Two new etymologies by Laura Massetti: Kheírōn and Marsúās

2018.07.20 | Introduced by Olga Levaniouk

This posting follows up on two previous postings (2016.01.15 by Gregory Nagy and 2016.01.31 by Olga Levaniouk), which introduced A concise inventory of Greek etymologies, an ongoing project that focuses on the cultural significance of Greek etymologies (broadly understood). The entries that are already part of the project are available in Issue 15 of Classics@. This post highlights a recent contribution to CIGE by Laura Massetti, the Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Nordic Studies and Linguistics at the University of Copenhagen, who summarizes her own etymologies of the names Kheírōn and Marsúās.





Kheirōn (Χείρων, Χίρων, Χέρρων)

Chiron, the son of the nymph Philyra and of Cronus (Pherecydes fr. 2.3 M), is described in the epics as ‘the most righteous among the Centaurs’ (δικαιότατος Κενταύρων, Iliad 11.832) and as ‘having friendly thoughts’ (φίλα φρονέων, Iliad 4.219). His name is attested in three variants: Kheirōn (Χείρων) is the most recurrent in the literary sources (from Homer onward, with a few exceptions, such as Pindar, Euripides fr. 14.13 P, Acusilaus fr. 16.2 DK); Khīrōn (Χίρων) is often attested in the documentary sources (for example, Attic vase paintings of the fifth century BCE and one inscription from Thera in the sixth century BCE); Kherrōn (Χέρρων) occurs only in Alcaeus (fr. 42.9 V).

If Kheirōn (Χείρων)is the original form, the name may be related to Greek kheir (χείρ) ‘hand’ (Kretschmer 1919:58–62), meaning ‘the one who has a special hand’. The form Kherrōn (Χέρρων), if genuine and not the result of a secondary ‘aeolicization’, supports this assumption (compare χέρρες ‘hands’ Sappho fr. 90[1].2 V).

If Khīrōn is the primary form, the etymology is unclear. In this scenario, the forms Kheirōn and Kherrōn should both be explained as secondary formations under the influence of folk etymologies linking Chiron’s name to kheir ‘hand’ (Wachter 2001:263–264).

Without any doubt, ancient literary sources connected Chiron with the ‘healing hand’ and the ‘healing practice’ (kheirourgiā). Indeed, Chiron mentors a number of young heroes connected with both hunting and healing, such as Jason, Aristaeus, Asclepius, and Achilles. Specifically, Pindar says that Chiron ‘taught’ his students ‘the gentle-handed province of medicines’ (Χίρων … τὸν φαρμάκων δίδαξε μαλακόχειρα νόμον, Pindar Nemean 3.53–55). Additionally, the name of Jason (Ἰάσων), one of Chiron’s pupils, actually means ‘healer’ (compare Greek ἰάομαι ‘to treat’, ἰατήρ ‘physician’).

Chiron’s distinctive features are comparable to those of other divine figures who have a healing ‘hand’ (Greek kheir, Vedic hástaḥ, Hittite keššar, from the common Indo-European root *ghes‑, enlarged with different suffixes) in other Indo-European traditions, namely the Vedic god Rudra, who has a ‘merciful’ (mr̥ḷayā́kuḥ, R̥gveda 2.33.7) or ‘healing hand’ (bheṣajaḥ … hástaḥ, R̥gveda 2.33.7), and the Hittite ‘Sun-god of the hand’ (Hittite kiššeraš DUTU‑uš) invoked in the ritual of the Catalogue des Textes Hittites 402.

The three figures share an association with the activity and equipment of the hunt, that is, of the bow, arrows, and hounds. In the epics, Chiron, who is an experienced hunter, is mentioned in connection with remedies applied to arrow wounds (Iliad 4.217–219); however, he is killed by one of Heracles’ arrows (Diodorus Siculus Library 4.12.8, Hyginus Astronomica 2.38.1). Afterwards, he is transformed either into the constellation Sagittarius (‘the arrow shooter’ Lucan Pharsalia 6.393–394) or into the constellation Centaurus (Hyginus Astronomica 2.38.1). The Vedic god Rudra controls remedies while also causing diseases and death with his arrows. He is the god ‘who possesses good arrow’ (suviṣúḥ, R̥gveda 5.42.11) and ‘good bow’ (sudhánvā, R̥gveda 5.42.11), but he is also ‘men-smiting’ (nr̥hán‑,R̥gveda 4.3.6). Additionally, he protects hounds, masters of hounds, and hunters (Vājasaneyi Saṃhitā 16.27–28). In the Hittite Ritual of Allī against Bewitching (Catalogue des Textes Hittites 402), the Hittite kiššeraš DUTU‑uš (‘Sun-god of the hand’) is opposed to a hunter clay-figure, who has hounds, arrows, and a bow. In the ritual, the hunter and his arrows represent, like Rudra’s arrows, what the ‘Sun-god of the hand’ has to remove (Mouton 2010).

Chiron and Rudra have further traits in common. They are compared to or called ‘wild beasts’ (Greek φήρ; Vedic mr̥gáṃ ná bhīmám ‘like a fearful beast’, R̥gveda 2.33.11). Furthermore, they are inhabitants of mountains par excellence. Chiron dwells on Mount Pelion in Thessaly (Χείρων ἵν’ οἰκεῖ σεμνὰ Πηλίου βάθρα ‘where Chiron lives, the holy glens of Pelion’ Euripides Iphigenia at Aulis 705), and, like other Centaurs, he is a ‘mountain dweller’ (Greek oreiskōios, of all the Centaurs, Iliad 1.268). Likewise, Rudra is called ‘mountain dweller’ (giriśayá‑, Vājasaneyi Saṃhitā 16.29).Finally, Chiron and Rudra are connected with young warriors: Chiron rears several young heroes and is a wise friend of heroes and gods. He bestows upon Peleus his ‘ash spear for the smiting of men’ (μελίην φόνον ἔμμεναι ἡρώεσσιν, Iliad 16.143, 19.390), suggests that he take Thetis as his bride by force ([Apollodorus] Library 3.168), and predicts to Apollo that he will carry away the nymph Cyrene after their consensual union (Pindar Pythian 9). In the R̥gveda, Rudrais the ‘father of the Maruts’ (pitar marutām, R̥gveda 2.33.1), a group of atmospheric deities portrayed as young warriors and young bride wooers, which vaguely recalls Chiron’s role with regard to young and unmarried heroes.

In conclusion, the folk etymological association between Chiron’s name and the ‘healing hand’ might itself be based on a set of associations shared by Greek and two cognate languages, Vedic and Anatolian. Here, (semi‑)divine figures dwelling in wild and liminal realms are connected to young age groups, hunting activity, and the healing of arrow wounds, which frequently occur on the occasion of hunting incidents and group fights. Therefore, Chiron, the Greek ‘Mr. (Healing) Hand’, might be interpreted as a continuation of a more ancient ‘Mr. (Healing) Hand’.

Kretschmer, P. 1919. “Mythische Namen.” Glotta 10: 38–62.

Massetti, L. In preparation. “Mr. Hand: On Gk. Χείρων, Rudrá‑ ‘of healing hand’ and Hitt. kiššeraš DUTU‑uš.”

Mouton, A. 2010. Rituel d’Allī d’Arzawa (CTH 402).

Wachter, R. 2001. Non-Attic Greek Vase Inscriptions. Oxford.

Laura Massetti 2018.05.29


Marsúās (Μαρσύας)

Marsúās (Μαρσύας) is the name of a Phyrgian satyr who picked up the musical wind instrument known as the aulos ‘double-reed, pipe’ that had been thrown away by Athena.The goddess had invented the instrument, but she could not stand the fact that her cheeks were puffed up while she played it (for example, [Apollodorus] Library 1.24). Marsúās is thus recorded as the inventor of the music of the aulos by a variety of classical sources. For instance, in Plato’s Symposium (215ac), Alcibiades mentions the festive custom of peeling the outer layer of Marsyas’s figurines, which concealed smaller figures of gods on their inside. According to Nagy 2017 (ad Odyssey 22.437–479), Marsyas’s figurines probably concealed a smaller Apollo. Thus, in the framework of the ritual re-enactment of Apollo’s punishment, festive merriment counterbalanced the grim death of the outrageous (Greek ὑβριστής) satyr.

The proper name Marsúās has long been interpreted as a loanword (Buck 1909) from Young Avestan maršuiiā̊, genitive singular of a name maršuuī‑*, attested only in Yašna 11.1 (yō mąm xvāstąm nōit̰ baxṣ̌ahe […] / haoiiā̊ vā maršuiiā̊, ‘who does not allot me, when I am ritually prepared [… except] for his own maršuī’). The term is commonly taken to be a Daēuuic word—a word that applies to the daēuuas, ‘the demons’, and to impious worshippers—glossed as Sanskrit duṣṭodaram, ‘bad belly’. In turn, maršuuī‑* may be traced back to an Indo-European root *merǵ‑ ‘to cut’, reflecting a feminine noun built on a u‑stem adjective, which derives from a s‑stem (Massetti 2016: 122–126).

Some Greek phraseological elements allow us to reconstruct a connection between Marsúās and the image of the ‘belly’. To begin with, the proper name Marsúās is probably related to Greek marsippos/marsuppos (μάρσιππος/μάρσυππος), ‘pouch’, whereby marsip(p)os (μάρσιπ[π]ος) reflects a compound meaning ‘weight of marsu‑’ (marsu‑*, īpos ‘weight’, see Frigione 2017). This term denotes a leather bag, hanging from and weighing down the waistline like a belly. It is likely that the mythical prototype of the marsipos was the myth of Marsúās’s flaying, encapsulated in the Greek phrase ‘Marsuās’s skin’, (Μαρσύεω ἁσκός, Herodotus Histories 7.26.14; ἀσκός … Μαρσύου, Plato Euthydemus 285d). According to classical sources, Apollo flayed the satyr alive after defeating him in a musical competition and let his skin hang on a tree. Significantly, Nonnus of Panopolis visualizes Marsyas’s skin as resembling a ‘belly’, using the verb kolpóō (κολπόω) ‘to create a kolpos (bosom, lap, womb, fold)’ to describe it (compare Nonnus of Panopolis Dionysiaca 1.42–43, ἐξ ὅτε Μαρσύαο θεημάχον αὐλὸν ἐλέγξας / δέρμα παρῃώρησε φυτῷκολπούμενον αὔραις ‘since he (Apollo) humiliated the god-fighting flute of Marsyas / and hung his skin, bellying in the breezes, on a tree’).

To sum up: It is likely that Marsúās, as a mythological character, was shaped on an Iranian loanword, maršuuī‑*, meaning ‘belly’, as supported by the Greek phraseological evidence. The ‘skin of Marsúās’ was the first marsup(i)os, ‘pouch (that hangs on the belly)’, since Apollo hung the satyr’s skin on a tree with his belly to the wind.

Buck, C. D.1909. “Greek Notes.” Indogermanische Forschungen 25:257–264.

Frigione, Ch. 2017. “Ipotesi su gr. Μαρσύας e gr. μάρσι/ύ(π)πος.” In Ancient Greek Linguistics: New Perspectives, Insights, and Approaches, ed. F. Logozzo and P. Poccetti, 811–824. Berlin.

Massetti, L. 2016. “The belly of an Indo-European: Some Greek and Iranian Cognates of IE *merǵ‑ ‘to Divide, Cut’.” In Proceedings of the 27th Annual UCLA Indo-European Conference, ed. D. M. Goldstein, S. W. Jamison, and B. Vine, 115–129. Bremen.

Nagy, G. 2017. A sampling of comments on the Iliad and Odyssey.

Laura Massetti 2018.05.29