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
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.