Category Archives: Poetry and epics (Greco-Roman)

Works by and about authors like Homer, Virgil, Pindar, etc.

Should it rather be, Poetry and Drama?

Carried to Heaven on Eagles’ Wings — More Tales

Just for fun, as an appendix to the previous post, here are other stories of heroes being carried up into the heavens by eagles. Some appear to inspire aspirational thoughts of heavenly things while others warn of the hubris that felled Satan.

In that previous post I linked to (and briefly outlined) a story of Etana but for the sake of completeness let’s look at that starting point once more, this time with Aro’s description.

Akkadian Etana Myth

An eagle and a snake make a holy covenant that neither of them will harm the other. In spite of this, the eagle later devours the young of the snake and is punished by the Sun-God. Some kind of atonement is provided by the hero Etana who is looking for the “plant of birth” in order to obtain offspring. The eagle is willing to carry him to heaven upon its shoulders. The plan does not seem to lead to a successful completion, because Etana is frightened by the terrible height. He seems, however, to have obtained the plant, because other fragments of the epic presuppose that he sired a son. What interests us here is the idea of “space-travel” with an eagle and the conversation between Etana and the eagle:

The eagle says to him, to Etana:
“See, my friend, how the land appears!
Peer at the sea at the sides of E[kur]!”
“The land … a mountain,
the sea has become like waters of [. . . . ]”
When he had born him aloft a second league,
the eagle says to him, to Etana:
”See, my friend, how the land appears!”
“The land has turned to a gardener’s ditch.

Etana and the eagle arrive at the heaven of Anu, and there is a break in the text; after that they presumably rise even higher. The conversation is continued on similar lines: e.g. the sea looks after one league’s flight like an enclosure, after two leagues the land is like a garden and the sea like a trough. At last Etana cannot see anything, and he is panicked: “My friend, I will not ascend to heaven.” The eagle descends with enormous speed to the ground.

(Aro, 25f)

Illustrating a version having griffins (eagle-lion hybrids) carrying Alexander aloft.

Alexander the Great’s Ascent

From the origins of Sumerian civilization to the end of the Persian period, this tale must have been read and repeated throughout Western Asia. After the death of Alexander the Great, who had conquered and ruled Babylonia, it was transferred to him. The legend of the Ascension of Alexander spread throughout the ancient world and has descended to modern times in endless versions, Greek, Latin, Armenian, Coptic, Syriac, and Old French. Representations of Alexander’s ascent on eagles yoked together are found on tapestries, on illuminated manuscripts, painted on walls of palaces, and even in sculptures of Christian cathedrals. A Jewish scribe of the fourth century A.D. refers to it in the Talmud.

“Alexander the Macedonian wished to ascend in the air. He mounted, mounted, until he saw the earth as a cup and the sea as a caldron.”

Here follows a resume of the earliest Greek versions. Arrived at the extremity of the earth, Alexander desired to discover where the vault of Heaven reposed on the earth. His soldiers selected two great birds, which he caused to be without food for three days. He then put them under a yoke, and attached the hide of a bull to the yoke. A basket was fastened to the yoke, into which he climbed, having a long spear. To the end of this spear he attached the liver of a horse. The liver he held high above the heads of the hungry birds; in their eagerness to reach it they carried him upward. He ascended until the air became icy cold. Here he was halted by a bird-man who said to him:

“Alexander, thou art ignorant of terrestrial things, why desirest thou to understand those of Heaven? Return quickly to earth, and fear lest thou be the prey of these birds. Look upon the earth below.”

Seized with fear Alexander looked downward, and the earth looked like a threshing floor, surrounded by a serpent, which was the sea. He descended successfully “by the mercy of supreme Providence,” but landed seven days’ journey from his camp. Saved from famine by a satrap he received a guard of soldiers and reached his camp.

(Langdon, 173f)

Nimrod’s Ascent

In Islamic legends told by the commentators of the Qur’an, especially at-Tabar!, the same story is told about Nimrod (ar. Namrūd), and utilized to explain the words of Surah 14,46:
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The Question of Historicity Need Not Be Raised

The question whether Orpheus himself existed or not need not be raised. There was, in general, no doubt of it in the ancient world. Indeed, it makes very little difference in the history of human thought whether the great and influential personalities ever actually lived in human bodies. Personalities like Zeus, Odysseus, and Zoroaster, and even Hamlet and Don Quixote, have been more important in the world than millions of men who have lived and died. Their reality is the reality of an idea, and the best that we can know about them is what men have thought about them. The reality of Orpheus is to be sought in what men thought and said about him. 
Linforth, Ivan M. 1973 (c 1941). The Arts of Orpheus. New York: Arno Press. xiif
Death of Orpheus (1494) by Dürer

Old Testament based on Herodotus? Acts on the myth we read in Virgil?

Before continuing with the scholarship that questions the traditional view that many of the Old Testament books were stitched together from much older texts, let’s lay out on the table a very broad overview of the thesis of a Dutch scholar, Jan-Wim Wesselius (I love his homepage photo and caption), as published in The Origin of the History of Israel: Herodotus’ Histories as Blueprint for the First Books of the Bible. (This was the most expensive book I had ever purchased in my entire life, so I continue to guard it well.)

In this post I select just one detail that is not meant to persuade the sceptical (and scepticism is a virtue) but only to stimulate thoughts anew among anyone who has not traveled this road before. There is much more to be said along with the snippet of data I present here, and I have posted one of those snippets on comparing Moses with Herodotus’ portrayal of the Persian king Xerxes (and the Plagues of Egypt with the catastrophes inflicting the army of Xerxes). A serious treatment comparing Herodotus’ Histories would need to start with a 1993 publication, The Relationship Between Herodotus’ History and Primary History by Mandell and Freedman. One of the more fascinating insights is that the Greek history is in many ways a “theological” history like the Bible’s historical books. The same lessons of the the role of the divine in and over human affairs are found like a unifying thread in both works. But such details are for another time.

To appreciate what is to follow it would help to have some knowledge of both Homer’s epics, the Iliad and Odyssey, and Virgil’s epic poem of the founding of the Roman race, the Aeneid. G. N. Knauer sums up the way Virgil did not merely serendipitously draw upon recollections of what he had read in Homer’s epics, but he clearly studied the structures of Homer’s epics and built his own epic upon a reassembling of that structure, perhaps in an effort to surpass the artistry of the original.

. . . Vergil clearly realized how Homer conceived the structure of the Odyssey and . . . therefore did not simply imitate sporadic Homeric verses or scenes. On the contrary he first analysed the plan of the Odyssey, then transformed it and made it the base of his own poem.

What is especially significant is that this is one case-study of how ancient literature very often worked. Reworkings of earlier masters was a highly respected skill.

I don’t think I’m alone in also thinking Virgil reworked a single epic out of Homer’s dual effort. The Aeneid is an epic poem of the travels of Aeneas, founder of the Roman race, from the time he fled the conquered and burning Troy until the time he found a secure place in Italy after many battles with the local Latin tribes. The Roman epic begins with the adventures of a long voyage of Aeneas to his destined homeland — just as the second Homeric epic, the Odyssey, narrates the adventurous travels of the Greek hero. The second half of the Roman epic recounts many battles reminiscent of Homer’s first epic, the Iliad. Both conclude with the climactic death in battle of a warrior protagonist — Hector and Turnus. (Of course, the Odyssey likewise ends in much bloodshed, but this action is actually a small part in a larger narrative of deception, plotting and homecoming.) So a very broad comparison of the larger structures of these epics looks like this:

But there’s more. Much more. Knauf also writes (my formatting and emphasis): read more »