Around the end of September, the ancient Greeks celebrated the Eleusinian Mysteries, one of the main festivals of the year, dedicated to the goddess Demeter, in which it was commemorated the renewal of life and the rebirth of nature. We know little about the contents of such mysteries and the celebrations, being the initiated obliged to silence, but we know the name of the ritual beverage consumed by the faithful at the end of a period of fast, which was connected with the fast of Demeter herself narrated in the myths, in particular in a fascinating, archaic source: the Homeric Hymns. The name of this beverage was kykeon, a word that means “mixture”.
Kykeon appears in many Greek texts: in the Homeric works (Iliad, Odyssey, and Hymn to Demeter), in the medical books (in particular the Corpus Hippocraticum, but Galen offers important information about its main component, alphita), but also in the comedy and satirical books (Characters by Theophrastus and Peace by Aristophanes, texts in which it is mentioned a kykeon identical to the one prepared in the Hymn).
It is not immediate to understand exactly what kykeon is. In this article, we will analyze the medical and mythological sources, narrating the myths and the contexts in which this word appears and, naturally, providing a historical reconstruction of this beverage, both sacred and medicinal, so important in ancient Greek culture.
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Kykeon, alphita, and tisana
We find an important clue about kykeon in a glossary of ancient Greek language written by Hesychius in the 5th century: kykeon is the same as tisana. We find the word kykeon frequently used by Hippocrates (lived between the 5th and the 4th century BCE), usually with the direction to “make a kykeon” with several ingredients, each time different, among which we find alphita, an important term that we will explain below. But, however we do not find what kykeon is, exactly, in the medical sources (despite the many recipes), we precisely know how the physicians prepared tisana, thanks to De Facultatibus Alimentorum by Galen (2nd century).
Tisana is one of the basic remedies used in ancient Greek medicine, made with husked barley, overcooked in water until it dissolves completely, with the addition of other ingredients, then sifted and drunk. Some physicians prescribed to eat the solid residual, but it depended on the reason why the tisana was used. The use of this remedy continued in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
Kykeon, however, has an important difference from tisana: it is made with alphita, not simply with barley. Alphita is a word translated into Latin as polenta, and exactly as polenta, it means both the preparation itself and the raw material used to make it. We find used in an identical way the words tisana (that for some authors, for example Apicius, could mean also the husked barley) and alica (that could mean husked spelt, husked spelt whitened and pounded as described by Pliny, or even husked spelt cooked as usual).
Galen is a very precise author, luckily, and provides important information about alphita. It is a coarse flour, similar to alica, obtained by roasting fresh barley (as soon as it is harvested, before it dries) and pounding it. With this coarse flour, Greeks make two main kinds of preparations: alphita and maza. Maza is a sort of unleavened bread, obtained soaking the flour in milk, concentrated grape juice, or wine, then kneaded, and cooked; alphita is cooked in water as tisana and drunk or eaten as a substitute for bread, depending on the use one needs to make of it.
We notice an important difference between tisana and alphita: the first is husked, the second, instead, is whole. Galen extensively writes about how maza is scarcely nutritious compared to barley bread, because it contains bran.
Now, we know how kykeon is made, at least, the part that concerns alphita: it is a liquid polenta, overcooked, made with green barley roasted and pounded coarsely. This is our point of start to begin reading the Homeric poems and try to recreate the kykeon they describe.
Roast the barley for a short time, then pound it in the mortar without reducing it to flour.
Overcook ten parts of water with one of barley for at least two hours. Let it cool down. Mix two parts of cooked barley with three of water, then add a bit of minced pennyroyal. If you do not have pennyroyal, use mint instead. Mix it well and drink immediately.
The myth of Demeter
There are many variants of the myth of Demeter and Persephone, the core of the Eleusinian Mysteries, but this time we will tell the version narrated in the source we are using for this recipe, the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. You find the complete translation of the text here.
The story begins in an ancient, golden age, a period of abundance, and the main characters are Demeter, goddess of the harvest, her daughter Persephone, and then Hades, god of the dead. When Persephone is playing the daughters of Ocean and picking flowers, the earth opens and Hades appears on his golden chariot, abducting the girl. She cries, but no one among the gods and mortals hears her voice, save for Hecate, goddess of the underworld, and Helios, god of the sun.
As soon as Demeter hears the cry of her daughter, she covers her shoulders with a black cloak and searches Persephone, like a bird, over the land and sea, for nine days, without nourishing herself with the food and beverage of the gods, ambrosia and nectar, neglecting ever to wash herself. The tenth day, Hecate appears to tell the goddess that she heard Persephone’s voice, but she ignores who abducted her daughter. However, Helios, the Sun who sees all, reveals the truth: Hades took Persephone, and Zeus, father of all gods, allowed it.
Furious with the father of gods and full of grief, Demeter wanders on the earth in disguise. One day, the four daughters of Eleusis see Demeter but do not recognize her and ask her name. Demeter lies about her identity and tells a story, asking then whether they know people who need an aged woman to take care of their children or houses, or guide their women.
She is led to Metaneira’s house, and as soon as she enters the door, a divine light shines on her. Metaneira asks her to seat on her throne, but Demeter refuses, accepting just a stool to rest when a woman, Iambe, offers it to her.
Demeter seats there, grieving, without eating or drinking. She does not speak or laugh. Just Iambe is able to make her smile. Metaneira, then, offers to the goddess a cup of wine as sweet as honey, but Demeter says that it is not proper for her to drink it, but she would accept a kykeon. So, Metaneira prepares a kykeon with water and alphita mixed with tender leaves of glechon: pennyroyal. Demeter drinks the kykeon for the rite’s sake.
Metaneira then asks Demeter to grow her child, and the goddess accepts, protecting him from poisonous herbs and malevolent spells. She oints the child with ambrosia and, by night, she places him in the fire, and he becomes strong, similar to a god. But Metaneira sees her and believes she is killing her son. Demeter is furious: now, the child will not become immortal. But she orders that once a year, as soon as the sun had completed its cycle, the sons of Eleusis will fight against each other. A temple will be built for her, goddess Demeter, and an altar below the walls of the city, and she will teach the rites to appease her, meant to be celebrated every year.
Now, Demeter shows her real aspect and her divine beauty.
The goddess spends her time in her temple, and the seeds stop to germinate because she keeps them hidden. Famine wastes the lands, crops do not grow. Zeus then tries to convince her to return among the immortal gods, but no prayer nor gift persuades Demeter, who refuses to listen until she sees her daughter. Zeus sends Hermes to speak with Hades. All humankind will starve to death, if Demeter does not change her mind, and the only way is to free Persephone.
Hades agrees, but he gives to Persephone a sweet pomegranate to eat.
Persephone returns on the earth, but Demeter discovers that Hades had deceived them: Persephone has eaten the pomegranate, so she will spend two-third of the year with her mother and the other immortals, and one-third with her husband, in the realm of the dead.
Demeter, then, brings again life on the crops and reveals her mysteries to a few chosen, mysteries that no one is allowed to divulge, speak about, or ask.
Happy among the mortals the ones who participate in the sacred rites, the hymn writes. No one would have the same destiny, even after the death, if they are not initiated to the sacred mysteries.
aged goat cheese
Prepare the barley as in the previous recipe.
Mix two parts of barley with three of wine, grating on top a bit of aged goat cheese. Mix all the ingredients well and drink.
The beverage of the Homeric heroes
The kykeon we find in the Iliad is completely different from the ritual beverage of the Homeric Hymns. The function of this beverage is similar to the one described in the Pseudo-Aristotelic Problems: a mixture of alphita and wine helps people to sober up. In this case, the Homeric heroes drink this kykeon before making decisions about the war.
This episode is narrated in the 11th book. You find the complete text here.
In this episode, a woman called Hekamede mixes a kykeon for the heroes there gathered. She prepares the table with a basket with onions (traditionally used to accompany wine), honey, and alphita; then, a beautiful cup decorated with gold bosses, with four handles. In this cup, the woman pours Pramnian wine and grates goat cheese, then mixes them with alphita. The heroes then quench their thirst with this kykeon and begin to speak.
In the Odyssey, we find another kind of kykeon, prepared by the enchantress Circe and able to transform, with the help of her magic wand, Odysseus’ companions into swine. This episode is narrated in the 10th book. You find the complete text here.
The recipe for Circe’s kykeon is different from the other two: it includes, naturally, alphita, with the addition of Pramnian wine (the same we found in the Iliad) and honey. But it is not all: Circe wants that the men forget entirely their homelands, so she mixes to her kykeon some mysterious magic herbs. Once they have drunk the potion, she touches them with her wand and they turn into pigs, but their mind is still human. Just Hermes’ intervention saves Odysseus from the same, grim fate: the messenger of the gods, indeed, tells the hero what happened to his crew and gives him an antidote against Circe’s kykeon. In this way, Odysseus is able to save his companions and resume his long travel toward home.
Translations of Historical Sources
Opusculum de Saporibus by Mainus de Maineris (14th century)
Registrum Coquine (first part) by Johannes von Bockenheim (15th century)
Gastris – Ancient Greek Sweet
Artolaganon Bread with Ancient Sourdough
Puls Punica – Phoenician Dessert
Lagana and Chickpea Soup
Placenta – Honey Cheesecake
Cured Olives and Epityrum
Afrutum or Spumeum – 6th-century Byzantine recipe