One of the earliest mentions of oysters in literature appears in fragments of extracts of a Greek poet, Matron (Ματρων), often known in his latinised form as Matro, who originated from a coastal town in Asia Minor or Western Turkey, Pitane, about 80 kilometres north of the now modern city of Izmir, and lived in Athens towards the end of the 4th century BCE. He won himself a reputation for his parodies of dinner parties or banquets, one of which is known as the Attic Feast (Δειπνον Αττικων [Deipnon Attikon]), that were common among the rich and famous during this period in Athens. A couple of longer fragments was saved for posterity by a later poet, Athenaios of Naukratis (a Greek colony in the Nile delta of Egypt), who lived roughly five centuries later, and who compiled a large collection of texts about food, cookery and banquets, later known under the title of Deipnosophistai.
This genre of gastronomical poetry, a form of parody, came into fashion during the 5th century BCE in Athens as a means of entertaining a mass audience, in which the satirical use of epic poetry, especially the pretentious phrasing and epithets of Homeric epics, helped to conjure up laughter and derision about the burlesque character of these feasts. The parodies would have probably been performed at public gatherings, rather like the stand-up comedians of today, though the poetry recited was rigorously, if not scornfully, delivered in the Homeric hexameter form. The poems portrayed the gluttony and bizarre tastes that the few could afford, whilst at the same time giving the hoi polloi a chance to voice their jealousy and envy of the privileged and political classes.
According to Matron, one of the very first dishes served at these feasts featured oysters, obviously regarded even then as appetisers. Matron described how the cooks began by loading up the tables with vegetables and shellfish, picking out particularly asparagus and oysters which he called ‘marrowy’ (ὄστρεα μυελóεντα/ ostrea myeloenta), in the sense of bone marrow, rather than the vegetable marrow, thus emphasising their loose softness, although bone marrow was itself considered a specialty. However, another interpretion offered is that this was a pun on the marrowy bones (όστéα μυελóεντα/ ostea myeloenta) by those Cyclops monsters, mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey. In their commentary on the text, Olson and Sens1 mention (p.87) that this adjective is a Homeric hapax legomenon, signifying that its occurrence was quite unique and highly specific. Apparently, besides its cameo appearance in this culinary context, it has also been used to convey the softness of a young man’s buttocks! But that didn’t matter to the Greeks! And I don’t think we need to dwell on that, the next time we dig into a platter of oysters!
Fig 1. Dark truffle (tuber cibarium)
In another of Matron’s fragments, a single one-liner hexameter, a cook ‘also brought oysters, truffles of the Nereid Thetis’ (ὄστρεα τ’ηνεικεν, Θετιδος Νηρηιδος υδνα/ ostrea t’eneiken, Thetidos Nereidos hydna). In their commentary to Matron’s fragments, Olson and Sens suggest (p.144-145) that the implication here is that truffles (tuber cibarium) are hidden like oysters, from immediate view: truffles are concealed in the ground whilst oysters are buried on the sea bed, although it must also be admitted that given the fact that these dark-coloured truffles understandably were a very rare delicacy, their association with oysters may reveal something of the culinary status of oysters as well. In fact, the authors do refer to another Greek source where truffles were compared to delicacies of the sea. But they also mention the possibility of a play on words in which case the word may also infer the sense of ‘being raised in the sea’. However, the mention of the ancient deities of Nereus and Thetis, who was one of the many daughters of the old sea god Nereus, one of the so-called Nereids, and whose home was the Aegean Sea, seems to convey a primeval sense or quality belonging to oysters. This can be further inferred by the more than etymological link between Thetis and the more archaic sea deity Tethys (Τηθυς), daughter of the primoridal sky-god, Ouranos, and earth-goddess, Gaia, and from which stems an even older word in Greek for oyster (τηθος/ tethos). On the other hand, another possible interpretation is that Matron was only making use of the device of hyperbole for purely poetic effect or even as some parodic innuendo that his listeners would have understood far better than we can today.
Anyway, for all oyster lovers the comparison is more than appropriate.
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1 S. Douglas Olson and Alexander Sens: Matro of Pitane and the Tradition of Epic Poetry in the Fourth Century BCE. American Classical Studies, no 44. Atlanta, Scholars Press/American Pholological Association (1999).