Greek Myths and Mesopotamia

by Charles Penglase, Routledge, London, 1994. ix + 278 pp. with 2 maps, hb ISBN 0-415-08371-0, pb ISBN 0-415-15706-4

reviewed by J. H. Hordern

University College,
Dublin

Although the concept of an orientalizing period of Greek art has been current for some years, there can be no doubt that the influence of West Asiatic cultures on Greek civilisation should become an important subject for classicists of the next generation, and it is to be regretted that so few have even a cursory acquaintance with, much less a detailed knowledge of, the relevant Semitic or Indo-European languages. Some important work has already been done in the field, and P.'s book is an interesting, albeit not always particularly satisfying, addition to the literature.

P. begins with a general introduction to his subject, in which he gives a broad outline of the main lines of approach, and an all too brief discussion of the possible contacts between Mesopotamia and Greece in the archaic and pre-archaic periods. However, it seems to me unlikely that the mere existence of trade contacts, and the evidence of orientalizing trends in plastic arts such as sculpture and pottery, is prima facie evidence for literary connections. I would have been happier to see a more extended discussion of the evidence for a Greek presence in the Near East and, indeed, for a West Asiatic presence in Greece. We needed to know more about the performance of the West Asiatic poetry which P. discusses, and more about the possible levels of bilingualism. Naturally not all of these problems will have satisfactory answers, but the issues at least need to be raised as a prelude to any discussion of more particular contacts. Of course, myth not literature is P.'s subject, but since he seems equally often to be concerned with the literary manipulation of Mesopotamian mythological motifs by Greek artists, it is difficult to see that the two can be separated in any meaningful way.

The first two chapters not only provide a useful summary of the Mesopotamian material for the non-specialist, but are also used as an introduction to P.'s main concern, the idea of the journey during which a deity acquires power and the trappings of power. The two main Mesopotamian gods in whom P. is interested are Inanna (perhaps more familiar under her Akkadian name, Ishtar), together with her concubine Dumuzi/Damu, and Ninurta, the supreme god of the Sumerian pantheon, whose myths were later associated with similarly important divinities such as Marduk. The discussion is generally sensitive to the problems raised by these texts, although a general criticism may be made of the irregular quotation of the original text, and the occasional use of German or French rather than English translations. Although it is an accepted scholarly convention that classical scholars are familiar with the major European languages, it is to be wondered what is gained by such a proceeding in a work of this sort, and P. may done better to have provided his own translations.

The rest of the book is given over mainly to a consideration of the ``journey for power'' motif in the Hesiod and several Homeric Hymns, most notably the hymns to Apollo, Demeter and Aphrodite. Again, P. relies heavily on summaries of the hymns rather than on substantial quotation, and his tendency to pass over minor differences as unimportant is here of concern, since similarities which seem clear from a summary may become less convincing when the texts are actually placed side by side. Furthermore, although P. is not trying to prove literary dependence, his frequent emphasis on the literary manipulation of Mesopotamian ideas by Greek poets, and his claim that the motifs in the poems only become comprehensible when viewed in the light of Mesopotamian motifs, seem somewhat to belie this. Nevertheless, the chapters dealing with Apollo, Demeter and Aphrodite are among the most convincing in the Greek section. There are interesting discussions of the Hermes, Zeus and Pandora myths, but the section on Athena seems rather misguided, especially the claim that Athena's birth from Zeus' head is equivalent to an ascent from the netherworld.

However, beneath all this a more serious problem is lurking. Although the Mesopotamian influence on Greek literature cannot really be doubted, P.'s implied claim that it is the most important influence seems questionable, especially given the absence of substantial evidence from other West Asiatic literatures. It is clearly possible that while the motifs are similar, the direct source for the Greek poets came through other oriental sources, and therefore it is difficult to argue for literary manipulation thesis with an inadequate knowledge of the source being manipulated. Thus, in the final analysis P. fails to be completely convincing, but his book is nevertheless a welcome and provoking study of a difficult subject. There is a useful appendix listing editions, commentaries and translations of the major Mesopotamian texts.


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