Friday, July 27, 2012

Greece, Egypt, and the Near East

Today a dwindling body of intellectuals stubbornly upholds the supremacy of ancient Greece as the unique progenitor and eternal paragon of Western Civilization. Indeed, for some of these latter-day Hellenophiles the term “Western Civilization” is redundant; for them, there are no other civilizations worthy of the name.

These partisans of the “Greek miracle” tend to pass over very quickly the more unsavory aspects of the Hellenic legacy. For example, slavery was universal in ancient Greece and misogyny was rampant.

Oh. but what about democracy? Indeed. Let us look at the matter without rose-colored glasses. Wherever it existed, ancient Greek democracy was much too elitist to meet modern standards. Participation was limited to free-born male citizens, excluding the majority of the population from having any say. Moreover, democracy, such as it was, flourished for relatively brief periods in but a few city states. The default settings for Greek city states were oligarchy and tyranny, two institutions that retain an unmistakably repellent aura.

Then there is the influence of Greek classical art at various periods of Western culture. Sometimes, as in the Renaissance, this archetype has been beneficial, but all too often recourse to formulaic Grecian classicism has yielded dreariness and deadness. A recent and lamentable example is the styrofoam backdrop the Democrats unwisely chose for their Denver Convention.

With regard to Greek art and its ostensibly perennial verity, here is what the noted art critic Robert Hughes wrote about a 1993 exhibition:

“It must be said, straight off, that The Greek Miracle: Classical Sculpture from the Dawn of Democracy, now at the National Gallery in Washington . . . is a very odd show. . . . Insofar as an exhibition can assemble great sculpture and have practically no scholarly value, this one does.
“The reason is that The Greek Miracle is an exercise in political propaganda, and has to embrace stereotypes that no classicist today would accept without deep reservations. First, the exhibit wants to indicate how Greek sculpture changed in the classical period, by showing its movement from the frontal, rigid forms of 6th century B.C. kouroi, whose ancestry lay in Egyptian cult figures, to the more naturalistic treatment of balance and bodily movement one sees in works such as The Kritios Boy (circa 480 B.C.), which was found on the Acropolis. And it demonstrates this in considerable detail, through marvelous examples of 5th-century sculpture . . .

“As an orientation course for those who don't know much about classical Greek sculpture . . . this show ought not to be missed. But neither should its second premise be taken seriously: the idea that there was some causal connection between the advent of the classical style in sculpture and that of democracy in Athenian politics. Both happened at roughly the same time: in the late 6th century an Athenian aristocrat, Kleisthenes, made an alliance with the people of Athens in order to defeat another noble, Isagoras, and pushed through a number of democratic reforms that were permanently enshrined in the Athenian constitution.

“These measures gave the vote and other rights to citizens who had not enjoyed them before, though not, of course, to slaves or women [or to the foreign-born--WRD]. But the idea that the beginnings of democracy in Athens changed the way that rituals, gods and heroes were represented is hokum: exactly the same changes of style occurred in cities, like Olympia, that were run by tyrants. The fact that modern Greeks apparently want to believe it--this being a time of superchauvinism in Greece, as in other Balkan countries--means nothing, except in the scheme of simplistic politico-cultural fantasy. You might as well claim that Abstract Expressionism was "caused" by the election of Harry Truman. Nevertheless, such is the show's political motive, and it seems a poor pretext for taking great art and jetting it to America like so many get-well cards, for the sake of political p.r.

“In its reflexive idealization, the show sets before us a notion of Greek antiquity that was conceived in the 18th century by the German archaeologist- connoisseur Johann Winckelmann and then elaborated into an all-pervading imagery through the 19th. Balance, harmony, transcendence, sublimation--all are characteristics of great classical art, but not the whole story, and not one that would have been wholly intelligible to the ancient Greeks. It is as though the organizers of this show still felt obliged to believe in the division of the world claimed by the original Athenians. Here is Hellas, populated by people. Outside, is the domain of hoi barbaroi, those who are not quite human: the superstitious Orientals, the treacherous mountain dwellers, the lesser breeds without the law. The Greeks, by contrast, stop just short of turning into marble statues of themselves--effigies of undying self- congratulation, picked up by later cultures to signify the reign of the past over the present.

“It is true that since the image of classical Greece began to lose the power it had accumulated up to the end of the 19th century, many writers have found this marmoreal stereotype insufficient. ‘How one can imagine oneself among them,’ mused the English poet Louis MacNeice, no mean classicist himself, in his 1938 poem, Autumn Journal, ‘I do not know.’ And was this antiquity a world of heroes or something more like modern Athens?

"When I should remember the paragons of Hellas I think instead of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists, the careless athletes and the fancy boys, the hair-splitters, the pedants, the hard-boiled skeptics, and the Agora and the noise of the demagogues and the quacks; and the women
pouring libations over graves, and the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastly I think of the slaves.

“No such doubts obtrude upon the archaic fantasy world set up by the writers in the catalog to this show. Slavery, as important an institution for Periclean Greece as for America's antebellum South, does not enter their vague lucubrations about the matched ‘miracles’ of Art and Democracy. For them, all is idealism, naturalism, the world of formal purity, grace and refinement. Whatever speaks of demonism, fear, magic and irrational superstition is simply swept under the carpet; and yet these were colossally important elements even in the "rational" Athens of the 5th century B.C., let alone in the rest of Greece. The naively optimistic idea expressed in Nicholas Gage's introduction, echoing a long succession of enlightened Hellenophiles from Winckelmann to Matthew Arnold, that ‘Mortal man became the standard by which things were judged and measured,’ simply does not fit the facts of classical culture. On the contrary: the Greeks of Pericles' time, like their ancestors and successors, were obsessed with the weakness of the dike that protected their social and mental constructions against uncontrollable forces. Their culture was webbed with placatory or ‘apotropaic,’ rituals, charms, and images meant to keep the demons at bay.

“This is why classical Greek sculpture, in its original form, was so very unlike the version made of it by Neoclassicists 2,000 years later, and recycled in this show. ‘No symbols or special trappings of divinity,’ writes Gage, ‘were required beyond the figure's physical harmony. The most perfect beauty, to the Greek of the 5th century, was the pure and unadorned.’ But classical Greek sculpture was neither pure nor unadorned; its decor has been lost or worn away. Were we to see it in its original state, we would find it shockingly ‘vulgar.’ All the great figures and sculpture were painted in violent reds, ochers and blues, like a seaside restaurant in Skopelos. The colossal figure of Athena inside the Parthenon was sheathed in ivory ‘skin.’ As for adornment, there were ‘real’ metal spears fixed in the hands of marble warriors, brightly simulated eyes with colored irises set in the now empty sockets of The Kritios Boy. And far from rising above anxiety, classical Greek art pullulated with horrors: snakes, monsters, decapitated Gorgons, all designed to ward off the terrors of the spirit world. One sometimes wonders if ancient Greece, more lurid than white, so obsessed with blood feud and inexpungible guilt, wasn't closer to modern Bosnia than to the bright world of Winckelmann. But you cannot put that kind of ‘classicism’ in a museum, or relate it to ‘democracy.’”

With his pungent analysis, Hughes makes a key point, one that is well known to social scientists: correlation is not causality. That is, the fact that democracy and classic art arose at the same time is no proof that there was any causal link between them.

Recently, in his book “Greek Ways: How the Greeks Created Western Civilization,” the neocon historian Bruce Thornton has attempted a rejoinder. In a nutshell, his strategy is briefly to acknowledge the shortcomings we have mentioned, and then return to extolling the good old religion. Uncontestably, he argues that some of the ideas that were necessary building blocks for the rise of Western civilization, such as that there should be a rational explanation for natural phenomena, originated with Greek thinkers. However, the discussion of slavery and misogyny shows much special pleading. Thornton also supports some outdated ideas about Greek attitudes to sexuality--ideas that have been exploded by such scholars as Sir Kenneth Dover and William A. Percy. All in all, it is too late in the day for the worshipful exclusivism of a Bruce Thornton to prevail.

To be sure, ancient Greek culture remains a considerable achievement. The poems of Homer and Hesiod, the plays of the Greek dramatists, and the philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle will always be rewarding. In the originals and in translation, these works have a cherished place in my library, and I go back to them repeatedly. Greek art offers much delight and instruction. By the same token, though, there are many things of equal value that have been produced by other high cultures in the course of humanity’s striving. I see no reason to deprive myself of Confucius and Lao-tse, of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, of the epics of Atrahasis and Gilgamesh, or of the Arthurian cycle in Old French--all things that have nothing to do with ancient Greece. The Greek element must now take its place as but one of many in the concert of cultures.

At all events, the first contention of the miraculists, that ancient Greece still provides an unrivaled paradigm for our own age, lies in tatters. What of their second assertion, namely that Greek culture is entirely autonomous and self-generating, with no dependence on the venerable societies of the ancient Near East?

At this point, we must acknowledge the entrance of Martin Bernal, a professor of government and Near Eastern studies at Cornell. The first volume of his magnum opus, entitled “Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization (The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985),” appeared in 1989.

Because of the salience of this first Bernal volume (there are now three) in the ensuing debate, it is worthwhile examining its arguments in some detail. At the outset. one needs to dispose of two common misconceptions. Bernal’s book is not about whether the Ancient Egyptians were black. Nor does he claim that Greek civilization as it exists today and became known to the Romans was a wholesale copy of Egyptian civilization, as it obviously wasn't.

In considerable detail, this first volume spells out Martin Bernal's historiographic assumption, that is, that ancient history can be seen as having been molded into specific narratives, depending on the age when that narrative was created and found its resonance. In this regard, he defines three different models or narratives, namely the Ancient Model, the Aryan Model, and his own Revised Ancient Model. He includes some suggested timelines, but basically the Ancient Model of Greeks like Herodotus indicated that in 15th century BCE, Egyptians and Phoenicians had set up colonies in Greece and the Aegean, creating Greek civilization. By contrast, the Aryan Model stipulates that civilization started with the indigenous creation of a civilization in Greece, and that there were Nordic invasions of Indo-European speakers who mixed in with the non-Indo-European speaking indigenous population (the mysterious Pelagians). Bernal's Revised Ancient Model places the Egyptian and Phoenician invasions in the 21st-19th century, pushes back the introduction of the alphabet to the 17th century (from the 9th century), while acknowledging that indeed there were Nordic invasions.

All ten chapters in this book address distinct periods and the changing perspectives and the emphasis that is put on a particular origin of history or culture, from “The Ancient Model in Antiquity” (I), through this model's transmission during the dark ages and the renaissance (II), “The Triumph of Egypt in the 17th and 18th Centuries” (III), and the beginning of “Hostilities To Egypt in The 18th Century” (IV) (a development that in Bernal’s view long preceded J.-F. Champollion's decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphic in 1822). The anti-Egyptian chill evident among European elites was not unrelated to the existing race-based slavery, colonialism. and the challenges from within Europe to the transatlantic slave trade.

Chapters V through IX deal with other topics, beginning with the “Romantic Linguistics” (V), triggered by Sir William Jones’ epochal discovery that Sanskrit is an Indo-European language (1786), and the ensuing rise of the Indian-Aryan model. “Hellenomania. 1” (VI) addresses with the rise of Greece as a fount of European civilization and ideals, championed by the German school of Wilhelm von Humboldt and Friedrich August Wolf. “Hellenomania 2” (VII) traces the migration of this trend to England in the context of the growing preeminence of the Aryan Model in the middle of the 19th century. “The Rise and Fall of The Phoenicians” (VIII) deals with the recognition of the Phoenicians and the influence of anti-Semitism, as does chapter (IX).

The book concludes with “The Post-War Situation” (X), discussing the contributions of Cyrus Gordon and Michael C. Astour--two pioneers who have been unjustly marginalized--and their reclaiming of the legacy of the Phoenicians.

Bernal’s underlying premise is that much of the current body of Greek/Western Civilization historical literature reflects the prejudices of racists who have suppressed evidence of a non-Aryan component in the origin of the Greek civilization. I confess that the term racist makes me nervous, as that charge is all-too-frequently hurled nowadays, sometimes with little foundation. Still there is no doubt that much of the appeal of the Aryan Model lies in the idea that ancient Greece was exclusively the creation of white people coming down from the North, with little contribution from their venerable brown brothers to the East and South. As will be evident in what follows, this fable of parthenogenesis is simply unbelievable.

After the appearance of Bernal’s first volume, scholars began taking sides. Afrocentrists found support for their views therein, even though Bernal takes no position on the role of sub-Saharan Africa, their center of interest. With but few exceptions, the response from classicists was outrage and disbelief. Bernal, trained in sinology, was alleged to be a poacher who had no business challenging the sacred truths so long cherished by the Classical Guild. The hysterical tone of these miraculists, who seemed incapable of weighing the evidence impartially, served only to lend substance to Martin Bernal’s allegation of the irrationality implicit in the Aryan Model.

At all events, the classical scholar Mary Lefkowitz sought to demolish Bernal through the production of two volumes. one of which she wrote in its entirely, the other being an collection of essays by Bernal’s critics. The first book, “Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History” (1996), is basically a straw-man argument. Her main target is Afrocentrism, the doctrine that civilization stems mainly from sub-Saharan (“Black”) Africa. To be sure, excesses have been committed by overenthusiastic Afrocentrists. Yet Martin Bernal is not in fact an Afrocentrist, so that most of her attack on him fails on this ground. In fact, she missed many opportunities to address his shortcomings. Even though there are evident weak spots in Bernal's exposition (a defect that is perhaps understandable with such a broad perspective), Lefkowitz often insists on attacking arguments that Bernal never actually made. Ultimately, the flaw that vitiates Lefkowitz’s campaign against Bernal stems from a simple wish to defend her turf against an impudent outsider. In her eyes his greatest sin seems to be his lack of a degree in classical or ancient Mediterrainean studies. While the matter of credentials elicits real concern, an individual’s degree is not the sum of his knowledge. This is a subject on which I have some expertise, in as much as over the years I have shifted my main interest from art history (the field in which I received my graduate training) to gay studies. To this day, academia has offered very few opportunities to pursue advanced study in the history and culture of homosexuality. To insist that one can never move from another field to this one would prevent the discipline from ever arising, a manifest absurdity. Moreover, as one writer has pointed out, “her academic snobbery on this point seems a little misplaced for someone whose own specialty does not include Egyptology or Semitic Bronze Age cultures (or even Greek Bronze Age culture).”

Together with Guy MacLean Rogers, Mary Lefkowitz edited “Black Athena Revisited” (1996). This big book, containing twenty essays reflecting several disciplines, was designed to pulverize Martin Bernal’s magnum opus. At first, it appears to do so, but over the years a good many cracks have appeared in the machinery.

In reality "Black Athena Revisited" is a very mixed bag. Some contributions are convincing, pinpointing various weak or even absurd points in Bernal's works. But some of the other essays are surprisingly flimsy or overdogmatic. Truly to devastate Bernal a stronger case would have to have been marshaled.

First, let us note some of the strong points. Jay H. Jasanoff and Alan Nussbaum sternly criticize Bernal's attempts to prove that the Greek language is heavily Egyptian. Over many generations professional linguistics have established strict criteria for the historical evolution of languages. Bernal’s amateurish excursions into this area do not meet these standards. The Egyptologist John Baines points out that Bernal's fascination with Greece is itself a social and ideological construct. Despite his strictures, Bernal tacitly accepts the "Eurocentrist" position that ancient Athens was the cradle of the West. He only wants to prove that, in turn, the cradle of Athens was northwest Africa. Robert Palter attacks the notion that Egyptian science was very sophisticated, claiming that Babylonian and Greek science was much better. It would seem that the jury is still out on this one, for it is difficult to believe that the Egyptians, who built the pyramids to very exacting standards, didn't have advanced mathematical and astronomical knowledge. In a rare departure from the uniform condemnation, Frank Yurco actually concedes some of Bernal's points. He points out that the East Mediterranean was a cosmopolitan place during the Bronze Age, with many crisscrossing cultural influences. (This point was made in considerable detail by W. Stevenson Smith as early as 1965.)

At all events, many readers (including, briefly, the present writer) were initially swept away by the double-barreled attack orchestrated by the formidable Mary Lefkowitz. In 1997 the Egyptologist John Ray pronounced that “Black Athena is dead.” Yet the ensuing decade has not borne out this dismissive judgment.

In a revealing and shocking instance of bad faith, Lefkowitz refused to allow Bernal to publish a rebuttal in “Black Athena Revisited,” her edited volume. Undeterred and unabashed, he has since rounded on his critics in a barrage of articles published in learned journals. These pieces are conveniently gathered in his book “Black Athena Writes Back: Martin Bernal Responds to His Critics” (2001).

In this collection Bernal responds to the whirlwind of criticism surrounding his work, providing additional documentation for his thesis and exposing the sometimes petty conflicts among academics. Conceding some shortcomings in his original work, Bernal bolsters his thesis with new findings. In harsh terms Bernal lambastes the hypocrisy of academics, steeped in the "cult of Europe," who only recently and grudgingly credited Egypt's contributions to Western civilization.

Bernal offers point-by-point rebuttals of, for instance, Egyptologist David O'Connor, who argues that Bernal is far too trusting of ancient literary sources; of his arch-opponent Mary Lefkowitz, a classicist who finds very little of value in his work; and of Emily Vermeule, an Aegean Bronze Age specialist, who questions Bernal's archaeological methodology. In response to Vermeule's allegations of "exaggerated sensitivity" (Bernal's words), he returns to passages from studies that he quoted in “Black Athena” as examples of scholarly racism.

With grim determination, Lefkowitz and her allies had sought to demolish Martin Bernal. In the sequel it is evident that they have failed to do so.

In closing this section, I signal an effort to reach a balanced view by a professor of Jewish studies at Georgetown University, Jacques Berlinerblau: “Heresy in the University: The Black Athena Controversy and the Responsibility of the Intellectuals” (1999). In this book the author provides a fair summary of the work of Martin Bernal (whom he apparently interviewed, permitting him to comment on various parts of the book). Berlinerblau concludes that Bernal proves that much of the body of antiquity studies produced by accredited scholars reveals serious biases. Truculently, and with not a little bad faith, Hellenophiles and their sympathizers have attempted a limited reassessment. By the same token, these scholars have shown that Bernal has made serious errors. Berlinerblau calls some of Bernal's critics to task for the vehemence of their attack on Bernal, pommeling him on facts while ignoring the larger larger points at issue. Berlinerblau praises Bernal for engaging the public in his work, maintaining that scholars should work more to became public intellectuals.

So much then for the main points of the intricate “Black Athena” controversy.

That is not the end of the matter. In the course of its development over the last nineteen years, the discussion has tended to elide two major themes: 1) what was the contribution of the visual arts (as distinct from the literary evidence that these writers habitually privilege)?; and 2) what was the role of the Semitic peoples residing in Western Asia, including the Akkadians, the Assyrians, and the Phoenicians?

As it happens, a little-known archaeological monograph addresses both of the these issues. The book is Janice L. Crowley, “The Aegean and the East: An Investigation into the Transference of Artistic Motifs Between the Aegean, Egypt, and the Near East in the Bronze Age” (1989). Employing an artistic-iconographic approach, Crowley assembles a base of 544 items, which she has carefully catalogued. Her target area is Mycenean Greece, a cultural realm that is now generally acknowledged as Greek-speaking, and therefore constituting the foundations of Greece as we know it. Her impressive list of borrowings in the visual arts includes the following: heraldic poses; antithetical groupings of human or animal figures about a center piece; symmetrical composition about an invisible median line; a hero combatting a lion or a bull; the “master/mistress of animals” (hero, god, or goddess between two animals in antithetical groupings); the sphinx; the “sacred tree,” especially as the focus of an antithetical composition, or as the object of a watering ceremony; the palm tree and palmette pattern; the papyrus plant; the rosette; the overlapping scale pattern; the convention of representing human figures in profile or with the body twisted at the waist to face the front; differentiation of male and female figures by skin color (a standard convention in Egyptian art); siege scenes with a man falling from a city wall; and hunting scenes.

The Swiss Walter Burkert probably ranks as the leading scholar today in the field of Greek religion. His “The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influences on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age” (1998) makes a significant contribution to the debate. Chronologically, his focus is deliberately narrow, for the most part relying on evidence that has long been considered secure. With these premises, Burkert convincingly displays a number of points where the Greeks, in the early Archaic Age, borrowed from the cultures around them or at least shared common beliefs or practices.

Burkert’s volume comprises three chapters, each organized around a particular class of people through whom East-West contacts occurred: craftsmen; seers/healers (workers in the sacred); and poets/singers. In this way he combines the visual and literary evidence.

Himself a Hellenist, Burkert shows no inclination to knock the Greeks off their pedestal. Instead, he seeks to help us better understand the Greeks, by presenting some aspects of their culture in a broader light and by teaching us to apply insights from other lands and peoples. In this respect his work compares with those of the English scholars Jane Ellen Harrison and E. R. Dodds.

A massive contribution to the debate is M. L. West’s "The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth" (1997), a book of 662 pages. This book is too complex to summarize here. Suffice it to say that West focuses only on the civilizations of Western Asia (sometimes known as the Levant), factoring out Egypt altogether. His evidence, it seems to me, tips the balance in favor of the Near East proper. While the contribution of Egypt remains significant (as others, especially Martin Bernal, have shown), it is outshone by the mainly Semitic cultures of Western Asia.

At this point it is best to bring this perhaps overlong examination to a close. Without attempting further to sift the evidence, I would estimate the makeup of ancient Greek civilization to reflect the following proportions: Indo-European, 35%; Near Eastern, 35%; Egyptian, 30%.

If these estimates hold, it will be seen that Bernal was basically on the right track. However, his acknowledgment of the all-important Near Eastern (mainly Semitic) strands tends to be perfunctory, and lacking in key details. These strands were almost certainly more important than the Egyptian ones, though not perhaps by much.

What should be clear, though, is that some sixty-five percent of ancient Greek culture was borrowed. The “Greek miracle” (if we are to retain this hoary term) may have been made in Greece, but the ingredients were largely imported. So massive were these imports that it is fair to say that Greek civilization could not have come into being without them. Far from being a case of parthenogenesis--that is, unaided birth--ancient Greece came about through massive foreign insemination. It could not have been otherwise.

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. 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.