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 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.

Thursday, 25 February 2021

Final Fantasy VII and the Carmina Burana

I’m having a slow start to 2021, so here’s a minor piece as a warm-up.

Latin has a bunch of uses in popular culture: it isn’t just for depicting ancient Romans. It regularly suggests the sacred, or alternatively the demonic; it’s the language of magic. That’s all cliché, with no basis in history, but still, looking at popular culture you might well imagine angels and demons had Latin as their native language, or that the Romans accidentally set off magical fireballs every time they had a conversation.

Estuans interius ira vehementi — Sephiroth!

Final Fantasy VII is a classic video game from 1997. At the end, the player and their allies confront the villain Sephiroth in the form of an angelic being with one wing. The soundtrack, ‘One-winged angel’ (a.k.a. ‘Katayoku no tenshi’) by Nobuo Uematsu, is a fan favourite that has been recycled many times in Sephiroth’s various reappearances.

The track has choral singing — something very unusual for games of that era — and it’s in Latin:

estuans interius
    ira vehementi.
Sephiroth! Sephiroth!
sors immanis
    et inanis.
veni, veni, venias,
    ne me mori facias.
gloriosa! generosa!
Boiling inwardly
    with violent rage.
Sephiroth! Sephiroth!
Fate, (you are) monstrous
    and vain.
Come, come, please come,
    don’t make me die!
Glorious maiden! Noble maiden!

The lyrics are taken from Carl Orff’s famous setting of the Carmina Burana for orchestra and choir (1935–1936). (Except for Sephiroth’s name, of course.) The original Carmina Burana is a collection of over 200 poems from 11th–13th century Germany; Orff selected two dozen poems for his setting, then Uematsu chose his lines from Orff’s selection.

Each line is taken from a different movement in Orff’s piece, but they more or less make sense: the lines work well enough for Sephiroth — except that ‘glorious’ and ‘noble’ are feminine. And the context is ... different. Orff’s version isn’t angelic or demonic in tone. It’s bawdy.

No, I mean it. We’re talking ‘there ought to be age restrictions’ bawdy. We’re talking ‘musical depictions of erections and orgasms’.

In the original, the line estuans interius / ira vehementi isn’t about divine rage. Orff’s title for the section is in taberna, ‘at the pub’. It’s a man describing his loss of control as he gets more and more drunk. Sors immanis is at least genuinely about fate: that’s taken from one of the non-bawdy poems.

The last two lines come from a string of poems which, in Orff’s selection, narrate a sexual encounter between a man and a woman. veni, veni, venias, / ne me mori facias (‘come, come, please come, / don’t make me die’), from movement 18, isn’t about literal death, it’s sexual: ‘Get a move on, don’t let me get blue balls.’ Movement 20, ‘Tempus est iocundum’ (which Uematsu doesn’t use, alas!), has a man describing his excitement and his erection (o o o, totus floreo ‘I am bursting out all over’). Then in number 21, ‘Dulcissime’, the soprano soloist has an orgasm and cries out to her lover. And after that we get the gloriosa, generosa! movement.

That is to say, these lines are a man first asking his lover to begin a sex act, then praising her afterwards.

Kind of casts a different light on Cloud’s relationship with Sephiroth.

Sephiroth, the ‘one-winged angel’, as depicted in Final fantasy VII: remake (2020)

Uematsu’s musical setting has its own appeal, but unfortunately it doesn’t match the natural stress patterns of the Latin and the mediaeval verse. Uematsu’s setting is martial, with an anapaestic rhythm — dit-dit-DAH, dit-dit-DAH (est-uans / in-te-rius / i-ra ve-/he-men-ti). The Latin poems are trochaic, a DUM-de DUM-de rhythm (es-tu-/ans in-/teri-/us, / i-ra / ve-he-/men-ti).

As a re-/sult almost / ev’ry syl-/lable has / the wrong stress.

Here’s the original context of the lines. Make sure to click on the links in the headings to check out how they sound in Orff’s setting (sung by the Shin Yu-Kai Choir).


estuans interius
ira vehementi
in amaritudine
loquor meae menti:
factus de materia,
cinis elementi
similis sum folio
de quo ludunt venti. ...
Boiling inwardly
with violent rage,
in bitterness
I talk to myself:
made of matter,
elemental ash,
I am like a leaf
on the wind. ...
1 and 25. O FORTUNA

... sors immanis
et inanis,
rota tu volubilis,
status malus,
vana salus,
semper dissolubilis ...
... O Fate, (you are) monstrous
and vain,
you whirling wheel,
made to be evil!
Health is useless
and always fading ...

veni, veni, venias,
veni, veni, venias,
ne me mori facias,
hyrca, hyrca, nazaza,

pulchra tibi facies,
oculorum acies,
capillorum series,
o quam clara species! ...
Come, come, please come,
Come, come, please come,
don’t make me die;
hyrca, hyrca, nazaza,

Beautiful is your face,
the gaze of your eyes,
the braids of your hair.
O how bright is your beauty! ...

ave formosissima,
gemma pretiosa,
ave decus virginum,
virgo gloriosa!
ave mundi luminar,
ave mundi rosa,
Blanziflor et Helena,
Venus generosa!
Hail beautiful woman,
my precious gem!
Hail pride of maidens,
glorious maiden!
Hail light of the world,
hail rose of the world:
Blanchefleur, Helen,
Venus! noble one!
Sephiroth’s ‘Super nova’ attack gets ready to summon a rogue planetoid from the Empyrean.

Incidentally, there’s a bit more Latin in the game. When Sephiroth uses his ‘Super nova’ attack, there’s an extraordinarily long animation (2 minutes) showing a rogue planetoid smashing through the solar system and causing the sun to expand. It opens with a diagram of ‘Aristotelian’ cosmology, with COELVM EMPIREVM HABITACVLVM DEI ET OMNIUM ELECTORVM around the outside.

The image comes from a 16th century book: Petrus Apianus (Peter Apian) and Gemma Phrysius (Gemma Frisius), Cosmographia, Antwerp: Arnoldo Berckmāno (1539), fol. 5. It isn’t really Aristotle: it’s influenced by Aristotle, but the text around the outside — ‘Fiery heaven, residence of God and all the elect (saints)’ — is a very Christian reinterpretation.

Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Top posts of 2020

I’m well aware how lucky I am to have been living in New Zealand in 2020. Still, I’ve had multiple personal reasons why much of 2020 has been an annus horribilis anyway. This year has had some bright spots — the astounding speed of the vaccine development, the continuing decline of fossil fuels, the reappearance of Boba Fett and Luke Skywalker — but not enough to make up for the bad.

Now, at last, 2020 is hindsight. Good riddance.

This is not how the ancient Greeks discovered the shape of the earth.

Visits to Kiwi Hellenist this year have been evenly split between 2020 articles and older ones. So this year, this list is a combo: the old and the new.

  1. The Epic Cycle wasn’t as popular as you think (10 Feb.). Fans of the Trojan War legend tend to idolise the Epic Cycle. I pretty much agree. Unfortunately, the ancients didn’t feel the same way. They just didn’t read the poems. Most ancient understanding of them was filtered through prose versions, like myth encyclopaedias.
  2. An oldie: Why are there no Romans named ‘Quartus’? (Apr. 2018). I’m guessing people are still reading this piece because, it seems, it’s the only article on the internet that covers the question. Names like ‘Marcus’, ‘Quintus’, ‘Sextus’, and ‘Decimus’ come from month names (March, Quintilis, Sextilis, and December). The first four months of the early Roman calendar didn’t have number names, so there are no personal names corresponding to those numbers.
  3. Stripping myths down to a historical core (part 1) (29 Jun.). This piece was more popular than its follow-up in July — maybe because of its focus on the fact that Troy was never lost (despite what Schliemann wants you to think), or maybe because part 1 was headed by Total War: Troy imagery. There’s also a timeline here of the ‘battle of Bunarbashi’, as Rachel Davies has called it (and again, my piece seems to be the only place on the internet you’ll find such a thing). By the way, I was grateful to be allowed to contribute a condensed version of this — omitting Schliemann but including Euhemerus (from part 2) — to the SCS blog in October, under the title ‘Truth behind myth: video games and the recreation of the Trojan War’.
  4. Detecting the earth’s curvature (23 Jan.). I loved writing this one, so I’m glad people enjoyed it. The key points: (1) Ships going over the horizon are not how the earth’s shape was discovered. (2) The discovery came from astronomical observations. It was probably partly to do with the angle between the plane of the ecliptic and the plane of the celestial equator.
  5. Lucian’s parody of the book of Revelation (31 Aug.). Again, this was fun to write, partly because it seems so clear-cut to me, and partly because it seems to be poorly known, and poorly accepted. Modern observers are weirdly resistent to recognising the parody, even though it’s such a close parody, even though Lucian had every opportunity to read Christian texts, and even though it’s clear he was totally unaware of the traditional Jewish motifs that Revelation was drawing on.
One thing that happened this year was a major new game, Hades (not related to the Disney film above), which has been extremely well received. I’m pondering a piece on it for early next year.
  1. Another oldie: Who preserved Greek literature? (Part 1) (Dec. 2019). This was late in 2019, so it’s unsurprising that it continued to get some hits into 2020. It took me six months to write its sequel ...
  2. Who preserved Greek literature? (Part 2) (12 Jun.). Part 1 made the point that we don’t rely on mediaeval Arabic transmission at all for modern editions of ancient Greek texts, except in very sparse cases. Part 2 gives the true story. Both parts emphasise that the false narrative is strongly flavoured with prejudice against Byzantine Greeks and racism against modern Greeks. It strikes me that it seems to go hand-in-hand with the myth that modern Greeks aren’t descended from the ancient Greeks: Spencer Alexander McDaniel gives an excellent debunking of that myth here. Yes, I do think it’s that blatantly racist. The myth about modern Greek ethnicity isn’t a quirk of the 19th century. I’ve heard it in person from living classical scholars in Cambridge (‘They’re all Balkan immigrants anyway, aren’t they?’), and it’s a major component in scholars’ resistence to modern Greek pronunciation. Some of the responses to Spencer’s piece on Quora are spine-chilling.
  3. Two oldies occupy the 3rd and 2nd places. First, Shanties in Assassin's Creed: Odyssey (Jan. 2019), giving a transcription of the sea shanties sung by the ship’s crew in this hit game. I imagine the popularity of this article will start to decline once the next good Assassin’s Creed game comes out.
  4. The other oldie is Salt and salary: were Roman soldiers paid in salt? (Jan. 2017). This piece has been a hit for years — mostly, I’m guessing, because a couple of relevant Wikipedia articles have links to it. As of this year, it is now my most heavily visited piece of all time.

But that still wasn’t enough to beat this piece from 2020 —

(drum roll)

  1. How to make sense of ancient Greek colours (20 May). This topic is under a consistent barrage of misinformation, so I’m glad to help out in the huge task of repairing the damage. So much gets said on this topic by people who can’t be arsed to learn languages. Yes, the ancient Greeks could see blue. Yes, they had words for it. The misunderstanding comes from the fact that English suffers from disuse of terms for distinct parts of the blue side of the spectrum. English-speakers routinely assume that any well-designed colour terminology ought to have the same lack of distinctions.

The top three articles account for 54% of all visits.

And now, on to 2021. May the memories of 2020 fade quickly. But may we not forget those whose lives were lost because of politicians’ apathy.