Style and Niche

One thing I hadn’t really thought much about before was the idea of modern stylistics and finding one’s own stylistic niche in the world.

I have taken a lot of classes where we discuss how ancient authors (or a few modern ones) discovered and developed their style, and often how it innovated the literary world at the time.

Cicero was an innovator at his time in developing Latin to its peak, and his style became very distinctive and imitated for hundreds of years after his death. Then you had writers like Seneca and Lucan who wrote in a more terse, less flowery style. There was a constant interchange of styles, and each author developed his own distinct voice.

Nowadays, much of our intellectual output appears to have more to do with ideas than style. Most of the modern history books I read are written in a plain, uninspiring style that is meant to get bare information across. Most of what you read on the internet is designed to get information and ideas across. College students are taught to write in a homogeneous fashion, often in imitation of other writers (Never use the passive voice! Avoid split infinitives at all costs!). College students even come to think in a homogeneous fashion, shaped more by the bland research papers they read rather than the great literature.

I contend that there is tremendous value in knowing different styles and even using a good style to your advantage, especially when paired with genuinely good ideas. It is like torture to read a research paper that has no consciousness of style, even if its ideas are sound and useful.

Language is a tremendous gift, and learning to use it well and beautifully is a worthwhile pursuit. I have tried to cultivate my own style that is clear and concise when it needs to be, but also pleasant to read. Because of my background in public speaking, I tend to think a lot about how something sounds when said aloud, which makes the writing flow a little more easily.

Eventually, I would like to find my own niche in the world of writing, but I am not sure what my style is yet, or what its characteristics are. My writing is very much influenced by my studies in Latin, which have made me far more conscious of the practicality behind language, such as the arrangement of clauses, introduction of new information, etc. Sometimes it seems very mechanical. But even the mechanics of a language can be beautiful, if used properly and with good understanding of how it affects the reader.

I think my goal is to develop a “modern” style that is not unsophisticated or “dumbed down,” being conscious of modern English use and its peculiarities, rather than trying to imitate older, less-relevant styles, which many people do. It works in some cases, but not always. Imitating other styles in fiction is an acceptable thing to do, depending on the purpose of the fiction, but I am not writing fiction, or as anyone other than myself, so I will use my own recognizable persona.


Applying Historical Methods: Two Approaches, and Further Thoughts on Herodotus

I had opportunity this afternoon to talk about my term paper for my Greek seminar this afternoon with my professor for the class, which ended up being a very fruitful discussion that got me thinking about historical methods. This was followed up by my next class, where the professor (completely unknowing of the conversation in the previous class) started off Latin prose comp by talking about historicism.

When engaging with a historical text, what are the possible approaches? The two that most readily come to mind are the factual and interpretive approaches. If I use Herodotus as my example, there are two ways to approach him and two questions you can ask. How accurate is he with facts? Or you can ask, how can we interpret his presentation of facts?

There seem to be a fair number of cases when you must apply the different questions at different times. Sometimes it is more appropriate to apply the interpretation question rather than the factual question, because then you can gain a more complete idea of what might be going on with the text.

Where this seems most readily applicable is with the Herodotus I’ve been working on, because I began by asking the factual question and found myself pretty unsatisfied with the results. Herodotus makes a lot of connections to things that could not possibly be right, and some of it dubious enough that Herodotus himself probably didn’t even believe it. So, the conclusion I would be forced to draw is that Herodotus is a crap historian and that we should all dismiss him. That’s what Plutarch does in his essay frankly entitled, “On the Malice of Herodotus.” Plutarch complains bitterly that Herodotus disguises his gross alteration of facts under his pleasant and easy style. That’s only one side of the coin, perhaps.

I was especially baffled when I was looking at some of the more obscure religious connections of Book 2 and finding that Herodotus appears to be forcing a lot of random connections between cultures. Most of it is so wildly untrue that on that basis, we have to dismiss Herodotus on multiple levels. But I wasn’t about to give up there, so I decided to divorce the idea of true “historicism” from Herodotus. He doesn’t necessarily claim to be a historian in the sense that we take “historian.”

If we think a historian is concerned only with accurate facts, then Herodotus is no historian. Of course, a historian is only human, and can’t be absolutely correct all of the time, but Herodotus goes off the deep end as far as accuracy is concerned. So, maybe if we give Herodotus a bit more of a break we can ask some better questions.

While he talks about his “research” and recording the “glorious deeds of Greeks and barbarians” he may be taking that a lot more loosely than we would. Particularly in the first half of the work, where he is trying to compare and contrasts cultures. He may have a different agenda. His primary focus is the Greco-Persian Wars, which is detailed in the second half, and he writes with eyewitness testimony still available to him. The first half, however, may be a bit more of a rhetorical jaunt through cultures in an attempt to categorize cultures and build a case for the superiority of Greece, and the reason why Persia was an inferior culture. Though I do not want to sound as though I think Herodotus is writing anti-Persian propaganda; I don’t think that. I think he is genuinely trying to explain why the cultures of Egypt and Greece have more longevity, and he connects it to customs, particularly religious customs.

He draws a lot of parallels between Greece and Egypt to reinforce the connections between the two, and Plutarch attacks many of these exact connections as they are obviously untrue. Yet, I think Herodotus’ main point is to build a narrative in which Greece is thoroughly connected to all of the oldest and most powerful nations on earth, namely Egypt and Phoenicia. Greece will ultimately prove the “best” because of her commitment to the ideals of liberty, rather than tyranny, which becomes more obvious in later books, but in the earlier books he seems to be stressing slightly different ideas. He is careful to include all of the most important religious categories among nations to enforce the connections, which may mean forcing the facts and the myths to fit his narrative, as he builds a case for the superiority of Greece.

I would rather not comment on the morality of Herodotus’ choices when it comes to his work, but I am beginning to see a more conscious pattern here that transcends the facts. If I can prove this in a satisfactory manner, then it might change how we look at Herodotus for the better.

Again, I think it is often fruitful to ask interpretive historical questions rather than factual ones in many cases, particularly when engaging with ancient texts. Many of the historians are not tied so closely to factual accuracy as we seem to think, but felt freer to have other agendas. My theories about historical inquiry do not apply to modern history, where we have access to so many different types of evidence. “Literary history” might be a better term for what I am talking about, since ancient historians were just as concerned with stylistics and presentation as they were with the events themselves. My method tends to take in more of the ancillary considerations like philosophical orientation and style, which I think makes many works more readable and accessible.


Caesar, Homer, and more Discoveries in Herodotus

Over this past week, I have slipped in as much reading as I can when I am not busy with other work. I have been working steadily on Homer, and also on Caesar. I am doing this somewhat in preparation for comps, which are this coming week. Anything Latin or Greek could be on the exams, so I have been supplementing my usual fare with extra reading.

Caesar has been interesting; I didn’t think I would enjoy it all that much, but I have actually had a hard time putting it down. He is the only historian I have read who refers to himself in the third person, which lends a really interesting gloss to the events (Apparently, Xenophon does this in his Anabasis, which I have not yet read). It has the effect of simultaneously situating Caesar firmly in the events as the general, but also removes him from the events as the historian. It was an intelligent decision to do so, I think, because then he can give the impression of being an impersonal observer and lend more credibility to his account, while also having eyewitness testimony. Then he can more easily allow readers a more immersive experience since he has removed his identity as the primary mediator of information, so the reader can situate themselves in the same observational position as Caesar. That is the extent of my observations so far on Caesar.

As for Herodotus, I have steadily been growing more nuanced in my understanding of his story-telling. Since I’ve mainly been working on Books 1 and 2, I have the most clear idea of it in those books, but I’ve been connecting some dots across Greek literature. The Greeks seem to connect “eros” with tyranny, and this connection might be another key to Herodotus’ stories (or some of them, at least).

“Eros” is defined here as a kind of sexual love, though when it refers to your country it refers to the excessive love of your country, the sort that leads to reckless behavior on behalf of your country, or towards other countries. Herodotus explores both kinds, I believe.

Part of the reason why Herodotus is so shocking is because he includes a lot of salacious stories of lust and sexual misconduct, but that is part and parcel of why nations become tyrannical or ill-fated. Hence, the women-snatching story; it has clear erotic overtones, as does the story of Kandaules and Gyges. Eros leads to reckless behavior and reckless desires, and that causes many problems, and had implications for the fate of entire nations. It was Gyges’ misconduct that condemned Lydia as a country, and would condemn the Persians as well.

If you further connect this to Pericles’ Funeral Oration and the moment where he asks the Athenians to have “eros” for their country, this is what leads to their demise. They become reckless, and it is a fatal  flaw in Pericles’ exhortation to his fellow citizens.

Perhaps this idea is something underlying Greek thought about history, and it does explain some things rather well. If you have an eros for your own country, it leads to all sorts of problems. I think perhaps part of Herodotus’ point is to analyze nations and the “erotic” connection there, so to speak, especially in how they relate to other countries.  It leads to recklessness on a national level as well as on an individual level, and the behaviors are perhaps rather similar at times.

Spring fever, Homer, Scam emails and other unrelated happenings

Spring has arrived, and I am also 32 days away from graduating from college. The closer I get to finishing, the less motivated I feel to do things that weren’t my idea in the first place. Instead of doing homework over the weekend, I did a lot of outside reading. Most recently, I have read Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” which is fantastic.

I also took the weekend to see how long it would take me to read through a book of the Iliad in Greek. I didn’t read it all in one shot, but it only took me a couple of days to finish it. I remember  being an intro student to Homer, and something like that would take 2/3 of a semester. Now I can read through it in a matter of hours, and I will only get faster as I relearn the vocabulary.

Homer is pretty easy once you master a core vocabulary, since the same words and concepts tend to repeat a lot. I hadn’t dedicated read any Homer for a while, so I had forgotten some of those words. I have moved onto book 2, and will try to have the entire Iliad read in Greek as soon as possible, though realistically probably not until the middle of summer.

Last night, as I was going to bed around 11:30pm, I got an email with a subject: culture. It was a company called “David Publishing” with a journal called “Culture and Religious Studies” or something non-descript like that.  Clearly, they had been surfing through the program lists for SCS and other conferences where I had presented papers, because they mentioned my Thucydides paper, title and all. I fail to see how my paper on counterfactual narrative in Thucydides’ Pylos narrative has anything to do with religious studies, which was curious to me, since it seems pretty irrelevant to most people’s lives unless they study Thucydides.

But the grammar was terrible and the whole thing smelled “phishy.” So I looked it up, like a good scholar, and learned that it was indeed a scam, based in China apparently and bent on extorting money out of young scholars who don’t know any better, or how publications work.

I love scam emails and think they’re hilarious, except for the fact that people do occasionally fall for them and end up losing a LOT of money because they don’t know any better. I’m kind of tempted to send them a dummy version of the paper, and scam them back, until the point that they try to extort $20 per page out of me, which isn’t going to happen.

Other than that, my life continues much as it had before. My Herodotus research still proceeds apace, though it is on the backburner because I have other papers to work on too. One paper is supposed to be a comparison of Horace and Juvenal for a Roman literature class, which I keep procrastinating on. The other thing is Latin prose comp, which is the bane of my existence, since it’s difficult and I almost never spend enough time on it. Alas.

I hope add some more of my further discoveries about Herodotus soon, though probably not today. Possibly tomorrow, since my Thursdays are usually just for doing homework and nothing else.

More on Herodotus

My hottest scholarly pursuit is my Herodotus theory, which has been growing into a passion unlike any I have experienced yet. I confirmed with my Greek history professor that there is something about Herodotus that has “left people confused.” No one has been able to write a definitive book on the structure or even the purpose of Herodotus.

I do not want to claim that I have done anything remarkable, since I have yet to definitively “prove” my newest theory, though I have been doing a lot of research in trying to find a scholar to confirm that I’m not the first one to have this thought: maybe we expect too much out of Herodotus in terms of the real “history” of things, but that does not discount the idea that he could have had something else in mind. I have yet to find any other scholar who has explicitly stated what I have so far come up with, except for one of my professors at school hinting at it once, which is what set me on this goose chase to start with.

I have noticed that Herodotus puts a special emphasis on the themes of stealing and looking at what isn’t “yours” to look at, or what isn’t meant to be seen. These are the first two stories told in the beginning of Book 1, and this theme can be found throughout. I can think of a handful of other examples: Heracles in Book 2, Rhampsinitus in Book 2, for starters.

This does not by any means solve all of the problems associated with Herodotus, but it might be an underlying thread in his own thinking that serves to explain at least some of what is going on.

So, more concisely stated I think this is what is going on:

Herodotus is building an interpretive paradigm for his readers through the first stories of Book 1 which serve as broad analogies for how cultures operate. Cultures operate through sharing and even “stealing” to a certain extent. The first story is about how different people  groups were kidnapping women from others, which led to Paris kidnapping Helen. The second story is about Kandaules and Gyges, which is a paradigm for how tribalism works, and the tension between thinking one’s own culture is best and the idea that what is ours must be preserved from outsiders. It is the same tension that drove Persia into trying to conquer other peoples, despite their tendency to adopt foreign customs (1.135).

There seems to be an immediate contrast between Persia and Egypt and the kinds of customs that are examined, and how a culture’s relationship to custom determines their foreign policy.  For example, Herodotus describes Persian customs and presents their religious customs as diametrically opposed to Greek customs and their everyday customs are more or less familiar. They consciously adopted different customs from the Medes, the Egyptians, and the Greeks (which are three of the biggest players in the Mediterranean history of that time, interestingly enough). But there is a conspicuous difference between the Persian custom and the Egyptian.

Herodotus presents Egyptian religion as being very similar to Greek religion in many ways (not all, but many), and their every day customs are diametrically opposed (in absurd ways that Herodotus could not have possibly known, too, which makes the contrast even more stark). The thread which seems to hold Egypt and Greece in a bond of peace is how they relate to each other with their customs. They have enough of their religion in common that it seems to transcend the need for war. The Persians, on the other hand having adopted customs of dress and pleasure seeking from other groups, war against them readily enough. The Egyptians and Greeks are portrayed as having many cultural links which consist of mythological figures connected to Greece, but not necessarily Egypt. Those characters tend to be ones who bridge cultural gaps, or more dramatic gaps. For example, Heracles figures into the story of Book 2 as a character who transcends the mortal/immortal bounds, while two other characters, Cadmus and Melampus, serve as characters who transcended cultural boundaries. Cadmus came from the Phoenicians and settled in Greece, while Melampus supposedly learned certain religious customs in Egypt and brought them into Greece, earning himself respect as a great teacher. The common tie there is religion, which is conspicuously absent in Greek dealings with the Persians. There are no transitional figures who bring religious customs from one to the other, and no mention (at least so far) of any Greek mythological figures. It is not that the Persians could not have known them (in Herodotus’ account of things) because they cite Paris as the cause of the Trojan war in the beginning of Book 1, so they are generally aware of those stories.

Herodotus’ account of history before the actual conflict of the Persian Wars is so heavily mythologized and filled with legend that I wonder if perhaps there is another purpose in mind, at least in part. Because of his mythologizing and storytelling, most ancients and many others have dismissed him as absurd and hardly worth their time. Perhaps there is a reason why his stated purpose in the proem of the whole work is so ambiguous, because at least in the first four books, he is working out a system for understanding what causes cultural clashes, in studying the “nomoi” of other peoples. He looks at which kinds of nomoi which are shared and which are not between different cultures, and that is what makes the difference. Being able to communicate with another culture religiously is important, even if you share none of the “everyday life” sorts of customs with them.

I’ve  run out of time for now, but I will write more on this later.


She-dog Foster Mothers

This will be just a short post on something that I recently noticed that I find interesting, that I am sure has been pointed out somewhere by someone before, but this blog is about my own journey of learning and not someone else’s, thereby sparing me from the charge of  being unoriginal or of stealing other people’s work or ideas.

In both Livy and Herodotus there are stories of sons born who are a threat to the current regime: Remus/Romulus in early Rome (Livy Book 1), and Cyrus in Persia (Herodotus Book 1). In both cases, a male relative with power decided to have the male offspring killed in case they present a threat to their power, spurred on of course my oracles and dreams and the like. And of course the boys are spared because the male relatives cannot commit such acts themselves, so they hired others to do it, who then get cold feet and can’t bring themselves to do it.

Then the boys end up with foster parents of a kind. Herodotus reports that Cyrus had been interred into the care of foster parents in the countryside, Mitrades and his wife “Spako.” Herodotus then carefully explains that “spako” in the Median language means “kyno” or “she-dog” in Greek.

Likewise in the Romulus and Remus story. Livy tells two stories, first about the actual she-wolf who adopted them and fed them, or the more likely story of a woman who took care of them whose name in Latin (or the ancient Etruscan/Oscan or whatever equivalent) was “she-wolf.” In both cases, the connotations are not positive. For certain in the Livy version, the name implies that she is a sexual predator. Herodotus makes no such implications for the foster mother of Cyrus; in his more detailed version, she is a good mother who begs her husband not to expose the child because he was beautiful and deserved to live. She happened to have just given birth to a stillborn child, who replaces the baby  Cyrus, and is taken back to “prove” that the infant was exposed.

Of course in both cases, the boys prove to be naturally kingly, especially Cyrus, and they end up fulfilling the prophecies despite the measures taken to prevent it. It is an interesting trope that appears from time to time in literature. I may have more comments about that later, but that’s all I have for now.

Herodotus as Ethnographer…and his audience as Peeping Toms

Herodotus is famous for telling strange or slightly shocking stories in his Histories, and at times that can seem utterly gratuitous, like the stupid love scene in a movie that doesn’t otherwise have a love story, or a gossip magazine that sells itself on shocking stories. Except it is history, and it’s alright to read Herodotus and his scandalous stories because he’s writing history, right?

But is there a theme here to all this haphazard scandal literature of often dubious accuracy? I want to suggest that perhaps there IS an overarching theme here underlying the stories. Herodotus does not merely wish to entertain, but also to instruct his perceptive readers in a memorable way.

The opening of the Histories is mystifying if we don’t have some higher method of understanding it. Otherwise, Herodotus cheapens his own work simply by telling silly stories with no higher purpose, and that is an unlikely and undesirable alternative.

The first stories he tells in his opening are stories about women-snatching, beginning with the Phoenicians who kidnapped Io, and then the Greeks who kidnapped Medea, and so on and so forth until Paris steals Helen away and starts the Trojan War. It seems like a curious way to start things off, though it is purportedly the ultimate cause of the East-West conflict. However, following that fairly closely on its heels is the story of Kandaules and Gyges. This one of the most famous anecdotes from Herodotus. Kandaules was the king of Sardis, and had fallen deeply in love with “his own wife.” (Always a recipe for disaster and probably should not be emulated). Because he was so in love with his wife, he felt the need to prove to someone else that she was in fact the most beautiful woman in the world (a common enough affliction, I’m led to believe). He then asks his right-hand man Gyges to sneak into their bedroom so he could see Kandaules’ wife naked, since you have to “see it to believe it,” which is essentially what Kandaules tells Gyges.
Gyges of course is horrified and tells Kandaules that it is not right to look upon that “which is not your own.” But Gyges eventually relented, and spied on Kandaules’ wife as he was asked. Kandaules’ wife knew about it, and later she tells Gyges that he must either be executed for seeing he undressed, or kill Kandaules and replace him as king and her husband. Naturally Gyges chooses the latter option, and starts a dynasty of his own which would later become Lydia.

Herodotus goes on at length about Gyges and his descendants and how they finally came to build their kingdom. Then he tells us another story, taking us to Corinth in the Peloponnese. He then tells us the story of Arion, reputed to be the best singer in the world, who sailed from Corinth to Italy and Sicily to make his fortune. After making a large sum of money in Italy and Sicily, he then hires some Corinthians to take him back to Corinth, but they plot to steal his money and throw him overboard. He eludes them by singing on the stern of the ship and jumping overboard, and then is carried by a dolphin back to Corinth.

All three stories involve some element of removal from one’s own culture, either willingly or unwillingly, and an element of desiring or taking something that does not belong to you. I believe these are examples of what we as readers are NOT supposed to do. But before I get ahead of myself, I will first explain what I mean.

I think part of what is going on in this work is a marriage of two themes: the Greco-Persian Wars, and a study in the customs of other people groups that are decidedly NOT your own. The first 4-5 books are like an Odyssey of sorts, wherein Herodotus takes his reader on a journey through many lands and many different cultures, pointing out similarities and differences to Greek culture. He invites the reader to place themselves outside of their own cultural group and loyalties, and to look at things that are not their own, like Gyges looking at Kandaules’ wife.

In our tribal loyalties (I chose that particular word quite deliberately), we are inclined to think that our own culture is the most beautiful, and even think it is somehow wrong to look at another culture and admire it. And yet, this is exactly what Herodotus invites us to do. He describes customs and items in detail, so we can see them and believe. He facilitates drawing a mental picture by giving us an array of sights, colors, smells, and other sensations. He wants us to see another culture, and by seeing it, believe it. But this is a dangerous practice, as it can lead to more than mere spectating, but to trying to snatch things that do not belong to you, and eventually to shame, defeat, and death. And this is where the Persians enter the picture.

The Persians are not just spectators, they are snatchers. Rather than being inquirers and appreciators of other cultures, as Herodotus entreats us to be, they are the kidnappers, the destroyers of culture. They want to make other cultures like them; they want to enslave others and force others to acknowledge them as the best or “most beautiful.” They want to enslave the Greeks, and to crush the beauty of their uniqueness, just as they had over Asia Minor and Egypt. It began when the Athenians came to the Persians asking for help against the Spartans, and foolishly offered them the gift of earth and water, inadvertently signifying their enslavement to the Persians. When the Athenians then refused to make good on this promise, the Persians sought vengeance. The Persians had demanded submission from the very beginning of the conflict, regardless of the various motives that came afterward.

Herodotus asks us to be appreciators like himself, who see but do not snatch. We see what it is lawful for us to see, appreciate the differences and the similarities, but allow others to have their own beauty. Be curious and look, but be aware that it can lead you into danger like it did for Gyges. A lack of appreciate for the uniqueness of other lands and peoples can lead you into the sort of attitude that the Persians embody: arrogance, blindness, and a lust for power. And that sort of attitude is exactly what leads you into shame and defeat, just like the Persians.

Barbarians and false etymology…?

Strabo in his “Geography” wrote an interesting passage purporting to give us an etymology of the word “barbarian” or “barbaros” as the Greeks would have it (found in book 14, section 28). Strabo says that it is onomatopoeia for some of the harsh manners of speaking found (ironically) among the Greeks. Strabo cites a bunch of Greek words to illustrate this sort of harsh speaking.

People seem to cite this particular explanation (whether they realize it is Strabo or not) as THE explanation for it, but it  does not answer where exactly the word comes from. But I was wondering if perhaps it could be explained in another way, that most people might not even consider.

First of all, there is a Sanskrit word “barbara” which means “stammer.” This would be found then in the languages of ancient India, maybe hinting at a Near-Eastern origin for the word. Secondly, I noticed that Old Persian builds its words off of sounds like “ba” “da” “ta” “ra” and the like. A word with repeating syllables like “ba” could easily inspire someone to come up with the word “barbaros.”

For example, “ba-ga” is the Old Persian word for “god” or “va-ca-ba-ra” which means “shield-bearer.” I don’t yet know enough words in Old Persian to offer more examples.

It seems reasonable to infer that this language, like all languages, was built on a similar predecessor, and that predecessor was not all that different from Old Persian. Old Persian dates to between the 6th and 4th centuries BC, and Strabo lived between 65BC and 23AD. The word “barbaros” was commonly used by the time of Herodotus, writing around the time of the Persian wars, which took place from 499-449 BC. Exposure to Persians or earlier peoples such as the Assyrians could have easily taken place well before then, leading to the invention of the term “barbaros.”

Who knows? I’m not sure anyone has come up with a definitive answer to the question of where that word comes from. I’m beginning to develop my own theory about it, which may require a lot more research before I can speak more certainly.



Research Ventures #2 – Cadmus, Melampus, and Dionysus


As I may have said before, I am venturing out a little in my research by getting outside of the text and looking at different types of sources rather than mere literary analysis.

I have been looking at Herodotus Book 2, which is the book about Egypt and its various customs and quirks. Herodotus has a lot of interesting, though often contradictory, information to provide about Egyptian religious customs, so I have been looking at that and chasing down other literary sources as well as some archaeological sources. I have no real thesis yet for a paper, but I have been gathering a lot of information. There are a LOT of rabbit trails to pursue if you really want to get lost in this subject.

The characters of Cadmus and Melampus have particularly caught my attention, as they appear in Herodotus. Herodotus attributes the Greek alphabet to Cadmus, who was of Phoenician origin and brought the Phoenician letters to the Greeks. I have discovered that there at least used to be very bitter debates about whether the alphabet actually  came from the Phoenicians and by extension the Canaanites (or perhaps even the Israelites). Before World War 2, much of this debate was spurred on by anti-Semitism, which is far less of a problem now than it once was. Many scholars now believe that Herodotus was right to identify the alphabet as being of Phoenicia origin, because the evidence for it is fairly compelling (see Martin Bernal, Cadmean Letters, 1990). The fascinating part about that is that  Herodotus attributes it to a mythological figure named Cadmus.

According to legend, Cadmus was the founder of Thebes who arrived in Greece because he was searching for his sister Europa, who had been kidnapped by Zeus. Upon arriving in Greece, Cadmus founded Thebes and wed Harmonia, the daughter of Aphrodite and Ares. Their daughter was named Semele, and Semele was the mother of Dionysus. The most common version of the story is that Zeus was the father of Dionysus by Semele.

Melampus shows up not too long after Herodotus mentions Cadmus, and Herodotus reports that Melampus was the one who established the worship of Dionysus in Greece, which he had learned while he was in Egypt. Herodotus also reports that Melampus learned it “para Kadmou te tou Turiou kai ton sun auto ek Phoinekes…” Hdt. 2.49.3. “Melampus learned it from Cadmus of Tyre, and from those who came from Phoenicia into the land now called Boeotia.”

In the mythology, Melampus was a healer with the ability to understand animals. There is one story from Herodotus Book 9 about how Melampus had cured some Argive women whom Dionysus drove mad because they refused to take part in his orgies.


If you have paid close attention to this, you might have realized that there appears to be a chronological discrepancy, or at least, some vital piece of information appears to be excluded. It is plausible that he could have learned it from the Phoenicians who apparently settled in Boeotia, which is in northwestern Greece. These people could have been several generations removed from Cadmus and Harmony, and remembered the origins of Dionysus from generations earlier. But why does Herodotus say Melampus learned it from Cadmus? If Herodotus believes the myth about Cadmus and Harmony, and Semele, then the chronology of this seems dubious. Cadmus would have to be a very old man, especially giving Dionysus time to grow up and for his religious cults to grow into their mature form. The other question is this: Melampus apparently brought worship of Dionysus from Egypt into Greece though he learned of it from the Egyptians; Herodotus does mention that the Egyptians had learned of Dionysus though for them he had a different name. Herodotus does not explain much further.

This is an irritating problem to have, since there is no clear chronology to make sense of how the two characters relate. Herodotus, unfortunately, is not always very accurate about this sort of thing. The connection between these two relatively obscure mythological figures is interesting, though. Both are connected to the god Dionysus, though they have different origins.

What about Dionysus’ real origins as a deity? Well, as far as I can tell, the word is actually derived from Linear B, di-wo-nu-so, which means “son of Zeus.” di-wo” means “Zeus,” and is a precursor to the Greek genitive form of Zeus’ name, which is “Dios.” This suggests that he existed in Minoan culture:

Further corroboration of the Minion connection is that Dionysus in several places is connected with bull imagery (Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, 1985, pp. 64, 132), which is one of the prominent motifs in Minoan art, as seen on the right. Perhaps the Greeks adopted the deity from the Minoans, and kept some of this bull imagery in some places, specifically Kyzikos, which is in Anatolia, so it is fairly far removed from our immediate area, though it is still a significant piece of information to keep in mind.MinoanBull

Dionysus could have actually come from early Greek or Minoan sources, or perhaps even Luvian sources earlier than that, depending on how far one would like to speculate. I have my own argument about how some of that cultural cross-contact could have happened, which is too long to detail here.

This suggests a Greek origin for Dionysus circa 1200 BC or before. Again, the argumentation for this is fairly complex, but the Greek of Linear B and some other surrounding factors in the ancient Aegean in the Middle to Late Minoan period point to a Greek invasion of Crete, and perhaps Greek introduction of an early form of Dionysus there. I am not sure enough yet to be able to settle this for myself, since I am still trying to find evidence, but these are my thoughts so far.

The question then becomes,  how Dionysus become so intimately connected with Cadmus and Melampus? Where did these characters come from? What can we learn about them from archaeology and other literary sources? More on that to come later.

Research Ventures

Not only have I been busy lately, but also feeling dry of good ideas for blog posts. So I decided that I could perhaps write on the saga of my biggest research paper this semester, which is on the vague topic of religious crossover between Ancient Egypt and Greece.

As a part of my venture in this area, I have picked up some Old Persian and Luwian, in my attempts to expand my knowledge eastward, so I will probably post some updates on that soon. Luwian will be very time consuming since it is based on mostly pictograph symbols and a few phonetic symbols, but memorizing the syllabary for Old Persian shouldn’t be terribly daunting. This is all a part of my attempt to understand how some ideas were translated from one culture to another over time. Persian religion, particularly Zoroastrianism, had a sacred text called the Avesta which was written in Old Persian, and it seems to derive some of its ideas from Jewish religion. It is monotheistic in character, with its supreme creator god Ahura-Mazda and a Satanic figure called Ahriman who are opposed, almost in a Manichean dark-vs-light dichotomy. According to the famous Behistun inscription in what is now Afghanistan, Persian emperor Darius set himself up as the messiah of Zoroastrianism by claiming to be the chosen one of Ahura-Mazda, who would conquer the world and turn it into one enormous garden, after vanquishing Ahriman. (The word “paradise” is derived from a Persian word which means “garden,” which brings to mind the original garden of Eden, which the Persians may have liked and sought to create in their empire). The parallels to the Christian narrative are interesting, and I wonder if some of these ideas may have been taken from Judaism during the time of Nehemiah, when Artaxerxes allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild their walls. If I ever get around to reading the Avesta, I wonder if there would be more parallels. If I could read the Avesta in Old Persian especially and not in translation, I may find more linguistic parallels.

I am also learning more about Egyptian religion and a notion I have found in Herodotus that seems prevalent through Book 2 of the Histories, which is that all the gods are the same and have different names in different cultures. For example, Zeus is Ammon in the Egyptian pantheon, and has similar functions. But it is probably not nearly that simple, and it appears that many of the previous religious identities were subsumed under Greek gods later on, not just in Egypt but in other cultures as well. For example, there is a Phoenician temple that is apparently dedicated to Heracles, but was originally dedicated to a now mostly-unknown Phoenician deity named Melqart. This sort of thing happens all of the time, as other cultures gain ascendancy and ideas of other religions slowly begin to seep in, which is one of the basic tenets of sociological theory (thinking of a sociologist named Peter Berger, who is one that I have actually read who develops this idea). Over time, it becomes impossible to maintain the purity of one’s own religious beliefs when there is constant contact between different people groups (speaking of pagan religion only in this case, because Christianity is manifestly different). This is especially the case if there are no sacred writings, in the sense that the Avesta or the Torah are sacred. The Greeks had Homer and Hesiod, but these are not given nearly the amount of reverence that other texts are.

Other interesting quirks in this area of pagan religion are the presences of characters like Cadmus, Melampus, and Linus, who all appear in Greek mythology as minor but still impotant figures. They also exist in Egyptian mythos as well, so I hope to uncover some more information about how those identities entered Egyptian culture and how they appropriated them for their own use, especially in citing them as the causes (aitia) for some of their customs.

Information on those specific characters is sparse so far, but they are important enough to merit citation in Herodotus’ work, so I am curious why I cannot find more information. But on the other hand, there could be a relatively interesting discovery yet to be made that perhaps has not been made yet. This area is very messy and multi-faceted, so it is hard to tell at this point.