In A Nutshell
For something that’s mostly overlooked until you make toast, butter has a rather ancient history. Much of it is the stuff of sacred religious rites and beliefs. In ancient Tibet, the bodies of lamas were boiled in butter before being embalmed, and butter lamps and sculptures celebrated the victories of the Buddha and were thought to help focus the mind during meditation. It was a part of Hindu sacrificial rituals, mentioned numerous times in the Bible, made from milk collected by mythical Icelandic milk thieves, and used by the Bretons as a currency and a medicine.
The Whole Bushel
You’ve probably got some in your refrigerator, and chances are good that you don’t think too much about it until you make some toast or a baked potato. And even if you know that it’s pretty ancient—it’s been around since we started domesticating animals—the almost-worldwide sanctity of butter is pretty amazing.
As long as 2,500 years ago, butter sculptures called tormas formed 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 of the miracles of Buddha.
Thousands and thousands of butter lamps are lit, signifying the wisdom and the light of the Buddha. The lamps, made from clarified yak butter, line the streets and are believed to help focus one’s mind during meditation. The butter lamps are also a central feature of other holidays, and donating butter to the monasteries that craft the lamps and sculptures is believed to be some good karma.
In pre-China Tibet, the bodies of deceased lamas were simmered in boiling butter before they were embalmed.
Butter shows up a handful of times in the Bible, including 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, called ghee, was essential in Hindu sacrifices of the Vedic period. The offering of ghee, a sort of clarified butter, along with various grains and vegetables, 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.
Head up to Iceland, and you’ll find an unsettling ritual used to summon a creature called a 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 to 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.
More than 430 samples of “bog butter” have been excavated from the peat bogs of Ireland and Scotland, dating back to 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 of peat bogs to preserve what’s buried in them is well-documented, and at the time, butter was a valuable commodity. It was used to pay rent and taxes, and it waterproofed fabric. It was also a good binder for building materials and could be burned as a candle.
Some writings suggest the butter was buried to change its flavor, but we also know that butter was thought to cure illness. Placing butter next to a suffering person would supposedly absorb the disease. (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 strong suspicions. They tended to 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.
Show Me The Proof
China Highlights: Tibetan Butter Lamp Festival
Patheos: Hinduism—Rites and Ceremonies
Nordic Food Lab: Bog butter
A History of Food, by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat