Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.01.13

Jan N. Bremmer, Greek Religion and Culture, the Bible, and the Ancient Near East. Jerusalem Studies in Religion and Culture, v. 8.   Leiden/Boston:  Brill, 2008.  Pp. xviii, 424.  ISBN 9789004164734.  $148.00.  

Reviewed by Barry B. Powell, University of Wisconsin-Madison (
Word count: 4424 words

Greece's debt to the Ancient Near East was so profound that some scholars today prefer to view Greek culture as an offshoot of Near Eastern culture. Nonetheless it was different, based in a system of writing so altered from its Near Eastern antecedents that a kind of veil prevented scholars from seeing what went before, and how what went before shaped Greek culture. In this elegant book Jan Bremmer brings together fourteen articles that trace Eastern influence on Greece, all published before but here lightly revised and organized according to the presentation of various themes in the Bible: creation, Eve, paradise, fratricide, heavenly war, the Flood, "don't look back," seers, dining customs, the scapegoat, revelation, magic, the healing god, Attis, and the Golden Fleece.

In "Canonical and Alternative Creation Myths" Bremmer notes how creation myths in the East were told only in a ritual context, but in Greece during secular feasts at the houses of kings and aristocrats. The Babylonian story of Tiamat and Apsu, the primordial waters, turns up in the Greek tradition of Tethys, a form of "Tiamat," and Okeanos, whom Homer calls apsorhoos, as if he knew the Babylonian name Apsu. Other Greeks thought that Night, not water, might have been the first being, like the "darkness upon the face of the deep." Hesiod's account, of course, which had the most influence, combines earlier traditions of the watery, dark origins of things, but introduces Eros, a motive force not really clear in Eastern sources. Bremmer writes as if Greeks had actually read such Babylonian documents as Enuma Elish that describe the intermingling of Tiamat and Apsu, but because that cannot be true we continue to wonder how Homer and Hesiod might have received their material.

The so-called canonical Greek cosmogony ends with the race of the Titans, but there were other "orphic" cosmogonies. The Derveni papyrus teaches much about such occult views, which seem to have traced the origin of the world to a primordial unity followed by the separation of heaven and earth. Bremmer finds the source of this mytheme in Egypt, where it certainly is important, as he accepts that the gold plates found in Mediterranean graves descend from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. While Bremmer distinguishes the cosmogonic image of an initial separation from Hesiod's description of spontaneous appearance followed by sexual generation, surely Cronus' castration of Sky, who lay across Earth, suggests the same image, an original unity until Sky separated from Earth.

Aristophanes parodic bird-cosmogony, which involves a winged Night and a primordial egg without parent whence sprang the birds, must depend on Orphic models, Bremmer thinks, and eventually go back to the Egyptian so-called Hermopolitan cosmogony, in which the ibis-god Thoth laid a primordial egg. From the Aristophanic egg sprang Eros, Hesiod's personification of first motion. Aristophanes and the Orphics must be taking Eros in this role straight from Hesiod.

In "Pandora or the Creation of a Greek Eve" Bremmer notices that many local traditions claimed that the first man belonged to the hometown. As for woman, Hesiod's account was canonical. He tells the story of Pandora twice, in Works and Days and in the Theogony. She was a separate creation, a different race and a major innovation, along with fire and sacrifice, which are all bound together: Prometheus cheated Zeus with the division at Mecone; Zeus punished man by withholding fire; Prometheus stole fire; Zeus made woman, the source of all our suffering. The myth of the theft of fire is old, but Hesiod has told his own story about it. Hephaestus, the artificer, is not ordinarily a god who worked in clay, but in Works and Days he does mix clay with water to make the first woman. Pandora's other artificer, Athena, is also a god of crafts. Hesiod takes Pandora's name as meaning "gift of all the gods," but it could as well mean "gifted by all the gods," or "giver of all presents," a suitable title for the first woman.

Pandora is a thorough calamity, irresistible but lies and deception within, qualities that come from Hermes. She wears necklaces and crown, the original sex-pot, and Epimetheus stands no chance against her wiles. She opens the jar, but Hope remains within, a conundrum never explained (if Hope is in the jar, what is the good of it?). Hesiod appears to have confused different elements in concocting his tale.

Hesiod's myth was little told, although Sophocles wrote a satyr play on it and numerous vases between 470-450 BC show Pandora, perhaps inspired by the play. Occasional later authors treat the myth. Her original home may have been in Thessaly, a area of which was called "Pandora." Pandora transcended local myths of anthropogony because she was the ancestor of all women everywhere, of the female race. Ancient Near Eastern myth, by contrast, told only of the origin of the first males.

In "The Birth of Paradise" Bremmer wonders why the Septuagint uses the Persian word paradeisos for the Garden of Eden. He examines the word in the Achaemenid and post-Achaemenid eras. The word appears to be Median in origin, meaning enclosure and broadly applied to storage space, orchards, stables, vineyards, and tree farms. In the later Achaemenid period, the word narrowed in meaning and came roughly to designate a hunting park for the aristocracy. With the fall of the Achaemenids, the word referred to enclosures that were small and without animals to hunt. Probably from the usage of paradeisos in Hellenistic Egypt, where paradeisoi accompanied the king's palace, did the authors of the Septuagint in the early third century BC apply the word to the Hebrew gan Eden, "garden of Eden."

In "The First Crime: Brothers and Fratricide in the Ancient Mediterranean" Bremmer wonders why the first crime (Cain killed Abel) was fratricide. He inspects attitudes towards brothers in Greece, Rome, and Israel to note the importance of brotherly solidarity in a cutthroat pre-state world. But the very closeness of brothers could lead to exaggerated violence, of which myth preserves many examples. Cain's murder of Abel was a natural choice for the author of Genesis to characterize life after the expulsion from paradise.

There was war in Heaven. "Greek Fallen Angels: Kronos and the Titans" reviews such traditions in Greece and in the East. The Titans were thoroughly bad creatures throughout antiquity and even equated with the biblical 666, "the beast." Homer rarely mentions them, but Hesiod's account was complemented by the lost Titanomachy, perhaps by Eumelos of Corinth. We know nothing about the epic except that it told of the struggle between Zeus and the Titans. Details in Apollodorus must go back in some way to this poem. Bremmer attempts to sort out something about the lost poem, for example, that Aither came first in the generation of the gods and that there was a hundred-hander named Aigaion. Bremmer tries to recreate Hesiodic innovations based on older tradition represented by the lost Titanomachy.

Various details suggest origins of stories about the Titans. The genital-mauling sickle looks like an Anatolian scimitar. The stone that Kronos swallowed could be a Cretan fetish. The casting of lots for portions of the universe is an old motif. If a surviving fragment of the Titanomachy refers to the Flood (it is only a guess), then (stretching further) perhaps the lost Titanomachy ended with an anthropogony?

Although Bremmer has characterized the Titans as evil fellows, is this true of Okeanos, oldest of the Titans? Bremmer reviews the other Titans, whose names too often are opaque. Who is Kreios, for example? Hesiodic Iapetos looks like biblical Japheth, but it is hard to see why. Kronos alone had cult, very occasionally, and festivals named after him. We cannot explain his name either, although Bremmer fancies a Hittite origin. A Syrian festival in which masters and slaves changed places sounds like the Kronia celebrated in Ionia, so maybe there is a connection; perhaps a poem came with the imported festival. Again Bremmer imagines Homer or his sources consulting books in Eastern archives; in any event the Titanomachy no doubt depends on Eastern models.

As primordial beings the Titans were logically associated with anthropogony, although Greek myth in general shows little interest in the topic. The Orphics (whoever they were) had made the connection by the mid-fifth century BC in the story of the Titans' attack on Dionysus, from whose ruins was made man. Later, the giants took the place of the Titans in this story. In Ovid Deucalion and Pyrrha are descendants not of the Titan Prometheus or Epimetheus, but of the giants. The Hellenistic Jews knew of these traditions and recast them, for example in the Third Sibylline Oracle from the second century BC, which describes a war between the sons of Kronos and the sons of Titan. Jewish stories of the fallen angels, imprisoned in an underworld, reflect Hesiod's story and the lost Titanomachy.

Next Bremmer examines "Near Eastern and Native Traditions in Apollodorus' Account of the Flood." All agree on the Near Eastern origins of this story. Apollodorus' account depends on Hesiod, a lost Orphic cosmogony, and the lost Titanomachy, of unknown date but later than Homer (whom Bremmer places in the wrong century). Undoubtedly the division of the world by lottery, and features of the Iliadic Deception of Zeus go back to Eastern sources, but Bremmer again trips in imagining that the unknown author of the lost Typhonomachy was directly familiar with the Babylonian poems Atrahasis, Gilgamesh, and Enuma elish. And certainly the Homeric poems were not "gradually fixed in writing" (p. 105) (!), but were fixed in writing at a single time and place.

Bremmer reviews the Flood in Apollodorus. He suggests that the myth entered Greece in Locris, but was refined in Thessaly where the role of Deucalion was defined. Although Greek accounts sometimes closely reflect details in the Eastern accounts, never do they place animals on the ark, so prominent in the famous Hebrew description.

In "Don't Look Back: From the Wife of Lot to Orpheus and Eurydice" Bremmer notices how little use the Bible makes of Lot's wife's transformation into a pillar of salt because while fleeing she looked back. Commentators, too, have said little. In Greece he finds the similar motif more influential.

You must not look back when dealing with ghosts, as Odysseus is told and Assyrian rituals require. In magical ceremonies in general you must not look back, nor when saying farewell (for the same reason?). The custom is associated with separations of various kinds and of course is rooted in an aversion to behold something terrible. Bremmer sees such magical behavior as a ritualization of a natural human response, but does not turning around give the ghost power over you? Is that the same thing as repulsion at beholding the horrible?

As for the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, the first attestation of "don't look back" is in Virgil's Georgics. Even the name Eurydice cannot be traced back earlier than the second century BC. We cannot identify Virgil's source, but presumably it was some Greek compendium. Bremmer sees it as a literary motif in Virgil, rather than something based in ritual (but isn't Eurydice just such a ghost that magical practice forbids one to see?).

"Balaam, Mopsus, and Melampous: Tales of Traveling Seers" reminds us that seers are important in both biblical and Greek traditions. In Israel, however, a master trained a disciple, whereas in Greece seership ran in families. Biblical seers "saw" things, while Greek seers "knew" things. Both types moved around a lot. In Greece, the families of Mopsus and Melampous were famous for seership. Mopsus was an early Argonaut, famous for his boxing. Greek seers were often warriors and died in battle, in myth and in reality (Balaam too died on the battlefield). Mopsus was expert in divination by birds and lots. He defeated Calchas in a riddle contest, who then died from shame. Mopsus is at home in Cilicia, where he gave his name to numerous places. He is named in a Phoenician/Anatolian Hieroglyph bilingual inscription, although the Anatolian Hieroglyphic version (in the so-called Luwian language) appears to reflect a form "Moxus" for the seer's name.

Homer refers to Melampous twice, as if his story were well known. A complex myth, reconstructible from many sources, tells how he understood the speech of animals and through his mantic skills won a wife for his brother Bias. He came from Pylos, then later wandered to Argos and cured the king's daughters of madness, for which he received part of the kingdom as reward. Many seers were kings, unlike their biblical counterparts, who did not go beyond king-maker. The seer as king must, however, precede Homer, because in the archaic age no seer ever became king.

In the Old Testament Deborah, although a woman, is a prophetess. There were Greek female seers too, but unlike their male counterparts they were not travelers. In the Aramaic/Israelite literature, seers were of a lower class than in Greece, and they were visionaries rather than technicians.

In the "Hebrew Lishkah and Greek lesche" Bremmer returns to the old problem of the nature and origin of the lesche. Whatever it was, it must go back to the Mycenaean period because it gave its name to a month in various isolated and archaic calendars. Meals were served at leschai. The Delphians called the Cnidian treasury a lesche because they met there to discuss serious matters, but its architecture is that of a dining hall. Evidently philosophical speculation was a feature of the lesche, where the guests sat in chairs, in the old style, and did not recline on couches. The tragedians use the word to refer to clever speech and social council. An early, perhaps original function was for adult males to meet in a common mess. Strangers stayed in the lesche overnight. Its importance declined steeply by the fifth century BC when it was replaced by the private symposium and the public assembly (but what is the relationship between the lesche and the symposium?).

Many hold lesche to be Greek in origin, but it may be the same as Semitic lishkah, evidently a room where people drink or priests eat, later associated with the temple in Jerusalem. As for the scant traditions about the telling of myths at the lesche, our information does not allow good conclusions.

In "The Scapegoat between Northern Syria, Hittites, Israelites, Greeks and Early Christians" Bremmer examines this ritual famous from Leviticus by first looking at evidence from third-millennium Ebla, where something similar took place to purify a room. A thousand years later a Ugaritic text refers to the custom, although now used to prevent a disaster. By far the most detailed early description of the scapegoat ritual is from a Hittite archive c. 1300. The animal--or a woman--is adorned then sent away to the land of the enemy in order to avert plague. The Israelites received the rite from Northern Syria, but allowed only animals to bear the weight of transgression, and attached the rite to the temple calendar.

Information from Greece is more abundant. Scapegoat or pharmakos rituals were common: a man or woman would take up the pollution of the community, either during a crisis of plague or drought, or during certain festivals. Such rites turn up often in Greek myth. They appear to have come into Greece via Ionia.

In real life human pharmakoi were chosen from the scum of society, but in myth their marginal quality could even encompass kings. Although of common origin, they were given special foods and treated as if they were important to enhance the efficacy of the ritual. Often the Greek pharmakoi went to death voluntarily. Their bodies were burned on "wild wood." They wore plants associated with a marginal social status. They were led from the heart of the city out through a special gate. They circumambulated the city, then were stoned and chased over the border. The pharmakos was rarely or never killed in reality; in myth they are often killed, as if the story clarifies the ritual's meaning. Scapegoat rituals tend to take place at the new year to banish evil influence on the new season.

What, if any, relationship does the scapegoat ritual have to the Christian doctrine of the atonement in which the sacrificed victim removes the burden of sin from the community? That teaching seems to have been Paul's formulation, but he may have heard something like it from early followers of Jesus. Faint anticipations appear in Jewish sources, but seem not to have influenced the doctrine of vicarious death. Bremmer finds a more likely culprit in Euripides, whose plays, often performed under the Ptolemies, celebrate the theme of one dying for the good of all. The argument is clever, but hard to believe; Paul appears to have been an original thinker capable of his own theologies.

The next chapter invokes Steven Spielberg's sentimental film "Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Heliodorus in the Temple and Paul on the Road to Damascus." Sometimes people see gods, especially in battle (for example, the Angel of Mons in the First World War). Heliodorus, sent by Antiochus IV to take the money from the Jewish temple, saw a rider all in gold charging on a horse, and so did those who accompanied him. He also saw two angels before losing consciousness. Later, Heliodorus converted to adoration of the Jewish God.

Something happened to Paul, too, on the Damascus road. He alludes to the incident twice, and Luke tells the story three times. Bremmer cites numerous literary parallels for a vision at noon, then explains Luke's description as a topos. (But what if Paul did have a vision around noon? Paul is not a figure in a literary or mythical work.) Following a strange theory of literary influence, Bremmer seeks for parallels between Luke's description of Paul's experience and passages in Euripides, especially the Bacchae.

"Persian Magoi and the Birth of the Term Magic" takes up a theme that Arthur Darby Nock famously explored in the 1930s. The name Magus first appears in Heraclitus, where it refers to practitioners of a private cult. The author of On the Sacred Disease, in the first attack on magic as we think of it, takes the Magus as a charlatan, a purifier, and begging priest. Aeschylus calls a man Magos Arabos, as if he had no idea what a magus really was. In Euripides the word means "practitioner of magic."

Of course the word is Persian in origin. One Xanthos, a historian of Lydia, appears to have referred to them and to Zoroaster. Herodotus, our first real prose source, does not take them to be charlatans, but seers who understand dreams, celestial phenomena, and are important in sacrificial rite. The philosophers, too, disagreed with the earlier poetic use of magos as term of abuse. The word appears in the Derveni papyrus, c. 420 BC, where they seem to cast spells. Perhaps the singing of these wandering Magi of verses from the Persian Avestan suggested to their critics that they were nothing but gibberish mongers.

"Anaphe, Apollo Agletes and the Origin of Asclepius" investigates scholarship surrounding Apollonius of Rhodes' description of Apollo's raising of the small island of Anaphe off the coast of Crete. Apollo appears in history to have been special on the island. Bremmer is especially interested in the origin of Apollo's epithet Agletes. W. Burkert thought that the alternative form Asgelatas was a corruption of the cult epithet of Akkadian Gula, a Mesopotamian healing goddess. Asgelatas seems to be a variant of Asklepios, but what is the origin of that name? His sons fight in the Iliad, leading a Thessalian contingent. In Thessaly, where Asklepios' cult seems to have originated, his name has the form Askalapios (which does not scan). His name has many other variations through Greece, often playing on the popular etymology from Greek aigle, "shining," but the many different forms suggest a pre-Greek name. In any event, in a nocturnal festival dedicated to Apollo Aigletes on the small island of Anaphe women and men mocked one another and may have engaged in orgiastic intercourse, practices more appropriate in festivals to Demeter (?) and Dionysus.

What is the relationship between the Attis of cult and literature? In "Attis: A Greek God in Anatolian Pessinous and Catullan Rome" Bremmer reports on a nineteenth-century scholarly tradition equating the Atys of Herodotus (killed in a boar hunt) with the Attis of myth and cult, but this association was never true in the archaic and classical periods. The earliest attestation of Attis in Greece is from the fourth century BC, when the cult appears to have appealed especially to women.

The name ates/ata turns up in Phrygian inscriptions from the sixth and fifth centuries BC, maybe meaning "father," but Bremmer dismisses (too hastily) their identity with the Attis of cult. Bremmer retells the highly complex and bizarre myth of Attis preserved in Arnobius of the third century AD, who summarizes an Athenian essayist Timotheus from the third century BC. Many very old Near Eastern elements turn up in the story. Not until the third century AD do we hear of Attis' resurrection.

Other early sources tend to leave out Attis' self-castration and the odd hermaphroditic character Agdestis, Attis' companion, apparently named after a mountain, about whom Arnobius has much to say. Bremmer takes the Galli, self-castrated followers of Attis, to be named after the river Gallos in northwestern Anatolia (not after the Mesopotamian spirits the gallu, as some think) or after a king (mythical or real) of the same name.

One can isolate features of a hypothetical original Anatolian myth, but nothing can be confirmed. Certainly there was an Anatolian festival of Attis and priests who called themselves Galli. The mourning for Attis was part of the festival. A pine tree may have been involved, promising renewal. The Galli may have castrated themselves at this festival (but hardly as examples of "those transcultural groups of men who have given up their sexuality in the service of religion" (p. 290), and hardly comparable to the North American Indian Berdaches, men who dress and behave as women. Does Bremmer understand the psychology of sacrifice?) It is never clear from Bremmer's descriptions whether the Galli removed testicles and penis together, or only the testicles and left the scrotum, or exactly what is known about the nature of the mutilation (what does "lost his manhood" mean? p. 292).

The cult of Cybele was introduced to Rome in 204 BC, but the first mention of Attis in Roman literature is in Catullus' poem 63, from the mid first century BC. Here Catullus freely combines features from the cults of Dionysus and Cybele, probably basing his poem on a Hellenistic original.

"The Myth of the Golden Fleece" examines prominent elements of this celebrated myth, especially the account in Apollodorus, in light of Near Eastern parallels and folkloristic motifs. As for the fleece, Bremmer is sympathetic to its identification with the Hittite kursha, a ritual bag made of cowhide, goatskin, or sheepskin containing fertility amulets. Other explanations attach the kursha to the Greek aegis, "goatskin," and perhaps the kursha gave rise to both the Golden Fleece and the aegis. (But as always with such explanations that attach cult implements to traditional narrative, there is plenty of room for speculation.) In the myth of Jason, the Hittite myth of the battle against the monstrous Illuyankash may explain his need to kill the dragon that guarded the fleece, because this myth may have been told at the same festival where the kursha was displayed. (But doesn't the dragon always guard a treasure in folklore?)

Why did Medea kill her brother Apsyrtus? The question prompts a very long excursus on close relationships between brother and sister not only in Greece, but in India, Persia, and Arabia. Apparently brothers and sisters like one another. So why did Medea kill Apsyrtos? To break all ties with the past and, through violating traditional brother/sister affection, to heighten the horror of her personality.

How did the stories that made up the Argonautica come from East to West? Overland across what would become the royal road from Sardis to Susa, and by sea from the North Syrian and Cilician coasts. Although Bremmer thinks that traders brought the stories, we do not ordinarily think of traders as singers of tales. Bremmer views Cyprus as playing an important role in the transmission of some stories, and sees the word kibisis, referring to the wallet that only Perseus used, as of Cypriote origin. Perhaps, but I was surprised to learn that on Cyprus the "alphabet" too might have been passed to the Greeks.

The book concludes with three appendices. One examines Genesis 1.1 in light of Persian parallels, seeking to find a model for the succinct "In the beginning..." Similar phrases are used of Ahura Mazda, but it is impossible to establish chronological priority. A second appendix about magic and religion notes that the semantic range of these words is post-medieval and modern and did not exist in the ancient world. Our own opposition depends on James George Frazer and is therefore of limited use in understanding the ancient world. In the third appendix he explores the meaning of the name Megabyxos, a friend of Cyrus the Great and enemy of the false Smerdis.

A persistent weakness of the book is Bremmer's fancy that early Greek poets were reading Ancient Near Eastern literatures and in this way influenced by them. This misconception gives a certain scholastic tone to his research, as if an old-fashioned Quellenkritik will solve the very real problems he articulates. The too-abundant notes are also an unpleasant feature, as if Bremmer were playing a parlor game when the reader wants to learn something about the ancient world. A footnote should lead the reader to a source worth exploring, or verify a point of contention. Too many of these notes, to obscure journals or even such languages as Polish, do neither. I doubt we need a footnote to prove that Gladstone was busy in December, 1872 (p. 101) or that Greek poets could be given to exaggeration (p. 176), or seven citations to verify that Codrus dressed as a woodworker when he killed himself (p. 180). Will anyone consult the thirteen citations that discuss the wording of a quotation by Clement of Alexandria (p. 236)? But Bremmer writes in a European tradition that admires such behavior, and his clear style, transparent organization of thought, deep learning, and sober judgments make this book a treasure to explore.

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