Figs and honey

My name is not just an expression of who I am, but has served as an infallible guide through the maddening twists and turns of my spiritual life. For instance, I’ve only been doing and talking about Starry Bear stuff for a couple of years now, right? Well, I actually found one of the first breadcrumbs that would eventually lead here almost a decade ago:

For instance, Sannion the son of Megakles (SEG 43.767), who lived in the Thrakian Chersonesos during the early Hellenistic era, was a prominent citizen of his town and the burial stelai of several generations of his family have come to light. His wife was named Mendiko, which is taken as a theophoric honoring Bendis (the letters B and M tend to get swapped out in the local dialect) whose cult was closely allied with that of Dionysos and Sabazios and involved ecstatic dances, trance possession and torchlit processions at night. The fondness of Sannion’s family for Dionysos went far beyond that – he named his sons Dionysios and Apollonios, with Dionysios recurring several times down through the generations.

The most recent editors of the Sannion family stelai gave an interpretation of the name which was novel to me. They derived it from the Greek word saino which means “to fawn upon; flattery” and suggested it was a derogatory term for a sycophant. The sukophantes was a servile position in the court of Greek monarchs; he was a toady and yes-man whose job it was to praise everything the king said and provide entertainment – usually of a low and vulgar nature. In fact the word derives from sukon (“fig”) and phaino (“I show, demonstrate”), referring to “showing the fig,” a gesture made by sticking the thumb between the first two fingers which has certain obvious sexual connotations. In other words he was a court jester. This is interesting for reasons that will become apparent momentarily; I also find it interesting, of course, because of my great fondness for the Ptolemaic Dynasty. You wouldn’t be far off the mark if you called me the Ptolemies’ sycophant.

Regarding Sannion’s hometown, Linda Maria Gigante writes:

Ancient Chersonesos Taurike is located on the western Crimean Peninsula along the northern Black Sea coast (present-day Ukraine). It was founded in the later 5th century BC by Greek settlers, probably from Herakleia Pontica and Boeotian Delion. Chersonesos’ growth and prosperity were primarily due to wine-production and its political structure was democratic. Probably because of a Scythian attack in the early 3rd century BC, new fortifications were built (mid 3rd – 2nd BC), enlarging the city. To build the walls, particularly the inner wall of Tower #17 (Tower of Zeno), more than 800 painted grave stelai and other monuments were removed from a nearby necropolis and, in many cases, carefully broken, laid in layers, and placed in conformity with their original location.

Although much of my focus has been on the Ukraine and neighboring territories where Bacchic cults flourished:

The Budini are a great and populous nation; the eyes of them all are bright blue, and they are ruddy. They have a city built of wood, called Gelonus. The wall of it is three and three quarters miles in length on each side of the city; this wall is high and all of wood; and their houses are wooden, and their temples; for there are temples of Greek Gods among them, furnished in Greek style with images and altars and shrines of wood; and they honor Dionysos every two years with festivals and revelry. (Herodotos, The Histories 4.108)

The southern portion of the Black Sea also holds some significance for the tradition, being the home of Medeia and Kírkē, after all.

And also the Sanni. 

Regarding this population and their territory Pliny the Elder (Natural History 6.4.1) writes:

Then come the rivers Tasonius and Melanthius, and 80 miles from Amisus the town of Pharnacea, the fortress and river Tripolis, the fortress and river Philocalia and the fortress of Liviopolis, which is not on a river, and 100 miles from Pharnacea the free town of Trebizond, shut in by a vast mountain range. Beyond Trebizond begins the Armenochalybes tribe, and 30 miles further Greater Armenia. On the coast before reaching Trebizond is the river Pyxites, and beyond Trebizond the Charioteer Sanni, and the river Absarrus with the fortress of the same name in its gorge, 140 miles from Trapezus. Behind the mountains of this dis­trict is Liberia, and on the coast the Charioteers, the Ampreutae and the Lazi, the rivers Acampseon, Isis, Mogrus and Bathys, the Colchian tribes, the town of Matium, the River of Heracles and the cape of the same name, and the Rion, the most celebrated river of the Black Sea region. The Rion rises among the Moschi and is navigable for ships of any size for 38½ miles, and a long way further for smaller vessels; it is crossed by 120 bridges. It had a considerable number of towns on its banks, the most notable being Tyndaris, Circaeus, Cygnus, and at its mouth Phasis; but the most famous was Aea, 15 miles from the sea, where two very large tributaries join the Rion from opposite directions, the Hippos and the Cyaneos. At the present day the only town on the Rion is Surium, which itself also takes its name from a river that enters the Rion at the point up to which we said that it is navigable for large vessels. It also receives other tributaries remarkable for their size and number, among them the Glaucus; at its mouth is an island with no name, 70 miles from the mouth of the Absarrus. Then there is another river, the Charicis, the Saltiae tribe called of old the Pine-seed-eaters, and another tribe, the Sanni; the river Chobus flowing from the Caucasus through the Suani territory; then Rhoan, the Cegritic district, the rivers Sigania, Thersos, Astelphus and Chrysorrhoas, the Absilae tribe, the fortress of Sebastopol 100 miles from Phasis, the Sanicae tribe, the town of Cygnus, the river and town of Penius; and then tribes of the Charioteers with a variety of names.

Note that they have a settlement called Liberia (city of Liber = Dionysos, whose festival the Liberalia celebrated the God’s discovery of bees and honey) and that one of their tribes was named the Pine-seed Eaters, pine of course being sacred to the God and good for bees. Then there is the Glaucus River, which naturally reminds one of Ariadne’s other, blue-grey brother.

But Glaucus, while he was yet a child, in chasing a mouse fell into a jar of honey and was drowned. On his disappearance Minos made a great search and consulted diviners as to how he should find him. The Curetes told him that in his herds he had a cow of three different colors, and that the man who could best describe that cow’s color would also restore his son to him alive. So when the diviners were assembled, Polyidus, son of Coeranus, compared the color of the cow to the fruit of the bramble, and being compelled to seek for the child he found him by means of a sort of divination. But Minos declaring that he must recover him alive, he was shut up with the dead body. And while he was in great perplexity, he saw a serpent going towards the corpse. He threw a stone and killed it, fearing to be killed himself if any harm befell the body. But another serpent came, and, seeing the former one dead, departed, and then returned bringing a herb, and placed it on the whole body of the other; and no sooner was the herb so placed upon it than the dead serpent came to life. Surprised at this sight, Polyidus applied the same herb to the body of Glaucus and raised him from the dead. (Apollodoros, The Library 3.3.1)

This makes me think of mad-honey (and Hybla, for some reason) which just so happens to be what the Sanni were famed for:

There is another kind of honey, found in the same district of Pontus among the people called Sanni, which from the madness it produces is called maenomenon. This poison is supposed to be extracted from the flowers of the oleanders which abound in the woods. Though these people supply the Romans with wax by way of tribute, the honey, because of its deadly nature, they do not sell. (Pliny the Elder, Natural History 21.45.1)

In fact, it was one of their most potent weapons, as Strabo describes in his Geography (12.3.18):

I have already described Colchis and the coast which lies above it. About Trapezus and Pharnacia are situated the Tibarani and Chaldaei and Sanni, in earlier times called Macrones, and Lesser Armenia; and the Appaitae, in earlier times called the Cercitae, are fairly close to these regions. Two mountains cross the country of these people, not only the Scydises, a very rugged mountain, which joins the Moschian Mountains above Colchis (its heights are occupied by the Heptacomitae), but also the Paryadres, which extends from the region of Sidene and Themiscyra to Lesser Armenia and forms the eastern side of Pontus. Now all these peoples who live in the mountains are utterly savage, but the Heptacomitae are worse than the rest. Some also live in trees or turrets; and it was on this account that the ancients called them “Mosynoeci,” the turrets being called mosyni. They live on the flesh of wild animals and on nuts; and they also attack wayfarers, leaping down upon them from their scaffolds. The Heptacomitae cut down three maniples of Pompey’s army when they were passing through the mountainous country; for they mixed bowls of the crazing honey which is yielded by the tree-twigs, and placed them in the roads, and then, when the soldiers drank the mixture and lost their senses, they attacked them and easily disposed of them.

A savage race (even by the standards of other barbarians) who live on the flesh of wild beasts and use mad-honey to intoxicate and then murder their enemies – that sure sounds like the kind of people who would venerate the Frenzied God!

This also calls to mind the method employed by Zeus to defeat and unman his father – which has always made me suspect that in the Anatolian original of this myth Dionysos also used honey:

In him there had been resistless might, and a fierceness of disposition beyond control, a lust made furious, and derived from both sexes. He violently plundered and laid waste; he scattered destruction wherever the ferocity of his disposition had led him; he regarded not Gods nor men, nor did he think anything more powerful than himself; he contemned earth, heaven, and the stars. Now, when it had been often considered in the councils of the Gods, by what means it might be possible either to weaken or to curb his audacity, Liber, the rest hanging back, takes upon himself this task. With the strongest wine he drugs a spring much resorted to by Acdestis where he had been wont to assuage the heat and burning thirst roused in him by sport and hunting. Hither runs Acdestis to drink when he felt the need; he gulps down the draught too greedily into his gaping veins. Overcome by what he is quite unaccustomed to, he is in consequence sent fast asleep. Liber is near the snare which he had set; over his foot he throws one end of a halter formed of hairs, woven together very skilfully; with the other end he lays hold of his privy members. When the fumes of the wine passed off, Acdestis starts up furiously, and his foot dragging the noose, by his own strength he robs himself of his sex; with the tearing asunder of these parts there is an immense flow of blood; both are carried off and swallowed up by the earth; from them there suddenly springs up, covered with fruit, a pomegranate tree. (Arnobius of Sicca, Against the Heathen 5.5-6)

But I digress. 


One thought on “Figs and honey

Comments are closed.