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Report | Kestós Himás: Phraseology and Thematic Indo-European Inherited Structures in Greek Myth

Persistent identifier: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:MassettiL.Kestos_Himas.2018


In this project, I investigate a number of Greek mythological traditions by means of a comparative approach. Concretely, I focus on the fire-myth, i.e., on the story of the fire-invention through theft and deceit. My research reveals that the phraseology, the epithets, and the names, which apply to the fire-theft and to the fire-thieves in Greek literary sources, closely parallel those describing the same situations or characters in Ancient India. Furthermore, the comparative approach casts light on isolated mythological traditions and obscure terms, as shown by the following research findings:

(1) Ithas, “the herald of the Titans, Prometheus” (Hesychius) can be identified as the “Kindler/Warm-producer”. Moreover, the comparison with the Rigvedic passages dealing with Mātariśvan’s fire-theft sheds light on the association between Prometheus/Ithas and his role of messenger.

(2) The epithet akakêta, which exclusively applies to Hermes and Prometheus, might be interpreted as a compound probably meaning ‘very burning/hungry’*. The epithet may ultimately reflect an original association between the two Greek figures and ‘fire’.

Finally, my comparative study shows that Hermes and Prometheus share significant distinctive features with fire-deities of other Indo-European traditions. This might ultimately speak for a set of traits which Prometheus and Hermes inherited from an ancient Indo-European fire-deity.

Project Summary and Objectives

My project endeavors to reconstruct what ancient Greek mythological narratives of the archaic and classical ages (8th–5th century BC) inherited from the Indo-European tradition to which they were heir. In order to do that, I analyze Greek poetic mythological accounts from the phraseological point of view. In other words, I try to reconstruct the Indo-European thematic heritage by comparing words and phrases attested within mythological and ritual texts of Greek and its sister languages. The project sets forth the following concrete objectives:

          To classify a number of Greek thematic structures in terms of primary motifs and narrative avatars, i.e., stories which proliferated from other stories;

          To locate possible connections among Greek narratives and rituals/worship praxis;

          To detect possible parallels for a given mythological narrative in other Indo-European traditions.

Research Activity (Fall 2017): Method and Contents

During the residence period at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington DC, I organized my research activity in the following steps:

  1. Study (slow and close reading) of a variety of similar Greek mythological accounts concerning the fire-theft. The starting point of my investigation were (1) the Hesiodic accounts about Prometheus’s fire-theft (Theogony, Works and Days, selected passages), (2) local or isolated traditions about Prometheus, (3) the story concerning the invention of fire and fire-sticks by Hermes (Fourth Homeric Hymn).
  2. Classification of the narratives in terms of primary motifs vs. avatars on the basis of the phraseological analysis, and selection of a limited number of Greek thematic structures on the basis of (i) their isolation and/or inconsistency; (ii) their traditional character on the phraseological level. The phraseological analysis of the stories about Prometheus’s and Hermes’s discoveries reveals their traditional character: Prometheus and Hermes have similar roles in narratives involving the invention of sacrifice and the discovery of fire through deceit and theft (Sowa 1984:200–201). In addition, the characters Phoroneus and Ithas (see below, §3.2) are Greek avatars of Prometheus, since they are identified with him.
  3. Description of possible patterns of phraseological renewal/substitution within Greek: Two main collocations describe the fire-theft in Hesiod and other literary sources, namely, [to steal fire] and [to bring fire]. The analysis of the Greek onomastic material confirms that these collocations underlie the names of the fire-thieves (see below §3.1).
  4. Individuation of correspondences between myths and ritual/worship praxis that are possibly connected to a certain character or event of the mythological narrative. The analysis of less renowned mythological traditions ex Graeco ipso allowed me to partially reconstruct the missing link between Prometheus’s theft and the Athenian torch-race in his honor (see below, §3.2).
  5. Analysis of the comparanda on the basis of shared phraseological traits. I concentrated my attention mostly on Rigvedic passages dealing with the fire-theft accomplished by Mātariśvan, who has long been identified as the ‘Indian Prometheus’ (Kuhn 1859+). Secondarily, I began to analyze the Old Norse mythological accounts which have the god Loki, the Scandinavian fire-god (Dumézil 1948:51), as protagonist (Snorri’s Edda).

3. Research Findings

3.1 The Fire-Theft: Phraseology

Prometheus’s achievement is described by means of the following collocations:

  • Prometheus [steals fire], Greek eklepse pûr (Hesiod), or [steals the fire, which is visible from afar], Greek klepsas pûros têleskopon augên (Hesiod), or he [steals the fire that Zeus had concealed], cf. krupse pûrklepsas (Hesiod).
  • Prometheus [brings fire] and is therefore called pûrphoros ‘fire-bringer’ (Sophocles).

The analysis of the onomastic material shows that the name of the fire-thief is strictly connected to the main events of the story in at least two Greek traditions:

– Promêtheus is the ‘Fire-robber’ par excellence, since his name may be traced back to Proto-Indo-European *math2‘rob’ (Narten 1960:132–135);

– Phorôneus, the Argive Prometheus according to Pausanias (Description of the Greece 2.19.5), is the ‘Fire-bringer/carrier’, since his name shall not be kept apart from Greek pherô ‘bring’, and Proto-Indo-European *bher‑ ‘bring’.

The Indic account of Mātariśvan’s fire-theft parallels the Greek one on points of detail. Like Prometheus

  • Mātariśvan [steals – fire], Vedic máthīd agním, or [steals the fire from afar], Vedic máthīd agním parāvátaḥ, or [steals the fire, which was concealed], Vedic máthīd … agním … gúhā sántam.
  • Mātariśvan [brings fire], Vedic bharat agním.

In Vedic the notion of ‘stealing fire’ is often expressed by means of mathi ‘rob’, which reflects Proto-Indo-European *math2, cf. Greek Promêtheus. The notion of ‘bringing fire’ is expressed through Vedic bhar ‘bring’, which reflects Proto-Indo-European *bher‑, cf. Greek pherô, Phorôneus.

To sum up: The Greek and the Vedic traditions exhibit the reflexes of the same story about the fire-theft, which is expressed by means of etymologically related words and names.

3.2 Research Findings: Ithas (or Ithaks)

Ithas (or Ithax) is a Greek avatar of Prometheus. He is identified by Hesychius (ι 387 L) as “the herald of the Titans, Prometheus. Some (say) Ithaks” (Ithas: ho tôn Titênôn kêruks. Promêtheus. tines Ithaks). Indeed, like Prometheus and Phoroneus, Ithas/Ithax has a ‘speaking name’: He is the ‘Warm-producer, the Kindler’, his name reflecting Proto-Indo-European *h1ai̯dh‑ ‘kindle’, cf. Greek aithô ‘id.’ (Morani 1983:42).

The link between the fire-thieves (Prometheus/Ithas) and the notion ‘herald’ is, however, missing. According to Beazley (1939:633), in a lost pelike (Morchini collection, once in Turin) Prometheus wore winged boots, a typical accessory of messengers in Greek iconographic and literary sources. In addition, Prometheus was worshipped in Athens with a torch race (lampadophoriâ, see Pausanias Description of Greece 1.30.2), to which messengers are explicitly compared (e.g. Herodotus Histories 8.98.1–2). One passage by Hyginus might retain a distant connection among Prometheus’s theft, the torch race, and the idea of ‘carrying messages’, (cf. Astronomica 2.15.1 [in translation] “up to this time, men who bring good news usually come with speed … they also make it a practice … to run, shaking torches after the manner of Prometheus”).

The Vedic phraseological material supports the reconstruction of an inherited association between the fire-thief, the notion ‘kindling’, and the idea of ‘carrying messages’: Mātariśvan ‘kindles’ (Vedic sám‑edh ‘kindle’, cf. Greek aithô, Proto-Indo-European *h1ai̯dh‑ ‘kindle’) the fire, e.g., Rigveda 3.5.10 mātaríśvā … samīdhé “Mātariśvan kindled (Agni)”. On the other side, Mātariśvan, like the fire-god Agni, is called ‘messenger’ (Vedic dūtá‑), cf. Rigveda 3.5.9cd agnír ī́ḍiyo mātaríśvā ā́ dūtó vakṣad yajáthāya devā́n “to be invoked as … Mātariśvan, Agni as a messenger will convey the gods to the sacrifice”. Indeed, it is through Mātariśvan’s kindling that Agni can undertake his mission as divine messenger.

In conclusion, the missing link between the role ‘herald’ and Prometheus/Ithas can be reconstructed with the help of the Vedic comparative evidence.

3.3 Research Findings: akakêta

As already underlined, Prometheus and Hermes share a variety of characteristic features: They are genealogically related; they are both connected to the invention of fire, fire-sticks and sacrifice; they share similar epithets. Among these we include akakêta, a form of opaque origin and meaning (Hoffmann 1891, Risch 1954:395–396), which only applies to Hermes (Homer, Hesiod) and Prometheus (Hesiod).

I propose to take akakêta as etymologically related to Proto-Indo-European *kenk‑ ‘dry/burn (?)’, which underlies several terms meaning ‘hunger, hungry’ or ‘dry/burning’, such as Gothic hūhrus ‘hungry’, English hunger, Greek kankanos ‘dry’ (of the firewood, in Homer+). Therefore, I suggest ‘all-drying/burning’* or ‘very hungry’* as the original meaning of akakêta. However, the form was re-interpreted as ‘benevolent’ (: a‑kakos ‘guileless, gracious’) since ancient times.

The phraseological analysis of the Greek material confirms that ‘hunger’ is traditionally described as ‘burning’, e.g., aithops lîmos ‘fiery hunger’ (Hesiod Works and Days 363+). An epithet of this kind perfectly suits both Hermes and Prometheus, who share an association with fire, theft and sacrifice, three distinctive components of the Vedic fire-god Agni and the Scandinavian god Loki.

4. Impact

Despite the fact that they are still partial, the presented research findings may have a strong scientific impact:

  • The linguistic study of mythological texts led to more than one etymological contribution in the matter of (i) onomastics (Phoroneus, Ithas) and (ii) lexical material (Greek continuations of the Indo-European root *kenk‑ ‘to burn / dry’), as well as (iii) semantics (akakêta).
  • The distribution of the onomastic and the phraseological evidence speaks in favor of a common tradition about the fire-theft living on within Greek and Old Indic, two languages which are commonly assumed to belong to the same sub-branch of the Indo-European family tree. Nevertheless, the core-events of the myth are expressed in different ways: In Greek, the central event of the fire-theft is often expressed through characters’ ‘speaking names’, Prometheus ‘the fire-robber’, Phoroneus, ‘the fire-bringer’, Ithas ‘the (fire-)kindler’. In the Vedic tradition, the central events of the stories are expressed by means of verbs (mathi ‘rob’, bhar ‘bring’, samedh ‘kindle’).
  • The comparative phraseological approach shed light on a lost mythological tradition, that about Ithas/Ithax, which would otherwise be unknown and almost completely isolated.
  • The comparative study between similar stories and features of Prometheus and Hermes in Greek and those of (semi)divine figures associated with the fire in other Indo-European traditions (Agni in Vedic, Loki in Old Norse) could change significantly the way we look at both Prometheus and Hermes. Indeed, these characters might be interpreted as two separated and similar continuations of a common ancestor, probably a divine figure closely associated with ‘fire’, maybe, even a fire-deity.


Beazley, J. D. 1939. Prometheus Fire-Lighter. American Journal of Archaeology 43/4.618–639.

Dumézil, G. 1948. Loki. Paris.

Hoffmann, O. 1891. ἀκάκητα. Beiträge zur Kunde der indogermanischen Sprachen 17.328–329.

Kuhn, A. 1859. Mythologischen Studien 1. Die Herabkunft des Feuers und des Göttertranks: ein Beitrag zur vergleichenden Mythologie der Indogermanen. Gürtersloh.

Morani, M. 1983. Il nome di Prometeo. Aevum 57/1.33–43.

Narten, J. 1960. Das vedische Verbum math. Indo-Iranian Journal 4.121–135.

Risch, E. 1954. Der homerische Typus ἱππότα Νέστωρ  und μητίετα Ζεύς. In G. Redard (ed.): Sprachgeschichte und Wortbedeutung: Festschrift Albert Debrunner gewidmet von Schülern, Freunden und Kollegen, 389–397. Bern.

Sowa, C. A. 1984. Traditional Themes and the Homeric Hymns. Chicago.


About Laura Massetti

Laura Massetti was trained in classical philology and music in Milan. She received a PhD in Historical and Comparative Linguistics at University of Cologne in 2016. Her research addresses linguistic and textual issues, namely, word-formation, nominal composition, phraseological analysis and cultural reconstruction (religion, mythology and poetry) of Greek and other Indo-European languages. During her fellowship at CHS she worked on a project about comparative mythology, “Kestós Himás: Phraseology and Thematic Indo-European Inherited Structures in Greek Myth”.

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