Gallery: Presents from the Past

Botticelli, Venus and the Three Graces offering presents to a young girl (1485) Louvre
Botticelli, Venus and the Three Graces offering presents to a young girl (1485) Louvre

Greek has five words that are commonly translated uniformly by “gift.” A careful examination of their use shows that they do in fact correspond to as many different ways of envisaging a gift—from the purely verbal notion of “giving” to “a contractual prestation [benefit] imposed by the terms of a pact, an alliance, a friendship, or a ‘guest-host’ relationship.”

Benveniste, Indo-European Language and Society, Section 2, Chapter 5.

In December many of us have to find the perfect gift to offer to family and friends. Giving presents was essential in the ancient world. There is a strong tradition of exchanging or giving gifts. This gallery will show some gifts which might have been offered. The Sourcebook contains many passages about presents. Here are a few:

Then tall Hector of the glancing helmet said, “Ajax, the gods have granted you stature and strength, and judgment; and in wielding the spear you excel all others of the Achaeans. [290] Let us for this day cease fighting; hereafter we will fight anew till some superhuman force [daimōn] decides between us, and give victory to one or to the other; night is now falling, and the requests of night may not be well ignored. Gladden, then, the hearts of the Achaeans at your ships, [295] and more especially those of your own followers and clansmen, while I, in the great city of King Priam, bring comfort to the Trojans and their women, who vie with one another in their prayers on my behalf. Let us, moreover, exchange presents [300] that it may be said among the Achaeans and Trojans, ‘They fought with might and main, but were reconciled and parted in friendship.’” Then he gave Ajax a silver-studded sword with its sheath and leather Balearic, [305] and in return Ajax gave him a belt dyed with purple. Thus they parted, the one going to the army of the Achaeans, and the other to that of the Trojans, who rejoiced when they saw their hero come to them safe and unharmed from the strong hands of mighty Ajax.
Iliad 7.285–310 Sourcebook

[400] Then Euryalos said, “Great King Alkinoos, I will give the stranger all the satisfaction you require. He shall have sword, which is of bronze, all but the hilt, which is of silver. I will also give him the scabbard of newly sawn ivory
[405] into which it fits. It will be worth a great deal to him.” As he spoke he placed the sword in the hands of Odysseus and said, “Good luck to you, father stranger; if anything has been said amiss may the winds blow it away [410] with them, and may the gods grant you a safe return, for I understand you have been long away from home, and have gone through much hardship.” To which resourceful Odysseus answered, “Good luck to you too my friend, and may the gods grant you every happiness [olbos]. I hope you will not miss the sword you have given [415] me along with your apology.” With these words he girded the sword about his shoulders and towards sundown the presents began to make their appearance, as the servants of the donors kept bringing them to the house of King Alkinoos; here his sons [420] received them, and placed them under their mother’s charge. Then Alkinoos led the way to the house and bade his guests take their seats. “Wife,” said he, turning to Queen Arete, “Go, fetch the best chest we have, [425] and put a clean cloak and khiton in it. Also, set a copper on the fire and heat some water; our guest will take a warm bath; see also to the careful packing of the presents that the noble Phaeacians have made him; he will thus better enjoy both his supper and the singing that will follow.
[430] I shall myself give him this golden goblet—which is of exquisite workmanship – that he may be reminded of me for the rest of his life whenever he makes a drink-offering to Zeus, or to any of the gods.”
Odyssey 8.400–435 Sourcebook

[285] “Circumspect Queen Penelope, daughter of Ikarios, take as many presents as you please from any one who will give them to you; it is not well to refuse a present; but we will not go about our business nor stir from where we are, till you have married the best man among us whoever he may be.”
[290] The others applauded what Antinoos had said, and each one sent his servant to bring his present. Antinoos’ man returned with a large and lovely dress most exquisitely pattern-woven. It had twelve beautifully made brooch pins of pure gold with which to fasten it.
[295] Eurymakhos immediately brought her a magnificent chain of gold and amber beads that gleamed like sunlight. Eurydamas’ two men returned with some earrings fashioned into three radiant pendants which glistened in beauty [kharis]; while king Peisandros [300] son of Polyktor gave her a necklace of the rarest workmanship, and every one else brought her a beautiful present of some kind. Then the queen went back to her room upstairs, and her maids brought the presents after her. Meanwhile the suitors took to singing and dancing,
Odyssey 15.285–305 Sourcebook

Hélène Emeriaud is a retired teacher. A Community TA for HeroesX in v3 and v4, she enjoys being a participant in Hour 25.

Photos: H. Emeriaud