Free Rice (and Other) Terms XXIV
Bill Long 8/30/08
Starting with Terms from Greek Sacrfices...
A few days ago, I ran across the Greek stamnos, or vessel with a short neck, and decided I had to clarify lots of ancient Greek archaeological terms for cups or vessels. So I did so in that essay. But then, as I was searching for terms near the word "thwart" (for a Billphorism I was working on--no. 458), my eye fell upon some other ancient Greek-derived terms, having to do with sacrifice, and I knew I had found another essay...
Let's begin with thymele, a word misspelled in one of the later rounds of this year's Kids National Spelling Bee. Derived from the Greek verb thyein, meaning "to sacrifice," a thymele is an altar from Greek antiquity, particularly the small altar of Dionysus which occupied the central portion of the orchestra of a Greek theater. Because all Greek drama had a religious component to it, this thymele (THIM uh lee) served as a reminder of that association. Here is an ancient theater glossary if you really get excited about it.
While studying at the Century's definition of thymele, I noted that the floor of the orchestra, where the chorus stood, was covered with konistra or "beaten cinders." While failing to find konistra in the OED, I did run across koniscope, derived from the same underlying Greek word (for dust--konis). Well, the koniscope isn't the most popular scientific instrument, but it does have a little story to it, and I thought I would mention it. The koniscope was invented about 1892 by the Scots scientist John Aikten (1839-1919) to measure the "concentration of dust in the air by observing the depth of color in a sample of air when it is expanded into a tube with glass ends and containing moist paper to saturate it with water vapor." In fact, his apparatus was the first one to mention dust and fog particles in the atmosphere. Here is a more detailed description of the koniscope. What I didn't know was that Aitken, whose specialty was studying the atmosphere, concluded early in his career that when water vapor in the atmosphere condenses, it must condense on some solid particle. Thus, without the presence of dust or other aerosol particles, there would be no fog or clouds. He suggested, then, in 1884 that the "brilliant colors often seen in the sunset are due to the refraction of light by dust particles in the upper atmosphere." Everyone knows this today. Some preachers, in a sort of rush of eloquence, have made the point that the most beautiful sunsets come when there is dust or something "dirty" in the atmosphere. Beauty is generated by dirt... Well, let's leave this subject in the dust..
Returning to Thymele and Others
If the thymele is an altar in the ancient Greek orchestra, the thymelici (thigh MEL i see) is the chorus in ancient Greek drama, so named because their activity took place around the thymele. A great word for the ancient chorus leader was a coryphaeus (co RIFF e us) a word that can now be used in describing any type of leader--a sort of "pied piper individual." Farrar, a 19th century scholar of early Christianity, could call Strauss, of Tuebingen, the "coryphaeus of modern scepticism." So, the leader of the pack, so to speak, is a coryphaeus. "Who is the coryphaeus here?" is the question that parents want answered, especially when the kids have wrought some destruction with their friends.
The word thymiatechy becomes clear when we realize that an obsolete English word for incense is thymiama--or the incense brought to the altar. Thus, thymiatechy is a "technique" or "art" relating to incense. It was coined in the 1830s to describe "the art of employing perfumes in medicine," but from the paucity of Google results for the word, I am not sure that anyone really does this anymore--if they ever did it. Thus, it is another interred word, but perhaps there was a story about it at one time..
Returning to Ancient Greek Terms
I have been moving slowly through the "thy" words because the next one takes us back to the "sacrifice" or "incense" base of the word. A thymiaterion is a "censer, especially one of ancient Greek origin, or one used in the Greek Church." Here is a good picture of a thymiaterion, an Apulian incense burner, approximately 1' high. Here is another one, from the Louvre.
No dictionary I have met has perirrhanterion in it, but that isn't a good reason for ignoring it. It is a ritual water basin or shallow bowl, found normally in archaic sanctuaries and resting on a stand usually composed of three or four women (caryatids). Here is a perirrhanterion resting on a caryatid tripod. I suppose that it was used for some kind of ritual lustration, and, indeed the word perirrhanterion is the Greek word for "sprinkling." One exemplar in the Met in NYC has a pear-shaped neck. The description there says that such a vessel was used to sprinkle water out of two holes near the top.
Hm....Other articles I read say that a thymiaterion is synonymous with a perirrhanterion. I would say that we don't have complete agreement among the scholars that use the term exactly what it denotes. Is it a vessel for sprinkling water on things? Is it a sort of shallow bowl held up by a tripod caryatid? Is it synonymous with a thymiaterion? It is not as if the Presidential election of 2008 will be solved by the answer to this question, but it shows that even on the most basic issue of understanding--words--there isn't agreement among those in the know.
Just think what happens to poor students, who are diligently trying to listen and pay attention to their professors, when they hear such a gratingly different term (such as thymiaterion or perirrhanterion) and then dutifully take down a definition, and then see that scholars use the term in such different ways? Wouldn't you become discouraged if you were such a student? Wouldn't you tend to think that the fault for not understanding things was yours rather than the people who smoke pipes and wear tweed jackets (or maybe that is my late 1960s/early 1970s vision of an Ivy-League academic)? But, in fact, it is their problem and not yours. Thus, we have another rule of words established: like Jacob of old, who struggled with the angel/night visitor (Gen. 28), don't let them go until they "bless you." Don't let go of the words until you make the people responsible for using them be clear to you on what they mean. They will give you a doctorate for your persistence before they clean up their act...
Once again, not too much progress, but the fun could hardly be more intense...