The Oenotrians: Calabria’s Ancient, Wine-Loving Pioneers


Photo by Fabio Ingrosso

They gave wine lovers an identity and one of them gave Italy its name. Beyond that, not much is known about the Oenotrians, an ancient society that dwelled in the Calabrian hills and pastures prior to Hellenization.

The Oenotrians first came to the lower peninsula as early as the 11th Century BC, by way of the Pelopennese. They are considered “pelasgian” people, a catch-all term to describe those who came from Greece before it was, well, Greece. Led by Oenotrus, the Oenotrians cultivated the land and built towns from Campania to Calabria. Unlike the Etruscans, not much physical evidence seems to exist that documents the times of the Oenotrians. (An archaelogical dig at Timone della Motta on a Calabrian hill has offered some possibilities, including an 8th Century BC Oenotrian temple). We have to rely instead on the histories of men like Sophocles, and Antiochus of Syracuse, both of whom wrote of the Oenotrians in the 5th century BC. Another historian, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, claims that the Oenotrians left Arcadia for Italy “seventeen generations before the Trojan expedition,” to put their arrival in some kind of perspective.

The Oenotrians were famous for their vineyards, and thus were given their names by Hellenic Greek colonizers centuries later based on the Greek term for wine (oinos). Today we refer to a wine lover as an oenophile.

Their contribution to the modern language didn’t end there. Eventually there was an Oenotrian king named Italus, and from his name was derived the term Italy to describe the region and of course the nation as it stands today.

According to Antiochus, Italus’ successor Morges later partitioned the kingdom into three parts: His own domain (the Morgetes), the Italians, and a kingdom for his friend Sicelus – the Sicels.

How much of this is accurate is anyone’s guess. After all, it was claimed that Oenotrus was a descendant (son, perhaps) of Lycaon, King of Arcadia who in Greek myth served Zeus his own dismembered son for dinner to test his omniscience. In our sense of history, the Oenotrians, ancient inhabitants of Calabria, straddle the border between history and legend. Next time you open a bottle of wine, drink to their legacy.


Today’s Cured Meats Etymologies – Potato Salad Not Included

salumeriaSome of these word origins will be obvious to the native speaker, but I’d never really given much thought to them until today, as I was eating prosciutto and mortadella, natch. If you like knowing where words come from but not where meat comes from, you may struggle with whether to continue reading.

Prosciutto, that (in my opinion) delicious dry, cured ham from the pig’s hind leg or thigh, derives its name from the Latin pro (before) + exuctus (to suck out the moisture, i.e. dry). In Portuguese they call it presunto which derives from the same root.

Soppressata is an easy one – it’s an obvious cognate for “suppressed,” or as the local salumeria might simply say, pressed – another part of the cold cut process.

Mortadella always sounded to me like something “of the dead” (morta). But most sources I’ve found say it’s derived from the Latin murtatum, which was sausage seasoned with myrtle berries.

Sausage itself – salsiccia in Italian – comes from Vulgar Latin and means “seasoned with salt.” Pancetta (bacon) is derived from pancia, meaning “belly” (think “paunch” in English).

Capicola comes from the head and neck and its name is a literal reflection of that. Capo = head, and collo = neck. If you’ve ever watched The Sopranos I’m sure you’ve heard the Jersey wiseguys’ pronunciation that sounds like “gabagool.” Or better yet, here’s Michael Scott of The Office giving it a try.

BONUS: Charcuterie, as shown on the sign in the photo at the top of this post, is of course French. Char or chair in today’s French is “flesh,” and cuite is “cooked.” In their countries of origin these words spell out the naked truth about meat, but I suppose in America if we use a romance language, it helps to distract from the fact that we’re dining on cooked flesh.