Now, why the interest in the snack food of a defunct pantheon? Besides the fact that mythology is plain cool, I’m doing research for a new novel. What better way than to blog about it. Now, I’ve really dug how Rick Riordan handled the Greek gods in Lightning Thief. But I feel he could have done more with ambrosia and nectar. (Maybe he has in subsequent books). So, I’m here to explore these mythical foods, as well as what makes a god immortal.
It seems that the Greeks interchanged ambrosia and nectar. Ambrosia could be eaten or drunk. Nectar was mostly drunk, but sometimes eaten. Me, I always thought of ambrosia as the food (maybe because of the fruit salad) and nectar as the drink.
There’s little information on how ambrosia and nectar are made. Apparently doves carried the food to the gods on Olympus. Ambrosia is described as being nine times sweeter than honey and its fragrance guards against disagreeable speech. I take this last part to mean that arguments won’t break out over the dinner table—good idea when you’re dealing with the Olympian family dynamic. (My guess, they weren’t serving Ambrosia when Eris plunked her golden apple on the table.)
What is clear is that eating the stuff makes you a god. Right after Apollo had been born, he climbed up to mount Olympus (a stunning feat for a newborn) where he received ambrosia and nectar to make him immortal.
A version of the Tantalus myth has the fellow dining at the table of the gods. Tantalus slips some nectar and ambrosia in his toga, and then shares the stuff with his friends on Earth. Not a cool move. Sure you get immortality, but is that really going to help you when Zeus hurls a thunderbolt at your butt?
My first exposure to the stuff (not literally, but in literature) was with the 1904 novel The Food of the Gods and How it Came to Earth by H. G. Wells. In this story these scientists, Bensington and Redwood, create a new chemical food called Herakleophorbia IV, which makes things grow to ginormous size. Being responsible nineteenth century scientists, they feed this stuff to their kids and the result is 40 foot babies. Kind of a weird story, but it falls in line with the Greek myths. The gods and titans were supposed to be gigantic.
The interesting thing I stumbled on was the gods’ blood, or lack thereof. It seems that the Greek gods bleed ichor. I only knew this stuff from Dungeons and Dragons and H. P. Lovecraft, so in my mind, I saw this black oily liquid. However, the ichor of the gods is a golden and resplendent. The theory goes that since the gods do not eat mortal food (food that rots and dies) neither do they. After all, the word ambrosia derives from the root of mbrotos, meaning mortal. Add the prefix “a” prefix to get “not mortal”. The food won’t rot, so neither will the consumer.
So what happens when these immortal gods don’t get their food fix? Well, they can’t die. Instead, the godly ones lie down, breathless, and sleep. They loose all power until they get more ambrosia and nectar.
Now eating (or drinking) ambrosia changes mortals. I’m assuming a human’s blood would transmute to ichor. I don’t know how much you need to ingest. Did Tantalus eat enough? Who’s to say. After Achilles died, Thetis anointed him with ambrosia to destroy the human side he inherited from his mortal father, Peleus. This implies that simply rubbing the stuff on your skin transforms you, killing your mortality.
Bottom line, you start sipping from the nectar cup, there might be no turning back. It’s like the forbidden apple. One taste is too much. No wonder the gods were irked when someone stole the stuff. There were too many bickering brothers and sisters in Olympus already. Why add a few interlopers?
Ambrosia serves as the ultimate class division between mortals and immortals. Gods have it. Men yearn for it. And no, the recipe for immortality does not include marshmallows.