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:
- the return-journey sequence, with its destination as the Assembly of the supreme god;
- the young god’s outward journey from the Assembly, with its encounters typical of the heroic strand of myth;
- the last return sequence from the sea to the temple;
- the two types of Assembly scene of the heroic son of the supreme god;
- the combat of the heroic son of the supreme god with the monster;
- the burying of the stream beneath the mountain in the same sequence;
- the journey of power as the purpose of the journey sequences;
- the motifs expressing power in the two return-journey sequences: motifs of food, dressing, noise, radiance, and ‘weapons’;
- 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:
- rebellion against the supreme god;
- resultant creation of mankind;
- resultant imposition of hard toil and sacrifice;
- 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;
- 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;
- the rebel deity punished as a result of his activities against the supreme god;
- ideas of the soul with the rebel deity’s punishment;
- the clever god tricking the supreme god to benefit mankind;
- the supreme god acting as the enemy of man and seeking to destroy him;
- the supreme god strongly criticized: the story showing an antagonistic attitude to him; he is harsh, his actions are irresponsible and unjustified;
- the Flood motif;
- 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