Romancing the Hellenes

Ideological protectionism and revising history (The continuity of magic from East to West, Part 4A)

Ladies and gentlemen, it seems I have been the victim of a conspiracy. Given the current climate of public discourse, I’m sure you’re assuming I’m referring to a conspiracy theory, but I can assure you this is quite real. We’re talking long-term behavior of institutions, not any false-flag-pizza-shop-basement-pedophilia-ring bullshit here.

If you’ll remember, this entire series was kicked off because I had taken it for granted because of the on-its-face obviousness that magical practice in the ancient world flowed from the Ancient Near East (ANE) to the Graeco-Roman world. When I went looking for citations to that effect, however, I was stymied and could only find either classical ones or scattered ones that were quite recent.

I then did some direct comparisons and follow-up research myself to see whether I was barking up the right tree. Doing so, I was able to put together a few compelling cases, but I also eventually ran across Walter Burkert’s The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age. This work not only presents the kind of evidence I was looking for, it also lays out the reasons I was running into such difficulties.

Although there was an ancient idea of an East-West divide beginning with the Trojan– and then Persian wars, Burkert notes the rift we experience today:¹

To a large extent […] is the result of an intellectual development which began more than two centuries ago and took root especially in Germany. Increasing specialization of scholarship converged with ideological protectionism, and both constructed an image of a pure, classical Greece in splendid isolation.

If this information, and particularly the phrase “ideological protectionism” sends horripilations down your spine, welcome and read on.

As I noted above, beginning in the late 18th century the European scientific communities in the areas of philology, classics, archaeology, and related fields increasingly became focused on the idea of a “pure, self-contained Hellenism which makes its miraculous appearance with Homer”,² and insecure about, and increasingly hostile toward the discoveries that were steadily chipping away at it. According to Burkert these included the decipherment of cuneiform and hieroglyphic writing, and the discovery of Mycenaean civilization and the orientalizing period in Greek culture.

This links the trend with the romantic nationalism, irrational pseudoscience, and essentially antisemitic movements afoot in Europe in this timeframe. Take for example the fact that the so-called Pythagorean theorem was known in ancient Babylon made headlines a couple of years ago just as the Bronze Age Collapse did, whereas Otto Nuegebaur had already discovered that fact in the 1920s. Nuegebaur was an Austrian who was already an outsider as his focus was the history of science and who was forced to emigrate when he refused to sign an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler’s government, and was therefore blackballed by the scientific community in his homeland. His adoptive country, the US, was less interested in identifying Ancient Greece as its sole cultural wellspring, so Neugebaur was able to win great acclaim and several prestigious awards in his field.

Although there is a kernel of truth in Raiders of the Lost Ark—that the Nazis were obsessed with the occult, and did attempt to search for legendary items—it’s unlikely they would have gone looking for a Semitic artifact of any sort regardless of the power it supposedly held. By contrast, their search for the Holy Grail, led by Otto Rahn and sponsored by Heinrich Himmler, is a matter of historical fact. Rahn was an author of just the type of material then in vogue with the leadership of the Reich, which wove the Grail and the Templars into German nationalist mythology.

This trend in scientific circles to ignore evidence, particularly when related to anything from the ANE, aligns uncoincidentally with Jewish people being granted full legal equality in many areas of Europe. Again around the 1770s:³

[W]ith Johann Joachim Winckelmann, a new concept of classicism, one with rather pagan tendencies, asserted itself and came to attract high regard. Second, beginning with the work of Johann Gottfried Herder, the ideology of romantic nationalism developed, which held literature and spiritual culture to be intimately connected with an individual people, tribe, or race. Origins and organic development rather than reciprocal cultural influences became the key to understanding.

Another of Himmler’s pet projects was a think tank called Ahnenerbe (meaning “ancestral heritage”) whose official mission was “to promote the science of ancient intellectual history” but which was actually engaged using pseudoscience to create propaganda. Increasingly, archaeological digs and expeditions were taken over by government-sponsored groups, more particularly SS groups, and still more particularly, Ahnenerbe, bent on finding evidence to back up Hitler’s theories of Aryan descent and genetic superiority. Their logo, shown below, also contains pseudo Greek/ runic letters and the unfortunate use of the Norse Odal rune in the center.

Another datapoint for this troubled time in the sciences is The Myth of the Twentieth Century. This book—a major bestseller under the Reich alongside Mein Kampf—was penned by Alfred Rosenberg, a prominent ideologue of the Nazi Party  to create a myth, specifically:⁴

[T]he myth of blood, which under the sign of the swastika unchains the racial world-revolution. It is the awakening of the race-soul, which after long sleep victoriously ends the race chaos.

So again we have an “interpretation of history”, essentially promulgating Nordicist Aryanism and blaming everyone else, particularly Jews, for all the world’s ills.

Turning back to the period of “pure Hellenism”, it was, naturally enough, particularly present in Germany beginning around the turn-of-the-last century. For example, even though he denounced Nietsche’s Birth of Tragedy (Die Geburt der Tragödie) as anti-scientific, in 1884 German classical philologist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff’s scornfully assessed ancient Eastern culture thus:⁵

The peoples and states of the Semites and the Egyptians which had been decaying for centuries and which, in spite of the antiquity of their culture, were unable to contribute anything to the Hellenes other than a few manual skills, costumes, and implements of bad taste, antiquated ornaments, repulsive fetishes for even more repulsive fake divinities.

Fast forward to today and the effects of this systematic rejection of fact still linger:⁶

[E]xpert archaeologists […] sometimes appear to feel uncomfortable about this fact and indeed advise against using the expression “the orientalizing period.” The foreign elements remain subject to a policy of containment: There is hardly a standard textbook that has oriental and Greek objects depicted side by side; many of the oriental finds in the great Greek sanctuaries have long remained—and some still remain—unpublished.

In a few sentences, Burkert lays out what the physical evidence shows regarding the relevant peoples and locations during the period in question:⁷

Greek merchants are present in Al Mina on the Orontes estuary [near modern Samandağ on the southern coast of modern Turkey] from the end of the ninth century; from there the connections reach to North Syria, to Urartu [in eastern Anatolia], and along the shortest caravan route to Mesopotamia. In approximately the same period the Greeks are in evidence at Tarsos [Tarsus, south-central Turkey] and somewhat later at Tell Sukas [near modern Jableh (جَبْلَةٌ), Syria]. There are also Greek finds from Rash-al-Basid (Poseidonia [رأس البسيط‎, also in Syria]), Tell Tainat [also on the southern coast of Turkey], Tyre [صور, Lebanon], and Hama [حَمَاة‎, Syria]. Connections go to nearby Cyprus [Κύπρος], but above all to Euboea [Εύβοια, a large island just off the Greek mainland], where excavations at Lefkandi [Λευκαντί] have brought to light relics of a relatively affluent community in the tenth and ninth centuries which was open to trade with the East. In the eighth century Eretria along with Chalkis [Ερέτρια and Χαλκίς, both cities of Euboea] reached its peak; but Athens [Αθήνα] was not negligible either. From Chalkis the Greeks reached the West even before the middle of the eighth century, as can be seen from the settlement of traders and craftsmen discovered at Pithekoussai-Ischia [Πιθηκοῦσαι, an island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, near Naples]. Here, too, the trade in ores was crucial, above all with the Etruscans; the Phoenician route via Cyprus to Carthage and then to Sardinia had to compete with that of the Greeks from Euboea via Ithaca [Ἰθάκη] to Pithekoussai. It is in connection with these routes that the first examples of Greek script appear, in Euboea, Naxos [Νάξος, the largest island of the Cyclades], Pithekoussai, and Athens.

The motivation for this contact, as the above passage implies, was trade, specifically in metals. The Royal Road, a major trade route running between the Assyrian and Akkadian capitals of Ash’shur (𒀸𒋩) and Nineveh (𒌷𒉌𒉡𒀀) to Sardis on the west coast of modern Turkey—an area inhabited by culturally Greek peoples—was already well established by the seventh century BCE. This road would become better known during the Persian Empire, and still later was to become the westernmost leg of the Silk Road.

If nothing else, all this is helpful in confirming that I’m not crazy. The proofs offered by Burkert include some of the very ones I identified earlier. With this established, I can return to the magico-religious evidence which Burkert also points to in this incredible book.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 4B: The Chthonian Connection

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: The Griffin and the Phoenix

Part 2A: Hark, a Haruspex!

Part 2B: Go West, Young Mantis

Part 3A: Coda Etrusca

Part 3B: Devoted More Than All Others


  1. Walter Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age, 1992.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Alfred Rosenberg, The Myth of the Twentieth Century (Der Mythus des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts), 1930.
  5. Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Homeric Investigations (Homerische Untersuchungen), 1884, quoted in Burkert, 1992.
  6. Burkert, 1992.
  7. Ibid.