Ambrosia: the ancient mystery food of the Olympian Gods
No pantheon of Gods is arguably as famous as the Olympian Gods. The stories told about them have been passed down to us over millennia and still remain some of the best and most influential pieces of work ever written. But to the people of the time, these Gods were not just stories, but real, living beings that held sway over their everyday lives. Understanding them wasn’t just a matter of history and culture, but of faith. Yet, even amongst the Greeks themselves there were disagreements and alternative versions. One often overlooked example of this; what did the Olympians eat?
Defining the Olympian Gods is a Herculean task in and of itself. Over the millennia, stories have been changed, words lost in translation and records either displaced or destroyed. Likewise, what we think of as Ancient Greece, drew heavily from Mycenaean Greece, a period of time before the Greek Dark Ages, when many of the stories we associate with Ancient Greece are actually set.
By the time of Ancient Greece, most of the Gods had undergone their transformation into what we would recognise today, but some, notably Dionysus would take a little longer to fully settle into their characterisations. As many of the Gods transitioned from Mycenaean Greece into Ancient Greece, their myths, stories and origins became entangled in some counterintuitive ways, Aphrodite being an obvious example of this, as either Zeus’ aunt or his daughter depending on the myth. Add to this some regional differences throughout Greece and the various mysterious cults present at the time and we get one of the most complex mythos in history.
The Food of the Gods
With that context established, the difficulty in understanding what the Gods ate becomes apparent. The myths all seem to agree that the Olympians ate something called Ambrosia and drank Nectar, though sometimes the names are reversed. Discovering exactly what was being referred to here has been a matter of much historical discussion and remains a matter of speculation.
Starting with what we know about both Ambrosia and Nectar: they are thought to have been one and the same thing, perhaps explaining the interchangeable nature of their names. The only real distinction is that Ambrosia was a food and Nectar was a drink. Knowing they were essentially the same thing helps narrow down potential candidates, as few things can be presented as either a food or a drink.
The most popular candidate for the true nature of Ambrosia and Nectar is honey. Honey has been with us as a species since long before ancient times and has long been enjoyed for both its sweet properties, and its numerous medicinal uses, most notably for its antibacterial properties.
Honey also fits within the definition of something that can be eaten and drunk, since honey was frequently added to food to sweeten them and can also be fermented to make mead, a favourite drink throughout Mycenaean and Ancient Greece.
Other notable connections linking honey and the food of the Olympians include the etymology of the words nectar and ambrosia, both of which appear to have their roots in Indo-European and mean something akin to ‘un-dying’ or ‘not mortal’. Furthermore, there are depictions of a Greek Nymph named Melissa, who is often represented with the body of a bee. She is notable for another reason too however, as one of the nursemaids of Zeus, feeding the baby God honey instead of milk.
It may seem a stretch to believe that from here honey became a food of immortality, but when we consider that the people of the age did not fully understand what gave honey its real-world healing powers the picture becomes a little clearer. Bear in mind that honey was differentiated from ambrosia and nectar. To the Greeks it’s possible that honey was a watered-down version of ambrosia and nectar, the food of the Gods.
Another less often discussed possibility provides another perspective. There is another myth surrounding Ambrosia that involves a nymph of the same name. As one version of the stories goes, the nymph was caught in the middle of a fight between a Thracian King called Lycurgus and the God of Wine Dionysus. She died and was transformed into a vine. Doves were then said to carry the delicious fruits of the vine to Olympus each day for the Gods to eat. While the story has some disturbing connotations, it may offer an alternative explanation as to what ambrosia and nectar actually were.
Ambrosia and nectar may have actually been wine. While it sounds like a left field idea, it does fit within the constraints we set out earlier. The fruit of the vine (grapes) can be eaten, while the grapes themselves can be fermented into wine.
A counterpoint to this is that while ambrosia and nectar are mentioned in the Iliad and Odyssey, Dionysus is not. He was a God at the time, but not an Olympian. It would be odd then for a story with Dionysus in it to be responsible for the creation of the food and drink of the gods when he himself was not an Olympian yet. Right?
Dionysus remains one of the oldest and most complex of the Greek Gods, likely having his start in Mycenaean Greece with many of the others, but also potentially predating them. He has undergone some of the most radical transformations in mythos, from a wild god of wine and ritual madness, to gradually having those traits lessened and becoming primarily a God of wine.
It would not be beyond the realms of possibility for Dionysus to have been inserted into this story retroactively once his characterisation was more thoroughly complete. As with many other Greek myths, there may have been an alternative version that’s been lost to us, one not featuring the titular Dionysus. In this version, as with honey, wine could be a less potent version of what the gods consumed.
Not just for the Gods
Ambrosia and nectar weren’t only the food of the Olympians though. Achilles was bathed in ambrosia then passed through a fire, but his mother Thetis was interrupted by his father Pelleus and so Achilles’ ankle was left vulnerable. When Sarpedon, a son of Zeus, was killed in the Trojan War by Patroclus, his body was cleansed in ambrosia. Upon his own death, the aforementioned Patroclus, Achilles’ lover, was also anointed with ambrosia by Thetis so as to preserve his body for the pyre.
Tantalus is also infamous for trying unsuccessfully to steal ambrosia from the Gods. For this, and for feeding his own son to the Gods, he was punished with an eternity in Tartarus. While it’s a gruesome story, it proves that the Gods ate other foods too, but not for sustenance and purely for pleasure.
One often overlooked aspect of ambrosia and nectar was that once you started to consume them, you couldn’t stop. Your blood turned to something called ichor and much like a human that doesn’t eat, any God that didn’t consume ambrosia and nectar would fade away. This is one possible reason used to explain why the seasons shifted, as when Persephone returned to her husband/kidnapper in Hades in the Underworld, her mother Demeter, the Goddess of agriculture, may have stopped eating, allowing the earth to grow cold and barren as her strength left her.
While I, and most others, agree that ambrosia and nectar are some form of honey, due to the narrative, etymological and observable healing properties of honey; it speaks volumes about how little we truly know about the history, culture and religious practices of the people credited with founding Western society, that we can’t know for certain what their deities ate.
Much has been lost in the millennia since the Olympians were worshipped, but in their day, the storytellers and later historians thought they were preserving their culture forever, just as we do now. Perhaps there truly is no way of preserving your culture in its entirety whether you set it down in stone or as a complex string of ones and zeros on a hard drive, history always has a way of obscuring what was once clear.