The Greek Myths

William Harris, Prof. Em. Middlebury College

Chapter 9: Near Eastern Influences

Many of the Eastern influences which helped to shape the developing Greek world are obvious. There are no periods in which some Egyptian influence, whether artistic models or actual imported objects, is not present. The great antiquity of the Mesopotamian and Indus Valley Civilizations, which predate activity in Greece by as more than two thousand years, points to a slowly moving westward progression of the basic ingredients of civilization, e.g. agriculture, animal breeding, social regulation and the keeping of some sort of written records. There are many other connections which are possible but problematic, some quite unprovable at the present state of our historical knowledge, and others which serve merely to tickle the imagination.

The name of Agamemnon is linguistically intriguing. It seems to be a compound of the prefix '-aga-' (from 'mga-' a reduced grade of mega "big"; the sonant -m- gives Greek -a- regularly), combined with the proper name Memnon, the leader of the Ethiopians fighting for the Trojans. He is the son of Tithonos and Eos, both Eastern, dawn-associated names. Memnon was a name also associated with Egypt, but why a Greek king should be called "The Great Memnon" is not at all clear. If the Trojan War involved not only Greece and Troy, but also Egypt, that would certainly cast a different historical light on the Iliad. We might compare the interesting, but highly theoretical views which compare Oedipous to Ikhn-aton, the Egyptian monotheist and religious reformer. In short, Agamemnon's name suggest eastern affinities, but we cannot pursue the matter further at this time.

Cadmos, the son of Agenor, King of Phoencia, was sent to find his sister Europa who had been abducted by Zeus. (This story has been discussed before in Chapter 3.) At Delphi, where he had wandered, he was told to follow a cow and build a town where she stopped, which he did and so founded Thebes. Here in a simplified form is an abridgment of what must have been a lengthy set of relations between Greece and the Semitic Near East. This story comes later than the introduction of the cow into Europe under the name of Europa, apparently in a second generation, the westward traveler retraces a prior line of animal import, and finding cows wandering free in an unpopulated countryside, he add the next element of Near Eastern life, and he builds a city. The sequencing of events seems to represent the time scale of a developing country, the first level breeds animals and pastures them in the open grasslands; the second level is the settling of rising population in fixed residences, which becomes a small city or polis.

Cadmos killed a dragon at Thebes, sowed the teeth as seeds, which produced armed men fighting among themselves, which sounds like a reflection on the barbarism of the autochthonous pre-Cadmean natives. The statement that he "produced" population out of the ground, like vegetables, points to the speed of the rise of population of Thebes. As soon as a good source of animal meat is available, population tends to grow geometrically, especially if the location is not a crossroad of trade route, which brings in disease against which the people have no resistance. Thebes at an early period fulfils both these conditions.

Cadmus is a civilized man, he brought "letters" from Phoenicia to Greece, which is recorded in the Semitic names of the letters of the Greek alphabet (e.g. Gr. beta : Hebr. beth, Ar. baita "a house", but a "letter" without specific meaning in Greek). Note that the triconsonantal root 'k-d-m' in Phoenician means "east", identifying Cadmus' origins cryptically in his name. According to Homer Odysseus stole the "letters" from Cadmus, and said that he had invented them, following dutifully the thievish manner of his father-in-law Autolycos.

This hero has clear Near Eastern origins, and must date from a very early period in the historical record, the time of cow importation across the Bosporos ("cow-crossing) from Asia Minor into Europe. Carbon dating of sites which show bovine skeletal remains may ultimately give us more information about the dates of the domestication of cows in Europe, failing this we have only the myths to guide us..

The story of Palamedes, which dates from the Trojan War, is an study in the depths of deceit which Greek civilization was beginning to experience. Palamedes was a clever man who was said to have invented some of the letters of the Greek alphabet, presumably the special phonemes which the Greek language required in addition to the letters borrowed from the Phoenician alphabet. If it is true that Cadmos imported the letters as they were in Phoenician, then Palamedes must be given the credit of being the first practical phonetician in the West. He is also was credited with the invention of checkers (called "draughts" in England, "Les Dames" in French and "Damenspiel" in German), but we know that the game was far older, since Egyptian tombs from at least as early at the middle of the second millennium B.C. have checkerboards and some pieces. This is confirmed by Plato's remark that the game was invented by the Egyptian Thoth. The game was well known in archaic Greece, Homer mentions it at Odyssey 1.107 as played by Penelope's suitors. Further devices ascribed to this prolific inventor included standards for weighing, dice, the discus and lighthouses.

The history of Palamedes starts at the time when Odysseus feigned insanity to avoid being "drafted" into the army against Troy, when he is revealed in his malingering by Palamedes. At the time of the Trojan War, Odysseus forged a letter sent to Palamedes which purportedly came from Priam, offering gold for information and action which would betray the Greeks. Gold was arranged to be hidden in Palamedes' tent, the Greeks found it there, they were furious and ordered Palamedes to be stoned to death. Later, when the war was over, Palamedes' father Nauplius put out false lighthouse signals off his island of Euboea, to entice the home-bound Greek fleet onto the dangerous rocks. If lighthouses were in fact Palamedes' invention as was claimed, this would indeed be poetic justice exercised by the father for the sufferings of his son.

Note that Odysseus and Palamedes are exact geographical opposites, Odysseus comes from a rough and rocky little island off the west coast of mainland Greece, while Palamedes is from Euboea, that rich and fertile island to the east of the mainland, known for its grains, fruit and large populations under its semi-mythical king Alcmaeon. With an almost Toynbeean historical vengeance, the man from the hard land wins out against the man from the better agricultural country, but from the beginning they are destined geographically to be bitter enemies.

Here as often in Greek prehistory, inventing new and useful things seems to disturb society, and the inventor, whether Ixion with his wheel, Philoctetes with his bow, or Palamedes with his literacy, is destined to meet a bad end. Since the so-called inventions of Palamedes are considerably older than Homer's actual time and even older than the later Minoan-Mycenean period, we may assume that the Greek in the period which Homer describes (exactly what this period is remains unclear, it may range from l275 B.C. down to his own time in the eighth century) is already moving away from the stage of creation and invention, and becoming much more interested in the social and at times anti-social skills which merchandising requires. It is easy to side with Palamedes against Odysseus, which is what the later Classical world did, but Odysseus does represent a new strain in the Greek entrepreneurial mind, and one which has, in one way or another, dominated the Western world ever since. With the development of manipulative commercial skills, honor gets quickly shuffled off , and the winner, however ignominious, becomes the hero, while the loser never seems heroic. Achilles was the prototype of that old model of strong character in the Iliad, but now in the Odyssey it is time to project an image of the "new man", Odysseus, for whom effectiveness replaces honor. The sad thing is that it will always take Palamedes-types to invent the things which society needs, but it will be the Odyssean people who get the credit and profit.

It seems odd that since Palamedes was one of those who developed the Greek writing system, that it should be a (forged) "letter" from Priam which betrays him, so that he is caught by means of the very contrivance which he had developed. This would imply that as early as the pre-Homeric period there is already a distrust of the writing and the literate man, the intellectual and the "egg-head", and it seems that the public can better trust the man of action and affairs.

The phallus has a certain ritual signification in Greece, it is associated with Dionysos, Hermes, Pan and strangely even with Demeter as representative of land-fertility, but above all it is the specific organ of Priapus, the god of growing wood and living trees. Compared with the extended ritual use of the 'lingam' in India, the Greek use is small. Any serious attempt to see further into its original, basic meaning must be connected with a detailed study of the history of the lingam in several millennia of Indic usage. Nothing could be further from the Indic tradition than the phallic poems put together in the first century B.C. by the clever versifier of the little Latin collection titled "Priapea", which relegates the role of Priapus to witty obscenities in a gentleman's garden-orchard. At the time this little volume appeared the Romans were facing a major failure of the birthrate, as is witnessed by the tax exempting "law of three children". Transferring sexual symbols from life and nature to light and witty literature indicates that something is going wrong in the society. On the other hand India incorporated sex and the lingam into its traditional religious consciousness, and ever since has faced chronic overpopulation. These inverse phenomena point to the actual force which religious and philosophical tenets can sometimes have in the history of a nation.

A story about the great Deluge, well known from the Old Testament chronicle of Noah, is noted peripherally in the tale of an aged country couple, Philomon and Baucis, who received Zeus and Hermes into their simple home with courtesy, while the rich failed to offer guest-ship to the disguised travelers. The cult of Zeus Xenios, in ancient times was thought to originate in Crete, which was an important crossroad stop between Greece and the Near East. Hospitality was important to Hellenes as a religious observance, but it was also a social necessity. In a world without hotels, inns, motels and hostels, travel would be inconceivable were it not for the rule of "universal hostelry" which the cult of theic-ordained hospitality provides. Since essentially everyone who is unknown may be a deity appearing in disguise, the only way to please Zeus is to receive all travelers with equal hospitality. Philemon and Baucis are rewarded for their piety by being saved from the flood. It is interesting that a story based on early hospitality rites is inserted into the same framework of time as the great Deluge, which is now generally regarded as a historical happening. This is tentative dating, but it indicates that the flood occurred at a period in which there was already considerable traveling, enough in fact to make a regular hospitality rite mandatory.

There are few clues to work with in searching for an etymological base for the personal name Deucalion, the son of Prometheus, other than a gloss in the Etymologicon Magnum which mentions the verb 'deukei', "he sees" and another in Hesychios "he thinks, considers". If "thought" was part of D.'s name, it was parallel to the folk-etymology of his father Prometheus, whose name was taken by Greeks to mean " he who thinks ahead (manthano)", as against his brother Epimetheus "hindsight". When Zeus decided to wipe the earth clean of man by a flood, Deucalion did think things out ahead, he built an "arc" or boat just as Noah did, and escaped with his wife Pyrrha. To repopulate the world, they tossed stones belonging to Mother Earth over their shoulders, thus he generated men by his action and she women by hers. Their son Hellen was the founder of the Hellenic people.

This story confirms the Old Testament account of the flood, which is also known from other Near Eastern accounts, to the extent that many historians now believe there actually was a flood of vast proportions in this part of the world. But flooding is more suitable to the low-lying Mesopotamian areas than to mountainous Greece, and presumably the story about Deucalion took place before he migrated to the Greek mainland. We seem to have two separate stories which have been conflated, one about a Noah-like salvation from the flood by means of a boat or raft, the other about entry into a new and rocky land which was bare of inhabitants. Such a story must be earlier than the Minoan-Mycenean civilization which had already populated Greece fully before 2000 B.C., perhaps the casting of stones is a reminiscence of men of the earlier period, stone-age men who had vanished leaving only stones behind them. The Devil taunts Jesus in the desert by advising him to ask God (if he were really his father), to made bread our of the stones on the desert floor. Stones may have seemed to be a germinative core out of which things in general were born, possibly in the light of finding fossil animals in stones which were split open; if a stone were like an ovary to a fossil animal, perhaps they generated life by themselves.... Outlandish as this sounds, we know that in the first century A.D. Pliny assumes that wasps and bees are generated by carrion meat, and as late as the l5th c. spontaneous generation of insects and even weird little "homunculi" was assumed to come from manure. We certainly don't have then answer, but we seem to have a real problem fairly well isolated.

Prometheus, who has been discussed before in various roles, is the semi-divine personage who was said to have fabricated mankind out of clay. When Zeus became enraged with men and deprived them of fire, Prometheus stole fire from Hephaistos in heaven and gave it to men, thus incurring Zeus' eternal wrath. The work of the potter always demands fire. Clay like man, is earthly and available everywhere, but fire comes from heaven in the form of lightning, hence it is the property of Zeus. Prometheus needs more than clay if he is going to make durable products so he "steals" fire, and therefore must be punished. A society like the Minoan-Mycenean, which early in the second millennium B.C. had created the complexities of organized administration, would understand the meaning of this punishment. The linguistic connections with the Sanskrit family name Pramanthas have been discussed elsewhere, and need not be repeated here. But the fact that so basic a myth as that of Prometheus should be directly connected with the fire-worshipping priests of the Indic cult of Agni the Fire-God, even down to the actual names of the priestly class, indicates an Eastern origin to this myth. Perhaps we should go further, and search for traces of Eastern origins of pottery as a craft, perhaps in the Indus Valley Civilization. Beyond that there may be a transfer of some special aspect of the use of fire, such as the easy generation of "new" fire, rather than preservation of hot coals for future use in the ancient manner.

The story of Europa and the bringing of cows and cow-breeding first to Crete and later to the rest of Greece has been discussed in detail in Chapter 3; a sequel to the story has been discussed above in relation to Cadmos and the founding of the city of Thebes in according with a cow-omen. The important parts of the argument need not be repeated here, but it should be summarily noted that since cows and bulls in Crete are clearly described in the myths as coming from Tyre, and since we know of bovines in the Near East at a much earlier time, we can unequivocally state that cow-breeding was an Eastern practice which came at a late date to Greece via Crete.

The god Dionysos, also called Bacchos and known by various other ritual names, is supposed to have been a Thracian deity, but he is not listed in the Homeric cycle of divinities, and is generally thought to have come from the East, although the seventh Homeric Hymn tells the story of his miraculous apparition to the pirates who were abducting him in the Adriatic Sea, which is west of Greece. Since in the historical period piracy was common along the Western coasts and up into Epiros, this may have reformed an earlier story of the god's sea-journey from the East. The ancient Greek sources unanimously state that Dionysos came to Greece from the East, and we have no reason to doubt their word, although we cannot point to a similar wine-and-ecstasy cult in any of the older eastern religions.

One of his names, Lyaios, would seem to come from the verb 'lu-' which means "loosen, let loose" and this function, performed with the drinking of wine is central to his ritual, along with ecstatic dancing and flagellation with the 'thyrsos', a rod with a sharp pine-cone tied to the tip. Accompanied by men and women in various states of self-induced trance like hyper-activity, he provides for large numbers of men and especially for women an emotional release from emotional repression through his psychologically liberating services. Similar release mechanisms under the name of religion and dance are found in many parts of the world, but the rule of Dionysos was especially needed in later Greece because of the tight hold with which the intellectual processes of organized thought, often called the Apollonian mind, controlled society at large. Intellectuals in the Greek upper classes were not likely to be moved by prophets with the ring of ecstasy employed by Dionysos, yet even such a lofty moralist as Sophocles had apparently entered the Dionysiac cult, and the Bacchic rituals were practiced throughout the Greco Roman world until the middle of the second century B.C., when the Roman Senate outlawed them. The Bacchai of Euripedes is a magnificent portrayal of the Bacchic mind, staged vis a vis the cool and rational thinking of the critical Pentheus, who must pay for his doubt with his life.

All this seems so near to what Jung has isolated as the world of the unconscious mind, that modern readers are likely to see in Dionysos the genuine precursor of Jungian thought. Exactly what all this means in terms of Greek society is not clear, the ancients were not aware of distinction among parts of the mind, and Socrates is an isolated instance of one man identifying something like the Freudian superego in his doctrine of the 'daimon'. Yet the Dionysian cults, widespread and popular as they were for century upon century, must have touched something central to human consciousness. Eliciting parallels to Jung's thought,in the last analysis, does no harm, especially if taken with a few grains of salt. Things which are similar may not be identical in different cultures, it is only when we try to press our identities too hard that we get into trouble.

The demi-god Silenus, often referred to as Sileni in the plural, is, like the Satyrs with whom he shows some general similarities of personality if not form, associated with the cult of Dionysos. What did Silenus look like? Socrates was described as looking like a Silenus, and had a short, snubbed nose, round face, and atypical Greek features. (Compare this to the regular portrayal of Apollo, who is the very model of upper-class Hellenic good-looks.) One could then ask, where would a person with these Silenus-Socrates features come from? The physical anthropologist can best answer this question, working closely with an historian knowledgeable about the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean and Eastern world. Since Silenus is ancillary to Dionysos, and Dionysos is said to have been brought to Greece from the East, there should be Eastern candidates for the portraiture of Silenus. This problem is aided by the large number of Greek sculptural portrayals of Silenus, although they tend to follow a stereotype.

Proteus is in many ways most ungraspable of the Greek diesels. Herodotos and Euripides regarded him as an early Egyptian king, which would be the same as an Egyptian deity. He knows all, and has the ability to transform himself into any shape that he wishes, so that the aggressive Greek heroes have a real problem trying to pin him down, so that they can kill him. This changing of shape is the stock characteristic by which Proteus is known in Greek mythology, but he is probably much more mystical than the factual tone of the Greek stories indicate. His Egyptian associations indicate that he is part of an older, Eastern tradition, and this is borne out by several parallels to the Indic materials. In the document called the Devimahatmya, a wondrous goddess named Devi is described who will route out evil, specifically the demon Mahisha, who lurks in the form of the huge and vicious water-buffalo. When she attacks him, he turns into a lion, when she beheads him, he appears as a hero armed with a sword. She shoots him with a volley or arrows, he appears again as an elephant and grasps her with his trunk, which she deftly severs. Now he returns to his special shape, the gigantic water-buffalo, tearing up mountains, roaring horribly. (She pauses, drinking the divine liquid of the life-force brew 'soma',possibly a hallucinogenic intoxicant suitable for such a kaleidoscopic moment). Dashing down on the buffalo's neck, she spears him mortally, but there appears from the dying monster's mouth, half in and half out, a hero with a sword. She beheads him in this intermediate state, and the contest is over.

Since this myth exists both in the Indic tradition, and in a story which portrays a similar changing of form in Greece, which incidentally is labeled as having an Egyptian origin, it may be assumed that the Greek story is in some part influenced by Eastern religious mythology. Much of the tale is changed, but the theme of an evil force that can change shape at will to avoid being cornered, is identical to the basic story of Proteus, and again we are encouraged to seek meaning for Greek myths in the Indic materials.

Since Pythagoras was born at the beginning of the sixth century B.C., he is just an historical figure, yet he has all the marks which go into the making of a mythico-historical personality. He travels for many years in the East, absorbs or invents the doctrine of reincarnation, and establishes a rigorous code indicating what things are good and what are bad for men. He proposes the theory that the earth is of a spherical shape, he investigates the magic of numbers, saying that "number comes first, next come words and names... ". He defines the length of the hypotenuse on a right angled triangle as equal when squared to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, by which "magical" treatment of numbers and figures which he has invented, he makes the subsequent art of trigonometry possible. He says mystical things about numbers, about the number ten, and about a pyramid of dots in four tiers of which the sum of dots was this very magic number. One thinks of the Gordian knot as a primitive demonstration of complex topological relationships, but versed in a figure rather than numbers. Pythagoras has the same kind of investigating mind, but he goes farther and leaves a long shadow in the Western world.

Founding a school-monastery in southern Italy, he performs a roster intellectual of feats, corresponding to the Labors of Heracles, which the wise man should know. In an earlier world he would have been recognized as a man or hero of extraordinary powers, in the Christian world he would have been sainted or burned alive, but located as he is at the edge of the historical curtain, Pythagoras cannot be taken as a hero, but is just a philosopher. Using him as a terminus post quem, we know that by that time the Heroic Age is clearly dead.

Aesopos (Aesop) is such a familiar figure that we are likely to forget his  extra-Hellenic connections The Roman Phaedrus and the Greek Babrios handed down his style of storytelling, which in the modern world has developed into a vital and widespread genre. But Aesop himself is described as being a non-Greek, actually one with dark face ('aitho-+ -ops' "burned face"), which some have incorrectly taken to mean Ethiopian, but the shade of the dark-skinned southern Indians is perfectly suitable for the term 'aithops'. His tales go back without question to the storytelling cycles of ancient India, to the Hitopadeca or "Book of Friendly Instruction", the Panchatantra or "Five Threads of Myth", as well as other similar collections, which have stories of exactly the same form and often the same materials, always involving animals as protagonists. If we follow Herodotos, who says that Aesop lived in the middle of the 6th century B.C., we must assume serious cultural contact between Greece and India at that date. It is possible that a lone wandering minstrel may have penetrated Greece with his materials, but since there are other Indic-style traits in Greece (Heracleitos, Pythagoras, and even the later Plato), it seems better to assume a general process of east-west contacts in this period.

Icarios, an ancient native of Attica, entertained Dionysos with hospitality, and in return received from the god knowledge of wine, both its making and its use. Giving this new gift of the god to the country people in his area, he was killed by them when they became inebriated, which involves a certain amount of poetic justice. Greek use of wine dates from very ancient times. It was found that grape juice when fermented produced a stable food-product, which could be stored for long periods in clean jars from which air was excluded. The alcohol level of natural wines is about ten or eleven percent, at which concentration the yeasts are rendered ineffective by the alcohol. (Modern sherries and other "fortified" wines are raised to 20% alcohol by adding distilled spirits, a process unknown in the ancient world.) Faced with various kinds of water contamination, the Greeks soon saw that limited use of wine was healthier than drinking raw water, especially if the wine was mixed with two or three parts of water and allowed to stand for a while. The Greeks always mixed wine with water, considering drinking it "straight" to be too strong for anything but heavy drinking parties. Their tolerance to alcohol must have been far different from that of today's Western peoples, to whom watered wine would probably seem more of an emetic than an intoxicant. We know that people who have not been in contact with alcoholic drink often show exaggerated reactions, for many years it was prohibited by law for Canadians to give whiskey to Indians, and it has been stated that Orientals become intoxicated on smaller amounts of alcohol than their Western counterparts. It seems reasonable that individuals should develop a tolerance to alcohol by frequent use, but there seem to be no reasons to posit a genetic change in a given ethnic group over the very short period of a century or two. Removal of those who show no tolerance by classing them as delinquents and social misfits would be the only way to explain such group changes.

The rituals of Dionysos-Bacchos would seem to stem from an early time, perhaps near the discovery of how wine was made and what effects it had on humans. When it is discovered that inebriation produces not only disorientation, but also uncloaks the part of consciousness which we now call the "unconscious mind", someone is likely to see the great power involved in the exploitation of the drinking process. It can release pent-up emotions, especially in women who had little of the normal social outlets available to men. It can break through artifice and sham, and tell the "truth", as many modern drugs are assumed to do (e.g. sodium amydol etc.), in fact the Greek proverb says "wine is the keyhole into the soul" (actually "oinos dioptron", which is a different phrase but with similar meaning) At a time when people are becoming more and more involved in social reality, and fail to connect with the religious usages of their ancestors, inebriation can instill in the individual a sense of the spiritual and the divine. "Soma" in the Vedic texts was said to have operated in this way. Gordon Wasson and Levi-Strauss have felt that soma was a mushroom extract with hallucinogenic properties, but the exact active alkaloid is immaterial, it is the process is that is important. Use of peyote among Native Americans in a rite called Peyotism has entirely religious and ethical uses, and reestablishes the contact between the individual and his god. Such was surely the function of the Dionysiac cult, which used wine as the psychagogic agent.

It must be recalled that similar reactions can be obtained by self-hypnotism, which for millennia has been the way to the truth in India. In the last analysis it is the way and not the means which is critical. Our typically Western error would seem to focus too much on the technique of the rite, and not on its purpose. It has been more natural for our society, until very recently, to see the Dionysiac rituals as disorganizing, as the Romans disapprovingly saw them, and miss their spiritual quality, which we now see as stemming from the Jungian psychological theory of the unconscious mind.

It is interesting to note that Icarios dies a violent death by getting too close to a powerful deity (Dionysos) without really understanding him, while the winged Icaros (the name is clearly related, even down to the long -i-) suffers a similar lethal fate by approaching the sun on simulated wings. It would seem that in the earlier period the gods kill those who come too near to them, by way of distinguishing men from deity. There is a curious suitability to Icarios being killed by those very intoxicated people to whom he gave wine, since the giver of the gift was unaware of the depth of its effects. The more we understand about the erratic and deteriorative effects of habitual use of alcohol, the better we can appreciate this prophetic bit of medical justice.

Adonis, an especially handsome youth, was born from a woman named Myrrha (Smyrna?) and her own father Cinyras, king of Cypros. If his name comes from Phoenician 'kinnor' "harp", we have a clearly defined Eastern connection. (One thinks of the Cycladic seated harper in the Athens National Museum as a visual example.) Adonis was killed hunting, and Aphrodite, who loved him, turned his blood into a flowering red bloom. He was then claimed by her and also by Persephone for the underworld, and is thus a symbol of renewed life in the vegetative cycles well attested in Near Eastern thought from Syria to Egypt.

Other aspects of the story of Adonis, which concern the role and fate of a serious of handsome young hunters, has been dealt with in Chapter 1 and need not be repeated in this context.

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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College