Every human—regardless of their body—is a spiritual being, making us interconnected to the varying elements of the earth that originally sprung us. It is easy to relegate the role of foods and vegetation to its traditional and most basic function—their consumption and function of quelling hunger and giving nutrients to the body. However, foods are also earthly gifts that perform a variety of spiritual roles as a binding factor of humankind to the natural environment.
The transition of food from mere consumption and nutrient intake into the spiritual cadre is projected in the way and manner certain crops, vegetation and livestock of the earth are treated by society or people of a particular geographical location. Humans have attributed spirituality, psychic and magical properties to foods within their respective confines. Consequently, some take the symbolic stance at ceremonies while others are called the food of the gods. Some other foods are often revered for their healing and magical properties, hence elevating their importance to humans’ spirituality by integration of healthy foods to the body, soul and spirit.
Through food spirituality, we see the earnest belief system held by a myriad of societies. We also get a sense of their value and appreciation of the natural world they live in as a way of connecting with their natural environment. In West Africa, the kola nut is such a highly prized fruit that it embodies the revered big masquerade that makes a grand and symbolic impact at social and religious gatherings of people. In fact, in Igbo cosmology, the kola nut is called the king of all fruits, with the Igbo’s attributing more honours to it. No wonder, as a way of noting its significance, a popular Igbo’s proverb stated, “he who brings kola nut brings life”. In a way, it is given veneration by usually taking the front row at events. Oji (as the kola nut is called by the Igbo people) is used to officially start up ceremonies through the breaking of the kola nut as a spiritual act of triggering social harmony, followed by words of exhortations to commence a ceremony. Inherently, kola nut usage sometimes performs a ritual function in its representation of acceptance, unity and cooperation at social events. Traditionally, its presence is significant in diverse cultures where it essentially consecrates an event, thereby affirming the laws of the land.
Also, the bitter kola stands as another type of kola to consider in terms of food’s spirituality. Popularly noted for its spiritual features, the bitter kola is deemed extremely legendary due to its versatility in keeping snakes at bay or even being used as a poison repellant. It is believed that the act of putting bitter kola in the mouth precipitates the supernatural immunity from any form of harm, either physical or spiritual.
Apart from kola nut, garlic stands as not only a unique food item meant for consumption but also noted for its spiritual significance. Before the advent of the modern age, people usually hung cloves of garlic above the entrance door of their respective houses to sanctify their living areas. Ironically, the powerful smell of garlic, which is usually a turn off for most people, might just be deemed the same reason it is attributed with such spiritual benefits as a repellant of evil spirits; such mythical belief is implied in supernatural/folkloric tales of vampire dramaturgy, where this allium is key kryptonite for evil. Culturally and universally, garlic has been branded as a repellant from evil with empirical health benefits as being great for cholesterol, skin and other health issues. This belief is laden with cultural and religious beliefs on the magical potency of garlic to scare off and discourage the evil eye.
In addition, certain foods are avoided as a result of their spiritual implications. In some traditional beliefs, there are spiritual and cultural implications of pregnant women eating certain types of food. Thus, pregnant women are advised to stay away from such foods because of their spiritual consequences which might either result in the loss of the unborn child or even the prospective mother. In some parts of Ghana, pregnant women are restricted to vegetarian diets because of the spiritual notions that they may give birth to possessed children. The spiritual significance of foods also permeates the dream world. For example, eating in a dream is mostly frowned upon as it is perceived as a bad omen, thus necessitating eventual cleansing.
The cultural diversity of the mysticism nestled in the food we eat is endless and fuels life’s multiplicity. Moreover, the use of foods and fruits for thanksgiving, marking an integral part of the gifts offered, portrays how people unconsciously wield the spiritual significance of food to express themselves either formally or informally.
Brooding on the spirituality of food unveils the spiritual implication between humans and their food as being elevated above the minutiae function of consumption. Whatever category you fall under—either as a healer, folklorist, chef, or food scientist—it is apparent that food plays a significant role in either your expression or your perception. To date, some scholars and individuals are on the verge of seeking the biblical tree of life, thereby driving home the plausibility of food for the soul. Different foods play socio-cultural roles through their spiritual properties and attributes, thereby instilling in them great significance.