The Barley Cakes of Sosipolis and Eileithuia

2015.02.20 | By Gregory Nagy

Mount Kronion in the territory of Elis

§1. What I am sharing here is taken from an ongoing project, Pausanias commentary in progress. This project, which is meant for online publication, tracks the insights of a most insightful traveler who lived in the second century CE.

§2. My commentary uses as its “base text” a translation of the ten scrolls transmitted in the medieval manuscript tradition. The original translation is by W. H. S. Jones, 1918 (Scroll 2 with H. A. Ormerod), edited and revised by yours truly (Gregory Nagy as of 2015.02.12).

§3. In what follows, I quote a passage in Pausanias that is relevant to my analysis in H24H 15§38 of the rituals connected with the worship of the goddess Eileithuia. In that analysis, I concentrate on the ritual offering of mazai ‘barley cakes’ that are kneaded in meli ‘honey’, as described by Pausanias 6.20.2. That offering is intended for the superhuman force or daimōn whose abode is situated inside the inner sanctum of the hieron ‘sanctuary’ of Eileithuia; this daimōn’s name is Sosipolis. As I re-read my analysis, I realize that I should have emphasized that Eileithuia is likewise a recipient, by extension, of the barley cakes kneaded in honey. As we see in the passage that I will now quote, Pausanias 6.20.2–6, the people of Elis had a myth that tells how this daimōn Sosipolis became the savior of the people of Elis in their hour of need: according to the myth, Sosipolis was a son of Eileithuia who turned into a drakōn ‘snake’ at the critical moment when he saved the Eleians.

[6.20.2] Within the periphery of [Mount] Kronion, on the north, between the treasuries [thēsauroi] and the mountain [oros, = Mount Kronion], is a sanctuary [hieron] of Eileithuia, and in it Sosipolis [‘savior of the polis’], a local [epi-khōrios] superhuman force [daimōn] of Elis, receives honors [tīmai]. Now they give to Eileithuia the surname Olympian [Olumpiā], and choose a priestess for the goddess every year. As for the senior priestess who cares for [therapeuein] Sosipolis, she lives a pure ritual life [hagisteuei], in accordance with the customary laws of Elis, bringing to the god [theos] water for washing, and she deposits for him barley cakes [mazai] kneaded with honey [meli].

[6.20.3] In the front part of the temple [nāos], for it is built in two parts, is an altar [bōmos] of Eileithuia and an entrance for humans [anthrōpoi]; in the inner part, Sosipolis receives honors [tīmai], and no one may enter it except the woman who cares for [therapeuein] the god [theos], and she must wrap her head and face in a white fabric [huphos]. Girls [parthenoi] and women [gunaikes] wait in the sanctuary of Eileithuia, singing a hymn [humnos]; they burn all manner of incense to him [Sosipolis], but it is not the custom to pour libations of wine. An oath is taken in the name of Sosipolis on the most important occasions.

[6.20.4] The story is that when the Arcadians had invaded the land of Elis, and the Eleians were set in array against them, a woman came to the Eleian generals, holding a baby to her breast, who said that she was the mother of the child but that she gave him, because of dreams, to fight for the Eleians. The Eleian officers believed that the woman was to be trusted, and placed the child before the army naked.

[6.20.5] When the Arcadians attacked, the child turned at once into a snake [drakōn]. Thrown into disorder at the sight, the Arcadians turned and fled, and were attacked by the Eleians, who won a very famous victory, and so call the god Sosipolis [‘savior of the polis’]. On the spot where after the battle the snake [drakōn] seemed to them to go into the ground, they made the sanctuary [hieron]. Along with him, the Eleians established the custom [nomizein] of worshipping [sebesthai] Eileithuia also, because this goddess [theos] produced her son for humans [anthrōpoi].

[6.20.6] The tomb of the Arcadians who were killed in the battle is on the hill across the Kladeos to the west. Near to the sanctuary of Eileithuia are the remains of the sanctuary of Aphrodite, the celestial one [Ourania], and there too they sacrifice upon the altars.



Image by Joanbanjo via Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons Attibution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

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