Friday, April 10, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
R. Drew Griffith, Mummy Wheat: Egyptian Influence on the Homeric View of the Afterlife and the Eleusinian Mysteries. Lanham: University Press of America, 2008. Pp. xxxvi, 233. ISBN 9780761842989. $37.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Nikolaos Lazaridis, Radboud University Nijmegen

Drew Griffith's Mummy Wheat is an important but controversial book that argues for Egyptian influence not only on Homer's viewpoint of the afterlife, but also on the Eleusinian mysteries and other aspects of the ancient Greek religious system. The author begins his discussion with a specific passage from Homer's Odyssey in which for the first time in Greek literature a reference to an Elysian plain (Ἠλύσιον πεδίον) is made. This new idea of the afterlife, according to the author, was imported from the Egyptian system of funerary ideas, expressed mainly in the collections of the Pyramid Texts, the Coffin Texts and the Book of the Dead. The author supports this argument, which has also been advanced and debated in earlier scholarly works, by collecting evidence for parallels and borrowings between the Homeric epics and the culture of ancient Egypt. In this way, the author argues against taking this reference to Elysium as an isolated parallel. Instead, according to him, one should consider this instance as part of a larger network of borrowed terms and ideas that penetrated Greek culture through Homer. Hence, this study is addressed mainly to classical philologists who are interested in topics of cultural interaction between ancient Greece and the Near East and thus conversant with a long scholarly debate to which well-acclaimed scholars, such as Walter Burkert and Martin West, as well as controversial ones, such as Martin Bernal, have so far contributed. The author cites these scholars very frequently and, in fact, often employs the questionable methods of Martin Bernal, using his type of etymological and other linguistic explanations as evidence for intercultural influence.

In contrast to Bernal's work, however, the author is paradoxically aware of the limitations of this type of evidence, although he uses it extensively throughout his study. Some of the explanations of elements of Greek culture as borrowings from Egypt seem to be sound, while other explanations seem far-fetched. Thus, for instance, the explanation of the Herodotean λίτρον (or better νίτρον) "sodium carbonate" as deriving from the Egyptian word netjeri, literally meaning "divine", but also denoting the sodium carbonate employed in the process of mummification, and its associations with a Greek borrowing of Egyptian funerary ideas appear to be very possible. The derivation, however, of the word νέκταρ from the same Egyptian root seems far-fetched (for both, see pp. 37 and 67). Such examples of linguistic explanations abound in this work, but their disputable nature does not make the already hard task of identifying and defining cultural interaction any easier. Apart from making a sound case for each of these linguistic explanations, there is also the difficulty in connecting contemporary parallels to argue for the existence of wider contexts (such as the historical constructs of the Greek Dark Ages or the Mycenaean world) that can be seen as rich in parallels between cultures and favorable for interactions between them. In response to this, the author proceeds in the only way he can follow, given the available evidence: he produces a cumulative effect by bringing together as much evidence for Graeco-Egyptian interaction as possible.1 This method, however, has its weaknesses, since in most cases the connecting elements are very uncertain (as in the case of the argued Egyptian origins of the Greek Memnon, which are linked to Homer's knowledge of Egypt -- see pp. 45-53). An exceptionally convincing element, on the other hand, connecting a number of parallels and linguistic influences, is the Homeric tradition. This tradition consisted of bards producing and reproducing the Homeric epics and can be taken as a uniform cultural entity that most probably knew much about earlier and contemporary Oriental cultures (see p. 72). Thus, in general, the reader must be cautious when the author employs the accumulative method. Each instance should be considered first independently, and then it can be considered in connection to other instances, but only in the context of a specific cultural group or entity, such as the Homeric bards, rather than a loosely-formed, historical construct, such as a historical period or a wide geographical region.

The book is divided into eight chapters that are preceded by a short introduction. In the introduction (pp. xxix-xxxvi) the author clearly presents his central argument, quoting in translation the unique Homeric passage (Od. 4.561-569) in which Proteus predicts for Menelaus an afterlife in the Elysian plain. He also states his intention of interpreting this passage as a cultural borrowing from Egypt that fills a gap in the Greek religious system. Furthermore, the introduction includes a thorough overview of the contents of each chapter, stressing the logical links between the great diversity of topics discussed. The author ends his introduction by justifying his task and defending its results. He rightly points out the different attitudes towards exotic material maintained in each of the disciplines he sets foot in. He also does not fail to observe that his study too dangerously mixes objective reporting of facts with partisan defence of hypotheses.

In Chapter One (pp. 1-12) the author begins with a short survey of earlier scholarly works that have discussed the borrowing of the idea of Elysium from Egypt. In this important section of the chapter, he also lists six important criteria for proving a linguistic borrowing. To this brief theoretical discussion one could add the possibilities of variation in semantic usage, namely when a word may be borrowed from one culture to another and be used with different meanings and connotations. 2 Such a case is still a linguistic borrowing, but it proves a different type of interaction from that relating to, for instance, a loanword that is used with the same meaning and/or is consciously treated as a foreign word. The author then tests his proposed criteria by examining the case of the word Αἴγψπτος and its uses in Greek. In the end of the chapter the author presents the Egyptian funerary ideas and compares them to Greek ones, thus paving the way for the next discussion of the Greek borrowing of the idea of Elysian plains from Egypt.

Chapter Two (pp. 13-30) begins with an evaluation of earlier remarks on the use of the Oriental idea of Elysium in Greece made by Alford, Burkert and Puhvel. The author agrees with Alford's theory that Ἠλύσιον πεδίον comes from the translation of the Egyptian term for "fields of reeds". The author argues next that "Elysium" did not travel to Greece as a linguistic borrowing only, but marks, at the time of Homeric traditions, a wider wave of Greek cultural borrowings of Egyptian ideas of the afterlife (such as the rowing/sailing to Elysium or the perilous backward glances). This chapter ends with a discussion of Menelaus' right to go to Elysium, which is unconvincingly linked to Egyptian traditions of matrilineality.

Following his attempts to prove that the borrowing of Elysium was not an isolated case of Egyptian influence on Homer, in Chapter Three (pp. 31-43) the author digresses from the central topic of "Elysium" in Greece by discussing a great variety of parallels between the Egyptian culture and the Homeric epics. These include, for example, the cases of feeding the dead to make them speak, 3 the Egyptian maa-kheru and the Greek μάκαρ, parallel metaphors involving teeth, tongues and doors, and the Oriental etymology of θάλασσα. Some of these examples are convincing (as with μάκαρ) and some are very weak (as is the case of the parallel metaphors). All these parallels, however, are equally employed here as evidence for multiple influence over Homeric language and ideology from Egypt.

This digressive method employed by the author reaches its peak in Chapter Four (pp. 45-53), in which the author discusses the Egyptian origins of the Greek Memnon, argued previously by Martin Bernal. This discussion is only faintly related to the central argument of the book, since it is simply part of the author's attempt to prove an overall knowledge of Egyptian culture by the Greeks living before and during the era of Homeric traditions. [[4]

The journey through parallels between Homer and the ancient Egyptian culture continues in Chapter Five (pp. 55-66), which includes arguments for Egyptian influence on Homer in relation to the epics' description of gods (e.g. their blue hair), as well as their usage of specific phrases, such "black earth" from the Egyptian kemet and "rosy-fingered dawn" from the Amarna representations of Akhenaten's sun disc. Once again, some of these arguments appear more convincing than others, as is the case of the likely Egyptian influence for the unique blue hair of Homer's gods compared to the far-fetched connections between Homeric metaphor and Akhenaten's iconography.

In Chapter Six (pp. 67-75) the author raises a number of interesting questions about the possible ways such borrowings would have travelled from Egypt to Greece. Among other things, he suggests as possible paths the obvious commercial contacts, especially between Egypt and Crete, Argos or Rhodes,5 and the extensive knowledge of the bards of the Homeric tradition. Finally, in this chapter the author also asks the important question "why would there be Egyptian echoes in Homer?" As a reason he proposes pure chance, but also suggests that this influence was a result of a very early interaction between Greece and Egypt and that it filled a gap in the ideas about the afterlife existing in Greece at that time.

This cultural gap that was filled by Egyptian funerary ideas was, according to the author, directly associated with the development of the Eleusinian mysteries, and this hypothesis is the main topic discussed in Chapter Seven (pp. 77-81) and Chapter Eight (pp. 83-93). In the former chapter the author argues for an Egyptian background of Demeter's myths and of the Eleusinian mysteries connected to them. Accordingly, the author presents Demeter's nature and cult as being of an Egyptian origin, and he connects the popular myths of Demeter, Persephone and Iambe to the Egyptian stories about Isis and Osiris. The similarities proposed at this point, however, seem very weak, and thus the author is forced to admit that there was probably "an original, genetic link" rather than direct borrowing (p. 78).

In the last chapter of the book the author surprises the reader by abandoning all previous linguistic and historical methods and turning instead to psychoanalysis and the near-death experience for interpreting the Eleusinian mysteries. This sudden turn makes the reader wonder whether this chapter acts as an appendix rather than as an integral part of the book's analysis. What seems to be implied in this chapter is that both the Egyptian and the Greek cultures were aware of the psychological values of the idea for a positive afterlife and that it could be this shared experience of the afterlife that functioned as the connecting element between the ideologies of the two cultures in contact.

Chapter Eight is followed by a short afterword, a long series of figures, and indices of modern scholars (pp. 221-223), words (pp. 224-228), poetic and rhetorical terms (pp. 229-231), and general terms (pp. 232-233). One must also note here the poor quality of figures that in some cases cannot properly illustrate the book's arguments (e.g. fig. 26 in which the color of Hapy's hair is not visible).

The book would have benefited greatly from the presence of a conclusion or a summary to weave together the various points made in the course of the analysis. This structural looseness is a major drawback of this book, as it does not help the reader define its interacting parts or to understand the nature of the cultural interactions and their impact on the formation of Greek literature and religion. Nevertheless, this difficulty in connecting the identified parallels does reflect the nature and state of the available material itself: the existence of parallels is not systematic and cannot offer a complete picture of cultural interaction on its own. Thus, overall, this book is an important endeavor, since it best illustrates the limitations of works studying cultural interaction on the basis of philological parallels the identification and interpretation of which cannot follow a single theoretical model and therefore tend to be highly subjective.


1.   Resembling in this way Martin West's study of literary parallels between ancient Greek and Oriental literary works (The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).
2.   Such is the case, for instance, of English words used wrongly in modern Japan, as they are occasionally being confused with native Japanese vocabulary (cf. J. Stanlaw, Japanese English: Language and Culture, Asian Englishes Today. Hong Kong: Hong Kong U.P., 2003, pp. 11ff.).
3.   Note that the remark that " ancient Egypt everyone of any means could read" (p. 33) is erroneous and the current Egyptological consensus does not speak of high rates of literacy in most phases of Pharaonic History (cf. John Baines and Christopher Eyre: "Four Notes on Literacy", Göttinger Miszellen 61, 1983, pp. 65-96; Leonard L. Lesko: "Literature, Literacy, and Literati", in L. H. Lesko (ed.), Pharaoh's Workers. The Village of Deir el Medina. Ithaca: Cornell U.P., 1994, pp. 131-144).
4.   Note that endnotes 123-127 of this chapter have been omitted.
5.   Although Crete and Rhodes sound very likely as centres of contact with Egypt, the argument for Argos is based upon a debatable interpretation of Danaus' story in Homer, which is elaborated earlier on p. 60.

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