An interesting observation in an ancient history publication:
In Babylonia demons hostile to the cult became subject to exorcism, a rite which from the earliest times was regarded as something communal. Some exorcisms were directed against storm demons, and one wonders whether behind the ‘Odyssey’ incident of the bag of winds given by Aiolos and Jesus’ command on the sea of Galilee ordering the winds to cease, there is not a common origin, the belief that winds were demons, capable of obeying human commands or being bound by magic. (The sea also as associated with evil is a characteristic Old Testament and even New Testament theme.) The Mycenaean Linear B tablets give evidence that the Mycenaeans worshipped the winds. A cult to Boreas existed in classical times at Athens. But winds would be gods in much the sense that streams, mountains, woods, etc. had gods, with less of a link between demons and winds than existed in the Orient. Another remnant among the Greeks might be the Siren passage of the ‘Odyssey’, where a daimon quells the winds just as Odysseus and his men are to pass the Sirens (12.169).
Brenk, Frederick C. “In the Light of the Moon: Demonology in the Early Imperial Period.” Aufstieg Und Niedergang Der Römischen Welt 16, no. 3 (1986): 2068–2145.
The Christian dying saviour who atones for his people was a development of Hebrew ideas but the Greek influence cannot be ignored either. In fact, the evidence suggests that the Greek idea was embraced by Hebrew authors. (This post is sharing a few pages from J. W. van Henten’s The Maccabean Martyrs As Saviours of the Jewish People: A Study of 2 and 4 Maccabees. I work with Henten’s date for the composition of 2 Maccabees as around 124 B.C.E.)
We read in 2 Maccabees 6:12-17 that the suffering of the Jewish people at the hands of Seleucid kings is a sign of God’s special love for his people. God seeks to discipline his people before their sins get too far out of hand. That’s not how he treats the gentiles. He lets their sins continue until the reach some ultimate height and presumably then they will really suffer.
12 Now I urge those who read this book not to be depressed by such calamities, but to recognize that these punishments were designed not to destroy but to discipline our people. 13 In fact, it is a sign of great kindness not to let the impious alone for long, but to punish them immediately. 14 For in the case of the other nations the Lord waits patiently to punish them until they have reached the full measure of their sins; but he does not deal in this way with us, 15 in order that he may not take vengeance on us afterward when our sins have reached their height. 16 Therefore he never withdraws his mercy from us. Although he disciplines us with calamities, he does not forsake his own people. 17 Let what we have said serve as a reminder; we must go on briefly with the story.
The martyrs who suffer do so not only for their own sins but primarily because of the sins of all their people. (The only sins mentioned are those of the Jewish traitors.) A mother and her seven sons are martyred one by one, and before the sixth son was taken to suffer a gruesome fate we read in 2 Maccabees 7:18 his words spoken to Antiochus:
18 After him they brought forward the sixth. And when he was about to die, he said, “Do not deceive yourself in vain. For we are suffering these things on our own account, because of our sins against our own God. Therefore astounding things have happened.
“These things” that are suffered embrace both the suffering of the martyrs and the afflictions of the whole nation.
The seventh son expressed the same in 2 Maccabees 7:32
32 For we are suffering because of our own sins.
The same phrase “our own sins” is again found in 10:4 after the restoration of the Temple and prayers are made expressing hope never to suffer again the same way for their sins:
4 When they had done this, they fell prostrate and implored the Lord that they might never again fall into such misfortunes, but that, if they should ever sin, they might be disciplined by him with forbearance and not be handed over to blasphemous and barbarous nations.
The seventh son’s last words (7:37-38) were a declaration that his and his brothers’ martyrdom would bring an end to the sufferings of their people:
37 I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our ancestors, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by trials and plagues to make you confess that he alone is God, 38 and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation.
Henten interprets the above passages as meaning that the martyrs are suffering as a result of the sins of all the Jews:
The pattern of the narrative . . . as well as certain remarks in 5:17-20 and 6:12-17 support this interpretation (cf. 4 Macc. 4:21). The wicked deeds of some Jewish leaders have led the whole people including the martyrs into a state of sin. This explains why the youngest brother can say at 2 Macc. 7:38 that the wrath of the Lord “has justly fallen on our whole nation”. The godless actions of Simon, Jason, Menelaus, Lysimachus, Alcimus and the unfaithful soldiers of Judas are the only sins of Jews reported in 2 Maccabees. Nowhere are the sins of the martyrs themselves mentioned. The martyrs . . . die because of the sins of the people and in this way show their solidarity with the people.
The martyrs are acting on behalf of the entire people:
The references to “we”, “us” and “our” in 2 Macc. 7:16, 30, 32-33, 38 are intended to be inclusive; they point not only to the martyrs but also to the people. The youngest brother says in 7:30 to the Seleucid king that Moses has given the law of the Lord to “our ancestors”, thereby making the entire people responsible for keeping the Torah. In 2 Macc. 7:31, Antiochus is not called the adversary of the martyrs but of “the Hebrews”.
The sufferings that the martyrs in chapter 7 speak of are the sufferings of “the entire Jewish people” as well as to the martyrs. Reconciliation will follow the short period of torment, as the last son makes clear:
33 And if our living Lord is angry for a little while, to rebuke and discipline us, he will again be reconciled with his own servants. . . . . 38 and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation.”
Immediately after the deaths of the seven sons and their mother the reconciliation begins. From chapter 8 the tide turns and Judas Maccabeus soundly defeats the army of Nicanor.
40 So he died in his integrity, putting his whole trust in the Lord. 41 Last of all, the mother died, after her sons. . . .
8 Meanwhile Judas, who was also called Maccabeus, and his companions secretly entered the villages and summoned their kindred and enlisted those who had continued in the Jewish faith, and so they gathered about six thousand. 2 They implored the Lord to look upon the people who were oppressed by all; and to have pity on the temple that had been profaned by the godless; 3 to have mercy on the city that was being destroyed and about to be leveled to the ground; to hearken to the blood that cried out to him; 4 to remember also the lawless destruction of the innocent babies and the blasphemies committed against his name; and to show his hatred of evil.
5 As soon as Maccabeus got his army organized, the Gentiles could not withstand him, for the wrath of the Lord had turned to mercy. 6 Coming without warning, he would set fire to towns and villages. He captured strategic positions and put to flight not a few of the enemy. 7 He found the nights most advantageous for such attacks. And talk of his valor spread everywhere.
The story flow leads the reader to understand that the martyrdoms were the turning point in God’s intervention and working through Judas Maccabeus to free the people from foreign domination.
This pattern is repeated when Razis kills himself to save his people — 2 Maccabees 14:37-46. Stabbing himself didn’t work, so he threw himself off a tower into the enemy below, but that didn’t work either, so he finally ripped out his entrails and flung them at his opponents. The following chapter sees Judas Maccabeus announcing to his troops a dream-sign from God (Jeremiah giving him a golden sword) with the only possible outcome, 15:27:
So, fighting with their hands and praying to God in their hearts, they laid low at least thirty-five thousand, and were greatly gladdened by God’s manifestation.
These stories of deaths that became turning points for the liberation of the Jews are core themes in 2 Maccabees. What was their source of inspiration?
[I]n 2 Macc. 7:37-38 classical and Hellenistic Greek vocabulary concerning the death for one’s fatherland (Hellas), home town, laws, friends, relatives or beloved131 is combined for the first time with conceptions about atonement in the Hebrew Bible . . . .
This is the second of two articles by Professor of Religion Sarah Iles Johnston. (The first article was addressed in Why Certain Kinds of Myths Are So Easy to Believe) I have been led to Johnston’s articles and books (along with other works addressing related themes by classicists) as I was led down various detours while reviewing M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. I expect interested readers will see the relevance of Johnston’s thesis to Christian myths in the gospels and understand more deeply the mechanics at work that make them so believable for so many people.
Many Greek mythical narratives (whether poetry, drama or prose) appear to have no necessary relationship with a particular festival or other special occasion. They appear to have a life of their own and can be recited in quite different contexts and often with variations of details and even basic storylines. Variations, hearing only parts of a story that must be somehow fitted with a larger narrative, but with some difficulty because of certain differences of character or details, such presentations of the myths had the potential to arouse intense curiosity and discussion, with individuals surely acquiring their own understanding, view and relationship with a god or hero.
Who would ever imagine any similarity between Socrates and the Homeric hero Achilles? Johnston does not raise this illustration but it is one that illustrates her point well. Plato informs us that Socrates compared himself with Achilles. The philosopher with the warrior? Yes, because Socrates could explain to his audience that like Achilles, he likewise heroically followed what he believed to be the right or pious course of life even knowing it would result in his premature death. Variations in narratives encouraged deeper reflection and personal relationships with what the gods and heroes represented.
As Johnston points out, Greek myths generally were not point by point analogies to the real world but were metaphorical tales that were subject to reinterpretation and different functions or applications. The myth of Persephone, as we saw in the previous post, served equally well for a celebration of the hope for a good harvest and hope for a happier afterlife for initiates into the mysteries.
There is a poem by a fifth-century BCE poet, Bacchylides, that offers us another instance such devices that encouraged curiosity and engagement with the myths. In the centre I outline the thought-flow of the poem (in paraphrase) and beside it I have circled all the points that the poem in references in the wider world of Greek myth. Notice how much detail is left to the audience’s imagination, how many questions are potentially raised among those who are perhaps not fully acquainted with all of the associations or who are aware of differences with other accounts, or what questions of character arise when set in the wider mythical world. And why is Heracles being honoured at a festival in honour of Dionysus anyway? The Greeks evidently did not find any strong need to bind each story to a specific or analogous occasion (Johnston). The conclusion is surely designed to provoke much thought and discussion about the death of Heracles and his relations with his first wife, and the role of the Centaur.
One detail not brought out in the following diagram is that several of the related myths are linked to familiar places in the Greek peninsula: the city Heracles razed was in Eritrea, the place where he offered to Zeus was Cape Lithada, for example.
Click on the diagram if it does not appear in full in normal Vridar page setting.
The point of the above? Johnston explains:
. . . . the Greeks cared less about always making tightly logical connections between festivals and myths than we have imagined—or to put it otherwise, that the contributions that mythic narratives made to creating and sustaining belief in the gods and heroes could be more broadly based than we have previously acknowledged. More specifically, I suggest that an essential element that enabled this breadth of applicability was the tightly woven story world that was cumulatively being created on a continuous basis by the myths that were narrated. The closely intertwined nature of this story world validated not only each individual myth that comprised it but all the stories about what had happened in the mythic past, the characters who inhabited them, and the entire worldview upon which they rested. Because it was embedded in this story world, a skillfully narrated myth about Heracles, for example, had the power to sustain and enhance belief not only in Heracles himself but in the entire cadre of the divine world of which he was a member, including those divinities to whom the festival at which the myth was performed was dedicated.
(Johnston, Greek Mythic Story World, 284)
It should be kept in mind that these myths were often performed publicly, at temples and festivals in honour of certain gods.
The audiences were primed by these conditions to open their minds to the ideas that the myths conveyed, and thus the two, festival and myth, mutually supported one another.
So what is it that “makes story worlds in general coherent and credible”, Johnston asks.
According to J.R.R. Tolkien there is the Primary World, the world in which we live, and then there is a Secondary World, one that an author creates and into which a reader enters — through “willing suspension of disbelief” (Coleridge?)? through “willing activation of pretense” (Saler)?, or, as Johnston prefers,
truly well-constructed story world requires no conscious decision at all on the part of audience members who participate in it — neither the suspension of disbelief nor the activation of pretense. It immerses readers or viewers so completely, yet so subtly, that they pass into it without even noticing that they are doing so.
A Secondary World needs to have a fence, a partition of some sort to separate it from our quotidian Primary World (Wolf). Dividing walls include wardrobe doors, rabbit holes, deserts traversed by houses carried in cyclones, interdimensional travel technology. Secondary Worlds are very different from Primary Worlds by virtue of strange inhabitants, strange landscapes, strange technology, and so forth. Greek myths are not exactly like that, nor are the gospels or other biblical stories. Yes, they do contain monsters, talking snakes and donkeys, but these oddities are placed in “our world”, a “real world”, the Primary World in which we all exist. They are the oddities in our “real” world; in Greek myths and biblical stories we have not, as a rule, entered worlds that are entirely strange in every way. (There are a few exceptions such as when Odysseus is on an island with a witch who changes his crew into wild beasts but such stories are set in a larger more recognizable world — with normal geographical, botanical and zoological features.)
But what if you can’t turn off the TV because you don’t even think it’s there?
What if the materials that train the mind to think in certain ways and to accept alternative realities are not understood by the audience — and perhaps not by the authors, either — to be fictions, at least in the usual sense of that word? (Johnston)
This post is based primarily on the first of two essays by classicist Sarah Iles Johnston exploring why Greek myths captured imaginations so strongly and what made them “real”, even “historical”. We will see that Johnston’s thesis overlaps with M. David Litwa’s in How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths but I will save a more detailed comparison with Litwa’s views when I return to reviewing that book.
Most of us know at least a few of the ancient myths and that’s part of the problem when it comes to understanding how the ancient peoples who believed them heard them. We have books with collections of myths and we read each myth ripped from the context in which it was originally understood.
I do want to suggest that, having fallen into the habit of excising Greek myths from their narratives, scholars have long overlooked one of the most salient and significant features of mythic narratives: their ability to engage their audiences emotionally and cognitively. . . . [T]his habit prevented us from understanding some of the most important reasons that myths were able to help create and sustain ancient Greek beliefs in the gods, heroes, and the divine world more generally . . . .
(Johnston, Narrating Myths, 174)
We will see that Johnston analyses the way Greek myths were able to allow listeners to feel that they were not merely hearing a story that happened long ago but that they themselves “were living amongst the gods and heroes, even if as lesser partners” (p. 190).
The Magical Myth
To make her case Johnston begins by explaining a very common type of ancient myth that was quite different from Greek myths. Johnston uses a term that is closely related to magic: “historiola”, meaning “a short mention of an analogous mythical story” (Maas, 37). Example, an Egyptian “historiola” myth:
… Isis came out of the spinning house [at the hour] when she loosened her thread. “Come, my sister Nephthys! See, my deafness has overtaken me! My thread has entangled me! Show me my way that I may do what I know [how to do], so that I may extinguish him with my milk, with the salutary liquids from within my breasts. It will be applied to your body, Horus, so that your vessels become sound. I will make the fire recede that has attacked you!”
While the mother recites these words, she applies her own milk to her child, just as Isis applied hers to Horus. The child’s fever is expected to break, just as Horus’s fever broke.
And one more:
To take another example: if a baby has a headache, then its mother might invoke the paradigm of “banished headache” by telling of how Christ pushed the Evil Eye off a rock to stop it from giving headaches to another baby, thus “persuading” her own child’s headache to go away as well (Pócs 2009.29, from a Romanian example that is still in use today).
That’s magic, in my view. Repeat a story that happened long ago and in a far-off or far-away “world” and apply it to cause the same thing to happen in the present moment. They are like curse pronouncements. Repeat a formula that draws down the power of the spirits and have them act in this world accordingly.
But that’s not the way it worked with Greek myths.
Take the myth of Persephone. In place of a direct cause-effect action between the mythic story and the real world we enter the realm of metaphor:
The story of Persephone’s annual return from the world of the dead, for example, when narrated in connection with the Eleusinian mysteries, was not meant to suggest that initiates into the mysteries would similarly return from the Underworld for a portion of each year after they had died, but rather reminded them that initiation ensured them happier existences down below once they had gotten there. Persephone’s experiences were a metaphor for those of the initiates; the two shared the salient characteristic of being partial triumphs over death but differed insofar as, among other things, although Persephone annually returned to the world of the living, the dead initiates did not. When narrated in connection with the Thesmophoria, the same story metaphorically expressed the celebrants’ hopes that crops would once again rise from the dark earth into which seeds were cast; the two shared the salient characteristic of anticipating the annual return of something desirable but differed insofar as, for example, although Persephone returned each year in her own right, the crops “returned” only in the sense that their seeds generated new plants to replace them (an idea that, in turn, served as a metaphor for the Thesmophoria’s other focus: the successful conception and birth of new human children). The fact that some stories, like this one, could serve as meaningful accompaniments for two different festivals with different primary goals underscores their metaphorical nature: had the relationship between the myths and the rituals I just described been one of straightforward analogy, such double service would not have worked very well.
To understand the point further:
. . . the aim of a traditional historiola, after all, is to cause something in the quotidian realm to pattern itself after something in the mythic realm not in only one or two salient ways but rather as closely as possible.
But Greek myths were not like that. They did not have that sort of magic power; they were not told to produce magical effects in this world.
. . . the deeds described by the myths existed on a continuum that flowed uninterruptedly into the time of the listeners. A well-narrated Greek myth would leave those listeners feeling not that they were repeating paradigmatic actions of the gods and heroes that had been performed eons ago (as is the case with historiolae), but rather that they were living amongst the gods and heroes, even if as lesser partners.
No, the Greek myths were different. They somehow “prepared their audiences to feel as if they were living amongst the gods and heroes.”
Continuing a discussion of M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths . . .
Allow me to round off with a few tidbits from Litwa’s discussion of the appearances of prophecies in history and biography type narratives. We have covered much of the main idea in the previous post on dreams. I’ll begin here with Litwa’s conclusion so we can, I hope, think the argument through with some attention to detail.
Don’t forget that prophecy-driven narratives were probably even more common in ancient fiction. See Prophecy Driven Narratives in Ancient Fiction. Litwa, however, focuses on prophecies found in historical or biographical literature and concludes the ancient reader would have associated prophecy with historical-type literature. He does not discuss (as far as I am aware at this stage) the reasons audiences would have been at least as likely to have associated prophecy with fictional narratives.
By telling the stories of great heroes as mythic historiography, ancient authors made their stories recognizable and rhetorically effective in the minds of their audiences. As we have seen, the evangelists were no exception. They used the same mythistorical patterns to highlight the transcendent greatness of their hero, even while he was a tiny baby. Yet their practices best resemble those of ancient historians who wrote historical accounts reporting supposedly real events. (pp. 62 f)
Here is how Litwa compares the “mythistorical patterns” in Greco-Roman historical or biographical literature and in the gospels.
We start with Pythagoras
Mnesarchus, father of Pythagoras, learned from Apollo that his wife “would bring forth a son surpassing all who previously lived in beauty and wisdom and who would be the greatest benefit to the human race.” (Iamblichus, Life)
An angel tells Mary, “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the son of the Most High” (Luke 1:31-32).
Now that certainly sounds like the story of a divine prophecy of the birth of Pythagoras was told in a manner very similar to that in the gospels about the birth of Jesus.
But I am never satisfied with reading second and third-hand summaries and always crave to check the original as closely as possible, either in the Greek or a reputable translation.
IT is said, therefore, that Ancaeus who dwelt in Samos in Cephallenia, was begot by Jupiter, whether he derived the fame of such an honorable descent through virtue, or through a certain greatness of soul. He surpassed, however, the rest of the Cephallenians in wisdom and renown.
[Ancaeus founds a new colony when commanded to do so by a prophet of Apollo.]
Unlike ancient fiction, historical fiction (including Luke-Acts), and certain popular historical works that were ridiculed by satirists and serious historians, notice that Iamblichus, in relating the traditions about descents of famous persons from gods, distances himself from them. He does not write of them as straightforward facts but begins, “it is said that…”. Iamblichus attempts an explanation that might have given rise to the stories.
Of course, we have no comparable distancing or critical assessment of similar narratives in the gospels.
It is said, therefore, that Mnesarchus and Pythais, who were the parents of Pythagoras, descended from the family and alliance of this Ancaeus, who founded the colony. In consequence, however, of this nobility of birth being celebrated by the citizens, a certain Samian poet says, that Pythagoras was the son of Apollo. For thus he sings,
Pythais fairest of the Samian tribe, Bore from th’ embraces of the God of day Renown’d Pythagoras, the friend of Jove.
Iamblchus continues to express his distancing from the information he is relaying. He makes it clear that he is writing what ‘is said’ by others.
The direct claim that Pythagoras was born from Apollo comes from a poet who is evidently looking back on the life and reputation of Pythagoras. Again, we have Iamblichus’s personal distancing from the claim itself.
It is worth while, however, to relate how this report became so prevalent. The Pythian oracle [= oracle of Apollo] then had predicted to this Mnesarchus . . . that his wife was now pregnant, and would bring forth a son surpassing in beauty and wisdom all that ever lived, and who would be of the greatest advantage to the human race in every thing pertaining to the life of man. . . . [W]e must not regard the assertions of Epimenides, Eudoxus, and Xenocrates, who suspect that Apollo at that time, becoming connected with Parthenis, and causing her to be pregnant from not being so, had in consequence of this predicted concerning Pythagoras, by the Delphic prophet: for this is by no means to be admitted.*
Iamblichus wants to bring readers along with possible explanations for the reputation of Pythagoras being a son of Apollo. Here we encounter the prophecy that Litwa has compared with Luke 1:31-32 but notice the quite different contexts and functions of the two prophecies. One is told as fact; the other is told as a tradition that calls for explanation
Iamblichus rejects outright that such a story can possibly be literally true. Yes, some writers have written of it in a way that sounds like a god had sexual intercourse with a human but “this is by no means to be admitted.”
Indeed, no one can doubt that the soul of Pythagoras was sent to mankind from the empire of Apollo, either being an attendant on the God, or co-arranged with him in some other more familiar way: for this may be inferred both from his birth, and the all-various wisdom of his soul. And thus much concerning the nativity of Pythagoras.
* The translator (Thomas Taylor) adds a lengthy explanation of the understanding behind Iamblichus’s words. In brief, the gods themselves were pure (impassive and pure) and as such could have no direct dealings with humans who were the opposite: “passive and impure” (the terms reflect their meanings in the year 1818). But there can be no vacuum so other beings must populate the distance between gods and humans. These other beings also come from the gods: they are “daemons”, “heroes”, “nymphs”, “and the like”. The lowest powers of these beings have compassion for the corporeal world: daemons for humans, nymphs for trees and other forms of nature, and so forth. Through such beings a spirit of the divinity can be imparted to a human, as at birth. In the same way Plutarch and Apuleius explained the “divine origin of Plato”.
After reading the prophecy that Pythagoras would be born a son of Apollo in Iamblichus I find less reason to maintain interest in Litwa’s comparison of it with the angel’s prophecy about Jesus to Mary.
I am not saying that Litwa’s discussion is not worth reading. I think it is given the numbers of detailed citations, sources, comparisons of Greco-Roman literature with the gospels. So many more such comparisons than I was aware of keep emerging page after page. Some of them are closer to the gospels than others, but all are worth following up. Our best education can be in reading carefully and following up the sources for oneself and making one’s own assessments — always being ready to revise them in the light of more reading and more counter-arguments.
My view is that Litwa has failed to qualify his case adequately, overlooking the same tropes in nonhistorical works and also in failing to give enough attention to the different qualities or characteristics of different historians.
Other stories of prophecies (Nigidius Figulus, the father of the one to become Augustus Caesar, Simeon in the temple) we have covered in the previous post. But one we have not examined yet is the prophecy concerning Heracles.
Here’s another: Heracles
Litwa cites two sources for the prophecy associated with the birth of Heracles and the promise of great honour to crown his mother, comparing the prophecy of Jesus’ greatness and the great honour to be bestowed on Mary. Those two sources are the poets Pindar and Theocritus.
They each recreate the story of how the newborn Heracles seized and killed two snakes that had been sent by a jealous goddess, Hera, into his crib to kill him. (Hera was wife of Zeus who had fathered Heracles to a mortal.) When the mother and father of Heracles see what he is done they are, as one would expect, utterly astonished. In Pindar’s version Heracle’s father asks the famous aged prophet Teiresias what this event means for the future of his son. Tieresas answers:
But [Amphitryon] called on his neighbor, the great prophet of Zeus on high, Teiresias, the strict seer; who told before him and all the company his son’s encounters to be,
all the beasts he must slay by land, all the beasts of the sea, brutes without right or wrong; likewise the man walking, crossed with conceit in hatefulness, he must give over to death; and how, when the gods in the plain of Phlegra met the Giants in battle, under the storm of his shafts these also must drag their bright hair in the dust.
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.
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.
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
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 vridar.info 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: