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I greatly appreciate the letter written by Luigi Roffi, providing us with further information on the less-known myth of the Giant Tityus, cited in our manuscript  and in the paper by Tiniakos et al. . As mentioned by Roffi, in ancient populations snakes played an important role in the divination practice since they were supposed to be able to predict the future . The relationship between the liver and snakes seems to be well clarified. These animals were believed to regenerate themselves when they shed skin, revealing a shiny new skin underneath.
Medical etymology sometimes provides unexpected information about health concepts and medical practice in different times and cultures. We conducted an etymological analysis of the terms used to indicate “liver” in Germanic and Romance languages. The Greek word “hèpar” was originally connected to the concept of “pleasure”, showing that in antiquity the liver was considered to be the seat of soul and human feelings. In Romance languages, the Latin term “ficatum” was linked to the ancient practice of fattening geese with figs (ficus in Latin) to make their livers more delicious.
] about the giant Tityos receiving the same punishment suffered by Prometeus. The only difference consisted in the kind of bird involved: Zeus’ eagle in Prometeus myth, a vulture in Tityos’ one.Tityos too… was to be seen (in Tartarus); his body pegged over a full nine acres, a huge vulture with hooked beak gnawing forever his inexhaustible liver… (rostroque immanis vulture obunco immortale iecur tondens fecundaque poenis) [
As is usually the case in mythology, Tityos’ myth also has different versions.
In one of them, Tityos, one of Gea’s sons, was a giant. Instigated by Hera, he made an assault upon Leto, Artemis and Apollo’s mother, but was hit by the arrows of Apollo or, according to others, he was struck by Zeus’ lightining.
Tityos, however, was immortal, but was punished by Zeus who had him bound in Tartarus, where two vultures fed on his liver which, as in Prometeus legend, kept regenerating.And I saw Tityus, son of glorious Earth,lying on the ground. His body coverednine acres and more. Two vultures sat there,one on either side, ripping his liver,their beaks jabbing deep inside his guts [
Homer says that a vulture preyed daily on Tityos’ self-renewing liver. This is quite a strange, and not trivial, point, since vultures are scavengers. Vultures would never eat living animals. Interestingly, in Hyginus’ fabula the vulture is replaced by a snake [
].“Because Latona (Leto) had lain with Jove, Juno ordered Tityos, a creature of immense size, to offer violence to her. When he tried to do this he was slain by the thunderbolt of Jove [Zeus]. He is said to lie stretched out over nine acres in the Land of the Dead, and a serpent is put near him to eat out his liver, which grows again with the moon”.
Despite the major authority of Homer, Hyginus’ version is preferable because snakes ‘fit better’ with liver.
Snakes and the liver both have oracular implications (‘liver divination’ = using the liver to predict the future). Both were deemed to embody the power of life. Both were believed to be immortal. Snakes, especially, were considered immortal because they were believed to renew themselves by shedding old skin.
In addition, Tityos and Python, the most famous Hellenic snake, are related mythological figures. They were both killed by Apollo almost at the same time.“Apollo... destroyed Tityos, a violent and lawless man who ruled there; and that the Parnassians joined him and informed him of another cruel man named Python and known as the Drakon (Dragon)” [
And again:Python,… was a huge draco who, before the time of Apollo, use to give oracular responses… Death was fated to come him from semen of Latona (Leto)… When Python knew that Latona was pregnant he followed her to kill her… Four days after they was born, Apollo… slew Python with his arrows [
Moreover, Python was a snake. Tityos is always described in literature in human shape, and is so represented in ancient art. But in Gigantomachy, on the Eastern frieze of the great Altar of Zeus in Pergamon, the giant who opposes Leto, identified with Tityos, has a curious characteristic: a snake grows out of his back and seems to represent a tail in serpent shape. It is quite significant that Tityos, a giant, is sometimes associated with Python. Giant and dragon interchange as opponents either of gods or heroes in ancient myths, and in Gigantomachies we have evidence of their near-identity.
Therefore it is not surprising to find in Tartarus a snake (Python), a chtonic oracle, “inspecting” (eating) the liver of Tityos (a chtonic giant).
And, as already mentioned, liver and snake have in common the fact to be sources of divination.
In her issue, Tiniakos says that “myths and tradition, literature and fine arts… can provide valuable information on medical knowledge in the ancient ages, sometimes more useful than the writings of ancient physicians”. An example is the magnificent Laconic ceramic shown in Fig. 1.
Conflict of interest
The authors declared that they do not have anything to disclose regarding funding or conflict of interest with respect to this manuscript.
“The city of hepar”: rituals, gastronomy, and politics at the origins of the modern name for the liver.