Milk, of course, is the primary source of nourishment for mammals, a word that is ultimately derived from ‘breast’ (as, coincidentally, is the name for the city of Manchester, because it was built on a ‘breast-like’ hill). Because of its pivotal role in providing sustenance for humans and many other animals, milk has attained a number of significant symbolic qualities. Let’s take a closer look at the symbolism of milk in literature, religion, and myth.
Milk symbolism in myth and religion
Because milk is the first foodstuff for mammals, it has often been associated with the food of the gods. In Hinduism, the universe was originally a sea of milk, which the gods churned to create butter. It’s worth remembering that the word galaxy originally comes from the Greek phrase galaxias kyklos, meaning ‘milky circle’, presumably because of the white light created by the stars in the night sky. Of course, our own galaxy is known by another milky term: Milky Way. The ancient Greeks believed the galaxy was formed when Hera removed Heracles from her breast, and her divine milk spilled across the heavens.
Milk also symbolises specifically maternal nourishment and care, of course, given the mother’s role in breastfeeding children. Ancient Egyptians had the goddess Isis suckling the pharaoh, in a depiction that may be designed to symbolism adoption, much as Victorian wet nurses were new mothers who suckled the babies of upper-class mothers. (A note on a popular piece of confusion, by the way: mothers suckle their young, while babies suck their mother’s teat. Strictly speaking, if we’re being pedantic – and we like to be here at IL – babies do not ‘suckle’.) Also in ancient Egypt, milk was poured over 365 altar tables – representing the 365 days of the year – set up at the tomb of Osiris, in the belief that this would lead to the god being reborn each morning.
These maternal associations also turn up in medieval art, where the Virgin Mary, Christianity’s foremost mother-figure, is often shown suckling the infant Jesus. There’s even a name for this: Maria lactans. Curiously, this noble depiction of Mary is often contrasted with ‘bad’ mothers who suckle vipers at their teats.
In many cultures, it has been customary to offer up sacrifices of milk, so sacred is the symbolism of this drink. And, of course, in the Bible the ‘promised land’ of Canaan was said to be a land of plenty flowing with ‘milk and honey’ (Exodus 3:8). In his The Wordsworth Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them (Wordsworth Reference), Hans Biedermann also notes that the ancient cults of Attis and Mithras involved the consumption of milk and honey as part of religious ritual.
Milk, then, symbolises abundance, nourishment, and motherhood, because of its properties as a food for very small children before they can ‘eat’ anything else. Because of these feminine connotations, milk is a lunar symbol, because both milk and the moon are associated with femininity and the female body. Milk and the moon are also associated with the colour white, whose symbolism we have discussed here. Both milk and the moon are also, as The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols (Penguin dictionaries) notes, linked with the springtime renewal of nature.
By association, milk can also symbolise immortality, because it represents this renewal and rebirth. The Philosopher’s Stone was sometimes referred to as ‘the Virgin’s Milk’ (i.e., maternal milk of the Virgin Mary), because it was said to be the key to immortality.
Milk symbolism in literature – and everyday language
These maternal and feminine qualities of milk spill over (see what we did there?) into literary imagery drawing upon it. In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth repeatedly refers to her willingness to be a bad mother in order to achieve her and her husband’s ambitions: she even talks about dashing her own baby’s brains out if that’s what it takes. And in a famous speech, she refers to milk:
Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be
What thou art promised: yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great;
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it: what thou wouldst highly,
That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false,
And yet wouldst wrongly win: thou’ldst have, great Glamis,
That which cries ‘Thus thou must do, if thou have it;
And that which rather thou dost fear to do
Than wishest should be undone.’
Milk is associated with the human but also with kindness, maternal selflessness, generosity, abundance of goodness: in giving Lady Macbeth these words, Shakespeare, of course, coined a phrase, ‘milk of human kindness’, that is popular to this day, so it’s interesting that its inaugural use sees Lady Macbeth employing it in disparaging terms.
Another popular phrase or proverb relevant here, ‘there’s no use crying over spilt milk’, means there’s no point in expressing regret or unhappiness over something that is done now and cannot be undone. It turns up in 1659 in James Howell’s Proverbs as ‘no weeping for shed milk’, although the proverb is probably considerably older, and part of an oral tradition of rural wisdom.
A proverb that is now less well-known but which is also included in Howell’s Proverbs is ‘why buy a cow when milk is so cheap?’: in other words, you should opt for the least troublesome option, so it’s better to buy milk rather than buy a cow and have to milk it yourself. Curiously, this proverb was historically used as an argument against marriage: presumably, the reasoning is that you can buy female company for a night (or less) more cheaply than you can buy a wife (and the former option comes with less bother). Perhaps we needn’t look any further to see why that particular milk-based proverb fell out of fashion …
Image: by Unisouth via Wikimedia Commons.