Friday, April 18, 2014


Mageiros and Magic?

Michael Pollan, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (New York: The Penguin Press, 2013), p. 4:
Most of us have happy memories of watching our mothers in the kitchen, performing feats that sometimes looked very much like sorcery and typically resulted in something tasty to eat. In ancient Greece, the word for "cook," "butcher," and "priest" was the same—mageiros—and the word shares an etymological root with "magic." I would watch, rapt, when my mother conjured her most magical dishes, like the tightly wrapped packages of fried chicken Kiev that, when cut open with a sharp knife, liberated a pool of melted butter and an aromatic gust of herbs. But watching an everyday pan of eggs get scrambled was nearly as riveting a spectacle, as the slimy yellow goop suddenly leapt into the form of savory gold nuggets. Even the most ordinary dish follows a satisfying arc of transformation, magically becoming more than the sum of its ordinary parts.
Does mageiros really share an etymological root with magic?

According to Hans Dohm, Mageiros: Die Rolle des Kochs in der griechisch-römischen Komödie (Munich: C.H. Beck, 1964), pp. 72-74, Greek μάγειρος (mágeiros = cook) is related to μάχαιρα (máchaira = knife). Dohm gives credit for this etymology to Vittore Pisani, "Una parola greca di probabile origine macedone: μάγειρος," Revue internationale des études balkaniques 1 (1934) 255-259 (non vidi).

But cf. Pierre Chantraine, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque, III (Paris: Klincksieck, 1974), s.v. μάγειρος, p. 656, who concludes, "Pas d'étymologie établie." Chantraine is also agnostic about μάχαιρα (p. 673): "Mais il n'y a pas d'étymologie: le rapprochement avec μάχομαι n'est pas plausible." Robert Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek, 2 vols. (Leiden: Brill, 2009), is unavailable to me (Brill advertises it as "A must-have research tool that should be on every classicist's desk"—it costs only $575).

On the theory of an etymological connection between μάγειρος and μάγος, see Rüdiger Schmitt, "'Méconnaissance' altiranischen Sprachgutes im Griechischen," Glotta 49 (1971) 95-110 (at 107):
Durch nichts begründet ist Hemmerdingers anschließende lapidare Feststellung: „Sur μάγος sont formés des mots qui ont trait à la boucherie ou la cuisine (μαγειρεῖον, etc.).“
The quotation comes from Bertrand Hemmerdinger, "158 noms communs grecs d'origine iranienne, d'Eschyle au grec moderne," Byzantinoslavica 30 (1969) 18-41 (at 19), which I haven't seen. Other than Hemmerdinger, whose theory Schmitt calls unfounded, I'm not aware of any scholar who connects mageiros with magic.

Hat tip: Jim K.

Thanks very much to Aurelian Isaïcq for transcriptions of Beekes, s.v. μάγειρος:
The word looks non-IE, because of the alternations ει/ī and (if μάχαιρα belongs here) γ/χ. Is it Pre-Greek, deriving from *mak-ary-? Aeol. μάγοιρος, mentioned by LSJ s.v., is only attested in Greg. Cor., which is not a trustworthy source.
and s.v. μάχαιρα:
I compare μάγειρος 'cook', and on account of the interchange γ/χ conclude that it is a Pre-Greek word.

On p. 457 of Pollan's book read "Euripides" for "Euripedes".


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