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The Use of Obeliskoi


Numismatists have failed to consider that the long thin rectangular spits found at the Heraion were an object of daily use in Greece, both in pre-classical and in classical times. The term obolos refers to a pointed tool, a spike; the word which has parallel forms obelos and odelos, is derived from the verb balló and its parallel form – dello, the basic meaning of which is ”to prick.” The word is etymologically connected with belone, ”needle,” belos, ”missile, pointed weapon,” oxybeles, ”sharp-pointed,” and dellis, ”wasp-like insect”; in relation to the last term it must be kept in mind that the myth of Io persecuted by the gadfly of Hera is connected with the spits found at the Herion. The spits were also called obeliskoi; the suffix –iskos is used to indicate that the obolos is of a particular kind. Pierre Chantraine has pointed out that the suffix –iskos, even though grammatically a diminutive ending, is commonly used in technological language to create a specific term for an instrument of defininte shape and purpose. At time sthe specification expressed by this suffix attached to obolos is conveyed by using the adjective bouporos, ”ox-piercing,”; texts mentions bouporoi obeloi and bouporoi obeliskoi. the adjective bouporos is formed from peiro. ”to transfix with a broach.”

Svoronos understood that the oboloi found at the Heraion were ox-goads, and this notion was repeated by the numismatist Kurt Regling. This error is not of minor importance, because it is essential to the proper understanding of the economic function of the oboloi to realize that they were objects of daily use, something that the mass of people could not do without. In the early age of Greece, when a large percentage of the population was composed of shepherds, there were few objects of metal that were needed by everybody; among these few there were the ”ox-piercing spikes,” since thjey were necessary for the cooking of meat.

The term obolos could be translated as ”roasting spit,” but this translation needs some qualification. The oboloi were used to cook mean on the fire by a method different from any used by us. Their destination was not that of being mainly instruments of roasting in the sense of slowly revolving over the fire a whole animal or big parts of it. The animal, which coulbe be apig, a goat, a sheep as well as an ox, was cut into small pieces according to definite rules and each part was handled differently according to its nature. When the fire is burning lively, selected parts, among which are the thighs and the viscera, are spitted on the tip of the obolos and scorched by the flame. This operation is called kaiein, ”to burn.” After the fire has died down, the remaining parts are tied together with strongs around an obolos and roasted in our sense; this operation is called optan, ”to broil,” by Homer and epantrakizein, ”to place upon the embers,” by later writers. In this second type of operation the obolos rests on supports (krateutai). But in the first operation, which was the important one, the oboloi were held in the hands. The idiom ton thermon tou obelou hairesthai ”to grasp the hot end of the obelos,” implies that the operation of scorcing the meat on the flame was so rapid that only one end of the metal spit would get hot.

The study of vascular representations of sacrifices which repeat the operations of cooking indicates that even though the pieces cooked in this way were small, they were usually spitted on more than one obolos. The reason for using several oboloi for a single piece of meat is that they served also as skewers, keeping the parts in place with a proper alternancy of fat and lean. Judging from the pictures most of the parts are held by a number of oboloi varying from two to about half a dozen. There is one specific portion that appears twisted as a rag around a single obolos; this is probably the part that was dedicated to the gods and charred completely.

2. Because several oboloi were needed for cooking a single animal, the oboloi were kept in sets. This fact has been called to attention by the scholar of Celtic archeology, Joseph Déchelette, on the basis of bronze and iron specimens found in a territory extending from Central Italy to the German Palatinate and to southern Spain. Most of the sets come from Etruscan territory or from Italic or Celtic territory under direct Etruscan influence. Déchelette concludes that all sets found throughout Western Europe are imitations of Etruscan models; I would rather say that probably the sets wee produced mainly in the mining centers of Etruria and occasionally imitated in other areas. The sets studied by Déchelette, to which I may add as set of the Metropolitan Museum of New York, may be divided into three types according to the shape of the butt. The three types are also represented on Greek vases. All specimens of these three types, whether they are of bronze or of iron, have approximately the same length and weight as those found at the Heraion. But the specimens of the Heraion have a point shaped like the head of a spear, whereas in the three types the point is tapered like that of a pencil. The butt may be plain, as in a set found in the Saôme River; this type is commonly portrayed on Greek vases. In this case the pieces of a set are held together by being inserted into a tube-like holder. The butt may be thickened and pierced by a hole through which three is inserted the peg of a clevis; all pieces found in Italy belong to this type, but it is also represented on Greek vases. Finally, there is a type in which the butt resembles the handle of a sword; this type has been found in southern Spain and is depicted on Greek vases and on the Etruscan metal vase known as Situla della Certosa. It appears that the oboloi had to have some feature that made possible their tying together in a bundle. In the case of the pieces of the Heraion this feature must have been the spear-like point; this feature would make possible to keep the pieces together by sliding them into a metal ring. In a vase decorated by the artist known as the Pan-painter, oboloi similar to those of the Heraion are held together by sliding metal rings. Since the Pan-painter, who lived in the first half of the fifth century B.C. has also portrayed oboloi of the sword-handle type, it cannot be presued at the present state of the evidence that there were specific preferences for one type or the other according to historical period or geographical reason.

The oboloi came in sets, so that the use of a single obolos was an indication of extreme poverty. In order to indicate that the great Theban general Epaminondas died in a state of destitution, it is realted that in his house there was found only an obolos of iron. This anecdote cannot be construed as indicating that iron money was in use in Boiotia in the fourth century B.C. Seltman understands that the entire cash property of Epaminondas amounted to an obol. In classical Greece poor people did not eat meat, except when they shared in public sacrifices; hence, they may have used oboloi for baking bread. Poor people may not even have baked their bread in an oven, but have simply toasted the dough spitted on an obolos. The bread so prepared was called obelias, and loaves of it, left on the spits, were carried in sacred processions by obeliaphoroi. This method of preparing bread was used by soldiers in the field.

3. Since the main function of the oboloi was that of being spits for the cooking of meat, they came in sets. In the Gallic cemetary of Montefortino there have been found sets of six, seven and eight pieces. But Homer in two identical lines describes the oboloi as coming in a set of five pieces called pempóbolon; as Déchette notices, some interpreters of Homer have erroneously understood that the pempóbolon is a five-pronged fork. A gloss to Homer explains that only the people of Aiolia used the pempóbolon, called pentobolon in Attic Greek, whereas the other Greeks usually employed the triobolon. The sets were called by terms such as triobolon or pentobolon according to the number of the components. From a fragment of a comedy in which a cook is asked to have ready twelve obeliskoi for a feast, Déchelette tries to infer that in Greece the oboloi came in sets of six; but this is not a valid inference.

The evidence in general indicates that in the same geographical area there could be sets composed of different numbers of pieces. But probably a set of three pieces was the smallest one that could be considered adequate. If it is true that sets of three peices were the most common in Greece, this could be one of the reasons why when the currency of iron oboloi was related to the silver drachma, there was established an equivalence of six iron oboloi to a silver drachma. When an equivalence was established between the currency of oboloi and the silver curency, a set of six oboloi was made equal to a drachma of silver. As a result the sixth of a drachma of silver received the name of obolos. As a carryover of the terminology employed for the spits, the half drachma is more often called triobolon than hemidrachmon. The old usage may explain why in an inscription of Oropos the sum of a drachma and a half of silver is called enneobolon.

There is some evidece that oboloi of iron were used also in Assyria. In describing a treasure of bronze and iron objects that he discovered in 1845 in the excavation of a chamber of the north--west palace of Kalah (Nimrod), Austen Henry Layard mentions thin iron rods adhering together in bundles. In 1877 St. John V. Day mentioned the rods found by Layard and remarked: ”several such bundles of iron rods, recently shown to me by Mr. Newton, Keeper of the Greek Antiquities, have been found at a later period in Greece.” It is not clear whether Day saw at the British Museum the rods found by Layard or whether the curator of the British Museum, Newton, had seen them.

4. Déchelette believes that a set of oboloi was called drachma. But here he contradicts himself, since he has properly observed that a set of six oboloi would be called hexobolon. He follows the opinion expressed by Herakleides of Pontos in his work on Etymologies. Herakleides observes correctly that the monetary unit obolos gets its name from the fact that originally there was a currency of roasting spits, but he is not correct when he continues by explaining that the unit of six oboloi called drachme got its name from the fact that six roasting spits filled up the hand and hence were called drax, ”handful.” Herakleides was indeed ingenious, but he was not a linguist.

Julius Oppert pointed out that the term drachme is of Semitic origin. It is a matter of the Semitic root DRK which means ”to thread, to step, to stretch a bow.” I have reported that the Hebrew term derekh refers to the sexagesimal division of the circle and to the ”way” in the sense of ”order” of the cosmos and that in Arabic daraga is the ”degree.” In the Arabic translations of Greek scientific works daraga renders the Greek moira, which means ”degree” and more generally ”portion, part, right quantity.” In Greek moira is also cosmic order, the physical necessity that binds even the gods. The Semitic origin of the Greek term drachma is clearly indicated by the variety of its spellings: drachmé, darchmé, darchma, darkma, darkna. Particularly significant is the uncertainty between chi and kappa which is most unusual in truly Greek works, but normal in the rendering into Greek of a Semitic kaph.

The term drachma has the same origin as the term daric applied to Persian coins. Some Greek authors associated the name of the coin which came to be spelled as dareikos with King Dareios of Persia; but this is a popular etymology which is in conflict with the spelling darikos. In a Spartan inscription of the fifth century B.C. (IG V, I,1) the term is spelled as darichos; the inference that Persian darics were used as currency in Sparta may try to explain the occurrence of the term in this inscription, but not its spelling, characteristic of the Greek rendering of a Semitic kaph. The term dariku, referring to some measuring unit, occurs in cuneiform texts that are older than the origin of the Persian monarchy. In Akkadian dariku also has the meaning of ”way,” like the Hebrew derekh.

In the Old Testament the terms adarkon and darkmón refer both to the Persian daric and to the Hellenistic drachma. Biblical scholars have wasted a good deal of energy trying to prove that either one of the words means daric and that conversely the other means drachma, and that at times the text uses one for the other because of an error. There is a Phenician inscription of the Peiraios of Athens (dated 96 B.C.) in which the Greek drachma is rendered by DRKMNM (line 3) and DRKNM (line 6). Ernest Renan has disposed of the contention of Philippe Berger that in this inscription the first term refers to drachmai and the second to darics.

The bowman that appears on Persian coins by which they were called toxotai, ”archers,” by the Greeks is a reference to the meaning of the name of the coin. Solomon Gandz, who has published the only surviving Hebrew treatise of mathematics that is not influenced by Greek science, the Studies of Numbers (Mishnath Hammidóth), has observed that the expressions referring to entities such as an arc and its chord are taken from archery: a segment of circumference is called ”bow” and the chord is called ”string of the bow.”


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