BMCR 2005.07.03

Babylon Memphis Persepolis: Eastern Contexts of Greek Culture

, Babylon, Memphis, Persepolis : eastern contexts of Greek culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004. 178 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 0674014898 $22.95.

With its user friendly tone and emphasis on ideas and interpretation, this slim book makes good on the author’s promise to stick to the spirit of its origins in a 1996 lecture series at the Università Ca Foscari of Venice on the now popular subject of cultural exchange in the ancient Mediterranean. Well before Bernal there was Burkert, who here speaks with the authority of one who has devoted a lifetime to once unpopular alliances of Classics with, inter alia, anthropology, evolutionary psychology, and the Near East. Unlike Bernal, Burkert’s impeccable classical credentials have made him harder to dismiss, except as a maverick, who like most mavericks with patience, now occupies a sane and centrist position in debates on influences and interactions.

Of the Bernal controversy, Burkert remarks: “Vigorous debates have ensued: yet while many details of Bernal and his followers’ statements are open to argument, polemics are not worthwhile. One ought to look for further evidence and new perspectives, and to work out more equitable judgments”(5). In this elegantly written, meticulously argued, and honest book, Burkert not only summarizes and adds to our knowledge of the how, why, and what of cultural influences on Greece from the Near East, Egypt, and Persia, mainly during the Archaic and Classical Periods, but also demonstrates to his readers the right way to study this fascinating topic. In other words, the work provides a methodological model for all who wish to pursue its subject.

Among the book’s most valuable contributions is its attention to the historical and geographical contexts of cultural transmission: trade between Greece and the East (a push fueled by the Greek search for metals), politics (diplomacy, war, and conquest), of course, but also factors such as roads, libraries, schools, and writing materials (e.g., the switch from clay tablets to perishable materials with the Greek import of the Semitic alphabet). Burkert’s understanding of the process of cultural transmission is nuanced, never a simple cause-effect phenomenon, but a complex array of responses “including possible progress by misunderstanding,” as well as both positive and negative input by peaceful transfer or invasion or exploitation (5).

The detailed discussions of the nature and limits of the sources, especially for Persia, are also of great value, especially when taken together with the Appendix of “Ancient Sources in Various Translations” covering English translations of Mesopotamian, Hittite, Egyptian, Iranian and Persian texts. Each chapter opens with a helpful survey of the history and state of scholarship on its topic.

Equally impressive is the author’s meticulous distinction between the degrees of probability for hypothesized instances of influence so that reader easily can distinguish between an intriguing suggestion and overwhelming proof. Thus, a learned, fascinating, and (to me) highly persuasive etymological discussion of the ultimate derivation of the Greek Titans from the Semitic Tit (clay) concludes with a modest disclaimer: “This daring hypothesis still lacks evidence for verification, but even possibilities suggest context” (34). Alternatively, of an Akkadian epic parallel to Iliad 15.190-193 (the tripartite division of the world between Poseidon, Hades, and Zeus), Burkert writes “No other passage in Homer comes so close to being a translation of the Akkadian epic. Actually it is not really a translation but a resetting, yet in a way that shows the foreign framework. One might still believe this to be a deceptive coincidence, were it not for the special context of the Dios Apate where many different clues come together to point to the oriental tradition; in this case the coincidence hypothesis becomes the most improbable one” (37).

Taken as a whole, the work draws our attention to two critical and related methodological truisms of this line of inquiry. First, the search for evidence of cultural interactions that occurred at the dawn of history is a damnably difficult, perhaps quixotic enterprise, since the survival of the evidence to a great extent turns on accidents of preservation and discovery. Second, the fact that today we cannot yet (and perhaps never will) come up with sufficient evidence for any water-tight “proof” of influence does not “prove” that such evidence or influences did not exist, simply that we cannot prove their existence one way or the other. This “positivist fallacy” is particularly frustrating when the hypothesis in question seems quite likely in light of both common sense and comparative history.

The book’s five chapters cover much terrain familiar to readers of Burkert’s earlier work (especially his The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age, translated by Margaret E. Pinder & Walter Burkert. Cambridge, Mass and London: Harvard University Press, 1992; originally published in German in 1984) with the welcome additions of chapters on Egypt and Persia.

A brief first chapter covers alphabetic writing. Burkert accepts an 8th century BCE date of transmission and suggests Cyprus as a plausible locus. Chapter Two’s treatment of orientalizing features in Homer not only offers a comprehensive reexamination of Mesopotamian parallels to the Homeric poems (epithets, repetitions, reported speech, verbal and thematic correspondences, etc.) but also offers suggestive comments on how these parallels may have come into being. Especially intriguing is his observation that many of the most striking echoes of Mesopotamian literature in the Homeric Epics come from the opening passages of the texts of the Enuma Elish and Atrahasis —precisely the sections that a Greek seeking education would be likely to recall.

Burkert privileges cuneiform literature as a source of literary transmission in light of the continuous routes of contact between Mesopotamia and Greek speakers; these contacts reached an apogee in the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. He also raises an intriguing paradox: Mesopotamian Epics share striking similarities with the Homeric poems in both content and style, although the former were based on a fixed tradition of writing, while the latter were orally composed and transmitted. This chapter’s centerpiece is a detailed discussion of the Dios Apate (the scene of Hera’s deception of Zeus in Iliad 14), explaining the many peculiarities of language and content that long troubled commentators on the basis of parallels with the Atrahasis, Gilgamesh, and Enuma Elish. Burkert’s Chapter Three, “Oriental Wisdom Literature and Cosmogony,” presents an interesting taxonomy of the ideas that gave rise to and shaped the creation stories and wisdom literature that comprise the earliest speculative literature from the East. The modes of thinking that engender these cosmogonies, as Burkert demonstrates, also appear in Homer, Hesiod, Orphic writings, and the Presocratics. Thus, Burkert sees no reason to isolate the mythological cosmogonies of the Greeks from their oriental counterparts: “They evidently belong to the same family, and it is no less evident that the Presocratics still follow in their steps” (61). In the realm of more rational fields such as mathematics and astronomy, where Greek dependence on continuous and extensive contacts with the East is incontrovertible, the Presocratics like their contemporary Eastern counterparts can be shown attempting to square observed facts of the natural world with existing theologies: “Certainly we should keep in mind that Eastern cultures do not represent only the prerational, the mythical stage, leaving it to the Greeks to march the whole way from mythos to logos” (66).

Still, there is no question about the primacy of a Greek foundation for philosophy as we know it today. Burkert likens the Presocratic transformation of Eastern wisdom to a process of building on an oriental scaffolding and explains the Greeks’ philosophical achievements by their different social structure (more freedom, mobility, and risk taking) and the exceptionally flexible medium of their language. These factors enabled Greek philosophers to formulate an abstract fundamental category of “being” or disinterested and decontextualized “truth” that can be revealed by rational argument, and, after Plato, through mathematics. On the last point, Burkert permits himself a rather touching personal coda: “Philosophy has largely tried to follow such an ideal of truth. It threatens to become obsolete, though, with the onset of relativity and deconstruction within the more modern trends in the social sciences and humanities. It is still to be hoped that the Greek heritage will not be totally lost” (70).

Burkert’s Chapter Four, “Orpheus and Egypt,” focuses on Graeco-Egyptian religious contacts, which intensify in the 6th century BCE with extensive Greek settlement and mercenary activity in Egypt and are reflected even earlier in the undisputed Egyptian influences on Archaic Greek art and temple architecture.. Among the few documented cases of instances of religious syncretism for the 6th century BCE, most notable is the Greek identification of Dionysus with Osiris; mystery rites promising a blissful afterlife provide the strongest basis for the association of the two gods. From Dionysus it is a short hop to Orpheus. For the rest of this chapter, Burkert takes on the topic of putative Egyptian influences on Orphic religion, a question made very difficult by the fact that despite tantalizing new discoveries, 1) we still know so little about Orphic religion; 2) inevitably, those who think they know something about Orphism are hotly challenged by those who are sure they know better. This sorry state of affairs leave the rest of us — those nonspecialists among whom I count myself — a miserable silent majority, not knowing what to think, and surely in no position to enter the fray with any substantive criticism.

In a nutshell, Burkert argues the following: Orphism can be contextualized within a general family of teachings guaranteeing renewed life after death through the performance of ritual; such rituals or mysteries were associated with Orpheus as well as Dionysus and taught by itinerant teachers. Egyptian influences in the 6th century BCE were probably of prime importance for the transformation of the Mycenaean Dionysus into the Dionysus of mystery rites.

The Derveni papyrus, with its Presocratic commentary on an Orphic theogony, provides Burkert’s main evidence for Egyptian influences on Greek Orphism. In his reading, the detail of “the god [Uranus] who first had ejaculated the brilliance of heaven ( aither)” is a mainstream Egyptian cosmogonic tradition which has the primal god Amun masturbating and ejaculating twin children. The Derveni text has Zeus swallow the phallus [of the king] prior to becoming “the only one” who carries within himself and then begets all gods, goddess, rivers, springs, and the rest of life. Burkert finds a clear parallel to this theme in Egyptian iconography popular in the 6th century BCE showing a plurality of gods combined into one composite god figure. Thus, argues Burkert, the text of the Orphic theogony, as known to the author of the Derveni papyrus, can be understood as “the verbal representation of the Egyptian idea of the composite god” (94). Burkert also finds an Egyptian parallel to the Orphic idea (also found in Parmenides) of the god who creates the world through thinking in the Memphitic Theology, which has Ptah produce the gods by thinking and speaking. Thus, concludes Burkert, “The ejaculation of air, the composite god, the creation by thinking — it is almost uncanny to find so many Egyptian particulars. But the evidence is clear” (91).

With their post-Persian War polarization of Persia as the Asiatic “Other,” observes Burkert in his final chapter “The Advent of the Magi,” Classical Greeks themselves bear no small responsibility for our relative inattention to Persian influences on Greek culture. The difficulties of handling Persian sources are surely of equal causative weight. Readers new to the subject will be grateful to Burkert for his clear exposition of the sources and their problems in his detailed introduction to this chapter. Written sources for one probable area of cultural influence, the religion of Zarathustra vary wildly over region (Iran to India), epoch (from Darius’ sixth-century BCE commemorative monument carved in rock face at Behistun, to ninth-century CE Zoroastran texts written under Moslem rule), dialect and script (e.g., Cuneiform Persian, Old and New Avestan, Pahlevi), and are fragmentary and paradoxical (later texts may be more valuable than earlier) to boot. It should come, then, as no surprise that Burkert summarizes our state of knowledge of pre-Persian War influences in two words: Megabyxos (the Persian title of the priest at the temple of Artemis at Ephesus which was brought under Persian protection after the defeat of Croesus in 547 BCE) and Magos, a Persian loan word, variously used in Greek texts for priests and itinerant quacks.

For the post-Persian War period, Burkert focuses on two religious ideas, both apparently Persian imports to Greece. The first is the notion of the ascent of the pious dead to a better life in heaven, an idea that replaces the uniformly bleak picture of an afterlife held by first millennium Greeks, Mesopotamians, Syrians, and Jews. Although Burkert argues that this notion is widely documented in Zarathustran and possibly pre-Zarathustran sources that antedate its first 5th century appearance in Greece (perhaps via the Pythagoraeans), he admits defeat when it comes to further historical specifics, since “among Iranian, Egyptian, and Pythagorean elements, the intermingling of similar motifs and tendencies is too dense, and the determining contacts go back too far as against the extant Greek texts, so that a neat sorting out of items and ways of transfer becomes impossible” (113). Burkert feels on firmer ground when it comes to the principle of dualism, the idea of a persistent battle between good and evil forces, elaborately documented as an import in Greek texts (Plutarch, Aristoxenus, Eudemus) and first found in fifth-century BCE Greece in Empedocles’ depiction of a war between Love and Hate as the driving cause for natural processes.

Burkert is as clear about the incontrovertible fact of cultural transmission as he is about cultural transformation. Cultural mixing is a fact: “Culture, including Greek culture, requires intercultural contact” (1). The notion of an “isolated” Greek miracle is a mirage resulting from a historical accident: “Greek culture had the good fortune to find successors who established a heritage and took care of it continuously, while neighboring civilizations fell victim to the ravages of time and to the victory of either Christianity or Islam” (124). The recent demise of the notion of a pure Classical culture merits a rather dry-eyed obituary notice: “Classicism presupposes and confirms recognized standards or norms — but these are disappearing from our multicultural world and will not be recovered easily’ (1).

Burkert’s magisterial introduction (which should be required reading for anyone interested in the topic) traces the two hundred year shift in paradigm: from Classical Greece perceived in isolation as a point of origin to today’s intercultural paradigm for Greek historiography. But he is unambivalent about subsequent Greek cultural primacy (“What determined the shape of world civilization was Greek,” 15), the fact that within the short space of two hundred years the Greeks had outgrown their Eastern masters:

And yet in the process of acculturation something new may arise; and although Greeks had been on the receiving side for a long time, there is no doubt that the result is Greek. It is Greek art and architecture that have become classical, and Greek literature that has become world literature…By the fifth century, Greek style had become a model for the whole of the Mediterranean world, both in artistic craftsmanship and in mythological poetry; it even had its effects in the East. In a way it was already dominating world civilization and this without the props of military or political power (12).

The explanation for this shift of the cultural fulcrum from the East to Greek coastal and mainland cities — the Greeks “special luck” (11)—- comes in the latter half of Burkert’s introduction in a brief geo-political history of the East (from the Assyrian Epoch through the Persian Wars). The collapse of Bronze Age Aegean civilization opened the way for new centers of contact in small coastal cities. Political and economic factors such as the development of maritime trade, the growing political power of the Assyrians, and the expansion of literacy together served an impetus for cultural transfer. The Greeks, with their freedom, their polycentricity, their “openness for agonistic competition, even if this meant a lack of stability” (14-15) were advantageously positioned to take advantage of the changed world order: “If the development of royal authority and state administration had been a necessary precondition for the establishment of high cultures in the East, their further development depended upon the retreat of the state and the opening of unlimited opportunity for small groups and individuals” (15). With the successive collapse of the great Eastern Empires, the areas at the fringes benefited. The center of Aegean civilization shifted from the Near East to Greece. As the nearest “westerners,” the Greeks got lucky: “They immediately benefited — they got their chance and their ‘miracle'” (7).

Of course, for communities as for individuals success turns on far more than the sheer luck of being in the right place at the right time. The ability to exploit a favorable roll of the dice to fullest advantage certainly counts as much, if not more. In light of the flood of work on cultural influences by Burkert and others, perhaps this is a good way for today’s classicists to think when we ponder the Greek “miracle.”