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Charles Penglase

Charles Penglase

Greek Myths and Mesopotamia: Parallels and Influence in the Homeric Hymns and Hesiod

Author/Artist: Charles Penglase
ISBN: 0415157064
Publisher: Routledge

Echos du Monde Classique/Classical Views
"Highly recommended as a source of Mesopotamian myths for classicists wishing to gain their first acquaintance with this field, and as a challenge for scholars in the area seeking to access the likkihood of Mesopotamian influence upon Greek myths."

Book Description
Greek Myths and Mesopotamia investigates the nature and extent of Mesopotamian influence on Greek religious mythological works. It shows how Mesopotamian ideas and motifs can increase our understanding of, for instance, the Homeric hymns to Apollo, Aphrodite or Athena, and of the works of Hesiod. This book is essential reading for scholars and students of ancient Greek and Near Eastern religion and mythology.

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The Chthonic Sojourn & the Ascent in Power
Penglase examines structural relationships between on the one hand the 'Homeric' hymns from c.650BC (?) and Hesiod's 'Theogony' and 'Works & Days' from sometime in the eight century and on the other, the myths of Inanna-Ishtar, Dumuzi (Tammuz - as in the month in Arabic and Hebrew) and Ninurta-Ningirsu in the Mesopotamian tradition.

The book begins within a recounting of Inanna's descent into the underworld & the image of her clothes as power (SJK- common to the Gnostic and Hermetic traditions as well). Her condemnation to death by the Anunnaki represents the initial defeat motif and by means of her - seemingly, horizontal - ascent she gains netherworld powers. There is no discussion of her emergence onto the mythological scene or the fact that she (earlier (s)he) was probably a composite deity from various local versions.

Ekur ('kur' means 'mountain') relates closely to Olympus but there is no attempt by Penglase to force Mesopotamia to be the origin of the Olympian gods - for Leto, Apollo, Artemis, Demeter & Persephone as well as the motif of Athena's birth and Zeus' journey for power, the relationship is only structurally derivative. The exception is Aphrodite who is probably a direct derivative of Ishtar.

In the Hymn to Apollo, both Apollo and his mother, Leto, perform journeys whilst Hera's role parallels that of Erishkegal. Again, the ascent sequence from within the earth follows the image of the searching mother goddess. There is an initial defeat which is later rectified and the complete journey results in the alternating ascent and descent of the deity with accompanying fertility effects. Apollo's struggles with Pytho and the river Telphousa are related to the Tiamat motif. But whilst Telphousa and Tiamat are both essentially animate, Asag and the kur are essentially inanimate. There isn't much of an attempt to develop this into a chronological modification. Common motifs include food, dressing, noise, radiance, & the return journey to the Assembly of the supreme deity.

The Hymn to Demeter is of particular interest because it is the first written evidence of the Mysteries of Eleusis but the literature of the time presents a very sombre view of the afterlife. Whilst there is plenty on the pomegranate motif there is no mention of the fact that it is a sacred symbol for both Tanit (as successor deity for Astarte and Asherah) and the Kore cults in Carthaginian Tunisia. The unwashed journey of Demeter parallels that of Dutter whilst the child gender issue which threatens to unwind Penglase's analysis is settled by both the kouros / Ploutos in one tradition and by the descent of Geshtinanna's descent in the other. The carrying away of a young person parallels Geshtinanna in the composition 'Dumuzi's Dream' and both are accompanied by cosmic screaming. Pengalse rejects the oft-accepted rape thesis on the grounds that 'poll'aekazomeni' demonstrates both sexual unwillingness on the part of the young girl and also Hades' forbearance. I remain less than 100% convinced although I don't rule out his interpretation. The Isis / Osiris myth from Egypt is argued to have come from the Persephone legend and not the other way around - this does make sense in spite of the fact that Isis was a clearly defined deity prior to 2500BC. The pig connection between Isis and Demeter is not discussed.

Of great interest is the issue of the drought image. It is argued that given the Greek environmental surroundings, the image of drought fits better with the risks of living in the Iraqi homelands of the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians. But what is never asked is: 'From whence did the Greeks come?' There isn't even any mention of the roles played by Zeus. Hera, Athena and Artemis in known Linear B texts from Pylos and Knossos. Admittedly any analysis is going to run in to problems given such limited religious material beyond 750BC.

Penglase roundly rejects the pan-IndoEuropeanist view of Aphrodite seeing her as part of a common development from Inanna-Ishtar with Astarte, and more controversially, Asherah. Common to both Ishtar and Aphrodite are the control of sexual desire (SJK - Ishtar was more deity of sex and violence than love and war), their original androgynous roots (SJK - Inanna was originally both the morning and evening star and both male and female although she is not alone amongst goddesses in having male traits. Interestingly, both Athar and Akkadian Ishtar are masculine in linguistic form), Ourania 'the Queen of Heaven', the sacrifice of doves and sacred prostitution. In addition both have a shepherd lover. Strangely enough there is no mention of the shared embroidered girdle with intrinsic powers but Penglase is absolutely clear on ruling out Phoenician influences.

In the creation of Pandora, the first woman, it is the thought that comes from Zeus whilst the creative ability comes from Hephaistos and Athena. This parallels the roles of Enlil and Enki in the Mesopotamian creation myth. Notably, there is no actual female deity involvement in the Enuma Elish. Pandora's powers of attraction are argued to be - at least in part - resultant from the attire she wears.

Penglase's discussion of the birth of Athena is based on evidence from the Homeric Hymn to Athena and the Seventh Olympian Ode of Pindar and the differences from Mesopotamian ideas are seen as the result, not of misunderstanding, but rather of deliberate design. Hesiod is argued not to be presenting a fundamental new paradigm within Greek mythological thinking but rather acting as compiler and integrating Hittite material. Athena springs from Zeus' head but bear in mind here that the Greek word for 'head' can also be read as 'mountain peak'.

But surely there is also a connection with the overthrow of one order of deities by another? Penglase doesn't dwell on this, nor on the nature of pre-existing Akkadian religion prior to its Sumarianisation or even the issue of the Dorian 'invasion' at the start of the Greek Dark Age. Nevertheless, a heavy-going read as it sometimes is, this book is time well invested.

simonkyte, United Kingdom
added 2003-02-12

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