Ancient History & Civilisation


The View from Ascra


Homer’s poems are reticent about the places and peoples among whom contemporary Euboeans moved. They are equally reticent, as we shall now discover, about their mythical discoveries from east to west. At most they lie in the epics’ background: more often they are absent altogether.

The bones and battlefield of the Giants had been a major Euboean discovery, east, north and west. In the epics it is striking that Homer gives none of their locations and that he does not even give details of a battle of Giants and gods. He mentions that the Giants had once been close to the gods, who had even moved among them openly. However, these Giants had been a ‘wild tribe’ and their king Euryme-don had ‘destroyed’ them and destroyed himself: we are not told when or how.1 When Homer presents briefly his own battle of the gods in the war for Troy, he describes their vast size and overwhelming combat, but he nowhere compares them with Giants. Titans, rather, seem to be in his mind’s eye. The episode is the least successful in his entire poem, as if this sort of enlarged combat with ‘special effects’ did not come easily to his genius. He nowhere refers to the Giants’ bones or battlefield and never mentions their base-camp.

Sometimes his gods are called the ‘Heavenly Ones’ (Ouraniones), perhaps in the sense of ‘descendants of father Heaven’.2 There is no mention, however, of the sexual embrace of Heaven and mother Earth or their forcible separation. Instead our primeval parents are watery, very different to Earth and Sky. They are Ocean and mother Tethys. Ultimately they derive from stories further east, from the Babylonians’ Epic of Creation, whose mother, Tiamat, was the watery sea and whose name, sometimes written as ‘Tawtu’, became Tethys in Greek.3 She remained a rare and undeveloped goddess for the Greeks. In Homer, the old Babylonian story of creation has fallen far into the background. Instead Ocean and Tethys are a long-married couple who have quarrelled and no longer make love. In an exquisite touch Homer makes the goddess Hera pretend that she is going off to try to reconcile them. Their original Near Eastern role has been brilliantly transposed. After so many years together, even our world’s first parents are in need of marriage counselling.4

‘Creation’ does not interest Homer at all, and as for the prehistory of his universe it was not neo–Hittite or north Syrian in origin. Their dire stories are nowhere mentioned. There is no castration of copulating Heaven. There is not even a hint of a sharp-toothed sickle. Cronos, the son who used it, is ‘crooked-counselling’ (ankulomētēs), although he shows no sign of devious thinking. Originally he had been ‘crooked-reaping’ (ankulamētēs), armed with his great castrator, but his adjective then changed as his act receded into the background, and for Homer and his teachers his counsel became crooked instead of his weapon. Nothing is said about Heaven’s blood or sperm and nothing is said to have been born from it, no Furies, no Giants, not even Aphrodite the goddess of love. The mother of Homer’s Aphrodite is the child of mother Dione, an ancient name whose root meant ‘Mrs Sky’. She is a genuine mother, not a scattering of aphros or male ‘foam’.

There have been unforgettable quarrels in Homer’s heaven and there are frequent threats of yet more to come. Hephaestus, the lame god, has been thrown out by his mother in her disgust at his being disabled. There is even a threat that Zeus will challenge and beat all the gods in a tug-of-war conducted with his primeval ‘golden rope’.5 But notoriously there have been no castrations, no children devoured by Cronos, no stone consumed as a substitute. Down in the underworld, Cronos now sits with the Titans. Zeus has defeated him, but the poet gives no gory details of the war.6

Does he avoid such gruesome stories because of his epic’s fine sense of propriety? Some of this avoidance goes back into his particular poetic tradition: Homer inherited Cronos the ‘crooked-counselling’, not ‘crooked-reaping’, and Dione as Aphrodite’s mother. Elsewhere, however, Homer has not sanitized his gods so that they do not quarrel, fight or make love indecorously among themselves. It seems, then, that he has simply not mentioned one cluster of old stories.

He has not mentioned others on our trail, either. Mopsus’ main career was as a post–Iliadic wanderer but he might perhaps have earned a mention in one or other list of names. Adonis might perhaps have appeared in a simile and so might Io. These absences might all be fortuitous, but Homer’s topography also provokes thought. His Cilicians have been transferred to live up nearer Troy. Once, he alludes to the Aleian plain but only as part of a hero’s vague wandering. There is not a hint of Mount Kasios and its god, its storms and dangers for sailors in Syria or Egypt. It is not that Homer lacks or avoids exact topographic details beyond his poems’ main focus. In the twentieth book of the Iliad, Achilles rebounds from a challenge to the Trojan Aeneas and kills Iphition, the son of a nymph. ‘Lie there,’ he tells him, ‘most violent of men… though your family is by the Gygaean lake where your father’s estate is, by the fishy Hyllus and the eddying Hermus.’ Here a modern critic has discerned Achilles’ ‘tendency to invoke distant places and resounding names… far removed from the battle-ground of Troy’, but in fact the places are remarkably exact.7 The ‘Gygaean lake’ is the gloomy Mermere Gölü in ancient Lydia with its reeds, its swampy surrounds and its water-birds just north of the burial mounds of the Lydian kings. The ‘eddying’ Hermus is the river which cuts through the Lydian plain to the south of it, ‘turbulent and raving’ as travellers have found it since to be. It is the source, even the direct source, of the lake which lies just to the north. The Hyllus river is the modern Cam Çay, defining the plain which runs north from the Gygaean lake. Its own upper course is more complex and one nearby branch of it may even have run down south into the lake’s northern shore.8 The lake, to this day, is famously ‘fishy’: so is the Hyllus river exactly on the northern plain beyond the lake with which Homer links it.9 The lake is the furthest point east in Asia to which Homer refers, but he or his tradition evokes it exactly with its place name and its two nearby rivers, north and south, one of them correctly called ‘fishy’, a quality ascribed to no other river in his epics. But there was something else about the lake too, as we happen to know from Greek sources in the fifth century BC: Echidna, or ‘Miss Viper’, lived there, the mate of Typhon, who, on one view, had been scorched to death in nearby Burnt Lydia just beyond Homer’s view.10 But here and elsewhere in his poems Homer never mentions her.

Silence does not entail Homer’s own ignorance, but if we are to think of him living, composing and performing in one particular place, we might expect him to mention myths, mythical people and places which were especially vivid to his audience there. All of these omitted myths and places were vivid to Euboeans who were travelling on the one ‘hotline’ between Greeks and the Near East which we can follow in eighth-century evidence. To a minority of modern scholarly readers it is Homer, however, who owes an important debt to the Near East; on one view, it may even be ‘a greater challenge to isolate and appreciate what is Greek in Homeric poetry than to enumerate its foreign sources’.11 Most of us find the challenge to lie in exactly the opposite direction, unless we somehow believe ‘the probability is that “Homer” was not the name of a historical Greek poet, but the imaginary ancestor of the “Homeridai”. The question is then how the Homeridai got their name… it is conceivable that [they] correspond… to a Phoenician prototype benē’ ōmerīm, “sons of speakers”, that is, tale-tellers as a professional class.’12 It remains much more conceivable that they were the self-styled followers, perhaps even the family, of Homer the greatest Greek poet.

Nonetheless, did Homer himself have a ‘hotline’ connected to contemporary poets in Near Eastern cultures? One has been claimed to run directly from his Iliad to Assyrian court poets in the seventh (not eighth) century BC.13 Even if we believe its unlikely dating, the ‘hotline’ turns out to be a wrong number. Its supporters appeal to the washing-away of the Iliad’s poetic wall before the Greek camp at Troy, as if this event is closely paralleled by an Assyrian description of King Sennacherib’s ‘destruction’ of Babylon in 689 BC which Homer therefore knew.14 However, Homer’s gods are to wash the Greeks’ wall into the sea by sending torrential rains and by diverting the local rivers. Conversely, Sennacherib claims that he threw walls, temples and towers of Babylon into the canals, some of which he dug out for the purpose. Earth from the city was then carried down into the sea: ‘I dissolved [the city-gate and the site of the gods’ houses] in the waters and turned it into a flood-plain.’ Apart from his exaggerations Sennacherib did not claim to use heavy rain. He claimed to flatten the buildings and only then to throw them into the canals. Homer’s gods, by contrast, will use storms and rivers to break down the wall and wash it utterly away (and thereby explain why it is no longer visible). Homer owes no debt here to Assyrian court-sources.

Lists of such ‘parallels’ between Homer and bits of Near Eastern poems in Near Eastern languages do not entail contact between them. Even if they did, in what sense would Homer’s own poems then be ‘eastern’?15 When, too, did such ‘imports’ belong? Were they acquired much earlier in the poetic tradition which Homer learned, and, if so, are he or his audiences still aware of them? Or are they contemporary ‘neo–Oriental’ borrowings and, if so, do he and his audience feel them still to have an exotic tone? The points at issue are not the place and personal names which Homer’s epics contain when their plots dwell on events in Asia itself. The Greek name ‘Ilion’ (Troy) indeed derives from the city’s Luwian name in the Bronze Age.16 The Iliad also includes deeds of Lycians from south-west Asia, people with names like Pandaros or Lycaon or Sarpedon, all of which can be traced back to local Lycian names in the Luwian language. These heroes’ names may go back to early contacts between Greeks and Lycia (called ‘Lukka’), perhaps even as early as the Late Bronze Age (c. 1300–1200 BC).17 Such parallel names say nothing about the transfer of eastern poetic themes, let alone of eastern poetry contemporary with Homer himself. To find such transfers scholars look above all to the Babylonian poemGilgamesh. Many believe (though I do not) that there is at least one echo of Gilgamesh in the Iliad, when Homer describes Achilles’ mourning over the dead body of his beloved Patroclus.18 The motif in question occurs in only one tablet of our various tablets of the Gilgamesh story, but it is not a late eighth- (or seventh-) century BC addition to an older whole.19 If there was a debt to the Gilgamesh story here, it could go back to a contact made five centuries or more before Homer. He himself could be quite unaware of it.

The most plausible eastern parallels cluster round the goddess Aphrodite. In the Iliad’s fourteenth book she gives Hera erotic items of beauty, including a strap to be criss-crossed and worn running between her heavenly breasts: like this strap, the verses may indeed have had an eastern flavour for their audience.20 In the fifth book of the Iliad Aphrodite takes refuge in heaven, complaining of her wounding by the rough male heroes in battle. This scene of the wounding goddess of love complaining of her own wounds is paralleled, perhaps significantly, in earlier Babylonian poetry.21 Such a clustering of eastern items round Aphrodite is suggestive. The goddess, at home on Cyprus, was believed by the Greeks themselves to have an eastern connection in her cult. She is the goddess to whom we would most expect ‘eastern’ motifs to be applied.

One passing allusion to Tethys and two short scenes with Aphrodite do not make Homer’s epics part of the contemporary Near East. Parallels may arise between them for quite other reasons than verbal contact. In the fifteenth book of the Iliad Poseidon recalls how Zeus and the gods once cast lots for their respective kingdoms. In the old Babylonian Story of Mankind the gods also cast lots for their kingdom: ‘There is hardly another passage in Homer’, Walter Burkert has written, favouring eastern influences, ‘which comes so close to being a translation of an Akkadian epic.’22 So near, and yet so far: it is not just that we now know the story was translated into Hittite, reaching western Asia in the Late Bronze Age. It need not be the source of Homer’s divine lottery at all. By far the most powerful source for Homer’s description of the relations of gods with men and with each other is sociological: Homer has made ‘the gods men’, as the ancients observed, but above all because the social relations of his mortal world have been projected onto the relations imagined between the gods in heaven. The gods’ company is a magnification of the social world which Homer and his oral predecessors knew and absorbed in real life. The gods are aristocrats enlarged: they tend to treat mortals as aristocrats treat the lower classes. Like aristocrats they value ‘honour’; they ‘give to the one who gives to them’, but like aristocrats they do not always give in return; like aristocrats, too, they have their favourites and also their loves. On earth, Greek sons divided their inherited property by casting lots for separate shares of it. In heaven, therefore, the gods do the same, without any need for a Babylonian ‘influence’. On earth, Greek aristocrats met in a council or a ‘gathering’ (assembly): in heaven, therefore, Greek gods do the same. It is irrelevant whether or not the gods of Near Eastern sources also met in assemblies and councils. The Homeric imagination of the supernatural arises from earthly Greek society, as experienced in a largely pre-literate age. It does not rest on foreign borrowing.

Theories of Homer’s borrowings from eastern texts raise practical problems, too, above all the problem of the texts’ accessibility. In the eighth century Greeks did not read the cuneiform scripts which expressed Assyrian, Hittite or Babylonian lore: they had no more idea of their contents than did the soldiers and the scholar Callisthenes with Alexander the Great in the same area four centuries later. As we have repeatedly illustrated, they listened, spoke and sometimes constructively misunderstood. Strikingly, Homer happens to ignore particular misunderstandings of Greek travellers in his time. We have traced the inferences of Euboeans from Mount Hazzi to Monkey Island, but every single one of them is missing from Homer’s epics, as is their main ‘triangle’ of contact with Cyprus, Cilicia and the Levant. Yet on one recent view, the Odyssey, at least, is a Euboean poem, composed by an epic poet in Euboea. Nothing in its dialect and language requires us to believe this origin and its silence about the Euboeans’ eastern and western discoveries points to the opposite conclusion. In the seventh book of the Odyssey, the poet simply refers famously to Euboea by name: Alcinous, king of the happy Phaeacians, promises his guest Odysseus that his men will row him to his ‘country and house and wherever else is dear to you, even if it is much further away than Euboea. Those of our people who saw Euboea when they were carrying fair-haired Rhadamanthys to see Tityos the son of earth say it is the furthest away of places.’23 ‘Where else’, the great expert Martin West has asked, ‘would a poet be likely to imagine Euboea as the Phaeacians’ furthest horizon’, unless he himself was a singer on and from Euboea?24 In the fantasy-journeys of Phaeacians, we might reply, any place name might crop up from the real Greek world. But there is another, compelling alternative.

Already in the sixth to fifth centuries BC, if not earlier, there were those who linked the poet Homer with Chios in the east Aegean off the coast of Asia Minor. We know of a family clan of Homeridai on Chios, ‘descendants of Homer’, who are mentioned in a sixth-century text and attested in a list inscribed on marble c. 300 BC, found on Chios as recently as 2002.25 We also know of Homeridai, ‘singers of stitched songs’, who performed the Homeric poems and were perhaps the same family clan: they are attested in our surviving evidence c. 460 BC.26 No other island is known to have had Homeridai, a point which Chiotes later pressed in their claims to have been the poet’s compatriots. The claims of the clan and the singers might be false, but they existed within two centuries of Homer’s (probable) lifetime. For a Chiote, the Odyssey’s lines about Euboea were very close to home. In the mid-fifth century BC the erudite, amiable Ion of Chios wrote a text on ‘Chios’s Foundation’. One group of its early settlers, he said, were Cretans, others were ‘Abantes from Euboea’, followed in the next generation by more Euboeans, this time from Histiaea on the island’s north-west coast, who came ‘in accordance with an oracle from Delphi’.27 Ion knew local traditions about his Chios which we do not and these early settlers deserve to be taken seriously. There was a neatness, then, for Homer on Chios to refer before a Chiote audience to Euboea, one of their own homelands, as the furthest point in the world. Chiote expatriates would enjoy this allusion to their former home as if it was so very far away. It was a particularly neat allusion because for some of Homer’s Chiote audience, Euboea was nothing of the sort. It was visible on clear days from hills in the south of Chios. On one such hill lies the ‘hall’ at Emporio, one of the sites where it has been suggested Homer performed. It is tempting to imagine the poet turning away from his audience here and pointing with one hand as he sings his verses in which Alcinous calls Euboea the furthest place on earth. With a gesture, he indicates it.

Other people on Chios are worth considering too. Ion refers to Cretan settlers, a claim which suggests that families of Cretan origin still lived on his home island. We have seen, too, the historical genealogy of Ion’s near-contemporary on Chios, Heropythos, who listed his ancestry back to one ‘Kyprios’ in c. 880–860 BC. In the Odyssey and the Iliad, both Crete and Cyprus are described with touches of precision, but not always with accuracy. Crete is ‘hundred-citied’ or ‘ninety-citied’, with a cave near Amnisos and a mixture of polyglot people who were divided into three, as they were indeed divided in their Dorian tribes.28 There are also the cliff and coastline to which Menelaus’ ships were driven by the storm-wind and which fit with so many details on the coast by modern Kommos and its ancient sanctuary for travellers.

On Cyprus there is no such precise sense of place, but Paphos and Aphrodite’s cult are mentioned and, although kings are named with vague Greek names, Cinyras of Paphos is specifically said to have given an exotic breastplate to King Agamemnon.29 Its description suggests a breastplate of Near Eastern style but Homer’s knowledge of the island itself is limited. Many sources have been suggested for his knowledge nonetheless, originating long before Homer himself or even in his own experience: ‘though unlikely to have been a Cypriot himself,’ Martin West has proposed, he ‘may have visited the island or had some contact there’. The reason, he thinks, lies in the mention of Cinyras of Paphos although ‘he is not a man of arms and does not belong in the world of Agamemnon. The poet has introduced him gratuitously, presumably to humour Cypriot friends.’30 The hints of local Cypriot knowledge here are much more tenuous than Homer’s precise details about a place, our Kommos, on Crete.31 However, both can be accommodated to a Homer on Chios where there were Chiotes who had Cretan connections and Cypriots also resided.

In the Odyssey, Nestor describes the Greek captains’ deliberations about their route home from Troy with a rare exactness: they wondered whether to go past the north of Chios to the island of Psyria (modern Psyra), or to turn down the inland channel between Chios and ‘windy Mimas’ on the Asian coast and then south of Chios and on from there.32 The two routes are exact, as any Chiote would know. Chiotes, however, were probably not those in Homer ‘who say’ about Typhon’s lair ‘in Arima’. Some east Greek pottery and items have indeed been found in Pithecussae’s graves from the later eighth century BC, but the source of Typhon’s lashing here was ultimately the island’s Euboean contingent.33 By c. 730 some of them on Ischia knew Homer’s Iliad, on a defensible reading of the inscription on ‘Nestor’s cup’. Homer had fans on Ischia, any of whom might have told him or an east Greek friend about the local rumblings of Typhon. Alternatively the reports of Typhon that originated with Euboeans on the island reached Homer at second or third hand. Similar reports, from a similar ultimate source, had reached him about wondrous Libya, which Euboeans, again, had been visiting at least since 760 BC. The details about the coast of Crete at Kommos could come from someone, ultimately, who had travelled west on the ‘fast lane’ by sea from the Levant. In the eighth century, from c. 800 to 725, Greek pottery from one of the buildings at Kommos on Crete includes ‘a number of… vases [which] will have had a Euboean, Cycladic or east Greek origin’, pieces whose carriers were within Homer’s orbit at first or second hand.34 Those who incline to a touch of Spanish colour in the setting of the Odyssey’s underworld can trace it to a similar source, to Euboeans or those to whom they talked, as Euboean pottery had been reaching south-west Spain, initially c. 850 BC but in greater quantity c. 750–700, surely with Euboean carriers.35

However, where Euboeans could be precise, Homer was vague. What Euboeans had found about the gods and their wars, Homer omitted entirely. This pattern becomes more sharply focused if we look for it in his near-contemporary, the poet Hesiod, too.


Whatever the view from Chios or the nature of the island’s Greek population and its Homerids, nobody knows where Homer lived or whether there was one Homer for the Iliad, another for the Odyssey. His poems’ exact descriptions of place are not only Chiote ones: we can only make informed guesses about them, mine being a single Homer on Chios. With Hesiod, we are certain. He is the first literary personality in the world and at first sight his home is unexpected.36 Hesiod tells us that he lived in little Ascra, a ‘wretched village, bad in winter, foul in summer, good at no time’. Ascra lies in Boeotia on the east side of Mount Helicon where the site has now been rediscovered. Its modern surveyors consider it ‘a delightful site with as pleasant and refreshing a situation a Greek city could have’,37 but Hesiod had to live there and they did not.

For his family, Ascra was a second-best. Hesiod describes how his father used to ‘sail in ships, lacking a noble livelihood’. He lived over at Aeolian Cyme, not the Cyme in Italy or Euboea, but the Cyme which was an Aeolian Greek settlement in north-west Asia Minor. He came west to Ascra ‘fleeing evil poverty in his dark ship’. Hesiod presents his father as engaged in trade in order to make a living, but failing and being forced to come across to Greece. He ‘settled near Helicon’, coming there for what was probably the first time in his life.38 His journey from east to west ran in exactly the opposite direction to the journeys which we have been studying and it ended at a place we would never consider. Nonetheless, it is the one eighth-century journey which is described by a first-hand source.

Even in Ascra, Hesiod was adept at the traditional diction, metre and style of hexameter verse. He had listened to and studied with oral masters who are now lost to us, reminding us how many practitioners of this poetry have disappeared from the eighth-century record. He presents himself as reluctant to travel by sea and in his Works and Days he speaks with the voice of a resolute small farmer. Yet his other surviving poem, his Theogony or Generations of the Gods, is full of wide-ranging detail. Ascra lies far off our travelling Euboeans’ trail, but the Theogony is the poem which most coincides with it.

Unlike Homer, Hesiod alludes in detail to many of the stories which we have tracked. He dwells on the separation of Heaven while embracing mother Earth. He describes Heaven’s castration by Cronos, the sickle, the shower of fertile blood and white male foam and the consequent birth of Aphrodite. He describes the tricking of the cannibal Cronos by the gift of a stone and the saving of his newborn son Zeus. He describes Cronos’ overthrow and Zeus’s rule. There are no battles with Giants, but there is a decidedly filmic battle between Zeus and the Titans. There is also a final battle between Zeus and the many-headed Typhon. On his first appearance in the poem, Typhon is dwelling ‘in Arima, so they say’, a reference which matches the Homeric tradition. On his second appearance, near the end of the poem, he is the monstrous opponent of Zeus who is battered into defeat and scorched into submission but is the source, nonetheless, of hostile winds at sea.39

However did a man from ‘wretched’ Ascra know this particular cluster of succession stories, one which Homer’s epics had omitted at almost every point? One source might be his father, a much-travelled man whose influence has been detected in Hesiod’s verses about seafaring and even in his remarkable hymn to the goddess Hecate, a ‘personal god’ for Hesiod and his family, one who may have been picked up on their father’s travels.40 Yet a father ‘fleeing poverty’ in Cyme in north-west Asia was also not directly on the travellers’ trail which ran from Unqi to Ischia. Did Hesiod’s local poetic teachers pass the backbone of his Theogony on to him? The poem takes ‘Chasm’ (in Greek, Chaos) as its starting-point and is not concerned with the question of its first creation. What concerns Hesiod, rather, is procreation. In Greek, Chaos is neuter, but Hesiod then follows on with two words for darkness, one masculine, one feminine. So they mate, as their gender allows, and other gendered pairs follow. His poem then teems with details of subsequent families of the gods and with divine personifications of the powers and forces in our lives. Hesiod’s mind and inheritance are very fertile. In the view of Paul Veyne, considering whether Greeks believed in their myths, ‘Hesiod knows that we will take him at his word, and he treats himself as he will be treated: he is the first to believe everything which enters his head.’41 But it ‘entered his head’, Hesiod tells us, with special authority, the authority of the Muses, whom he represents as having appeared to him in a vision and having told him that they, his superiors, know how to speak ‘many plausible falsehoods but, when we wish, to utter things that are true’. The implication is not that the poem which follows may be partly fiction and partly true, as if the Muses told him ‘to give his imagination rein, and among his hypotheses some would be true’.42 It is that his song, the Muses’ song, will be true because the Muses, his superiors, ‘wish it’. In heaven, as Hesiod begins by telling us, the Muses themselves sing a song about the ‘children of Heaven and Earth’, the gods and much else: the themes of the song resemble much that Hesiod himself then sings. He set out to sing what the Muses sang too, but to our eye, not his, it was grouped round a backbone of stories derived ultimately from the Near East.

Apart from the Muses, ‘whose sweet voice flows timelessly from their lips’, Hesiod needed earthly informants for these stories. His local poetic teachers are unlikely to be his source: as Homeric epic implies, tales of Cronos and his bad habits were not prominent in the main epic tradition by which such teachers were formed. We must look, instead, for Hesiod’s own travels. His poems attest two, both of which are relevant. One was to the ‘dells of Parnassus’, the site of the Delphic oracle. Hesiod was daring to sing about the generations of the gods and any such person would understandably go up to ask the gods’ own spokesmen, the priests at eighth-century Delphi, for an authoritative view of the subject. He was told of one item there, a local relic, a great ‘sign and wonder’.43 If we consider who these Delphic priests were, we can recognize how much else he will have learned.

We have one account of the origins of Delphi’s priesthood, memorably described in a hexameter hymn in honour of Delphic Apollo. This hymn was composed c. 580–570 BC, perhaps exactly in 582 for the Pythian Games at Delphi, to judge from its internal references to the site and its priesthood’s history.44 It describes in unforgettable detail how Apollo chose his first priests: Apollo had observed a ‘swift ship’, the poet tells us, ‘on the wine-dark sea; in it there were many fine men, Cretans from Minos’ city of Knossos’. These Cretans were travelling ‘on business’ in their dark ships to sandy Pylos, but Apollo jumped into it in the shape of a dolphin, ‘big and fearsome’ (‘Delphinios’ was one of his cult-names).45 He prevented the ship from landing at Pylos and guided it along the sea to Crisa off the Gulf of Corinth, where he revealed himself in a shower of sparks. He explained his identity to the terrified Cretans and told them to eat, then to follow him up to the ‘place where you will have a rich temple’. So they made offerings to the gods, ate and followed Apollo as he played ‘delightfully’ on the lyre and ‘stepped high’: the Cretans ‘danced in time and followed, singing “Ie~ Paie~on”, like the paeans of the Cretans in whose breasts the divine Muse has placed honey-voiced singing’. They arrived at Delphi; Apollo showed them his temple and ‘their hearts were stirred within them’.

These Cretans, the poet tells us, are men ‘who make holy offerings to their god and announce the rulings of Apollo of the golden sword, whatever he says when he gives oracles from the bay-trees in the dells of Parnassus’.46 This poem was a hymn sung to honour Delphic Apollo, evidently at Delphi itself. It was explicit before an audience who knew the local traditions: ‘If the (Delphic) Hymn to Apollo conveys a historical message, it is above all that there were once Cretan priests at Delphi.’47

Apollo’s oracle was a recent venture at Delphi: it seems to have begun c. 825–800 BC, about a century before Hesiod’s visit. On Crete we can point to flourishing local cults of Apollo, including cults of Apollo ‘Delphinios’; Crete had a long history of tripods, items which were to be prominent in the Delphic cult, and it also had paeans, or distinctively metrical songs, the type of song which Delphic Apollo is said to have incorporated into his own worship.48 Archaeologically, Cretan bronzes have been found at Delphi from the eighth century onwards, accompanied by Cretan sculptures until c. 620–600 BC.49 Dedications at the site cannot establish the identity of its priesthood, but for once we have an explicit text to set beside archaeological evidence. The hymn explains what this evidence cannot: Delphi’s Apollo was served by Cretans and the oracle was instituted by Cretans who had come west. Perhaps they were not ‘on business’ when they came to the site by Parnassus, but they were the originators of its cult.

A century or so later, when Hesiod visited Delphi, Apollo was being served by Cretans of the second or third generation. What stories did they tell him about the birth of the gods? Here, we can be specific, thanks to a reference by Hesiod himself. In the ‘dells of Parnassus’, he tells us, Zeus had fixed a ‘sign henceforwards, a wonder for mortal men’. It was a stone, but an extremely special one: the very stone which Zeus’s mother had given to father Cronos, the one which he had eaten instead of the baby Zeus and which he had ‘vomited up’. The last to be swallowed, it was the first to come up. Last in, first out, it was on show at Delphi, c. 710 BC.50

This stone belongs at the very heart of the ancient stories of the gods’ struggles in heaven, the stories which we have traced to their Near Eastern origins on and around Mount Hazzi. The Cretans who showed off this holy relic knew the accompanying stories which were its context, the very ones which Hesiod’s poem has immortalized. We can put this knowledge in a historical milieu. Archaeologically, their home island of Crete shows a clear, close contact with imports from Cyprus, especially c. 850–750. Their home site of Knossos is well excavated and there too the Cypriot contact is evident in pottery, bowls and metalwork.51 The succession-struggles in the old Hittite heaven were connected in a Greek context with the ‘birth of Aphrodite’, the product of Heaven’s castration. This Aphrodite was Cyprus’s Aphrodite: it was on Cyprus that her birth had been blended into the older story which had come to Cypriots from the Levant. There were Phoenicians, too, on Cyprus and there were Phoenician objects, Phoenician visitors and perhaps a few Phoenician residents at Knossos and other parts of Crete. But Phoenician storytelling was not needed to bring the story on to Crete. Through their Cypriot contacts, the Cretans at Knossos received the story of the struggles and births of the gods in Greek. It had floated across from Cyprus like their imports of Cypriot goods and it was present on Crete in the age when the first priests at Delphi were growing up. They were men from Knossos itself.

Just as Cypriot Greeks had already worked details of their Aphrodite’s birth into this song of succession-struggles, so Cretan Greeks then worked in their local details of the birth of Zeus. In Hesiod’s version, the baby Zeus is taken away by mother Rhea to be ‘reared and nursed in broad Crete’. The details are remarkably specific: she took him in ‘the dark night’ first of all to Lyktos and hid him in a ‘cave, hard to approach, on the thickly wooded Aegean mountain’. There he grew up and returned to overthrow Cronos, ‘as was fated’.52

The sacred caves on Crete are famous, attracting worshippers for more than a thousand years before Hesiod’s poem. We are still not sure which cave is the cave at Lyktos and one answer is that Hesiod himself was unaware too. In later Greek sourceslyktos/lyttoswas explained as a word meaning ‘high up’: Hesiod may have taken a Cretan word for ‘high’ to be a place name near the cave.53 ‘High up’, the cave was surely the great Zeus-cave on Mount Ida, the place of arduous mountain-pilgrimage where excavations, as we have seen, show the exceptional quantity of precious offerings made in the ninth to eighth centuries BC. It was there that the energetic Couretes were said to have danced and clashed their shields in order to conceal the baby Zeus’s crying. This legend attaches to dances which were performed in the local cult at the cave. It is from the Zeus-cave that we have the impressive bronze shields for ceremonial use, including those which were adapted from north Syrian styles. We even have that eastern-style ‘gong’ of Greek workmanship which could be struck to sound out in the ritual dancing.54

Just as the Cretan craftsmen of these shields drew on a Near Eastern style and adapted it in a Greek way, so Cretan storytellers of the local birth of Zeus worked their Cretan story into the old Near Eastern framework about the cannibal Cronos which had reached them from Cyprus. Their local Cretan tale was fitted into the older succession story.55 The controlling city of the Ida cave was probably Knossos, home of the first priests at Delphi; the enlarged story then passed to the new Delphic shrine in the company of these Knossians. Through them, in the later eighth century, it became known to Hesiod. We know that it was told at the Delphi which he visited, and the story of Cronos’ stone presupposed the other stories of succession-struggles among the gods. Despite Hesiod’s credit to the Muses whom he met on Mount Helicon, his greater debt was to Cretans, the priests on Delphi’s nearby Parnassus.56

He saw for himself the very stone, ‘a wonder for mortal men’; no doubt the Cretans took him out and showed it proudly to him on the hillside. He heard the stories which are now the backbone of his poem; he then took his poem away to perform at a competition. In his other surviving poem, Works and Days, Hesiod tells us how, once, he risked a sea-crossing. He went off to sing at the funeral-games of Amphidamas where ‘many prizes were announced by the sons of that brave man’.57 Hesiod won the prize for poetry, a tripod with fine handles, and dedicated it on Mount Helicon where the Muses had first inspired him. His winning poem, as modern scholars have inferred, was therefore his other surviving work, the Theogony, the one whose verses credit it to the Muses on Helicon. They were the proper recipients of his prize-tripod because it was their Theogony poem which had won it.

The site of the victory helps to explain it. The contest was held at Chalcis, before the very lords of Euboea’s greatest city-state whom we have followed along their trail from east to west. Hesiod performed for them, the ‘boy from Ascra’, but nonetheless he sang the very stories which made up the bulk of the Euboeans’ own worldwide discoveries. He had learned them quite separately, from Cretans at Delphi; the Cretans had learned them from Cyprus; Cypriots had learned them ultimately from north Syria where the ‘songs of kingship’ were sung in honour of Mount Hazzi. Far from Ascra, meanwhile, Hesiod’s Euboean hearers had already learned these stories for themselves, on Cyprus and at the foot of Mount Hazzi where they and their fathers had visited and settled at Al Mina–Potamoi Karon. Unlike Hesiod and his Delphic informants they had then discovered these stories’ cardinal items far away in the west. Later Greek fiction, c. 400 BC, claimed that Homer and Hesiod had competed together in the games for Amphidamas on Euboea and that Hesiod had won the prize. Poetically, it should have been no contest, but if Homer had ever come to Chalcis, on this one occasion, before such an audience, even he might not have been the victor.

It is possible that Hesiod gained even more than a prize-tripod. After telling of Zeus’s wars with the Titans and the extremities of the world where they lived, Hesiod’s poem returns to Typhon, whom he has mentioned nearly five hundred hexameter verses earlier. This time his story is much more detailed. Typhon is the child of mother Earth and Tartarus, the ‘underworld’. He opposes Zeus’s rule, hissing and howling variously through his hundred snaky heads. If Zeus had not marshalled his thunder and lightning Typhon would have become the ‘king of mortals and immortals’ instead. The earth shook; the land and sea seethed; Hades trembled and so did Cronos and the Titans inside it. But Zeus burnt the monster and beat him until he collapsed and fell flaming in the mountain-dells. The earth there burned with unbelievable heat: ‘vexed in his heart’ Zeus threw the scorched Typhon into the underworld.58

Critics and readers have often felt this powerful episode to be an afterthought to the main poem, added, perhaps, and not composed by Hesiod himself. It seems, on this reading, to be tacked on after the battle of Zeus and the Titans, whose general structure it matches.59 It might even belong with a modern view of ‘the archaic mode of thought… [which] does not deal with an object once and for all, thereafter simply discarding it; rather, its habit is to circle around its object, in order to inspect it from changing viewpoints’.60 Hesiod, on this view, is a poet of ‘multiple approaches’, and his two references to Typhon in the same poem are an example of his ‘circling round’.

The explanation may be less an ‘archaic mode’ of thinking and viewing than a straightforward matter of sources. The fuller treatment of Typhon may be Hesiod’s own addition to his poem after his victory at Euboean Chalcis. It was not from a second visit to Delphi that he learned these further details. We can see from our hymn to Delphic Apollo that the Typhon story developed differently there. At Delphi, Typhon was eventually said to be the child of the goddess Hera, not, as in Hesiod, the child of mother Earth. By verbal analogy Typhon also became merged there with Delphi’s own snake-monster Python, whom Delphic Apollo slew.61 This Delphic version is not Hesiod’s at all. From later sources we know of a local ‘Typhon-hill’ in Boeotia, but we do not know that it existed in Hesiod’s time.62 Nothing in his story is connected to such a place. There was a simpler, much more accessible source for his details about the monster: the Euboeans for whom he sang at Chalcis. In the eighth century they had tracked Typhon from one end of the Mediterranean to another. They gave Hesiod his prize and with it, I suggest, another story to add to his winning poem.

The story’s particular location and even its imagery support this suggestion. According to Hesiod, ‘flames rushed from the stricken Typhon in the mountain-glens of steep Aidna…’ This place name should not be put in brackets as if it has been jumbled unintelligibly by copyists of Hesiod’s text: it is his own attempt to render ‘Al~tna’, the Etna of which he had heard for the first time from informants.63 They were Euboean informants at Chalcis, people who knew from their own travels what Hesiod did not, that Typhon was still writhing under western Etna, the mountain whose smoking craters crowned the view from their Euboean settlements on Sicily’s coast. As Typhon fell, he burnt the woods, those thickets of oak and chestnut and wiry broom-trees which still run up to the charred slopes of Etna’s volcanic ash. Euboeans had seen them and reasoned that the earth here, as Hesiod describes it, had ‘burnt with incredible heat’. It had melted, even, like tin when heated by skilled craftsmen or like iron which melts by fire in mountain-woods. Hesiod’s similes were the perfect similes for Euboeans to have visualized, people who heated iron and tin with wood-fires and bellows on the hill-slopes of Typhon’s Ischia or in their settlements in Etna’s orbit.

To Chalcis, Hesiod brought a poem with a backbone of wars in heaven which he had learned from Cretan priests at Delphi. From Chalcis, he returned with a prize-tripod and another episode of heavenly war to add to what he had sung. This second Typhon was a new approach, not the ‘multiple approach’ of an archaic, circling mind. Typhon, he had discovered, was the source of fierce, stormy winds at sea. No sailor himself, Hesiod can only have heard this connection from others who were. They were the members of his Euboean audience who had travelled the seas off Ischia and Etna where Typhon was stretched out in punishment, exhaling and causing the storm-winds for the sailors who passed over his imprisoned body.

The Theogony is considered by many nowadays to be the most Orientalizing of our early Greek poems, with a backbone whose ultimate origin is Near Eastern. There was, however, no ‘hotline’ between Hesiod here and a source in a non–Greek language: the relevant message from such eastern hotlines had already been adjusted by Greeks long before his lifetime, first on Cyprus, then on Crete, from where Cretans from Knossos carried it west to Delphi. There was no eastern ‘hotline’, either, for Hesiod’s second poem,Works and Days, although its existence has so often been postulated. When Hesiod gives us a version of human history, he ‘sums it up’ for us, he tells us, and presents it as a story of five succeeding ages.64 The first was an age of gold, the second of silver, the third of bronze. Then there was the age of the heroes, and now it is the grim age of iron in which Hesiod lives. This sequence of deteriorating ages is linked to deteriorating metals and to an increasing impact of old age on each era’s inhabitants. In due course a similar sequence of metal ages is attested in an Iranian pattern, devised by Zoroastrians, from whose milieu it then appears in the biblical book of Daniel (c. 160 BC): has Hesiod therefore derived his idea of it from the east? These eastern sources date long after Hesiod’s lifetime. The Iranian source has been traced back only as far as the aftermath of Alexander’s conquests, an event which it presupposes: those conquests were four hundred years after Hesiod.65 This Iranian idea was then picked up and written down by a Jew, whereupon the author of the book of Daniel drew on it as an existing source: the book of Daniel was compiled more than a century and a half after Alexander. The only way to credit Hesiod personally with a Near Eastern source for his metal ages is to invent an older source, now lost to us, a Babylonian one perhaps, which eventually passed eastwards to Iran but first came westwards into Hesiod’s orbit. However, no such Babylonian prototype is known to us. The simpler view is that Hesiod inherited a Greek story. Thesequence of metals from gold to iron was a sequence very easily seen and applied in poetry by a Greek in the ‘iron age’. Another Greek, perhaps Hesiod himself, then inserted a fifth age, the age of the all-important Greek heroes. This basic Greek scheme then travelled eastwards with Greeks c. 330–300 BC and influenced Iranian storytelling in the wake of the turbulent conquests of Alexander the Great.66

Works and Days has been compared with many other such Near Eastern ‘parallels’, but in Hesiod’s own time there is no evident Near Eastern contact behind any of them: they are casual similarities.67 There is only one such eastern contact in his poetry, the one behind his Theogony, but it reached him at two removes after two Greek adaptations, one by Greek Cypriots, another by Greek Cretans. By the time that Hesiod met these stories they were not obviously ‘eastern’ for him at all. They were the wisdom of Apollo’s Greek priests who were serving a Greek god. Hesiod’s ‘Near Eastern’ stories simply derived from his own two journeys in central Greece, one on foot to Delphi, the other, a very short boat-trip across to Long Island, Euboea.

Euboeans, however, had already made one of these journeys on their own account. They, too, had boated across and gone up to Delphi, perhaps passing through Boeotia, perhaps through Corinthian territory. We know that they had already consulted Delphic Apollo about their plan to found a Sicilian settlement in 734 BC.68 This visit, made before Hesiod’s poem, was unlikely to have been Euboeans’ first to the Delphic site and it was by no means to be their last. Like Hesiod, Euboeans had looked around. They had surely been shown the priests’ great ‘sign and wonder’, the very stone which mother Rhea had given to the child-eating Cronos. It fitted so excitingly into the trail which they had already tracked from east to west. On the mountain-slopes above Al Mina they had heard the stories of Heaven’s castration, the child-eating Kumarbi and the struggles of Tarhunta the Storm God by which he imposed and maintained his rule. On Cyprus they had learned how Aphrodite had been born from Heaven’s castrated parts. Independently, Eretrian Euboeans on Corcyra and Chalcidian Euboeans at Zancle had found the very sickle which had once parted Heaven from Earth. In Cilicia, at the first Arima, they had seen the old lair of the weather-god’s snaky enemy. On Pithecussae, the second Arima, they had heard and seen where that snaky enemy Typhon was being lashed by Zeus. Typhon extended south to Etna and agitated the intervening sea with hostile winds when he exhaled: he also sent up smoke and fire from the mountain which pinned down a part of his body. Behind their settlement at Cumae on the Bay of Naples Euboeans had found the smouldering, sulphuric landscape of the Giants’ last stand. In northern Greece, just inland from their settlement at Mende, they had seen the very bones of the Giants in the base-camp where they had gathered to fight their war. At Delphi they then found the final piece in their lateral thinking across the world: the very stone which Cronos had swallowed instead of Zeus. Near Mount Hazzi, above their home at Al Mina, they had heard the local story of Kumarbi’s similar deception. Perhaps they did not yet know what we know from an old Hittite text, that Kumarbi had ordered the stone to be set up and paid cult. Perhaps they also did not know what we have inferred, that the stone in the story, the sacred stone which was later shown in its shrine for Zeus Kasios on Seleuceia’s coins, was high up on the mountain-top itself. Instead, Euboeans came west and saw its double at Delphi, a stone with a hole for its anointing, as the travelling Pausanias was to describe it some nine centuries later, just like a ‘sacred’ stone or betyl in the Near East.69 The Cretans pointed this wonder of a relic out to them, but they had no need to repeat its accompanying story. Their visitors knew it even better than they did.

From Unqi to Ischia, the Euboeans thus found the four crucial items in the ancient stories of succession in heaven. Perhaps when they found the Great Castrator at Zancle they had sent to Delphi to ask for confirmation: we know that Zancle’s two Euboean founders sent an envoy to Apollo (surely Delphian Apollo) about which of them should take priority.70 If they asked the god about their sickle too, Delphic Apollo would have supported their inference: he was only as wise as his priests, Cretan immigrants, for whom the tales of the Great Castrator were part of their mental inheritance. Then, for the funeral-games for Amphidamas at a date between c. 710 and 705 BC, the ‘boy from Ascra’ came over from Boeotia to Chalcis with a poem whose backbone matched the Euboeans’ trail and expressed it in neat hexameter verse. He did not know the whole story. His poem had no wars with the Giants, no fully developed story of Typhon, but the prize was a foregone conclusion.

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