The Easter 'mona' cake: what does the custom signify and where does it come from?

The ‘mona’ cake is one of the most deeply-rooted Easter traditions, but its origins and meaning are uncertain. There are many theories that attempt to explain various features. Some try to decode the real meaning of such a curious name and others try to define the cultural tradition it comes from. Nearly all the experts agree that its origins go back to pagan times and that it was absorbed by Christianity. Although the Easter period is an eminently religious festival, it still retains some aspects which hark back to fertility rituals linked to the beginning of spring.

According to Costumari Català, by Joan Amades, reference is made to the ‘mona’ cake in the 15th century. This debunks the popular belief that the word refers to a 19th century Barcelona cake maker’s custom of crowning his Easter cakes with the figure of a ‘mona’ [monkey]. This would mean that one cake gave the name to all of them, but it seems that the ‘mona’ is older than that. One very popular theory is that the word comes form the old Arabic word ‘mûna’, which means ‘gift’ or ‘provision for the mouth’. The exponents of this theory explain that this would be an old way of paying the rent on land in kind, using plain cakes, hard-boiled eggs and other agricultural produce.

Another theory says that the etymological origin of the word is the Latin ‘munda’, the plural of ‘mundum’. They were baskets that contained sweets and decorated eggs, which the Romans offered to the Goddess Ceres in the month of April. This theory fits in nicely with the pre-Christian fertility rituals, because in Roman mythology, Ceres is the goddess of agriculture, grain crops and fertility. There are variations on this theory, which explain that in the Roman world, ‘munda’ was bread decorated with eggs that was given as proof of friendship, and that the tradition could come from the Pascoral, a festival which Roman shepherds celebrated with cakes.

Other theories go further back in time and explain that the origin of ‘mona’ could go back to the Mounykhion, an Ancient Greek celebration dedicated to the goddess Artemis. She was the goddess of wild places that the hand of man had not touched, such as forests and woods. Her most important temple was in Ephesus, where she was assimilated with an Asian fertility goddess and pictured with a diadem and many breasts. Mythology also says that she was the daughter of Demeter, a goddess that the Romans later renamed as Ceres.