BMCR 2018.10.43

Black Ships and Sea Raiders: The Late Bronze and Early Iron Age Context of Odysseus’ Second Cretan Lie. Greek Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches

, Black Ships and Sea Raiders: The Late Bronze and Early Iron Age Context of Odysseus’ Second Cretan Lie. Greek Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017. xiii, 219. ISBN 9781498572217 $95.00.


Recent scholarship has demonstrated a long history of human interaction across the Mediterranean and western Asia that is reflected in early Greek literature, a history of oral transmission with roots going back to the Late Bronze Age, if not earlier. The majority of this scholarship to date has focused on the structural parallels between early Greek and Near Eastern literature,1 while a few studies have attempted to probe the mechanisms of transmission across time and space.2 With Black Ships and Sea Raiders, however, the reader is compelled to look beyond literary parallels and roaming bards to the turbulent social, economic, and geo-political situations at the close of the Late Bronze Age that came to be reflected in the iterations of epic tradition.

At the outset in Chapter 1, Emanuel states that the purpose of this work “is to chip away at one such individual story—Odysseus’ Second Cretan Lie—for the purpose of shedding light on the interplay between a Homeric individual and the historical and archaeological background.” (2) In other words, the author proposes viewing this falsehood as told by Odysseus ( Od.14.191-359 and partially repeated at Od.17.424-441) as reflective of the Late Bronze Age to Iron Age transition, in particular the movements and maritime tactics associated with the so-called Sea Peoples. In this episode, Odysseus, in disguise, falsely tells the swineherd Eumaios that he is the son of a wealthy Cretan, skilled in fighting and commanding ships, having successfully conducted no less than nine expeditions prior to the Trojan War and grown rich from looted treasure. His falsehood progresses to the Trojan War and its aftermath, when he conducted an unsuccessful raid on Egypt with nine ships. Having been spared by the Pharaoh, Odysseus the Cretan remained in Egypt for another seven years, amassing great wealth.

To be clear, this book is not arguing for the strict historicity of this episode, but rather intends to uncover parallels between the actions and persona of Odysseus’ “Cretan avatar” and the scattered evidence of the Sea Peoples to characterize the social and economic realities of the decades that closed off the Late Bronze Age. A brief caveat: readers who are looking for a detailed reading of historical elements in Homer, and the processes by which these elements came to be incorporated into epic, should look elsewhere. In Emanuel’s work, the Second Cretan Lie is rather a jumping off point to explore a combination of evidence—primarily literary and iconographic—for the variegated Sea Peoples, focusing especially on their “maritime tactics, technology, and capabilities” and the transformative roles of these cultural elements in the 12 th and 11 th centuries BCE (6). Emanuel sees in the Cretan Odysseus several striking parallels with one particular Sea Peoples group, the “Sherden of the Sea”,3 parallels explored especially in the latter part of the book.

The rest of the monograph is divided into Chapters 2 through 9. Chapter 2 outlines the methodologies adopted in the work, with basic discussions of chronology and the problematic associations of certain types of material culture with Sea Peoples groups, in particular the Philistines. Adhering to the adage that “pots do not equal people” (18-21), the author’s focus is much more on iconographic and literary representations from a variety of milieus to reconstruct the movements and interactions of the Sea Peoples with the polities around the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean, and less on identifying archaeological correlates for specific Sea Peoples groups. In this way, Black Ships and Sea Raiders differs from other recent treatments of the Sea Peoples—for instance, Assaf Yasur-Landau’s 2010 monograph on the Aegean-Philistine migrations.4 Both works nonetheless present similar pieces of evidence. The contribution of the work under review, then, is not so much the presentation of novel types of testimony for the Sea Peoples, but rather the interweaving of already well-known cultural elements of these peoples with Homeric episodes to illuminate aspects of the Sea Peoples often overshadowed by the focus on identifying these groups archaeologically.

Chapter 3, “Raiders, Traders, and Sea Peoples in the Late Bronze Age and Beyond,” introduces the reader to general aspects of Late Bronze Age interconnectivity and internationalism, focusing especially on the realities of piracy, and the likely cooption of pirates’ maritime expertise by states. I stress “likely,” because most of Emanuel’s evidence here is circumstantial, reliant on consensus with earlier scholarly claims and by recourse to Homer. Nevertheless, given the evidence presented later in the book, piracy and privateering must be acknowledged as likely outcomes of the intense commercial interconnections of this period.

The next several chapters set the scene for interpreting the Sea Peoples through Odysseus’ falsehood in conjunction with Mycenaean archaeological and textual sources (Chapter 4) and Egyptian sources (Chapter 5). In Chapter 5, the reader is introduced to the curious horn-helmed Sherden, who seem to migrate back and forth between being enemies and mercenaries of the Pharaoh, suggesting that these seaborne groups were both antagonists and allies of states like Egypt—a situation which Odysseus the Cretan’s relationship with the Pharaoh seems to reflect.

Chapter 6, “The Changing Face of War and Society,” further illuminates the theme of naval-based warfare, focusing on the iconography of warriors in feathered helmets on naval scenes across the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean in the 13 th and 12 th centuries BCE. The real purpose of this chapter, however, is to suggest, using evidence such as the Egyptianizing anthropoid coffins from Beth Shean, that these feather-helmeted warriors marked themselves as status-holding foreigners by employing a hybrid material culture, actions which seem to “parallel Odysseus’ own claim. . . that he became a man of ‘much wealth’ while living in the land of the Pharaohs.” (95) Ultimately, the reader is compelled to understand the Sea Peoples as more than troublesome marauders and instead as integral cultural components of the Late Bronze Age, an argument that finds corroboration in more recent scholarship. 5

Chapters 7–9 bring the argument for this variegated and seditious maritime-based society reflected in the Cretan Odysseus full circle. Chapter 7, “Hedgehog Helmets, Sea Peoples, and Ship-to-Ship Combat” explores the association of feather- and horn-helmed warriors with the emergence of the oared galley and ship-to-ship combat as depicted on pictorial pottery. The earliest examples of these scenes seem to materialize in Anatolia, which Emanuel connects to the rise of a new warrior class in the eastern Mediterranean Interface in the LH IIIC period, whose elites derived wealth and power, in part, from maritime expertise—a reality possibly reflected in later Homeric accounts of the nostoi.

The maritime element of this culture is further developed in Chapter 8, “Mariners and Their Ships: Vessel Types, Capacity, and Rigging,” the longest and most detailed chapter, which surveys the various elements associated with the rise of a new type of hybrid warship, an oared galley employing a brailed, loose-footed sail, that takes form in the 13 th and especially 12 th centuries in the eastern Mediterranean. Alongside this new ship form are historical records suggesting the existence of small fleets that nonetheless wreaked havoc on polities like Ugarit, fleets possibly made up of leaders who mobilized coastal power bases amidst the chaos of the 12 th century, akin to the Cretan Odysseus.

Finally, Chapter 9, “Αἴγυπτόνδε: Life, Prosperity, and Health in the Land of the Pharaohs,” considers the outcomes of these emergent groups like the Sherden, who, beyond their appearance as both enemies and mercenaries of the Pharaoh, are clearly mentioned in later Egyptian records as playing various roles in Egyptian society, from landowners to servants. This chapter, while short, constitutes one of the most refreshing aspects of the book through its close focus on the nachleben of one of the Sea Peoples groups. A (very) brief summary ends this chapter, followed by notes, a bibliography, and a general index.

Overall, Black Ships and Sea Raiders constitutes an enlightening compilation of evidence for the Sea Peoples and their lasting cultural legacies in Greek epic. The text, primary sources, and highly useful black-and-white images are presented with clear references and minimal errors.6 The author judiciously stops short of any arguments concerning the ethnicities of these varied groups (appealing, in one of the few instances of theoretical discussion in this book, to Barth’s views on ethnicity on page 23), despite the obvious emphasis on the Aegean-eastern Mediterranean Interface as a crucial arena of cultural and technological developments for these maritime-based societies.7

While the demonstration of how epic compilations in the Odyssey reflected memories of these Late Bronze Age instabilities is enticing, however, the mechanisms of transmission of these memories remain murky. Indeed, after detailing the numerous ways in which Odysseus’ Cretan persona interfaces with the cultural repertoire of the Sea Peoples, the gap remains at the end of this book between historical realities and epic creation. To this end, additional discussion of the systems and routes of transmission during the Late Bronze and Iron Ages would have strengthened the argument (as demonstrated by works in note 2). The role of Crete itself, as a locus both for piratical activities associated with the Sea Peoples and for the generation of social practices reflected in the Homeric epics could also have been further explored. Finally, the focus on literary paradigms as reflective of historical realities (which they undoubtedly are) also runs the risk of making one blind to other explanatory factors not necessarily expressed in epic. In the case of the Bronze to Iron Age transition these factors would include the roles of environment and climate in the movements of peoples and the alteration of society, which, alongside human elements, constituted what Eric Cline has called a “perfect storm” of events that heralded the end of the Bronze Age.8

All in all, however, this book shrewdly interweaves variegated pieces of evidence to demonstrate how epic and historical evidence can be brought into dialogue with one another to interpret phenomena as shadowy as the Sea Peoples. This book is recommended for anyone interested in cultural and historical aspects of the Bronze to Iron Age transition. Furthermore, to hearken back to the opening of this review, those keen on Aegean-Near Eastern relations as gleaned through early Greek literature should not ignore the arguments presented in Black Ships and Sea Raiders, which push the study of shared literary and mythical elements beyond the realm of mere cultural transmission and into the domain of the actual cross-cultural realities that epic came, in part, to reflect—namely, a turbulent yet vibrant Aegean-Near Eastern socio-cultural continuum at the close of the Bronze Age.


1. To name just a few more recent ones: C. López-Ruiz, When the Gods Were Born: Greek Cosmogonies and the Near East (Harvard, 2010); B. Louden, Homer’s Odyssey and the Near East (Cambridge, 2011); J. Haubold Greece and Mesopotamia: Dialogues in Literature (Cambridge, 2013); and, for a more critical view on the realities of borrowing, C. Metcalf The Gods Rich in Praise: Early Greek and Mesopotamian Religious Poetry (Oxford, 2015).

2. E.g., M. Bachvarova, From Hittite to Homer: The Anatolian Background of Ancient Greek Epic (Cambridge, 2016); B. J. Collins, M. R. Bachvarova, I. C. Rutherford (eds.), Anatolian Interfaces: Hittites, Greeks and their Neighbours (Oxbow, 2008).

3. As noted on the front pavilion wall at the mortuary temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu, which shows a single captive figure, who serves as a determinative for the phrase Š3rd3n3 n p3 ym “Sherden of the sea” (101-102).

4. A. Yasur-Landau, The Philistines and Aegean Migration at the End of the Late Bronze Age (Cambridge, 2010).

5. E.g., L. A. Hitchcock and A. M. Maeir, “Pirates of the Crete-Aegean: migration, mobility, and Post-Palatial realities at the end of the Bronze Age,” Proceedings of the 12th International Conference of Cretan Studies, Heraklion, 21-25 September 2016 (2018), 1-12.

6. Figure 6.2 on page 86 is labeled as an LH IIIC Middle krater from Mycenae, and can be found in A. Furtwängler and G. Loeschcke, Mykenische Vasen: Vorhellenische Thongefässe aus dem Gebiete des Mittelmeers (Asher, 1886), Fig. 37. In the corresponding text, however, the author discusses a larnax from Mycenae and a krater from Tiryns, neither of which seems to correspond to the associated image.

7. Curiously, no mention is given to the debates over the relations of the Sherden to either Sardinia or Sardis. See G. Cavillier, “‘Shardana project’—Perspectives and Researches on the Sherden in Egypt and the Mediterranean,” Syria 87 (2016), 339-345.

8. For a summary and critique of recent climatic and environmental data see A. B. Knapp and S. W. Manning, “Crisis in Context: The End of the Late Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean,” American Journal of Archaeology 120.1 (2016), 99-149. See also E. Cline, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Princeton, 2014), Chapter 5.