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by H. Crosthwaite



IF put up into the air, a tripod cauldron resembles the popular idea of a comet. It also looks like the seething pot of Old Testament Jeremiah I: 13. I suggest that the Greeks linked the god in the ground with the god in the sky. There was a copper cauldron on the roof of the temple of Zeus at Olympia, and another at Delos.

Is there any evidence to support this theory? By simple metathesis, such as occurs with the Greek 'kratos' and 'kartos', we get 'stephanos', crown, and 'setphanos', Set revealing or shining.

The Egyptian god Set was well known to the Greeks. He killed Osiris; the Greeks equated him with Typhon. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the tripod and cauldron, with a crown of fire, were an attempt to represent, and to establish communication with a god in the sky, elsewhere described as a seething pot facing north, and a cauldron for the use of the god Thor. Homer, Iliad XVIII: 369 ff., describes the manufacture of tripod cauldrons: they are for action in the sky.

It is significant that the oldest attendants of Dionysus were the Silenes, followed later by the Saturoi, Satyrs. Oura is a tail. Were it not for the short 'u' of Saturos, philology might suggest that the Satyrs were Set's tail.

At first a Satyr had long pointed ears, a goat's tail, and small knobs like horns behind the ears. Later, goat's legs were added. Hesiod writes: "The race of Satyrs, worthless and unfit for work" [1] . In the Doric dialect, Satyros is Tityros, but Strabo distinguishes between Satyrs, Silenes and Tityri. A comet might display less tail with each return.

To the east of Ionia was the Persian Empire. The king ruled through provincial governors called satraps. I suggest that Set explains the word satrap. Rhapis and rhabdos both mean a rod or staff, like skeptron, English sceptre. Chrysorrhapis, of the god Hermes, means bearing a golden rod [2] . A satrap was Set's rod, ready to punish rebellious provincials with the speed and force of a thunderbolt. The festival of the Stepteria may have been the flight of Set (Greek pteron is a wing).

A skeptron (staff) was not just for leaning on; the verb skepto means hurl or shoot (lightning, for example). There is a passage in The Suppliants of Aeschylus where the king is addressed. He controls the altar, the hearth of the land, and by his sole command controls all, sitting on his throne to which alone the sceptre belongs (line 370 ff.) [3] .

Silenus, the oldest companion of Dionysus, had prophetic powers. He had a long horse's tail. His name is explained by two Greek words, seio, shake; and linos, vat. He is shown on vase paintings treading out grapes.

PASSAGES REFERRING TO TRIPODS Iliad XXIII: 884: As a prize, Achilles gave an unused cauldron with a floral pattern, lebet' apuron, anthemoenta.

Iliad XXIV: 233: Priam chooses presents to take to Achilles as ransom for Hector's body. He takes out of his chests two tripods gleaming like fire (aithonas), and four cauldrons. The epithet aithon, of the tripods, is noteworthy.

Odyssey XIII: 13: King Alkinous proposes that Odysseus should be given presents, a big tripod and cauldron from each man. Aeneid III: 90: The Trojans call on king Anius, priest of Apollo and king of Delos. Aeneas prays for guidance; there is an earth tremor, and "mugire adytis cortina reclusis", the shrine seemed to open and there was a bellowing sound from the cauldron.

Aeneid III: 466: The seer Helenos gives advice, and gives them presents when they leave, silver, and cauldrons from Dodona.

V: 110: The memorial games for Anchises are prepared. Prizes are displayed, including 'sacri tripodes' and 'coronae virides', crowns of fresh greenery.

Pausanias IV: 12: 9: mentions one Oebalus at Sparta who happened to have a hundred terracotta tripods. He took them to Ithome and dedicated them to the god, so as to fulfil the Delphic oracle's promise. Those who dedicated a hundred tripods to Zeus of Ithome would be the winners in the war between the Spartans and the Messenians.

Pausanias III: 18: 7: At the sanctuary of the Graces near Amyclae there are bronze tripods. Under the first is a statue of Aphrodite, under the second a statue of Artemis, under the third, of Persephone.

Pausanias X: 13: 7: He mentions: (1) the fight between Herakles and Apollo over the tripod at Delphi; (2) a gold tripod standing on a bronze snake, a dedication from all the Greeks from the spoil of Plataea.

Iliad XVIII: 343: Achilles called to his comrades to set up a big tripod, so as to wash the bloodstained body of Patroclus as quickly as possible. They set up a tripod for washing water in blazing fire, and poured water into it, and took wood and burnt it underneath. The fire took hold of the belly of the tripod, and the water was heated. And when the water boiled in the glittering brass, they washed the body and annointed it with oil.

In line 348, note the phrase "the belly of the tripod." Iliad XXIII: 702: For the winner a big tripod (to go on the fire), which the Achaeans valued at twelve oxen. Iliad XVIII: 369: Silver-footed Thetis came to the starry, imperishable house of Hephaestus, distinguished among the Immortals, made of bronze, which he himself, the lame one, had made ... She found him sweating, busied with his bellows, and in haste. For he was making a total of twenty tripods to stand round the wall of his well-based hall. He had put golden wheels under the legs of each, so that they might plunge into the arena (agon) of the gods of their own accord, or return home again; they were a marvellous sight. They were finished, but for the fact that the ornamental handles were not yet fitted. He was preparing them and cutting the rivets.

This passage suggests that the tripod cauldron was a representation of an object in the sky.

The word 'puthmenes' for the legs or supports, is interesting. The word is also used for the handles, or supports of the handles, of Nestor's cup. Compare the Phoenician work in Old Testament I Kings 7: 30: "Every base had four brasen wheels, and plates of brass." And verse 29: "On the borders were lions, oxen and cherubims." Iliad XVIII: 417: The golden servants hurry round their lord, like living handmaidens. They have a mind and voice and strength, and their skill comes from the immortal gods. Iliad IX: 122: Agamemnon addresses Menelaus; he intends to set out seven "apurous tripodas," tripods untouched by fire; or it might mean purely ornamental, like "apurotos" in XXIII: 270, of a phiale, or libation bowl.

Iliad IX: 264: Seven untouched tripods. Iliad X1: 700: A tripod was a prize in the games. Iliad XXIII: 264: At the funeral games for Patroclus, there is a tripod with handles, a twenty-two measure tripod.

In Odyssey VIII: 434, a tripod and cauldron are heated for a bath. It will be seen in Chapter XVI that the tripod cauldron was used in resurrection rites in ancient Greece.


This 8th century B. C. tripod from Urartu was found at Erzincan, near Lake Van, in 1938. It is now in the Ankara Museum. It shows hieroglyphs that resemble Hittite, and is decorated with bulls' heads with horns.

Tripods, thrones, footstools, beds, were standard equipment in Mesopotamian temples, including that to the Urartian god Haldis, at Rusahina. This temple was probably founded by the Urartian king Rusas I (733-714 B. C.). See Early Anatolia by Seaton Lloyd.

Set may appear in a number of words. The following examples are mere suggestions, not certain:

Setania (Latin), was a kind of onion; also a kind of bulb. The onion and garlic were powerful herbs. The bulbs and roots could resemble a comet in shape. Vide the Glossary. Setia, a mountain in Italy, near the Pomptine marshes. Marshy land attracted lightning.

Saeta, seta (Latin), a bristle, hair. Cf. Gk. Chaita, mane; Egyptian chet, hair.

I suggested earlier that Saturos could hardly be 'Set's tail' because of the short 'u'. It may not be a valid objection. Kastor and Pollux were twin sons of Zeus, the Dioskoroi or Dios kouroi. The diphthong 'ou' in kouroi is long; in the compound word it becomes a short 'o'.

It was held that iron was Set's bone, and that iron came from him. The second of these statements may be seen today as an inversion. We prefer to think that the presence of iron attracts Set. The place where lightning struck was sacred and might be walled off with a puteal, or curb, such as was built round a well. Rock containing iron would be especially likely to attract the god of the thunderbolt, and this could easily have given rise to the belief that lightning was responsible for the presence of iron ore.

Notes (Chapter Nine: Tripod Cauldrons)

1. Hesiod: Fragment XIII

2. Homer: 'Odyssey' V: 87

3. Aeschylus: 'Supplices' 370ff.

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