The food of the gods

Our mortal life and death, our health and sickness, are bound up with what we eat and drink. If the gods are exempt from death and disease, it is because they are nourished by special aliments not available to us. That they do not eat or drink human food is stated explicitly in Greek and Indian texts. 'For they do not eat cereals, they do not drink red wine; that is why they are without blood, and known as the Deathless Ones' (Il. 5. 341 f.). 'The gods, of course, neither eat nor drink. They become sated by just looking at this nectar' (Chandogya Upanisad 3. 6. 1, trs. P. Olivelle). The doctrine is partially preserved in the Edda: 'on wine alone the weapon-lord Odin ever lives' (Grimnismal 19); 'he needs no food; wine is to him both drink and meat' (Gylf. 38).

The Vedic gods, as we have seen, are amrtah, literally 'non-dying', and their food is designated by the neuter of the same word, amstam (e.g. RV 3. 26. 7; 6. 44. 16; 9. 70. 2, 110. 4; 10. 123. 3). It was secondarily identified with soma, the intoxicating yellow juice offered to the gods in Indo-Iranian cult; but soma was a material reality, present on earth as well as in the world of the gods, whereas amstam was a mythical entity. There is a rarefied echo of its status as divine food in the Gathas, where Zarathushtra says to Ahura Mazda 'Thou hast both wholeness [i.e. perfect health] and deathlessness (amaratatah) for nourishment' (Y. 34. 11).

The Greek word that corresponds exactly to amstam (*n-mr-to-m) is a/ porov. We do not find this used by itself of the divine food, but we find a/ porov etSap (Hymn. Ap. 127, Aphr. 260), which should not be understood as 'immortal food' but as 'food of non-dying'.126 It is alternatively called an pooiov . . . etSap or d/ pooin, 'ambrosia'. It is a nice detail that it can

126 In the same way the phrase an pora revxea, used of the armour that the gods gave to Peleus (Il. 17. 194, 202), must originally have meant 'armour of non-dying, invincible armour'. Apollo in 16. 680 anoints Sarpedon's body with ambrosia and wraps it in an pora ei/ara, a relic of a version in which he was granted immortality.

be fed to the gods' horses; they too need to be immortal. Mithra's steeds likewise 'are immortal, having been reared on supernatural food (mainyus.xvarsda)'.127

Ambrosia is often coupled with veKrap 'nectar', which in Homer is consistently liquid, though other poets occasionally speak of the gods eating it.128 According to a widely (though not universally) accepted etymology, the word is to be analysed as *neß-trh2, 'getting across (i.e. overcoming) (premature) death'. This has some support in Vedic idiom, where the verb tar is used of overcoming obstacles and opponents, including in one passage death: AV 4. 35. 1 tarani mrtyum, 'I will overcome death'.129

Where do the gods obtain their wonderful food that is inaccessible to us? Circe tells Odysseus that ambrosia is brought to Zeus by a flight of doves from a remote source beyond the Clashing Rocks. One of the birds is always caught by the rocks as they slam together, but Zeus supplies another to make up the number.130 We recognize here a version of the widespread folk-tale motif that the elixir of life is located on the far side of a narrow portal that closes behind the traveller to prevent his return, so that one might get to the elixir but not bring it back to the world of men.131

According to Indian texts too the divine Soma was difficult to get at. It was 'enclosed between two golden bowls. At every twinkling of the eye they closed shut with sharp edges' (SB 3. 6. 2. 9). In another account it had in front of it 'an iron wheel with a honed edge and sharp blades, which ran incessantly, bright like fire and sun, the murderous cutting edge for the robbers of the Elixir'; and behind the wheel were two large and fearsome snakes keeping guard over the precious fluid (MBh. 1. 29. 2-6).

In the Rigveda there are many allusions to the story that the Soma was brought to Indra from the furthest heaven by an eagle or falcon. In the most

127 II. 5. 369, 777, 13. 35; Yt. 10. 125, trs. Gershevitch; the parallel noted by Durante (1976), 55.

128 The texts are inconsistent about whether ambrosia is eaten or drunk. See West (1966), 342.

129 P. Thieme in Schmitt (1968), 102-12; Schmitt (1967), 46-8, 186-92; id. in Mayrhofer et al. (1974), 155-63; Gamkrelidze-Ivanov (1995), 721 f.; Watkins (1995), 391-3; Bader (1989), 192 n. 5; R. Lazzeroni, La cultura indoeuropea (Rome-Bari 1998), 9, 65-8, 70-5. Criticized by E. Risch, Gnomon 41 (1969), 325.

130 Od. 12. 62-5. There are traces of related ideas elsewhere in Greek poetry. Euripides, Hipp. 748, imagines 'ambrosial springs' in the far west, by Atlas and the Hesperides; pace Barrett, he surely means something more than divine water-springs. Moiro, fr. 1. 3-6 Powell, describes the infant Zeus being nourished in the Cretan cave on ambrosia that doves brought to him from Oceanus and on nectar that an eagle brought him from a rocky source.

131 E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture (4th edn., London 1903), i. 347-50; P. Friedländer, Rh. Mus. 69 (1914), 302 n. 2; A. B. Cook, Zeus (Cambridge 1914-40), iii(2). 976-9; Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (Helsinki 1932-4), F 91. 1, 152. 2, 156. 4.

explicit account the Soma's guardian Kreanu shot an arrow at the bird and sheared off one of its tail feathers—an analogue of the one dove from the flight that gets caught in the Homeric myth.132 According to the Avesta (Y. 10. 10-12) the Haoma (which corresponds to the Indian Soma) was first planted on the cosmic mountain Haraiti and then carried by birds to other more accessible mountains.

In other countries the divine nourishment was conceived in different forms. I have quoted the testimony that Odin did not eat but only drank wine (vin); in earlier tradition his beverage was probably called ale or mead. I have referred also to Goibniu's ale, clearly a different brew from any obtainable at your regular Irish Pub, that made the De Danann immortal and exempt from old age and disease.

In other Irish sources these blessings are conferred by certain berries that grow in the Land of Promise, or on an island in a loch, guarded by a dragon.133 In Nordic myth the gods keep themselves from ageing by eating certain apples which are in the custody of the goddess Idunn.134 These fruits recall the golden apples of Greek myth that grow in the garden of the Hesperides in the far west (where Euripides locates the ambrosia springs) and are guarded by a great serpent. Heracles' acquisition of them may once have been an essential step in his attainment of immortality.135

There is a further parallel in Ossetic legend, which tells of a tree on which golden life-giving apples grew. They were regularly stolen by three doves that carried them overseas. The tree's guardian shot an arrow at them, and succeeded in wounding one of them, but it escaped all the same.136 This is clearly another version of the Indic and Greek myth of the bird or birds that fetch the ambrosia for the chief god but suffer loss in the process.

There are various stories of how the elixir was stolen from the gods by some interloper and then recovered. Here again the bird motif plays a recurrent part. Near the start of the Mahabharata (1. 23-30, cf. Rm. 3. 33. 33 f.) there is

132 RV 4. 27. 3 f., cf. 9. 77. 2; Hillebrandt (1927-9), i. 289-93. Other Vedic passages: RV 1. 80. 2, 93. 6; 3. 43. 7; 4. 18. 13, 26. 4-7; 5. 45. 9; 6. 20. 6; 8. 82. 9, 100. 8; 9. 68. 6, 86. 24; 10. 11. 4, 144. 4. In Apollonius Rhodius (2. 571-3, 601, following Asclepiades of Tragilos, FGrHist 12 F 2, 31) the Argonauts release a dove to test the state of the Clashing Rocks, and it has its tail feathers cut off as it passes through; the ship itself loses the tip of its stern.

133 S. H. O'Grady, Transactions of the Ossianic Society 3 (1855), 113 f.; ballad from the Dean of Lismore's Book, ed. T. McLauchlan (Edinburgh 1862), 54 f.; J. A. MacCulloch (as n. 112), 54 f., 131.

134 Thiodolf, Haustlgng 1-13; Gylf. 26; Skaldsk. G56, 22. In Skirnismal 19/20, where Skirnir offers a giant's daughter 'eleven' golden apples, Grundtvig attractively emended the pointless ellifo into ellilyfs, 'of medicine for age', a word used of Idunn's apples in Haustlgng 9 and Skaldsk. 22.

135 See M. P. Nilsson, The Mycenaean Origin of Greek Mythology (Berkeley 1932), 214.

136 Sikojev (1985), 12; cf. Colarusso (2002), 13-15, 50 f., 183.

an elaborate narrative telling how Garuda, the mighty king of birds, captured the Soma on behalf of the Snakes, but Indra got it back before the Snakes could drink more than a little of it. In the Norse myth the giant Thiazi, taking the form of an eagle, carries Idunn off, apples and all. The gods begin to grow old and grey, until she is recaptured by Loki, flying in the form of a falcon. Another tale (Skaldsk. G58) concerns 'Odrreri's Drink', the special mead, made from honey and the blood of the omniscient Kvasir, which inspires poets: not an elixir of life or youth, but still a divine, magical tipple. The dwarfs who created it were forced to surrender it to the giant Suttung. Odin inveigled his way into Suttung's daughter's bed; she allowed him to drink up the stored liquor, and he then escaped in the form of an eagle. Here the bird who obtains the precious fluid is the chief god himself. This in turn recalls a story related in the Yajurveda (Kahaka 37. 14). The amrtam was in the possession of the demon Susna and the Asuras, so that when death came to the Asuras they revived, but when it came to the Devas they died. This unsatisfactory state of affairs was put right when Indra, in the form of a falcon, stole the vital juice.137

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