Thursday, November 10, 2016


Mary R. Bachvarova, From Hittite to Homer: The Anatolian Background of Ancient Greek Epic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Pp. xxxviii, 649. ISBN 9780521509794. $160.00.

Reviewed by Yoram Cohen, Tel-Aviv University (

Version at BMCR home site


The book under review argues for an oral transmission of Hittite and ancient Near Eastern mythological and epic narratives to early Greek epic, in particular the Iliad. It first seeks to demonstrate the narrative ties between a few ancient Near Eastern compositions and the Iliad. It then provides us with a model of the transmission route from Hittite literature to Homeric epic.

Two compositions are chosen as chief examples to demonstrate the ancient Near Eastern literary legacy of the Iliad. The first is the Hurrian–Hittite bilingual poem "The Song of Release" (chs. 5–7).1 The basic narrative of this work is that the city of Ebla subjugated the people of the city of Ikinkalis. The god Tessub requests Megi, the ruler of Ebla, to release the people of Ikinkalis, for otherwise Ebla will be destroyed. But the senate of Ebla, represented by the powerful orator Zazalla, refuses the god's wish, and as a consequence, although the text is missing, it is obvious that Ebla is destroyed as a punishment for its disobedience. The manuscripts of the poem are dated to ca. 1400 BCE and recovered from the capital of the Hittite kingdom, Hattusa.

This composition, according to Mary Bachvarova, provided the basic story-line to the Iliad, as well as to one of its most famous subplots. The story where "two humans argue before a human assembly over releasing a captive" (p. 133), while the destruction of the city threatens, strongly resembles for her the plot of the Iliad. Troy is destroyed because its assembly refused to surrender Helen to the Greeks. And the subplot at the beginning of the Iliad is equally reminiscent of the plot of the "Song of Release". It is about a quarrel in the assembly, when Agamemnon refuses to surrender his slave girl Chryseis, a refusal which brings about the plague as a punishment from Apollo (p. 14 and ch. 5, esp. pp. 139-142).

The second ancient Near Eastern composition to supply us with an example for a Hittite to Greek transmission is "The Cuthean Legend" (or "Naram-Sin and the Enemy Hoards") (ch. 8). In a fictional account, the Sargonic king Naram-Sin (ca. 23nd century BCE) reports how the gods sent monstrous enemy hoards to attack his kingdom. He consulted the gods by omens but disregarded their message and consequently was punished for his hubris. His kingdom was defeated. Admitting his failure, he was given a second chance. This time he heeded the omens sent by the gods and succeeded in repelling the enemy.

The composition belongs to the genre of narû, which consists of Old Babylonian pseudo-royal inscriptions of the Sargonic kings.2 It was known in Hattusa and represented by very fragmentary Akkadian and Hittite manuscripts.

According to Bachvarova, "The Cuthean Legend" provided another plot element crucial to the Iliad: Hector, for all his might, was doomed because he, like Naram-Sin, misinterpreted the will of the gods, thinking Zeus supported him (pp. 191–195).

Having argued for a narratological influence of one type of literature over another, the author seeks to demonstrate how and when this happened. Previous scholarship on the relation between ancient Near Eastern literature and Greek epic (e.g., Walter Burkert and Martin West; see, e.g., p. 262) has usually claimed that the Orientalizing Period was the time frame in which transmission from east to west took place. It was argued that travelling poets from the Semitic world on the Syrian littoral in an age of Neo-Assyrian globalism transmitted, whether orally or in writing, mythological and epic narratives to Greeks around the eastern Mediterranean.

Bachvarova certainly does not deny the existence of these transmission routes (pp. 285–294). However, by picking up on the very suggestive scholarship of Calvert Watkins, she argues for a much earlier and an equally, if not a more substantial, transmission that happened by a different route and by somewhat other means. Positing that a pre-Homeric early Iliad (in oral form) was already around in the 11th century, she advances the thesis that wandering bards were the ones responsible for transmission: Phrygians perhaps or earlier peoples who kept alive an oral heritage from Late Bronze Anatolia, and who were fluent to some degree in both Greek and some Anatolian language (hence bilingual), delivered songs in cultic commemorations of the dead at the courts of aspiring dynasts on the Ionian coast (chs. 15–16, and passim, e.g., p. 300). The memory of the once prosperous Late Bronze Age Troy , now in ruins, was the stage where Anatolians and Greeks could play out their mutual present (ch. 14, and p. 373). Orally transmitted through narrative song, the story-lines of ancient Near Eastern and Hittite epic and myth about a famous destroyed city (Ebla) and a long-dead hero-king (Naram-Sin) were threads of a fabric in the making – the Iliad.

Demonstrating this mode of transmission is not simple. "The Song of Release" and "The Cuthean Legend", as well as many other compositions that the author considers crucial to the formation of the Homeric epic, such as "The Epic of Gilgamesh" (also known at Hattusa; chs. 3–4), are usually considered by scholarship to be the by-products of scribal training and not texts used in cultic commemoration. Moreover, they were written on clay tablets in the cuneiform script in either Akkadian, Hurrian or Hittite, and found at Hattusa. But the Hittite capital was destroyed ca. 1200 BCE with the fall of the kingdom. Its scribal schools were deserted, cuneiform writing and Akkadian were no longer used in Anatolia, and Hittite and Hurrian became dead languages. How then to explain the survival of the Hittite heritage? The answer is by oral transmission.

The theory of oral transmission has never been popular in ancient Near Eastern studies and particularly in Assyriology. Part of the reason for its rejection lies with the history of scholarship. When the oral composition hypothesis of Parry and Lord gained traction in the 1960s, many of the major epic texts were only partly known, their literary history murky. But even after the establishment of modern and complete editions, Assyriology was still reluctant to adopt the theory of oral composition in order to explain how ancient Near Eastern epic was composed and transmitted across the centuries. By this time it had found a much more compelling explanation for textual transmission throughout Mesopotamia and beyond — the curricular or scribal school setting. Since the 1980s, it had become clear that generally speaking Mesopotamian literature (Sumerian and Akkadian), including epic, was the by-product of the scribal school.3 Children or young adults (usually male but not exclusively) basically learnt the same curriculum across the centuries — not only in Mesopotamia, but anywhere where cuneiform was studied, in Canaan, Syria, Anatolia and even Egypt. At the first stage of their training, they copied lexical lists, the elementary compositions for learning cuneiform, and later Gilgamesh, narû compositions about the Sargonic kings, and wisdom literature. By force of this curricular activity, new texts were composed and older ones reworked, until they were eventually standardized (as first millennium BCE copies make evident).4 The curricular setting might in fact account for the transmission of the "Cuthean Legend" and the Hurrian-Hittite "Song of Release" to Hattusa: there is no apparent and immediate use for such compositions but in scribal school setting.5 Their translation from Akkadian and Hurrian to Hittite seems to prove the point.

Bachvarova rescues these texts from the mundane. By recourse to mostly circumstantial evidence — for this is usually what one is left with when dealing with fragmentary archives — and by investigating their poetic qualities, it is claimed that they were not (or at least not exclusively) school compositions, but rather works which were orally performed in the cult, specifically of dead and venerated ancestors (chs. 6–8). Because these poetic texts served in the cult, they attained (or perhaps were always endowed with) an oral tradition of transmission that could have survived even after the fall of Hattusa and the end of cuneiform writing in Anatolia. And because they were concerned with ancestor veneration, they were potentially loaded with an ideological message: they could legitimize present day kingship by associating it with mythological and semi-divine ancestors in the context of festivals, where epic poetry could have been performed (chs. 10 and 11). Bachvarova, adopting the Bourdieuan discourse current among anthropologists and archaeologists, assumes that in Iron Age western Anatolia, just as there was a market for luxury items arriving from exotic places, so there was one for performing bards (pp. 206–218 and ch. 11).

To conclude, by divorcing the texts from their scholarly environment and identifying them as oral poetry, they are provided with an active role in the cult of the dead at the hand of travelling bards. Hence, one can understand the success of their transmission.

This argumentation, which is presented here in a greatly reduced manner, is laid out throughout the book in three main parts. First are discussed the ancient Near Eastern materials, mainly those found in Hattusa (chs. 2–8). Then begins an investigation into the cultural and religious world of Anatolia and the Eastern Mediterranean (including Cyprus, Syria and Cilicia) (chs. 9–14). The last two chapters (chs. 15–16) consider the date and place of the composition of the Iliad, and the interaction between Greeks and bilingual Anatolian poets.

There is little that this book does not touch upon and it does so with considerable attention to detail. Aside from dealing with Hittite, Akkadian and Greek epic, it discusses for example, the question of Ahhiyawa (ch. 13), Neo-Hittite monumental art (pp. 379–393), Luwian hieroglyphic inscriptions (e.g., pp. 315–317 and pp. 347–348), Turkic oral epic poetry (pp. 48–49), the archaeology of Cyprus (pp. 306–310), the destruction date of Troy (pp. 361–373), and the origin of the dactylic hexameter (pp. 458–464, as an Appendix). The result is a wealth of data that cannot be processed from a single reading of the book and evidently cannot be presented here in full. Hence this short review cannot but fail to do justice to Bachvarova's sophisticated, articulate and multi-layered argumentation. It can be stated, however, that if one is sympathetic to the idea that Greek epic is to be studied in the context of the surrounding and earlier cultures, there is much to be gained from this monumental effort. In her methodological approach and the thoughtful questions she poses, Bachvarova opens the door for further research, challenging us to understand what the debt of Greek epic is to Bronze Age and Iron Age Anatolia. It is surely to the benefit of Classicists and ancient Near Eastern scholars that the chasm between the two disciplines is crossed. Thus, her book successfully joins two recent investigations into the modes of transmission of ancient Near Eastern literature to the Greek world, although these differ in their approaches and methodologies: Haubold, Johannes (2013), Greece and Mesopotamia: Dialogues in Literature, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; and Metcalf, Christopher (2015), The Gods Rich in Praise: Early Greek and Mesopotamian Religious Poetry, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


1.   "The Song of Release" was written in Hurrian on the left column of the tablet and translated into Hittite, written on the right column, thus literally forming a side-by-side translation. Other such bilingual editions of literary texts are known from Hattusa (e.g., the wisdom composition "Hear the Advice"; Akkadian and Hittite), as well as from Emar and Ugarit (e.g., the wisdom composition "The Ballad of Early Rulers"; Sumerian and Akkadian; see p. 190); see Cohen, Yoram (2013), Wisdom from the Late Bronze Age, Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature. These are understood to be texts used in the curriculum of schooling in the cuneiform script; see the discussion below.
2.   The composition was given this modern name because it imagines itself to be a royal and inevitably a votive inscription that is deposited in the temple of the god Nergal in his sacred city Cutha, not far from Babylon. The standard treatment of the piece is still Westenholz, Joan G. (1997), Legends of the Kings of Akkade: The Texts, Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, but it can be supplemented with an English translation by Morgan, Christopher (2006), "The Cutha Legend", in The Ancient Near East: Ancient Sources in Translation, Mark Chavalas, ed., pp. 32–40, Malden, MA: Blackwell.
3.   See the many studies dedicated to the composition and transmission of cuneiform literature in Radner, Karen, and Eleanor Robson, eds. (2011), The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
4.   This is not to deny any part of oral transmission, and definitely not to deny the memorization of texts (which, however, cannot be considered as oral transmission, because the source is a written text and not oral discourse).
5.   Although consider the reception of the narû literature at Hattusa and its function in early Hittite royal discourse; see Gilan, Amir (2015), Formen und Inhalte althethitischer historischer Literatur, Heidelberg: Carl Winter. For schooling in Hattusa, see Weeden, Mark (2011), Hittite logograms and Hittite scholarship, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz and Gordin, Shai (2015), Hittite Scribal Circles, Scholarly Tradition, and Writing Habits, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

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