This post was inspired by a Facebook conversation with a Greek friend and is another diversion into the alleyways of language that I find fascinating.
It started with this link to an article in the magazine Dokari which described the find of residues from Greek red wine in Celtic drinking vessels in the Burgundy area of France dating to the 5th to 7th Century BCE. (if you want to read the full paper you can find it here).
I said the idea of sending red wine to Burgundy sounded like a Greek version of what in English is called “sending coals to Newcastle” (The northeast of England used to be an important coal mining area).
Apparently the equivalent expression in Greek is “Κομίζω γλαύκα εις Aθήνας” or “Φέρνω κουκουβάγια στην πόλη των Αθηνών“.
How does “sending owls to the the town of Athens” work?
The “owls” are the silver drachma coins of ancient Athens. Struck from silver from the mines in Laurion, south west of Athens, it was the wealth that these coins represented that powered the Athenian state. So, “sending Owls to Athens” comes to mean sending something to where there is already plenty of it.
There’s a good explanation in this Wikipedia entry.
Γλαύκα ִis the word for owl, the sacred bird of the Goddess Athena. Γλαύκος in modern Greek is the colour pale blue, although in ancient Greek it would be more properly described as “bright” (I have written about this before). So when Homer talks of “bright-eyed Athena” he is linking his description to the bird that represented her. The idea persists in the modern English term for the eye condition glaucoma, where the iris of the eye may appear “bright” – in reality pale green – (or at least not dark).
“Owls to Athens” is also the title of a historical novel by Harry Turtledove, for folk that like historical fiction.
Incidentally, Greek wine is getting good critical reviews these days. Here’s an article rating some of the best Greek wines by respected wine writer, Jancis Robinson: More Greek Wines Please.
So. why not give in to your inner Celt and join the Burgundians in a glass or two of Greek sunshine to stave off the onset of winter?