Death, food and the holidays

December 12, 2018 | Society
With the holiday season in full swing, food is on the minds of many.

But for a group of humanities students at MacEwan University, visions of literary feasts, communion customs and ritual sacrifice — not sugarplums — were dancing in their heads as they presented at Food as Symbol in Literature and Culture, a student-faculty symposium in late November.

The symposium, a partnership between the university’s Department of Humanities and the Raven Research Group, gave English and classics students the opportunity to focus their Fall 2018 papers on food.

Finding ways to study ancient texts from the perspective of feasting wasn’t difficult, says classics professor Dr. Benjamin Garstad. “Feasting is a part of the universal human experience that works its way into almost every aspect of life, ancient or modern.” Dr. Kevin Solez, who also teaches classics, adds “Food and feasting are relevant to all subjects in the humanities, so I knew the students would be able to find paper topics in their current classes that they could present.”

Students presented work on a smorgasbord of topics, drawing from literature, mythology and cultural practices spanning the Trojan War to the Vietnam War. Leanne Buttery presented on food and death in Mesopotamian myth and culture, Liam Klick looked at feasting in heroic myth in Irish mythology, and Daniel Bourbonnais presented research on the funeral Achilles holds for Patroclus in The Iliad.

Feasting is a part of the universal human experience that works its way into almost every aspect of life, ancient or modern.
—Dr. Benjamin Garstad

“There are questions around why the funeral feast is as large as it is — the way it’s described is bigger than what would have been typical,” says Daniel. “Based on my research, I believe that Achilles knew he was doomed, so in a way, he was actually holding a funeral for himself, which is why he put so much into it.”

While looking at food and death might not seem festive, it can provide a useful perspective on life, says Leanne.

“People are people, whether they lived 4,000 years ago or today,” she says. “These practices of trying to ensure quality of life after death show that these societies cared for people they loved, and that's no different than it is today.”

Both students agree that the opportunity to present their work alongside their MacEwan professors, and Professor Matt Gibbs from the University of Winnipeg, who delivered the keynote, was nerve-wracking, but valuable.

“Our professors presented their own work first, which helped ease our tension,” says Daniel. “It was also very clear that they were there to support us.”

It was also an opportunity to see where their studies might lead.

“Hearing academics like Dr. Garstad, Dr. Solez and Professor Gibbs talk about grad school and what contributing to academia is like was really encouraging,” says Leanne. “It made me feel like there really is a purpose in doing research, presenting your work and really caring about what you do — not just studying to get a degree, but doing it because it’s something you love.”

“The students’ papers were high quality – that was a real highlight of the event,” says Kevin. “I hope this experience makes them more interested in pursuing research.”

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