Petta and Euxenos

According to Athenaesus' Deipnosophistae XIII.36, which claims to be recounting Aristotle's lost Massalioton Politeia, the founding of the Greek colony of Massalia unfolded as follows: Euxenos ("Good Foreigner"), leader of a group of Phocaean Greeks, come to the land in what's now southern France; there he meets the local king, Nannos, who invites Euxenos to the wedding feast of his daughter Petta. Petta herself doesn't have a groom yet; the ritual consists of Petta greeting the assembled men of the feast, and awarding one of them a cup and thus the kingship of the land. Petta then procedes to give Euxenos the cup (though Athenaesus notes that there's disagreement as to whether it was intentional or not)--Nannos declares it the will of the gods, and the couple are married. Euxenos changes Petta's name to a Greek one--Aristoxene, meaning "best foreign woman"--and their son is named Protis--"first". Thus the Greek colony of Massalia--modern Marseilles--is founded.

Enright notes that the wedding feast, especially the act of the bride giving the groom an intoxicating drink, was a common marriage ritual amongst the Indo-European cultures, and so there's nothing terribly extraordinary about it on that level (85-6). However, given the context of the story--the founding of Massalia--we must give a couple of elements a closer look. Petta, the name of the daughter, is related to the Gaulish word pettia, meaning "a portion"--implying a portion of land, the land which became Massalia. That Petta represents the land is a common motif, found in both Celtic and Greek myth (think of Europa, who gave her name to the subcontinent, or Eriu, who gave her name to Ireland).

The ritual--wherein the woman/land gives a stranger a cup with intoxicating drink, and thus gives him the kingship--is found in several Celtic stories, particularly the Irish Baile in Scail, in which Conn Ceadcathach and his companions find themselves in a foreign place (the Otherworld) where they are greeted by its king, Lugh Lamhfada. Lugh greets them in his hall, where the beautiful woman Flaith--whose name means "Sovereignty"--asks whom should be served by the cup. Lugh gives the cup to Conn, who is thus made high king of Ireland.

The figure of a woman who is associated with sovereignty is elsewhere depicted as a Loathly Lady: when the hero accepts the lady as his bride, she changes from a hag to a young maiden, and declares that he is to become king. In the story of Niall Noígíallach, he is specifically given a drink by the hag, and in accepting it, unknowingly accepts the high-kingship of Ireland. Petta is not a hag, but upon their marriage, Euxenos is given the power to change her name (Enright, 83).

There is little doubt, then, given the context that the story is the founding of the city of Massalia, that Petta is ultimately a sovereignty goddess--she gives the hero an intoxicating cup, the choice being divine intervention, and with this cup comes the kingship of the land. Furthermore, if we are to accept the theory put forth by John Carey in his Ireland and the Grail, that this story pattern--as found in Baile in Scail and many other texts--ultimately leads to the story of Perceval1, then we can see how the story of Petta and Euxenos are ultimately a sort of ur-text for the origins of the Holy Grail.

1. Briefly, the elements are that Perceval comes as a stranger to the house of the Fisher King; he sees the Holy Grail, carried by a woman (in some versions, an ugly woman like the Loathly Lady); and only by asking a question--the question itself varies--does the situation resolve, ultimately with Perceval becoming the new king.

Anonymous. "The Adventures of the Sons of Eochaid Mugmedon" Ancient Irish Tales. ed. and trans. by Tom P. Cross & Clark Harris Slover. NY: Henry Holt & Co., 1936.

Athenaeus. "Deipnosophistae: The Foundation of Marseilles". trans. John Carey Celtic Heroic Age. Aberystwyth: Celtic Studies Publications, 2004. p. 38-9.

Carey, John. Ireland and the Grail. Aberystwyth: Celtic Studies Publications, 2007.

Enright, Michael J. Lady with a Mead Cup: ritual, prophecy, and lordship in the European warband from LaTene to the Viking Age. Dublin: Four Courts, 1996. p. 82-86.

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Mary Jones © 2014