Informers, Flatterers, and Figs: On Sycophants

From the Suda

“To be a sykophant: To rub sexually. That’s how Plato and Menander use it.”

Συκοφαντεῖν: κνίζειν ἐρωτικῶς. οὕτως Πλάτων καὶ Μένανδρος.

Browse the Suda on the Scaife Viewer. Or, check out translation and commentary on the Suda Online

More from the Suda

“To be a sykophant: to falsely accuse someone. They the Athenians called it this at the time when a fig-plant was first discovered and they were stopping the export of figs for this reason. Those people who reported that figs were being exported were called “sykophants” [lit. “fig speakers”]. Over time, anyone who accused people in a super annoying manner were named in this way.

Aristophanes writes “these things are small and indigenous” since being a sykophant is a native characteristic of Athenians. Aelian adds “he alleged [sukophantei] that he god was negligent. For these reasons plagues and famine over came the Himerians’ city.”

Συκοφαντεῖν: τὸ ψευδῶς τινος κατηγορεῖν. κεκλῆσθαι δέ φασι τοῦτο παρ’ ᾿Αθηναίοις πρῶτον εὑρεθέντος τοῦ φυτοῦ τῆς συκῆς καὶ διὰ τοῦτο κωλυόντων ἐξάγειν τὰ σῦκα. τῶν δὲ φαινόντων τοὺς ἐξάγοντας συκοφαντῶν κληθέντων, συνέβη καὶ τοὺς ὁπωσοῦν κατηγοροῦντας τινῶν φιλαπεχθημόνως οὕτω προσαγορευθῆναι. ᾿Αριστοφάνης· καὶ ταῦτα μὲν δὴ σμικρὰ κἀπιχώρια. ἴδιον γὰρ ᾿Αθηναίων τὸ συκοφαντεῖν. Αἰλιανός· ὁ δὲ ἐσυκοφάντει τὸν θεὸν ὀλιγωρίας. ἐκ δὴ τούτων νόσοι καὶ τροφῶν ἀπορίαι τὴν ῾Ιμεραίων κατέσχον.

Even more from the Suda

“Sykophant: When there was a famine in Attica, some people were gathering figs in secrete which had been promised to the gods. After this, when times were good again. Some people were prosecuting these men. This is where the term developed. Look at the term “fig squeezer” too.

Συκοφάντης: λιμοῦ γενομένου ἐν τῇ ᾿Αττικῇ, τινὲς λάθρα τὰς συκᾶς τὰς ἀφιερωμένας τοῖς θεοῖς ἐκαρποῦντο· μετὰ δὲ ταῦτα εὐθηνίας γενομένης, κατηγόρουν τούτων τινές. ἐκεῖθεν οὖν συκοφάντης λέγεται. ζήτει ἐν τῷ ἀποσυκάζεις.

“Sykophant: The devil. For he made a false accusation of god, claimed that he prevented [humans] from having a share of the tree [of knowledge]. He also spoke slanderously against Job: “Does Job worship god with no return?”

Consider also sykophantia, which means false prosecution.

Συκοφάντης: ὁ διάβολος· τὸν γὰρ θεὸν ἐσυκοφάντησε, φήσας κεκωλυκέναι τοῦ ξύλου τὴν μετάληψιν· καὶ κατὰ τοῦ ᾿Ιώβ· μὴ δωρεὰν σέβεται ᾿Ιὼβ τὸν θεόν; καὶ Συκοφαντία, ἡ ψευδὴς κατηγορία.

For the story of Solon and the sycophants, see Plutarch’s Life of Solon on the Scaife Viewer. The sense of flatterer or parasite is somewhat present in the ancient Greek but becomes more prominent in English usage. The negative use can be seen in the fragment from Alexis’ The Poet (fr. 187) preserved in Athenaeus:

The name of sykophant is not rightly
Given to corrupted men.
For it should have been right for any man
Who was good and sweet to have figs
Attached to him to reveal his character.
But it fills us with confusion on why something sweet
Has been attached to someone bad.

ὁ συκοφάντης οὐ δικαίως τοὔνομα |
ἐν τοῖσι μοχθηροῖσίν ἐστι κείμενον.
ἔδει γάρ, ὅστις χρηστὸς ἦν ἡδύς τ᾿ ἀνήρ,
τὰ σῦκα προστεθέντα δηλοῦν τὸν τρόπον·
νυνὶ δὲ πρὸς μοχθηρὸν ἡδὺ προστεθὲν
ἀπορεῖν πεπόηκε διὰ τί τοῦθ᾿ οὕτως ἔχει.

Syc OED

 

Is There a Doctor in the House?

Aristophanes, Assemblywomen 363-371

“Who can get a doctor for me and which one?
Who is an expert in the art of assholes?
Is it Amunôn? Perhaps he will decline.
Have someone call Antisthenes by any means.
For this man knows why an asshole wants
To shit thanks to the groaning.
Queen Eleithuia, don’t you ignore me
When I am breaking but all stopped up,
Don’t let me be the comic chamberpot!”

τίς ἂν οὖν ἰατρόν μοι μετέλθοι, καὶ τίνα;
τίς τῶν καταπρώκτων δεινός ἐστι τὴν τέχνην;
ἆρ᾿ οἶδ᾿ Ἀμύνων; ἀλλ᾿ ἴσως ἀρνήσεται.
Ἀντισθένη τις καλεσάτω πάσῃ τέχνῃ·
οὗτος γὰρ ἁνὴρ ἕνεκά γε στεναγμάτων
οἶδεν τί πρωκτὸς βούλεται χεζητιῶν.
ὦ πότνι᾿ Ἱλείθυα μή με περιίδῃς
διαρραγέντα μηδὲ βεβαλανωμένον,
ἵνα μὴ γένωμαι σκωραμὶς κωμῳδική.

By Autor: Dr.Rudolf Schandalik. – Own work Eigenes Foto, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=977342

Greek Nostos and English Nostalgia

Someone asked me to put together a post on nostos. Here’s what I got. I am happy to add anything someone else can find. This is far from exhaustive.

The Greek noun nostos (“homecoming”) is mostly reconstructed as a reflex of a verbal root neomai (“to come or go”) but its semantic range drifts to include ideas of salvation and rescue.

From Beekes’ Etymological Dictionary of Ancient Greek (2010)

nostos beeks

In early Greek poetry, nostos is a song that is about homecoming. On this, see Nagy 1999 [1997], 97; Murnaghan 2002, 147. Douglas Frame (1978) argues that it also means “return to light and life” whereas Anna Bonifazi adds “salvation not death”. For more on the nostoi as a tradition, see the discussion and bibliography in Barker and Christensen 2015. Gregory Nagy surveys the meaning of the term nostos in the Odyssey as return and a song of homecoming in his Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours.

In later Greek, the term retained much of this meaning but, as I will show below, it can also mean “sweetness”. The thematic and proverbial power of the poetic tradition seems to have kept this specialized meaning as primary as the language developed.

From E.A. Sophocles “Dictionary of Byzantine Greek”

nostos med

Our English word nostalgia comes from a post-classical Latin compound which has deep resonance with Greek epic, especially Odysseus. Odysseus has thematic associations with algea (neuter plural for algos, “grief, pain”). Our modern meaning of “acute longing for familiar surroundings” or “sentimental longing for a period of the past (OED online)” may draw on ancient poetic associations. A nostos is a return to the home, which is symbolically a return to the past. Ultimately, it is partly a futile wish because neither home nor person (neither the past, nor the rememberer) remain the same.

Nostalgia was originally coined by Johannes Hofer in 1688 for a pathological mental disorder, a type of mania that involved longing for the past. Some modern psychological studies still examine the phenomenon. It has been described as both parafunctional in undermining a sense of well-being and rootedness in the future (Verplanken 2012) and as a useful resource of memory which can help reinforce identity against existential threats (Routledge et al 2012 and Sedikedis and Wildschut 2016).

The ancient etymological dictionaries pretty much provide the same information as the Byzantine Suda:

Suda, Nu 500

“Nostos: The return to home. From the sweetness of a homeland. Or it comes from the giving of flavor. But also “the poets who sang the songs of Return follow Homer to the extent they are capable. It seems that not only one poet composed and wrote the homecoming of the Achaeans, but some others did too.

Νόστος: ἡ οἴκαδε ἐπάνοδος. παρὰ τὸ τῆς πατρίδος ἡδύ.

ἢ ἡ ἀνάδοσις τῆς γεύσεως. καὶ οἱ ποιηταὶ δὲ οἱ τοὺς Νόστους ὑμνήσαντες ἕπονται τῷ ῾Ομήρῳ ἐς ὅσον εἰσὶ δυνατοί. φαίνεται ὅτι οὐ μόνος εἷς εὑρισκόμενος ἔγραψε νόστον ᾿Αχαιῶν, ἀλλὰ καί τινες ἕτεροι.

Nu 501

“Homecoming: in regular use it is “sweetness”, applied to edibles. This comes from the [sweetness] of returning and coming back again home. From the sweetness of your homeland, for nothing is sweeter than your fatherland, according to Homer. From nostos in customary use we also have nostimon, which can mean “pleasant”, “sweet”. And there is a certain god, Eunostos, a divinity of the mill. The poetic term nostos comes from neô [to go], in, for example “now I am not going home.” This means “I do not return” [epanerkhomai]. There is also the form nostô, which provides the compounds palinostô, and aponostô.”

Νόστος: παρὰ τῇ συνηθείᾳ ὁ γλυκασμός, ἐπὶ τῶν ἐδεσμάτων. ὡς ἀπὸ τῆςοἴκαδε ἀνακομιδῆς καὶ ἀναστροφῆς· παρὰ τὸ τῆς πατρίδος γλυκύ. οὐδὲν γὰρ γλύκιον ἧς πατρίδος, καθ’ ῞Ομηρον. ἐκ δὲ τοῦ κατὰ τὴν συνήθειαν νόστου καὶ νόστιμον, τὸ ἡδύ. καὶ Εὔνοστος, θεός τις, φασίν, ἐπιμύλιος. ὁ δὲ ποιητικὸς  νόστος παρὰ τὸ νέω γίνεται. οἷον, νῦν δ’ ἐπεὶ οὐ νέομαι γε. ἤγουν οὐκ ἐπανέρχομαι. ἔστι δὲ καὶ ῥῆμα νοστῶ, οὗ σύνθετα παλινοστῶ καὶ ἀπονοστῶ

 

Some things cited in this post:

Barker, Elton T. E. and Christensen, Joel P. 2015. “Odysseus’s Nostos and the Odyssey’s Nostoi,” in G. Scafoglio, Studies on the Epic Cycle. Rome. 85–110.

Bonifazi, A. 2009. “Inquiring into nostos and its cognates.” American Journal of Philology 130: 481–510.

Frame, Douglas. 1978. The Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic. New Haven.

Murnaghan, Sheila. 2002. “The Trials of Telemachus: Who Was the Odyssey Meant for?” Arethusa 35: 133–153.

Nagy, Gregory. 1979. The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry. Baltimore.

Routledge, Clay, Wildschut Tim, Sedikides, Constantine, Juhl, Jacob, , and  Arndt, Jamie. 2012”The power of the past: Nostalgia as a meaning-making resource.” Memory, 1-9.

Sedikides, Constantine and Wildschut, Tim. 2016. ”Nostalgia: A Bittersweet Emotion that Confers Psychological Health Benefits.” The Wiley Handbook of Positive Clinical  Psychology, 126–136.

Verplanken, Bas. 2012. “When bittersweet turns sour: Adverse effects of nostalgia on habitual worriers.” European Journal of Social Psychology, 42, 285–289.