To commemorate Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice) in a few days, I’d like to talk about acts of communion in human culture and literature.
Communion is so often solely associated with religious rituals such as the Eucharist or Passover in addition to Eid al-Adha. In actuality, we participate in communion on a daily basis: dinner dates, eating cake for a birthday, celebrating a promotion or holiday, and simply sitting down with someone else to share a meal are all examples of communion. Work or school functions often provide meals or refreshment to encourage participation and a reason to gather together.
Religious applications aside, it’s an intimate moment the sharing and taking in of nourishment to the body. It’s a mark of trust and confidence if you can eat or drink with someone and (depending on the circumstance) a sign of disrespect when declined the offer. Toasting as well is a kind of communion, a way to honor or give thanks to a host or honoree–There, too, is the legend of clinking glasses to check for poisoned cups. As in life, communion is an important tool in literature and can provide significant plot twists because of its cultural significance. With a host of examples to choose from, I’m going to stick to two series when sharing a meal holds significant intrigue: A Song of Ice and Fire (HBO’s Game of Thrones) and the Harry Potter series.
At once, I think if I said the words “communion” and “Game of Thrones,” the mind would go “guest right.” This tradition of hospitality is deeply rooted in Westeros and held especially sacred the farther north you go. Guest right is a ceremony in which the host will offer bread and salt to a visitor (guest) thereby guaranteeing their safety and health while under their roof. It’s this act of communion that denotes a great deal of trust between the guest and host. Of course when a guest(s) is killed or harmed after receiving the bread and salt, it causes quite a stain on the host that is unlikely ever to be washed out . . . Walder Frey.
But the Red Wedding isn’t the only time a visitor’s intake of food is rendered moot by an unnatural end. The Hound kills a family somewhere in the Riverlands after the farmer asks them to eat in exchange for work. And if weddings didn’t get enough of a bad luck streak in this series, Joffrey’s death after his marriage to Margaery surely sealed the theme that acts of communion can be just a bloody as they are nourishing. It could not get any more obvious that consumption is a prevalent theme than the title of the fourth volume . . . A Feast for Crows. Nobody said humans were the only ones who could partake in communion, and animals aren’t the only non-humans to do so.
At Hogwarts, readers anticipate school feasts as much as the students and staff do. Every first day of term, Halloween, Christmas, and end of term is marked by a marvelous display of the House-Elf’s cooking and the creativity of J. K. Rowling’s imagination when decorating each occasion. It juxtaposes nicely to George R. R. Martin’s more gruesome use of communion. That isn’t to say Hogwarts feasts aren’t void of excitement. Mountain trolls, dancing skeletons, and the occasional explosion of crackers are a few interruptions that delight (and in some cases frighten) diners at the Great Hall. Though, it’s not just proper feasts that show Jo’s use of communion in Potter.
Nearly-Headless Nick’s Deathday Party in Chamber of Secrets is a queasy example of how the dead can participate in communion as much as the living . . . even though they can’t actually consume any of the translucent cuisine. (It does make you wonder how they cooked and/or prepared it in the first place?)
The goblet is an iconic symbol of communion as it reflects the chalice drunk during Muggle world religious services. Fill said goblet with brilliant blue flames and it adds a new meaning to “drink up.” This comforting yet intimidating magical object selects a worthy witch or wizard from three of Europe’s best magical schools in book four for the Triwizard Tournament. The importance of communion (or objects that represent it) is evident when Harry’s name is pulled from the flames as the fourth champion because “those people whose names come out of the Goblet of Fire are bound to compete” (Goblet 277). The cup of Helga Hufflepuff is another embodiment of communion with a dark side. It’s one of the vessels of Lord Voldemort’s soul: a Horcrux. Professor Trelawney foretells the Grim, an omen of death, in a cup of tea leaves during Harry’s very first lesson on Divination. Finally, inside the cave, on the lake of Inferi, the only way to acquire the “Horcrux” within the stone basin is to drink the potion that causes unendurable pain. In a perverse act of communion, Harry forces Dumbledore to drink said potion, in which he relives the death of his sister Ariana.
Communion is a ceremony which transcends cultural traditions and can be used to great effect by writers and readers of any genre. We can all relate to the intimacy of sharing or providing a meal. It’s a human necessity with a spiritual quality at the same time. These, naturally, are a select group of examples of an author’s use of communion in story. Peruse these and others to find more! And when you’re developing your current or future novel, think about how you can use communion and its symbols to enrich your story.