Portentous Birds Flying West: On the Mesopotamian Origin of Homeric Bird-Divination

in Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions
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Abstract

Drawing on the Akkadian omen series Šumma Ālu and its predecessors, this essay argues for a Mesopotamian origin of Homeric bird-divination. Against the suggestion of Högemann and Oettinger that Greek bird-divination has its closest parallels with Hittite bird-divination, I argue that both in its function as a tool for divination and in its specific content, Homeric bird-divination, if not all such ancient Greek divination, finds much closer parallels in Mesopotamian divination traditions than it does in Anatolian traditions. I suggest that the late 8th century B.C.E. and the decades before and after 1200 B.C.E. represent two periods when conditions were particularly ripe for the introduction of Mesopotamian bird-divination into the Aegean and that itinerant diviners, perhaps in the employment of armies, were the most likely conveyors of this particular form of divination.

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References

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3

West 1997: 46, 47, n. 198, 49 and more recently reiterated in West 2011: 85. Citing West 1997, Collins (2002: 11) has also alluded to the Near Eastern origins of Greek bird-divination. Bremmer (1993: 153) suggested that more work needs to be done on the subject. See also Burkert (1992: 56), who hints at such a relationship. But compare Burkert (1985: 112) where he suggests an Indo-European tradition as the origin or Greek bird-divination in general and Homeric bird-divination in particular.

6

See Hainsworth 1993: iii, 340. Ὄρνις is often taken to mean bird-omen here and elsewhere.

10

Hainsworth 1993: iii, 341. But in what is likely a reflex of this part of the omen an ominous snake not only eats a bird’s young but the bird (this time a sparrow) itself in Il. 2:8–20.

14

See Heessel 2007, 3 for the latest enumeration.

22

De Zorzi, 2009: 94. My discussion and translation of BM 108874 is based on De Zori’s (2009) text, translation, and extensive commentary. I thank Ann Guinan for bring this paper to my attention.

24

Moren and Foster 1988: 279–80.

34

K.2848+:16–17; Oppenheim 2009: 199, 203.

36

Bremmer 1999: 55.

47

Wittkower (1939) is still a useful summary of the occurrence of snake/eagle symbolism of which many examples were known in the 1930s. He discusses Il. 12:200–209 on page 308.

52

Högemann and Oettinger 2009: 17. They are, of course, correct concerning the absence of Egyptian bird-divination.

53

Huehnergard 2005: xxiii.

54

Line 28; Greenstein and Marcus 1976: 62–63, 67, 78. On the date of this inscription, see Na’aman 1976. Oppenheim (1977: 371, n. 39) suggested that Alalakh tablet 335 (ATT/39/12) referred to bird-divination. Perhaps more to the point is Alalakh tablet 281 (ATT 39/103) where an ušandum, (bird catcher) likely kept birds for solicited divination. See Wiseman 1953: 12, 88.

56

McEwan 1981: 62, n. 29. See Moran 1992: 108. On the absence of indigenous bird-divination in Egypt see Brunner 1977: 45–46.

60

Beal 2002: 65–73. On Hittite ḪURRI-bird-divination, see in addition Kammenhuber 1976: 11 and Archi 1975: 139–50. There are also ḪURRI-birds in the protases of several omens in series Šumma Ālu (Tablet 66, omens 3 and 4 [CT 39.23:3–4], for example). These lines break off in the middle of their protasis. Neither the complete protases nor any of the apodoses are known. However, these omens are beyond doubt in the Mesopotamian tradition rather than the Anatolian tradition.

62

A.222:14–15. Durand 1997: 468–69, letter 229. On iṣṣūr ḫurri meaning “partridge” in this letter, see CAD I, 207–8, and Durand 1997: 38.

65

Dillon 1996: 105. Also see Dillon and Garland 1994:358 (12.19). Pritchett (1979: 3, 103) offers a similar translation of the inscription.

66

Lonsdale 1979: 152–33. See also Roth 1982: 96–7.

72

López-Ruiz, 2010. López-Ruiz’ work stands in a long tradition of scholarly and popular book length works that have enjoyed varying degrees of success. Examples include Gordon 1965; Astour 1967; Burkert 1992; Burkert 2004; and West 1997. Other recent contributions to the discussion include, among many others, Morris 1997; Bremmer 1993; West 2000; Larson 2005; Lange 2007; Rutherford 2009; and more recently Louden 2011. I thank an anonymous JANER reviewer for pointing out López-Ruiz 2010. The migration of the practice of hepatoscopy from Mesopotamian to the Aegean may have taken any one of the east west paths that I will discuss below. See Burkert 1992: 46–53. As the anonymous JANER reviewer pointed out, the literary genre of cosmogonies may well have followed a route from Mesopotamia to the northern Levant to the Greek world. See López-Ruiz especially (2010: 171–202).

76

West 1997: 587–630; quotation from 587. The reader would do well to consider all the options offered by West and others.

77

Kirk 1985: 1–2.

78

Kirk 1985: 16. Kirk develops this conclusion from the synthesis of a set of external and internal evidence. Any single piece of his evidence if taken in isolation would be inclusive.

79

West 2011: 19. See also B. Heiden 2008.

80

Lanfranchi, 2000: 11–22. Much of Lanfranchi’s evidence comes from a badly broken royal inscription of Sargon II (Fuchs [1994: 109–110], specifically lines 117 to 120). Sargon II is the same Assyrian ruler whose name occurs in the dating formulae of several tablets of canonical Šumma Ālu. As Lanfranchi, 14–15, indicates, there is some controversy over the identification of KURia-ú-na-a-a but “Ionians” remain the most probable identification. One might identify these Ionians “who dwell in the midst of the sea” with Cypriots (see “Cyprus Stele, VAS 1:71:44) but Cyprus was consistently called Yadnana in Sargonic texts. See also Braun 1982: 14–16. van Dongen (2007: 34–35) argues that the Neo-Assyrians used the gentilic “Ionian” in a broader and less specific way than did the Greeks themselves. Even if van Dongen is correct, this vector is still possible with only a minor modification—Assyrian to Ionians (as “pirates from the west”) to Ionians (as the Greeks thought of them) to Homer.

82

ND 2715; Saggs 1955: #12, 127–30. On this attack and the role of Greek speaking mercenaries in the eastern Mediterranean, see Luraghi 2006: particularly 30–32.

83

Matthäus 1993.

85

Lanfranchi, 2000: 17–21.

86

West 1997: 5–16; see the Cyprus Stele, VAS 1:71:31–44. Or, as López-Ruiz (2010:1–47) argues, Phoenician/Levantine mediation is also certainly possible.

87

For example, if Janko (1996) is correct that the date for a fixed text for the Iliad is c. 775–750 B.C.E., a more complex transmission vector is nearly certain.

90

Among recent works, Yasur-Landau (2010) provides the most complete and sustained argument for Aegean origins of the Sea Peoples.

92

See Singer 1999: 603–733.

93

van Soldt 1995. See also Carr 2005: 53–56.

94

van Soldt, 2001 and Cohen 2004.

98

See Muhly 1992: 10–26, and his references.

99

See particularly Burkert, 1992.

100

Nagy 1996: 110–112.

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