contained butter, cream, eggs, spices, currants and honey. It seems, then, that cakes with recognizable ingredients and similar sweetness and flavours have been fixtures in western ceremonies for some time.

Nevertheless, despite the similarities, it would be wrong to trace the evolution of the modern cake exclusively from this distant relative – the cake we recognise today is arguably more directly descended from bread, with histories that are much more closely intertwined.

Bread’s own history is one of great symbolic importance. People have been baking it for 5 millennia and it has been revered variously as the basic stuff of sustenance, central to the concept of eating in company (the term ‘companion’ means roughly ‘one you break bread with’) – to religious context as loaded as Christ’s last supper.

It has long symbolised life, regeneration, and the cyclical nature of existence. For centuries the consumption of bread signified partaking of the divine. Priests from the Aztecs ritually consecrated their bread, in order to transubstantiate the loaves into the body of the divinity. The consumption of this bread believed to literally facilitate communion with the divine.

Early cakes were often sweetened, enriched bread, which gave them even more clout in ceremonies and elevated them to a role in the most important rituals and symbols.

It was not until the 17 & 1800’s that the modern cake began to emerge. First, there was the inception of the cake ring – which gave cakes a uniform cylindrical shape. Then advances in oven technology allowed for temperature control resulting in lighter and more delicate cakes, soon after, the leavening power of beaten eggs was discovered, followed by the removal of yeast, replacement with chemical leavening agents and the separation of cakes from bread significantly for evermore.

The roundness of the cake as a defining feature seems to have often been key – studies in anthropology and mythography have found evidence of round cakes in virtually all cultures and eras, with varying ritual functions or significance. This round shape may in many cases will have evolved from the natural efficiency of a rounded loaf of bread, however, it seems to have also conveyed symbolic meanings.

For over a thousand years, the Chinese have eaten Moon cakes to celebrate the mid-Autumn harvest festival, where the ritual involves families coming together, dividing and sharing cakes, drinking wine, reciting poetry and watching the moon. Traditionally those cakes are round, designed to echo the shape of the full moon, as it was recognised that the moon played a crucial role in the seasonal cycle, and the cakes were devised to honour the lunar Goddess Heng–O, often with her image stamped on top of the cake.

According to legend, Heng-O ascended to the moon after swallowing a pill of immortality, where
she remains to this day, along with her companion, a lunar rabbit who constantly pounds out rice. The many egg yolks used in the making of them are also intended to symbolise the full moon.

Moon cakes have legendary as well as mythic significance, there are many stories of their use in rebellions against the Mongol rulers in the 14th century: some versions depict the cakes as Trojan horses, with weapons baked within, others describe messages printed on top of the cakes as a way of smuggling communication to dissenters.

Elsewhere, round cakes are to be found in pagan Russia, where flat round ‘sun’ cakes were baked to honour the return of the sun in Spring, with elaborate rituals involving the sharing of cakes to bind together extended family members.

The Ancient Celtic rituals involving cake are among my favourites, marking the seasons with rounded Beltane cakes, offered to the solar God Belenus to help ensure the continued rotation of the sun. The Celts also followed a ritual that involved rolling rounded cakes down a hillside with the same objective in mind, again to signify the cyclical nature of life, the seasons, the sun and the moon.

My personal favourite cake rituals of the Celts are where they used cakes as means of divination. For example, those cakes that were rolled down the hill were then examined to predict the fortunes of the roller, depending on how they broke. But they may have also been used in rituals designed to select victims for symbolic sacrifice. In a ritual similar to the old British tradition of placing a shilling in a Christmas pudding, Celts would blacken a piece of cake with charcoal, and when the cake was divided and served, the receiver of the blackened piece would be sacrificed as an offering to the gods. It has been believed by some that the Lindow Man – the tar-preserved body of a man killed 2,200 years ago, which currently resides at the British Museum – was a victim of this ritual ever since remnants of his last meal, a partly digested and badly scorched cake, were found in his small intestine.

For many cakes, their shape and ingredients and the way in which they were offered and consumed have definitive links to the myths that people embraced. Concerns with size, shape, the grains used and the baking
process applied to bread and cake offerings of any kind. Grains themselves are often deified in myth and in many folktales bestowed with magical powers. As cake evolved as a variation of bread, it seems to have retained much of its symbolic and ritual significance.

The Estonians threw cakes into the water to appease Nakk – a testy Estonian water spirit and people often made offerings of cake to deities to remove their evil influence. Many cultures from Germany to Japan also offered cakes to the spirits of the dead, believing the cakes would nourish them in the journey to the afterworld.

For many pagan people, including the early Celts, the 28th October was All Souls Day – the day the dead rose and walked on Earth, and unless they were fed Sould Cakes it was believed they would avenge the living. In Belgium, it was believed on All Souls Day one soul was released from purgatory for every cake consumed. Germans, Mexicans and Austrians left cakes on graves and the Ancient Egyptians placed them inside tombs.

The origin of the modern tradition of placing candles on top of birthday cakes can be traced to the ancient Greeks, who left cakes at crossroads to appease Hecate, the Goddess of the Underworld. They would leave offerings for her, sometimes marked by a single candle so that she could find her way in the dark.

In the past, tiered wedding cakes were the rite of the very rich – in times when home ovens prohibited the baking of large cakes and the prices of professionally baked cakes were prohibitively expensive, the number of tiers a cake had was indicative of social status.

Thankfully the symbolism of the tiered wedding cake as a social divider has died out, though its basic form has remained largely the same until recent years. It serves as a reminder that the symbolic power of cakes remains.