The next time that you enjoy a nice slab of butter on a roll or piece of toast, you can think about how it was once used in ancient religious rituals. Such as back in ancient Tibet, when butter when butter was used in the embalming of bodies. There would also be butter lamps and sculptures created to celebrate the victories of the Buddha. And butter was believed to help focus the mind during meditation.
The Rich History of Butter
Butter was used as much in ancient times as it is used in the context of great debates as we still don’t know which is better for us, butter or margarine. But even if you think you know how long butter has been around because you’ve seen it made at the Amish village you visited one summer, you may not know how big a part butter played in our past.
Celebrating Buddha with Butter
Around 2,500 years ago, butter sculptures were made (known as Tomas) and they were a crucial part of the celebrations of Shakyamuni Buddha’s victories. Even today, the annual Butter Festival in early March is the largest of the celebratory days of the Monlam Festival, which pays tribute to all the miracles of Buddha.
During the festival, thousands of butter lamps are lit, which signify the wisdom and the light of the Buddha. The lamps, made from clarified yak butter, line the streets and are thought to help focus one’s mind during meditation. The butter lamps are also a central part of other holidays, and donating butter to monasteries that craft the lamps and sculptures is believed to bring you some good karma.
Using Butter in Other Religious Rituals
In pre-China Tibet, the bodies of deceased lamas were simmered in boiling butter before they were embalmed.
Butter shows up several times in the Bible, such as in Judges 2:25 “He asked water, and she gave him milk, she brought forth butter in a lordly dish.” And in Isaiah 7:15: “Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good.”
Another type of butter, known as Ghee, was essential in Hindu sacrifices of the Vedic period. The offering of ghee, which is sort of a clarified butter, made with other various grains and vegetables. It was thought to satisfy the hunger of the gods and ensure order was maintained on Earth. The ritual of Jatakarman, performed at the birth of a boy, involved presenting the baby with a mixture of ghee, honey and gold.
The Tilberi of Iceland
In Iceland, an unsettling type of ritual used to be held in order to summon a creature known as the Tilberi. The Tilberi was created from a human rib dug up from a graveyard and brought to life when the communion wine was spit on it three Sundays in a row.
Once it had been nursed by its summoner and grown into adulthood, it would head out into neighboring fields to steal milk from the livestock and bring it back home, spitting it into the churn. Butter made from the milk collected by the Tilberi would crumble, unless a magic sign—the smjorhnutur, or butterknot, was sketched onto it. Prayers from the seventh century include appeals made to the god Gobhin, asking him to protect the butter that families made.
Bog Butter in Ireland and Scotland
There have been more than 430 samples of “bog butter” excavated from the peat bogs of Ireland and Scotland, dating back as early as 400 BC. The butter was buried several feet deep and in huge quantities. It was likely done for a few different reasons.
The ability to peat bogs to preserve what’s buried in them is well-documented, and at the time, butter was considered a valuable commodity. It was used to pay rent and taxes in some places and it helped to waterproof fabric. It was also a good binder for building materials and could be burned as a candle.
There are some historical writings that suggest the butter was buried in order to change its flavor. But we also know that butter was thought to cure illnesses. Placing butter next to a person who was ill would supposedly absorb the disease. And the butter would be buried if the person died.
Not everyone was always in favor of butter though, travelers from the region of Catalan in particular looked upon butter with very strong suspicions. They would often carry olive oil with them when they went through regions where they would only be able to get butter because they were convinced that butter caused leprosy.