Hot Cross Buns – The Greek Connection

By James D. Georgiles

Lent will soon be here and those tasty little buns with a cross on top will be for sale in supermarkets and bakeries. But do these buns really have any Christian significance? The answer is no, but there is a Greek connection.

The Hot Cross Bun, which children relish and that in Britain, Canada, U.S.A. and other Western European countries is sold during Lent, although alluded to in the Bible has no direct connection with Christianity at all. In fact it is of pagan origin predating Christianity by almost 3,000 years.

The eating of sacramental cakes at religious festivals probably began with the Assyrians and Babylonians in the worship of their moon-goddess Ishtar. It is however, recorded that the Ancient Egyptians offered small round cakes to Hathor their cow-headed moon-goddess. Hathor has been identified with Ishtar and Astarte; and with Ashtoreth who was worshipped by King Solomon, as mentioned in the Old Testament (1 Kings 11, 2), and to whom he erected a temple or shrine in Jerusalem. It was the Egyptian custom to inscribe the surface of each cake with a pair of curved horns, symbolic of the crescent moon and the ox, which was the preferred sacrifice to the goddess.

This sacramental cake is also mentioned by Jeremiah (Jer. 7, 18) where he says, “The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead the dough, to make cakes to the Queen of Heaven”. Again Jeremiah (Jer. 44, 19) says, ” And when we burned incense to the Queen of Heaven and poured out drink offerings unto her, did we make cakes to the Queen of Heaven”.

The Ancient Greeks carried on the ritual of of offering such cakes to their lunar deities. The Greeks called the cake a “boun” from the accusative case of “bous” the Greek word for ox, in reference to the symbol inscribed on the cake. It is from “boun” that etymologists believe the English word “bun” could be derived.

Diogenes Laertius, a Greek who flourished around A.D. 200, referring to offerings made by Empedocles wrote, “He offered me one of the sacred libra, called a boun, made of fine flour and honey”. Four hundred years later Hesychius, another Greek, also wrote of the “boun” describing it as being a cake emblazoned with a pair of curved horns.

With the passage of time the Greeks replaced the ox-horn symbol with a large inscribed cross. This was done to symbolize the four quarters of the moon and to facilitate the cake’s being broken easily into four pieces. These pieces were distributed to be eaten sacramentally by worshippers at the pagan temples or shrines.

The Romans too ate these crossed cakes at public sacrifices to Diana, their lunar goddess and bought them from vendors outside their temples: a practice against which St. Paul fulminated (1 Corinthians 10, 28). Two small “buns”, such as these were found in the lava-covered ruins of Herculaneum, which together with Pompei was destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79.

The pagan Anglo-Saxons adopted the use of these small crossed cakes in the worship of Eostre, their goddess of light and spring; it is from Eostre that the English derive the name Easter. The custom of eating crossed bread or cakes became widespread across Europe, and the early church fathers expediently adopted it and combined it with the Eucharist. The crossed bun or “boun” evolved into the Eucharistic bread or crossed wafers that St. John Chrysostom mentions in his “Liturgia”.

Early Christian and Byzantine artists often depicted crossed buns in their mosaics and frescoes illustrating Old Testament stories. Significant among these is the mosaic (A.D. 547) on the north side of the chancel of the Byzantine church of San Vitale in Ravenna, northern Italy. In this mosaic, which depicts the Feast of Abraham and the Three Men, the guests are seated at a table on which there is a plate of crossed cakes; Abraham, who is standing, holds a salver containing a miniature effigy of an ox . Another mosaic on the same theme, The Feast of Abraham and the Three Men in the Valley of Mambre, appears in the nave of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome. In this mosaic, dated circa A.D. 432- 440, the three guests are again being served crossed cakes; Abraham’s wife Sarah has a further supply on an adjacent table should the guests want more. Abraham must have been noted for his hospitality, for another mosaic in the nave of the same church shows Abraham offering a basket of similar crossed cakes to Melchizedek who is mounted upon a horse.

In mediaeval England, dough remaining after preparation of the consecrated Host was made into buns and given to communicants after the Easter Day liturgy or mass. Soon secular bakers began to make buns marked with a cross for sale to the public during the Lenten period. Public taste for these buns increased to the point where, in A.D.1252, church pressure caused King Henry III to issue a decree banning their sale. The decree, like our Lord’s Day Observance Act, was ignored and the sale of the buns continued. Eventually the crossed buns lost their quasi-religious association and became simply buns traditionally eaten at Eastertide. The tradition was transported to North America by the early settlers and became firmly established across Canada and the U.S.A.