According to the myths and legends of various peoples, mankind stems from a gift—the fire that Prometheus stole from the gods, the leavening that the Virgin Mary took from the Sybil. In all cases the acquisition is vital for civilization, it is a nourishment coming from the outside. Food and exchange are intertwined since the onset of Indo-European civilization, and reciprocity regulates the flow of social relations just as a floodgate would regulate the water flow. Between the two extremes of hospitality and hostility, the sharing of bread is what distinguishes companion (Latin cum-pane) from adversary, the Latin hostis in the sense of host from hostis in the sense of enemy. Even in our age, many forms of belonging revolve around food: food can symbolize identity as well as opposition, in a constant alternation of contact and contagion, gift and poison, measuring society’s health.
Marino Niola, a well-known anthropologist of contemporary times, is Professor of Anthropology of Symbols at the Suor Orsola Benincasa University of Naples, where he also heads a research lab on Mediterranean diet. His main research focus is the relationship between tradition and cultural change in contemporary societies and the persistence of myth in the contaminated forms of the present time. He is a member of the steering committee of AISEA, the Italian Association of Ethno-Anthropological Sciences. He is a frequent contributor to the newsdaily La Repubblica and writes a column entitled Today’s Myths in its Friday supplement. He also contributes to Le Nouvel Observateur, Locarno’s il caffè and Naples’ Il Mattino. Among his books are Totem e ragù. Divagazioni napoletane (Pironti, 2003); Don Giovanni o della seduzione (L’Ancora del Mediterraneo, 2005); I Santi patroni (2007), Si fa presto a dire cotto. Un antropologo in cucina (2009), and Non tutto fa brodo (2012) published by il Mulino.