Liberalia and Easter: The breads of the Holy Week


There is a long tradition of bakery products for Easter all over continental Europe—and even beyond, as the popularity of the hot cross bun in the UK and former British colonies like the US and Australia shows. In the more traditional regions, especially those in the Mediterranean area, it is often a form of plain flatbread or wafers that are a prominent part of the tradition. In Spain a whole wafer industry has developed for the Semana Santa, and in rural areas with stronger and older traditions these wafers and especially more traditional flatbreads are sold or handed out to the people attending the ceremonies of the Holy Week, especially on Good Friday and on Easter Sunday. (Please note that these products are all distinct from the liturgical communion wafers.) In Greece there is for example a long tradition of women baking the so-called koulouria using outdoor ovens (see image below).


One might assume that it is a non-sacral side-tradition of the Holy Communion, which is not entirely impossible. Some might also assume that this Christian practice of the Holy Week is derived from the Jewish matzo tradition during their Passover holiday, because Jesus is said to have died on 14 or 15 Nisan, the initial days of the season. This is however unlikely, because the immense variety of recipes would not have developed from the stricter rules regarding the Jewish matzo, and it is even more unlikely that a small minority religion could have had such a universal influence on European traditions.

But if we take into account that Christianity developed from the all-encompassing imperial Roman cult of Divus Iulius, the deified Julius Caesar, we can quickly find the connection. Caesar’s funeral and resurrection as god occured on the Liberalia, Friday 17 March 44 BCE, the festival of Libera and Liber Pater. Liber Pater was an archaic Roman fertility god directly associated with Bacchus/Dionysus and formed a triad with Libera and Ceres—the Roman counterpart to the Greek triad of Demeter, Dionysos and Kore. On the Liberalia it was tradition for women to bake smaller pieces of flatbread or consecrated cake (liba) on outdoor ovens with different ingredients (e.g. eggs, cheese, oil or honey) and hand it to the people who were passing by. Ancient sources speak of a significant variety of recipes, and the tradition has been retained to this day as part of the Holy Week, which makes sense, since the Passion of Christ originated from the passion and funeral of Caesar.

In Germany the Liberalia dish is still known as lebkuchen (“leb-cake”), with leb- derived from the Latin libum. In German Christian tradition the lebkuchen used to be consumed during Lent and the Easter season, but today has almost exclusively reversed its meaning and shifted to Christmas and the Advent. Aside from the wafers, real liba are also served in Spain, the traditional torrijas at Easter made of flour, wine and honey (see left image below).


As we have seen before, the received Easter chronology has generally shifted by three days: Caesar’s assassination became the arrest of Jesus, merged with the day of the last supper and the Crucifixion. Caesar’s funeral—i.e. the presentation of his wax effigy on a cruciform tropaeum—had become the Crucifixion and death of Jesus, while Caesar’s entombment three days later became the Resurrection of Christ, merged with Caesar’s own resurrection as god on the Liberalia. Since we know from ancient Christian writers like Tertullian that before the introduction of the computus Easter was originally celebrated in March, we see that Sunday 19 March 44 BCE was the the original historical date of Easter Sunday, the ultimate day of the Caesarian Holy Week. Therefore it is not surprising that in many regions of Europe the liba dishes of the Holy Week have not remained exclusively linked to Good Friday (the transposed Liberalia as Christ’s Crucifixion, 17 March) but have also shifted by three days to Easter Sunday (the transposed resurrection of Caesar, 19 March). It is equally not surprising that these same Easter liba are still part of the festive day of Saint Joseph on 19 March, for example in Spain and Italy. This tradition is logically also known in the city of Rome, where the liba are called Frittelle di San Giuseppe (see right image above and image below).


Incidentally the liba flatbreads are still part of today’s Caesar cult at the Forum Romanum or Caesar’s statues—not seldomly as a modern Liberalia dish, namely plain pizza crust combined with honey (see image below). They are prominently used on the Ides of March because Caesar’s resurrection on the third day is almost forgotten. At any rate, it is conspicuous that even today the Easter liba are still also prominent during those historical days of March, from the 15th to the 19th, and are intrinsically tied to the Christian festivals of Saints Joseph, Patrick and Joseph of Arimathea, who are all transposed characters from the Caesarian sources. [Nota bene: On the Josephs as transpositions of Calpurnius Piso, cf. the penultimate paragraph in this article.]


In the photograph we see a Roman Caesar worshiper also serving wine with the liba. The wine was primarily connected to the Liberalia, and it speaks for itself that it was also served at this Dionysian festival. But the connection goes deeper. In the earliest ancient times the god Liber Pater/Bacchus/Dionysus was the god of honey, and only became the god of wine at a later date, because the original wine was made from honey (in the form of hydromeli; “mead”, “honey-water”). Later the people learned to better cultivate the grape-vines and process the must, so the god’s characteristics and attributes were expanded to include the “real” wine. Although wine was part of the Dionysian rituals, the ancient libum recipes do not explicitly mention wine as an ingredient, but it is logical to assume that vinum did not need to be mentioned, because it was already implied by the use of honey. At any rate, the Dionysian connection with wine persists, and accordingly many Easter liba today contain ingredients like wine or raisins, the latter as plain dried fruits or (more traditionally) passita (it.) or pasa (sp.), i.e. raisins softened in wine or brandy.

It is conspicuous that (unlike during other Spanish festivals) there is traditionally no significant alcohol consumption during the Semana Santa. We should wonder why. Is there a sacred fear of wine during this time, of drinking the blood of Christ, which is associated with wine via the sacramentized Last Supper? Does wine belong exclusively to the canonical liturgy during the Holy Week? Did Caesar’s assassins drink wine after their sacrilege? At any rate, it seems as if the wine as an ingredient of the torrijas and other Easter liba is the only residue of the wine shared at the original Dionysian Liberalia festival.


Image sources: (1) Nicolaidis-Karanikolas M, Stanfield JL (photos). 1983. “Eternal Easter in a Greek Village”. National Geographic 12. Washington; (2.a & b)/(3) n/a; (4) Hendriks T. 2009 (15 March). Utrecht. Cf. Van Friesland J. 2009. “Rome 15 maar 2009 (5)”. De Jister.