The legend of the North is deep and enchanting, wrote famous Russian painter and mystic Nicolas Roerich about northern Russia. “Northern winds are brisk and merry. Northern lakes are wistful. Northern rivers are silvery. Faded forests are sagacious. Green hills are worldly-wise. Grey stones laid in circles are full of magic. We are still looking for the Ancient Rus.”
The word for the Russian North, which sounds like “sever” in Russian, has left its traces in the English language in the old Celtic name (of Slavic origin) Severina, meaning “from the north,” and with the adjective “severe,” as an impression of intensely harsh weather. Has this boreal land always been so inhospitable and seemingly disconnected from the world as we know it today? In fact, the word “boreal” is paradoxically rooted in the word “bor,” which means “oak grove” in Russian. The oak is a warm climate-loving tree.
The Earth has experienced several ice ages, with the last ending about ten thousand years ago. During the interglacial periods, Eurasia experienced substantial climate changes. During such warm cycles, median January temperatures of the Russian north reached 32 degrees Fahrenheit, which is comparable to the climate of the present day Northern Italy.
Under such conditions, tundra vanishes, and deciduous forests dominated by oak, elm and linden trees would spread as far as the sixty-fifth parallel north. Magnolia groves would cover the southern regions of Russia. The lands further south would become an inhospitable desert.
Modern predictions that half of the Earth will experience conditions of extreme drought have already happened in the past. In the light of recent global climate warming, which is natural for the interglacial period as the Earth’s axis shifts, the retreating permafrost in the Russian north reveals more and more archeological evidence of agriculture’s deeply ancient roots.
The commonly accepted date for the first grain cultivation is ten thousand years ago; however, that time frame only holds true for the Near East region. At that point in history, the expanding glacier spread in Eurasia pushed the milder climate to the south and brought that region novel plants and a food called bread.
Grass family grains have been foraged and cultivated in Russia since time immemorial. The sacred ancient Slavic symbol is a “sown field,” a diamond-shaped figure filled with dots, which took many complex shapes and forms symbolizing the growing paleolithic philosophy of life and death, the sun and the moon, the movement of time and the change of four seasons connected with agriculture. The sown field symbol can be found on all Russian folk costumes, and household and ritual objects.
Its first primitive forms were found at Kostenka paleolithic camp, along with other ritual objects connected with agriculture. The archeological excavation of this site uncovered a large habitation with eight hearths, a complex central heating system and grain storage pits with wild varieties of rye, barley, oats, wheat and flax. That means grains were already used in a very sophisticated manner some seventy thousand years ago as it is thought that Kostenka camp belongs to that period. In fact, grains have probably been foraged since the dawn of Eurasian man, thought to appear three hundred to four hundred thousand years ago on the Eastern European plain―which interestingly coincides with the warmest interglacial period in the history of Earth.
Grass family grains naturally grow in abundance in the Russian meadows and steppes, and the proximity of these grain fields has always been an important condition for ancient humans’ choice a habitat. It is hard to draw a line between foraging and deliberate cultivation as most probably the grain cultivation developed in Russia along the lines of permaculture―as a self-sustained system supported by nature.
How ancient man first learned about grains and the sophisticated art of their cultivation and preparation is a great mystery and the subject of much debate. Ancient Slavs never took credit for this invention, rather, they point out that they were taught to sow and forge metal by a deity named Kola-Ksais who, according to Herodotus, rode the skies in a flying wheeled cart. Kola-Ksais was kind enough to throw the plow down from his vehicle, along with other gadgets for the unassuming peoples of earth.
Interestingly, the words kolos (grain head), koleso (wheel) and the mysterious but very thoughtful Kola-Ksais all derive from the same root word, and do have a deep connection. The connection becomes even deeper when we learn that Kola-Ksais is the name used by the Greeks, while ancient Slavs called their heavenly patron Svarog. Svarga is an old Slavic word for “heaven” and this name is also rooted in the word svastika, completing the circle from deity to symbol.
“Sown field” became known as swastika (or svastika), a symbol now forbidden and so downtrodden by history that it has lost its original deeply sacred meaning, which can be interpreted as “a monotonous flow, movement of heaven” in the old Slavic language.
“What a fresh, unshaken memory!” marveled Gorodtsov, a renowned Russian archeologist, as he compared the skillful swastika embroidery of the northern craftswomen in 1926 to the ornaments of his upper paleolithic findings. “Recently we used to think that swastika is a fruit of the ancient Indian culture and of the decorative border, the meander, found in ancient Greek culture; however that turned out to be incorrect, as there is now documented evidence that swastika, meander and ovum were favorite ornaments of Paleolithic period. . . they were found in Russia on the objects of the Mezin paleolithic camp, which is set many tens of thousands of years back in time.”
Gorodtsov died in 1945 fighting the Nazi swastika-turned-ominous, and his Paleolithic swastika works were buried in archives until the collapse of the Soviet Union.
BREAD IN RUSSIA
Russian culture revolves around bread. Endless songs, proverbs and legends are devoted to it as a sacred food. A loaf of bread named Kolobok even acts as the main character in fairytales― a plot similar to the Gingerbread Man in English tradition.
In modern Russia important guests are still greeted with an ancient ceremony called “bread and salt.” Three women in Slavic folk costumes would present a round loaf of bread and salt placed on an embroidered towel (in the past it would be embroidered with swastikas―“ sown fields”) as a symbol of offering to share the fruits of their labor, along with fertility and wealth; guests would then eat a piece of it to symbolize accepting the generosity of their hosts.
Numerous archaic songs provide evidence that only young unmarried women were responsible for harvesting, storage and preparation of the grain―a division of labor since Paleolithic times. That could explain why “flour” and “torment” are the same words in Russian. Anyone who has tried to make a truly stone-milled flour knows that this is an incredibly difficult physical task, especially for a young female.
With the development of slash-and-burn agriculture, the Russian straw cult came into existence as another cultural phenomenon, again stemming from the ancient agriculture. People worshipped hay as a totem, because they noticed from ancient times that burning hay on the fields yielded more abundant crops. Every year people would burn a straw-stuffed dummy during Maslenitsa―a festival week before Lent, symbolizing victory over the winter frost and the beginning of the new fertile agricultural season.
THE GOODNESS OF REAL BREAD
Modern bread sold at the stores can hardly be called “bread” at all. A quickly risen product of the instant gratification age, made from genetically altered grains in order to yield higher and faster crops, grown in poor soils, stripped of any nutrients and full of harmful additives, it is a far cry from the food that nurtured thousands of generations.
Due to their immobility, plants have developed sophisticated safety measures in the form of various toxins in order avoid being eaten. Whole grain bread touted as very healthy can present serious dangers if not properly prepared, as humans do not produce phytase enzymes that aid in breaking down phytic acid. This organic substance present in all grains, legumes, nuts and seeds blocks the absorption of phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron, copper, silica and even some amino acids. Traditional ferments, however, readily release phytase, as well as other compounds that neutralize antinutrients such as lectins and enzyme inhibitors, which is why traditional bread has always been prepared as sourdough.
Preparation of traditional Russian sourdough bread was a complicated art and science. Dough had to be fermented only in oak barrels using a triple leavening process. The dough was considered a living substance, almost a creature, hence during the leavening and baking it was prohibited to curse or act aggressively―an action thought to to negatively affect the rising process.
Russian ovens built by the rules of golden ratio created a special heating environment, giving the Russian bread its inimitable taste and nutritional value.
Sprouting is another technique that reduces phytic acid. Before the invention of the combine harvester, grains stood in the field and sprouted naturally, making it easier to remove them from the stems.
Both of these techniques largely remove the toxic matter out of the grains and greatly boost the nutritional content of the bread. However, even with all these steps some people find grains difficult to digest. One of the problems might be poor gut health in general, as one needs a powerful digestion, a strong gut lining, and a healthy microflora to be able to digest grains efficiently. Before modern times gluten intolerance was unknown, which indicates that gluten itself is not a problem. Plant foods are digested in the gut by the bacteria and if that bacteria are in poor health, problems will arise.
“An apple a day” is the new health recommendation picked up by the Russians, who in ancient times normally reserved apples for cattle and horses in the bad harvest years; the older recommendation was “a glass of kefir a day.” Besides genetics, which is an architectural blueprint, the second most important thing we inherit is our parents’ shared microflora.
Since ancient times Slavic people considered the abdomen as the epicenter of the mystery of life. The word “abdomen” and “life” are synonyms in the Russian language. They both start with a Cyrillic letter Ж (zhivot, meaning “life,” “abdomen”), an ancient symbol of the tree of life, which represents the complex paleolithic philosophy of the upper, middle and lower worlds and also reminds us of a human digestive system. In Chinese culture the letter zhi portrays the notion of life force or chi.
Ancient Slavs knew that gut flora can either be your friend of your foe. They knew that flora could be transferred and could quickly turn pathogenic if handled incorrectly. Kissing strangers was prohibited and has never been used as a greeting. If someone of a different faith happened to eat in the old Orthodox home, the plate, glass and utensils he or she used weren’t even washed―they were disposed. Lechery and adultery were outlawed and strictly punished. Enemas are still viewed with suspicion as a rude interference into the human nature―a deeply imprinted collective memory that the human soul resides in the gut.
BUTTER WITH YOUR BREAD
Another old rule for consuming grains was the generous addition of animal fat. “You can not spoil kasha with too much butter” is an old Russian saying, hinting at the importance of this ingredient in grain consumption. Russian sourdough was always consumed with a thick layer of butter, a widespread tradition in other parts of Europe as well. Animal fats lubricate the gut protecting it from fiber damage while maximizing the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients.
GRAIN AND CLAY
The most interesting digestive aid historically used in Russia was clay, considered a sacred food, despite its non-food status. Geophagy―the eating of dirt―still puzzles many people and is considered an eating disorder. In fact, clay might be the earliest human medicine.
In ancient times, grains were stored in grain pits usually dug out in clay-rich soil, and the top of the pit was sealed with clay. Such pits could store grains for almost a century and grains would still be edible after all that time.
Whether it was due to accidental consumption of soiled grains or to sheer instinct (also widespread among animals), ancient varieties of bread were often prepared with clay. Other cultures also used and still use clay in baking. In ancient Rome a recipe for bread called picentin called for clay. Traditional Swedish acorn bread preparation also uses clay.
You can still buy edible clay “cookies” in bazaars in Asia Minor and Africa; in fact, Africa is notorious for its clay consumption. Clay has a tremendous ability to bind toxins, and if there is any toxic matter left after sprouting or leavening, clay will help to usher it out of the body.
Another important aspect of consuming clay is the fact that it is usually very rich is silica. This mineral is now gaining more and more recognition. “No life can exist without silica” proclaimed Vladimir Vernadsky, founder of geochemistry and pioneer of Russian cosmism. Silica is an essential element for proper growth, development and graceful aging. Among its myriad important function, silica plays a crucial role in formation of collagen. Collagen is a substance that forms us and holds us together, and our bodies start to disintegrate due to the rapid loss of silica as we age.
Now when science and religion agree that man was made out of clay, it is especially important to look back and listen to the wisdom of our ancient ancestors.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2013.