In what is today Iraq, the Sumerian culture, the first civilization to develop a written language, was among the first to milk domesticated animals. According to one of their legends, a priest named Shamash in the city of Urak spoke to animals and persuaded them to withhold their milk from the goddess Nidaba. But two shepherd brothers, discovering the plot, threw Shamash into the Euphrates, where he transformed himself into a sheep. The brothers discovered his ruse and threw him into the Euphrates again. This time, he turned himself into a cow. Discovered a third time, he assumed the form of a chamois, a kind of antelope. This appears to be a legend about a search for a reliable milking animal.
Isis, the Egyptian goddess of motherhood, giver of life, was often shown breastfeeding a pharaoh, while Osiris, her husband, was celebrated for pouring out bowls of milk, one for each day of the year. Isis was a popular deity throughout the Middle East, and was depicted with large breasts and a cow's head and horns. Images of her Greek counterpart, Artemis, sometimes had several dozen breasts. The Egyptians also worshiped another deity, Hathor, as the cow goddess. Milk was a common offering in Egyptian temples.
It was believed that a baby acquired the personality of his or her wet nurse, so these caregivers needed to be carefully selected. It was said that Zeus was so unfaithful to women because he had been suckled by a goat, an animal infamous for debauchery, on the island of Crete. Infants who were suckled by the same wet nurse were regarded as milk siblings and were forbidden by the Assyrians from intermarrying.
In the third or second century B.C.E., a letter written to a new Roman mother stated: "The wet nurse should not be temperamental or talkative nor uncontrolled in her appetite for food, but orderly and temperate, practical, not a foreigner, but a Greek." This last requirement came up frequently in ancient Greece. Soranus, the first- and second-century A.D. Greek physician, repeatedly told his Greco-Roman audience that wet nurses should be Greek.
Hindus revered, and continue to revere, cows. In Sanskrit the word for cow is 'aghnya', which means "that which cannot be slaughtered." Hinduism has a creation myth in which the god Vishnu churns a sea of milk to create the universe.
The early Christians regarded all this cow worship as pagan, but still kept a special place for milk—human milk, that is—in their religion. The Virgin Mary was continually depicted exposing a breast and lactating. A leading Christian figure, the twelfth-century Bernard of Clairvaux, was said to have derived his inspiration from the Virgin Mary, who had appeared to him, bared a breast, and squirted three drops of milk into his mouth.
Medieval Christianity abounds with stories of people drinking Mary's milk, and even, in a few inexplicable cases, Christ's milk. These people received not Bernard's circumspect three drops, but rather a long, arched stream, at least according to some artists. One ignorant monk was said to have acquired great wisdom when the soft, sweet-spoken Mary bade him come close, bared her breasts, and had him suck at length on them. All this reflects the old and enduring Christian belief that the breastfed child acquired the traits of the woman who fed her or him.
Christians in the Middle Ages thought that milk was blood that had turned white when it traveled to the breast, which is why milk was banned on meatless holy days— more than half the days of the year. Japanese Buddhists had the same belief and avoided consuming dairy products. They looked down on Westerners, who they thought consumed too much dairy. They claimed they could smell it on them, and even into the twentieth century used the pejorative term Bata dasaku, "butter stinker," for a Westerner.
Nor have Jews ever been comfortable with the consumption of dairy. In Exodus, it states, "You shall not boil a young goat in its mother's milk." This has been interpreted as an absolute ban on eating any meat product, even chicken, in the same meal as any dairy product.
And yet even in ancient times, there have always been those who insisted on the health-giving qualities of milk. A Sumerian cuneiform tablet states that milk and laban, a yogurt-like sour drink, drive off illness. Pliny the Elder, the first-century A.D. Roman writer, claimed that milk was an effective antidote for those who swallowed quicksilver.