The sacred fish

Yesterday’s post had a quote from the Iliad with a simile about a fisherman catching a sacred fish. Well what is a sacred fish? Athenaeus has quite a long discussion on this – this is an extract. Being lazy I’ve just taken the Gulick translation from the Perseus site but I’ve added images of possible candidates. The most likely explanation is that in the context it was used in the Iliad, sacred (ἱερὸς) was used in an older meaning of vigorous or strong rahter than sacred.

From Athenaeus 7.20

But Theocritus the Syracusan, in his poem entitled [p. 446] Berenice, calls the fish which is called leucus the sacred fish, speaking thus—

And if a mortal seeks the gods with prayer
For a successful hunt, or plenteous gold,
A man who lives by the sea, whose nets he makes
His ploughs to raise his crops; then let him come,
And just at nightfall sacrifice with prayer
To this same goddess the most sacred fish,
Which men call leucus, (loveliest he of fish,)
Then let him bend his nets; and soon he shall
Draw them back from the waters full of prey.

[[The leucus is unidentified – this is a grey mullet]]

But Dionysius, who was surnamed the Iambic, in his treatise on Dialects, writes thus—“We have heard accordingly an Eretrian fisherman, and many other fishermen, too, of other countries, call the pompilus the sacred fish. Now the pompilus is a sea fish, and is very commonly seen around ships, being something like the tunny called pelamys. However, some one spoken of by the poet catches this fish;—

Sitting upon a high projecting rock
He caught the sacred fish.

Pilot fish

[[The pompilus or pilot fish]]

Unless, indeed, there be any other kind which is likewise called the sacred fish. But Callimachus in his Galatea calls the chrysophrys the sacred fish, where he says—

Or shall I rather say the gold-brow’d fish,
That sacred fish, or perch, or all the rest
Which swim beneath the vast unfathom’d sea.

Sparus aurata.jpg

[[The chysophrys or gilt-head sea bream]]

But in his Epigrams the same poet says—

The sacred sacred hyca.

[[Hyca is unidentified  – this is a sea bream]]

But some understand by the term sacred fish, one let go and dedicated to the god, just as people give the same name to a consecrated ox. But others consider that sacred is here only equivalent to great, as Homer speaks of

The sacred might of Alcinous.

And some think that it is only called ἱερὸς as ἱέμενος πρὸς τὸν ῥοῦν (going down stream).”

Θεόκριτος δ᾽ ὁ Συρακόσιος ἐν τῇ ἐπιγραφομένῃ Βερενίκῃ τὸν λεῦκον ὀνομαζόμενον ἰχθὺν ἱερὸν καλεῖ διὰ τούτων ῾p. 184 Ziegl’:’

καἴ τις ἀνὴρ αἰτεῖται ἐπαγροσύνην τε καὶ ὄλβον,
ἐξ ἁλὸς ᾧ ζωή, τὰ δὲ δίκτυα κείνῳ ἄροτρα,
σφάζων ἀκρόνυχος ταύτῃ θεῷ ἱερὸν ἰχθύν,
ὃν λεῦκον καλέουσιν, ὁ γάρ θ᾽ ἱερώτατος ἄλλων,
καί κε λίνα στήσαιτο καὶ ἐξερύσαιτο θαλάσσης

Διονύσιος δ᾽ ὁ ἐπικαλούμενος Ἴαμβος ἐν τῷ περὶ διαλέκτων γράφει οὕτως: ‘ἀκηκόαμεν γοῦν ἁλιέως Ἐρετρικοῦ [τὸν] ἱερὸν ἰχθὺν καὶ ἄλλων πολλῶν ἁλιέων καλούντων τὸν πομπίλον: ἐστὶν πελάγιος καὶ παρὰ τὰς ναῦς πυκνὰ φαίνεται ἐοικὼς πηλαμύδι, ποικίλος. τὸν δ᾽ οὖν ἰχθύν τις παρὰ τῷ ποιητῇ ἕλκει:
ἀκτῇ ἐπὶ προβλῆτι καθήμενος ἱερὸν ἰχθύν,
Il. 16.407

εἰ μὴ ἄλλος τίς ἐστιν οὕτω καλούμενος ἱερὸς ἰχθύς.’ Καλλίμαχος δ᾽ ἐν Γαλατείᾳ τὸν χρύσοφρυν ῾fr. 37 Sch’:’

ἢ μᾶλλον χρύσειον ἐν ὀφρύσιν ἱερὸν ἰχθὺν
ἢ πέρκας ὅσα τ᾽ ἄλλα φέρει βυθὸς ἄσπετος ἅλμης.

ἐν δὲ τοῖς ἐπιγράμμασιν ὁ αὐτὸς ποιητής φησιν ῾fr. 72 Sch’:’
ἱερὸς δέ τοι, ἱερὸς ὕκης.
ἄλλοι δ᾽ ἀκούουσιν ἱερὸν ἰχθὺν τὸν ἄνετον, ὡς καὶ ἱερὸν βοῦν τὸν ἄνετον, οἱ δὲ τὸν μέγαν, ὡς “ἱερὸν μένος Ἀλκινόοιο” Od. 8.385 , τινὲς δὲ τὸν ἱέμενον πρὸς τὸν ῥοῦν.’

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