In ancient Greek mythology, ambrosia (Greek: ἀμβροσία) is sometimes the food or drink of the Greek gods (or demigods), often depicted as conferring immortality upon whoever consumed it. It was brought to the gods in Olympus by doves, so it may have been thought of in the Homeric tradition as a kind of divine exhalation of the Earth.
Ambrosia is sometimes depicted in ancient art as distributed by a nymph labeled with that name. In the myth of Lycurgus, an opponent to the wine god Dionysus, violence committed against Ambrosia turns her into a grapevine.
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 effects of 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, but ichor.
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. Pliny used the term in connection with different plants, as did early herbalists.
Additionally, some modern ethnomycologists, such as Danny Staples, identify ambrosia with the 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 powers 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 were represented with bee faces (compare Merope and Melissa).
Propolis, a hive product also known for its sweet fruity taste, is used as a remedy for 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 (amṛta) as both words denote a drink or food that gods use to achieve immortality. The two words appear to be derived from the same Indo-European form *ṇ-mṛ-to- : immortal (n- : negative prefix from which the prefix a- in both Greek and Sanskrit are derived; mṛ : zero grade of *mer- : to die; and -to- : adjectival suffix). A semantically similar etymology exists for nectar, the beverage of the gods (Greek: νέκταρ, néktar) presumed to be a compound of the PIE roots *nek-, "death", and -*tar, "overcoming".
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 questioned as coincidental by some modern linguists.
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 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."
- In the story of Cupid and Psyche as told by Apuleius, Psyche is given ambrosia upon her completion of the quests set by Venus and her acceptance on Olympus. After she partakes, she and Cupid are wed as gods.
- Some ancient Egyptian statues of Anubis read,"...I am death...I eat ambrosia and drink blood..." which hints that ambrosia is a food of some sort.
- In the Aeneid, Aeneas encounters his mother in an alternate, or illusory form. When she became her godly form "Her hair's ambrosia breathed a holy fragrance." (pp. 13)
Lycurgus of Thrace and Ambrosia
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 the nymph Ambrosia, who was transformed into the grapevine.
- Ichor, blood of the Greek gods, related to ambrosia.
- Amrita, of Hindu mythology, a drink which confers immortality on the gods, and a cognate of ambrosia.
- Soma, a ritual drink of importance among the early Indo-Iranians, and the subsequent Vedic and greater Persian cultures.
- Iðunn's apples in Norse mythology.
- Peaches of Immortality in Chinese mythology.
- Elixir of life, a potion sought by alchemy to produce immortality.
References and sources
- Griffiths, Alan H. (1996), "Ambrosia", in Hornblower, Simon; Spawforth, Anthony, Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-521693-8
- Homer, Odyssey xii.62
- Ruth E. Leader-Newby, Silver and Society in Late Antiquity: Functions and Meanings of Silver Plate in the Fourth to Seventh Centuries (Ashgate, 2004), p. 133; Christine Kondoleon, Domestic and Divine: Roman Mosaics in the House of Dionysos (Cornell University Press, 1995), p. 246; Katherine M. D. Dunbabin, Mosaics of the Greek and Roman World (Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 136, 142, 276–277.
- "Attempts to draw any significant distinctions between the functions of nectar and ambrosia have failed." Clay, p. 114.
- Homer, Iliad xiv.170
- Homer, Odyssey xviii.188ff
- Alcman, fragment 42
- Sappho, fragment 141 LP
- When Anaxandrides says "I eat nectar and drink ambrosia", Wright, p. 5, suggested he was using comic inversion.
- Pindar, Olympian Odes 1. 50. ff.
- Homer, Iliad v. 340, 416.
- Homer, Odyssey iv.444–46
- In Athenaeus, a sauce of oil, water and fruit juice.
- In Paulus, a medicinal draught.
- Dioscurides remarked its Latin name was ros marinus, "sea-dew", or rosemary; these uses were noted by Wright 1917:6.
- "Ambrosia" in Chambers's Encyclopædia. London: George Newnes, 1961, Vol. 1, p. 315.
- Carl A.P. Ruck and Danny Staples, The World of Classical Myth 1994:26.
- So noted by Wright 1917:6
- Odyssey xii.62: "the trembling doves that carry ambrosia to Father Zeus."
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- Clay, Jenny Strauss, "Immortal and ageless forever", The Classical Journal 77.2 (December 1981:pp. 112–117).
- Ruck, Carl A.P. and Danny Staples, The World of Classical Myth 1994, p. 26 et seq. 
- Wright, F. A., "The Food of the Gods", The Classical Review 31.1, (February 1917:4–6).
- Encyclopædia Britannica 1911: Ambrosia