Oinops and Myth

Glaukos cup cropped

~A guest post by Jacqui Donlon and the Oinops Study Group~

 You may remember that at the end of our last post “Oinops, Sacrifice and Ritual,” we, the Oinops Study Group, decided to reach out to our Hour 25 Community for a mentor.  We had discovered much, but fitting the pieces together to establish the system of oinops needed some help.  We wanted to understand the use of oinops in a systematic way, whether occurring in the Iliad, Odyssey, or Hesiod; be it paired with oxen or the wide-open sea.

This call for assistance was accepted by Professor Leonard Muellner who graciously met with us during one of our regular team sessions. This session was for us — certainly for me — a mind-expanding experience. It is Lenny’s opinion that the myth of Glaukos[1] is key to the meaning of oinops, “wine-faced,” commonly translated as “wine-dark”. However, most of us on the Oinops Word Study Team did not know this myth.

But before Lenny launched into the myth of Glaukos, he brought up several pertinent concepts and words, some of which I have included just below this paragraph.  It is a testament to the beauty of word study, that we, Team Oinops, were able to be active participants with Lenny whereas only a few months before we would have been primarily listeners.

Concepts and words

The concept of muō, is key to understanding the myth of Glaukos, therefore by extension, oinops. Muō [μύω] means ‘to shut the mouth’ and it operates on two levels. In everyday language the meaning is ‘keep one’s eyes and ears closed’, but in a sacred context it translates as ‘to say or see in a special way’. We also know that the verb form, μνέω, means ‘to initiate’.

Kouros1024px-Pferdeauge copy
Just as a “pupil” is a student of learning and part of the eye, The word koros or kouros [κόρος/κοῦρος (male form)], is a young person who is learning, and the same word korē/kourē [κόρη/κούρη (female form)] is the “pupil” of one’s eyes. The concept is that learner and mentor will be intensely looking at each other (remember Telemakhos and Athena), and when looking closely into each others’ eyes one will see a reflection of oneself.  Remember this photo from a previous blog,  “Seeing Oinops Through a Different Lens?  Look closely and you will see the reflection of the photographer in the eye of the horse. While checking on the Greek spellings for this blog, I found this quote:

 “Self-knowledge can be obtained only by looking into the mind and virtue of the soul, which is the diviner part of a man, as we see our own image in another’s eye.”  [Plato, Alcibiades I.133]

So it seems that our explorations and discussions about light and reflection, which in turn led to conclusions about mentorship and the emanating light of knowledge was spot on.  Yeah team!

Paths – by Land, by Sea, and Pontos
Hugros [ὑγρός, ά, όν] has to do with water, fluid, and moisture, but its other meaning is about being pliant and supple.  It can describe the feebleness of a person dying, or the swimming/melting/languishing of one’s eyes, or a person who is pliant, easy, facile. As I was writing this blog, these definitions brought the image of saplings and young plants to my mind, and the passage spoken by—who else—Glaukos, however this is Glaukos of the Iliad, and not of our myth.

[145] “High-hearted son of Tydeus, why ask me of my lineage? Men come and go as leaves year by year upon the trees. Those of autumn the wind sheds upon the ground, but when spring [hōra] returns the forest buds forth with fresh vines. Even so is it with the generations of humankind, the new spring up as the old are passing away. Iliad VI (Sourcebook)

Keleuthos [κέλευθος] is a road or path, but not in the common sense.  It is more of a far journey or expedition by land or water. It can also refer to an orbit. Keleuthos also means a “way of going” and is used as a metaphor for a “way of life”

So hugra keleutha [ὑγρὰ κέλευθα] means “the watery ways”. This brought us to discussions about water journeys.  A water journey that is farthest from land (and safe harbor) would be one on the open sea, which we know from this blog, “Oinops and the Wide-Open Sea would mean a journey that traverses the pontos [πόντος]. Pontos is the sea in its most dangerous aspect. The omphalos [ὀμφαλός], meaning navel [of the world], were religious stones of great power usually located in a cave, cavern, a high mound, or a cave within a mountain. Omphalos stones allow for direct communication with the gods, and one of the most famous was the Omphalos at Delphi.  Therefore, the farthest journey from the center/navel of the world would be the farthest one could go, whether physically, religiously, or in terms of danger—and that would be the mid-point out on the pontos.  So in a spiritual sense this is why one searches for the headland, the mounds that are sēmas—they are the places that allow cosmic interaction.

Glaukos and Light
As we know from earlier blogs, Athena is often described as glaukōpis [γλαυκῶπις] translated as ‘bright-eyed’, or ‘with gleaming eyes’. This word is formed from a combination of glaukos [γλαυκός], meaning ‘gleaming, silvery’, and later, ‘bluish-green or gray’, and ōps [ὤψ, ‘eye, or sometimes, face’]. As a color, glaukos is a neutral, it is a mixture of white (all light) and black (no light), in varying ratios of the two.

Glaukos or glaux [γλαύξ] is the a small owl associated with Athena (Athene noctua) which is why her other frequently used epithet is ‘owl-eyed’, referring to the light that emanates from her eyes as owls do at night. And so, we yet again connect with our word study.Tetradrachm_Attica_449-404_BC_croppedGlaukos is also a myth, and it is this myth that Lenny feels is associated with oinops/wine-dark, wine-faced. He has written extensively about the Glaukos myth and in 1998, he wrote his article, ‘Glaucus Redivivus’.[2] In this article, Lenny reviews the Cretan (yes, perhaps the why for all those Crete references) version, then discusses its Pan-Hellenic context and its inclusion within the great Athenian dramas. I will attempt to summarize the article, but it will be the simplified version based upon our talk about oinops. Since it is doubtful that I can give this wonderful article the justice it deserves, you can read the full article on JSTOR here: Glaucus Redivivus.

The Glaukos myth, at least the most complete surviving versions, are of Cretan origin as related in The Library of Pseudo-Apollodorus  3.17. 1–21, and in Hyginus Fabulae 146 (please refer to Lenny’s on-line paper for more complete citations and references).  Fragments of multiforms of the Glaukos myth also appear in the works of all three major tragedians: Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles. We start out with Apollodorus and per Lenny, I will mention some of the significant multiforms later on. But now, sit back and listen to the myth as told by Lenny, and see how all these themes and talking points weave together.

The myth of Glaukos

The Myth of Glaukos in Apollodorus

Glaukos is the son of Minos, the King of Crete.  While still a child, he chases a mouse, or some flies, and falls into a storage jar of honey and dies. His father, Minos, who does not know of his fate, undertakes an extensive search for him and consults  seers and diviners.  One group—the Kaouretes, who in Cretan inscriptions are designated as young males who preside over the rites of initiation in Crete—advise Minos. They tell him to seek one who knows the significance regarding one of the cows in Minos’ own herd—a cow that that has three colors. The one who makes the best comparison [to the cow] will be the one able to find Glaukos and restore him to Minos alive.

It is a seer named Polyidus (whose name means ‘he who saw much’ and ‘he who knows much’) who gave the best answer.  He likens the cow to the fruit of the bramble in its different stages of ripening. So Polyidus is dispatched to find Glaukos, and find him he does, dead in the honey jar. Minos now tells Polyidus that he needs to restore Glaukos back to life and so Polyidus is shut up in a storage room or wine cellar with the corpse of the boy. While in the enclosure, not knowing what to do, Polyidus sees a snake approaching the corpse and kills it with a rock.  Then a second snake comes in, sees the first snake dead and leaves only to return with a herb.  The second snake applies the herb to the dead snake and once applied, the dead snake comes back to life. The significance of this is not lost on Polyidus and he takes the herb, applies it to the body of Glaukos and brings him back to life.

Minos welcomes back his child but refuses to let Polyidus return to his homeland of Argos until he teaches Glaukos the art of divination. After Polyidus teaches the boy, he is allowed to ship off for home, but before he embarks, Polyidus orders Glaukos to spit into his mouth.  The boy does but as a result he forgets all that Polyidus taught him about divination. At this point I will interject a reminder. The pupil/mentor relationship is an intimate one and one in which the eyes of the pupil are fixed on the eyes of the mentor and vice versa.  Coming close enough to spit in a mouth would mean that their eyes were very close together. Again, this a reference for the transference of incitement and awareness from a mentor’s pupil to the pupil of his pupil.

Interestingly enough the myth variations yield even more connections to oinops.  I will go through some of them as Lenny discussed in his article and with us.


In the Fabulae of Hyginus form of this Cretan myth, Glaukos is playing ball when he falls into the honey jar, but instead of the Kouretes, Minos consults Apollo. Apollo tells Minos of a portent that has been born to him and whoever can explain that portent will restore the boy.  This portent is a heifer that changes colors three times a day; every four hours.  First it is white or colorless, then red, then black. Polyidus does make the connection — he says the heifer is like the mulberry as it ripens, first white, then red, then black when fully ripe. In addition, when Polyidus searches for the boy, he notices a night owl sitting over a wine cellar frightening away bees. The night owl is called glaukos. Polyidus interprets this sign correctly and pulls the dead Glaukos from the honey jar. Two other variants within this multiform: Polyidus kills the snake with a sword instead of a rock, and there is no spitting upon departure.

Oinops and the Glaukos Myth

So let’s break all this down using Lenny’s discussion in both our hangout and his article as our references. Glaukos is a young boy playing ball or chasing flies [μυῖαζ ]/mice [μῦν]—all of which are associated with initiation.  The “mice” and “flies,” are significant because each is etymologically related to muō, which as we know is associated with the verb to initiate.  Ball playing is also associated with initiation. The noun sphaireus [σφαιρεύς], meaning ‘ball-player’ or ‘boxer’, are activities both of which older boys participate in as they begin initiation into manhood.  All these activities: catching flies or mice, and playing ball require quick, open eye contact.

The Kouretes tell Minos that he has a three-colored cow in his herds. In ancient Crete young boys were referred to as agelai [ἀγέλαι] meaning ‘herds’ (It is important to our oinops study to know that in Sparta, these adolescent boys were referred to as bouai, not groups of cows, but of oxen.), and these herds were but one phase of a three-part hierarchical social structure. Boys stayed in the women’s quarters until the age of 6 or 7. After that, the prepubescent boys (older than 6-7 but less than 17 years old) went to live in the men’s house. At some age before 17, the boys become part of the agelai, “herds”. While in these herds, they ate, slept, sang, hunt and exercised together at public expense.  Once their time in the agelai was complete, around 20 years of age, some of the boys in the herd would leave, joining a hetaireria or men’s club, attached to a specific men’s house. Even though the boys all marry at this age and all at the same time, those young men with brides younger than the legal age for marriage (around 12 years) go on to live in a dormitory-like setting [koimmētērion] until their brides are old enough to manage their own households. This structure of three age classes relates to the bramble fruit, the mulberries (both related to Ripe,_ripening,_and_green_blackberriesblackberries, see photo), and the cow.  All either turn colors as they transition each day, just like the sea, like wine fermenting; or there are multiple colors on one mulberry bush, each in a different stage of ripening. It is a metaphor for the stages of initiation—changes of state.  It is significant that the boy has the name Glaukos, a color most closely associated with the initial phases and the unripe fruit.

There is a Cretan initiation ritual that corresponds to this myth in several ways. It basically is a sanctioned and staged abduction. The abductors are unmarried adult males (perhaps young men who are almost 20), who “abduct” boys just reaching the end of childhood and entering adolescence (perhaps 16 year old). This abduction is part of their initiation into the second stage of the social hierarchy. The boy abducted (lovee), is of equal or lesser status than the older abductor (lover). Therefore, an older male cannot select a lovee who is of higher status. The older male takes the boy off into the woods hunting and feasting for a period not more than two months. Upon return the lover bestows three customary and extravagant gifts upon the boy: a warrior’s outfit, a cup, and an ox.  The ox is sacrificed at a feast to Zeus. This seems to be the initiation rite for the passing of the child into the next phase of life. To be selected for abduction is a great honor that lasts throughout their lifetime.  They are honored at dances and races and wear better clothes than others. ‘They are called κλεινοί the famous, the subjects of undying kleos,” like the heroes of epic, for having been chosen and having passed through an “ordeal.”‘[3]

Clearly there are parallels between the multiforms, but also significant differences.  In the Apollodorus multiform, the Kouretes direct Minos to seek the diviner who knows – and will bring the boy back.  Lenny suggests they do not instruct Minos to retain the seer to instruct the boy—so in essence Polyidus’ instruction of the boy is forced. This would be in conflict with ritual abduction as that is planned transition, beneficial to all parties involved.  This is probably why, once Glaukos performs the intimate gesture of spitting into his teacher’s mouth he loses his own knowledge—the initiation does not stick as it was not performed properly, and/or Glaukos being gray, is not ripe enough/old enough to change his state, his status. As Lenny so aptly puts it in terms of muō – one [Glaukos] does not know enough to shut his mouth, while the other [Polyidus] knows enough to open it. In any case, the initiation does not work.

K4.1Hera theoi.com640px-Athena_owl_Met_09.221.43Lenny’s analysis of the myth answered several of our remaining questions and I found a new respect for the importance of myth in these Homeric and Hesiodic texts. One can read any of these poems for simple pleasure, for a good story and beautiful thoughts. However the myths are key to understanding the systems of the poetry and to experience the words as the ancient Greeks experienced these performances. They all knew the myths and would have understand the metaphors and references. Wine-faced (wine-surfaced) oxen [βοῦς, bous, or wo-no-qo-so] would not have been a mystery to them.

But now, after this conversation regarding the network of associations—at least in regards to oinops, it was clearer to us why Crete might be a recurring theme.  We felt proud at our success in recognizing the contexts of seasonality and initiation. Proud also at our success at recognizing the dangers of the pontos, and the significance of the changing states associated with physical phenomena such as light, color/reflection, and wine. We were able to decipher the relationship between pupils and mentors, and the reflections in each others’ eyes. We came to understand the emanations of light from Athena’s eyes, and the light from the sēma containing the bones of the cult heroes. And we knew so much more about oxen. But wait—do we really know all there is to know about oinops and oxen? I still felt that something was missing. We recognized all these references to oxen and ox-eyed Hera – but why Hera? This was our final question to Lenny and he mentored us in the Pan-Hellenic parallels to this myth.

Pan-Hellenic Context

The predominance of gray [γλαυκός glaukos, ‘gray, silver’] and the importance of oxen [βοῦς bous]  in the Glaukos myth emphasizes the importance of the epithets ‘owl-eyed’ [γλαυκῶπις] for Athena and ‘ox-eyed/cow-eyed’ (βοῶπις [boōpis]) for Hera, These are the same goddess and epithets that are  regularly associated with oinops. That is because Hera with Athena, are the protectors of the Achaeans in the Iliad. And as Lenny suggests, Hera and Athena are also nurturers of these same heroes through their stages of initiation. To quote Lenny’s article, “It is within the context of male initiation is what these words and goddesses have in common. Perhaps these two goddesses, in their roles as nurturers of heroes, are γλαυκῶπις and βοῶπις not themselves but because of the pupils κόραι [korai] in whose eyes their identities are reflected”.[4] Hera coin cropped


Such a feast for the ears! But now it is time to reflect and so I will leave you all to it save one final comment. Once I learned of this myth—which helped to put all the pieces into place, I again saw images I did not see before, and will leave behind an example. The first time I read this passage below, I pretty much skimmed over it.  But now after the oinops word study, it has much more meaning for me, and is speaking to me on several levels. Now I am far more satisfied to slow down and taste every word. Perhaps you will join us in the forum (“Return to the Wine-Dark Sea IV“) and share with us some passages that you now see in a different way?

The ship held steadily on its course, and not even a falcon, [87] raptor that he is, swiftest of all winged creatures, could have kept pace with it. [88] So did the ship cut its way smoothly through the waves, [89] carrying a man who was like the gods in his knowledge of clever ways, [90] who had beforehand suffered very many pains [algea] in his heart [thūmos], [91] taking part in wars among men and forging through so many waves that cause pain, [92] but now he was sleeping peacefully, forgetful of all he had suffered. [93] And when the brightest of all stars began to show, the one that, more than any other star, comes to announce the light of the Dawn born in her earliness [95] that is when the ship, famed for its travels over the seas, drew near to the island. Now there is in the locale [dēmos] of Ithaca a haven of Phorkys, the Old One of the sea, which lies between two points that break the line of the sea and shut the harbor in. These shelter it from the storms of wind and sea [100] that rage outside, so that, when once within it, a ship may lie without being even moored. At the head of this harbor there is a large olive tree, and at no distance a fine overarching cavern sacred to the nymphs who are called [105] Nymphs of Wellsprings, Naiads. There are mixing-bowls within it and wine-jars of stone, and the bees hive there. Moreover, there are great looms of stone on which the nymphs weave their robes of sea purple—very curious to see—and at all times there is water within it. It has two entrances, [110] one facing North by which mortals can go down into the cave, while the other comes from the South and is more mysterious; mortals cannot possibly get in by it, it is the way taken by the gods. Into this harbor, then, they took their ship, for they knew the place.   Ody xiii  (Sourcebook)

Coming up – Journey’s End

Notes and Citations

[1] Please note that this is the Greek spelling also used in the HeroesX Sourcebook.  “Glaucus”is the Latin spelling, and the version that L. Muellner used for his article, “Glaucus Redivivus”.  For the purposes of this blog I will use the Greek form for Glaucus unless quoting directly from Muellner’s article. Please also note that I have used the Latin spelling for “Polyidus” instead of the Greek “Polyeidos”.
[2] Muellner, L, “Glaucus Redivivus,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol 98 (1998), pp. 1-30, Published by Department of the Classics, Harvard University. Online at JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/311335
[3] Muellner, L, ibid, p. 20
[4] Muellner, L, ibid, p. 27

Image credits

Glaukos and Polyeidos in tomb, White-ground kylix (drinking cup) c. 460 BC, @The Trustees of the British Museum. Photo courtesy of Claudia Filos.  (Note: Notice the two snakes at bottom of cup, below the floor line.)

Eye of Horse, Pferdauge.jpg Waugsberg, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. via Wikimedia Commons

Tetradrachm ATTICA, Athens, c. 449-404 BC. Owl standing, olive sprig and crescent behind, all with incise square. (not shown: helmeted head of Athena on reverse).
Classical Numismatic Group, Inc..

Blackberries in a range of ripeness, West Hartford, Connecticut, by Ragesoss (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons.

Hera on Throne, c. 500–475 BCE www.theoi.com.

Athena holding spear and helmet, owl at left, c. 490–480 BCE. www.metmuseum.org. Image: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAthena_owl_Met_09.221.43.jpg.

Tetradrachm SAMOS, c. 450BCE, forepart of ox, ΣA above (which denotes Samos), lion scalp reverse (not shown). Attributed to Hera.
Classical Numismatic Group, Inc..