Sunday, February 5, 2017


Ian Rutherford (ed.), Greco-Egyptian Interactions: Literature, Translation, and Culture 500 BCE-300 CE. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. xiii, 393. ISBN 9780199656127. $135.00.

Reviewed by Felipe Rojas, Brown University (

Version at BMCR home site

Publisher's Preview

The study of cultural interaction as documented in the textual output of Egypt, Greece, and Rome is in flux. Egyptologists, who traditionally had paid less attention to texts written under Ptolemaic and especially Roman rule than to earlier material, have been devoting more of their energies to the arduous duty of editing Demotic papyri. Many such documents provide evidence of Greek-Egyptian cross-pollination, even if the exact nature of that exchange is hard to puzzle out.1 As the editor of one of those texts acknowledges here without despair: "Any conclusion may be overturned tomorrow" (p. 347). Classicists, on their part, have been producing less Hellenocentric readings of textual documents written in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, and also increasingly sophisticated literary and historical analyses that are informed by theoretical trends outside of classics.2 Many of the contributors to this volume are directly responsible for rocking the Greco-Egyptian textual boat. In fact, beginning nearly two decades ago, the editor himself has been offering challenging studies of Greco-Egyptian literary and cultural interaction.3 This book is of immediate and obvious importance to those working on Greek and Roman Egypt. As I explain below, however, it may also be of interest to those studying cross-cultural contact in the ancient world more generally.

The chapters range widely in theme and scope. Several of them grapple with texts that are at the core of the Greek literary canon. Stephens, for example, argues that Plato and some of his Greek contemporaries had a much deeper understanding of ancient Egyptian culture than has been acknowledged usually and than is the case among most of Plato's readers today. For her, the ideal state as described in the Republic was indebted to Egyptian theological thought and political practice—this despite the fact that that debt is not recognized in Plato's own text. If Stephens is correct, a stubbornly Hellenocentric analysis of the Republic misses an important part of its real-world political horizon. Rutherford reflects about the possible impact of Homeric epic on Egyptian narratives celebrating the rebel Inaros and his descendants. According to Rutherford, Homeric epic may have informed Egyptian story-telling traditions as early as the late 7th century or early 6th century BCE, when Greek mercenaries fought for the pharaoh Psammetichus I, or, more probably to his mind, in the mid 5th century BCE, when the Libyan Inaros II, assisted by the Athenians, revolted against the Persian king Artaxerxes I. It would have been at that time that "some sort of fusion took place between the cultural and literary traditions of Egyptian and Greeks, united for a few intense years in a common struggle against a common oriental enemy" (p. 100). Rutherford's chapter is a contribution to the study of the ancient reception of Homer among non- Greeks and,4 at the same time, of epic tales concerning trans-regional heroes that were told among Greek and Egyptian populations living under Persian occupation.5 Llewellyn-Jones and Winder find an Egyptian substrate to Callimachus's "Lock of Berenike." In their view, the poem is evidence of Queen Berenike II's attempt to fashion herself as the Egyptian goddess Hathor in order to fortify her politically precarious position. The authors of this chapter use sculptural reliefs to elucidate the Egyptian significance of Callimachus's poem. As their study demonstrates, philologists have much to gain from a careful consideration of the visual and material environment in which Ptolemaic literature was produced, especially given that Alexandrian authors were rarely explicit about their engagement with Egyptian traditions.

Two chapters deal with inscriptional evidence. Moyer examines a series of epigraphic hymns written in Greek in the temple of Isis-Hermouthis in the Fayyum around 100 BCE. Those poems enable him to study the various ways in which the local poet Isidorus reflects about his own Greek and Egyptian cultural affiliations. In Moyer's analysis, which attends closely to the architectural setting of the inscriptions, the hymns are not just evidence of cultural intermingling, they also document "the complexity of Isidorus' practice in mediating between both religious syncretism and nativism, and between the various discursive and literary genres through which he articulates those positions" (p. 240). Tallet, on her part, analyzes a series of well-known Greek verse prayers painted on the walls of the temple of Mandulis in Talmis/Kalabshah between the first and the third century CE. For her, these poems are of interest because they shed light on the actual negotiations that took place among Egyptian priests, Roman soldiers, and Nubian populations. By advertising in Greek what purport to be local arcana, the poems evince the Egyptian priests' efforts to attract visitors eager to undergo an esoteric experience.

Classicists and Egyptologists have long considered the Greek novel and Greco-Egyptian magic to be peep-holes into the dynamics of Greco- Egyptian interaction. Both are treated in this book. Vinson aims to reconcile two conflicting theories regarding the Egyptian background of the Greek novel: one that imagines it as a descendant of Egyptian prose story-telling dating back as early as the pharaonic period, and the other that explains it as a sort of vernacular re-working of Egyptian religious mythology, specifically of the Isis-Osiris myth. To do this, Vinson turns to an unusual object of analysis: heroines. He provides comparisons of females in the Demotic narrative known as First Setne and Heliodorus' Aethiopica. The comparisons are sound, but Vinson himself is skeptical about whether they demonstrate that the Greek novel's roots are planted in Egypt (p. 262). Bohak turns to the Greco-Egyptian magical tradition. The topic lends itself easily to interdisciplinary analysis given that so much of the evidence involves inscribed objects. Bohak's study, however, is decidedly philological. In fact, he concludes that it is precisely the textual culture in which this magic was practiced that made it attractive to people outside of Egypt and resilient to geopolitical and cultural changes in the Mediterranean. Christianity, however, which was programmatically hostile to both Egyptian and Greek paganism, heralded Greco-Egyptian magic's ultimate demise.

Texts composed in Demotic and translated into Greek are the subject of three chapters. Ladynin analyzes prophetic literature in Hellenistic Egypt, and in particular, the Oracle of the Potter, a text originally written in Demotic, but now surviving only in Greek. He tackles this piece of anti-Ptolemaic propaganda by comparing it both to Middle Egyptian prophetic literature as well as to prophetic narratives in Hellenistic literature such as the Alexander Romance and concludes that is an example of a distinctly Egyptian technique of history-making in which contemporary events and protagonists, (including, in the case of the Oracle of the Potter, foreign invaders such as the Ptolemies), could be fit into a flexible framework of cyclical history. Quack revisits the Book of Temple, a manual for priests covering such topics as temple architecture and the everyday obligations of temple administrators and employees. That manual was first composed in classical Egyptian (hieratic-script fragments of which survive), translated into Demotic, and then into Greek. Quack concentrates on the surviving Greek portions and argues that, in the multilingual, poly-scriptural environment of Roman Egypt, Greek translations of Egyptian texts were made in order for people to be able to actually run the temple. As competence in Egyptian was declining, bilingual scribes turned their attention to "texts which [were] needed not for their literary and stylistic merit but for the contents which were still of relevance" (p. 281). Jasnow examines the possible resonances between the Book of Thoth, an esoteric text recounting the dialogue between a teacher and a student, and Greek literature having to do with Egypt including the Greek hermetic corpus. He is careful to note that it is difficult to place the Book of Thoth within its own Egyptian religious context, let alone use it as a gauge to understand interaction between Greek and Egyptian traditions. For Jasnow, the extreme interpretative difficulties posed by the Book of Thoth should incite scholars to study not just Demotic, but the marvelously varied scriptural legacy of Greco-Roman Egypt.

Lazaridis is compelled to propose and illustrate (figure 8.1) an abstract model that, according to him, allows scholars to assess whether two passages of text can or not be identified as a literary parallel. Are similarities the result of one tradition's borrowing from the other, or both from a common source? Historical linguists (and other comparatists) will be familiar with such quandaries. Curiously, given that this is an overtly theoretical chapter, there is little acknowledgement of the penetrating scholarship dealing with the topic of differences among apparently similar parallels outside of classics or Egyptology.

Two chapters are concerned with the processes whereby Greek and Egyptian traditions were made commensurable with each other in antiquity. Dillery reflects on how and why the historian Manetho attempted to correlate events in Greek and Egyptian history. According to Dillery, Manetho's efforts to fit episodes that were important for the Greeks into an Egyptian historical framework can be partly explained as the result of the historian's eagerness to participate in Greek cultural practices, yet pride in Egyptian antiquity rather than admiration for Greek historical techniques may have motivated Manetho. Synchronism, a historiographical operation that was foreign to Egyptian practice, offered Manetho a convenient way to demonstrate that momentous episodes in Greek history (such as the Trojan War) were but "minor footnotes on the pages of the great master narratives that was the Egyptian past" (p. 132).6 Van Lieven studies the process known as interpretatio graeca in Egypt. In other words, she aims to explore the mechanisms whereby Greek equivalents were sought and found for Egyptian divinities as well as cases in which no such identifications were made (for example, in the case of the crocodile god Sobek). She rightly calls attention to the fact that although the phenomenon would appear central to the study of Greco-Egyptian cross-cultural interaction, it has received little sustained systematic and comparative attention.

As I read many of the chapters of this excellent book, I wondered what a 'smoking gun' in this context would look like, a piece of evidence that unassailably demonstrates the Egyptian origins of the Greek novel, the exact manner of transmission of a bit of Hermetic wisdom, or that Callimachus' poem of capillary catasterization was incontrovertibly part of Queen Berenike's attempt to portray herself as Hathor. Even as we look for that 'smoking gun,' and as we keep finding countless spent shell-casings that attest to Greco-Egyptian interaction, it seems wise to look elsewhere than Greece and Egypt for comparanda that may illuminate how that interaction occurred. The important questions that are tackled in this book are being asked also by experts in other times and places. Specialists working on New Spain, for example, have explored how and by whom equivalencies were made between Aztec gods and their alleged Classical counterparts.7 Others have attempted second-order comparisons, including an astonishingly bold study of the parallel dynamics of contact between two different sets of robust literary traditions (Greek and Roman on the one hand, Chinese and Japanese on the other).8 Far beyond the domain of classics, the field of Greco-Egyptian literature and culture has much to contribute to and to gain from, for example, studies of the interaction of Arabic and Persian literature in the 10th and 11th centuries CE, or the role of local informants in the production of imperial compilations of knowledge in the Spanish Americas. Cross-cultural interaction in the study of cross-cultural interaction is not only politically desirable in times of intolerance, it seems like an obvious way to overcome the fact that even in the best of cases (such as in ancient Egypt or early colonial Mexico) we often have insufficient evidence to draw firm conclusions. Rutherford is ideally suited for the tricky task of encouraging such comparisons. He has previously co-edited two publications examining cross-cultural contact between the Aegean and Anatolia9 and he has produced a comparative analysis of ancient Greek and Indic pilgrimage traditions.10 Greco-Egyptian Interactions is a worthy addition to his innovative, diverse, and ambitious body of work.


1.   For example, BMCR 2006.05.19; for an overview of Greco-Egyptian literature, see Joachim Friedrich Quack (2007) Einführung in die altägyptische Literaturgeschichte: III Die demotische und gräko-ägyptische Literatur. Einführungen und Quellentexte zur Ägyptologie 3. Münster: LIT Verlag.
2.   Two examples: BMCR 2003.06.43 and 2012.04.05
3.   Ian Rutherford (1997) "Kalasiris and Setne Khamwas: A Greek Novel and some Egyptian Models," Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 117: 203-209 is among his early contributions.
4.   On Homer outside Greece, see Johannes Haubold (2007) "Xerxes' Homer" In 2007.12.36 pp. 47-63.
5.   Another example of such tales is the legend of Sesostris whose exploits were celebrated and grounded in actual places in both Egypt and Western Anatolia. On the real-world relevance of the Sesostris narrative in 5th century Ionia, see Valeria Sergueenkova and Felipe Rojas (2016) "Asianics in Relief: Making Sense of Bronze and Iron Age Monuments in Classical Anatolia." The Classical Journal 112(2): 140-179.
6.   For Dillery's arguments about Manetho discussed at greater length, see BMCR 2016.07.09.
7.   See, for example, Andrew Laird (2016) "Aztec and Roman Gods in Sixteenth-Century Mexico: Strategic Uses of Classical Learning in Sahagún's Historia General in John M. D. Pohl and Claire Lyons (eds.) Altera Roma: art and empire from Mérida to México, pp. 167-188. Los Angeles: UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press.
8.   BMCR 2014.08.50
9.   BMCR 2009.12.14; Alice Mouton, Ian Rutherford, and Ilya Yakubovich (eds.) Luwian Identities: Culture, Language, and Religion Between Anatolia and the Aegean.
10.   Ian Rutherford (2000) "Theoria and Darshan: Pilgrimage as Gaze in Greece and India." Classical Quarterly, 50: pp. 133-146.

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