Greece and Mesopotamia: Origins of Greek Thought

Among the very earliest real glimpses that we have into Greek thought and life are the works attributed to the poets Hesiod and Homer. The Greek poet Hesiod is believed to have lived around 700 BCE and the two major works attributed to him are the Works and Days and the Theogony. These works, and the other early Greek poems attributed to Hesiod are major sources for information about Greek religion, mythology, agriculture, and timekeeping.

Most people are familiar with the ancient Greek poet, Homer, through the long epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, but similarly important are the works known as the Homeric Hymns. The Homeric Hymns are actually anonymous songs of praise written in the same meter and dialect as the Iliad and the Odyssey. Most of the Hymns are believed to have been composed in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE.

These very early works of Greek literature and products of Greek thought are full of motifs and ideas that are clearly derived from Mesopotamian myth and, indeed, are central to it. Take, for example, the Hymn to Apollo (for a translation of the Hymns see here). The second, Pythian, section of the Hymn contains a number of themes with strong parallels from the Mesopotamian Ninurta and Marduk myths1:

  1. the return-journey sequence, with its destination as the Assembly of the supreme god;
  2. the young god’s outward journey from the Assembly, with its encounters typical of the heroic strand of myth;
  3. the last return sequence from the sea to the temple;
  4. the two types of Assembly scene of the heroic son of the supreme god;
  5. the combat of the heroic son of the supreme god with the monster;
  6. the burying of the stream beneath the mountain in the same sequence;
  7. the journey of power as the purpose of the journey sequences;
  8. the motifs expressing power in the two return-journey sequences: motifs of food, dressing, noise, radiance, and ‘weapons’;
  9. the establishment of the young deity’s cult and temple as a result of the journeys.

These complex, detailed parallels are central to the hymn and central to the Mesopotamian myths, attestations of which are found that are considerably earlier than the Homeric Hymns. The reasonable conjecture is that the Hymn has adopted these themes from Mesopotamian antecedents.

The myth of Prometheus and Pandora is recounted by Hesiod in both the Theogony and the Work of Days and this myth, too, has important parallels to Mesopotamian myth, specifically the myth of the important god, Enki. These parallels include2:

  1. rebellion against the supreme god;
  2. resultant creation of mankind;
  3. resultant imposition of hard toil and sacrifice;
  4. repetition of the same roles: the supreme god commands creation, but does not play a part in the actual creation; the roles of craft god, clever god, and benefactor of mankind are repeated;
  5. the same methods of creation used by Enki and Hephaistos: craftsman methods, modelling of figuringes from clay; and the goddess in each having the same role;
  6. the rebel deity punished as a result of his activities against the supreme god;
  7. ideas of the soul with the rebel deity’s punishment;
  8. the clever god tricking the supreme god to benefit mankind;
  9. the supreme god acting as the enemy of man and seeking to destroy him;
  10. the supreme god strongly criticized: the story showing an antagonistic attitude to him; he is harsh, his actions are irresponsible and unjustified;
  11. the Flood motif;
  12. ideas of the history of mankind and the origin or races.

This format does not allow for a complete exposition of the relationships between the works: for more see Charles Penglase’s marvelous work of scholarship, Greek Myths and Mesopotamia.

The parallels are not isolated: they are pervasive in the Hymns and in Hesiod. Nor are they peripheral to Greek thought: these works are central to the development of Greek thought particularly in notions of the character of humanity, our relation to nature, the soul, and so on.

It has long been known that ancient Greece went through a phase known as the “Orientalizing period”. During this period, based on the Greek art and architecture discovered from the period, Greece absorbed influences from Egypt and the Near East which, taking into consideration the Eastern influences on the very foundations of Greek myth and thought, extended beyond pottery to the core of Greek philosophy itself.

I am not a descendant of Greeks or Romans: my distant ancestors were the western barbarians—French, Irish, and Swiss. But I am the beneficiary through our common culture of the contributions and ideas of many, many people distant in place and time to whom I am not related by blood. If that common culture includes important contributions from the Greeks, then by necessity it also includes contributions from earlier Eastern civilizations which in turn influenced the Greeks.

1Charles Penglase, Greek Myths and Mesopotamia, London 1994, p. 111

2 Ibid, p. 219

10 comments… add one
  • I’m not sure I buy that any of the individual parallells you enumerate would count as “complex” as such. For example, in any pre-industrial society travel of any great distance was unusual and those few that DID engage in it were viewed as “heroic.” So the “journey-return’ framework should be an EXPECTED archetype of every society even with no cultural interaction. That the destiniation would be viewed as something fantastic also wouldn’t be exceptional….the unknown is always adorned with such things. (Think of European views of the South Pacific in the 16th and 17th centuries as an example of how people “embellish” is some predictable ways.)

    IN general I’m fairly well convinced by Eric Voegelin’s definition of a “cosmological form” provides a general framework that makes myth production a little more organic. It isn’t that there are NOT cross cultural influences, but I wonder if that type of influence doesn’t influence the way the myths are refined, as opposed to their genesis.

    IN the end I wonder if all this looking for preceding influences doesnt’ obscure what IS unique to every cultural expression. For example, being first wouldn’t be enough to guarentee being held in esteem, as plenty of folks would look at these as “imperfect” forms brought into their “fullness” by the Greeks.

    It works the other way as well. The general discounting of Latin authors as poor “reflections” of Greek myth or Greek epic poetry does no justice to Virgil and what he accomplished in the Aeneid. Yes, it obviously takes the Greek epics as his (literal) jumping off point, but there is real Roman genius in the poem that is as genuine an artistic achievement as anything that preceeded it.

  • I think that the parallels are too many and in too much detail to be waved off as universal archetypes. However, even if that’s the case it supports my main point. If the underpinnings of Greek thought are universal, the East-West dichotomy that people are pitching these days are, at most, an oversimplification.

  • Well, a lot will depend on how much flks buy into the notion of Western civilization being a “Greek Production.” I love the classics, but I’ve been convinced it has been oversold. David Gress’ “From Plato to NATO” is a good example of an argument downplaying Greek thought. I don’t discount the importance of the Greeks in an absolute sense, but it can be over-emphasized.

    I’ll completely agree with you if you are saying that focusing on the Islam v. The West “problem” is missing the point. Obviously, what is more important is the conflict within Islam, and I don’t mean Sunni v. Shia. The important conflict is between the tribalists and the universalists.

  • Yes, that’s exactly my point. And I, too, think that the idea the Western Civ. is a Greek production (as you put it) is being oversold. We’re the barbarians, not the Greeks. But isn’t it nice that we get to read and appreciate their philosophers, noting the resemblances between some of their thoughts and ours, read their literature, and look at their stuff?

  • Fletcher Christian

    I believe that there is considerable consensus that the Flood myth derives from a real event – probably the opening of the Bosporus, which may well have happened not long before recorded history, about 10,000 BC.

    Myths, at least story myths, are sometimes based on real events.

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  • andrew

    your all very misguided people. note your reasoning to even bringing this up, you are associating modern politics with ancient. because you feel underrated now you demand the past. now I actually agree that Greece is overblown but not it’s accomplishments or lack of influence but because infact it is roman. you need to understands history but also have common sense. the Romans were not the Greeks and roman culture was not Greek culture. in reality the west has next to nothing in common with Greece, it simply gets credit by default. Greece is a ancient near eastern civ. they were not fundamental in Europes development directly. that again was Rome. as for influence by others no the vast majority of Greek culture is actually quite unique. basic similarities are seen around the world, we don’t hold fast the Aztecs stole Egyptian culture because they have pyramids. further more Minoan and myceanean civilizations are not well understood and not only do their timelines of origin coincide with meso, or Egypt but are the direct cultural ancestors of the Greeks so they get the credit of creating Greece(they infact genetically speaking were Greek)

  • popopopo

    if you are part french, you are related to roman by blood. French people are latin.

  • Hammurabi

    The problem with you is that you can never figure out the Existence of One World Sumerian Empire that ruled the world between 2795-2004 B.C. despite of having many proofs, such the tablets of ´Enki and the Old World Order´, The Sumerian Cuneiform texts of Abidos in Egypt, The Bowl in Bolivia with Sumerian Cuneiform Inscriptions saying ´Sargon King Of Atalantis´, the Greek cup. The Bull and Cow worship everywhere in the ancient world, The Hawk headed king in Sumer, Egypt and China. The Astar, Ashtar, Astarte, Ashteroot, Ashtarooth, Astara, Aster worship everywhere.

    Even when Lawrence Austine Waddell discovered the 75% of the English vocabulary, scholars admitted they knew it but they prefer to say English of Greek Origin. The chinese first 10 Alphabet letters are identical with those of the Cuneiform. Even when the Veda texts confirm the their first Aryan kings cam from Mesopotamia..Most of the Greek gods and heroes´names are Sumerian in originÑ Names like Zeus, Hera, Athena, Prometheus, Atlas, Heracles, Hermes. Cities like Arcadia, Roma, Paris, Muscuva, Troad are all Sumerian….Countries names like Yunan, Alamania, Romania, Bulgaria, Rusia, Korea, China are Sumerian in origin.
    Open your eyes and make a global study of all ancient civilizations to see the one fact…a Sumerian One World Empire established on Monotheism..worshipping the One Lord and discover that all those pagan gods were in fact Lords of Sumer (Masters), the other meaning of the word Lord.

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