In ancient Greek mythology, ambrosia (Greek: ἀμβροσία) is sometimes the food, sometimes the drink, of the Greek gods (or demigods), often depicted as conferring ageless immortality upon whoever consumes it. It was brought to the gods inOlympus by doves, so it may have been thought of in the Homeric tradition as a kind of divine exhalation of the Earth.
Ambrosia is very closely related to the gods’ other form of sustenance, nectar. The two terms may not have originally been distinguished; though in Homer‘s poems nectar is usually the drink and ambrosia the food of the gods; it was with ambrosia Hera “cleansed all defilement from her lovely flesh”, and with ambrosia Athena prepared Penelope in her sleep, so that when she appeared for the final time before her suitors, the effect of the years had been stripped away and they were inflamed with passion at the sight of her. On the other hand, in Alcman, nectar is the food, and in Sappho and Anaxandrides, ambrosia is the drink. When a character in Aristophanes‘ Knights says, “I dreamed the goddess poured ambrosia over your head— out of a ladle”, the homely and realistic ladle brings the ineffable moment to ground with a thump.
The consumption of ambrosia was typically reserved for divine beings. Upon his assumption into immortality on Olympus, Heracles is given ambrosia by Athena, while the hero Tydeus is denied the same thing when the goddess discovers him eating human brains. In one version of the myth of Tantalus, part of Tantalus’ crime is that after tasting ambrosia himself, he attempts to steal some away to give to other mortals. Those who consume ambrosia typically had not blood in their veins, butichor.
Both nectar and ambrosia are fragrant, and may be used as perfume: in the Odyssey Menelaus and his men are disguised as seals in untanned seal skins, “and the deadly smell of the seal skins vexed us sore; but the goddess saved us; she brought ambrosia and put it under our nostrils.” Homer speaks of ambrosial raiment, ambrosial locks of hair, even the gods’ ambrosial sandals.
Among later writers, ambrosia has been so often used with generic meanings of “delightful liquid” that such late writers as Athenaeus, Paulus and Dioscurides employ it as a technical terms in contexts of cookery, medicine, and botany.
Additionally, some modern ethnomycologists, such as Danny Staples, identify ambrosia with the untameable hallucinogenic mushroom Amanita muscaria: “it was the food of the gods, their ambrosia, and nectar was the pressed sap of its juices”, Staples asserts.
W. H. Roscher thinks that both nectar and ambrosia were kinds of honey, in which case their power of conferring immortality would be due to the supposed healing and cleansing power of honey, which is in fact anti-septic, and because fermented honey (mead) preceded wine as an entheogen in the Aegean world: on some Minoan seals goddesses had bee faces: compare Merope and Melissa.
Propolis, a hive product also known for its sweet fruity taste, cures sore throats, and there are many modern proprietary medicines which use honey as an ingredient.
The concept of an immortality drink is attested in at least two Indo-European areas: Greek and Sanskrit. The Greek ἀμβροσία (ambrosia) is semantically linked to the Sanskrit अमृत (amrita) as both words denote a drink that gods use to achieve immortality. The two words may be derived from the same Indo-European form *ṇ-mṛ-to- : immortal (n- : negative prefix equivalent to the prefix a- in both Greek and Sanskrit; mṛ : zero grade of *mer- : to die; and -to- : adjectival suffix).
However, the connection that has derived ambrosia from the Greek prefix a- (“not”) and the word brotos (“mortal”), hence the food or drink of the immortals, has been found merely coincidental by some modern linguists.
The classical scholar Arthur Woollgar Verrall denied that there is any clear example in which the word ambrosios necessarily means immortal, and preferred to explain it as “fragrant,” a sense which is always suitable. If so, the word may be derived from the Semitic MBR, giving “amber“, which when burned is resinously fragrant (compare “ambergris“) to which Eastern nations attribute miraculous properties. In Europe, honey-colored amber, sometimes far from its natural source, was already a grave gift in Neolithic times and was still worn in the 7th century as a talisman by druidic Frisians, though St. Eligius warned “No woman should presume to hang amber from her neck.”
Other examples in mythology
- In one version of the story of the birth of Achilles, Thetis anoints the infant with ambrosia and passes the child through the fire to make him immortal—a familiar Phoenician custom—but Peleus, appalled, stops her, leaving only his heel unimmortalised (Argonautica 4.869-879).
- In the Iliad xvi, Apollo washes the black blood from the corpse of Sarpedon and anoints it with ambrosia, readying it for its dreamlike return to Sarpedon’s native Lycia. Similarly, Thetis anoints the corpse of Patroclus in order to preserve it. Additionally, both ambrosia and nectar are depicted as unguents (xiv. 170; xix. 38).
- In the Odyssey, Calypso is described as having “spread a table with ambrosia and set it by Hermes, and mixed the rosy-red nectar.” It is ambiguous whether he means the ambrosia itself is rosy-red, or if he is describing a rosy-red nectar Hermes drinks along with the ambrosia. Later, Circe mentions to Odysseus that a flock of doves are the bringers of ambrosia to Olympus.
- In the Odyssey (ix.345–359), Polyphemus likens the wine given to him by Odysseus to ambrosia and nectar.
- One of the impieties of Tantalus, according to Pindar, was that he offered to his guests the ambrosia of the Deathless Ones, a theft akin to that of Prometheus, Karl Kerenyi noted (in Heroes of the Greeks).
- In the Homeric hymn to Aphrodite, the goddess uses “ambrosian oil” as perfume, “divinely sweet, and made fragrant for her sake.”
Lykourgos of Thrace and Ambrosia
Lykourgos (Lycurgus) of Thrace, an antagonist of Dionysus, forbade the cult of Dionysus, whom he drove from Thrace, and was driven mad by the god. In his fit of insanity he killed his son, whom he mistook for a stock of mature ivy, and Ambrosia, who was transformed into the grapevine.