A simple table setting from Hannibal. Well, a simple precision given the layers of life and death unfolding between Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham. Consider this a dark bridge to the scene from Pan’s Labyrinth which ended the previous post. Fork and napkin on the left, knife on the right, wine glass also on the right, plate in the middle. A more formal French table setting greets us in Babette’s Feast; a movie presenting its own negotiations with the sacred and profane.
French service evolved over centuries with originally three courses, the first already on the table when guests arrived, the others brought in on platters and served from gueridons. Eventually number of highly-trained personnel, a brigade, took their positions: the Captain who never left the dining rooms, his lieutenant the front waiter who assisted the captain with tableside cooking, the back waiter who brought food from the kitchen, and the guard who kept ample supplies of bread and water on the table. The setting exuded command and knowledge, requiring the guest to understand the lay of the land, understanding what to lift, where to put it back down. Everyone became part of highly-regulated play.
Such order, such discipline; such table manners. Erasmus in his De civilitate morum puerilium (“On Good Manners For Boys”) has a “Master” instruct a young pupil on the proper habits when one sits down to eat.
At a dinner party be cheerful, but in such fashion that you remember always what is appropriate to your age. Be the last of all to reach for the dish. If a special dainty is offered, decline politely; if it is urged upon you, accept and say “Thank you;” after taking a small serving, give the rest back to the one who offered it to you or the person seated next to you. (72)
The sharing of drink and food has necessitated a certain control of mouth and body since Antiquity. Consider Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae (“The Learned Banqueters”), which dates from the second century CE and amongst many topics considers the safety of sitting down to dinner.
For primitive human beings, who of course lacked plentiful food, used to all go after it the moment it appeared, seize it aggressively, and wrench it away from anyone who had it; this disorder was even accompanied by murder. (12d)
Fortunately, agriculture changes everyone’s mood and plenty leads to equality,
But after Demeter provided them with large amounts of food, they divided it up so that everybody had an equal share, and human meals took on an orderly character . . . Food is therefore called dais (“a meal”) from daiomai, which means “divide into equal portions.” And the man who roasts the meat was the “daitros,” since he gave each person an equal portion. (12e)
We order ourselves around what has been sacrificed, and in that, allow others to join equally with us in a portion of the divine, a portion of the mortal. Many gods watch over this tenuous balance: Zeus and Athena who guard xenia, ritual hospitality; Hermes who protects the traveler; and as well the Three Graces, who provide and protect our humanity.
In Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera, the Three Graces dance in a circle in this allegory of the fertility of the world. The Three Graces. Charities. Χάριτες. Daughters of Zeus and Eurynome or Dionysus and Aphrodite or Helios and Aegle. Their names are legion: Aglaea, Euphrosyne, Thalia, Cleta, Auxo, Hegemone, Peitho, Phaenna, Pasithea and Charis, Cale, Antheia, Eudaimonia, Paidia, Pandaisia, Pannychis. I’ll choose three for this Christmas meal, for this equal dividing among father, mother and son: Eudaimonia (Happiness), Pandaisia (Banquet), and Paidia (Play).
If an aim of life is happiness, then I have found that within my family–Gabriela and Demian, Kelsey and Matt, Nick and Gerianne, Janis and Terry and their children Wes, Augie and Annabelle. And further into friends, so that I would agree with Aristotle when he writes in The Nichomachean Ethics, “No one would choose to live without friends, even if he had all other goods” (1155a). Often family and friends gather around our dinner table, the banquet, which brings all together in a sacrifice of harvest, of life in order to honor what we care about, what we need. Through out all of this, creating all of this, dances and leaps “Play,” the greatest Grace of them all, because without her there is no imagination, no joy, no laughter.
The Graces have a connection to the Eleusinian Mysteries as well. In Aristophanes’ comedy The Frogs, a bumbling Dionysus and his servant travel down to the underworld in hopes of bringing back a poet to save Athens, which is on the brink of defeat in the Peloponnesian War. Along the way they meet initiates into the mysteries who invoke Iacchus, an incarnation of Dionysus in his sacred role at Athens and Eleusis, and they praise the Graces.
O Iacchus! power excelling, here in stately temples dwelling.
O Iacchus! O lacchus!
Come to tread this verdant level,
Come to dance in mystic revel,
Come whilst round thy forehead hurtles
Many a wreath of fruitful myrtles,
Come with wild and saucy paces
Mingling in our joyous dance,
Pure and holy, which embraces all the charms of all the Graces,
When the mystic choirs advance.
There’s even a joke about the Eleusinian pig sacrifice, as Dionsysus’ servant quips that he smells burnt pork on the wind. To review, a 29 lb. suckling pig reveals the mystery of life and death, above and below, while we sit at a banquet table eating, drinking and laughing, then joining Iacchus, we jump up and dance to “mystic choirs.” Which means it’s time for a dance scene from Bride and Prejudice. Ah, Bollywood.
It’s Christmas morning. Time to make the stuffing and give our pig, who Demian named Montezuma, his olive oil and salt bath; but that’s for the next post. Bon Appétit!