The scented robe

Homer composed his epics in – well who knows? Many academics have earned their crust by debating this question – but one thing is certain that there are places where he refers back to times centuries before his poems were written down. The excavations at Knossos and Pylos elsewhere have revealed a world that pre-dates Homer by centuries but we find references in Homer to this world. Knowing this adds a certain something to the enjoyment of the poet as we feel the epics are not just the invention of one person at one time but have echoes that stretch far back.

The discovery of the Linear B tablets and the associated frescos, seals etc have provided a rich source of information about the Mycenaean world.

In this paper

“Religious offerings in the Linear B tablets : an attempt at their classification and some thoughts about their possible purpose
Weilhartner, Jörg (Universität Salzburg)”

Weilhartner gives various evidence for the offering of robes to the gods in Mycenaean times including evidence from Linear B, engravings frescos etc and concludes

“Due to this textual and iconographic evidence, it seems most likely that the dedication of cloth as a votive offering was common Mycenaean cult practice.”

He quotes this passage from Homer as an example of this practice. (His translation – fair-haired Athene should be lovely haired as it refers to the quality of the hair not the colour).

Hom. Il. 6.90-92: (…) πέπλον, ὅς οἱ δοκέει χαριέστατος ἠδὲ μέγιστος | εἶναι ἐνὶ μεγάρῳ καὶ οἱ πολὺ φίλτατος αὐτῇ, | θεῖναι Ἀθηναίης ἐπὶ γούνασιν ἠϋκόμοιο.

(…) the robe that seemed to her (i.e. the mother of Hector) the fairest and amplest in her hall, and that is far dearest to her own, this let her lay upon the knees of fair-haired Athene.

Before talking about the offering robes to goddesses he talks about the practice of scenting robes

“Be that as it may, within this series from Pylos there is an explicit reference to a particular offering custom: the dedication of 9.6 l oil (e-ra3-wo/*ἔλαιÛον) to the po-ti-ni-ja u-po-jo as an unguent for textiles (we-a2-no-i a-ro-pa/Ûεhάνοις ἀλοιφά).”

“Cynthia Shelmerdine has linked this practice of anointing textiles, which seems to be a regular Mycenaean practice beyond the religious sector, with Homeric references to ‘shining’ and ‘fragrant’ cloth verbalized by a number of different adjectives. She refers also to Bronze Age Mari texts, where quotations of ‘(sesame)- oil to make cloth shine’ show the purpose of this treatment of woollen and linen clothes expressis verbis”

I don’t know whether Shelmerdine or Weilhartner considered the following passage, shortly after the passage from the Iliad quoted above. The room where Hecabe, the mother of Hector got the robe from is scented – maybe there is an implication that the clothes themselves were scented and that the robe offered to Athene was a fragrant robe.

αὐτὴ δ᾽ ἐς θάλαμον κατεβήσετο κηώεντα,
ἔνθ᾽ ἔσάν οἱ πέπλοι παμποίκιλα ἔργα γυναικῶν
Σιδονίων,

She went into the fragrant chamber where the embroidered robes were, the work of Sidonian women.

Iliad 6.288

The same word for fragrant κηώεντα is used a bit further on where again if not directly used of clothes probably refers to the scent coming from the clothes. Or maybe not. Perhaps the scents were applied directly onto the body.

ὣς εἰπὼν ἀλόχοιο φίλης ἐν χερσὶν ἔθηκε
παῖδ᾽ ἑόν: ἣ δ᾽ ἄρα μιν κηώδεϊ δέξατο κόλπῳ
δακρυόεν γελάσασα:

So speaking, he (Hector) put his child into the hands of his wife. She took him into her fragrant lap smiling through her tears.

Iliad 6.482

Anyway whether or not it was a fragrant or scented robe or dress offered to Athene or just the room and person were scented, the offering still reflects back to an ancient practice.

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