Greek MythologyMythology

Ambrosia – Basic Characteristics

This term shows up fairly regularly, and its not always clear what it’s referring to. To be clear, it’s not that bizarre thing from the southern US that people call ‘ambrosia’. In Greek Mythology, Ambrosia, is the food of the gods, usually mentioned in conjunction with nectar.  We don’t actually know what it IS, beyond that. Some scholars think it refers to a kind of honey, others to a kind of mushroom. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s some kind of liquid, from the way its used to anoint or coat at various points. We don’t even know where it comes from. It’s just always sort of…there. In one myth it came from the horn of the goat who nursed Zeus as a baby (the other horn had nectar), but that’s the only origin I’ve seen for it.

But what we do know, or what we can piece together from a slew of myths, is its various properties. It’s not just sustenance. Being of the gods, it’s also able to confer immortality. Pindar’s Olympian 1 refers to it, and nectar as being responsible for Tantalus’ immortality. “[60] a fourth toil after three others, because he stole from the gods nectar and ambrosia, with which they had made him immortal”. In some versions, this is also what Thetis did with Achilles (Argonautika 4.869-879).

It’s also a preservative of some sorts, being applied to bodies in various myths to prepare them. As well, it’s a cleanser. Whether this refers to cleaning in a physical sense or a more metaphorical spiritual sense, isn’t clear, but Hera used it to cleanse herself  “With ambrosia first did she cleanse from her lovely body every stain, and anointed her richly with oil, ambrosial, soft, and of rich fragrance; (Illiad 14:170)

In some manner, the gods need it. In the Homeric hymn to Apollo, ambrosia is what gives Apollo strength after his birth

“Now Leto did not give Apollo, bearer of the golden blade, her breast; but Themis duly poured nectar and ambrosia [125] with her divine hands: and Leto was glad because she had borne a strong son and an archer. But as soon as you had tasted that divine heavenly food, O Phoebus, you could no longer then be held by golden cords nor confined with bands, but all their ends were undone. [130]”

And not having it is regarded as a punishment. Part of the punishment for breaking a Styx-vow was “ and never come near to taste ambrosia and nectar, but lie spiritless and voiceless on a strewn bed:”(Theogony 795). It’s not clear precisely what benefit they derive from it

It also tastes and smells extremely sweet.

References

Hesiod. The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Theogony. Cambridge, MA.,Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914. Theogony, line 795

Homer, (theoretically) The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Theogony. Cambridge, MA.,Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914. Homeric Hymn to Apollo, line 125

Homer. The Iliad with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, Ph.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1924. Book 14, line170

Pindar. Olympian One, line 60

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