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In Book XIV of The Iliad, when Hera is preparing to distract Zeus on Mount Ida, her preparations are described:

She closed the doors, and first she washed every speck and stain from her lovely body with a bath of ambrosia. She annointed her body with oil, ambrosial, soft, scented with perfumes—do but stir it, and the fragrance fills the whole palace of Zeus with its brazen floor, heaven above and earth beneath! She combed her shining hair, and plaited long ambrosial braids to hang from her immortal head. About her she draped an ambrosial robe, which Athena had made so smooth and embroidered with beautiful patterns; she fastened this with golden pins at the breast. She put a girdle round her waist with a hundred dangling tassels, and hung in her dainty ears earrings with three mulberry-drops, delicate and graceful.
(translation by W.H.D. Rouse, 1938)

The oil, braids, and robe that she uses are all described as "ambrosial". Ambrosia is the food of the gods (or drink, if Hera is bathing in it); what does it mean that these are specifically described as "ambrosial"? The earrings, for instance, aren't described as ambrosial, but are "delicate and graceful".

Why are these things specifically described as "ambrosial", and what does it mean in this context?

1 Answer 1

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“Ambrosial” means “relating to the gods” in general, and does not only apply to their food.

ἀμβρόσιος […] poetic form of ἄμβροτος immortal, divine, rarely of persons […] in Homer, night and sleep are called ambrosial, divine, as gifts of the gods […] further, everything belonging to the gods is called ambrosial, as their hair, Il. 1. 529 their robes, sandals, 5. 338, 21. 507, 24. 341; their anointing oil, 14. 172, 23. 187; their voice and song, h. Hom. 27. 18, Hes. Th. 69; the fodder and the mangers of their horses, Il. 5. 369, 8. 434:—also, of all things divinely excellent or beautiful, Od. 18. 193

George Liddell & Robert Scott (1890). A Greek–English Lexicon, p. 74. Oxford: Clarendon.

The same meanings apply in English:

ambrosial, adj. 2.a. Of or relating to heaven or paradise; heavenly, celestial; divine.

b. spec. Chiefly Classical Mythology. Of food, drink, or anointing oil: of, relating to, or worthy of the gods; divine. Also occasionally of hair: anointed or perfumed with exquisite oil.

Oxford English Dictionary.

So Hera’s robe is “ambrosial” because Hera is a goddess and therefore everything relating to her is ambrosial in this sense. No doubt her earrings are ambrosial too, but Homer probably felt he had made his point.

As for the “ambrosia” that Hera washes herself with on line 170, Liddell and Scott write:

ἀμβροσία […] Ambrosia (i.e. immortality […]), the food of the gods, as nectar was their drink […] therefore withheld from mortals, as containing the principle of immortality Od. 5. 93 […] It was sometimes used as an unguent, Il. 14. 170 […] 2. in religious rites, a mixture of water, oil, and various fruits Ath. 473 C; and so some understand it in Il. 14. 170.

This is the passage from Athanaeus:

There is also the καδίσκος. Philemon, in his treatise before mentioned, says that this too is a species of cup. And it is a vessel in which they place the Ctesian Jupiters, as Anticlides says, in his Book on Omens, where he writes,— “The statuettes of Jupiter Ctesius ought to be erected in this manner. One ought to place a new cadiscus with two ears …—and crown the ears with white wool; and on the right shoulder, and on the forehead … and put on it what you find there, and pour ambrosia over it. But ambrosia is compounded of pure water, and oil, and all kinds of fruits; and these you must pour over.”

Athanaeus of Naucratis (c. 200). The Deipnosophists; or, Banquet of the Learned, volume II, p. 754. Translated by C. D. Yonge (1854). London: Henry G. Bohn.

Anticlides, from whom Athanaeus quotes this description of the composition of ambrosia, lived around the third century BCE, so there may be no connection with Hera’s bath in the Iliad, which had been set down four or five centuries previously.

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    Rouse's translation seems to be as literal and close to the Greek as possible (Wikipedia calls it "plain English" which may be its intent but isn't exactly right). It doesn't consider literary niceties which might suggest finding another word sometimes.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Mar 24, 2022 at 13:24
  • 2
    @StuartF See this answer for more about Rouse's translation strategy. Commented Mar 24, 2022 at 13:25

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