Thursday, June 16, 2011

Greece and the Near East

A few years back I wrote a piece on the debt of ancient Greece to pharaonic Egypt. While I did not go the full nine yards with the Egyptocentric Martin Bernal, there are so many significant borrowings as to make the conventional view of the parthenogenisis of Greece (the “Greek miracle”) untenable. This essay is available at my ancillary site: Dynegypt,blogspot,com.

At the time I promised to produce a similar study on the Mesopotamia-Greece connection, which is perhaps even more important than the Egypt-Greece one. Until now the press of other business has prevented my from fulfilling that vow. I will make a stab at doing that here.

First, what is ancient Mesopotamia? The word stems from the Greek for “[the land] between the rivers,” and serves to designate the area comprised today by Iraq and parts of eastern Syria, together with southeastern Turkey and southwestern Iran.

Ancient Mesopotamia included Sumer and the Akkadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian empires. During the Iron Age, it was controlled by the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian empires. The indigenous Sumerians and Akkadians (including Assyrians and Babylonians) dominated Mesopotamia from the beginning of written history (the late fourth millennium BCE) to the fall of Babylon in 539 BCE, when it was conquered by the Achaemenid Empire. It fell to the Macedonian Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, and after his death it became part of the Greek Seleucid Empire.


The Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer (1897-1990) produced a popular volume (History Begins at Sumer, first ed., 1956) in which he undertook to catalog a series of “firsts” that should be credited to ancient Sumeria.

Among the items Kramer listed are: the First Schools, the First Case of Juvenile Delinquency, the First "War of Nerves," the First Bicameral Congress, the first Historian, the First Case of Tax Reduction, the First Legal Precedent, the First Pharmacopoeia, the First Moral Ideals, the First Animal Fables, the First Literary Debates, the First Love Song, the First Library Catalog, the First "Sick" Society, the First Long-Distance Champion, the First Sex Symbolism, and so on.

Some of these items, such juvenile delinquency and the notion of a “sick society,” seem dated, reflecting as they do the Cold War atmosphere in which Kramer lived. Others are cases of parallel invention, as the innovation crops up in Egypt at about the same time.

Perhaps most significant of all such advances is the invention of writing. It used to be thought that Mesopotamia was somewhat ahead of Egypt in this realm. However, recent discoveries in the Nile Valley place the inventions at about the same time, in the closing centuries of the fourth millennium BCE.

What then of the links with ancient Greece?


As early as 1966 in his edition of Hesiod's Theogony, the English classicist Martin L. West acknowledged the dependency of early Greece on the Near East. With remarkable persistence and energy, he stuck to the task, and some thirty years later produced a magisterial study comprising 662 pages: The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry.  

West begins with a bird's-eye view of commonalities of Near Eastern and Aegean cultures--commonalities that can only be explained by direct transmission or a shared origin. Such common elements include a substantial store of loan words. Because of the importance of trade many of these words designate commodities. Yet others pertain to social institutions such as kingship with its complex accoutrements and rituals. The treaties negotiated by Aegean and Near Eastern kings are replete with similar formulas. Methods of accounting, counting, and weighing are similar or identical. Musical instruments are much the same in East and West, as are styles of luxurious behavior. At the top of the Greek pantheon, Zeus is a god of storms and high places, and so was the Semitic Baal; both were honored with the same kinds of sacrifices performed in the same way.

Then West turns to the literature of Western Asia, still too little known. The emphasis is on epic and myth, but the author also describes Sumero-Akkadian wisdom literature, hymns, disputations, and royal inscriptions. Of particular interest is the Bronze Age literature from Ugarit (Ras Shamra), a north Syrian port which ranked as a virtual gateway to the West. The Hebrew Bible also figures in this equation. Then there are the Hurrians of north Syria, whose kingdom was called Mitanni, who transmitted Sumero-Akkadian traditions to the Hittites. The Hurro-Hittite stories about the storm god Teshub's conflict with the older god Kumarbi served as a model for Hesiod's Theogony.

Another feature is the idea of the assembly of the gods, familiar to us from Olympus. In fact the notion of the organization of heaven, presided over by a company of gods at which stands a powerful patriarch, seems to have been invented by the Sumerians. This powerful idea was copied by the Akkadians, Hurrians, Hittites, West Semites, and finally the Greeks.

Many other parallels are cited, some perhaps too general to command universal assent. However, West is on firm ground with the poetry of Hesiod, about which he is the leading expert. He also discusses Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, where he finds a number of revealing parallels in the heroes, incidents, motifs, and expressions. There are many other borrowings in the general realm of mythology.

Finally, West turns to the complex matter of how Eastern traditions might have passed to Greece. He pinpoints two historical periods in which such transmission was likely to have taken place: the Late Bronze Age and the 8th-7th centuries BCE. Here writing is obviously key.


The special role of the Near East during one particular period of Greek art and culture has long been recognized. In fact, this era is conventionally termed the Orientalizing period, lasting from about 750 to 650 BCE. That phase saw a shift from the prevailing Geometric style to a style with different sensibilities, which were inspired by the East. During this period the Assyrians advanced along the Mediterranean coast, accompanied by Greek mercenaries, who were also active in the armies of Psammeticus in Egypt. The new groups started to compete with established Greek merchants. There were various shifts in population. Phoenicians from the east coast of the Mediterranean settled in Cyprus and in western regions of Greece, while Greeks established trading colonies at Al Mina, Syria, and in Ischia, an island off the Tyrrhenian coast of Italy. These changes constituted the background of an intense penetration of Semitic cultural traits into Greece.

Massive imports of raw materials, including metals, and a new mobility among foreign craftsmen led to the introduction of new craft skills in Greece.

In 1992 the German scholar Walter Burkert offered a new interpretation of this trend (The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age). Burkert described the new movement in Greek art as a revolution: "With bronze reliefs, textiles, seals, and other products, a whole world of eastern images was opened up which the Greeks were only too eager to adopt and adapt in the course of an "orientalizing revolution.” Depictions of Greek myths that were destined to become standard types originated from attempts to naturalize foreign visual formulae stemming from the East. As has been noted in the previous section some of the myths themselves appear to be imports from Mesopotamia.

In addition, Burkert emphasizes the role of migrating seers and healers, bringing their skills in divination and purification ritual along with elements of their mythological wisdom. Surely the most outstanding contribution of this period was the invention of the Greek alphabet, based on the earlier phonetic Phoenician writing. This change caused a great leap in literacy and literary production, as the oral traditions of the epic began to be transcribed onto imported Egyptian papyrus and other media..

In Attic pottery, the distinctive Orientalizing style known as "proto-Attic" was marked by floral and animal motifs; for the first time specific religious and mythological themes appeared in vase painting. The new style fostered a narrative clarity that had previously been lacking.

In 2004 Walter Burkert published a book seeking to integrate these findings into the larger picture: Babylon Memphis Persepolis: Eastern Contexts of Greek Culture (2004).
In general Burkert adopts a moderate position on the question of Greek indebtedness to the Near East and to Egypt, the claims of the latter of course being famously challenged by Martin Bernal, who is not at all moderate. Concerning the Bernal controversy, Burkert remarks: "Vigorous debates have ensued: yet while many details of Bernal and his followers' statements are open to argument, polemics are not worthwhile. One ought to look for further evidence and new perspectives, and to work out more equitable judgments,”

Burkert has taken on a big assignment, attempting to create a balance sheet of our knowledge of the how, why, and what of cultural influences on Greece from the Near East, Egypt, and Persia, mainly during the Archaic and Classical Periods. He attends to the historical and geographical contexts of cultural transmission: trade between Greece and the East (a push fueled by the Greek search for metals), politics (diplomacy, war, and conquest), to be sure, but also factors such as roads, libraries, schools, and writing materials (e.g., the switch from clay tablets to perishable materials with the Greek import of the Phoenician alphabet). Allowing for the possibility of “creative misunderstanding," Burkert seeks to discern a dialectical process of give and take on all sides.

In my view, he has not entirely freed himself from the bonds of Greek exceptionalism, as when he flirts with the hoary contrast of Oriental prerationalism and Greek rationalism. A somewhat wistful nostalgia transpires from the following statement: “Philosophy has largely tried to follow such an ideal of truth. It threatens to become obsolete, though, with the onset of relativity and deconstruction within the more modern trends in the social sciences and humanities. It is still to be hoped that the Greek heritage will not be totally lost.” We may be critical of modern relativism, but surely it is not necessary to go back to ancient Greece to oppose it.

In Chapter Four Burkert offers a case study of religious syncretism, involving the 6th-century Greek identification of Dionysus with Osiris. In his view, mystery rites promising a blissful afterlife provide the strongest basis for the association of the two gods. From Dionysus one can easily move on to Orpheus and the question of putative Egyptian influences on Orphic religion. This matter is made difficult by the fact that, despite intriguing new discoveries, we still know little about Orphic religion. All too often, assertion outruns the evidence.

Still, Burkert hazards the following conclusion: Orphism can be situated within a general family of teachings guaranteeing renewed life after death through the performance of ritual; such rituals or mysteries were associated with Orpheus as well as with Dionysus and taught by itinerant teachers. In this way Egyptian influences in the 6th century BCE were probably of prime importance for the transformation of the Mycenaean Dionysus into the Dionysus of mystery rites. The centrality of the afterlife to the Egyptian world view needs no underlining.

For the period after the Persian War, Burkert notes two religious ideas, both apparently Persian imports to Greece. The first is the concept of the ascent of the pious dead to a better life in heaven, an idea that replaces the uniformly bleak picture of an afterlife held by first millennium Greeks, Mesopotamians, Syrians, and Jews. There remains the problem of the dating of the original Zoroastrian texts, A more familiar issue is well-accepted Iranian homeland of the principle of dualism, which emphasizes a persistent battle between good and evil forces. This vein of thought finds several Greek avatars, the first perhaps being the philosopher Empedocles' depiction of a war between Love and Hate as the driving cause for natural processes.

In his careful way, Burkert joins forces with the current interest in hybridization. Cultural mixing is not only a fact, but it is a positive force. "Culture, including Greek culture, requires intercultural contact" Our stereotypes of an isolated Greek miracle developed as the result of a historical accident: "Greek culture had the good fortune to find successors who established a heritage and took care of it continuously, while neighboring civilizations fell victim to the ravages of time and to the victory of either Christianity or Islam.” Still, Burkert is not altogether happy with the recent dethronement of Classicism, which for him betokens an abandonment of standards. "Classicism presupposes and confirms recognized standards or norms -- but these are disappearing from our multicultural world and will not be recovered easily.”

Burkert’s final position is somewhat that of a mugwump; he recognizes the important catalytic role of the Eastern models, but still believes that there is something unique and exemplary about Greek culture, which he holds has determined the shape of “world civilization.” India and China are apparently of no account.


In one sphere it is generally agreed that the Greek contribution is unique--democracy. Is that strictly true?

Using Sumerian epic, myth and historical records, the noted scholar Thorkild Jacobsen has identied what he calls primitive democracy. By this he means a government in which ultimate power rests with the mass of free male citizens, although "the various functions of government are as yet little specialized, the power structure is loose." In the early period of Sumer, kings such as Gilgamesh could not command the autocratic power which later Mesopotamia rulers wielded. Rather, major city-states had a council of elders and a council of "young men" (probably comprising free men bearing arms). These collective bodies possessed the final political authority, and had to be consulted on all major issues such as war.

Although Jacobsen advanced this idea as early as 1943, it has not received the discussion it deserves. Some critics assert that the same evidence also can be interpreted to demonstrate a power struggle between primitive monarchs and the nobility, a struggle in which the common people act more as pawns than the sovereign authority. For a recent study, see B. Sakhan, “Engaging ‘Primitive Democracy’: Mideast Roots of Collective Governance.” Middle East Policy, 2007.

UPDATE (July 1). I have just acquired an important new book, which facilitates a reconsideration of the problems discussed above. This is "When the Gods Were Born: Greek Cosmogonies and the Near East" by Carolina López-Ruiz (Harvard University Press, 2010). This book offers two important perspectives. First, we should no longer think of the Near East-Greek nexus as simply one of donor-recipient in which the older cultures of Western Asia simply exported ideas and motifs, which were then reframed by the Greeks. Instead, she believes that one should speak of a larger koine, in which these elements freely circulate. This model would imply that there are components which started in Greece and moved eastwards (in addition to the more familiar reverse process). Thus far the components of this kind that have been detected are few, at least prior to the Hellenistic period. But one may expect to find more of them.

Secondly, she emphasizes the pivotal role of the Ugarit (Ras Shamra) and the Phoenicians--the northwest Semitic area in what is now western Syria and Lebanon--as a a kind of laboratory or entrepot in which the culture mixing took place. Hitherto the greatest emphasis has been on the Hittites and Hurrians (in Asia Minor) as transmitters. That northern route was still important though, and since the Hittites and Hurrians were Indo-European, it serves to remind us that the matter is not a simple contrast between Indo-European Greeks and Semitic Mesopotamians. In the transmission of myth, language was probably not as important as usually assumed. We must also expect that a good many bilingual individuals were involved.

The author also provides valuable references to recent research, and some indication of new contributions that we may expect shortly.



Blogger Burk said...

Thanks for a fascinating post! I wonder about the democracy question. There seems to have been continual tension between democracy and autocracy in the ancient world (as we still see today). Early Rome seems to be another excellent example, with endless complexities and interest. So the idea that Greece invented it seems most dubious, as you indicate. But Greek literature was where it reached its first shining exposition, which is not nothing either.

10:19 AM  

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