The Dedication of Delphoi
The obols of Delphi were seen by Herodotos, but they had disappeared by the time of Ploutarchos, who reports that the guides pointed out the spot where they used to be. It has been suggested that their disappearance may be explained by the information that in 355 B.C., during the Sacred War, Onomarchos melted down the bronze and iron offerings of Delphoi in order to manufacture weapons.
As to appearance and form of the obols of Delphoi we learn only that they were many and that they were pressed together. They cannot have been very different from the bundle found at the Heraion.
Herodotus (II, 135) saw the obols behind the altar which the Chians dedicated, opposite the actual shrine. This phrase can refer to a single place, the north side of the altar of the Chians, since objects placed there would be in front of the temple and at the same time would appear behind the altar to those who came to the temple terrace. Those who ascend to the temple by the Sacred Way at the very end walk along the east side of the altar of the Chians; as they turn the north-east corner of the altar they come to the terrace. At this point they would see the obols and a coule of steps later the façade of the temple. Ploutarchos (Oracles at Delphoi, 400 F) states that after we passed the treasure-house of the Akanthians and of Brasidas, the guide showed us the place where there used to be the obols of the courtesan Rhodopis. Much has been written about this passage, because the archaeologists have been unable to locate the mentioned treasure-house. It has been suggested by some scholars that it had disappeared because of a collapse of the ground; others have claimed that the topography of Plutarch is imaginary.
This took place because archaeologists did not take the trouble to follow Ploutarchos step by step. Ploutarchos placed himself in the same position as Herodotos, at the end of the Sacred Way, just before turning left around the altar of the Chians. The latest investigator has identified the treasure-house of the Akanthians and of Brasidas with a building placed on the line bisecting the north--east angle of the altar, east of Phryne’s statue.
The location of the obols was well remembered in the age of Plutarch, possibly 450 years after their disappearance, because the place where they used to be was occupied by a stele honoring King Eumenes II of Pergamon for having established a festival in honor of Athena Nikephoros. Nobody has noted that Athena Nicephoros is the same person as the Rhodopis who consecrated the obols. Rhodopis, Rosy Face, is the nickname of the courtesan Nitocris, mentioned elsewhere by Herodotus and by other ancient writers. As I shall show, this Nitocris was in reality a queen of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty of Egypt. When in about 663 B.C. the princes of Sais in the Nile Delta established themselves as kings of Egypt, initiating the Twenty-sixth Dynasty, the goddess of Sais, Nit, acquired major importance in Egypt. Nit was a fertility goddess and a war goddess who stood by the king of Egypt in the battlefield; she is the anthropomorphic rendering of the arrow as a totem. The Greeks identified her with Athena: Plutarch (Isis and Osiris, 354 D) speaks of Athena of Sais. The name Nitocris is a theophoric name, Nt-yqrty, meaning Nit is excellent in Egyptian; since Nit is supposed to give victory to the Egyptian army, the notion of Nit is triumphant was rendered into Greek as Athena Nicephoros, Athena who brings victory. Pseudo-Eratosthenes states that in the VI Dynasty there reigned instead of a man, a woman, Nitokris, which means Athena Nikephoros.
The importance of the obols was such that a great number of monuments erected by powerful political figures were placed in the narrow area facing them on the other side of the Sacred Way. There there was placed the statue of the courtesan Phryne whose legendary biography has many points in common with that of the courtesan Nitocris. The name Phryne referring to the frog rana rubeta, is also a nickname indicating a reddish complexion; etymologically the word is connected with the root of the English brown. In the same area there was located also the so-called Vegetal Column which, as I shall show, has to do with the reason why the obols were set up at Delphi by the Egyptian royalty. In no other area of Delphi are the monuments so closely clustered.
I may add that the obols are a standard of the metric system adopted by Delphoi, which is the reduced system, the same system embodies by the obols of the Heraion. This metric system, as I shall have occasion to show, had a fundamental importance for the economy of Chios and her export of wine. This metric system was also the main expression of Chios’ political independence. Hence there is a theoretical possibility that the altar in front of the temple, next to the obols, had been offered by the Chians for a specific reason. The metric system of Chios is connected with the practice of not completely filing wine jars. According to St. Epiphanios the wine jar based on this principle was invented by the people of Sais in Egypt.
2. The obols were said to be the offering of Rhodopis, Rosy Face.
The most important source of information about Rhodopis is the narrative of Herodotus. The information he collected derives from Delphi, but he tried to check it in Egypt, and for this reason he discusses it in his account of the Third Pyramid of Gizah.
The information collected by Herodotus at Delphi is presented by him as follows:
Herodotus does not accept a most important detail mentioned by other authors, namely, that she became the wife of Psammetichus I of Egypt, the founder of the XXVIth Dynasty. For this reason Herodotus concludes that she could not have accumulated a fortune sufficient to build a great pyramid. In this he contradicts the tradition according to which Rhodopis was the most fortunate of women; this tradition gave origin to the proverbial expression, kai Rhodopis hê kalê, and even the beautiful Rhodopis, meaning that all mortals, even the luckiest ones, are at the mercy of fate. Herodotus believed that Rhodopis, wishing to leave a memorial (mnêmeion) of herself by dedicating something that nobody else ever thought of dedicating, had the roasting spits manufactured and dedicated them as the tithe of her gains as a courtesan. But he observes that she cannot have been as rich as it is claimed, since the tithe of her wealth was a bundle of obols. Herodotus knew that the obols were used as money, but did not understand that they were set up at Delphi as a metric standard. Possibly he misunderstood as tenth or tithe (dekatê) a reference to the fact that the reduced system is based on units that are 1/10 less than the basic ones.
The fact that Herodotus does not mention the important detail that Rhodopis was the wife of King Psammetichus I of Egypt is to be explained by the political circumstances of the time. He ignores this detail even though some of the stories he reports about Egyptian monuments imply the identity of Rhodopis with Nitocris, wife of the god Amon at the temple of Thebes and wife of Psammetichus I. Despite its decisive defeat of the Persian foe at Salamis in 479 B.C., Athens remained in a state of war with Persia for another 30 years. In the years preceding the peace treaty with Persia known as the Peace of Callias (448 or 447 B.C.) the Athenians were giving support to Egyptian revolts which aimed at overthrowing Persian rule and establishing a national dynasty. The visit of Herodotus to Egypt can be dated around the peace of Callias. Some say that a Greek could not have been allowed to visit Egypt before this peace, whereas others claim that because Herodotus was a citizen of Halicarnassus on the coast of Asia Minor, which was under Persian rule, could have been allowed to enter even earlier; but the positive datum is that he describes an Egypt under solid Persian domination, a condition that did not exist as late as 449 B.C. Herodotus saw the dried bones of the soldiers fallen in the battle of Papremis (459 B.C.), in which the Libyan prince Inaros, the ally of the Athenians, defeated the Persian army. It is therefore clear that Herodotus collected his information at Delphi when the national revolt of Egypt was still a vital issue in Greek politics. At that time the sanctuary of Delphi, which was pro-Persian and anti-Athenian, did not want to stress its relation with the cult of Amon at Thebes which was the rallying point of national resistance in Egypt.
In classical times there were two national oracles in Greece: that of Apollo at Delphi, connected with Sparta and oligarchic politics, and that of Zeus at Dodona, connected with Athens and democratic politics. At the sanctuary of Dodona, which the Athenians favored as the national oracle as a counterpoise to Delphi, Herodotus got a story biased in the opposite sense. He was told by the very priestesses of the oracle that its origin must be ascribed to two black doves that flew from the oracle of Amon at Thebes.
One of them alighted at Dodona, the other in Libya. The former, perched on an oak, and speaking with a human voice, told them that there, on that very spot, there should be an oracle of Zeus. Those who heard her understood the words to be a command from heaven, and at once obeyed. ... The people who gave me this information were the three priestesses at Dodona ... and their account is confirmed by all the other Dodoneans who have any connection with the temple.
Obviously at the time the pro-Athenian oracle of Dodona aimed at connecting itself with the oracle of Thebes and with the oracles of Zeus Amon in Libya, which must have been linked with the party of the Libyan rebel Inaros. At the moment in which Delphi was glossing over its connections with the cult of Amon at Thebes, Dodona, for the opposite political reasons, was assuming the existence of sacred relations with the cult of Amon at Thebes and in Libya.
The political events of Egypt colored the information Herodotus collected in Greece, but seem also to have colored the information he collected in Egypt. Herodotus was at Thebes only for a brief visit; this can be deduced from the fact that he missed some important and obvious data. He stopped at the religious center of Egypt on a dashing voyage he made from Memphis, where he saw the Pyramids, to the island of Elephantine at the First Cataract; his data about the time of navigation suggest that he travelled on some official ship going at full speed to the Persian military station of Elephantine, which, as we know from the Elephantine papyri, was guarded by Hebrew mercenaries.
In his short visit to Thebes of the hundred gates Herodotus made it his business to inquire about what he had been told at Dodona. He found that the procedures of divination at Thebes and at Dodona resemble each other (II, 58). He does not say in which way they did resemble; certainly he did not have access to the temple and the oracle, which could be approached and consulted only by the highest officials on matters of state. Concerning the story of the doves, he was told by the priests of the Theban Zeus that it was a matter of two priestesses of Amon
who were carried off by the Phoenicians and sold, one in Libya and the other in Greece, and it was these women who founded the oracles in the two countries. I asked the priests at Thebes what grounds they had for being so sure about this, and they told me that a careful search had been made for the women at the time, and that though it was unsuccessful, they had afterwards learned that the facts where just as they had reported them.
The amazing element in this piece of narrative is that Herodotus was given a rationalization of the beliefs of Dodona which had been formulated in Greece; at Dodona the voice of Zeus which was originally uttered by doves (peleiai), in the fifth century came to be uttered by priestesses called peleiadês, a term explained as meaning old women. This means that the Egyptian priests were well acquainted with Greek beliefs and provided the Greek visitors with stories fitting their intellectual background.
The information collected by Herodotus at Thebes is an example of the kind of data he collected in Egypt. Access to reliable information was not easy because Egypt, except for periods of chaos, was a country closed to foreigners. Since the Egyptians thought of foreigners as inferior beings, these entered Egypt mainly as slaves and prisoners of war in periods of imperialistic expansion. The isolation of Egypt continued even when it became part of the Roman Empire; Egypt was placed apart from the rest of the Roman provinces and access to it was highly restricted. I presume that at the time of Herodotus no Greek, with the exception of mercenary soldiers, could normally enter Egypt beyond the trading post of Naukratis which was very close to the sea. It is certain that Herodotus never had any contact with the common people of Egypt. He never saw an Egyptian eat because the Egyptians had standards of dietary purity as strict as those of the Hebrews; he states: No Egyptian, man or woman, would kiss a Greek on the mouth, or use the knife, the roasting spits, or the cauldron of a Greek, or even eat the meat of a non-contaminated ox if it had been cut with a Greek knife (II, 41). This report agrees with what is said in the biblical story of Joseph: Because the Egyptians cannot eat bread with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination to the Egyptians (Gen. 44:32). Herodotus never saw any Egyptian except for official contacts; otherwise he could not have made the statement that the Egyptians simply do all things upside down (II, 35) and have given examples (II, 35-36) that have nothing to do with reality.
Egypt was throughout ancient history a highly policed state. From the biblical story of Joseph one gathers that it was particularly spy conscious (Gen. 42: 9-34) and that interpreters were planted among foreigners to observe them (Gen. 42:23). It is not very likely that in a period subsequent to a violent revolt against Persian rule, supported by Greek forces, a Greek would have been allowed to roam freely in Egypt so as to have contacts with common people. In substance Herodotus was in the condition of visitors to the Soviet Union in the time of Stalin.
The only information Herodotus collected was given him through interpreters at the temples. Herodotus specifically states that Psammetichus I, upon allowing the Greeks to settle at Naukratis in Egypt, sent them some young Egyptians to be instructed in the Greek language, and that from these learned the language the interpreters who are in Egypt today. We know that it was a standard practice of the Egyptian state to keep a body of scribes highly trained in foreign languages, as it is best of all documented by the Akkadian records of the royal archives of Tell el-Amarna. The question as been considered in detail in relation to the biblical story of Moses, and it has been suggested that possibly Moses was chosen to be trained as a bilingual scribe.
The text of Herodotus suggests that he got his information from these interpreters. Since these interpreters were the followers of the interpreters of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty, it is likely that they had sympathy for the Egyptian national cause and, hence, even under Persian rule gave Herodotus information likely to gain the favor of the Greeks for the national cults of Egypt, which were the centers of anti-Persian resistance. The Egyptian interpreters were well informed about Greek customs and ideas, but must have not had great respect for the critical judgment of Greeks, since at Thebes the priests told Herodotus that the historian Hekataios had boasted with them about his divine ancestors, and at Memphis the priest affirmed that they had learned from the very mouth of Menelaos that when the Greeks took Troy they did not find Helen, because she was in Egypt. Only once Herodotus concludes that sport was being made of him, when he was instructed about the sources of the Nile by the secretary of the sacred property of Athena at the Temple of Nit at Sais. Herodotus remarks that the interpreters of his own time had learned Greek from the interpreters trained in the age of Psammetichus I, that is, about two centuries earlier. This remark may imply that the interpreters spoke an archaic Greek. This seems confirmed by the fact that the stories told about Nitocris-Rhodopis assume a misunderstanding of the three words oikêma, pallakê, and hetaira. The words literally mean house, abode, building, young woman in attendance and companion, but they were understood by Herodotus as brothel, prostitute, and courtesan.
The process of gradual deterioration of the meaning of words is a well known phenomenon of linguistics. In a number of European languages the words used to describe a bawdy house originally meant simply a house; for instance the term brothel originally meant a house made of boards. Quite often the word for woman or girl acquires the meaning of prostitute, as for instance, the Spanish puta and the Italian putta (Latin puella). Herodotus understood the word pallakê, elegantly applied to a female slave of the god, or hierodule as having the commoner meaning of prostitute. The main element of the story of Nitocris-Rhodopis is that the word hetaira applied to the female companion of the king was understood as courtesan.
One could say that we contradict ourselves by assuming that the interpreters at the temples told stories that would enlist Greek sympathy and thereby were subtly anti-Persian. But the political situation with which the Persians had to cope is revealed by the papyri of Elephantine. In order to close the southern border of Egypt the Persians had to rely on Hebrew mercenaries; from the Bible we know of the particular devotion of the Hebrews to the Persian Empire. In 410 B.C. nationalist Egyptians led by the local divinity attacked the Hebrew community and destroyed the temple of Yahweh. In spite of the fact that this was an anti-Persian act, still three years later the Persian governor could not be persuaded to allow the reconstruction of the temple, obviously because the Persians had to play a tactful policy with the Egyptian priesthood.
The clearest datum in the Greek tradition about Nitocris-Rhodopis is that she married King Psammetichus I of Egypt. Egyptologists have identified the Nitocris of the Delphian obols with the daughter of Psammetichus whose name is Nitocris; but a close examination of the data indicates that the Nitocris of the obols is the wife of Psammetichus who became the adopted mother of his daughter Nitocris.
In order to understand the data it is necessary to review the pertinent historical events in Egypt. Since the Twenty-sixth Dynasty the priests of the Temple of Amon in Thebes tried to dominate the king though their control of the oracle of Amon that was the national oracle of Egypt consulted on matters of state. As a result of the struggle for power between the priests of the oracle and the king, the Divine Votaress of Amon acquired the determinant role in the dynastic succession. The Divine Votaress is the first of the hierodoules of Amon, the head of his harem, and as such she has the position of legitimate wife of the god. She is referred to as wife of the god, and as worshipper of the god, or divine votaress. Her title is rendered by Diodoros as pallakis Dios, since Amon was identified with Zeus. The rendering is perfectly correct, provided pallakê is understood as young woman in attendance, hierodoule, not as inmate of a brothel. The power of the Divine Votaress changed from period to period, but at times she used the title of King, claiming to be the legitimate ruler of Egypt, at least from the religious point of view. Often she would take the title of Daughter of the Sun-god, counterpart of the highest title of the king, Son of the Sun-god. Several kings, in order to legitimize their position, contracted marriage with her and she is referred to as King’s wife. But since she is the wife of the god and as such a virgin, the rights of the god were preserved by having the Divine Votaress adopt the king’s daughter. This procedure also achieved the result of providing the Divine Votaress with a daughter and a successor, since the sexual relation with the god of the Divine Votaress and the other hierodoules consisted in their dancing and playing the sistrum before the statue of Amon.
The Greeks of the classical period had difficulty in understanding the nature of political marriages without sex. Herodotus (II, 181) relates that King Amasis of Egypt, having entered into a treaty of friendship with the Greek colony of Cyrene in Libya, married a daughter of the King of Cyrene; he wonders whether he did so because he liked to have a Greek wife or also because he wanted to be friendly with the city of Cyrene. He reports that a charm prevented Amasis from having sexual intercourse with his Greek wife, whereas this was possible with the other wives, and that the Greek wife finally broke the spell with the help of Aphrodite. Perhaps, also the story that the Athenian grandee Megacles broke his political alliance with Peisistratos, the tyrant of Athens, because the latter, having married Megacles’ daughter, refused to have normal sexual intercourse with her (I. 61), is based on a similar misunderstanding.
In a future study of the Odyssey we shall deal in detail with the relations of the kings of Lydia with Psammetichus of Egypt and his successors and shall explain how these relations had a triangular aspect involving the Greeks and the sanctuary of Delphi. The stories told about the Kings of Lydia have come to us in part through Delphi and show contaminations with the story of Nitocris-Rhodopis. Here I shall point out that the Kings of Lydia legitimized their position by contracting a religious marriage with the Nymph Gygaia. On the shore of the Gygaian Lake there were the tombs of the Kings of Lydia, which are conical and somewhat resemble the pyramids. The Greeks understood that the Third Pyramid of Gizah was the tomb of Nitocris-Rhodopis and they called this pyramid tomb of the hetaira, understanding that Nitocris-Rhodopis had built it as a memorial with the profits of her prostitution which she performed there. Similarly the tomb of Alyattes, the third king of Lydia, was known to the Greeks as pornês mnêma, memorial of the prostituted slave. Herodotus (I, 93) claims that it was built by the work of prostitutes. From Herodotus one gathers also that the story of the prostitution was told also about King Cheops and the First Pyramid. A similar story must have circulated in relation to Gyges, the first king of Lydia, because the historian Xanthos in his history of Lydia related that Gyges was the first to castrate women. Since the Divine Votaress was an asexual wife of the King of Egypt, the Greeks understood that her position of hetaira meant that she was a prostitute and that the sacred area next to the statue of Amon in which she lived was a brothel.
The area of Sudan between the First and Fourth Cataracts of the Nile, which the Greeks called Ethiopia, had been penetrated by Egyptian civilization through the agency of the cult of Amon. A second Temple of Amon had been built at the capital, Napata, near the Fourth Cataract. It seems that this temple was the main center of Egyptian penetration; for the rest of the country the Egyptians had limited themselves to the exploitation of mines. In the chaotic period of the eighth century B.C., the priests of Amon took the momentous decision of abandoning Thebes and transferring their seat to the Temple of Amon at Napata. This greatly contributed to the growth of the power base of the princes of Napata. Around 751 B.C. there came to the throne at Napata a King Piy, the son of a King Kashta, who had acquired the royal title by causing his daughter Amenardis to be adopted by the Divine Votaress. Piy conquered Upper Egypt and claimed to be the King of Egypt, establishing the Twenty-fifth Dynasty, known as the Ethiopian Dynasty. These kings of Egypt, however, kept Napata as the main seat of their government and used the Divine Votaress, installed in Thebes, as a sort of viceroy for Egypt. For a short period Piy dominated also Lower Egypt and was recognized as the King of Egypt there; he and his successors tried to establish their authority in Egypt by stressing their pious devotion to the gods of the country. Around 701 B.C. the throne came to be occupied by two sons of Piy and brothers of the Divine Votaress Amenardis; it seems that one of the brothers, Shabataka, played a minor role and the power fell to the other brother, Taharka. Taharka was at Napata, but was called to Egypt by Shabataka because he loved him more than all his brothers, as an inscription states. Having become King, Taharka had to fight other pretenders to the throne of Egypt and the advance of Assyria into Egypt.
As a young man Taharka had led an Egyptian army that had tried to oppose the Assyrian conquest of the kingdom of Judah. When Taharka was trying to come to the rescue of Jerusalem, besieged by King Sennacherib of Assyria, the Assyrian army was totally destroyed in some miraculous way; according to the Bible (2 Ki 19:35) the army was destroyed by the angels of Yahweh, whereas according to Herodotus (II. 141) it was destroyed by an invasion of rats sent by the god of the King of Egypt. Not long his return, Sennacherib was murdered while praying in a temple by two of his sons, who smashed his skull with the votive statues. In the aftermath of these events Taharka killed his brother and made himself King of Egypt.
In his struggle with Assyria, Taharka’s fortunes oscillated between victory and defeat. His moment of glory came in the aftermath of the disaster suffered by Sennacherib’s army and the murder of the Assyrian king. Taharka was able not only to get complete control of Egypt; he extended his power into Asia, forging an alliance with Tyre on the Phoenician coast. But his success was of short duration. Esarhaddon, Sennacherib’s son and heir, assumed the throne, pursued his brothers, and then moved to re-establish Assyria’s shattered authority. I besieged, I captured, I plundered, I destroyed, I devastated, I burned with fire, wrote Esarhaddon. I hung the heads of the kings upon the shoulders of their nobles and with singing and music I paraded. He moved against Tyre, whose king had put his trust in his friend Taharka, king of Ethiopia. He threw up earthworks against the city, captured it, and made a vassal of its king Ba’lu. He also marched into the desert where serpents and scorpions cover the plain like ants. Having ensured the safety of his rear and flank along the roads to Egypt, he moved his army south. In the tenth year, the troops of Assyria went to Egypt, records an Assyrian chronicle.
From the town of Ishupri as far as Memphis, his royal residence, a distance of fifteen days’ march, I fought daily, without interruption, very bloody battles against Taharka, king of Egypt and Ethiopia, the one accursed by all the great gods. Five times I hit him with the point of my arrows, inflicting wounds from which he should not recover, and then I laid siege to Memphis, his royal residence, and conqurered it in half a day by means of mines, breaches, and assault ladders; I destroyed it, tore down its walls, and burned it down.
Whether Taharka was really wounded in this campaign, or whether the Assyrian king’s account should be read as standard Assyrian boasting, Taharka survived and fled up the Nile. But Esarhaddon captured Taharka’s queen, his children, the women of his palace, as well as horses and cattle beyond counting, and all this he sent as booty to Assyria. The identity of the captured queen is not given.
All the Ethiopians I deported from Egypt, leaving not even one to do homage to me. Everywhere in Egypt I appointed new kings, governors, officers. Esarhaddon continued along the Nile towards the Sudan (Ethiopia). From Egypt I departed, to Ethiopia (Melukha) I marched straightway. None of the existing inscriptions gives details of this part of the campaign; we only know that Taharka fled for his life, with the Assyrian king in hot pursuit. Summing up the campaign of his tenth year, Esarhaddon wrote: I conquered Lower Egypt, Upper Egypt and Ethiopia. Taharka, its king, five times I fought with my javelin, and I brought all of his land under my sway, I ruled it. But only a few years passed and Taharka, having regrouped his forces, reemerged from Ethiopia and once more took possession of Egypt. Esarhaddon put his army on a rapid march.
I am powerful, I am all-powerful, I am a hero, I am gigantic, I am colossal... I am without an equal among all kings, wrote Esarhadon. He died after a reign of less than twelve years. In the twelfth year the king of Assyria went to Egypt, fell sick on the road, and died... narrates a chronicle of his reign. The throne passed to his son Assurbanipal.
The sudden death of Esarhaddon had given a respite to Taharka, and for a number of years the Ethiopians ruled unopposed. Taharka, without permission of the gods, marched forth to seize Egypt... wrote Assurbanipal. The evil treatment which my father had given him had not penetrated his heart... He came and entered Memphis. That city he took for himself. The Assyrian-appointed kings appealed for help: I was walking round in the midst of Nineveh, recounts Assurbanipal, when a swift courier came and reported to me. And my heart was bitter and much afflicted. There and then Assurbanipal vowed to make the greatest haste to aid the kings and governors, my vassals.
In the year 667 B.C. a great army was assembled and set out on the road to Egypt. With furious haste they marched. They besieged Memphis, Taharka’s temporary capital, and inflicted a decisive defeat on the Ethiopian army. When the news reached Taharka in his residendce inside the city, terrible fear struck him. He made up his mind to flee: To save his life in a ship he sailed; his camp he abandoned and fled alone. For the second time Tirhaka retreated up the Nile to Thebes, while the Assyrians took Memphis together with the ships of the Ethiopian fleet. A messenger of good tidings hastily returned and told me It took but ten days for the Assyrian army to reach Thebes—but the elusive Taharka was nowhere to be found. He had abandoned Thebes, and established himself in a fortified place on the other side of the river, biding his time. The Assyrians re-established their governors in Egypt; but no sooner was the Assyrian army gone, than the governors sent messengers to Taharka with a secret message: Let brotherhood be established among us, and let us help one another; we shall divide the land into two, and among us there shall not be another lord. The reason that we know the text of this message is that it was intercepted by Assyrian agents, and later recorded by Assurbanipal in his annals: An officer of mine heard of these matters and met their cunning with cunning. He captured their mounted messengers together with their messages, which they had dispatched to Taharka, king of Ethiopia. The Assyrian reaction was characteristically swift and decisive: The governors were arrested, bound in chains, and set to Nineveh to face the wrath of Assurbanipal. A wave of savage reprisals followed in the cities of Egypt. The Assyrians put to the sword the inhabitants, young and old... they did not spare anybody among them. They hung their corpses from stakes, flayed their skins, and covered with them the wall of the towns. As for the arrested governors, all save one were put to death on reaching Nineveh. The one who survived was Necho, whom Assurbanipal chose to be sent to administer Egypt: And I, Assurbanipal, inclined toward friendliness, had mercy upon Necho, my own servant, whom Esarhaddon, my own father, had made king in Kar-bel-matate (Sais). The king of Assyria secured Necho’s allegiance by an oath more severe than the former. I inspired his heart with confidence, clothed him in splendid garments, laid upon him a golden chain as the emblem of his royalty... Chariots, horses, mules, I presented to him for his royal riding. My officials I sent with him at his request. This Necho became the first king of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty. He reigned just over a year before he was killed by the Ethiopians who once more had gained control of Egypt; his son, Psammetichus fled to Palestine and sought Assyrian protection. Herodotus says that afterwards, when the Ethiopian departed by reason of what he saw in a dream, the Egyptians of the province of Sais brought him back from Syria. The Ethiopian left Egypt not so much because of a dream, but because of Assurbanipal’s army. Herodotus’ wording is so awkward because his Egyptian informants were loath to admit that Egypt had been subjugated by the kings of Assyria, and that the Twenty-sixth Dynasty of Sais had been established by force of Assyrian arms.
About the time of the rebellion of the Egyptian governors Taharka disappears from the pages of history. Assurbanipal in his annals alludes to Taharka’s death: the night of death overtook him, without further explanation. The Assyrian king would have used a different expression had Taharka died in battle. His successor on the throne of Ethiopia was his nephew, for he left no sons (it will be recalled that Taharka’s family had been captured by Esarhaddon at Memphis, and led away to Assyria).
The throne of Egypt passed to the Twenty-sixth Saite Dynasty. In order to legitimize their succession the Saite kings had to link themselves to the line of the Divine Votaresses of Amon. Kashta had caused his daughter Amenardis to be adopted by the Divine Votaress Shepnupet I, the daughter of King Osorkon of the preceding Bubastite Dynasty. During the kingdom of Taharka the Divine Votaress was his sister Shepnupet II—the Nitocris-Rhodopis who dedicated the obols of Delphi.
In 663 B.C. Psammetichus, prince of Sais, succeeded in freeing Lower Egypt from Assyrian domination and expelled the Ethiopians from Upper Egypt. In order to formalize his power in Upper Egypt and claim the title of King of Egypt (Twenty-sixth Dynasty), Psammetichus caused Shepnupet II to adopt his daughter Nitocris. Through a process that I shall explain below, the personality of this Nitocris was caused to merge with that of Shepnupet II, her adopted mother.
The stele of adoption, which is preserved, indicates that the adoption involved a delicate dynastic problem, since Shepnupet II already had a daughter and successor, having adopted Amenardis II, daughter of her brother Taharka.
The inscription presents Psammetichus as saying:
Lo, I have now heard it being said, a King’s-daughter of Taharka, of blessed life, is there whom he gave to his sister as Great Daughter, and she is there as Votaress of the God. I am not one to expel an heir from his place, for I am a king who loves truth, my particular abomination is lying… Hence I give her [Nitocris] to her as Great Daughter, as her father [once] gave her to his sister.
Psammetichus claims that he does not intend to dethrone the Votaress Shepnupet II and her Great Daughter Amenardis II, and seems to imply that he is appointing only a second Great Daughter; but since this would put Nitocris in a secondary position, not only to Shepnupet but also to Amenardis, he claims to be repeating the operation performed by Shepnupet’s father, Piy, when he appointed Shepnupet II. And in fact Nitocris becomes Wife of the God: He has given his beloved eldest daughter Nitocris, whose beautiful name is Shepnupet, to be the Wife of the God, to play the sistrum before Amon’s beautiful face. Since there can only be one Wife of the God, the personality of Nitocris is merged with that of her adopted mother and she takes the name of Shepnupet.
The fact that Nitocris became Wife of the God herself is explained by this piece of legalistic double talk:
Now, afterwards when she [Nitocris] came to the votaress of the God Shepnupet, she saw her, was satisfied with her, and loved her beyond everything. She conveyed to her the estate which her father and her mother had conveyed to her and to her Great Daughter Amenardis, King’s daughter of King..., of blessed life. It was put into writing concerning them, saying: We have given to thee all our property in field and town. Thou abidest upon our throne, abiding and enduring forever and ever.
The rest of the inscription contains the inventory of the estate, indicating that the form of transference of property was used in order to put Nitocris in the role of Wife of the God. Shepnupet remains on the throne, but her functions are exercised by Nitocris who takes the name of Shepnupet.
The merging of the personality of Shepnupet II with that of her adopted daughter Nitocris was achieved by letting Nitocris take the name of Shepnupet, but it must also have been achieved by letting Shepnupet take the name of Nitocris. The inscription states that Psammetichus’ daughter was Nitocris in Upper Egypt and Shepnupet in Lower Egypt: The daughter of the king of Upper Egypt, Nitocris, comes to the abode of Amon so that he may take her and join with her; the daughter of the king of Lower Egypt comes to Karnak so that the gods may sing her praise. Psammetichus’ daughter is named Shepnupet only in Lower Egypt, since in Upper Egypt there was already a Shepnupet. It seems that Psammetichus aimed at uniting the cults of Upper and Lower Egypt. Hence it is likely that Shepnupet II took the name of Nitocris in Lower Egypt. In substance there was the following scheme of relations:
The personalities of Shepnupet and Nitocris were merged into one by the device of the identity of names and by the transfer of Shepnupet’s estate to Nitocris. It is possible that it was in order to avoid confusion that one began to refer to Shepnupet II as the black one.
As we know most directly from her statues, Shepnupet II was a black woman with features that today would be considered central African. This appears clearly in a statue in the Sidney Museum; the same features are even more evident in the statutes of two brothers of hers, one of which is King Taharka. The bronze complexion of Shepnupet-Nitocris gave origin to the nickname Rhodopis, Rosy Face.
That the color of Queen Nitocris was considered her most important characteristic is indicated by an entry in Manetho’s list of Egyptian kings, preserved by Eusebius: There reigned the woman Nitocris, more valiant and more beautiful than anyone else, having golden hair and a red complexion. It may be either that Shepnupet had hair of a reddish tinge or that somebody reasoned that, if her face was reddish, the hair would be reddish too. Snowden, who has made a special study of the classical terminology applying to blacks, reports that they were referred to by terms such as rubens.
Strabo reports that the Third Pyramid was known as the tomb of the hetaira and had been built by Rhodopis’ lovers. Suidas calls it the Rhodopis tomb. According to Strabo it was covered up to the middle with a black stone which is much more expensive and harder to work than that used to cover the other two Pyramids of Gizah, a stone that comes from the mountains of Ethiopia. That the stone is an important element in the legend of Rhodopis is indicated by the story that Herodotus tells the about the First Pyramid.
Herodotus, too, states that the Third Pyramid that the Greeks erroneously ascribed to Rhodopis is built up to the middle of Ethiopian stone. Strabo explains that this is the stone from which thyiai are made. Below I shall explain that the reason for which the Egyptians became interested in Delphi was the presence there of a grove of thyia trees which produce sandarac, a reddish resin; Dioscorides and Galen, in speaking of sandarac, say that the stone thyia comes from Ethiopia. the divinity of Delphi was Thyia and Rhodopis came to be confused with her.
Herodotus relates a tale of incest and suicide about the daughter of Mycerinus, the builder of the Third Pyramid: Mycerinus conceived a passion for his daughter and violated her, and distress at the outrage drove her to hang herself. Speaking about Nitocris as a separate person, he tells that she avenged the death of her brother whom his subjects had murdered and forced her to succeed, ending her life by jumping into an room full of ashes. These passages can be explained as a reference to the Egyptian custom by which those recognized by certain marks as the followers of Seth (Typhonians to the Greeks) were burned alive, after which their ashes were scattered. The color of Seth was red, and red skin and red hair were considered marks of Seth. Red animals were burned as followers of Seth.
The Greeks understood that Rhodopis committed incest with her brother. The tradition that Rhodopis and Aesop were Thracian has to do with the circumstance that Rhodopis was identified with Mount Rhodope in Thrace. Mount Rhodope was given a brother in Mount Haimos, Blood. These are common names for high peaks that appear reddish in the first morning light. As a result of their identification with Rhodopis and Aesop, it was told about these two that they were living beings transformed into mountains as punishment for their incest. At times Rhodope is said to have been guilty of incest with her father, and there is a version in which Haimos is the incestuous father of Rhodope. The obols of Delphi were known as Aisopion haima, Aesop’ Blood, and it is said that they were donated by Rhodopis to atone for the unjust murder of Aesop by the Delphians. Aesop is an important figure of Delphian legends; I shall show that about him are told the stories usually told about the expert of measures. Rhodopis and Aesop, therefore, are both connected with the introduction of a system of measures at Delphi. Not only Aesop is a wise man, but Nitocris-Rhodopis is at times presented as one of the wise women of antiquity. Aelian in the Amorous Tales relates that the Egyptian Sayings, which probably means the fables of the Egyptian cycle, related that the courtesan Rhodopis of Naukratis was famous for her wisdom and was a lover of paradoxes and puzzles(?) (adokêta). This clearly indicates that she shared gnostic wisdom with Aesop and that she shared with him the traits by which the edifying fables about animals of Egyptian origin, which we know as Aesopian fables, were ascribed to Aesop.
Aesop is described as an African; the Greeks understood that his name means Ethiopian and interpreted it grammatically as a formation like Rhodopis’ name meaning Burnt Face. Some biographies specifically state that Aesop is Ethiopian, but most of them make him born in Phrygia, in what is today central Turkey. But this is a misunderstanding of the term Phryx, which is a reference to the complexion, like the name Phryne.
We must conclude that Aesop was king Taharka, the brother of Shepnupet II. This explains the story of Nitocris-Rhodopis’ incest with her brother. The relations of Delphi with Egypt must have been initiated in the reign of Taharka and his sister-wife Shepnupet II and continued in the reign of Psammetichus I, who also took Shepnupet as his wife. The Greeks misunderstood the meaning of this political marriage and may have ascribed the preservation of Shepnupet’s life and position to her rare beauty. Since in Egypt the personality of Shepnupet was deliberately merged with that of Nitocris, Psammetichus’ daughter, Nitocris-Rhodopis became guilty of incest both with her brother and with her father.
The moral position of Shepnupet must have been a perplexing one to the Greeks. Closest to the truth are probably the stories that tell about her being kept prisoner in an enclosure by her father. Some stories present her as a great wise woman, others as a strumpet (Rhodopis meretricula, says Pliny). The story that she avenged the death of her brother may express what one expected from her. The story that the obols were blood money for the murder of Aesop, actually Taharka, also express what some people thought about her.
Strabo reports that, according to the geographer Megasthenes, Tearko the Ethiopian, that is Taharka, came to Europe and went as far as the Columns of Hercules, that is, the Strait of Gibraltar. But this must be a misunderstanding of the term Pylai, which applies both to the location of the sanctuary of Delphi and to the Columns of Hercules. This information may provide a clue to the Taharka’s mysterious end, which took place in the aftermath of the anti-Assyrian plot of the Egyptian governors. It is possible that he paid a personal visit to Delphi. Legends speak of a visit of Aesop to Delphi where he was killed. Photios quotes a passage of Ptolemaios, son of Hephaistion, containing the strange information that Aesop, having been dispatched by the Delphians lived again and fought the Greeks at Thermopylai. The Thermopylai may have been confused with the neighboring Delphian Pylai. The movement of Taharka’s army from Pylai to Thrace and Pontos may be connected with the traditions that made Aesop at times a Thracian and at times a Phrygian. But the best biography of Aesop (Vita G) reports at the very end that he said to the Delphians before jumping from the rock: I would rather make the circle of Syria, Phoenicia, and Judaea than die here. Possibly this otherwise inexplicable statement means that Taharka tried a retreat by land to Egypt, going as far as Thrace and Pontos.
Since Egyptian records do not say anything about King Taharka’s end, one may wonder whether Psammetichus succeeded in seizing power in Egypt just when King Taharka was at Delphi and whether at this point the news from Egypt caused a revolt against the Egyptian King. The new King Psammetichus may have continued the policy of Egyptian penetration at Delphi and as a matter of principle have asked for the atonement for the death of his predecessor. It is reported that the Delphians paid a penalty to his native god for the outrage perpetrated against Aesop. The dedication of the obols at Delphi may have taken place in the reign of Psammetichus; this would explain why they were considered an atonement for the blood of Aesop.
The theme of the incest and of the prostitution occurs also in a detail of Aesop’ biography. It is told that Aesop, having been sentenced to death by the Delphians on the basis of a trumped-up charge, told the Delphians the story of a daughter who, having been raped by her father, told him that she would rather submit to one hundred men than to him. The story seems pointless; possibly it may be explained as having been connected with some reaction by Taharka to the news that Psammetichus had claimed the throne of Egypt by making himself the husband of Shepnupet II.
The tradition that Aesop was killed by stoning or by being thrown from a rock at Delphi, but was later reborn, may be based on the fact that the Delphians saw that Rhodopis had a husband who died and this husband reappeared in the form of Psammetichus. A quotation of the comedian Platon indicates that it was believed that the the soul of Aesop came back.
The confusion of the Greeks may have been increased by the circumstance that Psammetichus had African features. This is quite credible since it would have been normal for the princes of Sais to be attached to the Ethiopian royal family by marriage. If the mother of Psammetichus were a princess of the family of Taharka, this would have been in agreement with Egyptian political practices.
A good part of the tales collected by Herodotus as illustrating Egyptian monuments are variations of the story of Nitocris-Rhodopis. Herodotus does not identify Rhodopis with Nitocris, because he observed that a contemporary of Sappho could not have lived in the age of Psammetichus I, and does not even identify Nitocris with the builder of the Third Pyramid. But the result is that he tells versions of the same story about a Queen Nitocris, about the daughter of Mycerinus, the builder of the Third Pyramid, and about the daughter of Cheops, the builder of the First Pyramid. This indicates that, since the feat of Rhodopis was the most important link between Greece and Egypt, the members of the priestly hierarchy in different localities who were Greek interpreters told Herodotus a story connecting their shrines to Rhodopis.
Herodotus explains that at Sais in the Temple of Athena, that is Nit, he saw a chamber in which there was a wooden cow within which there was buried the daughter of Mykerinos, the one who committed suicide after being raped by her father; this brings to mind the relation of Pasiphaë with Daedalus, the builder of the Labyrinth. According to Greek tradition Pasiphë concealed herself within a wooden cow in order to satisfy her unnatural passion for a bull. Herodotus further reports that next to it there was another chamber with statues of twenty naked women who were the concubines of Mykerinos.
Herodotus relates that Nitocris, on becoming queen after the death of her brother, built an immense underground chamber (oikêma) in which, under the pretense of opening it by an inaugural ceremony, she invited to a banquet all the Egyptians whom she knew to be chiefly responsible for her brother’s death; then, when the banquet was in full swing, she let the river in on them through a large concealed conduit pipe.
But Herodotus (II. 127) reports also that under the Pyramid of Cheops there are oikêmata in which there enters the water of the Nile. Cheops would have enclosed his daughter in an oikêma where she had to prostitute herself in order to make money for him:
But no crime was too great for Cheops. When he was short of money, he sent his daughter to a bawdy-house with instructions to charge a certain sum—they did not tell me how much. This she actually did, adding to it a further transaction of her own; for with the intention of leaving something to be remembered by after her death, she asked each of her customers to give her a block of stone, and of these stones (the story goes) was built the middle pyramid of the three which stand in front of the great pyramid.
Nitocris intended to build a memorial (mnêmeion) for herself (II. 126). The same word is used by Herodotus to describe the obols, corresponding to a tithe of her income as a courtesan, that Rhodopis, wishing to establish a memorial of herself, sent to Delphi
Once Nitocris-Rhodopis was made guilty of incest, there were ascribed to her some of the events told in The Tale of the Two Brothers, the only Egyptian fairy tale that has come down to us (in a papyrus of the XIX Dynasty). The tale as found in the papyrus is composed of two parts joined together simply because both deal with a faithless woman. In the first part the wife proposes to the younger brother of her husband; upon being rejected she accuses him of having tried to seduce her. A point is made that the wife is really the mother of the younger brother. In the second part of the tale, the younger brother, who has miraculously escaped death, acquires a wife, but a river comes out of its bank and takes possession of her tresses. The tresses carried by the river come to the King of Egypt who causes a search for their owner. The woman lets her husband be killed and becomes the Great Sacred Wife of the King. The husband is reborn as a bull, but he is killed again by his wife. But when the king dies the husband, having been reborn a second time, becomes king and puts his wife to death.
Strabo (XVIII, 33, 808) and Aelian (13,33) relate that while Rhodopis was bathing an eagle stole her slippers and dropped them near King Psammetichus who searched for the wearer of the slippers and, having found her in Naukratis, married her. Scholars who have commented on The Tale of the Two Brothers have noted that in the ancient world the motif of the stolen tresses alternates with that of Aphrodite’s slipper, which we know as the Cinderella story. I may note that the motif of the slippers or tresses stolen while bathing is a variation the theme of the woman seen naked while bathing, which occurs in the story of Phryne and Susanna. Apparently the story of the man falling in love with tresses or slippers is a peculiar fetishist displacement of the more reasonable story of a man falling in love with a woman he has seen bathing. In my future study of the Odyssey I shall show that the story of Aladdin is a contamination of the story of Rhodopis with that of King Gyges of Lydia; I have already referred to the existence of a contamination of the story of Rhodopis with that of the Lydian kings. Aladdin marries the Sultan’s daughter whom he has seen from a place of concealment while she was going to a bath.
Finally, the strange notion that Rhodopis was the builder of the Third Pyramid is the easiest element to explain. In the Egyptian king lists at the end of the Sixth Dynasty or at the beginning of the Seventh, there is listed a King Men-ka-ra who has also the name of Nit-yqerty; he is so entered in the Turin list, which is older than 1200 B.C. This Men-ka-ra was confused with the Men-ka-ra or Mykerinos of the Fourth Dynasty who built the Third Pyramid. For this reason the list of Manethon at the end of the Sixth Dynasty enters a woman, Nitocris, who built the Third Pyramid. As a result, the harem of Amon, oikêma, in which Shepnupet II was hierodoula, was confused with a pyramid. The tombs of the Lydian kings placed on the shores of the Gygaian Lake have something to do with this confusion; the Gygaian Nymph was the sacred wife of the Lydian kings.
The name Aesop is simply a way of referring to Taharka as the Ethiopian, as his sister-wife is called Rhodopis. In the life of Aesop by Planudes it is said: He had a peaked head, a flat nose, a hollow neck, prominent lips, and black color; this last characteristic is the reason for his name, since Aesop is the same as Ethiopian. The lives of Aesop mention Xanthos as his master. The name Xanthos, The Reddish One, is again a reference to the skin color of the race of Rhodopis and Aesop, that is, Shepnupet II and Taharka.
The legend that Aesop was a slave can be easily explained today thanks to the archaeological investigations conducted in the Sudan: the kings of Napata described themselves as slaves of the god Amon, whereas nothing of the sort can be found among Egyptian royal titles.
Aesop was associated with the establishment of a system of measures at Delphi; for this reason there were ascribed to him the adventures usually ascribed to the master of measures, whether he be Palamedes, Odysseos, Joseph, Job, or Jesus. We are told that a golden cup, the phiale of Apollo used in prophetizing, was planted among the belongings of Aesop by the Delphians; he was charged with hierosylia, sacrilege, temple robbery and sentenced to death. He was stoned or thrown from a rock. The importance of the stone for the figure of the master of measures is stressed by the very names of Palamedes and Peter: Upon this stone I shall build my church. The master of measures is persecuted and ends as the victim of a diabolê, a false accusation of treason. Palamedes, the master of measures connected with the obols of the Heraion, was falsely accused of treason in favor of the Trojans against the Greek army, because his rival Odysseos had planted a great weight of gold in his tent; Palamedes was stoned to death. The last lines of the Odyssey describe the throwing of Odysseos from the rock of Cape Leukadas. In another version Palamedes is told by Odysseos to search for a treasure in a well and there he is crushed with stones. In the biographies of Aesop, his relation with his master Xanthos ends when Aesop, who had found a treasure, is closed in a well.
The cup is important in these stories because it is the basis of the system of measures. The cup figures prominently in the last days of Jesus. Joseph is described as holding a cup in his hands, a cup he uses for divination. Joseph plants a silver cup among the belongings of his relatives and then charges them with having stolen it. Joseph is accused of treason against his master Potiphar; he is thrown into a well by his relatives.
One of the most amazing achievements of ancient scholarship in this century has been the realization of the enormous popularity of the novel of Ahiqar in the ancient world. The earliest version has come down to us in an Aramaic papyrus of the Hebrew colony of Elephantine, but the story is also incorporated in the Greek biographies of Aesop. The story is told in the biblical book of Tobit and in the One Thousands and One Nights. References to it are scattered through the Bible and the Quran. We possess Syriac, Armenian, Ethiopic, and Arabic versions. Some very ancient material is preserved also in the Slavonic, Roumanian, and Turkish versions. One could hardly find a more popular story in world literature.
There is no longer any reason to be surprised at the universal occurrence of the novel of Ahiqar, because it is connected with the system of measures. Actually this novel is a variation on a more universal theme, the accomplishments and the misfortunes of the master of measures.
The novel which had as title The Wisdom of Ahiqar was probably written in Aramaic in Mesopotamia and contains accurate historical references to the period of the Assyrian efforts to conquer Egypt. It tells the life of Ahiqar while quoting his parables and wise sayings of the gnomic type. The same literary form of sayings arranged within the frame of a biography occurs in the lives of Aesop and of Jesus in the Gospels. Ahiqar, the wise vizier of King Sennacherib of Assyria (705-681 B.C.), is concerned about the fact that he cannot have children and hence has no son to whom he can transmit his wealth of knowledge. For this reason he adopts the son of his sister. This suggests that in the original theme, Ahiqar had a son by his sister; not only in ancient but also in medieval legends the wise hero is the product of a fraternal relation (e.g., Siegfried, Roland, Cuchulainn, Sir Gawain, Pope Gregory). It seems that he must have either an incestuous or a virgin birth, as in the case of Pythagoras, Plato, Zoroaster, and others. The name of Ahiqar means My brother is dear to me in Aramaic; probably it has the same meaning as the name Philadelphos given by the Greeks to kings and queens married to their sisters and brothers.
When Ahiqar some years later is the vizier of the King Esarhaddon (681-669 B.C.), the adopted son proves to be incompetent and irresponsible; in order not to be replaced as intended successor by a younger brother, he organized a diabolê against his adopted father by forging letters indicating treason in favor of the King of Egypt. Forged letters from King Priam are mentioned in relation to Palamedes. When Ahiqar is on trial he remains silent; this is a detail that is repeated in the two trials of Jesus. Ahiqar is sentenced to have his head detached 100 cubits from his body; but the executioner is indebted to him and spares his life. The motif of the friendship with the jailkeeper occurs in the story of Joseph. The executioner closes Ahiqar in a hollow having a volume of 60 cubic cubits and announces to the King that he is dead.
When the King of Egypt hears that Ahiqar is dead, he challenges the King of Assyria: He wagers three years of the tribute of Egypt against three years of the tribute of Assyria, that the King of Assyria cannot send him a wise man, an architect who can build a castle between the earth and the sky. The King of Assyria is in despair and declares that he would be willing to pay 100 talents of gold and 50 talents of purple to have Ahiqar back. At this point the executioner announces that Ahiqar is still alive. Ahiqar is rescued from the hole and sent to Egypt.
As a first gesture Ahiqar confronts the King of Egypt with a forged letter in which the latter recognizes that he owes 900 talents to the King of Assyria. This seems to be a reversal of the motif of the forged letter. The King of Egypt challenges Ahiqar to build a castle between the earth and the sky. Ahiqar sends up two eagles that stretch wires of the proper length; on the back of the eagles are children who clamor for building materials, which the king of Egypt cannot deliver at that height. The story would be meaningless, except that, as I have explained, in Mesopotamia the role of the theoretical architect who made calculations was separate from that of the actual builder.
Incidentally, this motif allows to explain the plot of the comedy Birds of Aristophanes that has always puzzled scholars of Greek literature. The main point of the story of the master of measures is that he is a threat to the divinity because of his knowledge; this is the reason why he is persecuted, as is clear in the case of Job and Prometheos. For this reason a central theme is the diabolê, the accusation of treasonable conspiracy against the gods or against royalty. In the Birds a city is constructed between the earth and the sky with the help of birds and the gods are dethroned. It is significant that Prometheos intervenes to force the gods to give up their power and to give in marriage to the leader of the revolt a woman called Royalty. It may be significant that the leader of the revolt against the gods is called Pisthetairos, Trusted Companion, a name that reminds one of Ahiqar and of the hetaira Rhodopis. The Babylonian Talmud (Bek. 8) tells that it was in Athens that a rabbi was challenged to build a house between the earth and the sky and won by resorting to Ahiqar’s ruse. I shall explain that the biblical story of the Tower of Babel is a variation on the same theme, a threat by the masters of measures to the power of the divinity.
At the time of Aristophanes the story of Ahiqar must have been known in Athens, besides the general theme of the master of measures, because the philosopher Demokritos, on the basis of his knowledge of Babylonian writings, composed a commentary on the stele of Ahiqar. Theophrastos wrote a work by the title Akicharos.
The master of measures is accused of treason either against the royalty or against the divinity. In Aristophanes the plot is against the gods, but reference is made also to royalty. In the Gospels Jesus is presented as being tried twice: once for treason against the divinity before the Hebrew priests, and the second time for treason against the Roman civil authority. Whereas in the second case he is accused of claiming the kingship, in the first case he is accused of having said: I can destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days (Matt. 26:61). This seems to be a variation on the theme of the castle in the air.
After the incident of the castle in the air, the novel of Ahiqar continues with a debate between him and the King of Egypt concerning the distance of 360 parasangs between Assyria and Egypt and a column composed of 8763 bricks (that is, the hours in a year of 365 days and 3 hours), on top of which there are 12 trees with 30 branches each. Each branch carries a white and a black fruit representing the day and the night. As a last challenge the King of Egypt offers the tribute of Egypt if Ahiqar can weave a rope of 50 cubits made of sand. Ahiqar answers the challenge by projecting a beam of light though a hole in a wall to a wall at the distance of 50 cubits; the dust in the beam of light represents the sand. In my opinion this episode is again a reference to the difference between theoretical calculations and physical measurements. Perhaps here the Assyrians make the same boast that was made by the Greeks, in stressing their rational geometry against the rope-stretching of the Egyptians.
The story ends with Ahiqar’s vengeance on his treacherous adopted son. According to the usual version the son dies by swelling so much that his entrails burst, but in the version included in the lives of Aesop he dies by hanging himself. J. Rendel Harris has noted that the two versions of the death apply also to the punishment of the traitor Judas Iskariot: in Matt. 27:5 he hangs himself, but in Acts 1:18 he swells up and his entrails burst asunder.
Up to now scholars have noted the connection of Ahiqar with measures only as a minor point. Theodor Reinach noted that Ahiqar has 60 wives in 60 mansions and is 60 years old when his adventure takes place, and observes that these details surprisingly remind us of the sexagesimal system of units. In truth measures are the central theme of the story, which deals with the rivalry between the Mesopotamian sexagesimal computation and the Egyptian decimal one. Ahiqar, as a traitor in favor of Egypt, is sentenced to have his head detached 100 cubits from the body; but the executioner mercifully encloses him in a hole of 60 cubits. The King of Assyria declares that he is willing to pay 100 talents of gold and 50 talents of purple to see Ahiqar live again; that is, the king is willing to accept a talent with multiples and submultiples calculated decimally instead of sexagesimally. The King of Egypt asks from Ahiqar a rope of 60 cubits. In the letter forged by Ahiqar the King of Egypt recognizes to owe 900 talents. Ahiqar is described as an architect because in Mesopotamia the building of ziqqurats (of which the Tower of Babel is one) was intimately connected with the system of measures; the ziqqurats, even when small, are described by texts as touching the sky, because ideally they represent the measurement of the universe.Jesus opposed the Pharisaic interpretations that made acceptable reduced measures fitting the sexagesimal system of Mesopotamia and defended the system of Ezechiel based on a talent divided into 50 parts. Once this is kept in mind one can see that 30 pieces of silver, or 60 drachmai, received by Judas have a very specific significance.
Measures are intimately connected with the collection of tributes, and the payment of tributes has a major role in the novel of Ahiqar. In the Gospels a diabole is attempted against Jesus by asking him the embarrassing question whether he approves of paying tribute to Caesar (Luke 20:22). He eases out of the predicament by an astute answer of the type that one reads in the biography of Aesop.
Perhaps it is not an accident that a copy of the novel of Ahiqar was found among the papyri of the Hebrew military station of Elephantine in Egypt. The Hebrews who were mounting guard for the Persians in Egypt may have recognized the similarity between the story of Ahiqar and that of Joseph which must have been particularly dear to them. The story of Joseph implies that the King of Egypt needs a Semite as an expert on measures; experts on measures are particularly necessary during famines, as indicated by the story of Palamedes who made his inventions when the Greek army was suffering from a famine.
As I have stated, the reason for the tribulations of the master of measures is that he may begin as a pious scholar of divine subjects, but ends by discovering the very wisdom of the divinity, the measures used by the divinity in constructing the world. The Syriac version of the novel of Ahiqar, which is the closest to the original, ends with these words:
Here ends the story of Ahiqar, the wise man and the outstanding philosopher, who knew the secrets and interpreted enigmas. At the beginning he was an idolater and a companion of the magi; but at the end of his life he believed in God and confessed his name, that he is the creator of heaven and earth, of the sea, of the dry land, and of all that is in them, and that he gives intellect an wisdom to those who love him.
Since Aesop is the master of measures connected with the adoption by Delphi of a reduced system of measures, in a period which corresponds to that mentioned in the novel of Ahiqar, it is not surprising that the adventures of Ahiqar came to be ascribed to him. In the lives of Aesop the name of the king of Assyria is Lykourgos, like that of the lawgiver of Sparta; the system of measures of Delphi is similar to that of Sparta. Pheidon of Argos, the figure associated with the obols of the Heraion, is described as a contemporary of Lykourgos.The Quran and Arab traditions mention Ahiqar under the name of Loqman. By some he is described as the son of a sister of Job; this means that he is in the same position in relation to Job, another persecuted master of measures, as his adopted son is to Ahiqar. But other versions describe Loqman as an African slave, like Aesop and King Taharka.
Snowden has carefully searched for all references to blacks in Greek and Latin texts and has found that only at Delphi do black Africans play an important role.
The head of a black African is a most common device on the coins of Delphi. The only other common devices are the dolphin, a pun on the name of the sanctuary, and the ram; the ram is a reference to the cult of Amon, worshipped as a ram at Thebes, as it is indicated by the ram on the coins of Kyrene, which is certainly a reference to the Temple of Zeus Amon in the Oasis of Siwah. Often the ram is the reverse device of coins bearing the head of a black man.
The eponymous hero of Delphi is a Delphos, whose mother is called Melaino, Melanis, Melantho, Melantheia, or Kelaino, that is, the Black Woman. She is identified with Thyia, who is the original divinity of Delphi.
In 1849, before one could suspect anything about the relation of Delphi with Egypt, Theodor Panofka made a study of the figure of the African in the cult of Delphi. This study is an admirable example of what the scholars trained in the method of the philological school were able to achieve.
Panofka concluded that not only Delphos’ mother, but Delphos himself is an African. He noted that there is a peculiar cameo in which the head of an African is composed of a dolphin, a vagina, and a pig. He concluded that the African is Delphos, and the three other objects represent a pun on the name: they are a delphis, dolphin, seaswine, a delphys, vagina, womb, and a delphos, pig.
Panofka noted also that there is an unusual Greek vase representing the head of an African. This vase has around the rim a decoration of leaves and a berry; he studied a similar decoration around the rim of three unusual vases dating from the fifth century B.C., representing two heads united at the back. The faces on these vases are Egyptian. The decoration of leaves is slightly different on each one, but by considering the common element, Panofka concluded that it represents the tree thyia from which Thyia of Delphi gets her name. He concluded that the thyia is some sort of orange tree; he was not too wrong because the thyia is a tree called citrus in Latin and similar to the juniper called kedros in Greek. These trees must have been similar to the orange in the eyes of the Greeks, because when they came to know tres of the orange type they called them by the names applied to the thyia and the juniper. The vases with the Egyptian faces have something to do with Delphi because on the inside of the rim they are decorated with dolphins.
Panofka could not understand why Egypt was linked with Delphi, but he explained the two faces by the name Delphi, which is the same as adelphoi, brothers, without the prothetic alpha. He concluded that the name of the sanctuary meant brothers. Since the siblings are Egyptians, we can rest assured that they are Rhodopis and Aesop. During the Ptolemaic Dynasty several of the Ptolemies together with their sister-wife Kleopatra were worshipped by the Greeks as theoi adelphoi.
In my opinion the original divinity of Delphi was Thyia, but when the Egyptians became interested in it, the sanctuary became sacred to the divine siblings, Shepnupet and Taharka, Rhodopis and Aesop. Rhodopis as the Black One was identified with Thyia. Thyia was represented on the western pediment of the temple and was worshipped when the days become shorter; I shall show that Taharka was represented at Delphi by Apollo who was represented on the eastern pediment and was worshipped when the days become longer. The eastern pediment of the temple represents Apollo surrounded by the Muses. The most accurate life of Aesop tells that, when he was about to be executed, he fled to the holiness of the Muses and then jumped from the rock calling to the leader of the Muses to be witness to his unjust death. This indicates that there was a special link between Aesop and the Muses.
That the theme of the fraternal relations was particularly important in relation with Nitocris-Rhodopis, is indicated by the circumstance that a stele mentioning the festival of Athena Nikephoros, which is the Greek translation of Nitocris, was erected in the very place where the obols used to be by Eumenes II of Pergamon called Philadelphos. Eumenes’ father had become king by adoption from his uncle Eumenes I; this is a relation similar to that which existed between Ahiqar and his adopted son. Eumenes II was succeeded by his brother Attalos II Philadelphos, who married the widow. A main point of the policy of the Kings of Pergamon in this period was an alliance with Egypt against Syria. The relation between Eumenes II and his brother Attalos II was emphasized at Delphi by a statuary group of the two together.
Facing the location of the obols, in the same area where there was to be erected the statue of Phryne and the Column of the Thyia, of which I shall speak below, the tyrant Gelon of Syracuse, after his great victory over the Carthaginians at Himera in 480 B.C., erected the statue of himself and Nike with a tripod in the middle, and next to it a similar group with his brother Hieron and Nike. Later there was added a third group with two more brothers of Gelon, Polyzalos and Thrasybolos. The statue of Nike may be a reference, not only to the victory of Himera, but also to Athena Nikephoros, that is, Nitocris. One cannot think that the emphatic stressing of fraternal relations in all these cases is purely accidental.
Before proceeding any further, it is necessary to consider why the Egyptians should have been interested in establishing relations with Delphoi.
The answer to the problem is that Egypt was in the ancient world the center of what today we would call the chemical industry; Egypt had the position of Germany before 1914. Two sciences were particularly developed in Egypt, chemistry and medicine; it is agreed that they were an outgrowth of the concern with mummification. Chemistry meant mainly the use of products of plants and herbs; this has been the main focus of chemistry and medicine up to very recently. For this reason the Egyptians, while exporting medicinal products in the form of medicated oil or ointments, were interested in importing the necessary spices and drugs. The most dramatic expression of this well-documented Egyptian interest in foreign plants and herbs was the activity of the famous Queen Hatshepsut of the XVIIIth Dynasty. She is not only the first identifiable woman to appear on the horizon of history, but almost certainly the only woman who exercised full role of King in Egypt. Since as a woman she could not establish her glory by leading the army in foreign conquests, she concerned herself with the Egyptian economic expansion through the trade of spices and drugs. Hatshepsut led an expedition in search of plants and herbs to some land on the coast of the Red Sea. To celebrate her enterprise Queen (she called herself King) Hatshepsut built the huge temple of Deir el-Bahari, on the bank of the Nile near Thebes, which is one of the most impressive and original monuments of Egypt we know of. On the walls of this temple there are portrayed scenes of the expedition and the search for plants; the plants are presented with obvious concern for botanical characteristics. This makes dramatically evident how the problem of foreign plants was of concern to the life of Egypt.
If one were to ask which plant would be of most interest to the Egyptians, the answer would be of necessity that necessary to the process of mummification. Mummification consists of two steps: the first is dehydration and the second is varnishing.
Dehydration was obtained by surrounding the corpse with bars of natron for a period which could be forty days. The natron was obtained from that area of Lower Egypt known as praefectura nitriotica in Roman times, and today is called Wadi Natrun. Egypt had an abundance of natron which was exported for washing; it could be used as such or combined with oil to make a soft soap. Since the Arabs use natron as a fertilizer, one wonders whether it was used also as a fertilizer in ancient times.
The quality of the mummy was determined by the process of varnishing. For about thirty days one applied several coats of varnish. This procedure was expensive and at times resort was made to cheap substitutes such as tar and the asphalt from Judaea; but a good mummy had to have several coats of clear varnish.
Alfred Lucas, who is the recognized authority on Egyptian materials, has missed the point on this very vital issue. He begins by stating that thyia trees would provide the resin that one would expect to find used to prepare the varnish for mummies; but adds that thyia resin cannot have been employed because the varnish was used already in predynastic times and thyia trees were to be found only in Algeria and Morocco. He projects on ancient times a situation which is true today, and not even absolutely true today. At least the mention by Theophrastos of thyia trees at the Oasis of Siwah should not have escaped his attention. Having excluded thyia resin, Lucas is hard put in finding a substitute. He examines the evidence provided by Herodotos, Diodoros, and Pliny, who speak of the varnishing of mummies with kedria or cedri succus, to conclude that there was used the distillation of the wood of pinus taeda. But what is described is not the resin but the turpentine in which the resin was dissolved; even today the cheapest kind of turpentine is obtained by distilling the wood of pinus taeda. The better turpentine is obtained from the resin of coniferous trees, of which the juniper, called kedros by the Greeks, could be one. In an article Lucas admits that the authors he quotes are speaking of turpentine.
The answer to the problem of the varnish of the mummies is that thyia trees must have been originally common in the Mediterranean area, but became gradually rarer. Up to the time of the Aithiopian Dynasty the thyia resin may have been imported from some area of Palestine, Syria, or Asia Minor (some thyia resin is still exported today from Asia Minor). The Aithiopian Dynasty could not control a trade route passing through Lower Egypt and for that reason turned its attention to the Oasis of Siwah and to Delphoi, where there were thyia trees. The result of this was the establishment of an oracle similar to that of Thebes in these two places. One may wonder whether the existence of a Greek national oracle at Dodona in the mountains of Epiros, which is in a faraway location not truly in Greece, has a similar explanation; but evidence is lacking in this respect. The only certain fact is that the Greeks connected the origin of the oracle of Dodona with Amon of Thebes and of the Oasis of Siwah.
Eduard Meyer concluded that the Oasis of Siwah was occupied by the Egyptians under the Aithiopian Dynasty around 700 B.C. He based his opinion on the monuments and the statement of Herodotos (II, 42) that the inhabitants are descendants of Egyptian and Aithiopian colonists. Ahmed Fakhry, who has specialized in the archaeology of the oases of the Libyan desert, is of the opinion that the Oasis of Siwah was totally obscure up to the moment Greek colonists established themselves on the coast of Cyrenaica. He observes that the growth of Assyria and her penetration into Palestine and Lower Egypt created a new pattern of trade, by which the route from India was directed to the Sudan and from there it descended the Nile up to a point where merchandise could cross the desert through the oases, to reach the Mediterranean coast where it was transported to the different countries in North Africa or shipped in Greek and Phenician vessels to other shores of th Mediterranean. Thus, the Assyrian conquest may have been a reason for the prosperity of the oases at that period and the establishment of some Greek towns on the coast; of the latter Kyrene was the most important.
It must be noted that the reason for the prosperity of Kyrene in the early period of her history was the export of the famous silphion as a spice and as a medicinal drug; this plant is either asafetida or a plant very similar to it. The great virtue ascribed by the ancients to silphion can be understood in view of the stress recently put on tranquilizers. It is said that by Roman times the plant had disappeared so that a single specimen was presented as a rarity to Emperor Nero. This indicates the Greek colony of Kyrene in the early and classical period was concerned with the typically Egyptian trade of drugs and spices.
A recent study by François Chamoux takes to task J. G. Milne for having suggested that after the sack of Thebes by the Assyrians in 663 B.C., the trade route from Upper Egypt reached the Mediterranean through Cyrenaica instead of Lower Egypt. Chamoux does not consider the additional evidence submitted by Fakhry. The main argument of Chamoux is that Kyrene was purely an agricultural colony; but that Kyrene was a trading center is proved by numerous references to silphion. Chamoux himself in his history of Kyrene dedicates eighteen pages to the problem of the botanical identification of silphion; for this reason he cannot take seriously the information of Herodotos (III, 26) that King Kambyses of Persia, having conquered Egypt, sent an expedition from Thebes to conquer the Oasis of Siwah.
The evidence about silphion provided by coins of Kyrene which seems so contradictory must be reexamined in order to consider whether some of the coins actually portray thyia trees.
10. The thyia is the sandarac tree. It scientific name has been successively Thyia articulata, Callitris quadrivalvis, and Tetraclinis articulata. It is a coniferous tree reaching the height of about 6 meters; occasionally its trunk has a height of 15 meters with a circumference of 2 meters. It is considered a tree of particular beauty, because of the division of the branches into striated segments; where the segments join there spring decurrent leaves known as the hair. It resembles most closely the juniper called kedros by the Greeks; but the Romans gave the name citrus to the thyia. It exudes in exceeding quantity a resin called thyion or sandarakê by the Greeks; this resin is called sandarac in modern trade. The sandarac can be burned as incense and up to a few decades ago it was used for medical purposes. Today pharmacopoeias recognize it as useful only to varnish pills; but the National Standard Dictionary, in the edition of 1916, reported: It has been given internally in chronic affections of the bronchi and primary mucous membranes, and used as an ingredient in many stimulating ointments. It is stated that the Arabs use it against diarrhoea. In the medical treatises of Galen and Dioscorides it is confused with the mineral realgar, an arsenic sulphide, which is also called sandrakê. The confusion must be very old because the name sandrake comes from the Akkadian sadu arqu, green mineral. The confusion between the resin and the mineral results from the external appearance: The mineral realgar comes in a granular form of orange-red color with a brilliance called resinous. Greek authors apply the name of thyia or thyitês lithos to the mineral. Both the mineral and the resin have been known in modern medicine as Dioskorides’ grains. Since the Herbal of Dioskorides (V, 122) indicates that the mineral sandarakê was used for inhalations against cough by being burned with resin, it may be that the confusion between the mineral and the resin had something to do with their being used together. The mineral sandarakê was confused with another mineral of arsenic sulphide, the auripigmentum, orpiment, which is often found in the same mineral masses. In modern times the resin of thyia has been often substituted for medicinal purposes by resin of juniper, called German sandarac.
The main use of sandarac is to produce varnish. Still today the best varnish is that produced by dissolving the sandarac into turpentine. Up to recently the export of sandarac was the most important item of Moroccan trade; it was exported from the harbor of Mogador and, for this reason, it is known in trade as Mogador sandarac. The economic importance of sandarac is such that in the second half of the last century one tried to develop thyia woods in Provence. For the same reason trees very similar to the thyia of the Mediterranean are extensively cultivated in Australia and South Africa.
The thyia grows well in the entire Mediterranean area. A little quantity of sandarac is exported from Asia Minor. There are thyia trees in the island of Malta. In 1935 a Soviet publication mentioned thyia trees in southern Crimea. Garden lovers have raised thyia in England, where it must be protected during the winter; but it grows freely in the gardens of southern California, an area that has a climate defined as summer-dry subtropical, similar to that of Greece. Apparently it was rather common in Greece in Homeric times, since it is one of the twenty trees mentioned by Homer: The poet mentions the burning of kedros, and thyon in a fire as woods that produce a particularly pleasant odor. But the tree had disappeared from Greece by classical times. This must not be ascribed only to the deforestation of Greece that began in the sixth century B.C.
The thyia tree is subject to rapid destruction in populated areas. Since it is much more resinous than the juniper, its main enemy are forest fires. A modern observer remarks that it is surprising that the woods of Morocco and Algeria have survived destruction by fire; but even in this area the trees are usually found above the level of 1500 meters. The demand for the resin is so great that many trees are killed by excessive tapping. Furthermore, thyine wood is considered highly desirable for cabinet making; small cabinets or tables of this wood are exported from Paris as articles of virtu. Pliny explains the merits of thyine wood. The grain does not run in lines, but in variegated patterns, so that the wood is particularly desirable for the tops of tables. The Arabs consider it particularly fit for the construction of mosques and use it for their ornate enclosures of balconies. According to Theophrastos it should be used for the carpentry of temples because it is indestructible.
For these reasons the thyia had become rare in classical times. Theophrastos mentions the existence of thyia woods near the Temple of Zeus Amon, in the Oasis of Siwah in Cyrenaica; but apparently these woods had disappeared in Roman times, being, however, grown again in Byzantine times. In Roman times the thyia was found, as today, on the mountains of Mauretania. Martial refers to the precious thyia tress of the Atlas (XIV, 89) and of Mauritania (XIV, 90). Petronius indicates that it is more expensive than gold when he says:
Ecce Aris eruta terris
Ponitur, ac maculis imitatur vilius aurum
The poet Lucan (Phars. IX 426) contrasts the noble simplicity of the people of Mauritania who used not to know the value of the thyia trees, which they appreciated only for their beautiful hair and their shade, with the greed of the Romans who cut down the forests as soon as they discovered them. Horace (Odes IV, 1, 20) indicates that the most prodigal rival can be outbidden by offering to Venus a temple with thyia beams.
In the construction of a luxurious ship for Dionysus of Syracuse, thyine wood was used together with ivory for making the doors of a shrine. Around the first century B.C., 50 talents of thyine wood were sent as a gift to the city of Rhodes for the making of statues, together with 30 talents of ivory. The Apokalypse (18:12) mentions as a luxury vessels of ivory and of thyine wood. Pliny reports that Cicero paid a million sesterces for a table of thyine wood and that two tables that used to belong to King Juba of Mauritania were sold for a similar sum.
Originally the sanctuary of Delphoi must have been located in a forest of thyia trees. These trees would have survived longer in an area as isolated and as mountainous as Delphoi; one may wonder whether the fire of 548 B.C. that destroyed the temple, also destroyed the trees.
Euripides thrice uses the otherwise unattested adjective thuodokos in referring to Delphoi; it may be a traditional epithet referring to the production of thyon thyia resin. There was near the sanctuary a locality called en Thyais or Thystion. Aischines (III, 122) mentions that an assembly of the Delphians took place there. Herodotos (VII, 178) mentions the existence of a sacred area of the nymph Thyia in the locality en Thyiê; he uses the singular because he thinks that the place gets its name from the nymph. But obviously the term refers to a sacred clearing within a wood of thyia trees; the worship of a sacred wood takes place in a clearing, the lucus. From an account of the reconstruction of the temple after the earthquake of 373 B.C., we learn that the workshop was located en Thyiais. It is likely that the clearing was used as a workshop when wood was used for the construction of the temple, and continued to be so used even when the forest had disappeared and the temple was built of stone. The general opinion is that the locality called en Thyiais is identical with the rocky promontory to the west of the temple where the traffic of pilgrims brought about the growth of the town of Pylai. In this area there was an altar of the Winds. It is a fact that the western pediment of the temple with the images of the Thyiai faced this area.
Thyia must have been the original divinity of Delphoi. On the western pediment of the temple constructed after 373 B.C., there was portrayed Dionysos surrounded by the Thyiai, whereas on the eastern pediment there was Apollo surrounded by the Muses. The male divinities are a later addition. I shall show that Apollo of Delphoi was originally Amon of Thebes. Dionysos is a divinity of vegetation whose popularity grew by leaps and bounds in Greece on the eve of the historical period; he came to be associated with the Thyiai as nymphs of vegetation. Apollo is described as the father of Delphos, so that he must be the husband of Thyia or Melaina, Delphos’ mother. Thyia was identified with Rhodopis and as such she became a black woman, whereas her husband Amon became Apollo. With Apollo there were associated the Muses, who too originally were nymphs of vegetation. But Rhodopis had as husband also her brother Taharqa-Aisopos, and Aisopos had something to do with the Muses. One wonders whether the Egyptian cult of Osiris, the god of vegetation who dies and is reborn, had something to do with the introduction of Dionysus at Delphoi; Ploutarchos thought so.
The Thyiai or Thyiades were a group of women of Delphoi who performed dances in honor of the tree thyia. It is likely that originally all the women of Delphoi participated in the dance, but there was a special body of women who performed the rites. They had a leader; one of these leaders was the wise priestess Kleo, initiated into the mysteries of Egypt, to whom Ploutarchos dedicated his treatises On Isis and Osiris and On the Virtue of Women. The number of the Thyiai may have been sixteen as the Thyiai of Elis who celebrated the festival Thyia in honor of Dionysos. In Athens too there was a body of Thyiai who in the autumn danced all the way to Delphoi to join their sisters. The Thyiai took some of the characteristics of the Bakchai who were the frenzied female followers of Dionysos. The main activity of the Thyiai was to dance through the mountains around Delphoi in the autumn months. Probably these are the mountains that used to be covered with thyia trees. In the fall evergreen trees which remain green are the symbol of the hope for the resurrection of nature. The celebrations involved the carrying of torches; an extremely resinous wood as that of thyia was ideal for the purpose. In this period of the year the cult of Thyia merged with that of Dionysos. Her season ended with the winter solstice, our Christmas, when there began the period dedicated to Apollo, divinity of the sun and the sky.
The relative decline of Thyia may have been influenced by the disappearance of the thyia trees. Perhaps the cut of the thyia had to be substituted by that of the similar juniper that was sacred to Dionysos. Dionysos had a mother and nurse called Thyone; scholars of Greek religion have noted that often when a divinity has been displaced by another, the first takes the role of the mother or nurse.
Homolle remarks that the Thyiai or Thyiades are nymphs of vegetation like the Dryades, Meliai, Daphnaiai, and Rhoiai, all personifications of plants. The dance of the Thyiai is compared by the ancient with that of the Karyatides, who danced in honor of the karya, walnut tree.
12. Nothing could speak more eloquently about the method with which classical studies are conducted in this century than the fact that no scholar ever took the trouble to investigate which kind of tree is the thyia. This neglect becomes simply scandalous when one considers that in the area facing the obols, the area where there was a column with the statue of Phryne, there were found the pieces of a column which was called Colonne Vegetale by the French excavators, because it represents a tree. The column collapsed in the earthquake of 373 B.C., but it had been erected not many years earlier; all the main pieces have been found and the reconstructed column is the most striking object at the Museum of Delphoi where it occupies the central position.
The column is quite unusual from the artistic point of view. It consists of six fluted drums; from the juncture of each drum there sprouts a circle of leaves. At the top the column becomes a thick cluster of leaves from which there emerge three dancing women. The three dancers circle the cluster facing outwards, and it is clear that the artist intended them to form one body with the vegetation. The grace of the column is to be found in the way in which the stem succeeds in expressing in marble the life and softness of vegetable matter; this life and softness become further accentuated at the top, where, finally, it breaks into the sprightly dance of the women. The central idea is that of Metamorphosis: metamorphosis of the tree into women and of the women into the tree. The left hand of each of the women holds the edge of her brief robe, the right hand is raised to steady a tall crown of leaves encircling the head. These crowns of leaves were intended to be the support for the cauldron of a golden tripod; the three legs of the tripod enclosed the upper part of the column, forming a kind of cage around the women.
There is no longer any question that the column has been reconstructed correctly. There is general agreement that the column was erected after the year 400 B.C. and fell to pieces during the earthquake that ruined Delphoi in 373 B.C. A strong argument has been put forth to consider the column a work of Kallimachos, the sculptor to whom is traditionally ascribed the invention of the Korinthian capital. In spite of the agreement on essential factual data, a recent survey of opinion of what the column represents and what significance its dedication had, comes to the conclusion that the column is one of the most enigmatic objects of Delphoi.
The amazing fact is that one has written article after article about the esthetics of the column and their meaning in the development of Greek art, at times linking it with the origin of the Korinthian capital; but no effort has been made to precise what the column is intended to represent. One has constructed elaborate esthetic theories, that is, theories about representational forms, without the least concern with what was to be represented. One never stopped to consider that the artist had a problem in dealing with a tree with specific botanic characteristics; these characteristics form the background of the esthetic elaboration. Those who claim that as lovers of beauty they cannot be concerned with the vulgar problem of the botanical identification, have missed the main point of the artistic achievement.
When the column was first discovered Paul Perdrizet suggested that the three dancing women are Thyiai. But Homolle quoted a passage of Pliny that describes this type of figure as thuas (Thyiadas vocant et Caryatidas) in order to conclude that they are Karyatids, walnut women, because the statuary group represents a dance less violent than that of the Thyiades. But he grants there is no reason to believe that the dance of the Karyatides was a sedate one. The entire argument is pointless because, even if at times the Thyatides may have engaged in a frenzied dance, the artist portrayed them while performing a gracious step; this corresponds to the gentleness and elasticity of the column as a whole. Homolle constructed a complicated theory to explain why the Spartans dedicated to Delphoi a column celebrating the dancing women of the town of Karya. His main argument for calling the women Karyatides is that their headgear is made of palm leaves, but what is the connection between palm leaves and the walnut tree is a secret that Homolle has kept to himself. Another argument used by Homolle is that the three dancers are dressed in a short chiton similar to the one used by the sporty Spartan women, but he grants that this is the dress frequently used for dancing and running and that dancing followers of Artemis or Dionysos are represented wearing this costume. The Spartans have been brought into the picture because there is in the literature a reference to a famous sculpture by Kallimachos called Lacenae saltantes. A recent survey by Pierre de La Coste-Messelière reports that the dancers may be Thyiades, may be Spartan women, or may be the three Charites (Graces). This last theory would be linked with the fact that the column represents the herb silphion.
One has filled hundreds of pages of learned publications but one has never taken the trouble to look into a book of botany or walked into a botanical garden to see what a thyia tree looks like. One has brought into the discussion the silphion in order to explain obscura per obscurius, since the exact identification of the silphion, which looks more or less like parsley, has been considered a mystery and there are something like one hundred articles or essays on the subject. The column would be an offering of the city of Kyrene from which silphion was exported. Only Frederick Poulsen claims to have consulted a botanist, but either the reasoning of the botanist or the way in which his statements are reported is puzzling. The botanist would have recognized in the leaves that sprout at the junctions acanthus leaves, but excluded that the column portrayed acanthus because it is an herb that has no trunk with leaves sprouting directly from the ground. I may remark that the leaves at the joints of the column are of the type that archaeologists call acanthus leaves, but these leaves are so called by convention, since they are botanically different from the real leaves of acanthus. Poulsen suggested to the botanist that the leaves may be those of the mandrake, which is known from Egyptian representations and enjoyed great fame as a medicinal herb in antiquity, but the botanist excluded it. If I understand the report correctly, Poulsen did not give the botanist a chance to examine all the data, but asked him whether the column represented acanthus or mandrake and received a negative answer. Apparently the mandrake, which by any amount of imagination could not be compared with the column, was taken into consideration merely because it has been through the ages the object of superstitious beliefs. Anything which has to do with superstitious and hazy thinking is considered today befitting the study of Greek civilization.
When one considers the column as a whole, the most striking characteristic is the division into segments with leaves sprouting at the joints. Another important feature is the ribbing of the column drums, suggesting a similar ribbing in the stem of the tree. These are the salient traits of the thyia for which it has been called articulata: the division into striated segments which is emphasized by the leaves sprouting at the joints. These leaves are called the hair and the thyia is also called kallitris, beautiful hair. When the leaves are new they are spread apart, long sharp-pointed with aciculate shape; these are exactly the leaves that surround the heads of the dancing women, the leaves that Homolle called palm leaves. As the leaves grow old they overlap and become gradually shorter, wider, rounded, and finally take the appearance of scales adhering at the joints of the branch; these are the leaves as they appear at the joints of the column.
In conclusion, there is nothing mysterious about the Vegetal Column: It represents the thyia that used to be the sacred tree of Delphoi. The top part of the column, which forms its capital, represents the women called Thyiai or Thyiades who danced to stimulate by sympathetic magic the growing power of the tree. The cult of the Thyiai is the same as the many tree cults in Greece, with the only difference that at Delphoi the women identified themselves with the tree thyia.
The absolutely unusual artistic form of the Vegetal Column reflects the circumstance that at Delphoi a tree with its botanic features had paramount importance. It cannot be excluded that some specimens of thyia survived at Delphoi when the column was erected at the beginning of the fourth century B.C. The significant fact is that the column was erected in the area facing the iron obols, as a reminder of the reason that brought the Egyptians to Delphoi.