Chapter 14. Links across the Wine-Dark Sea

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Greeks and Trojans confront each other on the plains of Troy.

In the space in between, two warriors meet—Diomedes, son

of Tydeus, from Argos in Greece, and Glaukos, son of

Hippolochos,from Lycia in the remote south-western corner of

Anatolia. As they prepare to do battle, Diomedes calls upon

Glaukos to identify himself, to state his lineage and place of

origin. He learns that Glaukos too has ancestral origins in

Argos, that there have been close bonds between their families,

bonds extending back several generations. Enmity between the

two is set aside. They exchange weapons and armour, and

pledge to renew their families’ traditional links.1

From the Bronze Age onwards, there have been many meetings,

many links between the peoples of the ancient Greek and Near

Eastern worlds—all contributing in greater or lesser measure to the

ongoing process of cultural transmission and cultural exchange

between east and west. The process involved two-way traffic, sometimes

predominantly in one direction, sometimes predominantly

in the other. During the middle centuries of the first millennium bc,

the Greek world had a profound influence on a number of its Near

Eastern neighbours; the remains of the Hellenized cities of the

Anatolian littoral are amongst the tangible witnesses of this. In the

early centuries of the millennium and in the preceding millennium,

the Greeks in their turn derived much from their contacts with their

neighbours across the wine-dark sea. Mainland and island Greece

lay towards the western end of a cultural continuum which began

with the earliest historical societies of Mesopotamia. Customs, traditions,

and institutions which first appeared in these societies passed

ever westwards, from one generation to another, from one civilization

to another, and from one region to another over a period of

several thousand years, sometimes undergoing substantial changes

and modifications along the way. The Hittites were participants

in the process, as they absorbed within the fabric of their own

civilization cultural elements drawn from the wide range of civilizations

with which they came into contact, either directly or through

cultural intermediaries. In their turn they may well have played an

important role in the transmission of elements of Near Eastern

culture further westwards to the Greek world.

In recent years scholars have been giving renewed attention to the

nature and extent of the role played by the Near East in shaping

Greek culture in its early developmental stages.With this has come

an increasing conviction that Near Eastern poetic and mythological

traditions exercised a direct and pervasive influence on early Greek

literature, most notably the poems of Homer and Hesiod.We have

already noted the parallels between the Kumarbi epic cycle, preserved

in a fragmentary Hittite version in the archives of Hattusa,

and the works of Hesiod.We shall now turn to some of the parallels

and possible links between Near Eastern traditions, particularly

those that surface in the Land of Hatti, and the traditions used by

Hesiod’s near contemporary Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Parallels abound between the cultures of the Near Eastern and

Greek worlds and have already been dealt with in a range of publications.

2 But no matter how striking some of these parallels may

appear to be, they are not in themselves demonstrative of actual

east–west contacts. If we are to argue that they are more than mere

coincidences, that there are actual links between them, we need first

to demonstrate in historical or archaeological terms at least the likelihood

of cultural transmission between the different regions where

they made their appearance. Some steps have already been taken

in this direction, by Professor Martin West and others. And some of

the mechanisms of cultural interaction between the Near Eastern

and early Greek worlds are already becoming clear.What is still to

be determined is whether this interaction was primarily a feature of

early Iron Age contacts, or whether it was already in play at least

several centuries before, in the Bronze Age.

There is no doubt that in the Late Bronze Age commercial and

cultural links were well established between the Mycenaean world

and western Anatolia and the Syro-Palestine region, and indirectly

extended further east into Mesopotamia.The Ulu Burun shipwreck

(see Chapter 5) provides some indication of how these links were

maintained. The ship’s cargo of copper and tin ingots and luxury

items is indicative of the commercial contacts between Egypt, the

eastern Mediterranean lands, and Greece in the fourteenth to thir-

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teenth centuries, and the nature of the trade between these regions.

But there may have been other cargo as well, not identifiable in the

archaeological record—what has been referred to as ‘human talent’.

Westward Population Movements

In recent years a number of scholars have postulated a westward

diaspora of Levantine craftsmen and merchants in the Late Bronze

Age, including entrepreneurs in search of new resources and

markets, and travelling along the established trade routes. From our

Hittite sources we know that by the middle of the thirteenth century

a substantial number of western Anatolians were living in

Mycenaean Greece, called Ahhiyawa in Hittite texts. In a letter to

one of the kings of Ahhiyawa Hattusili III complains of the resettlement

of some 7,000 of his western Anatolian subjects from the

Lukka Lands in Ahhiyawan territory.3 Complementing this information,

the Mycenaean Linear B tablets indicate that western

Anatolia was one of the regions from which labour was obtained for

the Mycenaean palace’s workforces, for textile-making and the like.

The same region may also have served as a recruiting ground,

through raids and other means, for supplementing the substantial

workforces required for building the massive fortifications at sites

like Mycenae and Tiryns. This would fit neatly with an admittedly

late attested tradition recorded by the first-century Greek writer

Strabo, crediting the building of the walls of Tiryns to the Cyclopes,

giants from Lycia.4 The Lycians, as the Greeks and Romans called

them, were first-millennium descendants of the Late Bronze Age

Lukka people, who lived in parts of southern and western Anatolia.

Many of these people were resettled in the Mycenaean world

around the middle of the thirteenth century, in the period when the

Mycenaean citadels were being extensively refortified.5

The new arrivals in Greece, whether from western Anatolia or

regions further east, no doubt included many who were skilled in

manual crafts, as well as healers, seers, and singers or poets—indeed,

just as they are listed by Odysseus’ swineherd Eumaeus amongst the

categories of demioergoi, craftsmen who can always be assured of a

welcome wherever they travel: ‘No man of his own accord goes out

to bring in a stranger from elsewhere, unless that stranger be master

of some craft,a prophet or one who cures diseases,a worker in wood,

or again an inspired bard, delighting men with his song. The wide

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world over, men such as these are welcome guests.’6 Through the

resettlement of foreign demioergoi and their fellow immigrants

from the Near East, customs and traditions of the societies to which

they had originally belonged would have become known in the

Greek world. Indeed these foreign settlers were very likely the most

important agents of east–west cultural transmission.

The thousands of Anatolian settlers in Mycenaean Greece very

likely included some who had been trained as scribes, and continued

to serve as scribes and interpreters in the Mycenaean courts. Their

services would presumably have been called upon for communications

between their new overlord and his subjects or agents in

western Anatolia. They could also have served as channels of communication

between the Ahhiyawan king and their former overlord,

the king of Hatti. And they may well have brought to their new land

something else in addition to their scribal skills. We have earlier

remarked that scribes educated in the Near Eastern scribal school

tradition would in the process of their education have learnt the

‘classics’ of Mesopotamia, notably literary compositions emanating

from the Sumerian, Babylonian, and Hurrian peoples which found

their way into the Hittite world—compositions like the Gilgamesh

epic and the Kumarbi Song Cycle. Further to the west, in another

world that was clearly receptive to stories of heroes and great

achievements from the past as well as the present, it is very probable

that narrative traditions from the Near East also became known

in Mycenaean court circles—at least partly through the agency of

Anatolian scribes who had become familiar with them in the course

of their scribal training.

Yet there must have been others too who conveyed stories originating

in a Near Eastern context westwards to the Greek world.

Episodes from the Gilgamesh epic were probably in wide circulation,

especially among travellers.The epic is by and large a traveller’s

tale. And as we have already remarked, the tales of the Kumarbi

cycle with their themes of sex and violence would almost certainly

have had widespread appeal at all levels of society. Immigrant craftsmen

and artists, itinerant merchants, sailors from vessels which plied

their trade throughout the ports of the Mediterranean, indeed any

traveller capable of spinning a good yarn, may all have been agents

in the process of east–west cultural transmission, in the course of

which episodes from the Mesopotamian and Hurrian epics made

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their first appearance in the Greek world. If so, they may well have

exercised, already in the Late Bronze Age, a significant influence on

the development and shaping of the traditions which provided the

genesis of Homeric epic as well as basic material for the poems of


Gilgamesh and the Homeric Epics

We can readily identify a number of features which the Gilgamesh

epic has in common with the Iliad and the Odyssey.The introductory

passage of the Gilgamesh epic which depicts Gilgamesh as a restless

hero—the far-journeying wanderer who endures many hardships

and gathers much wisdom—reminds us of Odysseus in the opening

lines of the Odyssey. The very notion of a long journey in which the

hero is beset by many obstacles and temptations is as fundamental to

the Gilgamesh epic as it is to the Odyssey. The alewife-temptress

Siduri in the former calls to mind Calypso and Circe in the latter.

The divine intervention motif is constantly in evidence in both the

Gilgamesh and the Homeric compositions—there are those deities

who support and assist the hero, and those who are implacably

hostile to him and seek his downfall—for an insult he has committed

against them,for an injury done to them or to other members of their


The Mesopotamian and Greek epics all have a greater or lesser

preoccupation with death and the Underworld, and there is much in

common between Mesopotamian and Greek concepts of the afterlife.

7 Achilles’ meeting with Patroklos’ ghost in Book 23 of the Iliad

recalls Gilgamesh’s meeting with Enkidu’s ghost in the twelfth

tablet of the Gilgamesh epic. Gilgamesh’s summoning-up of the

spirit of Enkidu has its counterpart in Odysseus’ summoning-up of

the ghost of Teiresias in the Odyssey.This is of course a common literary

topos—in which the living seek advice from the dead, as we see

also in Aeneas’ consultation with the ghost of his father Anchises,or

in a biblical context Saul’s consultation with the ghost of the prophet


What do such parallels really signify? Direct influence of one tradition

upon the other? Mere coincidence? Or was there an original

common source from which common elements have been independently

retained in two divergent cultures? The most sceptical view

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would have it that the broad similarity in themes observable in

the Gilgamesh and the Homeric compositions indicate similar but

quite unrelated responses, encapsulated in literary form, to similar

problems, questions, hopes, aspirations, and fears raised by the different

environments in which human societies evolved and developed.

Things like the preoccupation with the theme of death and

what lies beyond, and a yearning for some form of immortality

which will transcend death; or the tension or conflict between the

ephemeral, hedonistic delights of this world, and a desire for nobler,

more lasting achievement,whatever hardships and dangers that may

entail. Are the themes of the epics essentially independent reflections

of what is inherent in human nature?

This view would become less tenable if we had conclusive proof

that Near Eastern literary or mythological traditions, like those

reflected in the Akkadian epics, were already known in thirteenthcentury

Greece. Such proof has yet to be found.We can,however,be

sure that many people from the regions where the epics were read,

copied, recited, and performed in the Late Bronze Age either resettled

in the Greek world, or visited it in the course of trading enterprises.

If they carried their traditions and folk tales with them, and if

at this time the poetic and historical traditions on which Homer drew

were already taking shape, it would be perverse to argue that they

did so in complete isolation from Near Eastern traditions with which

they shared a number of similar features and which were then

known in the Greek world.

There are, furthermore, a number of specific points of comparison

between Homeric and Near Eastern tradition which seem to go

beyond mere superficial or commonplace parallels. In Book 5 of the

Iliad Diomedes maltreats the goddess Aphrodite, and the goddess

complains of this to her parents Zeus and Dione. But her father is

not at all sympathetic, and in fact gently rebukes her for making

the complaint. We are reminded of Gilgamesh’s maltreatment of

the goddess Ishtar (Aphrodite’s Near Eastern equivalent). Just as

Aphrodite had done, Ishtar complains to her parents Anu and Antu

of Gilgamesh’s behaviour. For doing so she too is rebuked by her

father. Professor Burkert comments that the two episodes parallel

each other in structure, narrative form, and ethos to a remarkable


In Book 4 of the Odyssey, Penelope learns of her son Telemachos’

journey to find news of Odysseus, and the suitors’ plot to kill him on

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his return. In great anxiety, she prays to Athene to keep him safe. In

the Gilgamesh epic, the goddess Ninsun learns of her son’s dangerous

journey to fight the giant Humbaba, and she too prays for his

safety. Of course there is nothing surprising about a mother praying

for a son, especially when she perceives him to be in great danger.

But a comparison of the two episodes takes us beyond this mere

commonplace. After lamenting her son’s plight, Penelope bathes

and puts on clean linen, then filling a basket with sacred barley,

she goes to the upper storey of the palace, and makes supplication to

Athene to keep her son safe. When Gilgamesh goes off to fight

Humbaba, his mother Ninsun enters her chamber, she puts on a

garment and other adornments, then taking a special herb, she goes

upstairs to the roof of the palace, and makes supplication to the Sun

God Shamash for her son’s safety.10 Burkert remarks that what elevates

this comparison from the commonplace is the fact that here

narrative content, structure, and sequence are virtually identical.

We might also take a little further the comparison between

Homer’s Circe and Siduri of the Gilgamesh epic. Each attempts to

persuade the hero to abandon his mission—in Gilgamesh’s case the

quest for Utnapishtim, in Odysseus’ the completion of his journey

home—and neither succeeds. Yet there are dual, apparently contrasting

aspects of the roles which the temptresses play. Gilgamesh

prevails on Siduri, who lives on the edge of the sea and knows its

ways, to give him directions which will lead him across the waters to

Utnapishtim. Odysseus too entreats Circe to provide directions for

his homeward journey; she advises him that to reach his final destination

he must first visit the house of Persephone and Hades, and

there seek counsel from the spirit of the seer Teiresias. In both cases

the dangers of the journey ahead are highlighted. Gilgamesh is

warned thus: ‘There has never been a ferry of any kind, Gilgamesh,

and nobody from time immemorial has crossed the sea (to the realm

of Utnapishtim).’11 Odysseus has similar apprehensions: ‘O Circe,

who will be the guide for this journey? Never yet has anyone reached

by black ship the realm of Hades.’12 But Circe reassures him. Like

Siduri, she is knowledgeable in the ways of the sea. In both cases, the

temptresses are not merely obstacles put in the hero’s way.They play

essential roles in the forward movement of the journey. For the

directions they give are critical to the attainment of the hero’s goal.

In this case too Mesopotamian and Homeric tradition closely parallel

each other in concept, structure, and detail.

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Cultural Transmission

Near Eastern influence on Homer was by no means confined to the

sphere of literary tradition. On a broader level, elements of Hittite

and other Near Eastern ritual practices occasionally surface in

the Homeric epics. We have already referred to the close parallel

between the procedures followed by Odysseus in summoning up the

dead at the beginning of Book 11 of the Odyssey and the Hittite

chthonic ritual in which the deities of the netherworld were summoned

from their infernal abode (Chapter 10). One further example

may suffice. In Book 23 of the Iliad (233–61), Homer describes the

funeral rites of the Greek hero Patroklos. His body is disposed of by

cremation.This has occasioned some surprise, since inhumation was

the regular Greek practice in the Bronze Age, the period in which

the Trojan War is set.13What Patroklos’ burial rites do recall are the

procedures laid down for the disposal of the remains of Hittite kings,

as described in Chapter 10. In both cases the deceased’s body is

consumed upon a funeral pyre; the pyre’s smouldering embers are

quenched with wine before sifting through them for the bones of the

deceased;the bones are immersed in a vessel of oil and then wrapped

in fine linen. To be sure, there are also differences between the

Hittite and Homeric burial procedures. But the features which they

share strongly suggest that they are in some way connected.14 The

nature of this connection, and how it came about, remains a matter

for speculation.We can but note how remarkable it is that a peculiarly

Hittite royal burial practice which as far as we know did not

outlive the Bronze Age and was unlikely to have been otherwise preserved

in a Greek context should strike such a familiar chord in

Homeric epic centuries after its last attestation in the Hittite texts.

Scholars like Walter Burkert and Martin West present at considerable

length the case for strong Near Eastern influence on Greek

culture. But they tend to focus on a later period of cultural transmission,

during the so-called orientalizing period (mid-eighth to midseventh

century) when itinerant craftsmen and artists from the Near

East may once again have brought to the Greek world a range of

manual and intellectual skills, including the Semitic art of writing,

and a range of literary and religious traditions. On the other hand

West concedes that the orientalizing period seems to fall too late to

be connected with any major reshaping of Homeric epic. It may well

be that much of what Homeric tradition may have owed to Near

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Eastern influence was already known and was being used in the

Mycenaean period when the traditions incorporated in Homeric

epic were beginning to evolve. So too elements of the Kumarbi epic

cycle may already have been known in the Greek world some centuries

before their reappearance in Hesiod, though a number of

scholars have long seen their transmission to the Greek world as a

later phenomenon, perhaps due to Phoenician contact with this


This is not to deny that later Near Eastern influences also contributed

significantly to the final version of the Homeric poems.

There are many features or elements of the poems which are clearly

of Iron Age origin.And in many respects they reflect the world of the

late eighth or early seventh century, as is clear from archaeological

material and from numerous allusions contained within them.

Above all the introduction of the alphabet into the Greek world

must not merely have brought with it the technology of writing. It

also drew the Greeks into the whole world of contemporary Near

Eastern written culture.Within this culture the Gilgamesh tradition

was still very much alive and being freshly recorded in Assyria, in

much the same period as the composition of the Iliad and the

Odyssey. In any case, the Homeric poems are now being seen much

less as a product of an essentially monocultural environment and

much more as the result of complex interactions of a number of

factors, many of non-Greek origin.

To what extent, then, are we able to identify the actual buildingblocks

of the Homeric poems? What can we say is distinctively

Greek about them? What is distinctively non-Greek? And where

are Greek and non-Greek elements so tightly interwoven that they

simply cannot be disentangled? These questions open up very large

areas of investigation which we can do no more than touch upon

here. And we should do so with some degree of caution.

With regard to the Homeric pantheon Martin West, one of the

most vigorous proponents of extensive Near Eastern influence on

Greek culture, writes thus: ‘It is hardly going too far to say that the

whole picture of the gods in the Iliad is oriental.’ He argues that

‘The Homeric and Hesiodic picture of the gods’ organization,and of

the past struggles by which they achieved it, has so much in common

with the picture presented in Babylonian and Ugaritic poetry that it

must have been formed under eastern influence. The gods are conceived

as a corporation that regularly assembles on Mt Olympos,

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feasts and discusses human affairs.They have a chief Zeus to whom

they make representations, and he makes decisions and gives permissions,

sends messengers, and tries to control events. But the other

gods are often wilful; they argue vigorously with one another, and

Zeus on occasion has to threaten or exert physical violence in order

to subdue them. This lively poetic scenario does not correspond

with actual Greek beliefs about the gods, who were worshipped and

invoked at appropriate places and times; two gods might be associated

in a cult, but there was no sense of their being members of a

larger assembly, nor of gods squabbling and jostling among


There is no doubt that Homer’s gods, if not substantially derived

from a Near Eastern context, would at least have been fully at home

in a Near Eastern environment. But the assumption that they were

actually taken over holus-bolus from the Near East may be going

too far. In general, we should be cautious about using a line of reasoning

which reduced to its simplest proportions seems to work

along these lines: Here we have elements which were apparently

alien to later Greek society. These elements were a feature of Near

Eastern Bronze Age and early Iron Age societies. Therefore their

appearance in Homer must be due to Near Eastern influence. To

maintain this, we would first have to demonstrate that they were not

also some sort of residual feature of pre-Homeric Greek society

which survived in Homeric tradition but otherwise disappeared.

Homer’s divine society may well be a reflection of a widespread set

of concepts about how the gods behaved and interacted, as much a

part of early Greek and more generally Indo-European tradition as

it was of Mesopotamian tradition.

In general terms closer attention to Near Eastern–Homeric text

parallels may well give us a good deal more insight than we presently

have into the actual processes involved in the composition of the

Homeric poems, and a greater understanding of how the poet’s compositional

skills operated. We could take the view that an eighthcentury

epic poet was merely the last in a succession of ‘Homers’

extending back over a number of generations, each of whom contributed

to the culling, shaping, and refining of the material, with the

last in the series adding the final touches, or bringing the compositions

to what West calls their astonishing acme in the eighth and

seventh centuries. And Burkert and others may well be right in their

claim that this was a period of much more intensive east–west con-

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nections and cultural transmission than was the case in the Bronze

Age. But this is in no way incompatible with the notion of an earlier

stratum of cultural transmission as well.

In any case, the epics drew on a wide range of sources and reflect a

wide range of influences over a period extending back well before

they reached their final form. The tradition of a Trojan War very

possibly has a basis in historical fact. But if so it almost certainly represents

a conflation of events, beginning perhaps a century or more

before the alleged dates of the war in Greek literature and continuing

beyond the end of the Bronze Age.Throughout this period,there

was regular commercial and political contact between the Greek

and Near Eastern worlds (allowing perhaps for a hiatus of 100 years

or so in the eleventh century bc), and undoubtedly a considerable

degree of cultural interaction between these worlds.

It has been suggested above that primarily through the agency of

large groups of immigrants and traders in Bronze Age Greece,Near

Eastern intellectual and cultural traditions became known in this

world. It would be remarkable if Near Eastern contacts with and

a significant Near Eastern presence in the early Greek world, as

attested by both archaeological and written evidence, failed to

make any major or lasting impression on Greek civilization. Given

that the development of the Homeric epics was a long evolutionary

process which incorporated a wide range of historical, social, and

cultural elements, we can hardly accept that it could have developed

in isolation of social and cultural forces from the East which were

impacting on the Greek world during the developmental period

of Homeric tradition. Speaking in relation to the impact of the Near

East on the development of Greek mythological tradition,Professor

Kirk comments thus: ‘That Greek myths were infected by Near

Eastern themes is of very great importance. Not only because it casts

a faint glimmer of light on the development of Greek culture

and ideas in their formative stage, but also because it makes it

easier to isolate the specifically Hellenic contribution, the particular

intellectual and imaginative ingredients that made Greek civilization

such a very different phenomenon from those of western Asia

and Egypt.’17

As yet we are only imperfectly aware of the specific ways in which

social and cultural forces helped shape Homeric tradition. But

greater attention to the links across the wine-dark sea may well contribute

significantly to Homeric scholarship in the future—as we see

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increasingly how the poet adapted,moulded,and transformed a vast

range of disparate material into a coherent, compelling narrative,

giving it a character and status which led to its position as one of the

great masterpieces of Greek artistic achievement.

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