5

In Book XXIII of the Iliad, after Patroclos' body has been burnt, Achillês tells the Greeks to put out the pyre with wine:

Now the people were all gathering round Agamemnon. They made such noise and uproar that Achillês sat up and said:
"Atreidês, and you other princes, you must first quench the pyre with wine wherever the flames have touched. Then let us gather the bones of Patroclos Menoitidês, and be careful to find the right ones. [...]"
They did his bidding at once. First they quenched the pyre with wine wherever it had burnt and the ashes were deep; then weeping they gathered the bones of their gentle companion, and laid them covered with fat in a golden urn, which they wrapt up in fine linen and put away safely in the hut.
(translation by W.H.D. Rouse, 1938)

Why was it necessary to put it out using wine? What's the significance of quenching the pyre with wine instead of water?

2 Answers 2

4

Achilles is performing a prolonged libation to the gods, as happened in prior paragraphs to get the fire going (source of Rouse's translation).

But the pyre would not burn, and Achillês did not know what to do. At last he stood well away from the smouldering heap, and prayed to North Wind and West Wind promising them good sacrifices; many a libation he poured from his golden goblet, praying them to come and make the wood quickly catch fire, to burn the bodies.

The gods indeed intervene to ensure that the fire glows hot.

Her message given, away she flew, and the Winds rose with a devil of a noise and drove the clouds in a riot before them. They swooped upon the sea and raised the billows under their whistling blasts; they reached the Trojan coast and fell on the pyre till the flames roared again. All night long they beat upon the fire together blowing and whistling; all night long stood Achillês holding his goblet, and dipt into the golden mixer, and poured the wine on the ground, till the place was soaked, calling upon the soul of unhappy Patroclos. As a father laments while he burns the bones of his own son, newly wedded and now dead, to the grief of his bereaved parents, so Achillês lamented as he burnt the bones of Patroclos, stumbling up and down beside the pyre with sobbings and groanings.

Because these flames were granted by the gods, Achilles continued to make offerings to them in thanks for their divine favor (admittedly, that's my inference rather than directly stated in the text).

4
  • Could you include the exact source of these quotes (i.e. which translation)?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Mar 30, 2022 at 5:46
  • It was from home.ubalt.edu/NTYGFIT/ai_01_pursuing_fame/ai_01_tell/…, which doesn't list the translator. I'll grab the relevant passages from the Rouse translation. Commented Mar 30, 2022 at 11:32
  • It was the Robert Fagles translation (1990) with the versification removed. See pp. 565–566. Commented Mar 30, 2022 at 12:07
  • Ah, thank you. In this case, I feel it doesn't really matter, as both translations essentially have the same words (although I have seen at least one which mentions the initial libation merely as "pouring the wine upon the ground"). Commented Mar 30, 2022 at 12:09
0

This is a libation, a sacrifice or offering of liquids.

The outpouring of liquids, libation, though it has now disappeared from our culture, was one of the most common sacral acts during prehistoric times and especially in the civilizations of the Bronze Age.

Walter Burkert (1985). Greek Religion, p. 70. Harvard University Press.

Burkert explains the purpose of the ritual as follows:

the libation of wine before drinking is a clear instance of a first fruit offering in its negative aspect. What is important is not that the libation reaches its destination, but that the offerer surrenders himself to a higher will in the act of serene wastefulness. The libations to the dead therefore signal a recognition of the power of the dead. What distinguishes the outpouring from other gifts of food is its irretrievability: what is spilled cannot be brought back. The libation is therefore the purest and highest form of renunciation.

Burkert, p. 72.

Libation vessels took many different forms, but in ancient Greece a common form was the φιάλη (phiale), a shallow dish with an indentation on the base to make it easier to grip when pouring out the offering.

Description follows.
Painted ceramic phiale with yellow and red dolphins and white octopuses. Eretria (Euboea), c. 510–500 BCE. In the Louvre, Paris. Photo by Jastrow.

Libation gives its name to Aeschylus’ play The Libation Bearers, in which Electra asks the chorus of handmaidens how she should make an offering to her murdered father Agamemnon:

You handmaidens who set our house in order, since you are here as my attendants in this rite of supplication, give me your counsel on this: what should I say while I pour these offerings of sorrow? How shall I find gracious words, how shall I entreat my father? Shall I say that I bring these offerings to a loved husband from a loving wife—from my own mother?† I do not have the assurance for that, nor do I know what I should say as I pour this libation onto my father’s tomb. Or shall I speak the words that men are accustomed to use: “To those who send these honors may he return benefits”—a gift, indeed, to match their evil? Or, in silence and dishonor, even as my father perished, shall I pour them out for the earth to drink and then retrace my steps, like one who carries refuse away from a rite, hurling the vessel from me with averted eyes?

Aeschylus (458 BCE). The Libation Bearers, 84–98. Translated by Herbert Weir Smyth (1926). Perseus Digital Library.

† This is sarcasm: Electra’s mother Klytemnestra murdered her father Agamemnon.

Libations were made to the gods as well as to the dead. For example, earlier in the Iliad, Achilles made a libation to Zeus before sending out Patroclus to fight the Trojans:

And in the front of all two warriors arrayed themselves for war, even Patroclus and Automedon, both of one mind, to war in the forefront of the Myrmidons. But Achilles went into his hut, and opened the lid of a chest, fair and richly-dight, that silver-footed Thetis had set on his ship for him to carry with him, whem she had filled it well with tunics, and cloaks to keep off the wind, and woollen rugs. Therein had he a fair-fashioned cup, wherefrom neither was any other man wont to drink the flaming wine, nor was he wont to pour drink offerings to any other of the gods save only to father Zeus. This cup he then took from the chest and cleansed it first with sulphur, and thereafter washed it in fair streams of water; and himself he washed his hands, and drew flaming wine. Then he made prayer, standing in the midst of the court, and poured forth the wine, looking up to heaven; and not unmarked was he of Zeus, that hurleth the thunderbolt.

Homer. Iliad XVI.219–232. Translated by Samuel Butler (1924). Perseus Digital Library.

The most detailed account of the act of libation is in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, where the chorus of elders of Colonus give Oedipus instructions for making a libation to appease the Eumenides (the Furies):

Chorus. Then make atonement to these divinities, to whom you have come first, and on whose ground you have trespassed.

Oedipus. With what rites? Instruct me, strangers.

Chorus. First, from an ever-flowing spring bring sacred drink-offerings, borne in ritually pure hands.

Oedipus. And when I have gotten this unmixed draught?

Chorus. There are bowls, the work of a skilled craftsman; crown their edges and the handles at either side.

Oedipus. With olive branches, or woollen cloths, or in what way?

Chorus. Take the freshly-shorn wool of a ewe-lamb.

Oedipus. Good; and then to what last rite shall I proceed?

Chorus. Pour the drink-offerings, with your face to the dawn.

Oedipus. Shall I pour them with these vessels of which you speak?

Chorus. Yes, in three streams; but the last vessel—

Oedipus. With what shall I fill this, before I set it down? Teach me this also.

Chorus. With water and honey; but add no wine.

Oedipus. And when the ground under the dark shade has drunk these?

Chorus. Three times lay on it nine branches of olive with both your hands, and meanwhile make this prayer.

Sophocles (c. 429 BCE). Oedipus at Colonus 469–484. Translated by Richard Jebb (1889). Perseus Digital Library.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.