That the great cultures of the Near East influenced Mycenaean and Archaic Greek culture has been amply demonstrated by the archaeological record. But did this influence extend to Greek literature? And was it recognized by the ancient Greeks themselves? In this paper I answer these two questions in the affirmative after examining two passages from Homer’s Iliad: Hera’s identification of Oceanus and Tethys as the parents of the gods (14.201) and Poseidon’s account of the division of the world through lot (15.189-193).The analysis of these passages is preceded by a methodological section on how literary parallels between these cultures can be evaluated.
That the great cultures of the Near East influenced Mycenaean and Archaic Greek culture has been amply demonstrated by the archaeological record.1 But how did this influence manifest itself? Did it extend to Greek literature? And was this influence recognized by the ancient Greeks themselves? These are some of the questions I would like to address in this article and for which I will present two test cases from Homer’s Iliad: Hera’s identification of Oceanus and Tethys as the parents of the gods (14.201) and Poseidon’s account of the division of the world through lot (15.189-193).
It has been argued, most elaborately by Martin West in his monumental book The East Face of Helicon,2 that not only the material culture of archaic Greece was permeated with Near Eastern elements, but so was its literature. However, material borrowings are, generally speaking, easier to recognize than literary adaptations. Some Near Eastern artefacts were imported into Greece in their original form: one can literally trace the metals or clay out of which they were fashioned. Literary themes on the other hand have to be turned into Greek and are subsequently adapted to fit their new contexts, so that it is often hard to say whether a similarity between a Greek and an oriental text is due to:
the sharing of a common humanity,
the sharing of a common Mediterranean culture,
the independent development of a similar idea, or
To give an example of a shared common humanity: when in Greek literature the sun is said to rise in the East, as in Mesopotamian or Egyptian literature, the similarity probably results from the fact that these peoples lived in the same world and not from any literary borrowing. By a shared Mediterranean culture I mean that these peoples have lived for millennia close to one another and must have shared practices and ideas over a long period of time.3
As a possible example of an independent development we may cite the story of the Flood, which is found not only in ancient Greece or Asia, but in many parts of the world.4 It is unlikely that these places all adopted the story from one another. Floods happen everywhere on the planet and it must have occurred to more than one people that this is a convenient way for a god to get rid of a great number of them. This is not to deny, of course, that within a certain region flood stories may affect one another, as seems to be the case with the Mesopotamian flood story influencing the account in Genesis (see below), and probably the Greek story about the flood as well.5
Most of the debate in the last thirty years or more has centred around the question whether or not there existed demonstrable adaptations: by an adaptation I mean a story or theme in Greek literature for which a Near Eastern story or theme is the most likely source, even if we have to postulate several intermediaries. But before I present my examples of what I will argue to be adaptations of Near Eastern themes in Homer’s Iliad, I have to address some further methodological questions.
When we say that the Greeks were influenced by peoples from the Near East we should specify which peoples we mean. Most likely these would have been the peoples living on the Eastern borders of the Mediterranean, such as the Phoenicians or the Anatolians.6 There was little direct contact between the Greeks and the peoples living in Mesopotamia, yet this is where most of the ancient Near Eastern literature is found.
It is not enough, however, to differentiate between the different peoples of the ancient Near East: it is also necessary to define what we mean by ‘the Greeks’. It is clear that we cannot speak of a unified Greek nation or even culture, especially in the earlier periods of Greek history.7 By ‘Greeks’ I therefore mean ‘Greek-speaking people’ (and, similarly, by Phoenicians ‘Phoenician-speaking’ people). But even if there did not exist a sense of ‘Greekness’ or a unified idea of what the Near East consisted, these Greek-speaking peoples must have been able to distinguish between traditions that were familiar to them and those that were not, even when they could not pinpoint exactly where these strange traditions came from.
One should also try to determine in which period the adaptation is most likely to have occurred. Ancient Greece was in constant contact with the Near East from the second millennium onwards. Even in the so-called Dark Ages did Greek communities maintain contact with peoples of the Near East, as archaeological finds at the site of Lefkandi in Boeotia have shown.8 It is nevertheless worthwhile to try to determine whether certain literary themes reached Greece in the Bronze Age already, in which case they had more time to be assimilated to their Greek context, or whether they reached Greece around the same time they were adapted.
Next, we should ask ourselves through what channels Near Eastern stories could have been transmitted to Greece. One way for literature to cross the language barrier, is when different peoples live in close proximity to one another, so they are motivated to learn each other’s languages. This was the case in trading posts such as Al Mina, on the south coast of Turkey, or on Cyprus, where Greeks, Anatolians and Phoenicians lived together. Foreign slaves may have been another conduit for Near Eastern tales and the knowledge of other languages. Aphrodite in the Hymn to Aphrodite presents herself as a Phrygian girl who was raised by a Greek nurse and therefore can speak Greek. Eumaeus tells Odysseus in Odyssey 15 that there was a Phoenician slave in the household in which he grew up. Such slaves could have told stories from their homeland not only to Greek children, but also to adults.9
We have to assume that Greeks got to know Near Eastern stories mainly through oral performances or retellings.10 Very few people living in Mesopotamia or the Levant were able to read texts written in cuneiform, let alone that foreign Greeks could read such texts. If one wants to use these cuneiform texts as sources for parallels found in Greek literature, one has to posit a relatively close correspondence, at least in content, between these texts and oral tales that were told in Anatolia or the Levant.11
In the case of the Gilgamesh story this can be assumed. Written versions of the epic went back to and probably coexisted with oral versions of the story. 12 Artistic representations of the story are found throughout the Near East well into the first millennium, and the Greek author Aelian could record the birth story of a certain Gilgamos (sic) in his De natura animalium in 200 CE.13 This story is not part of the cuneiform epic and Aelian or his source must have picked it up from oral stories about Gilgamesh that were still being told in the Levant in the Hellenistic or Roman period.14
If Enuma Elish also circulated in an oral version is already more debatable. This is a hieratic text that recounts the way in which Marduk, the patron god of Babylon, rose to power and shaped the world.15 It was specifically composed to be read aloud during religious festivals for Marduk at Babylon, and differs significantly from accounts about the creation of the world in other Sumerian and Akkadian sources.16 Certain aspects of the story, however, correspond closely to themes we find in the Hittite Kumarbi cycle and in Hesiod’s Theogony.17 In this case we may assume that, even if the text of Enuma Elish itself did not circulate in an oral version, it does reflect themes that could have been found in other, orally transmitted creation stories from the Near East.
This brings us to the distinction between stories and themes. Some have argued that only themes passed from one tradition to another,18 while others have emphasized the role whole narratives must have played in the transmission of stories and ideas from the Near East.19 We don’t have to choose between these two options. The close correspondence between a cluster of themes in the Hittite Kumarbi cycle and Hesiod’s Theogony strongly suggests that the divine succession story passed as a narrative from the Hittites, either through Anatolia or via Phoenicia, to the Greek-speaking world.20 This does not preclude that certain themes, such as the fight of the Olympians with the Titans, may have been added later and that other themes, such as the assembly of the gods, may be part of a much older Mediterranean koine.
The distance between the written texts we possess from the Near East and the oral versions the Greeks may have encountered has important consequences for the way we assess parallels in Greek literature. It makes little sense to point to verbatim parallels between our Greek texts and ancient Near Eastern texts, because the Greeks had no direct access to the written versions of these texts.21 We have to assume that both wording and presentation of themes differed between the oral versions that the Greeks encountered in the Near East and the written versions that we possess today. Similarly, on the Greek side, oriental stories and themes may have circulated and changed considerably before they attained their current form in the epics of Homer and Hesiod. What we are seeing is the tips of two icebergs, but what really connects these texts is the invisible flow of oral traditions under the surface.22
No wonder that it is so difficult to determine whether a certain theme in Greek literature was adapted from Near Eastern myth or not. But the fact that such borrowed themes are difficult to identify does not mean that they do not exist. Some criteria can be formulated to ascertain the level of plausibility of whether particular stories or themes are likely adaptations of a Near Eastern antecedent. I have distilled seven such criteria from earlier discussions about Near Eastern influences on Greek literature.23 One can identify an adaptation of a Near Eastern story or theme in Greek literature if:
There is a reasonable correspondence between the Greek and the Near Eastern text.
It is possible that it was transmitted orally.
It is not also part of an Indo-European tradition or attributable to common human experience.
It is quite unique and therefore unlikely to have been fashioned independently.
It occurs in isolation from other Greek traditions, which it contradicts.24
It is found together with other adaptations from the Near East.
Its Near Eastern origin contributes to our understanding of the Greek text.25
The first four of these criteria are essential. The other three are optional, but when they are met, they increase the likelihood that the adaptation is relatively recent and may constitute an allusion to a Near Eastern story.
The first and most important criterion is that there should be a reasonable similarity between the Greek and the Near Eastern texts. By this I mean that the correspondences should be clear, although, as was said, one should not expect verbatim repetitions. This criterion is obviously subjective, but it can gain plausibility if the parallel is also recognized by others, even if they do not necessarily agree that it results from adaptation.
Secondly, it should be possible for the story or theme to have been transmitted to Greece orally. This is usually the case, but not always. If a parallel is found, for example, in an early Sumerian poem and the story or theme does not reappear in later Near Eastern sources, the chances that it was part of the oral culture to which the Greeks had access are slim. Burkert cites the example of the Sumerian god Ninurta, who shares certain traits with Heracles, including the slaying of a wild bull, a stag, a lion and a seven-headed serpent, but these traits are only found in the oldest Sumerian sources. He therefore concludes that the Heracles myth probably did not borrow these elements from Near Eastern myth with the possible exception of the slaying of the seven-headed serpent, which does reappear in later Near Eastern sources and may have influenced the representation of the Hydra.26 If a story or theme also appears in Anatolian, Ugaritic, Phoenician or Hebrew sources, then the chance that Greeks could have picked up on it increases significantly.
The third criterion is that the story or theme should not also be part of another substrate of Greek culture, such as an Indo-European tradition, different from the ones attested in the Near East,27 and should not be attributable to a common humanity. At the same time, the possibility of an independent development of the same theme should be, insofar as possible, ruled out. When we are dealing with a theme that only occurs in Greek and Near Eastern sources the chances of adaptation are better than when it occurs in different traditions all over the world.
When we find a correspondence between a Greek and a Near Eastern text and we rule out parallels that are also found in other traditions or that may be derived from a common experience of the world, we still do not know whether we are dealing with a recent adaptation or with an element of common Mediterranean culture that may have been part of Greek culture for a long time. I have therefore identified three additional criteria that could indicate that an adaptation in Greek literature is relatively recent. The first one of these is the so-called argument of isolation, which applies when a story or theme stands out from its Greek context. If a parallel with a Near Eastern text contradicts better-attested Greek traditions, it is more likely to be a recent adaptation. Adrian Kelly has objected to this criterion, arguing that the fact that a theme occurs only once or very sporadically in our Greek sources, does not necessarily mean that it cannot be old and Greek.28 He is right about this, but when one finds, at the same time, a close parallel to this theme in a Near Eastern text, it does make it more likely that it was recently adapted from the Near East than when this theme is repeated often and appears to be well integrated in other Greek texts. It does not prove it, but it does make it more plausible.
The sixth criterion is the argument of association. If one finds several possible adaptations in the same passage or text, the one strengthens the other. The argument here is not so different from the one advanced in the case of intertextuality: if, for example, one can identify one clear allusion to Sappho in the poems of Catullus (e.g. his carmen 51), the chance that other parallels between the poetry of Catullus and Sappho are the result of deliberate adaptations, increases significantly.29 In this way, elements that on their own appear to derive from independent traditions may, when they occur in combination, be more likely to derive from a common source. An example of this is the story of the flood as found in the Gilgamesh epic and in Genesis.30 As we have already noted, the fact that both texts preserve a description of a great flood does not of itself say much about the possible interdependency of these two stories, since such stories are found all over the world. That only one person should survive with his family in a boat is also an element in the story that could easily have been developed independently (the sole survivor is a common feature of stories worldwide, e.g. Odysseus), but when one reads in both texts that the survivor sends out a bird to test if the waters have receded and the bird does not return after the third try, because it has found dry land, this detail is so specific that it must be based on borrowing. At the same time, this detail makes it more likely that the other, more common themes were also adopted in Genesis from an older, Mesopotamian tradition.
The seventh and last criterion asks if the Near Eastern origin of an adaptation improves our understanding of the Greek text. It raises the question, frequently asked, “how, if at all, this material might affect our interpretation of Greek literature”.31 This question entails another important one, namely whether or not the Greeks themselves were aware of any of these Near Eastern adaptations. Glenn Most famously declared that “the similarities between the Iliad and Gilgamesh or the Theogony and Enuma Elish are evident and fascinating for us, but they were quite unknown, and of no interest whatsoever, to the Greeks”.32 I am not so sure about this: we have seen that it is not unlikely that the archaic Greeks knew oral versions of these texts or could have picked up themes preserved in these texts from the Near East. Bruno Currie has argued that in some cases we must assume that not only the poets but also their audiences knew the Near Eastern traditions on which the epic poets based themselves.33 If such an assumption helps us better to understand the Greek text, it should at least be considered.
The more of these criteria are met by a Greek parallel, the greater the chances that we are dealing with the adaptation of a Near Eastern story or theme in a Greek text—but we should not be overly optimistic: even if a parallel fulfils all seven criteria, it is not possible to prove beyond argument that it constitutes an adaptation. All that can be said is that this makes it plausible. In this respect, however, the identification of Near Eastern adaptations in ancient Greek texts does not differ from most other interpretations of Greco-Roman culture.
In the following two sections I will discuss two examples from the Iliad: Hera’s reference to Oceanus and Tethys as the origin of the gods (Il. 14.201) and Poseidon’s reference to the division of the world through lot (Il. 15.189-193). I will argue that our reading of these two passages is enriched by the assumption that the audience was aware that Homer was playing with non-canonical traditions derived from the Near East.34 Since not everyone accepts that these passages draw on Near Eastern traditions, I will make an argument for this as well.
3 Oceanus and Tethys as Parents of the Gods
In Iliad 14 Hera delivers a speech to Aphrodite in which she refers to Oceanus and Tethys as the origin of the gods. Hera asks the goddess of love if she can borrow the magical waistband which endows its wearer with the power to make anyone she wants fall in love. She says that she needs it to reconcile Oceanus and his wife Tethys, who quarrel and no longer share the marriage bed, but in fact she needs it to seduce her own husband Zeus. This is what she says to Aphrodite:
Give me now love and desire, with which you subdue all immortals and mortal men.  For I am going to visit the limits of the all-nurturing earth, and Oceanus, from whom the gods are sprung, and mother Tethys, who lovingly nursed and cherished me in their halls, when they had taken me from Rhea, when Zeus, whose voice resounds afar, thrust Cronos down to live beneath earth and the unresting sea.  Them I am going to visit, and will loose for them their endless strife, for now for a long time they have been holding aloof from one another, from the marriage bed and from love, since wrath has fallen on their hearts. If by words I were to persuade the hearts of these two, and bring them back to bed to be joined together in love,  ever should I be called dear by them and honored.35
The classicist and British Prime Minister William Gladstone already compared Hera’s statement that Oceanus was the begetter of the gods and Tethys their mother with the beginning of Enuma Elish,36 where Sweet Water and Salt Water, or Apsu and Tiamat, are referred to as the first beings and parents of all the gods:
Gladstone was followed by Lesky, Burkert, Janko, West, López-Ruiz and Rollinger in drawing a parallel between this text and Hera’s speech in Iliad 14.38 Most of them agree that it is in all likelihood a recent adaptation. As I explained above, it is not very likely that Homer or his audience actually knew the text of the Enuma Elish, but it is quite possible that they had heard other theogonic accounts that started from these two deities (see below).
I am aware that Dmitri Panchenko has challenged this reading of Iliad 14.201.39 He points to the fact that Oceanus and Tethys are referred to as the parents of the rivers elsewhere in the Iliad and in Hesiod’s Theogony,40 and concludes that this is what Hera must mean in Iliad 14.201 as well. He points, among other things, to Iliad 14.244-246, a mere 44 lines after Hera declared that Oceanus was the begetter of the gods. Hera tries to persuade the god of Sleep to put Zeus to sleep after she has had sex with him, to which Sleep replies:
Hera, honored goddess, daughter of great Cronos, another of the gods who are forever would I lightly lull to sleep, even if it were the streams of the river Oceanus from whom they all are sprung; but to Zeus, son of Cronos, will I neither draw near, nor lull him to sleep, unless he himself orders me.41
I agree with Panchenko that in this passage πάντεσσι is most likely refering back to ῥέεθρα, the river springs of whom Oceanus is the father,42 just as in the Theogony or in Iliad book 21,43 but I do not agree with him that one can read the same meaning into Iliad 14.201: here Hera speaks clearly about Oceanus as the origin of the gods (θεῶν γένεσιν), not only of the rivers,44 and her reference to Tethys as ‘mother Tethys’ (µητέρα Τηθύν) as well as her intervention in the marriage of these two primordial gods strongly suggest that she wants to present them as her grandparents.
How is it possible that Homer would present two very different cosmological images of Oceanus within 50 lines? The answer to this question lies in the fact that this is not a contradiction between Homer and himself, but between two of his characters. My contention is that Homer deliberately presents Hera as stating a false cosmology. Sleep, unbeknownst to himself but in a manner recognizable to Homer’s audience, corrects Hera by stating the more common cosmological role of Oceanus as father of the rivers only. But why would Homer attribute to Hera a false cosmology?
It is significant that Hera is making her cosmological claim for Oceanus and Tethys as parents of the gods in the context of a lie.45 This is clearly indicated by the narrator when he introduces Hera’s speech to Aphrodite by stating that she spoke ‘with crafty thought’ (τὴν δὲ δολοφρονέουσα προσηύδα πότνια Ἥρη, Il. 14.197). Hera lies to Aphrodite when she tells her that she will go to Oceanus, the begetter of the gods, and she lies again when she repeats the same words to Zeus in Iliad 14.300-306. Homer signals to the members of his audience that Hera is telling a lie by having her refer to a false cosmology, one they are expected to recognize as oriental or at least foreign to their own traditions.46
If one thinks such a deliberately faulty allusion would be too subtle for a poet like Homer, I can point to the false tales Odysseus tells in the Odyssey, which are put in the mouth of a Cretan, probably because Cretans had the reputation of being liars in antiquity;47 or to Phoenix’s speech to Achilles in Iliad 9, in which he tells the tale of Meleager. Here Phoenix introduces an otherwise unknown wife of Meleager, named Cleo-patra, whose name is obviously an anagram of and an allusion to Achilles’ companion Patro-klos.48 This is how subtle Homer can get. If he can play with different Greek traditions to colour his characters, I do not see why he could not have done the same with oriental traditions.
Other arguments have been brought forward to identify the pair of Oceanus and Tethys in Hera’s speech with the oriental deities Apsu and Tiamat, notably the possible linguistic derivation of the name Tethys from Tiamat, whose name is also attested in the forms Taw(a)tu or Tamtu.49 I agree with the sceptics who have argued against this,50 but for Homer’s portrayal of the lie of Hera to work it is not really necessary that the name Tethys actually derives from Tiamat: the fact that Tethys’ name sounds vaguely like Tiamat or whatever name the goddess was referred to in the version of the tale that Homer and his audience knew, would have been enough to help the audience to understand the allusion to this oriental goddess.
Before I move on to the next allusion to a Near Eastern myth in the Iliad, I would like to go over the seven criteria that I formulated for identifying whether a Greek parallel is likely to be an adaptation from Near Eastern traditions, and see how they apply to Hera’s allusion to Oceanus and Tethys as the parents of the gods. First, there is a reasonable correspondence between the two texts, as shown by the fact that the same function is assigned to Oceanus and Tethys in the Iliad as to Apsu and Tiamat in the Enuma Elish (that of origin of the gods) and, like Apsu and Tiamat, they can be identified as sweet and salt water.51 Secondly, although Enuma Elish is unlikely to have circulated as an oral poem, it may well represent themes that also circulated in oral poetry. Aristotle’s pupil Eudemus of Rhodes knew that the Babylonians traced the origin of the gods to two figures he calls Tauthe and Apason, demonstrating that this was a recognizable Babylonian tradition to which a Greek could have access.52
There is nothing like this theme in Indo-European tradition nor does it follow logically from common human experience that one would attribute the origin of the gods to sweet and salt water. For the same reason it is not very likely that the two traditions developed independently of one another. Budelmann and Haubold have argued that Hera’s presentation of Oceanus and Tethys as parents of the gods is a “rhetorical distortion” and a “slight exaggeration” from their common description as the parents of the river gods, not necessarily based on a Near Eastern precedent.53 First of all, the exaggeration is not ‘slight’: it fundamentally changes the position of these two gods in the divine hierarchy. Budelmann and Haubold further do not explain what Hera gains from this exaggeration, especially in telling this story to Aphrodite, and I consider it too much of a coincidence that Hera’s ‘exaggeration’ happens to agree with the Babylonian tradition regarding the origins of the world.
The parallel is found more or less in isolation from other early Greek traditions. Plato (Cra. 402b) quotes a line from an Orphic cosmogony which similarly makes Oceanus and Tethys the parents of the Titans, but it is unclear how old this tradition is. It may be derived from the line in Homer or draw on the same oriental tradition as Homer does.54 Other early Greek sources, as we have seen, know of Oceanus and Tethys as the parents of the rivers, but not of the gods as a whole. Hera’s reference is likely playing on this tradition: it follows the common tradition that Oceanus and Tethys are parents of gods (i.e. the rivers), but adds the ‘foreign’ element that they are the origin of all the gods.
The next criterion is if the parallel is found together with other possible Near Eastern elements in the same passage or text. Burkert and West have found a remarkable cluster of themes derived from the Near East in exactly this part of the Iliad,55 and the scene of Hera’s seduction of Zeus as a whole has been fruitfully compared to similar scenes in Near Eastern sources.56 Finally, assuming an allusion to a Near Eastern or otherwise foreign tradition that was known both to Homer and his audience helps us better to understand the passage. It underscores the fact that Hera is presented as a liar in this particular scene.57 All seven criteria therefore apply. That does not prove that Hera’s reference to Oceanus and Tethys as parents of the gods is derived from Near Eastern sources, but it does make it likely.
4 The Division of the World by Lot
Another likely allusion to a Near Eastern story in the Iliad is Poseidon’s account of how he, Zeus and Hades divided the world by lot (Il. 15.185-195). This episode follows closely on the exchange between Hera and Aphrodite. After Hera has seduced Zeus and put him to sleep, Poseidon helps the Greeks to regain the upper hand in the war. When Zeus wakes up, he is angry and sends the goddess Iris to tell Poseidon that he should withdraw from the battle and obey him. After Iris has reported Zeus’ words, Poseidon replies to her as follows:
 Well now, surely, though he is noble, he has spoken arrogantly, if by force and against my will he will restrain me who have equal honor with himself. For three brothers are we, begotten by Cronos, and born of Rhea—Zeus, and myself, and the third is Hades, who is lord of the dead below. And in three ways have all things been divided among us, and to each has been apportioned his own domain.  I indeed, when the lots were shaken, won the grey sea to be my home for ever, and Hades won the murky darkness, while Zeus won the broad heaven in the air and the clouds; but the earth and high Olympus still remain common to us all. So I will in no way walk according to the will of Zeus; but at his ease  let him remain in his third portion, no matter how strong he may be.58
Burkert was the first, to my knowledge, who recognized in the division of the world into three parts by Zeus and his brothers through the casting of lots a possible allusion to the Near Eastern story of Atrahasis, the man who survived the great flood.59 Close to the beginning of this story we are told that three generations of gods divided heaven, earth and sea also by the casting of lots:
An even closer parallel may have existed in Ugarit, where the three sons of El, the father of the gods, divide the world among themselves: Baal, who is the equivalent of Zeus in several ways, rules the sky, Yam the sea, and Mot the underworld. The text is very fragmentary, however, and it is unclear if they did so by the casting of lots.61 If they did, it may well be that this is the version of the story on which Poseidon’s account is based.
This account differs fundamentally from the other Greek traditions we encounter in Homer or Hesiod relating to the manner in which power was distributed among the gods. In the Iliad Zeus claims to rule the gods because he is the eldest and the strongest of the Olympians. He says so to Iris just before Poseidon’s speech:
And if he will not obey my words, but will disregard them, let him consider then in mind and heart lest, strong though he be, he has not the courage to face my reproach; since I say I am better far than he in might, and the elder by birth. Yet his heart does not hesitate at all to declare himself the equal of me, whom the other gods dread.62
Iris repeats the same words to Poseidon in lines 178-183 and after Poseidon’s speech she reminds him again that Zeus is the eldest and, because of this, his authority is upheld by the Erinyes (Il. 15.201-204). These statements do not match Poseidon’s claim that Zeus’ authority is restricted to the heavens and that he and Zeus have an equal say on earth and on Olympus.
In the Theogony we are told that the Olympian gods, after they had defeated the Titans, asked Zeus to rule over them and that it was Zeus who divided their honours among them:
When the blessed gods had completed their toil, and by force had reached a settlement with the Titans regarding honors, then by the prophecies of earth they urged far-seeing, Olympian Zeus to become king and to rule over the immortals; and he divided their honors well for them.63
No mention is made of the casting of lots, certainly not where Zeus’ domain or authority is concerned. Note that Zeus in this passage is already referred to as the ‘Olympian’ before any division is made. If the assumption is that the honours of the gods were divided by the throwing of lots, it appears that Zeus is presiding over this division, not participating in it, as also seems to be the case in Pindar’s Olympian 7.64
For Poseidon’s claim that the three brothers divided the world by lot there is support in local Greek practice. It was common among the Greeks for brothers to divide parts of the inheritance by lot.65 Such a division assumes, however, that the brothers are more or less equal, but this is not the case with Zeus and his brothers. The portions in this case are far from equal too. In most other theogonic accounts from Greece, Zeus plays the leading role in establishing the rule of the Olympian gods. After the Olympian gods defeat the Titans, the other gods recognize him as their king, as Hesiod’s Theogony says. Is it really conceivable that Zeus subsequently would have cast lots, running the risk of winding up in the underworld or the sea, and relinquished his right to rule over the earth and Olympus? It is very difficult to reconcile Poseidon’s story with other extant accounts of how Zeus came to power. Later Greeks therefore could question it, as Callimachus does in his Hymn to Zeus.66 Poseidon through this story claims that he and Zeus are equal partners and have an equal right to rule over the earth and Olympus. Is there any reason to think that Poseidon would make up such a claim?
There is. Zeus at the end of his speech to Iris says about Poseidon: ‘his heart does not hesitate at all to declare himself the equal of me’ (τοῦ δ’ οὐκ ὄθεται φίλον ἦτορ / ἶσον ἐµοὶ φάσθαι, Il. 15.166-167). Iris repeats these words to Poseidon in lines 182-183. What we subsequently get is a display of Poseidon’s tendency to declare himself the equal of Zeus. He does so explicitly in line 186: ‘[Zeus wrongs] me who has equal honour with him’ (µ’ ὁµότιµον ἐόντα). In support of this claim he recites an oriental cosmogony, in which gods share the world equally among themselves by lot, and presents it as something that really happened. Iris does not buy it, however. She asks Poseidon if he really wants her to relate these words to Zeus, because in her eyes they do not do justice to Zeus’ authority (Il. 15.201-204). Poseidon then relents: he says that he will obey and Iris should not tell the story to Zeus. All of this makes good sense if Poseidon is referring to a story that Homer’s audience would have recognized as a lie.
Before drawing my general conclusion I would like to test how Poseidon’s account fits the seven criteria I formulated earlier for the identification of Greek adaptations of Near Eastern traditions. The first criterion asks if the correspondence is reasonably close, which I believe to be the case. It is true that in the case of the Atrahasis poem different generations of gods divide the world and the parts of the world do not exactly correspond: in Atrahasis they divide sky, sea and earth, and in Poseidon’s account sky, sea and underworld.67 The parallel with the Ugaritic texts is, in this respect, more exact: here three divine brothers rule over the same three domains.
The next criterion demands that the story could have been transmitted orally. The story of Atrahasis was very popular. Copies of it are found throughout the Near East, including in Ugarit, and parts of the story reappear in the Gilgamesh epic.68 In Ugarit, which lies on the Mediterranean coast in modern Syria, a local version of the story with three divine brothers reigning over sky, sea and underworld is also attested in the late Bronze Age. There is no reason not to believe that Greeks could have picked up oral versions of these stories around the same area of the Mediterranean in the Late Bronze or Early Iron Age.
Another criterion is whether the story is also attributable to an Indo-European or to common human experience. It is true that the casting of dice plays an important role in Indian mythology,69 and in the Germanic Vǫlospá the gods are said to play a game with dice in order to determine the future of the world,70 but I do not know of any division of parts of the world by the gods through the casting of lots in the Indo-European tradition. Gambling may be a universal human feature, but the division of the world by gods in this way is unique and not something that would arise from common human experience.
It is also unlikely that the story was developed independently, because I know of no other traditions, besides the Greek and Near Eastern, in which this particular theme occurs. The fifth criterion considers whether the story is found in isolation from other Greek traditions. I have demonstrated that Poseidon’s version of events is very hard to reconcile with other early Greek accounts of how Zeus rose to power and bestowed honours on the other gods. The story is referred to in later Greek sources, but these are probably for the most part derived from the Homeric passage.71
The next criterion asks if the parallel is found together with other allusions to Near Eastern stories in the same text. The conversation between Iris and Poseidon follows closely on Hera’s deception of Zeus, a scene that has been identified as particularly rich in Near Eastern parallels and that contains Hera’s reference to Oceanus and Tethys as the origin of the gods. It could well be that the lie Hera tells to Aphrodite and Zeus helps Homer’s audience to recognize another, similar lie in the next scene of the Iliad. Finally, if we accept that Poseidon’s story is based on an oriental story which Homer’s audience would have recognized as such, it helps us better to understand the function of this remarkable tale in this passage of the Iliad. It illustrates Poseidon’s tendency to declare himself the equal of Zeus, although he is not. Based on all seven criteria we may conclude that Poseidon’s story about the three divine brothers dividing the world by lot is, just like Hera’s reference to Oceanus and Tethys as parents of the gods, a likely adaptation of a story from the Near East.
I have argued that both in the case of Hera’s reference to Oceanus and Tethys as the parents of the gods and in the case of Poseidon’s claim that he and his two brothers threw lots in order to divide the world, Homer is using oriental stories to characterize these two gods as liars and makers of false claims. In both cases these gods also stand corrected: Sleep presents Hera with the correct offspring of Oceanus and Tethys in Iliad 14.244-246; Iris makes Poseidon retract his story, so that she does not have to report it to Zeus. These two passages further show that, in some cases, not only the poet was, whether consciously or unconsciously, importing and adapting oriental stories into his composition, but that he was counting on his audiences to recognize them as such. I am sure that, with closer scrutiny, further instances of this sort can be found.72
By way of conclusion I would like to say a bit more about the implications of what it means that Homer’s audience would recognize these stories as ‘oriental’, because this term does not only have a geographical but also a cultural meaning, as Edward Said famously has argued.73 Orientals overall do not enjoy a very good reputation in ancient Greek and Roman literature,74 but there are prominent exceptions and we should not generalize. We should look more closely at the way they are presented in the Homeric epics. In these epics the oriental peoples are represented by the Phoenicians. They are characterized as accomplished sailors and craftsmen, who on occasion can show hospitality or provide help, but also as liars and cheats, for example when a Phoenician merchant counsels Odysseus with lies (ψεύδεα βουλεύσας, Od. 14.296) in one of his Cretan tales.75 Homer can be seen as appealing to this aspect of the reputation of orientals, and perhaps more specifically of the Phoenicians, if he associated the stories about the division of the world and about sweet and salt water as parents of the gods specifically with them, in the scenes I discussed above. That is not to say that this is always the way the epic poet reacted to Near Eastern tales: in other passages Homer seems to allude more positively to the Gilgamesh epic and other Near Eastern traditions.76 People can react in many different ways, and not always consistently, to foreign influences. Plato in the Republic, however, refers to a ‘Phoenician lie’ (Φοινικικόν τι [ψεῦδος], 414c), which is a story that people claim to be true, while in fact it is not.77 It is this kind of story that Homer puts in the mouths of Hera and Poseidon.
Although I have argued that Hera’s identification of Oceanus and Tethys as the parents of the gods and Poseidon’s account of the division of the world through the casting of lots go back to Near Eastern sources and can best be understood as deliberate allusions by Homer to oriental tales, I am aware that this is not the only way Homer’s audience could have understood these allusions. Janko has argued that an older Titanomachy had already incorporated the story of Zeus, Poseidon and Hades dividing the world by lot.78 In that case Homer may be reacting to (and rejecting) this particular epic tradition.79 Those in Homer’s audiences who knew this epic, if it existed, may have understood Poseidon’s words as an allusion to it. Others, however, who knew stories about gods casting lots from the Near East, may have identified the episode as ‘oriental’, and still others may have been reminded of the stories their slaves told them (see above). All of this is possible. For my interpretation of Poseidon’s story and of Hera’s description of Oceanus and Tethys as obvious lies the main thing that matters is that these passages were recognized as strange and non-canonical by Homer’s original audience. The parallels we find for them in Near Eastern literature help to confirm this.
Budelmann, F., and Haubold, J. (2008). Reception and Tradition. In: L. Hardwick and C. Stray, eds., A Companion to Ancient Receptions, Oxford, 13-25.
Burkert, W. (1992). The Orientalizing Revolution. Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age. Cambridge, MA. [19841 (in German)].
Burkert, W. (2003). Oriental and Greek Mythology. The Meeting of Parallels. In: A.L.G. Marciano et al., eds., Kleine Schriften, Volume 2: Orientalia, Göttingen, 48-72. [first published in: J.N. Bremmer, ed. (1987) Interpretations of Greek Mythology, London, 10-40].
- Search Google Scholar
- Export Citation
( Burkert, W. ). 2003 Oriental and Greek Mythology. The Meeting of Parallels. In: A.L.G. Marciano et al., eds., Kleine Schriften, Volume 2: Orientalia, Göttingen, 48- 72. [first published in: J.N. Bremmer, ed. (1987) Interpretations of Greek Mythology, London, 10-40].
Currie, B. (2006). Homer and the Early Epic Tradition. In: M.J. Clarke, B.G.F. Currie and R.O.A.M. Lyne, eds., Epic Interactions. Perspectives on Homer, Virgil, and the Epic Tradition, Presented to Jasper Griffin by Former Pupils, Oxford, 1-45.
Currie, B. (2012). The Iliad, Gilgamesh and Neoanalysis. In: F. Montanari, A. Rengakos and C. Tsagalis, eds., Homeric Contexts. Neoanalysis and the Interpretation of Oral Poetry, Berlin, 543-580.
van Dongen, E. (2011). The ‘Kingship in Heaven’-Theme of the Hesiodic Theogony. Origin, Function, Composition. GRBS 51, 180-201.
Gysembergh, V. (2013). Le tirage au sort des provinces divines chez Homère (Iliade 15.185-199) et ses antécédents mésopotamiens. Un état de la question. REG 126, 49-64.
Henkelman, W.F.M. (2006). The Birth of Gilgamesh (Ael. NA xii.21). A Case Study in Literary Receptivity. In: R. Rollinger and B. Trushnegg, eds., Altertum und Mittelmeerraum. Die antike Welt diesseits und jenseits der Levante, Stuttgart, 807-856.
López-Ruiz, C. (2014). Greek and Near Eastern Mythologies. A Study of Mediterranean Encounters. In: L. Edmunds, ed., Approaches to Greek Myth, 2nd edition, Baltimore, 154-199.
Mondi, R. (1990). Greek and Near Eastern Mythology. Greek Mythic Thought in the Light of the Near East. In: L. Edmunds, ed., Approaches to Greek Myth, Baltimore, 141-198.
Neckel, G., and Kuhn, H., eds. (1962). Edda. Die Lieder des Codex Regius nebst verwandten Denkmälern, Volume 1: Text. 4th edition. Heidelberg.
Rollinger, R. (2015). Old Battles, New Horizons. The Ancient Near East and the Homeric Epics. In: R. Rollinger and E. van Dongen, eds., Mesopotamia in the Ancient World. Impact, Continuities, Parallels. Proceedings of the Seventh Symposium of the Melammu Project, Münster, 5-32.
- Search Google Scholar
- Export Citation
( Rollinger, R. ). 2015 Old Battles, New Horizons. The Ancient Near East and the Homeric Epics. In: , eds., Mesopotamia in the Ancient World. Impact, Continuities, Parallels. Proceedings of the Seventh Symposium of the Melammu Project, and R. Rollinger E. van Dongen Münster, 5- 32.
Stol, M. (2004). Review of W. Burkert, Die Griechen und der Orient, Munich 2003, and Kleine Schriften II: Orientalia, Göttingen 2003. BO 59, 239-246.
Talon, P. (2001). Enūma Eliš and the Transmission of Babylonian Cosmology to the West. In: R.M. Whiting, ed., Melammu Symposia, Volume 2. Helsinki, 265-277.
Winter, I.J. (1995). Homer’s Phoenicians. History, Ethnography, or Literary Trope? A Perspective on Early Orientalism. In: J.B. Carter and S.P. Morris, eds., The Ages of Homer, Austin, 247-271. [reprinted in: I.J. Winter (2015). On Art in the Ancient Near East, Volume 1. Leiden, 597-639].
- Search Google Scholar
- Export Citation
( Winter, I.J. ). 1995 Homer’s Phoenicians. History, Ethnography, or Literary Trope? A Perspective on Early Orientalism. In: , eds., The Ages of Homer, and J.B. Carter S.P. Morris Austin, 247- 271. [reprinted in: I.J. Winter (2015). On Art in the Ancient Near East, Volume 1. Leiden, 597-639].
E.g. Morris 1992. Oral versions of this paper were delivered at the universities of Helsinki, Reading, Oxford, Ghent and Nijmegen. I would like to thank the different audiences, in particular Bruno Currie, Adrian Kelly, Irad Malkin and Ian Rutherford, and the two anonymous referees for their valuable comments and suggestions. The fact that I did not follow all their advice makes me solely responsible for the remaining flaws in my argument.
This is basically the position which Haubold 2013 adopts with regard to the similarities between ancient Greek and Near Eastern literature. He sees two “parallel worlds” (ch. 2), in which early Greek and Mesopotamian epic “drew on a broadly shared repertoire of ideas and narrative forms” (p. 44). He does not exclude the possibility that some features of Mesopotamian literature found their way into Greek epic, but he sees no proof of it (p. 23).
Leering 2005, 138. For examples, see Frazer 1919; Dundes 1988.
West 1997, 489-493; Bremmer 2008, 101-116; López-Ruiz 2014, 174.
López-Ruiz 2010 has recently argued for a strong influence of the Syro-Phoenicians, or their predecessors the Canaanites, on Greek culture, Bachvarova 2016 for that of the Anatolians. We don’t have to choose between these two options, however. All these peoples probably played a role in passing on Near Eastern stories and themes to Greece.
Hall 2002, esp. 47-55 and 90-124.
Penglase 1994, 5-6 and López-Ruiz 2010, 28-29 with bibliography.
Od. 15.417-418, h.Ven. 113-116. On these and other modes of transmission, see West 1997, 606-630; López-Ruiz 2010, 28-38 and Bachvarova 2016, 199-265, who points to healers, exchanges between royal courts, and religious festivals as likely conduits of epic stories and cosmological myths.
This is now the consensus: e.g. López-Ruiz 2010, 5; Haubold 2013, 24 n. 24; Bachvarova 2016, 5 and passim. Currie 2012 and 2016, 198-199, 207, however, argues that (some) Greeks must have been acquainted with “fixed texts”, either in oral or written form, close to the texts we possess from the Near East, in order to explain some of the more comprehensive allusions that he detects.
On oral performances and traditions in the Near East, see Vogelzang and Vanstiphout 1992; West 1997, 590-606 and Bachvarova 2016. It should be noted that Phoenician or Aramaic texts in alphabetic scripts, which some Greeks may have been able to read, were produced on the eastern borders of the Mediterranean in the Early Iron Age, but none of these texts have survived and we do not know how closely they resembled the cuneiform texts that do survive (Haubold 2013, 9).
George 2003, 17-22; Bachvarova 2016, 54-77. Written versions of the story existed in Hurrian and Hittite and probably in Aramaic and Phoenician as well.
Ael. NA 12.21.
Stol 2004, 246. Copies of the text were found, however, outside of Babylon as well.
Lambert 1965, 291: “The Epic of Creation is not a norm of Babylonian or Sumerian mythology. It is a sectarian and aberrant combination of mythological threads woven into an unparalleled compositum.” I owe this reference to Andrew George, who quoted it with approval in a paper he delivered at the Divine Narratives in Early Greece and the Ancient Near East conference in Oxford on July 3, 2017. Cf. Lambert 2013, 464-465.
E.g. Mondi 1990, 160-177; West 1997, 282-283; López-Ruiz 2010, 90-91.
E.g. Mondi 1990.
Currie 2016, esp. 147-222.
Van Dongen 2011, 189 contra Mondi 1990, 150-187. For the Phoenician connection: López-Ruiz 2010, 84-129.
Cf. López-Ruiz 2014, 161.
Cf. Bachvarova 2016, 54-55: “Although Walter Burkert has argued that ‘the eastern epic, at least in Mesopotamia, is based in a fixed tradition of writing,’ we should understand that even though the written texts may be the only sources through which we can have access to the wider tradition, they present the tip of the iceberg of a primarily oral culture.”
E.g. Penglase 1994, 5-12; Bernabé 1995; van Dongen 2008; López-Ruiz 2014, 159-165 and Currie 2016, 1-38.
This criterion and the following one are applied by Burkert 1992, 88-127.
Cf. Currie 2016, 33-36, who uses the term ‘meaningfulness’ for this criterion.
Burkert 2003, 52-58.
The Hittites and Persians spoke an Indo-European language and their cultures, like that of the Greeks, is a mixture of Indo-European, Sumerian and Semitic traditions.
Kelly 2008, esp. 260-273.
Kelly 2008, 260-261 and 285-302 has objected to Burkert’s use of this criterion in the Dios Apatê scene in the Iliad, where both Burkert and West have postulated several Near Eastern parallels. He does not seem to object against the principle per se, however, but only against its application in the Dios Apatê scene, because he does not find any of the Near Eastern parallels Burkert or West detects in this episode convincing.
Gilg. XI.8-163 George, Genesis 6.5-8.22.
López-Ruiz 2010, 34, quoting Haubold 2002, 2, quoting Halliwell 1998, 235.
Most 2003, 385, quoted with approval by Haubold 2013, 11.
Currie 2012, 572-574, and 2016, 200-222.
By ‘Homer’ I mean the poet of the Iliad, regardless if the version of the epic we possess today was actually composed by a historical figure of that name.
Text and translation Murray & Wyatt 1999, 80-83.
Gladstone 1890, 129-132, cited by Burkert 2004, 22 and Bremmer 2008, 2.
Enuma Elish, Tablet I, lines 1-5, transl. Dalley 1989, 233.
Lesky 1947, 84; Burkert 1992, 91-93; Janko 1992, 180-182; West 1997, 147-148, 383; López-Ruiz 2010, 90; Rollinger 2015, 19-21.
Panchenko 1994, quoted with approval by Kelly 2008, 276.
Il. 21.196; Hes. Th. 337-370.
Text and translation Murray & Wyatt 1999, 84-85.
Alternatively, πάντεσσι refers back to ποταµοῖο: Kelly 2008, 277 n. 61.
See note 40 above.
The lack of an article is standard in Homer and cannot be taken as an indication that Hera is referring to Oceanus as the origin of (some) gods (e.g. the rivers only) instead of (all) the gods. Both Plato (Tht. 152e, Cra. 402b) and Aristotle (Metaph. 983b31-32) understood this line to mean that Oceanus and Tethys are described here as the ancestors of all the gods.
Cf. Burkert 1992, 92, and 2004, 30; Budelmann and Haubold 2008, 21.
Aphrodite may well have understood that Hera is lying, since she says that Hera can use her girdle to accomplish ‘whatever in your heart you desire’ (ὅ τι φρεσὶ σῇσι µενοινᾷς, Il. 14.221). Zeus’ remark that she can go there later (14.313) shows he does not care.
References in McLennan 1977, 35-36, who notes: “The statement of Odysseus (Od. 14.199ff.), when he wished to keep his real origin a secret, that he was a Cretan, is probably Homeric humour which indicates that the Cretans had received their reputations early.” In h.Cer. 122-133 Demeter likewise says that she comes from Crete in a false story. On Odysseus’ Cretan tales, see Currie 2016, 48 with earlier references. Add de Jong 2001, 326-328.
Alden 2000, 239-240 with earlier references.
Burkert 1992, 93; West 1997, 147-148.
Notably Kelly 2008, 282-283.
Janko 1992, 182: “Apsu is the same entity as Okeanos, the fresh water which encircles the world and is the underground source of all springs and rivers (Il. 21.195-7), whereas Tiamat personifies the salt sea, tiamtu, tamtun or temtu in Akkadian.” Tethys, like Tiamat, is a sea goddess.
Eudem. fr. 150 Wehrli, quoted and discussed by Haubold 2013, 149-150. See also Talon 2001 for the reception of ideas found in Enuma Elish in later Greek authors.
Budelmann and Haubold 2008, 21.
Janko 1992, 181 with earlier references.
Burkert 1992, 88-96, 2004, 29-37; West 1997, 382-385. Kelly 2008, 285-302 is sceptical.
Currie 2016, 178-183.
One of the anonymous referees has pointed out to me that Hera makes a dubious cosmological claim in the h.Ap. 335-336 as well. Here in a vengeful prayer to the primordial gods she declares the Titans to be the ancestors of gods and men. This may be a false claim as well, meant to rob Zeus, with whom she is angry, of the title of ‘father of gods and men’ (Budelmann and Haubold 2008, 21).
Text and translation based on Murray & Wyatt 1999, 120-121.
Burkert 1992, 90-91. Cf. West 1997, 109-110, 385; Gysembergh 2013; Rollinger 2015, 19-21.
Atrahasis, Tablet I, lines 11-16, transl. Foster 2005, 229-230, also quoted by Rollinger 2015, 20.
See Mondi 1990, 165 for the evidence. Cf. López-Ruiz 2010, 120.
Text and translation Murray & Wyatt 1999, 118-119.
Text and translation based on Most 2006, 74-75.
Pi. O. 7.54-71. Note that Zeus here can make an agreement with Helios without consulting the other gods. Some other Greek sources also refer to the division of the world by lot (e.g. h.Cer. 86, Pl. Grg. 523a), but they are probably derived from the Homeric passage: Gysembergh 2013, 51-54 contra Janko 1992, 247, who postulates an earlier Titanomachy in which the same story was told. Janko agrees, however, that the theme ultimately goes back to the Near East.
Janko 1992, 247; Gysembergh 2013, 50.
Call. Jov. 60-67. I owe this reference to Floris Overduin.
Kelly 2008, 265; Rollinger 2015, 20.
Gysembergh 2013, 57-58.
The four ages of humankind are, for example, named after four throws of the dice in Sanskrit literature: see West 1997, 313 with full references.
Vǫlospá 8.1-4 Neckel & Kuhn.
See note 64 above.
Metcalf 2015, 191-220, for example, discusses an Anatolian prayer formula Achilles uses in Il. 1.62-64, while standing on Anatolian soil (Troy). I hope to argue elsewhere that Hesiod counted on his audience knowing that the story of the metal ages was not originally Greek, but derived from the Near East.
Isaac 2004, 255-380.
Od. 14.288-297. See Winter 1995 and López-Ruiz 2010, 26-30.
E.g. López-Ruiz 2014, 168-174; Currie 2016, 147-222.
Cf. Strabo 3.5.5 (vol. 1, p. 440 Radt).
Janko 1992, 247. See note 64 above. Bremmer 2008, 3 is sceptical.
For other examples of Homer’s antagonistic stance towards pre-existing epic traditions, see Martin 1989, 228-230; Burgess 2001; Currie 2006 and 2016.