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Food in the Ancient World Extra

Especially for readers of Food in the Ancient World from A to Z (Routledge, 2003) here are some added and expanded entries. They are in alphabetical order. Click here for Food A to Z links. To find a particular word or name anywhere on this page, click on 'Edit : Find' in your browser. Please tell me if entries need further correction or improvement!

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Cannibalism

expanded entry with additions to bibliography

The eating of human flesh (Greek anthropeia krea, Latin humanae carnes). The practice is occasionally recorded in the ancient world in famines, in myths and legends, and among the most distant of barbarians.

As to famines, the eating of corpses is reported on several occasions, the killing of people to eat also more than once. Such incidents sometimes form part of the narratives of siege warfare, for example, Thucydides' narative of the siege of Potidaea, Appian's version of the siege of Athens by Sulla and Caesar's report of his own siege of the Gaulish stronghold Alesia. Sometimes they are features of narratives of lengthy famines, such as the story of the famine in Samaria in II Kings.

According to a story told by Clearchus, on the overthrow in 345 BC of Dionysius the Younger, king of Syracuse, his wife and children were killed and shared out as food among the citizens in revenge for his sexual abuse of the children of others. There are episodes involving cannibalism in two Greek romances.

Galen's aside on cannibalism in his survey On the Properties of Foods must be counted among urban myths (as they are now called): see translation. Juvenal agrees that human flesh is similar to pork.

In legendary history, Cambles, a king of Lydia, a man of insatiable hunger, was said (in a story told by Xanthus) to have eaten his wife, committing suicide next day when he woke to find her hand in his mouth. In the narrative of Odysseus in the Odyssey, the Cyclops, visited by Odysseus and his crew, eats several of them before Odysseus devises an escape from his cave. Cannibalism is described as man's first state, before the invention of cookery, in a comic prehistory in a Greek play of unknown date by Athenion.

Cannibalism recurs in several myths; it brought swift retribution from the gods. Tydeus was caught eating Melanippus' brain; Tereus was tricked into eating his infant son; Leucippe and her sisters, the daughters of Minyas, ate Leucippe's baby son Hippasos (click here for this story and sources for it). Most famously, Tantalus cooked his son Pelops in a stew which he served to the visiting Olympian gods, whether because he was short of food or to test the omniscience of his guests. Tantalus was punished with eternal torment. There is a story that Lycaon, legendary king of Arcadia, killed a human child as sacrifice to Zeus, and turned into a wolf (lykos) in consequence. This story sometimes appears in a form closer to that of Pelops: the child was Lycaon's own son, Nyctimus, and his meat was offered to Zeus to test the god's knowledge (for sources see below).

Cannibalism was theoretically recommended by Cynics, but they are not accused of practising it. The accusation of cannibalism was made against participants in mystery rites, who in some cases really did tear apart animal victims and eat their raw flesh (omophagia, 'eating raw flesh'). Cannibalism in mystery rites is hinted at in Euripides' Bacchae and apparently by Livy in his narrative of the suppression of the Bacchanalia in Italy in 186 BC, in which he alleges killings of participants, whose very bodies were never afterwards found for burial.

In Natural History Pliny says that epileptics drank the blood of gladiators as if from living cups, which seems to imply that the gladiators donated or sold their blood for this purpose (see translation and an IFAQ on this site). One Greek author roughly contemporary with Pliny had certainly conducted experiments in this field: the dietician Xenocrates, in the late first century AD, reported successful experiments with the use of human blood, brain, liver and muscle meat, and also bone ash, as medicines. Galen summarises these reports with strongly expressed disapproval, adding that the practice was illegal. Pliny disapproves equally strongly.

To the references given in Food in the Ancient World from A to Z p. 73 add the following: Euripides, Bacchae 1184 with Dodds ad loc.; Clearchus 47 Wehrli [Athenaeus 541c]; Livy, From Rome's Foundation 39.8.8; Petronius, Satyrica 141; Pliny, Natural History 28.4-9.

For the story of Lycaon see Pausanias, Guide to Greece 8.2.4 with Frazer ad loc.; Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.216-239; Servius, Commentary on Vergil's Aeneid 1.731; Clement of Alexandria, Protrepticon 2.36; Nonnus, Dionysiaca 18.20; Arnobius, Against the Gentiles 4.24.

Myrrh

expanded entry with additions to bibliography

Myrrh is an aromatic resin which had many uses in ancient religion and medicine. The aroma develops when the resin is heated gently.

Myrrh comes from southern Arabia and the nearby Somali coast (and nowhere else: it has never been naturalised elsewhere). It was already known in the second millennium BC to Assyrians and Egyptians as an exotic import, and was almost certainly one of the goals of Queen Hatshepsut's expedition to Punt, c. 1500 BC. The Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II (883-859) planted myrrh in his botanical garden at Calah. The Greek botanical author Theophrastus describes the harvesting of myrrh in his History of Plants (c. 310), reporting the observations of explorers sent out by Alexander the Great. In classical times it reached Mediterranean lands by way of the Red Sea trade. Myrrh was familiar at feasts, including weddings; also at funerals. With frankincense and gold it was one of the three gifts to the newborn Jesus (Matthew); alongside aloes it was used in preparing his body for burial (John).

According to Greek sources myrrh was an ingredient in the Egyptian compound kyphi, which was sometimes taken medicinally. Myrrh is listed by Greek medical authors as a constituent in many compound medicines. It was good for the teeth and for coughs; it was also used as an emmenagogue and abortifacient. Theophrastus strongly implies that myrrh was among the aromatics added to wine in Greece in his time (late 4th century BC) but Pliny is the earliest author who writes explicitly of the use of myrrh in wine. Pliny in fact states that it was the first aromatic to be so used in Rome, citing the murrina (apparently 'myrrh-flavoured wine') mentioned by Plautus and the more obscure comedy author Julius Dossennus in the second century BC. Myrrh has a 'slightly bitter' taste, Pliny adds.

Myrrh, the resin of Commiphora Myrrha, is smyrna in Greek, murra or myrra in Latin (compare Akkadian murru). The Greek term stakte, corresponding to Hebrew nâtâf, properly denotes a high quality myrrh, 'droplet' or 'tear', containing no impurities.

To the references given in Food in the Ancient World from A to Z p. 226 add the following: Pliny, Natural History 14.92-3 quoting Dossennus and Plautus; Matthew, Gospel 2.11; Luke, Gospel 7.36-50; Geoponica 7.13 citing Damageron, 7.36 citing Vindanionius.

Spikenard

expanded entry with additions to bibliography

Spikenard is native to the western Himalayas (the mountain range described in a Buddhist text as 'producer of many perfumes, rich with hundreds of magical drugs' - Mîlindapañha 4.8.16). Traditionally spikenard has been floated down the Indus in bales and exported by way of the Indian Ocean and Red Sea to the Mediterranean. There, in classical and medieval times, it was prized in compound medicines, in perfumes and even in food - so much prized that Seleucus, presumably Seleucus I of Syria in the early third century BC, tried without success to transplant it to Arabia where he might have controlled the trade.

Apicius, the Roman cookery book, calls for spikenard in two recipes, one a sauce for sliced cold meat, the other a glaze for roast venison, both of them heady, expensive and (no doubt) salutary. In these recipes spikenard is neatly paired with malabathrum or tejpat leaf, which came from the eastern extremity of the Himalayas. In the dietary manual of the Byzantine physician Anthimus (c. AD 500), addressed to a Frankish monarch, spikenard and tejpat leaf are alternatives: see translation.

Spikenard, the aromatic root of Nardostachys Jatamansi, is Greek nardon or nardostachys, Latin nardus.

To the references given in Food in the Ancient World from A to Z p. 230 add the following: Song of Songs 1.12; Horace, Odes 4.12.13-23; Periplus Maris Erythraei 63 with Casson ad loc. pp. 193, 207; Mark, Gospel 14.4-9; Matthew, Gospel 26.6-13; John, Gospel 12.1-8; Apicius 7.6.8, 8.2.7; Anthimus, Letter on Diet 3, 13.

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TODAY'S QUOTATIONLiterary MenusAlphabet of RecipesHistorical PrescriberIFAQs
Bacchus ExtraDangerous Tastes ExtraDictionary of Languages ExtraFood in the Ancient World ExtraGuide to World Language Dictionaries ExtraNotes in the Margin Extra

STREET OF THE BOOKSELLERS

HOMETHE BOOKSHELVESTHE DICTIONARYLANGUAGE INDEXWORK BY ANDREW DALBYLINKSWEB SEARCH