Switzerland: a cheese-island in a sea of milk

Lovely flags celebrating all that is Swiss in Lausanne. Note the one on the left.

Lovely flags celebrating all that is Swiss in Lausanne. Note the one on the left.

Switzerland must be the worst country for vegans or people afflicted with any milk-related intolerance/allergy. I have been eating dairy literally at every single meal for a week now, which is far from my usual diet. Add to this the fact that I am currently working on a milk-related project, and I am starting to wonder why I am not dreaming about cheese.

I am now convinced that Lucian of Samosata (second century CE) was describing Switzerland when he talked about a cheese-island in a sea of milk. This episode occurs in the True Story, a hilarious (at least to classicists who like ancient humour) pastiche of ancient travel narratives, such as Homer’s Odyssey:

Not long after this, we reached a sea, not of water, but of milk. And in this sea, a white island appeared, on which grew plenty of vines. This island was a great, compact cheese, as we learnt later by tasting it. It was 25 stades in circumference. The vines were laden with grapes, but what we squeezed out of them and drank was not wine, but milk. A temple had been dedicated in the middle of the island to the Nereid Galatea [whose name refers to milk, gala in Greek], as its inscription showed. For the duration of our stay, the soil provided our bread and relish, and the milk from the grapes provided our drink. It is said that Tyro [literally: cheese], daughter of Salmoneus, ruled the region. Lucian, True Story 2.3

OK, I know the geography of the island bears no resemblance to Switzerland. But the fact remains, dairy is everywhere here – and it appears to have been very important in antiquity too. I spotted a few cheese-related artefacts in the museums I visited this week-end in Lausanne and Nyon.

Romano-Celtic goddess nursing twins. Roman Museum of Lausanne

Romano-Celtic goddess nursing twins. Roman Museum of Lausanne

As an ‘antidote’ to all this animal dairy, I also saw a nice – if headless – statuette of a Romano-Celtic Goddess breastfeeding twins (you will find here a lovely story that includes this artefact). This type of statuettes is found over a large geographic area, but as far as I am aware, there is no clear identification of the goddess represented. On some websites (perhaps not the most academic ones), she is identified with Arianrhod, the Welsh character of the Mabinogion who gave birth to the twins Dylan and Lleu. I don’t think the identification is correct, but I couldn’t miss the Welsh connection.

Off to get a small cheese-themed supper then…

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