Monday, 31 May 2021

Medusa in Gibraltar

In September 2019 the Gibraltar National Museum announced the find of a fragmentary Gorgoneion, a Greek artistic representation of a Gorgon’s head, at Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar. It was made out to be a pretty big deal, and the find was formally published in PLoS ONE last month, in April 2021.

And it genuinely is the real deal. This Gorgoneion is a very significant find. But there are some extreme claims out there:

The location of the finds, in the deepest part of the cave, appears to give support to the myth and its location.
Government of Gibraltar, 19 Sep. 2019
Very rarely, archaeology confirms a myth. The discovery, in Gorhams Cave, Gibraltar, of fragments of a Gorgoneion ... is one example., 9 Jan. 2021
Left: fragments of a Gorgoneion found in Gorham’s Cave ‘over several archaeological seasons’ (dates unspecified). Right: a reconstruction of the Gorgoneion produced at the Gibraltar National Museum and unveiled on 18 May 2021. (Sources: left, Finlayson et al. 2021: Fig. 3; right, Gibraltar Chronicle 19 May 2021)

As so often, the problem isn’t the find itself — the Gorgoneion is for real — but the language used.

The Gorgoneion ‘confirms a myth’ ... um, what myth, exactly? That Gorgons are real? That Medusa actually lived at Gibraltar? Obviously not. But that’s what most of the language in the press tries to imply. A much more sensible summary was given by the project lead at the Gibraltar National Museum, Chris Finlayson:

It was a shrine, a place of worship for the ancient mariners. ... We thought it was only holy for the Phoenicians but now we know it was also holy for the Greeks.
Chris Finlayson, quoted in The Olive Press, 29 Sep. 2019

No one believes Gorgons are real. So when someone says this Gorgoneion ‘confirms’ a myth, that’s a real problem. The claim is so patently absurd that it poisons the legitimacy of the real story.

That seems like quite a stretch. How can they know that pair of eyes belonged to a gorgon instead of literally any other face?
‘Charyou-Tree’, Reddit, 5 Apr. 2021

It is an important find, to be clear, and those eyes are absolutely unmistakeable. But I fear sensationalism has done some damage to this discovery. Chris Finlayson has his feet on the ground, as I mentioned, but even he is subject to the sensationalistic impulse (Finlayson et al. 2021: 1):

The quest for sites and artefacts of classical mythology was the hallmark of archaeology at the end of the nineteenth century. Schliemann’s ... purported discoveries of King Priam’s treasure or the mask of Agamemnon are prime examples of attempts to link material culture to classical stories.

Oh, ye gods and little fishes. It’s bloody Schliemann again.

The authors go on to talk about Schliemann’s ‘controversial results’, and they compare these archaeological sites to the search for Atlantis. Oh help.

Now, ‘controversial’ is a word you could use for Schliemann’s methods (if you were being extremely generous). But the sites aren’t controversial. I’ve pointed this out before many times, but here it is again: Schliemann didn’t ‘prove’ Troy existed, and it never needed proving. The idea that it might have been a myth is itself a myth. The people who lived in Troy from around 700 BCE (the time of Hesiod) to 500 CE (after the fall of the western Roman Empire) would be very surprised to hear that there was such a ‘controversy’ over their bustling city.

Atlantis, by contrast, has nothing real about it whatsoever: Plato devised it around 360 BCE as an ad hoc allegory for Athens’ supposed potential to resist Macedonian conquest, and he based it on stories he had heard about the Atlantic Ocean being unnavigable — stories that were totally false.

Location of Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar (source: Google Maps)

The Gorgons’ link to Gibraltar is similar to the case of Troy. Not because the existence of the place was in doubt: no one ever thought the Pillars of Heracles, as the Greeks called the Strait of Gibraltar, were a myth. The similarity to Troy is because it’s definitely a real place, one that has always been known to be real, and which happens to have a myth attached to it.

New York and Nottingham are real, but that doesn’t mean Spider-Man and Robin Hood are. Real places don’t mean that myths actually happened. Nothing physical about a place ‘confirms’ a myth.

It is legitimate to say that this find confirms that ancient Greeks genuinely drew a link between the place and the myth, and that they did so as early as the Archaic period. Now, for Troy or Mycenae, that would be totally unsurprising. Of course they thought of the Trojan War as taking place at the contemporary city of Troy.

But when it comes to Gibraltar and Gorgons, this statement actually is interesting and significant. Before the Gorham’s Cave Gorgoneion was discovered, there actually was no material evidence that the ancients drew a link between the mythical Gorgons and the real Gibraltar. There wasn’t any particular reason to doubt it, mind: just that, as the April publication puts it (Finlayson et al. 2021: 3),

Until now the interpretation, based on a combination of material culture excavated, and the known presence of these people in the area at the time, has been that they were Phoenician and later Carthaginian mariners. Recent analyses have shown that the material culture found in this level has a broader international character ...
The team at the Gibraltar National Museum at the unveiling of their reconstruction of the Gorham’s Cave Gorgoneion, 18 May 2021 (source: Gibraltar Chronicle, 19 May 2021)

The Gorgoneion is significant, but not because it proves Gorgons were real. It’s because it’s the first material evidence that Greeks actually did visit Gibraltar. It’s because it’s the only Gorgoneion of its kind in the western Mediterranean. And it’s because it’s in a cave, not a temple. It is genuinely a unique find. There was no permanent Greek settlement at Gibraltar, so whoever put the Gorgoneion there — in a deep part of the cave, no less — made a special visit, and went to some trouble.

... and the Gorgons, who dwell beyond famous Ocean
at the edge of night, the same place as the clear-voiced Hesperides:
Sthenno, and Euryale, and Medusa who suffered evil things.
Hesiod, Theogony 274–276

Hesiod’s Theogony dates to around 700 BCE: it is very likely the earliest surviving piece of Greek literature. Already at the beginnings of Greek literature, we see the Greeks locating the Gorgons at the western boundary of the known world. ‘Beyond the Ocean’ suggests something even further afield, but even so, it’s pretty reasonable to interpret the labour taken over the Gibraltar Gorgoneion in light of this passage.

Gorgoneions are a reasonably common sight in ancient Greece itself. But the Gibraltar Gorgoneion genuinely is a big deal. My feeling is that its importance is only undercut by absurd claims of ‘confirming’ a myth.


  • Finlayson, C.; Gutierrez Lopez, J. M.; Reinoso del Rio, M. C.; et al. 2021. ‘Where myth and archaeology meet: discovering the Gorgon Meduas’ lair.’ PLoS ONE 16.4: e0249606.

Sunday, 2 May 2021

Prometheus and liver regeneration

Prometheus suffers a gruesome punishment in Greek myth. By day an eagle tears at his liver; by night the liver fully regenerates. Repeat.

Since the 1990s it’s been fashionable to take the story as describing a real medical phenomenon, the liver’s unique ability to regenerate. But how did the Greeks know about liver regeneration?

Easy: they didn’t. Liver regeneration wasn’t discovered until the 1800s. It’s just another case of people repeating something because other people have repeated it, without any evidence.

The torture of two Titans, close in several respects to Theogony 517–525. Left: Atlas holding up the sky, tormented by a snake. Right: Prometheus bound with a stake driven through his bonds, and Zeus’ eagle devouring his liver. (Laconian kylix, Cerveteri, ca. 560–550 BCE; Mus. Vaticani 16592. Source: Van Gulik et al. 2018)

Here’s the earliest version, in a poem composed around 700 BCE:

(Zeus) bound prismatic-thinking Prometheus in fetters,
painful bonds, and he drove a stake through in the middle.
And he set a long-winged eagle on him. It devoured his liver,
which was immortal, and it grew back on all sides, as much
at night as the long-winged bird would eat throughout the day.
Hesiod, Theogony 521–525

The Giant Tityos has a similar punishment in the afterlife:

And I saw Tityos, Earth’s famous son,
lying on the ground, covering a full nine plethra [ca. 280 metres];
and two vultures sitting one on either side tore at his liver,
reaching into his innards. His hands couldn’t keep them away ...
Homer, Odyssey 11.576–579

(Translations mine.) There are explanations for the role of the liver in the Prometheus myth. The most robust ones in print are: (a) The liver was important because of extispicy, the practice of divination by examining an animal’s entrails. (b) The ancient Greeks thought of the liver as the seat of emotions that weren’t based on rationality, especially desire, anger, and pain.

These explanations tell us why the liver was important, but they don’t tell us what its importance has to do with Prometheus. Here I’m adding a still more proximate explanation. It wasn’t about pain, or Prometheus representing the inner psyche, or anything like that: it’s about vengeance.

For Greeks of the Archaic period (ca. 800–480 BCE), mutilating an enemy’s body was an especially potent form of revenge. Mutilating the liver was especially potent, but that’s just a matter of degree. The mutilation is where the meaning lies. The fact that it’s done to his liver makes the revenge more potent, and the fact that it’s done every day makes it more potent still. For ancient Greeks, this was the purest form of vengeance there could be.

Tityos tormented by vultures, as depicted by a fictional statue in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey (2018). Here the vulture is tearing at Tityos’ intestine, not his liver. (Source: AC Wiki)

Literature review

No classicist has ever adequately addressed in print the claim that Prometheus’ liver alludes to real-life liver regeneration. The only exception is a short piece in Dutch for a generalist audience, where a classicist was the third author (out of three; Van Gulik et al. 2018).

The pathology literature, by contrast, has both discussed the claim and debunked it. Unfortunately the debunking isn’t as widely read as one might like: I didn’t have access to the database that it’s in, so I’m very grateful to Carl Power and John Rasko for their help in sending me a copy of their article. Go team pathology!

The most important pieces on this subject are, on the classicist side, Collins (2008) on ancient liver divination and its connection to the Prometheus story; and on the pathologist side, Power and Rasko (2008), with a full survey of the evidence and comprehensive debunking of the myth.

The classicists

Martin West’s commentary on the Theogony (1966: 312–315) gives a summary of earlier scholarship on Prometheus’ punishment. He doesn’t touch on a potential link to real-life liver generation: no one suggested that link until 1994 (see below). West focuses on (a) the story of Heracles rescuing Prometheus; (b) the relationship between Prometheus’ and Tityos’ punishments; and (c) possible origins for the myth of a Titan/Giant being punished eternally.

The most relevant of these for us is the relationship between Prometheus and Tityos. Bapp (1896: 45) argued that Tityos was the primary version of the story; West rejects this. They’re both off target. Bapp’s argument was that Tityos’ offence was lust, and he suffers in his liver because the Greeks thought of the liver as the seat of emotions. But that has nothing to do with Prometheus. West claims that the liver wasn’t the seat of the emotions until the time of Aeschylus; and that’s actually false — see Archilochus fr. 234 ed. West (yes, the same West) = fr. 131 ed. Edmonds, ‘You do not retain anger in your liver’.

Cassanmagnago (2009: 937), the only Theogony commentary since West’s, agrees with Bapp’s view and cites an ancient gloss on Hesiod (schol. Th. 523):

The liver, that is, the motivator of reason. For they say that the mental faculties are in the liver.

The Greeks usually thought of the liver as the seat of the passions, not reason: we’ll return to this below in the discussion.

No Odyssey commentary touches on the nature of Tityos’ punishment at all. Vergil’s Aeneid mentions Tityos’ punishment, but Horsfall’s note (2013: 414–415) just repeats West’s views on Prometheus. Roscher’s encyclopaedia of myth adds little (1886–1937.iii: 3041–3043 on Prometheus, v: 1035–1039 on Tityos), except for mentioning a Christian rationalist interpretation which reinterpreted Tityos’ suffering in the afterlife as pain caused by arrows in his liver.

Derek Collins (2008) is the best available discussion of the practice of examining animals’ entrails, or extispicy, as a form of divining the future. The practice of examining an animal’s liver, in particular, is called hepatoscopy. Physical models of the liver, made of terracotta or bronze, and sometimes with annotations for diviners to refer to, have been found in Mesopotamia and in Etruscan Italy. None have been found in Greece. But Greek textual sources and pictorial art give plenty of evidence of Greek extispicy and the central importance of the liver. As well as Collins (2008), see also Van Straten (1995: 156–157); Flower (2008: 32–34, 44–50, 188–189).

In 2018 Hugo Koning became the first classicist, and the first Hesiod scholar, to discuss liver regeneration in connection with Prometheus: see Van Gulik et al. (2018). The other two authors are pathologists. The article isn’t new research, and it stays on the fence about whether the Greeks knew about liver regeneration. The only thing it adds that wasn’t already covered by Power and Rasko (2008) is that the Greeks believed blood was particularly associated with the liver; and even this is put more clearly by Collins (2008: 324–325, with bibliography). The two pathologist authors, without Koning, later contributed to a book on Prometheus and his liver (Van Rosmalen et al. 2020; chap. 14 is on liver regeneration), which unfortunately I haven’t seen.

An extispicy scene on a Greek vase. The scene is formulaic. The divination is in a military context, as is usual with such scenes. A soldier, centre, holds up an animal’s liver to inspect it, while an enslaved boy stands by with the rest of the entrails. On the iconography of extispicy scenes on Greek vases, see Durand and Lissarrague (1979); Van Straten (1995: 156–157). (Belly amphora attributed to the Kleophrades Painter, Vulci, ca. 500 BCE; Würzburg, Martin von Wagner Museum L 507. Source: Van Straten 1995, Fig. 165)

The pathologists

Real-life liver regeneration was first described in the 19th century by Emil Ponfick (1889, 1890, 1891), and confirmed by experiments on rats in the 1930s and 1950s (see Van Gulik et al. 2018, in the section ‘Regeneratie van een rattenlever’, with further bibliography).

The idea that the Prometheus story alludes to liver regeneration was first suggested by Chen and Chen (1994). Their earlier book on the history of the liver (1984) doesn’t contain the idea, though it does mention Prometheus in passing. Their evidence in the 1994 piece, such as it is, is (a) the superficial resemblance between Prometheus’ regrowing liver and the regeneration discovered by modern experimentation; (b) a passing mention of liver divination.

That isn’t any kind of evidence. Power and Rasko (2008) debunk the claim fully. Power and Rasko address extispicy, noting that it’s doubtful that that could provide the occasion for discovering liver regeneration; and they investigate ancient Greek medical texts that discuss the liver, but they find not the slightest trace of evidence of any awareness of the phenomenon. In particular they emphasise that early medical descriptions of the liver appear to have been based on animal livers, with one to five lobes, until the time of Herophilus around 300 BCE. Herophilus gives the first accurate description of a human liver (fr. 60 ed. von Staden; see von Staden 1989: 162–163, 227–228) — and even he was totally unaware of liver regeneration.

In spite of that, many papers continue to echo Chen and Chen’s brief account. Several take for granted the supposed link between Prometheus and real liver regeneration (Michalopoulos and DeFrances 1997: 60; Koniaris et al. 2003: 634; Michalopoulos 2007: 286). Others question the claim, but are non-committal (Tiniakos et al. 2010; Riva et al. 2011: 1132; Van Gulik et al. 2018; the latter two cite Power and Rasko). Only a few refer to liver divination (Michalopoulos 2007: 286; Power and Rasko 2008: 421–422). None make the effort to engage with ancient medical texts, other than Power and Rasko (2008: 422–423).

Tiniakos et al. (2010) try to shift the emphasis to Tityos. But they spend most of their time on modern-era artistic treatments of the story. An interesting corner of art history, perhaps, but not any kind of evidence about ancient medicine. Several papers discuss hepatocentrism, the ancient idea that the liver was the seat of the passions (Power and Rasko 2008: 424–425; Riva et al. 2011: 1133; Orlandi et al. 2018; Van Gulik et al. 2018, in the section ‘Zetel van het leven’).

From all of this it can be seen that Power and Rasko’s piece (2008) is by far the most thorough survey of all aspects of the evidence. It is also the most accurate.

Prometheus bound depicted by two Flemish painters, Peter Paul Rubens (ca. 1612; Phildelphia Mus. of Art) and Jacob Jordaens (ca. 1640; Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Köln)

Folk etymologies

Tiniakos et al. (2010: 358) assert that certain etymologies are responsible for aspects of the Prometheus and Tityos stories. They claim that the Greek word ἦπαρ hē̂par ‘liver’ is also found in the form ήδαρ ḗdar, and this shows that it’s derived from ἡδονή hēdonḗ ‘pleasure’, and this is the reason why the liver is attacked. They also claim that Τιτυός Tituós ‘Tityos’ is derived from τίσις tísis ‘retribution’, and this explains Tityos’ punishment.

The claims are entirely wrong. ḗdar is an invention. The etymologies aren’t based on any patterns or accepted linguistic principles. Even so, some subsequent pieces have unfortunately repeated the claims (Orlandi et al. 2018: 987).

In reality hē̂par ‘liver’ comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *iekʷ-r ‘liver’ (compare Sanskrit yákṛ-t ‘liver’, Latin iecur ‘liver’). The transformation of early Greek medial /kʷ/ into Classical Greek /p/ is a common one: compare Mycenaean i-qo ‘horse’ > Classical ἵππος híppos, Mycenaean e-qe-(ta) ‘follow’ > Classical ἕπ(ομαι) hép(omai). Meanwhile hēdonḗ ‘pleasure’ comes from Greek ἡδ(υ)- hēd(u)- ‘sweet, enjoy’, Proto-Indo-European *sueh₂d-ú- ‘sweet’. For more reliable information about etymologies, see Beekes (2010).

As for Tityos’ name Tituós, both it and the pastoral name Τίτυρος Títuros (which Tiniakos et al. also cite) are based on a reduplicated form titu-, from the verbal stem *tu- ‘be strong, be solid, swell’ (< Proto-Indo-European *teuH-). If Tityos’ name had come from ti- ‘compensate, pay’, he would have been called something like Tísmos or Tístēs. Roscher (1886–1937.v: 1033–1034) gives a detailed discussion of the name’s real etymology. The root *tu- also appears in Greek in the word τυρός turós ‘cheese’, and possibly in τύλη túlē ‘bulge, callus’ and τύφη túpʰē ‘a plant used for padding’. In other words, ‘Tityos’ means ‘the strong one’; ‘Tityros’ is a wordplay, with connotations of ‘strength’ and a pastoral link with cheese.


Chen and Chen (1994: 755) cited a key passage for interpeting the Prometheus story, though they didn’t appreciate its significance. In the Iliad, Hecabe cries out for vengeance against Achilles, who has killed her son Hector (Homer, Iliad 24.212–214):

I wish I could take the middle of his liver,
keep hold, and eat it: then I’d have revenge
for my son!

No academic commentary on the Iliad thinks to draw a link to Prometheus or Tityos. But they do note that this is an echo of other similar sentiments in the Iliad. Achilles, wanting revenge on Hector, would ‘cut off [his] flesh and eat it’ (Il. 22.346–347); Zeus reminds Hera, ‘you’d eat Priam and his sons raw’ (Il. 4.34–36). Later literature has parallels too: Xenophon, Hellenica 3.3.6 (‘they would gladly eat them raw’), and Anabasis 4.8.14 (‘if we can, we should eat them raw’); Menander, Dyskolos 468 (‘Bite you? I’d eat you alive!’).

This is part and parcel of an ongoing theme in the Iliad which Charles Segal calls ‘the theme of the mutilation of the corpse’ (Segal 1971). Corpse mutilation becomes more extravagantly violent and gruesome as the epic progresses. On page 1 we’re told that corpses will become ‘feasts for dogs and birds’ (Iliad 1.4–5); by book 20, Achilles’ rage fills an entire river with corpses and blood for the fish to eat, to the point where the river god himself rises up against him. Book 22 sees Achilles violate Hector’s body, and book 24 finally resolves the macabre theme, with Hector’s body being miraculously protected from decomposition and given a proper burial.

Hecabe’s desire to eat Achilles’ liver is the moment when this theme hits peak body-horror.

Prometheus the bringer of fire looks benevolently over ice skaters at the Rockefeller Center, New York (Paul Manship, 1934)

This is the key for interpreting the stories of Prometheus’ and Tityos’ punishments. The story is a revenge fantasy; the liver just represents the degree of that revenge. The reason why this is so is comfortably explained by the various points raised by Collins, Power, and Rasko. Power and Rasko (2008: 422):

There are many explanations of why the Greek mythmakers targeted Prometheus’ liver for terrible and repeated abuse. The best explanations do not depend on the idea that the Greeks actually knew about the liver’s regenerative capacity.

1. The liver as the seat of passions. The liver was consistently seen as commanding desires, passions, and the mental faculty, as Collins describes very fully (2008: 327–335):

  • Archilochus, fr. 234 West: anger resides ‘on the liver’
  • Aeschylus, Agamemnon 792: pain approaches ‘onto the liver’
  • Sophocles, Aias 938: anguish can pierce or approach ‘towards the liver’
  • Euripides, Suppliants 599: fear sits ‘beneath the liver’
  • Democritus, 66 C 23.7 ed. Diels and Kranz: the liver is ‘responsible for desire’
  • Plato, Timaeus 70a–e: the appetitive part of the soul is between the midriff and the navel, bound like a wild animal in the form of the liver

2. The liver as the organ of blood. See Collins (2008: 324–325). We know that the Greeks sometimes speculated that blood was produced by the liver. Some extant sources actually reject this idea (Aristotle, On the parts of animals 666a.24–36), but others endorse it (Empedocles 31 B 150 ed. Diels and Kranz ‘the liver rich with blood’; P. Mich. inv. 1 col. iv ‘the conversion into blood of food ... is performed by the liver’). Van Gulik et al. (2018) point out that a bleeding liver is likely to have been seen by early Greeks as a fatal wound.

3. The liver in divination. See Collins (2008). The anonymous 5th century BCE tragic play Prometheus bound actually links Prometheus directly to hepatoscopy, when Prometheus declares that he has benefited humanity by teaching them the art of divination (488–495):

(Prometheus:) The flight of crooked-taloned birds I outlined
clearly: which ones are auspicious by nature,
and which are bad omens; ...
and the smoothness of their entrails, and the colour
their bile must have to be pleasing to the divinities,
and the colourful beauty of the lobe; ...

‘Smoothness of entrails’ refers specifically to the liver. The belief was that emotions like anger and fear could ruin the liver’s smoothness, making it useless for divination (Collins 2008: 332–334; in Philostratus’ mostly-fictional Life of Apollonius of Tyana 8.7.10–15, Apollonius is charged with using human livers for divination, and this is part of his defence). The ‘lobe’ (lobós) in the last line could refer to various parts of the liver, or even to the liver as a whole (von Staden 1989: 228); the number of lobes varied depending on which animal the liver had come from, and this was more than a century before Herophilus conducted his first human dissection.

All of these are legitimate reasons why the liver is the target of choice in the punishments of Prometheus and Tityos. But they aren’t the reason why their body parts are being attacked. The story of Prometheus’ torture isn’t about hepatoscopy, philosophy, or medicine: it’s about vengeance.


Thanks again to Carl Power and John Rasko for their help in preparing this account.


  • Bapp, K. 1896. ‘Prometheus. Ein Beitrag zur griechischen Mythologie.’ Programm des Grossherzoglichen Gymnasiums zu Oldenburg, Ostern 1896. Druck von Gerhard Stalling (Oldenburg). 1–46. [Internet Archive link]
  • Beekes, R. 2010. Etymological dictionary of Greek. Brill.
  • Cassanmagnago, C. 2009. Esiodo. Tutte le opere e i frammenti, con la prima traduzione degli scolii. Bompiani (Milan).
  • Chen, T. S.; Chen, P. S. 1984. Understanding the liver. A history. Praeger/Greenwood Press.
  • —— 1994. ‘The myth of Prometheus and the liver.’ Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 87.12: 754–755. [NIH link]
  • Collins, D. 2008. ‘Mapping the entrails: the practice of Greek hepatoscopy.’ American journal of philology 129: 319–345. [JSTOR link]
  • Durand, J.-L.; Lissarrague, F. 1979. ‘Les entrailles de la cité. Lectures de signes: propositions sur la hiéroscopie.’ Hephaistos 1: 92–108. [Universität Hamburg link]
  • Flower, M. A. 2008. The seer in ancient Greece. University of California Press.
  • Furley, W.; Gysembergh, V. 2015. Reading the liver. Papyrological texts on ancient Greek extispicy. Mohr Siebeck (Tübingen).
  • Horsfall, N. 2013. Virgil, Aeneid 6. A commentary, volume 2. De Gruyter.
  • Koniaris, L.G.; McKillop, I. H.; Schwartz, S. I.; Zimmers, T. A. 2003. ‘Liver regeneration.’ Journal of the American College of Surgeons 197: 634–659. [ResearchGate link]
  • Michalopoulos, G. K.; DeFrances, M. C. 1997. ‘Liver regeneration.’ Science 276.5309: 60–66. [JSTOR link]
  • Michalopoulos, G. K. 2007. ‘Liver regeneration.’ Journal of cellular physiology 213: 286–300. [Wiley link]
  • Orlandi, R.; Cianci, N.; Invernizzi, P.; Cesana, G.; Augusto Riva, M. 2018. ‘“I miss my liver.” Nonmedical sources in the history of hepatocentrism.’ Hepatology communications 2.8: 986–993. [Wiley link]
  • Ponfick, E. 1889. ‘Experimentelle Beiträge zur Pathologie der Leber.’ Virchows Archiv 118: 209–249.
  • —— 1890. ‘Experimentelle Beiträge zur Pathologie der Leber.’ Virchows Archiv 119: 193–240.
  • —— 1891. ‘Ueber Recreation der Leber beim Menschen.’ In: Festschrift Rudolf Virchow, vol. 1. Druck und Verlag von Georg Reimer (Berlin). Chapter 5. [NIH link]
  • Power, C.; Rasko, J. E. J. 2008. ‘Whither Prometheus' liver? Greek myth and the science of regeneration.’ Annals of internal medicine 149.6: 421–426. [ACP link]
  • Richardson, N. 1993. The Iliad: a commentary. Volume VI: books 21–24. Cambridge University Press.
  • Riva, M. A.; Riva, E.; Spicci, M.; Strazzabosco, M; Giovannini, M.; Cesana, G. 2011. ‘“The city of Hepar”: rituals, gastronomy, and politics at the origins of the modern names for the liver.’ Journal of hepatology 55: 1132–1136. [ResearchGate link]
  • Robinson, R.; Gent, S. 2018. ‘How possible was Prometheus’ punishment?’ Journal of Interdisciplinary Science Topics 7. [University of Leicester link]
  • Roscher, W. H. (general editor) 1886–1937. Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie. 7 volumes. Teubner.
  • Segal, C. 1971. The theme of the mutilation of the corpse in the Iliad. Mnemosyne supplements 17. Brill.
  • Tiniakos, D. G.; Kandilis, A.; and Geller, S. A. 2010. 'Tityus: a forgotten myth of liver regeneration.' Journal of hepatology 53.2: 357–361. [Elsevier link]
  • Van Gulik, T. M.; van Gulik, M. M.; Koning, H. H. 2018. ‘Prometheus en leverregeneratie. De ontleding van een mythe.’ Nederlands tijdschrift voor geneeskunde 2018;162:D2882 (2018, issue 35). [ link]
  • Van Rosmalen, J.; van Gulik, M.; van Rosmalen, B.; van Gulik, T. 2020. Prometheus tussen kunst en lever. Walburg Pers (Zutphen).
  • Van Straten, F. T. 1995. Hiera kala. Images of animal sacrifice in Archaic and Classical Greece. Brill.
  • Von Staden, H. 1989. Herophilus. The art of medicine in early Alexandria. Cambridge University Press.
  • West, M. L. 1966. Hesiod. Theogony. Oxford University Press.

Friday, 9 April 2021

Easter, Yule, and the old English calendar

‘Easter’ and ‘Yule’ started out in English as month-names in the early mediaeval English calendar. They’ve taken on a life of their own, of course, and have become identified with Christian festivals: I’ve talked about Easter and Yule as festivals previously, looking at how much modern customs are linked to anything ancient (they aren’t). Here we’re only looking at the names.

The opening of Bede’s De temporum ratione in Brit. Lib., Royal MS 13 A xi fol. 32v (11th–12th cent.)

We have three main sources for month names in the Old English calendar: Bede’s Reckoning of time, written around 730 CE; the Old English Martyrology, a 9th century calendar of important days throughout the year; and the Menologium, a calendar poem dating perhaps to ca. 1000 CE (Karasawa 2015: 70–72). Bede wrote in Latin, the others are in Old English.

Bede Martyrology Menologium Meaning given by Bede
giuli æftera geola giuli = ‘midwinter’
solmonath solmonað cake month
rhedmonath hredmonað hlyda month of goddess Rheda
eosturmonath eastermonað eastermonað month of goddess Eostre
thrimylchi þrymylce þrymilce (emendation) three milkings
lida ærra liða ærra liða lida = ‘gentle, good for sailing’
lida æftera lyða lida = ‘gentle, good for sailing’
weodmonath weodmonað weodmonað weed month
halegmonath haligmonað haligmonð month of holy rites (sacrifices, acc. to Martyrology)
winterfylleth winterfylleð winterfylleð winter (moon) waxes, full moon that begins the winter half of the year
blodmonath blodmonað blotmonað month of cattle sacrifices
giuli ærra geola ærra iula giuli = ‘midwinter’
Sources in detail. Bede: De temporum ratione §15. Martyrology: entry for 1 Jan., and headings for Mar., Apr., May, June, July, Aug., Sep., Oct., Nov., and Dec. Menologium: lines 16, 37, 72, 78, 108, 138, 184, 195, and 221. For a reliable translation of the Menologium, see Kazutomo Karasawa’s superb edition (2015).

Some of the month names appear piecemeal in other sources. For example Hlyda — apparently unrelated to Bede’s rhedmonath — continued to be used for ‘March’ into the 17th century (OED s.v. ‘Lide’). And in Bede, the Latin spellings vary from manuscript to manuscript. Rhedmonath also appears as hred-, red-, redh-, and reth-; blodmonath can be blot- (just like in the Menologium); and so on. These variants are simply the result of scribes converting Old English to Latin. For simplicity’s sake we’ll just take one set of spellings as standard.

Months, solstices, and equinoxes

Bede tells us the calendar originally began on the winter solstice.

But they began the year from the eighth day before the Kalends of January, when we now celebrate the Lord’s birthday. And that night, which is sacred to us, they would call by the local name of modranicht, that is, ‘night of mothers’ ... and whenever it was a ‘common’ year, they would assign three lunar months to each season of the year.
Note. Mothers’ night, not mother’s night as it’s often mistranslated (including by Wallis 1999). Shaw and others link Bede’s modranecht to the ‘cult of matrons’ attested by ancient votive inscriptions, addressed to matronae, matres, or matrae, found sparsely around England and copiously on the mainland in the area around Cologne. See Shaw 2011: 41–47; 44–45 on modranecht.

In the Roman calendar, the solstice was traditionally reckoned as occurring on 25 December, eight days before the start of the Roman calendar. As a result, months in the two calendars did not originally line up. At the start of each month there would be an overlap. However, all three sources are happy to equate the Old English names with the Roman names Ianuarius, Februarius, and so on.

Note. For the traditional assignment of the solstice to 25 December in the Roman calendar, see Columella, De re rustica 9.14.12; Pliny, Natural history 18.221; and many later sources (including Bede himself at Reckoning of time §30). On the incorrectness of this date and possible sources, see this piece of mine from 2015, about halfway down.

Each solstice had two months surrounding it going by the same name: December and January were ‘Former Yule’ and ‘Latter Yule’ (Ærra Geola and Æftera Geola in the Martyrology), and June and July were ‘Former Liða’ and ‘Latter Liða’ (Ærra Liða, Æftera Liða). In ‘leap’ years (an embolismus, in Bede’s terminology) there were three months of Liða in a row.

Bede carries on:

Similarly they originally separated the year into two seasons, winter and summer, by assigning the six months with days longer than the nights to summer, and the other six to winter. As a result the month in which the winter period began was called Winterfylleth, the name made up of ‘winter’ and ‘full moon’, since the beginning of winter was marked from the full moon of that month.

The months were lunar, so we cannot assume that all of the solstices and the equinoxes were considered to fall on the first day of a month. Still, it is clear from Bede that the two solstices and one of the equinoxes were linked to particular months: Liða, Geola, and Winterfylleð.

Old English month names in a manuscript of Bede (Brit. Lib., Royal MS 13 A xi fol. 49r, 11th–12th cent.).


‘Yule’, as a name for the season around the winter solstice, is common to several mediaeval Germanic languages in a variety of local forms. The oldest is in a 5th century liturgical calendar in Gothic, as a month name: fruma jiuleis ‘Former Yule’, corresponding in meaning directly to Ærra Geola. Only a single palimpsested leaf survives of the Gothic calendar, but it is the last leaf, so there is no doubt that it, like Ærra Geola in English, was the last month of the year.

Gothic is an East Germanic language, while English is West Germanic, so this could well be a pan-Germanic name. The etymology is uncertain, but some later forms show it had a medial velar fricative: Old English geohhol, geochol, and Finnish (loanword) juhla. Koivulehto (2000) points out that this phoneme suggests an Indo-European origin.

Note. The full Gothic phrase is fruma jiuleis ·l· ‘Former Yule 30’, where ‘30’ could refer to the number of days in the month, or to a regnal year in Theoderic’s reign (i.e. December 522 CE). The palimpsested leaf is bound in a codex in Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana MS S 36 sup., known to scholars of Gothic as ‘codex Ambrosianus A’. Gothic jiuleis has often been misread as ‘July’ or something else; for many decades it was reported that the same line also mentioned November, using its Roman name, until Landau (2006) showed that that reading is completely imaginary.

On the etymology: Koivulehto’s point about the velar fricative rules out Landau’s suggestion of a derivation from Greek Ἰωβηλαῖος, the biblical Jubilee.

The Old English sources and the Gothic calendar show that Yule started out as a season, not a festival, religious or otherwise. Evidence of customary celebrations linked to the name ‘Yule’ only starts to appear in 9th century Norse sources. I’ve discussed this more fully elsewhere. The seasonal name began to be used as a periphrasis for ‘Christmas’ in England as early as the 9th century.

Note. ‘Yule’ = ‘Christmas’ in 9th–10th cent. sources: the law-code of King Alfred, §5.5 (‘he who steals on Sunday, or at Yule, or at Easter ...’), §43 (‘twelve days [rest] at Yule, ... and seven days before Easter ...’); the Old English version of Bede’s History, 4.19 (318,17–18 ed. Miller: ‘she would seldom bathe in hot water, except at the highest festivals and seasons, as Easter and Pentecost and the 12th day after Yule’).
The Old English month names as they appear in the manuscript of the Menologium (Brit. Lib. Cotton MS Tiberius B I, fols. 112r–114v).

Easter and the goddess Eostre

My suggestion is this: Eosturmonað the month was named for the equinox, but that has no necessary bearing on Eostre the goddess.

Let’s look at the goddess first.

Bede’s testimony about Eostre the goddess has often been doubted, starting with Karl Weinhold. In the 19th century he called her ‘an invention of Bede’s’, and many scholars have followed suit. (Weinhold 1869: 52; see further Shaw 2011: 50.)

This scepticism arose in the first place because Bede is tangled in a long-running debate over Jacob Grimm’s reconstruction of a pan-Germanic past. When Weinhold described Eostre as an invention, he was arguing against Grimm, not Bede.

Grimm had proposed that Eostre was the English name for a pan-Germanic goddess which he named ‘Ostara’. In south-eastern Old High German, ostarun meant ‘Easter’ (the Christian festival); the corresponding month in Charlemagne’s calendar was called ostarmanoth; and then there’s Eostre in England. On this slender evidence, Grimm invented a goddess. (Grimm 1835: 180–182; English translation; see further Shaw 2011: 51–52.)

And it is slender. There’s no evidence that Old High German ostar- ever had anything to do with anything pre-Christian.

No evidence, except for its etymology. Linguists normally derive ‘Eostre’ from a Proto-Indo-European root *h2eusṓs ‘east, dawn’. ‘Dawn’ goddesses in several other pantheons have names derived from the same root: Vedic Uṣas, Greek Eos, Latin Aurora, and Lithuanian Aušrinė (see West 2007: 217–227). With that Indo-European backdrop, it’s much easier to treat Grimm’s ‘Ostara’ conjecture as feasible.

But that assumes the goddesses are derived from a pan-Indo-European goddess. It’s much more likely that only their names come from a Proto-Indo-European word. The goddesses have nothing in common except their etymology. Uṣas has no similarity to Eos; Eos has no similarity to Aušrinė; we know nothing at all about Eostre and Aurora. Divine names in different pantheons don’t typically have names that are linguistically cognate — Zeus/Jupiter and Hestia/Vesta are exceptions, not the rule.

Shaw makes the compelling point that it’s especially difficult to treat Eostre as a ‘dawn’ goddess when Old English uses *ēast exclusively as an adverb, never as a noun (2011: 57). That is: Old English *ēast- didn’t mean ‘dawn’, it meant ‘easterly, eastward’.

Based on this, and based on a review of East- place names and personal names in Old English and Middle English, Shaw proposes (2011: 49–71) that Eostre was a local goddess, linked especially to Kent. Bede calls her Eostre, not Eastre, because Kentish sometimes used eo- spellings. Outside England, the only links Shaw finds plausible are to the matronae Austriahenae that appear in 2nd-3rd century votive inscriptions found near Cologne.

I find Shaw’s approach compelling, and well grounded in real evidence. I also wholeheartedly support his prioritising localised evidence ahead of Grimm’s reckless speculations about pan-Germanism.

Easter and the ‘eastward’ equinox

Shaw dismisses the idea of Eostre as a ‘spring goddess’ (2011: 55). I agree — in regard to Eostre as a goddess. But Eosturmonað as a month is a different matter.

Remember Bede’s outline of the calendar: two months of Geola surround the winter solstice; the months of Liða are midsummer; and Winterfylleð gets its name from the dividing line between summer and winter, that is, the autumn equinox.

That outline leaves a conspicuous hole at the spring equinox.

The months of the Old English calendar in relation to the solstices and equinoxes. The upper half of the diagram is Bede’s six-month summer season, the lower half is his winter season; Geola and Liða stand at the solstices.

Just to repeat, I’m not suggesting Eostre was a ‘spring goddess’. Only that, if Winterfylleð was effectively named after the autumn equinox, then there’s good reason to suspect that Eosturmonað as a month name had a comparable relationship to the spring equinox.

Shaw’s linguistic evidence shows that eostur- was a directional adverb: it meant ‘eastward’, not ‘dawn’. (Sunrise happens every day anyway, so it’d be strange to think dawn is specific to a time of year.)

But the direction of sunrise is linked to the time of year. If you’re in the northern hemisphere, from April to September the sun rises to the north; from October to March it’s to the south. But at the equinoxes, no matter where in the world you are, sunrise occurs exactly due east.

Shaw’s own linguistic evidence indicates that the most natural meaning of ‘Eosturmonað’ is ‘eastward month’. We know it marked a part of the year when sunrise is exactly eastward. It’s hard to imagine that’s a coincidence — especially when we have Bede telling us that the calendar was framed around the solstices, and that the other equinox has a month named after it.

There’s a cost to this interpretation: the link to the goddess Eostre. If the equinox fully explains the month name, and I think it does, then where does the goddess fit in? Maybe Bede’s right, and Eostre did have a festival in April. Or maybe she didn’t: maybe Bede knew of the goddess, and he knew the month name, and he assumed that one was caused by the other. Shaw has made a very compelling argument in favour of Eostre the goddess, but I think a name like ‘eastward month’ raises real questions about its relationship to the goddess.

The main consideration in favour of an Eostre festival in ‘eastward month’ is that Bede says the previous month, Hredmonað, was also named after a goddess. I won’t pretend to have a full answer for the relationship between the month and the goddess. But the meaning ‘eastward month’, and its position opposite Winterfylleð in the calendar, can’t be a coincidence. I suspect Eosturmonað was named more for the equinox than for the goddess.


  • Grimm, J. 1835. Deutsche Mythologie, 1st edition. Dieterichsche Buchhandlung (Göttingen). [Internet Archive link]
  • Karasawa, K. 2015. The Old English metrical calendar (Menologium). D. S. Brewer (Cambridge).
  • Landau, D. 2006. ‘On the reading and interpretation of the month‐line in the Gothic calendar.’ Transactions of the Philological Socety 104.1: 3-12. [Wiley link]
  • Miller, T. 1890–1898. The Old English version of Bede's Ecclesiastical history of the English people. N. Trübner and Co. (London).
  • Sermon, R. 2008. ‘From Easter to Ostara: the reinvention of a pagan goddess?’ Time and mind 1: 331–343. [Taylor & Francis link]
  • Shaw, P. A. 2011. Pagan goddesses in the early Germanic world. Eostre, Hreda and the cult of matrons. Bristol Classical Press.
  • Wallis, F. 1999. Bede: the Reckoning of time. Liverpool University Press.
  • Weinhold, K. 1869. Die deutsche Monatnamen. Verlag der Buchhandlung des Waisenhauses (Halle). [Internet Archive link]
  • West, M. L. 2007. Indo-European poetry and myth. Oxford University Press.

Friday, 26 March 2021

Drugs and the Mysteries of Eleusis

Were initiates in the Mysteries at Eleusis high on LSD? Another book making this claim came out in September 2020: The immortality key, by Brian Muraresku. It’s a bestseller. Does his argument hold up?

No, it doesn’t. And it’s not even close. The ‘drugs at Eleusis’ theory isn’t based on any evidence at all. It was invented by Carl Kerényi in 1960. Three things fed into it:

  1. A difficult passage in Plato about the sacred objects, or deiknumena, shown to initiates at Eleusis.
  2. A 14th century argument about whether Christians get to go to heaven straight after dying.
  3. Kerényi taking two phrases associated with the above things, conflating them, and mistranslating a key word in Plato.
Barley, not LSD, was the most important ingredient of an ancient Greek energy drink or kykeon.

Pour yourself a whisky, and strap in. For a straightforward and accurate account of Eleusinian initiation, I recommend Michael Cosmopoulos’ 2015 book (see references, bottom). Here’s a quick list of corrections to some widely-believed myths.

  • There’s no evidence of life-changing rapturous ecstasies at Eleusis.
  • There’s no evidence of psychedelic drugs at Eleusis.
  • More generally, there’s no evidence for ancient Greek religious use of any mind-altering substance, except alcohol.
  • Initiation at Eleusis was a long, complex process that took more than a week. It didn’t consist of one ritual drink.
  • The ritual drink was a fairly commonplace porridge. Its role is almost certainly because it came at the end of a day of fasting. It was loaded with religious symbolism, but in practical terms there’s no need to imagine it as anything except an energy drink for hungry people.
  • Ergot fungus, the main candidate for the psychoactive ingredient in the drink, is toxic: it can cause convulsions, vomiting, diarrhoea, and stroke. Long-term, it can cause gangrene and death. Using ergot to make LSD is extremely difficult and requires many processes and chemicals that ancient Greeks definitely did not have access to, including diethylamine and pure hydrazine (the latter is very explosive).
  • Pennyroyal, another candidate, can also be toxic. Enough pennyroyal to cause an effect on the mind is also likely to cause death.

Mainstream scholars usually don’t like talking about the ‘drugs at Eleusis’ myth, because it’s exhausting. There’s no effective way to engage with an endless deluge of speculations, and myths repeated as truths, because the deluge never has to stop.

That style of argument is known as a ‘Gish gallop’, after the creationist debater Duane Gish. In Muraresku’s case, the strategy is to bring up sources and real archaeology; ask leading questions, so as to generate a speculative ‘maybe’; then treat that as ‘there is evidence’. A draught of wine and nightshade mentioned in Dioscorides, and one with juniper found at Tel Kabri in Israel, become evidence for LSD in a specifically non-alcoholic drink at Eleusis.

Once you get past the leading questions and the spurious parallels — as well as Muraresku’s adulation of ‘Western civilization’ and ‘our Greek ancestors’ — the theory boils down to one key premise. Eleusinian initiates had a life-changing ‘beatific vision’. Everything flows from that.

Except ... where does the premise come from?

The beatific vision isn’t in any ancient source. Kerényi invented it.

Kykeon ingredients selected from two different recipes in the Iliad and the Hymn to Demeter. Note: be CAREFUL with this recipe, especially if you’re pregnant. Pennyroyal has a nice fresh flavour, but as little as 5 grams (3/16 oz) can be toxic. (Source: YouTube)

Darkness and light

The main perk of becoming an initiate in the Mysteries was access to the afterlife. Uninitiated people could expect oblivion after death; initiates were given secret knowledge, saw secret sights, and knew secret routes and passwords that would guide them into the ‘meadows of Persephone’. This is the context for two references in Pindar and Sophocles that Muraresku cites (Pindar, fr. 137 Schroeder; Sophocles, fr. 837 Radt = fr. 753 Nauck).

Kerényi and his followers reinterpret that secret knowledge as a life-changing ‘beatific vision’ caused by hallucinogens. The main justification for this is a passage in Plato’s Phaedrus, 250b–c (Muraresku mistakenly cites the Phaedo).

In justice, moderation, and all other things precious in souls, there is no shine in their [earthly] images. Few people approach their likenesses, and when they do, it is through dark [ἀμυδρῶν] senses and with difficulty ... At one time people were able to see brilliant [λαμπρόν] beauty, a blessed sight and spectacle — we did it following Zeus’ train in a blessed procession; others, some other god — and they witnessed and celebrated rites that we rightly call the most blessed ... the sights we were initiated to and observed were perfect, simple, unshakeable, and blessed, in clear light [αὐγῇ καθαρᾷ] ...

Plato isn’t exactly clear. But the central themes here are sight, and light: ‘dark senses’, ‘brilliant beauty’, ‘observing’ things ‘in clear light’.

Plato’s darkness and light imagery will be familiar to anyone who has read his allegory of the Cave in Republic book 7. Darkness symbolises the material world (‘dark senses’); light symbolises philosophical truth (‘brilliant beauty’). But as well as that, literal darkness and light played an important role in Eleusinian initiation.

The gathering hall greater Propylaia, or gateway, to Eleusis as it appears today.

On the sixth night of the initiation, initiands were guided into the gathering hall in total darkness — possibly blindfolded. It seems their guides jostled them around with a fair amount of noise. Some of what happened in the hall was kept secret, but we do know that after a period of stumbling in the dark, the presiding hierophant rang a gong, and the hall or part of it was suddenly lit up. The hierophant (‘someone who shows the sacred’) then showed sacred things, the so-called deiknumena (‘things shown’) to the initiands, while participants surrounded the hall holding hundreds or perhaps thousands of blazing torches. Full initates were epoptai ‘observers’, people who had seen the secret deiknumena.

Here’s a passage from Plutarch, written half a millennium later, that uses similar imagery (On the soul fr. 178 Sandbach).

First there’s wandering and wearisome running around, and a sort of journey through darkness, which is scary and unending [ἀτέλεστοι also means ‘uninitiated’] ... after that there’s an encounter with a kind of wondrous light, and a welcome into open spaces and meadows, with voices and dances and the solemnities of sacred sounds and holy images ...

Here we’ve got the darkness, the light that appeared at the hierophant’s signal, and the deiknumena appear as ‘sacred sounds and holy images’. ‘Open spaces and meadows’ refers to the heavenly afterlife that initiates expect. Mystical texts from Thurii and Pherai, probably dating to the 4th–3rd centuries BCE, paint heaven as a ‘meadow of the blessed’ or ‘the sacred meadows of Persephone’ (Orphic gold tablets L8 and L13: see Bernabé and Jiménez San Cristóbal 2008: 95–98, 151).

Hail, hail; take the path to the right
towards the sacred meadows and groves of Persephone.

‘Beatific vision’: ancient Eleusis and 14th century Christianity

The main reason Kerényi and Muraresku cite the Phaedrus passage above is the word phasmata (φάσματα). Kerényi translates it as ‘“ineffable” and “holy” “Phantoms”’ (1967: 99; the three words come from three different ancient writers!). These ‘phantoms’ are the basis for his idea of ecstatic visions.

Now, in the right context, phasmata could mean ‘phantoms’. But literally it means ‘things shown’. The pha- root is the same as in ‘hierophant’, a ‘person who shows sacred things’.

In other words, the phasmata are yet another reference to the sacred deiknumena. And that’s exactly how they’re treated by more recent specialists, like Cosmopoulos (2015: 23: ‘sculptures illuminated’), Yunis (2011: 151, ‘sacred objects suddenly in view’), and Waterfield (2002: 34, ‘things shown to us’).

But the whole mess wasn’t caused just by the word phasmata, all by itself. Kerényi was also misled by another phrase in the same passage: ‘blessed sight and spectacle’ (μακαρίαν ὄψιν τε καὶ θέαν). By now you’ll realise that that’s yet another reference to the deiknumena.

Kerényi, though, translates it as ‘beatific spectacle and vision’, and argues that it’s parallel to a phrase used in mediaeval Christianity: visio beatifica. ‘Beatific vision’ and ‘phantoms’, taken together, are the origin of the claim that Eleusinian initiation involved a hallucinatory experience.

He was wrong about visio beatifica too. We know, absolutely for certain, that the mediaeval Christian visio beatifica didn’t have anything to do with hallucinations, because their ‘beatific vision’ wasn’t something you experience while you’re still alive: it’s after death. The phrase emerged from a debate in the 1320s–1330s, the so-called ‘Beatific Vision Controversy’, about whether virtuous Christians get to go to heaven and behold God’s divine essence straightaway after dying, or whether their souls have to wait until the Last Judgement.

There’s a subtle difference in how heavenly bliss was articulated before and after the Controversy. Before, in Thomas Aquinas, heavenly bliss was expressed as a ‘beholding of the divine essence’ (visio divinae essentiae) (Summa theol. I-II Q.3 A.8). The Controversy produced a doctrine that the act of beholding, in and of itself, was the thing that made you blessed. So before, heavenly bliss was transitive: there had to be a thing that you were looking at, and it was that thing that was ‘beatifying’ (beatifica). Afterwards, heavenly bliss was intransitive, a state of being.

While the Controversy was underway William of Ockham (yes, the famous Ockham, of ‘Occam’s Razor’) wrote a tract called the Compendium of Pope John XXII’s errors, still using Aquinas’ phrasing: ‘beholding of the divine essence’. Heavenly bliss consisted of ‘seeing God, or the beholding of God’ (videns Deum vel visio Dei). Still all transitive.

The key logical shift came in a tract written by his opponent John Lutterell, Against the doctrine of William of Ockham, §6 (Hoffman 1959: 12).

non requirit obiectum visibile essentialiter ... igitur visio beatifica potest esse obiecto beatifico absente ...

It does not in and of itself require a visible object ... Therefore beholding (visio) can be beatifying (beatifica), in the absence of an object that beatifies (beatifico).

In 1334, just before Pope John XXII’s death, the Controversy was resolved with a formula that united both perspectives (Otto 1930: 228).

quod sanctorum anime exute et purgate sunt in celo, celorum regno et paradiso, cum Christo, angelorum consortio aggregate, videntque Deum et divinam essentiam, facie ad faciem, clare, secundum statum et conditionem separationis ipsarum, quam visionem credo fore beatificam.

For the souls of the saints are shriven and cleansed in heaven, in the kingdom of heaven and Paradise, with Christ, and are joined with the fellowship of the angels; and they behold God and the divine essence, face to face, clearly, according to the state and condition of their separation, which I believe will be a beatific vision.

It took a while for the new phrase visio beatifica to catch on. Pope John XXII’s sermons, which started the controversy, don’t use the phrase; neither does another tract by Lutterell, in spite of its title: the Letter about the beatific vision (Epistula de visione beatifica) — it obviously got its title later after the dust had settled. Shortly after the Controversy finished, Petrarch was already mingling the transitive and intransitive notions of ‘beatific vision’: he writes in a letter in 1336 about ‘the beatific vision of God, in which the consummation of human blessedness consists’ (beatifica visione Dei in qua consummata felicitas hominis consistit; Ep. familiares 2.12.9).

The long and short of it is that the actual meaning of visio beatifica is irrelevant for Kerényi and Muraresku. They just want a phrase that can be reinterpreted as ‘hallucination’. The mediaeval visio beatifica was a subtle point about whether it’s God, or vision in and of itself, that beatifies the dead saints; Plato’s ‘blessed sight and spectacle’ is a reference to the sacred deiknumena.

The kykeon

Just a short note about the kykeon, the ritual drink that was supposedly the vehicle for the hallucinogens. Kykeon was a general term that literally means ‘mixture’, from the verb root kyka- ‘stir’. It wasn’t unique to Eleusis. It genuinely had a role in the Mysteries, at the end of the day of fasting on the sixth day. But there’s no indication that it had any unusual effect or that its ingredients were treated in any special way. It was linked to the fasting by a ritual formula ‘I fasted, I drank the kykeon’ (Clem. Alex. Protrept. 2.21).

The defining ingredient of a kykeon was barley meal, well-suited to rites involving Demeter. Two Homeric lists of ingredients (Il. 11.624–641, Od. 10.234–236) also include honey, wine, and goat cheese. The version used at Eleusis contained pennyroyal and expressly did not contain wine (H. Dem. 206–209).

Its appeal for the hallucinogen theory is that two sources link it to the word pharmakon ‘remedy, drug’. Hipponax fr. 39 West calls a kykeon a ‘pharmakon for wretchedness’; and in the Odyssey, Circe puts ‘harmful pharmaka’ in a kykeon that she serves to Odysseus’ men, designed to make them forgetful so that she can turn them into animals. In Hipponax the pharmakon is curative; in the Odyssey it’s clearly magical, but it and the kykeon itself are clearly separate things, and it has nothing to do with anything we hear about Eleusis.

The most common function attested for kykeons is medical, as a curative and refreshing draught (Delatte 1955: 28–29). In that capacity it was eminently suitable for initiands after a day of fasting. A scholion on the Iliad recipe is especially clear about this function: it observes that cheese and barley were considered to encourage phlegm production, wine was good for bloodflow, and onion was a diuretic; then states (sch. B on Il. 11.624)

The drink isn't given for medical treatment, but for refreshment. After all, Nestor drinks it too. The kykeon is suitable for people with ailments, since it provides both nourishment and drink at once.


Thanks to Mischa Hooker (@pseudepigraphon) for pointing out the ‘blessed spectacle’ in the Plato passage.


For a concise, up-to-date overview of initiation at Eleusis, see Cosmopoulos 2015: 14–24 (which supersedes older overviews by Mylonas and Burkert). On the kykeon, see Richardson 1974: 344–348; Rinella 2012: 85–87. On the role of light and darkness in the initiation rite, see Clinton 2003, 2004.

  • Bernabé, A.; Jiménez San Cristóbal, A. I. 2008. Instructions for the netherworld. The Orphic gold tablets. Brill.
  • Clinton, K. 2003. ‘Stages of initiation in the Eleusinian and Samothracian Mysteries.’ In: Cosmopoulos, M. B. (ed.) Greek Mysteries. Routledge. 50–78.
  • Clinton, K. 2004. ‘Epiphany in the Eleusinian Mysteries.’ Illinois Classical Studies 2: 85–109 (JSTOR link).
  • Cosmopoulos, M. B. 2015. Bronze Age Eleusis and the origins of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Cambridge.
  • Delatte, A. 1955. Le cycéon. Breuvage rituel des Mystères d’Éleusis. Les belles lettres.
  • Hoffmann, F. 1959. Die Schriften des Oxforder Kanzlers Iohannes Lutterell. St. Benno-Verlag (Leipzig).
  • Kerényi, C. 1967 [1960]. Eleusis. Archetypal image of mother and daughter. Trans. R. Manheim. Princeton. First publ. as Eleusis. De heiligste mysteriën van Griekenland, 1960; orig. text first publ. as Die Mysterien von Eleusis, 1962.
  • Otto, H. 1930. ‘Zum Streite um die visio beatifica.’ Historisches Jahrbuch 50: 227–232 (DigiZeitschriften link).
  • Richardson, N. J. 1974. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Oxford.
  • Rinella, M. 2012. Pharmakon. Plato, drug culture, and identity in ancient Athens. Lexington Books (Lanham, MD).
  • Waterfield, R. 2002. Plato. Phaedrus. Oxford World’s Classics.
  • Yunis, H. 2011. Plato’s Phaedrus. Cambridge.