Myth and Magic in the Cultural Koiné

A swirling miasma of ancient wisdom traditions (The continuity of magic from East to West, Part 5)

On a recent trip, I found philosopher and thaumaturge Pythagoras’ (Πυθαγόρας) home island of Samos (Σάμος) is easily visible from the Turkish mainland near Kuşadası (known to the Greeks as Ἔφεσος Νεόπολις). Separating them is the Mycale Strait (Greek: Στενό της Μυκάλης, Turkish: Dilek Geçidi)—actually the narrowest such body between any Aegean island and Turkey at just under a mile (1.6 km). So the idea he somehow represented a purely Western wisdom is pretty unlikely.

To be fair, the west coast of Asia Minor was inhabited by Greek-speaking peoples from the Bronze Age down to modern times, but, on the other hand, it’s a quick trip to more exotic locales. Moreover, it was the custom of such folks to visit “the East” to learn their trade, according to Carolina López-Ruiz:¹

[…] Pythagoras […] was later remembered as having sought out eastern wisdom in his travels. His learning in the Levant was later connected with Thales of Miletos, who, according to Herodotos, was himself of Phoenician stock:

“Surely aided by Thales…, he (Pythagoras) sailed to Sidon, having learned that it was his fatherland by nature and thinking well that from that place the trip to Egypt would be easier for him. There he joined the heirs of Mochos the physiologist-prophet and the other Phoenician hierophants, and was initiated in all the mysteries of Byblos and Tyre, and in select sacred rites performed throughout the greater part of Syria.”

Thales (Θαλῆς) is at the same time a mysterious and celebrated figure. His works are largely lost to us, but various more well-known people, such as Aristotle (Ἀριστοτέλης) tell us he’s an important mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher: one of the Seven Sages of Greece and the Father of Science. His hometown, Miletus (Μῑ́λητος, now known in Turkish as Milet) was an ancient Greek city on the western coast of Anatolia, in the Greek settlement called Ionia (Ἰωνία).

Crete, too, though not strictly speaking “eastern”, was another source of mystical wisdom for similar figures. Epimenedes (Ἐπιμενίδης), reputed author of the Oracles (Χρησμοί) and who was summoned to Athens to purify the Kylonian Pollution (Κυλώνειον ἄγος), was said to have been initiated for 57 years in a Cretan cave. Thaletas (Θαλήτας) was called from Gortyn (Γόρτυν) in Crete to rid Sparta of a plague in 675 BCE—and did so by singing the Cretan paean

When it comes to the gods, there are some commonalities that are down to the Proto-Indo-Europeans (PIE). We think of the Near East as dominated by Semitic languages today—and it is, mainly by Modern Hebrew and various forms of Arabic—but we see outliers in Persian and Kurdish. In ancient times, many IE languages existed there, including the Anatolian languages: Hittite, Palaic, Luwian, Lycian, Lydian, and possibly Carian, Pisidian, and Sidetic, and the Indo-Iranian ones, including the ancestors of the modern languages of the region and Avestan. And just as the language family spread, so too can commonalities be seen across pantheons of the gods that also seem related to these common PIE origins: the head god is the sky father; his consort, the earth mother; his daughter, goddess of the dawn, etc.

Still, Zeus (Ζευς), who might at first seem a clear exemplar of the sky father, shares specific details with the Canaanite Baʿal (𐤁𐤏𐤋). This latter god has direct continuity from the Sumerian Ish’k’ur (𒀭𒅎). The morphing of the PIE sky father, usually associated with the brightness of the sun and nurturing rains, into a warlike storm god is generally agreed to be due to the influence of the ancient Near East (ANE), and specifically the Phoenicians. Similar to the Greek cosmogony, there is a battle of succession, where Baʿal—like Zeus—is the last to gain power. Thereupon, he builds a palace on a mountaintop to the north, in the center of the universe—Tsaphon (𐤑𐤐𐤍, located on the Turkish-Syrian border and known biblically as Zaphon/ Tsāfōn, צפון, and in modernity as Cebel-i Akra/ Jebel al-ʾAqraʿ, جبل الأقرع) being the corollary of Olympos (Ὄλυμπος) in the ancient Greek sphere—whence he sends his messages and thunderbolts. Indeed, Zeus is even associated with the same Levantine mountain under yet another name as Zeus Kasios (Ζευς Κασιος).

The storm god, variously named, was widespread throughout the ANE, even finding worshippers in Egypt, as stelai discovered there attest. The Akkadians even used the Sumerogram 𒀭𒅎 for their version of the god, Adad, and as to his messages:³

Adad was also associated with divination and justice […] he is addressed as ‘lord of prayers and divination’ [be-el ik-ri-bi ù bi-ri], and invoked to preside over haruspicies [link to hark] […].

This is, of course, another point of continuity with the Graeco-Roman world, specifically, the Etruscans, who continued to practice the divinatory arts even after their culture had been otherwise wiped out on the Italic Peninsula, and who dedicated their offerings to their own sky god, Tinia, again, also a god of justice, who the Romans syncretized with Iuppiter.

The battle of succession, and the eventual victory of order over chaos is a theme we see repeated throughout the complex, but with various changes seeming to reflect specific threads of tradition, such as the castration of Ouranos (Οὐρανός), and his overthrower, Kronos’ (Κρόνος) swallowing of a stone, which are agreed to have been drawn from the Hurro-Hittite Kumarbi Cycle.

There are some points of difference as well, however, that do relate to the PIE version of the sky god. Zeus’ animal is generally the eagle, while the Ish’k’ur lineage is associated instead with the bull. But in the episode of the kidnapping of Europa (Εὐρώπη), notably a Phoenician princess, Zeus takes the form of a bull.

López-Ruiz references Walter Burkert’s The Orientalizing Revolution just as I did previously,⁴ but urges some caution. She points out the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East were in such close contact for such a long time, there is clearly opportunity for extensive mutual influences to have occurred, rather than there being an exclusively east-west one. She says, instead, there came to be a “cultural koiné”, drawing a parallel to the way in which the many dialects of the Greek language eventually fused into a common language.⁵ And of course, this is correct; I’ve already pointed out the interconnectedness of the cultures of the Late Bronze Age.

As to the succession myths, for example, López-Ruiz concludes:⁶

[T]his kind of narrative traveled easily across neighboring ethnic and linguistic frontiers and was adapted and transformed to fit prevailing trends and interpretations of coexisting myths, whether they were “old” or “new,” Greek or “foreign.” The narrative schema of a succession of gods provided a “grid” into which foreign and local elements could be easily adapted to specific theological and literary ends. Cosmogonies and theogonies, in turn, became popular partly because they systematized religious knowledge across a field of diverse local traditions, especially in Greece of this period when communities were expanding and coming increasingly into contact with each other. […] Possibly they also served to diffuse theological tensions by setting divine instability into an intelligible narrative framework. Hesiod’s [Ἡσίοδος] Theogony [Θεογονία] reflects a well-established divine order in which previous generations of gods are relatively marginal […] and […] a status quo had been achieved only through violence and unnatural processes […]. These more disturbing stories were partly neutralized by being set in the divine past.

Finally, regarding Pythagoras and his ilk, López-Ruiz notes the Greeks were a bit exoticist, as they saw foreigners, particularly from the east, and even more particularly from Egypt, as inherently mystical. Therefore, they tend to attribute foreignness to people in order to legitimize them as mystics, so we should take some of these tales cum grano salis.⁷


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

Part 4A: Romancing the Hellenes

Part 4B: The Chthonian Connection


Notes

  1. Carolina López-Ruiz, When the Gods Were Born: Greek Cosmogonies and the Near East, 2010.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Kathryn Stevens, “Iškur/Adad (god)”, Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses, 2016.
  4. Walter Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age, 1992.
  5. López-Ruiz, 2010.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.

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