The mysterious name of Izmir, Smyrna

Smyrna is an old city located at one of the deepest bays of the Aegean Sea like a sheltered pearl in a hidden shell. In Turkish, her name is pronounced as Izmir recalling her mysterious ancient name. Since antiquity, her cove has protected many ships like a mother’s bossom. May be that is why she was also known as a Goddess or Queen of the Inner Sea. Of course, the main reason was most probably her abundant and prosperous character since she has hosted many cultures on her sheltered shore. Smyrna like a devoted mother has always thought of the well being of her people, providing them all kinds of sources such as agriculture, trade and health. That might explain the reason why the city’s protective deity was recognized as Kybele, the mother goddess of Asia Minor and later she was identified with other goddesses such as Artemis and Athena at different times. Another name that accompanies these names was also the city’s own name Smyrna.

According to some ancient writers, Smyrna was the name given to one of the Amazon women known as female warriors. In Greek mythology, she was the daughter of the king of Cyprus (Cinyras), who was later converted into a myrrh tree by the gods. In mythical narratives compiled from Anatolia, she gave birth to Adonis (Tammuz, July in Sami, Dimizi), Aphrodite’s sweetheart. It was mentioned that Adonis was born of a myrrh tree (myrrha) after her trunk bloated out and splitted.

The birth of Adonis from Smyrna (Myrrh),  Luigi Garzi, 17th-18th. century

This narrative clearly shows the metaphoric use of feminine energy as a goddess in the context of fertility. Smyrna (Izmir) whose name derives from a plant known as myrrh-mir-mirha, is a goddess associated with fertility. Although it is not known when this word was first used, the spelling of S in S-myr-na ( Σ-μύρνα ) is written as sigma Σ in Hellenic language. The letter Sigma Σ is thought to have been derived from the Phoenician alphabet. Considering the interaction of the Phoenicians within the Mediterranean cultures, it is inevitable to find borrowed sounds in the Hellenic alphabet. Yet, it is suggested that the Phoenicians brought the myrrh plant native to Africa to the ports of the Aegean Sea in order to trade her oil and gum. On the other hand, the name Myrrh also evokes the name of the Mira kingdom which was in power in Western Anatolia towards the end of the Bronze Age. Although their sound resemblance cannot be considered as a proof to suppose a common root word, their mutual effect can not be denied. Nevertheless, it is not surprising to find out the name of such a precious plant related to a kingdom or a city and eventually to a guardian goddess of the city.

Moreover, it is known that ancient Egyptian written texts talks about how ancient Egyptians used myrrh plant in their rituals and medical treatments. Particularly, myrrh incense was burnt three times daily to mark stations in the Sun’s journey as an offering to the gods such as Ra and Hathor . Some researches claim that the depictions of the myrrh trees can be still seen on the walls of the queen Hatchepsut’s temple at Deir el-Bahri. On the walls, the ancient Egyptian farmers are seen carrying the baskets probably filled with the myrrh resin.

Myrrh plant was also mentioned in the Bible. When Jesus was born, myrrh oil was among the gifts brought to him by the three kings, the magi. Yet, it should not be forgotten that myrrh oil brought to bless baby Jesus, is also an anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatorial remedy besides having a spiritually enhancing and inspiring fragrance.

The Bible also talks about how the people of Smyrna were extremely prosperous and their chief source of wealth was the production of myrrh since it used to be grown in the region of Smyrna. And bearing a name of a fertility Goddess, Myrrh-Smyrna’s evocation of Sun and Moon can not be denied as it was mentioned in the nineth Homeric hymn dedicated to Artemis below.

” Sing, Muse, of Artemis, the archer’s sister , the arrow-raining girl raised with Apollo. Her horses drink in Meles with its deep reeds. Her pure gold chairot speeds its way through Smyrna to viny Claros. Silver bowed Apollo, sits waiting for the long-range arrow-pourer. To you, Artemis and other goddesses, I sing this: Be joyful. It is you that I begin with, but after you another hymn must follow”.

May be as Pausanias mentioned in his accounts, Homer composed his poems in a grotto at the springs of the Meles river located in Smyrna.

Whether it is true or not, Homer, the ancient semi-legendary author credited with composing the Iliad and the Odyssey must have been knowledgeable about the star charts to manifest metaphorically the close relationship of the brother Sun, Apollo and the sister Moon, Artemis……

Clay seal depicted with a Star of seven rays from Yesilova mound (6th millennium BC), Izmir

4 thoughts on “The mysterious name of Izmir, Smyrna

Add yours

  1. Dear Sevil

    Thank you so much for sending that very interesting “lecture”. I am going to forward it to my American friend in Philadelphia who loves history. I think she may have accompanied me on one of your tours.

    I was particularly fascinated by the story of myrrh – if only someone could find something similar that would kill this ghastly corona virus!! I wonder what historians will write centuries on about the current worldwide situation?!

    We have been self isolating for over two months. Really difficult and depressing! Our middle daughter is trying to work from home and her husband also but very stressful with three young children off school for weeks and my daughter in much pain awaiting a gall bladder operation. Our youngest daughter and her husband run their own business and have had to temporary lay off all their employees BUT still pay them! Our eldest daughter and her partner have separated so their little boy spends alternate weeks with his mother and father who still lives here in our village. Not an ideal situation!

    Hope you and your family are well. Stay safe and I do hope we may meet again one day – any chance you might visit England WHEN normality returns?!

    Kindest regards

    Love Margaret.

    Sent from my iPad


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