Greek hoplite and Persian warrior fighting each other. Depiction in ancient kylix. 5th c. B.C. National Archaeological Museum of Athens
img src=”http://www.crystalinks.com/Greco_PersianWars.jpg” alt=”" /
I recently posted this book review I did for an ancient Greek survey class. I have have had some health issues recently and had to drop most of my classes. Work has been excessively demanding and has taken up most of my waking hours, and being sick just left me too drained to continue most of my studies. I did manage to hang onto this one class and I am thoroughly enjoying my hours immersed in the Greeks. The question has come up in my mind, as I watch Congress fawning over Israel and evincing seemingly irrational fear of Iran, as to why this anti Iranian sentiment. It is more than simply the result of the Iranian take over of the embassy in Tehran. This is deeper cultural stuff. As I was thinking about the Greco-Persian Wars, I realized that the anti-Persian propaganda goes back to the ancient Greeks and the wars against the Persian Empire in the 5th Century BCE. Since the study of ancient Greece goes back to at least the 18th Century in elite American and Western European culture, this prejudice, part of a greater fear of Oriental domination, ingrained by experiences with the Muslims and Turks more specifically in the case of Europe, all has influenced the current political climate. I applaud the Obama administration for its breaking through to a more rational position vis a vie Iran.
I hope you enjoy reading my review.
Walter Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age. Trans. Margaret E. Pinder and Walter Burkert. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U. Press. 1992).
Burkert’s book is dedicated to the exploration of oriental influences in Greek culture particularly in the archaic period of the ninth through sixth centuries BCE. Burkert starts with evidence from scraps of Greek literature bolstered by an examination of the artifacts remaining from the period. He considers the period of the Assyrian battles for domination on the coast of Northern Syria in the later Ninth century and again in the later eighth and early seventh centuries BCE, in particular to be seminal in the diversification of Oriental knowledge among the Greeks, with refugee craftsmen relocating to the Greek speaking regions among others (Burkert 11-14).
Specific example Burkert uses for an early immigration is that of a family of goldsmiths and gem cutter in Knossos who reused a Minoan tomb consecrating it with oriental style foundation deposits in approximately 800 BCE known as the “Tomb of the Goldsmiths” (22, 54). He goes into a rather extensive description of the traditions of the “public workers,” or demioergoi (Od. 17.383-385 qtd. in Burkert 23), writing of their ability to move about due to their skills of techne (23). He indicates that immigrant potters, and vase painters came from Egypt, Lydia and Phrygia also, noting that as late as Aristotle craftsmen were as a rule described as immigrant non-citizens, and often slaves (23).
Banded Jug with Oriental Influences
The seventh century began with the influence of Oriential Style are influencing the current Geometric Style. Images of lions, foreign goddesses followed by strange animals, and the sphynx were all elements introduced into greek vase painting by eastern culture. The brunt of the oriental influence came from the greek east that had the most contact with eastern civilization. The areas of Rhodes, Samos, and Miletus had a strong influence on this trend.
Burkert also describes in some detail the transfer of magical and religious rituals and traditions citing the bronze liver models from Mesopotamia in clay and the very similar Etruscan liver model from Piacenza in the third century BCE and being an example of a clear transfer of systems of belief from the east to the west, in this case hepatoscopy or haruspicina, divination by interpreting sheep livers in particular (Burkert 46-48). He indicates that there was a very specific Assyrian school with a systemic approach that was somewhat abstracted from nature, also followed in their own system of saecula by the Etruscans (48, 49-50). The Greeks he argues followed a more naturalistic and behavioral model in interpretation with it becoming the preferred form of divination into the classical period as Burkert cites from Plato (49). He considers “the spread of hepatoscopy one of the clearest examples of cultural contact in the orientalizing period” (51). The mobility of seers and healers or “migrant charismatics” as he calls them, is a key part of the spread of oriental wisdom to the west along with the traders and craftsmen.
Burkert spends some time denouncing the “anti-oriental reflex” (3) as something that emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries among German speaking academia, in particular, as an outgrowth of the “ideology of romantic nationalism” of Herder, the separation of philology from religion by Wolf and the new pagan influenced classicism of Winckemann (2). The emergence of national romanticism is seen by the author as part of the grounds in which anti-Semitism gained influence in classical studies. The discovery of the Indo-European linguistic base for most European languages, along with Sanskrit and Persian, furthered what was at the time a Greek-Roman-Germanic view of the world (2). A strong motivation for Burkert is quite evident in his almost crusader like approach to rehabilitating the Oriental and Semitic influence in particular in this study of the Archaic period of Greek history. He notes later in the text that Beloch went out of his way to separate “Rhodian Zeus Atabyrios from Mount Atabyron =Tabor, the mountain in Palestine” claiming this as a clear cut case of anti-Semitism (34).
While I am not an authority on German academic anti-Semitism, it is fairly clear that until recently Semitic roots to many aspects of Greek culture has been limited. A simple scan of the citations from the East in the text book A Brief History of Ancient Greece describes the period after the decline of the Mycenaean Civilization mentions grave goods from Greek tombs, from the Near East that may have been a result of contact with “Near Eastern traders roaming the Aegean Sea” (Pomeroy et. al., 47). They mention the emergence of iron working after 1050 BCE as a result of trade in bronze making raw materials being cut off, rather than being the result of technology learned from the Hittites or other Near Eastern sources where “Iron technology was long known” (43). Mention is made of Hesiod deriving a history of the gods in his Theogony from ancient Mesopotamian stories, but then goes nowhere with that connection (57). Later describing Hesiod’s Works and Days where “Sermonizing poetry, so different from that of the Homeric narrative, was clearly influenced by the Ancient Genre of Near Eastern ‘wisdom literature’” (77). The colonization of the wider Mediterranean word is attributed to Greek traders in partnership with Phoenicians (59) and that the Greeks took up the phonetic writing system in the Eighth century for reasons that are called debatable (60). They do better describing the origins of art in the description of the “Orientalizing style” from the Near East and Egypt in about 720 BCE, but the description takes up a couple of sentences only (62) and their description of the emergence of the classic Greek Temple at that time doesn’t mention outside influences at all (62). This may seem fairly substantial but it seems to allude to rather than explore the influences of the East. Burkert sets about to develop the influences his and others influence can be seen in the text above.
Lady of Auxerre
Lady of Auxerra. Limestone, probably from Crete, ca 650-625 BCE.
Source: Boundless. “The Orientalizing Period.” Boundless Art History. Boundless, 14 Nov. 2014. Retrieved 05 Apr. 2015 from https://www.boundless.com/art-history/textbooks/boundless-art-history-textbook/ancient-greece-6/the-geometric-and-orientalizing-periods-63/the-orientalizing-period-330-10889/
Burkert claims an eastern influence on the construction of large altars for burnt offerings and the large temples which he notes coincided with the period of movement of eastern craftsmen in the eighth century prior to which there had been no examples in Greece (Burkert, 20). The use of composite beasts and other animal motifs in pottery and sculpture are part of what has been known as the Orientalizing period as mentioned above. Creatures such as the Chimera have Hittite links, Triton’s to Mesopotamia, as well as lion motifs. He states that the sight of a lion would have been something unknown in the life of most Greeks (20). He goes on to say that “typically Greek” forms of portrayal of Zeus and Poseidon with the lightning bolt or the trident are derived from Syrio-Hittite statuettes. The same goes for the portrayal of the standing naked female goddess with hands touching breasts as being of Syrian origin (21). He goes on to state that the Hoplite weapons that came into use in the Archaic period were close to Assyrian and Urartian models, suggesting that mercenaries may have picked brought them back with them. Burkert notes the Carian and Ionian mercenaries in Egypt under Psammentichus among others in the seventh and sixth century (25). Burkert, a philologist, has an extensive discourse on the use of loan words from the Near East. He states that the earliest Greek writing shows up shortly before 750 BCE in Naxos, Ischia, Athens, and Euboea intersecting exactly with the time of the “trading connections of Iawones from Syria via Euboea to the West” (26). He says that while the exact location of the transfer may be hard to pinpoint, it occurred rather rapidly form Phrygians to the Etruscans in a matter of a few decades, indicating that the idea of a slow indigenous development of the Greek alphabet had been discredited by Lilian Jeffery’s work (27).
Burkert seems to go so far as to give short shrift to the Egyptian influence on Greek culture and religion. As he describes the possible roots of the Greek tradition of liver augury, describing the priest clan of the Tamiradae at Paphos claiming to have brought the tradition from Cilicia, citing Tacitus and discounting the earlier source Herodotus’ claim for an Egyptian source as being unfounded (49; note 16, 182). Although I understand is desire to accentuate Semitic roots, discounting Egyptian roots seems to be somewhat counterproductive. The distinctions being made by Burkert seemingly have more to do with late twentieth century revisionism than historical fact. Although his speculations on the migration of technology, myth, and religion seem perfectly valid, his emphasis on the Akkadian, Phoenician and Assyrian roots is noteworthy.
Bernal in his extensive review of Burkert, complains of the lack of inclusion of the Egyptians and of the narrow time frame in which Burkert sets the impact on Greek culture of the Near East (Bernal 138). Bernal has bigger fish to fry, he seems to be out to debunk the concept of the Dark Ages in Greece as one of isolation from which the Greeks emerged in the Archaic period stating “Burkert appears to share the Hellenocentric view that … the ‘Dark Ages’ provide a significant barrier between the cosmopolitan society of the palaces and the ‘repurified’ Greek society that emerged in the early eight century” (138). He goes on to argue that the initial Semitic influence goes back to the earliest period of Bronze Age Greece and Minoan Crete to the early second millennium BCE (144). While I agree with Bernal on his assessment on the weakness of the Egyptian influence in Burkert’s argument, I don’t read Burkert as excluding earlier influences so much as focusing on the Archaic period and expanding upon our understanding of the extent of the influence of dispersion of ideas across geographic regions.
Writing of purification rituals, Burkert describes how there is a wide literature available for magic rituals whereas that in Greek is brief, allusive or dependent on later reports Burkert, (Burkert, 56). He discusses the piglet bloodletting rituals in Aeschylus description of the purification of Orestes for murder (57). He mentions one example of ritual purification in the Iliad called lymata or dirty water being disposed of (57), Deciding to look for the citation I found (Il.1.313-314) “while Atreus’ son told his people to wash off their defilement. And they washed it away and threw the washing into the salt sea.” (Trans. Lat. 83). This seems to be related to the offense to Apollo and his priest. Seeking further information about the matter I found this extract on Theoi.com:
Arctinus of Miletus, The Aethiopis Fragment 1 (from Proclus, Chrestomathia 2) (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C8th B.C.): “Akhilleus [after slaying Thersites for his insults] sails to Lesbos and after sacrificing to Apollon, Artemis and Leto, is purified by Odysseus from bloodshed.” (Astima, Artemis n.p.).
An Apulian krater in the Louvre shows Apollo himself pouring the blood of the pig over Orestes Burkert affirms, although he does not show this image in the book (Burkert, 57). It is available on line from the web site of the Louvre in Paris. Below is the image described by Burkert with a description from the Louvre Museum in Paris where the krater is located:
The purification Orestes in Delphi.’ This exceptionally large bell-krater depicts the beginning of Aeschylus’s tragedy The Eumenides. The scene opens at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, symbolized by an altar surmounted by the Omphalos, the navel of the world. Orestes has taken refuge here, fleeing the Erinyes, the terrible goddesses of vengeance. He is still holding the dagger with which he has killed his mother, Clytemnestra, to avenge his father. Behind him stands Apollo, holding a laurel branch in one hand and, with the other, shaking a piglet above the young man’s head in a gesture of purification. Artemis, the god’s sister, stands by his side.
The ritual purification in the Semitic world involved the blood of a pig as Burkert indicates in an excerpt from Babylonian ritual texts of purification (Burkert, 58). There is much evidence of purification rituals in the Near East from which the Greeks could have picked up from traveling seers and healers the specific practices mentioned above He goes on to make the point that even Apollo had to undergo ritual purification after slaying the Python, by going to Crete which Burkert associates along with Cypress as a center for the early Orientalizing period. He also notes that there are indications that the cult of Apollo itself has links to Semitic culture including the rituals around the new moon and the seventh day of the month (61). Although he clearly states that not all coincidental similarities of names and timing of events, are not evidence of Semitic influences, he feels that not enough recognition of the links that are the most likely hypothesis are given credibility by experts in the field and this book goes a long way in rectifying that lack of credit.
With much detail and copious notes, half again as long as the book itself, Burkert packs in a short text of 129 pages plus 90 pages of notes and bibliography an extensive and well- argued case for the continuous and extensive interaction between the Near East and Archaic period Greece. While he doesn’t give much shrift to the continuity of prior connections during the Bronze age, focusing on the period from about 800 – 650 BCE, he does not state that this was the only period of interaction, but the main early period. As I have stated before he leaves Egyptian sources largely neglected, but his effort is primarily aimed at debunking the approach of Orientalists and Hellenists that tries to examine Greece as a pure case of indigenous brilliance as the source of western civilization separate from the Near Eastern cradle in which the Greek baby rocked.
Atsma, Aaron J. “Artemis Goddess.” Theoi Project 2000 - 2011, Accessed Feb. 21, 2015 http://www.theoi.com/Olympios/ArtemisGoddess.html
Bernal, Martin. “Burkert’s Orientalizing Revolution.” Arion, 4.2 (1996): 137-147.
Carter, Xxavier. “The Geometric Style Greek Archaeology,” Metamedia at Stanford http://humanitieslab.stanford.edu/113/655. Last modified Sat Dec 17/2005 06:09. Accessed 4 April 2015.
Lattimore, Richmond, Trans. The Iliad of Homer. Introduction and notes Richard Martin. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 2911.
Padel-Imbaud, Sophie. “The purification of Orestes in Delphi.” Apulian red-figure bell-krateine 23. Collection Campana, 1861, 1861 Known as the “Eumenides Krater” Cp 710. Louvre, France. http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/apulian-red-figure-bell-krater. Web, accessed 2/22/15.r. Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Classical Greek Art (5th-4th centuries BC) Sully wing 1st floor Galerie Campana V Room 44 Vitr
Pomeroy, Sarah B., Burstein, Stanley M., Donlan, Walter, Roberts, Jennifer Tolbert, and Tandy, David, W. A Brief History of Ancient Greece Politics, Society, and Culture. Third ed. New York: Oxford U. Press. 2014.