Under the Aegis

August 29, 2019 11:35 am

‘The story of how a goatskin got the meaning of protection’

            ‘Under the Aegis’ is a phrase of a long historical route which has arrived to us today unchanged in both its original meaning and word choice. It is a synonym of the phrase ‘under the protection’ and has been also attributed the extended meaning of ‘under the sponsorship’ or ‘under the auspices’ in the 20th century.

            Etymologically, the word ‘aegis’ is first met in Latin, originating from the ancient Greek word ‘aigis’ which means goatskin. It is really interesting how the Ancient Greek word of ‘aix’ meaning ‘goat’ with its genitive form ‘aigos’, gave birth to the word ‘aigis’ which was attributed the meaning of the goatskin. However, it is even more interesting to follow the magic, which runs the function of words, and find out how the goatskin has come to be attributed the additional meaning of protection.

            In Ancient Greece, the goatskin was used to manufacture shields since it was a skin considered magical in its power in protecting warriors. According to the ‘Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities’, the goatskin was worn with the two forelegs tied in front of the wearer’s breast or alternatively with the head passed through an opening made at the neck by the removal of the animal’s head.  People identified the goatskin with the highest protective power not only due to the hard nature of its skin, but mainly due to the myth of their most popular goat in their culture, Amalthea or (Amaltheia).

            Amaltheia is the goat who nursed baby Zeus, the king of the pantheon of Ancient Greek Gods and Goddesses, and fed him as a baby with her milk and honey, coming from her horn, in a cave in the Cretan Mount Dikte (Dicte). Zeus had been sent to Amaltheia by his mother Rea. According to the Ancient Greek Mythology, Kronos, the father of Zeus, swallowed every baby that Rea gave birth to, because he was afraid of losing his powers and authorities. When Rea gave birth to her last child, Zeus, she decided to hide him in the mountain Dikte in Crete and ask Amaltheia to nourish him and bring him up. Rea gave Kronos a huge stone wrapped in baby clothing, so Kronos swallowed the stone. This is how Zeus was saved and came to be the founder and leader of the pantheon. When Zeus grew up and reached his age of maturity, it was time to leave his shelter and go confront his father and take over the role and authority of the new ruler of the world, this authority as destined by the rules of natural order. Amaltheia, whose name linguistically comes from the Ancient Greek prefix ‘a-‘, meaning ‘no’ and the Ancient Greek word ‘malthos’, meaning ‘deprivation’, was the symbol of giving and generosity. Therefore, when Zeus’ time came to leave the cave, she gave him her hide with which Zeus covered his undefeated thunder shield, the aigis. The historian Diodoros Siculus in one of his books writes ‘Zeus covered his shield, which was named Aigis, with Amaltheia’s skin, and ever since his shield was undefeated, a protection to anyone holding it’. [Diodoros Siculus, Library of History, C, 68, 2-3].

            The magical, undefeated power of Zeus’ shield, the Aigis, gave its power to the word Aigis itself. Amaltheia was turned into a constellation by Zeus, so that throughout eternity everyone could remember her and her generosity. Zeus later on gave his shield to his daughter, Goddess Athena, Goddess of wisdom and an undefeated warrior herself.

Zeus’ shield, the Aegis, stays until today hidden in the mazes of mythology,  but shares with us on the threshold of the 21st century its meaning, which echoes the power of words and their meanings, which are always connected to cultural, historical, mythological or simply logical allusions.

References:

Aegis. Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/aegis. Accessed June 26, 2019.

Britannica TEof E. Zeus. Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Zeus. Published December 28, 2018. Accessed June 26, 2019.

Amaltheia. Amalthea (Amaltheia) – Goat Nurse of Zeus in Greek Mythology. https://www.theoi.com/Ther/AixAmaltheia.html. Accessed June 26, 2019.

aegis (n.). Index. https://www.etymonline.com/word/aegis. Accessed June 26, 2019.


Written by Maria Papamargariti, Greek and English Philologist, Substitute Teacher in ISL School (Luxembourg) and Study Visitor at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament in Luxembourg. She holds a Bachelor in Greek Language and Literature (Philology) and a Bachelor in English Language and Literature, both from the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. She has published three books in the field of children’s literature, Books publication link. She speaks English, French and Greek. At present, she is completing her Master Studies in Learning and Communication in Multilingual and Multicultural Contexts in the University of Luxembourg.

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