I admire Robert Graves, I really do – his poetry, his short stories, his historical novels and, of course, his work on Greek Myth. The Greek Myths, (Graves 1955) is a major reference for this blog. Yet, in many ways, what I am writing here is an extended argument with the premise of The Greek Myths. Graves was great proponent of the theory that all Greek myth, indeed myth in general, is based on the ritual drama and metaphor of the Year King, the sacred king that must die annually with the sun, the crops and the vegetation. That this sacrifice is needed to ensure that the sun and the crops and the King will return again, new, vigorous and fertile in the following year.
Moreover, the origins of these cults are seen as matriarchal, where powerful Queen-Priestesses ruled and Kings were ephemeral and expendable. It is supposed ,however, that the myths record how the rituals were adapted, so that Kings ruled for longer, either because the King was sacrificed less frequently or a substitution was made or the whole ritual became purely symbolic. Thus society as a whole became more male-dominated. The Great Mother Goddesses of the original myths were down-graded to consorts and sacred virgins and the priestesses brought under the control of male priests. This is the view of Bronze Age Greek culture and religion that informs Mary Renault’s re-telling of the Theseus myth The King Must Die.
There is little doubt that Greek culture underwent enormous shifts from the late Bronze age and into the Iron Age and that it became more male-dominated as a whole. The Great Goddesses of the cities and regions, Hera, Artemis, Athene retained their importance in cult and ritual, even while their roles in myth were brought into conformity with the male-dominated world. Yet explaining all myth in this fashion can begin to seem relentlessly dull, as well as unlikely. It can also lead to some apparently bizarre conclusions.
There is a passage in Graves’ Greek Myths where he is discussing Helen as tutelary goddess/priestess of Sparta, rather than the character in the story of the fall of Troy. The name, he states, means either ‘moon’ or ‘basket in which offerings are made to the moon goddess’. A ritual of well-born young girls carrying baskets of offerings to the goddess is a feature of a number of Greek cults, and the baskets were known as ‘helene’. (Willow, from which the baskets are likely to have been made, is ‘helice’.) The contents of the baskets were a secret. Graves asserts that they would have contained phallic emblems, representations of the genitals cut from the sacred king at his sacrifice. I, however, would like to propose another possibility. I suggest that the baskets contained cheese!
There was a famous, or infamous, ceremony at Sparta where young boys were whipped before the altar of Artemis Orthia. The name Orthia means ‘upright’, possibly even in the sense of ‘phallic’ and it seems to have been a name or title of a Spartan goddess long before that goddess was identified as Artemis. The whipping were considered necessary in order to splash the altar of the goddess with blood and even ancient commentators believed they might have been a substitution for an original human sacrifice. The Spartan youths accepted the whippings willingly as tests of their courage, endurance and piety, even though from time to time youths died as a result.
The Romans, in particular, were fascinated by this ritual. Wealthy Romans often visited Sparta, whose manners and customs they admired. An theatre was built so they could watch the ceremony, apparently with the same sadistic enthusiasm with which they watched gladiatorial combat. Focusing on the whipping however, means that less attention is paid to other elements of the rite. The youths, in fact, were being whipped as they attempted to steal cheeses from the Goddess’ altar. This suggest that cheese was very important to the ancient Spartans.
Cheese-making is, of course, a technological process, a ‘magic that works’. It requires knowledge and skill to carry out successfully and it is likely that, at least when the technology was new to an area, that certain parts of the process were trade or ‘sacred’ secrets. The most likely secret is the means to separate milk into curds and whey, whether by the use of animal or vegetable rennet or by other techniques such as heating. The curds are then strained, drained, pressed and matured in various ways to form cheese.
I expect that the cheeses were drained and matured in tightly woven baskets. In fact a cheese called Kalathaki or ‘basket cheese’.is still made using baskets, on the Greek island of Limnos. Cheeses made in such a way, round and white, would look very much like little moons. There is a reason that ‘the moon is made of green cheese’ is a common folk tale throughout Europe. Perhaps ancient peoples also felt that cheese is, in some sense, made of moon, sacred to the moon goddess who taught the secrets of its making? Thus you would certainly make the goddess offerings of cheeses, carried in their baskets, at the appropriate season.