Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The 'Kikayon' of Jonah and Medea's Mysterious Potion

 [The AMAIC would give the priority to Jonah, instead]


The "kikayon"

In the second part of Jonah's story, the word kikayon is a famous hapax legomenon which, in its context, refers to a plant, with later tradition hesitating between a type of gourd and ricinus communis (castor oil).**36** Many interesting explanations have been offered, none of them entirely convincing.**37** No one seems to have noticed, however, that this word sounds very much like the brew prepared by Medea, kukeon or kukaon (from the verb kukaô, to stir up, to create confusion), in Apollonius' version and in the Argonautica Orphica.**38** Here, a mysterious potion, a mixture made of medicinal and dangerous plants,**39** is used by Medea to put to sleep the serpent or dragon guarding the tree where the fleece was hanging. In Apollonius, Medea rubs the head of the monster with the potion and sprinkles it to achieve the same result. In some later (Roman) representations, she is shown presenting a vial to the serpent coiled around the tree, while Jason, unseen, grabs the Golden Fleece. The kukaon or kikaon is also the name of the drink of barley gruel and water, associated with Eleusinian mysteries,**40** where perhaps the role of the python had been similar to that of the sea monster in ancient versions of the tradition. The problem is that the kikayon of the Hebrew story is obviously a fast-growing plant, not a potion or brew. Yet, the Greek magic mixture is clearly made with pharmacological plants. Furthermore, whatever the Hebrew kikayon denotes, it acts as an emetic or aims at making Jonah rid himself of his anger, in a punning parallel with his disgorgement from the fish. I would like to suggest, then, that the kikayon of the book of Jonah may have lost its original meaning but has retained the idea of a magic act, perhaps together with the emetic or purging virtue of the original, suggested by the Hebrew sound (wayaqe` in Jonah 2.11, from the verb qi`) associated later with other plants, such as the ricinus. In the Hebrew text also, the dragon has been reduced to a worm, an annoyance whose night work, however, makes Jonah wish for death. In the second part of Jonah's story, there is no magician (daughter of a king) or any dragon to be put to sleep. There is, however, a gleeful and absurd reduction of the Greek monster to the size of a worm and the fire-breathing of an irate Jonah whom God attempts to calm down.


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