First Birth: Origins of Vegetarianism Can Be Seen in Many Ancient Cultures

It turns out that food prohibitions on meat-eating existed long before the emergence of major world religions. The rule “you can’t eat your own” worked in almost all ancient cultures. This, although at a stretch, can be considered the origins of vegetarianism. With a stretch – because, despite the correct principle that identifies animals as “their” – ancient cultures did not consider all of them as such.

Patron Principle

Many peoples of Africa, Asia, America and Australia had or have totemism – the identification of their tribe or clan with a certain animal, which is considered an ancestor. Of course, it is forbidden to eat your ancestor. Some peoples have legends explaining how such ideas arose. The Mbuti Pygmies (Democratic Republic of the Congo) said: “One man killed and ate an animal. He suddenly fell ill and died. Relatives of the deceased concluded: “This animal is our brother. We must not touch it.” And the Gurunsi people (Ghana, Burkina Faso) preserved a legend whose hero, for various reasons, was forced to kill three crocodiles and lost three sons because of this. Thus, the commonality of the Gurunsi and their crocodile totem was revealed.

In many tribes, the violation of the food taboo is perceived in the same way as the violation of the sex taboo. So, in the language of Ponape (Caroline Islands), one word denotes incest and eating a totem animal.

Totems can be a variety of animals: for example, different Mbuti genera have a chimpanzee, a leopard, a buffalo, a chameleon, different types of snakes and birds, among the peoples of Uganda – a colobus monkey, an otter, a grasshopper, a pangolin, an elephant, a leopard, a lion, a rat, a cow , sheep, fish, and even a bean or mushroom. The Oromo people (Ethiopia, Kenya) do not eat the big kudu antelope, because they believe that it was created by the sky god on the same day as man.

Often the tribe is divided into groups – their ethnographers call phratries and clans. Each group has its own food restrictions. One of the Australian tribes in the state of Queensland, people of one of the clans could eat possums, kangaroos, dogs and honey of a certain type of bee. For another clan, this food was forbidden, but they were intended for emu, bandicoot, black duck and some types of snakes. Representatives of the third ate python meat, honey of another species of bees, the fourth – porcupines, plains turkeys, and so on.

The violator will be punished

You should not think that the violation of the food taboo for the representatives of these peoples will only be a stain on their conscience. Ethnographers have described many cases when they had to pay with their lives for such an offense. The inhabitants of Africa or Oceania, having learned that they unknowingly violated the taboo and ate forbidden food, died for a short time for no apparent reason. The reason was the belief that they must die. Sometimes, during their agony, they uttered the cries of the animal they had eaten. Here is a story about an Australian who ate a snake that was forbidden to him, from the book of anthropologist Marcel Moss: “During the day, the patient became worse and worse. It took three men to hold him. The spirit of the snake nestled in his body and from time to time with a hiss came from his forehead, through his mouth … “.

But most of all food prohibitions associated with the unwillingness to adopt the properties of the animals eaten surrounded pregnant women. Here are just a few examples of such prohibitions that existed among various Slavic peoples. To prevent the child from being born deaf, the expectant mother could not eat fish. To avoid the birth of twins, a woman does not need to eat fused fruits. To prevent the child from suffering from insomnia, it was forbidden to eat hare meat (according to some beliefs, the hare never sleeps). To prevent the child from becoming snotty, it was not allowed to eat mushrooms covered with mucus (for example, butterfish). In Dobruja there was a ban on eating the meat of animals bullied by wolves, otherwise the child would become a vampire.

Eat and harm yourself or others

The well-known prohibition not to mix meat and dairy food is characteristic not only for Judaism. It is widespread, for example, among the pastoral peoples of Africa. It is believed that if meat and dairy are mixed (whether in a bowl or in the stomach), the cows will die or at least lose their milk. Among the Nyoro people (Uganda, Kenya), the interval between the intake of meat and dairy food had to reach at least 12 hours. Each time, before switching from meat to dairy food, the Masai took a strong emetic and laxative so that not a trace of the previous food remained in the stomach. The people of Shambhala (Tanzania, Mozambique) were afraid to sell the milk of their cows to Europeans, who, unknowingly, could mix milk and meat in their stomachs and thereby cause the loss of livestock.

Some tribes had a complete ban on eating the meat of certain wild animals. The souk people (Kenya, Tanzania) believed that if one of them ate the meat of a wild pig or fish, then his cattle would stop being milked. Among the Nandis living in their neighborhood, the water goat, zebra, elephant, rhinoceros and some antelopes were considered forbidden. If a person was forced to eat one of these animals due to hunger, then he was forbidden to drink milk after that for several months. Maasai shepherds generally refused the meat of wild animals, hunting only for predators that attacked the herds. In the old days, antelopes, zebras and gazelles graze fearlessly near the Masai villages. The exceptions were the eland and the buffalo – the Maasai considered them to be like cows, so they allowed themselves to eat them.

The pastoral tribes of Africa often avoided mixing dairy and vegetable foods. The reason is the same: it was believed that it harms livestock. Traveler John Henning Speke, who discovered Lake Victoria and the sources of the White Nile, recalled that in a Negro village they did not sell milk to him, because they saw that he ate beans. In the end, the leader of the local tribe allocated one cow for the travelers, whose milk they could drink at any time. Then the Africans stopped being afraid for their herds. Nyoro, after eating vegetables, could drink milk only the next day, and if it was beans or sweet potatoes – only two days later. Shepherds were generally forbidden to eat vegetables.

The separation of vegetables and milk was strictly observed by the Maasai. They required a complete rejection of vegetables from the soldiers. A Masai warrior would rather starve to death than violate this prohibition. If someone nevertheless committed such a crime, he would lose the title of warrior, and not a single woman would agree to become his wife.

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