The protein-based diet of the mycenaean heroes. Red meat and game for Achilles, Odyssey and Agamemnon.


The protein-based diet of the mycenaean...

By Anna Cafissi

The Iliad and the Odyssey are the oldest poems of Western literature. They were written in the dark centuries following the disappearance of the Mycenaean kingdoms (XII-XI centuries B.C.) and put into words in the VIII century when the Greeks started using the phonetic alphabet, a more archaic form than the one used in the classic age. They called those characters foinikà because they had taken them from the Phoenician alphabet.

Studies and research conducted in the past century on the poems – always attributed to Homer- have shown other new directions.

In the 1930s, the American Hellenist and philologist Milman Parry, after exhaustive studies conducted at Berkeley, the Sorbonne and Harvard, and after two stays in Yugoslavia where he heard and recorded ancient local epic chants, came up with the conclusion that the beautiful hexameters of the Homeric poems were the result of the so-called oral composition. In other words, the epic singing poets, the aoidos, versified using their prodigious memory and adopting many familiar expressions (such as Swift-footed AchillesRosy-fingered Dawnshe was white-armed, or His winged words, etc.), which helped them in the arrangement of the verses.

Unfortunately, the sudden and tragic death of Milman Parry in 1935 put an end to his revolutionary studies, which his colleague Albert Lord and his son, Adam Parry, managed to carry on (cf. M. PARRY, L’épithète traditionelle dans Homère, Paris 1928; ID., The Making of the Homeric VerseThe collected papers of Milman Parry, edited by Adam Parry, Oxford, 1971).

Almost all Hellenists today have accepted the oral-formulaic composition theory by Parry.

Whoever composed and sang them, the Iliad and the Odyssey constitute an irreplaceable source, not just for knowledge of the history, culture, religion and epics of the Achaeans but also for what concerns their eating habits.

We know from Sophocles (Aiax, 53-54) that the Hero of Salamina, Aiax the Great, driven mad by the anger of the goddess Athena, carries out a massacre of sheep, goats and cows since he sees in these animals the Greeks who had denied him the weapons of Achilles.

Sophocles clarifies that the herd was part of the ‘war prey piled up and not yet divided’. The Achaeans who besieged Troy conducted looting and kept the beats taken from the pastures near their encampment. This way, the soldiers did not suffer from famine, the consequence of every war.

After the efforts of the daily fights under the walls of Troy, they ate nutritious and protein-based food and sometimes took part in banquets, too. Really touching is the description of the hecatomb and subsequent meal in honour of Apollo in the 1st book of the Iliad (vv. 458-474). Furthermore, at the funeral of Patroclus, Achilles offers a banquet held in sad tones:

[…] and he set before them all

a handsome funeral feast to meet their hearts’ desire.

And many pale-white oxen sank on the iron knife,

gasping in slaughter, many sheep and bleating goats

and droves of swine with their long glinting tusks,

succulent, rich with fat. They singed the bristles,

splaying the porkers out across Hephaestus’ fire […]

(Iliad, XXIII, 33 ss.; translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Classics,1990).

The food was usually simple: whole bread, sparkling wine (aithops oinos) but watered down, sheep, goat, ox and pork, roasted or placed on a spit. We can recall, for example, the passage in which Achilles prepares the meat for roasting: Iliad IX, 206 ff. See also Odyssey IV, 55 ff. They divided it equally, but the best part, the loin, was reserved for distinguished guests, a sort of Fiorentina steak. That is what Agamemnon does with the fearless Ajax (Iliad VII, 321 ff.) and Menelaus with Telemachus and the son of Nestor (Odyssey IV, 65 ff.).

The Greeks could not avoid eating sheep and goat cheese during their dinners. Ulysses’ mariners hurried to bring out of the cave of the Cyclopes Polyphemus all the necessary food to survive, starting from cheese: Odyssey IX, 225 e 232.

In his texts, Homer never mentions fish or game. The warriors did not like eating fish. When Odysseus lands on the island of Trinacria, his companions go hunting and fishing after running out of provisions on their boats, driven by hunger and despair. Afterwards, accustomed to eating meat, they go hunting and fishing and end up slaughtering the sacred cattle of Apollo and devouring them, ignoring that this action will bring them trouble. (Odyssey XII, 329 ss.).

Even Polyphemus and the Laestrygones are carnivores and also anthropophagus. (Odyssey IX, 287 ss. e X, 124).

Plato analyses with attention the absence of fish in the nutrition of Homer’s heroes and says that even if the camp of the Acheans was near the sea, on the Hellespont, full of fish, they were asked not to eat any cooked meat but just roasted, ‘which is the food most convenient for soldiers, requiring only that they should light a fire, and not involving the trouble of carrying about pots and pans.’ (Republic, III, 946 BC)

In 2006, a lengthy and thorough study by Massimo Cultraro on the Mycenaean civilization (I Micenei. Archeologia, Storia e Società dei Greci prima di Omero, Roma 2006) he confirmed what the Homeran poems suggest: The Achaean warrior aristocracy (guided by the Wanax, the Lawaghetas and the Basileus) followed a high protein diet. The proof is the bone remains found in the tomb of Mycene, which reveal that those warriors had strong, muscular bodies and were taller than the average men of that time (1,72m circa).

Scholars at the University of Manchester and the Demokritos of Athens have conducted several evaluations and analyses.

Always in the Peloponnesus, but during the classical age, Spartans, who constituted the leading Dorian group who led the polis, kept the tradition of eating meat soup: it is the well-known black broth (melas zomòs), quite notorious and less attractive out of Sparta.

Plutarch (Life of Lycurgus, 12) clarifies that the soup was quite dark because they made it with pork chops added to pork blood, wine or vinegar. Probably, they also added entrails to the meat. This dish is quite similar to the Schwarzsauer still prepared in Germany today.

Spartans were famous for many reasons: they were heroic warriors, had a sense of discipline and sacrifice, and spoke only when asked. Also, according to the Athenians, the Spartans had their dark sides: they were liars and thieves and savoured the black broth, a high protein but disgusting food.

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