the impact of Ancient Egypt on Greek Philosophy
against Hellenocentrism, against Afrocentrism
in defence of the Greek Miracle
the influence of Egyptian thought on
Thales, Anaximander & Pythagoras
Alexandro-Egyptian Hellenism & Hermetism
by Wim van den Dungen
the influence of Egyptian thought on
Thales, Anaximander & Pythagoras
Egypt between the end of the New Kingdom and the rise of Naukratis.
The political situation in the Third Intermediate Period.
few remarks concerning the Late Period.
trade, recontacting & settling in Egypt.
before Pharaoh Amasis.
history of Ancient Greece.
The invention of the "phoinikeïa" for both vowels
Greek literature, religion & architecture.
Memphite thought and the birth of Greek philosophy.
The origin of Greek philosophy : Thales, Anaximander
& the colonizations.
The Stela of Pharaoh Shabaka and Greek philosophy.
Pythagoras of Samos : the
mystery of the holy & sacred decad.
The Greek pyramidion or the completion of Ancient thought.
Alexandro-Egyptian Hellenism & Hermetism
The Greeks in Egypt.
4.1 Egyptian civilization
after the New Kingdom.
The Ptolemaic Empire
4.3 Elements of the pattern of exchange between Egyptian and Greek culture.
4.4 Religious syncretism & stellar
The Alexandrian "religio mentis" called "Hermetism".
elements of Hermetism.
"Nous" and the Hellenization of the divine triads.
influence of Alexandrian Hermetism.
Crucial differences between Hermes and Christ.
The direct influence of Ancient Egyptian
literature on Archaic Greece has never been fully acknowledged. Greek philosophy (in particular of the Classical Period)
has -especially since the Renaissance- been understood as an excellent standard sprung
out of the genius of the Greeks, the Greek miracle. Hellenocentrism was and still is a powerful
view, underlining the intellectual superiority of the Greeks and hence of all
cultures immediately linked with this Graeco-Roman heritage, such as
Christianity but also
Islam (via Harran and the
translators). Only recently, and thanks to
the critical-historical approach,
have scholars reconsidered Greek Antiquity, to discover the "other"
side of the Greek spirit, with its popular Dionysian and elitist Orphic
mysteries, mystical schools (Pythagoras), chorals, lyric poetric, drama, proze and tragedies.
Nietzsche, who noticed the recuperation of Late Hellenism by the Renaissance and
the Age of Enlightenment, simplistically divided the Greek spirit into two antagonistic
tendencies : the Apollinic versus the Dionysian. For him, Apollo was a metaphor
for the eternalizing ideas, for the mummification of life by concepts, good
examples and a life "hereafter", "beyond" or "out there". Dionysius was the will to live in the
present so fully & intensely as possible, experiencing the "edge"
of life and making an ongoing choice for that selfsame life, without using a
model that fixated existence in differentiating categories. A life here and now,
immanent and this-life.
And what about Judaism ? The author(s) of the Torah avoided the confrontation with the
historical fact that Moses, although a Jew, was educated as an Egyptian, and identified
Pharaoh with the Crocodile, who wants all things for himself. However, the Jews
of the Septuagint, the Second Temple and the Sacerdotal Dynasties were
thoroughly Hellenized, and they translated "ALHYM" (Elohim) as
"Theos", thereby confusing
Divine bi-polarity (kept for the
initiates). It is precisely this influence of Greek thought on Judaism which
triggered the emergence of revolutionary sects (cf. Qumran), solitary desert
hermits and spirito-social communities, seeking to restore the
"original" identity of the Jewish nation, as it had been embodied
under Solomon (and the first temple), and turned against the Great Sanhedrin of
the temple of Jeruzalem.
Ancient Egyptian civilization was so grand, imposing and strong, that its impact
on the Greeks was tremendous. In order to try to understand
what happened when these two cultures met, we must first sketch the situation of
both parties. This will allow us to make sound correspondences.
"Herodotus and other Greeks of the fifth century BC
recognized that Egypt was different from other 'barbarian' countries. All
people who did not speak Greek were considered barbarians, with features
that the Greeks despised. They were either loathsome tyrants, devious
magicians, or dull and effeminate pleasure-seeking individuals. But Egypt
had more to offer ; like India, it was full of old and venerable wisdom."
Matthews & Roemer, 2003, pp.11-12.
What exactly did the Greeks incorporate when visiting Egypt ? They surely
witnessed (at the earliest in ca. 570 BCE, when Naukratis became the channel through which
all Greek trade was required to flow by law) the extremely wealthy
Egyptian state at work and may have participated, in particular in the
areas they were allowed to travel, in the popular festivals and feasts
happening everywhere in Egypt (the Egyptians found good religious reasons
to feast with an average of once every five days).
In his Timaeus (21-23), Plato (428/427 - 348/347 BCE) testified the Egyptian priests of Sais of Pharaoh Amasis
(570 - 526 BCE) saw the
Greeks as young souls, children who had received language only recently
and who did not keep written records of any of their venerated (oral) traditions.
In the same passage of the Timaeus,
Plato acknowledges the Egyptians seem to speak in myth,
"although there is truth in it." According
to a story told by Diogenius Laertius (in his The Lives of the Philosophers, Book VIII), Plato bought a book from a Pythagorean called Philolaus when he
visited Sicily for 40 Alexandrian Minae of silver. From it, he copied the
contents of the Timaeus ... The Greeks, and this is the hypothesis
we are set to prove, linearized major parts of the Ancient Egyptian
proto-rational mindset. Alexandrian Hermetism was a Hellenistic blend of
Egyptian traditions, Jewish lore and Greek, mostly Platonic, thought.
Later, the influence of Ptolemaic Alexandria on all spiritual traditions
of the Mediterranean would become unmistaken. On this point, I agree with
Bernal in his controversial Black Athena (1987).
"In the first place we find the survival of
Egyptian religion both within Christianity and outside it in heretical sects
like those of the Gnostics, and in the Hermetic tradition that was frankly
pagan. Far more widespread than these direct continuations, however, was the
general admiration for Ancient Egypt among the educated elites. Egypt, though
subordinated to the Christian and biblical traditions on issues of religion
and morality, was clearly placed as the source of all 'Gentile' or secular
wisdom. Thus no one before 1600 seriously questioned either the belief that
Greek civilization and philosophy derived from Egypt, or that the chief ways
in which they had been transmitted were through Egyptian colonizations of
Greece and later Greek study in Egypt."
1987, p.121, my italics.
Recently, Bernal has advocated a "Revised Ancient Model". According to
this, the "glory that is Greece", the Greek Miracle, is the product
of an extravagant mixture. The culture of Greece is somehow the outcome of
repeated outside influence.
"Thus, I argue for the establishment of a 'Revised
Ancient Model'. According to this, Greece has received repeated outside
influence both from the east Mediterranean and from the Balkans. It is
this extravagant mixture that has produced this attractive and fruitful
culture and the glory that is Greece."
O'Connor & Reid, 2003, p.29.
Bernal apparently forgets that Greek recuperation is also an overtaking of ante-rationality by
rationality, a leaving behind of the earlier stage of cognitive development (namely
mythical, pre-rational and proto-rational thought). The Greeks had
superior thought, and this "sui generis". Hence, Greek civilization
cannot be seen as the outcome of an extravagant mixture. The mixture was
there because the Greeks were curious and open. They linearized the grand
cultures of their day, and Egypt had been the greatest and oldest culture.
"Most of the names of the gods may have arrived in
Greece from Egypt, but by Herodotus' own day, as a result of receiving
gods from other peoples (Poseidon from the Libyans, other gods from the
Pelasgians and so on), the Greeks have clearly overtaken the Egyptians in
their knowledge of the gods, if they have not indeed discovered all the
gods worth discovering."
Matthews & Roemer, 2003, p.153.
On the one hand, Greek thinking successfully escaped from the contextual
and practical limitations imposed by an ante-rational cognitive apparatus unable to work
with an abstract concept, and hence unable to root its conceptual
framework in the "zero-point", which serves as the beginning of
the normation "here and now" of all possible coordinate-axis, which
all run through it (cf.
logic). The mental space liberated by abstraction, discursive
operations and formal laws was "rational", and involved the
symbolization of thought in formal structures (logic, grammar), coherent (if not
consistent) semantics (linguistic & technical sciences) and efficient pragmatics
(administration, politics, socio-economics, rhetorics).
Because of the Greek miracle of abstraction, rationality and ante-rationality
were distinguished, equating the latter with the "barbaric" (i.e.
coming from "outside" Greece and its colonies) or
seeking the inner meaning of Egyptian religion (i.e. the wise men who studied
in Egypt and later the infiltration of Greeks in the administrative,
scribal class). Although the inner sanctum of the temples of Ptah, Re and
Amun must have remained closed (excepts perhaps for exceptional Greeks
like Pythagoras), the Greeks adapted to and rapidly assimilated
Egyptian culture and its environment.
"In addition to the tangible exchange of objects and good, from the time
of Solon there appears to have been a certain kind of abstract
intellectual contact. There survive a growing number of works written in
Greek which demonstrate some measure of familiarity with Egypt and
Egyptian thought or at least claim to have been influenced by them. The
list of authors of such works is impressive : Solon, Hecataeus of Miletus,
Herodotus, Euripides and Plato to name only the best known."
Matthews & Roemer, 2003, p.158.
On the other hand, the Greeks had no written traditions and so no
extensive treasurehouse of ante-rational, efficient knowledge (no logs).
They had no libraries like the Egyptians. In their Dark Age, literacy had
dropped dramatically and only in Ionia and Athens could pieces of Mycenæan
culture be detected. The old language (Linear B) was lost. At the
beginning of the so-called Archaic Period (starting ca.700 BCE), the
Greeks could not erect temples, had a new alphabet adapted from the
Phoenicians, no literature and very likely an oral culture, containing
legends, stories about the deities and grand, heroic deeds (such as recorded by
Homer & Hesiod, ca.750 BCE).
When their abstracting, eager and young minds got
in touch with the age old cultural activity of the Egyptians, the encounter was
very fertile, enabling the Greeks to develop their own intellectual &
technological skills, and move beyond the various examples of Egyptian
ingenuity. They were able to deduce abstract "laws" (major),
allowing for connections to be made beyond the borders of context and
action (minor) and the application of the general to the particular
(conclusion). Moreover, the rich
cosmogonies of Egyptian myth, the
qualities of Pharaoh, the moral depth of Egypt's
sapiental discourses and
the importance of verbalization in the Memphite and
were readapted and incorporated into Greek philosophy, as so many other
connotations and themes, adapted by their Greek authors to their Helladic taste.
This complex interaction between Greeks and Egyptians before and under the
Ptolemies, allowed Alexandria to become a major intellectual centre, home
of native Egyptians, Greek priests & scientists, Jewish scholars,
Essenes and Hermetics alike. It continued to be influential until the
final curtain came down on it in 642 CE, when general Amr Ibn Al As
conquered Egypt for Caliph Omar, the second of the Islam's Four Pillar Caliphs.
And so nearly nine hundred years of Graeco-Roman suzerainty had come to an
Egypt between the end of the New Kingdom and the rise of Naukratis.
1.1 The political situation
in the Third Intermediate Period.
Third Intermediate Period (ca. 1075 - 664
BCE) : Dynasties XXI - XXV
Late Period (664 BCE - 332 BCE) :
Dynasties XXVI - XXX
Ptolemaic Period (305 - 30 BCE)
Roman & Byzantine Period (30 BCE - 642 CE)
The "golden" New Kingdom ended (ca.1075 BCE) with a weak Pharaoh.
Politically, we witness a clear division between the North (Tanis) and the South
(Thebes). Theologically, "Amun is king" ruled, and so Egypt was a
theocracy (headed by the military). In the period which followed, the Third Intermediate
Period (ca. 1075 - 664 BCE), Nubia and
the eastern desert were lost again (as well as the northern "Asiatic" regions).
At the end of this period and for the first time since 3000 BCE, Egypt lost its
The last Pharaoh of the New Kingdom, Ramesses XI (ca. 1104 -1075 BCE) had been
unable to halt the internal collapse of the kingdom, which had already filled
the relatively long reign of Ramesses IX (ca. 1127 - 1108 BCE). Tomb robberies
(in the Theban necropolis) were now discovered at Karnak. Famine, conflicts and
military dictatorship were the outcome of this degeneration. With the death of
Ramesses XI, the "golden age" of Ancient Egyptian civilization had formally come
to a close.
Dynasty XXI, founded by Pharaoh Smendes (ca. 1075 - 1044 BCE), formally
maintained the unity of the Two Lands. But his origins are obscure. He was
related by marriage to the royal family. In the North (Tanis) as well as in
Thebes, Amun theology reigned (the name of Amun was even written in a
cartouche), but in practice, the Thebaid was ruled by the high priest of Amun.
The daughter of Psusennes I (ca. 1040 - 990 BCE), called Maatkare, was the first
"Divine Adoratice" or "god's wife", i.e. the spouse of
Amun-Re, the "king of the gods". She inaugurated a "Dynasty" of 12
Divine Adoratices, ruling the "domain of the Divine Adoratrice" at
Thebes, until the Persian invision of 525 BCE.
From the XXIII Dynasty onward, the status of the
"god's wife" began to approach that of Pharaoh himself, and in the
XXVth Dynasty these woman appeared in greater prominence on monuments, with their names
written in royal cartouches. They could even celebrate the Sed-festival, only
attested for Pharaoh ! All this points to a radically changed conception of
kingship, which became a political function (safeguarding unity) deprived of its
former "religious" grandure and importance (Pharaoh as "son of
Re", living in Maat). Indeed, all was in the hands of Amun and Amun's wife
was able to divine the god's wish and will ...
Stone sculpture on a grand scale was rare. But work of unparalleled beauty &
excellence was made on a modest scale (metal, faience). But
in the North (Tanis), matter were not univocal either. Libyan tribal chieftains had been
indispensable to the the Tanite kings, but with Pharaoh Psusennes II (ca. 960 -
945 BCE), they lost their power to them ...
With Dynasty XXII ("Bubastids" or "Libyan"), founded by the Libyan Shoshenq I
(ca. 945 - 924 BCE), Egypt came under the rule of its former "Aziatic"
enemies. However, these Libyans had been
assimilating Egyptian culture and customs for already several generations now, and
so the royal house of Bubastid did not differ much from native Egyptian kingship, although Thebes hesitated.
After the reign of Osorkon II (ca. 874 - 850 BCE), a steady decline set in. In
Dynasty XXIII (ca. 818 - 715 BCE), the house of Bubastids split into two
In the middle of the 8th century BCE, a new political power appeared in the
extreme South. It had for some generations been building up an important kingdom from
their center at Napata at the 4th cataract. These "Ethiopians"
(actually Upper Nubians) felt to be Egyptians in culture
and religion (they worshipped Amun and had strong ties with Thebes). The first king of this Kushite kingdom was
Kashta, who initiated Dynasty XXV, or "Ethiopian", characterized by
the revival of archaic Old Kingdom forms (cf.
Stone) and the return of the traditional funerary practices. Indeed, because
they possessed the gold-reserves of Nubia, they were able to adorn empoverished
Egypt with formidable wealth.
Piye (ca. 740 - 713 BCE), probably Kashta's eldest son, was crowned in the temple of Amun at
Gebel Barkal (the traditional frontier between Upper Egypt and Lower Nubia), as "Horus,
Mighty Bull, arising in Napata". He went to Thebes to be acknowledged
there. After having consolidated his position in Upper Egypt, Piye returned to
Napata (cf. "Victory Stela" at Gebel Barkal).
At the same time, in Lower Egypt, a future
opponent, the Libyan Tefnakhte ruled the entire western Delta, with as capital Sais (city of the
goddess Neit, one of the patrons of kingship). Near Sais were also the cities of
Pe and Dep (Buto), of mythological importance since the earliest periods of Egyptian history,
and cult centre of the serpent goddess
Wadjet, the Uræus protecting Pharaoh's
When the rulers of Thebes asked for help, Piye's armies moved northwards. When
he sent messengers ahead to Memphis with offers of peace, they closed the gates
for him and sent out an army against him. Piye returned
victoriously to Napata, contenting himself with the formal recognition of his
power over Egypt, and never went to Egypt again. But the anarchic disunity of the many
petty Delta states remained unchanged.
Pharaoh Shabaka (ca. 712 - 698 BC), this
black African "Ethiopian", also a son of Kashta, was the first Kushite
king to reunite Egypt by defeating the
monarchy of Sais and establishing himself in Egypt. Shabaka, who figures in Graeco-Roman sources as a semi-legendary figure, settled
the renewed conflicts between Kush and Sais and was crowned Pharaoh in Egypt,
with his Residence and new seat of government in Memphis. Pharaoh Shabaka modelled
himself and his rule upon the Old Kingdom.
The first Assyrian king who turned against Egypt -that had so often supported
the small states of Palestine against this powerful new world order- was Esarhaddon (ca.
681 - 669 BCE). For him, the Delta states were natural allies, for -in his view-
reluctantly accepted the rule of the Ethiopians. Between 667 and 666 BCE, his
successor Assurbanipal conquered Egypt (Thebes was sacked in 663 BCE) and this
Assyrian king placed Pharaoh Necho I (ca. 672 - 664) on the throne of Egypt.
With him, the Late Period was initiated.
In the Third Intermediate Period, or post-Imperial Era, we witness the decentralization of Egypt, and
the reemergence of new divisions, either between Tanis and Thebes or
between Sais and Napata. After the XXIth Dynasty, the former "enemies of
Egypt" ruled, i.e. the Libyans and Nubians (both used as mercenaries at the
beginning of the New Kingdom).
However, we cannot say these fully
egyptianized Libyan or Ethiopian rulers destroyed Egyptian culture, quite on the
contrary. They were proud to stand at the head of Egypt, to prove to the
traditional pantheon that their rule favored them and they Egypt (so that the
deities of Egypt would remember them). Indeed, just before and after the Assyrian conquest, Dynastic
Rule was characterized by a revival of archaic Egyptian forms.
The extraordinary wealth of Egypt was monumentalized on a grand scale by artist
and architects who were also state-funded archeologists of Egyptian culture.
They studied the papyri in the various "Houses of Life" and rediscovered the old
canon. They copied "worm-eaten" documents to make them better than before. For
in their minds, the Solar Pharaohs of old were the true foundation of Egyptian
Statehood (Old Kingdom nostalgia can also be found in the New Kingdom).
1.2 A few remarks concerning the Late Period.
The XXVIth or "Saite" Dynasty (664 - 525 BCE) installed by Assurbanipal, allowed
for the resurgence of Egypt's unity and power. Necho I was killed by the Nubians
in 664 BCE and his son Psammetichus I (664 - 610 BCE) was an able stateman. He
was trusted by the Assyrians and left alone by the "Ethiopians". Because the
Assyrians could not maintain their military presence in Egypt, Pharaoh was able
to reunite Egypt. He immediately revitalized the Egyptian form by relying on the
vast cultural heritage and its recorded memory. A short renaissance saw the
light. And also in this period, the Greeks recontacted the Egyptians for the
first time since generations. Carians and Ionians were enlisted by Pharaoh, who
made his scribes study Greek.
"Saitic Egypt, with her turning back to the great
pharaonic times and her consciousness of a great cultural past, the memory of
which reaches back to a time long forgotten ("Saitic Renaissance", Assmann,
2000), is seen as the teacher of knowledge and wisdom, for she is recognized for
her old age and for her wisdom that derives from that antiquity. It seems to be
especially this "cultural memory" (Assmann, 2000) of Saitic Egypt that
determines the image of Egypt in later Greek generations."
Matthews & Roemer, 2003, pp.14.
The Saite Dynasty sought to maintain the great heritage of
the Egyptian past. Ancient works were copied and mortuary cults were revived.
Demotic became the accepted form of cursive script in the royal chanceries.
These Pharaohs focused on keeping Egypt's frontiers secure, and moved far into
Asia, even further than the New Kingdom rulers Thutmose I and III.
When Cyrus the Great of Persia ascended the throne in 559 BCE, Pharaoh Ahmose II
or Amasis (570 - 526 BCE) was left with no other option than to cultivate close
relations with Greek states to prepare Egypt for the Persian invasion of 525.
The latter led to the defeat and capture of Psammetichus III (526 - 525) by
Cambyses (who died in 522 BCE).
Under Persian rule (525 - 404 BCE), Egypt became a satrapy of the Persian
Empire. The Persians left the Egyptian administration in place, but some of
their rulers, like Cambyses and later Xerxes (486 - 465 BCE) disregarded temple privilege.
The gods and their priests were humiliated. Only Darius I (522 - 486 BCE)
displayed some regard for the native religion. When
Darius II died (404 BCE), a Libyan, Amyrtaios of Sais, led an uprising and again
Egypt would enjoy a relatively long period of independence under "native"
rulers, the last of which being Pharaoh Nektanebo II (360 - 343 BCE).
A second Persian invasion (343 BCE) ended these short
Dynasties (28, 29 & 30, between 404 - 343 BCE). But with Alexander the Great
(entering Egypt in December 332 BCE), Egypt came under Macedonian rule. The
Greeks respected Egypt and its gods and Greek communities had been living there
for generations. In 305, the Ptolemaic Empire was
initiated (it ended in 30 BCE). Mass immigration happened : Greeks,
Macedonians, Thracians, Jews, Arabs, Mysians and Syrians settled in Egypt,
attracted by the prospect of employment, land and economic opportunity. Foreign
slaves and prisoners of war were brought to Egypt by the new rulers.
Between 30 BCE and 642 CE, Egypt was ruled by
the Romans and the Byzantines, before it became Islamic as it still is today.
trading, recontacting & settling in Egypt.
Old Kingdom Egypt used mercenaries in military expeditions.
Nubians settled in the late VIth Dynasty in the southernmost nome of Elephantine
and were employed in border police units.
"Contact with Minoan Crete and the Mycenaean Greeks is
well attested. The image of Egypt is already firmly established in the Homeric
poems and a plethora of Egyptian artefacts has been unearthed in Greece, the
Aegean and even in western Greek colonies such as Cumae and Pithecusa in Italy
from as early as the eighth century."
Matthews & Roemer, 2003, p.158.
The presence of Libyans and
Nubians is attested in the armies of Pharaohs Kamose and Ahmose at the
start of the New Kingdom. An alliance between the Hyksos Dynasty and the Minoans
"In return for protecting the sea approaches to
Egypt, the Minoans might have secured harbour facilities and access to those
precious commodities (especially gold) for which Egypt was famous in the outside
With Pharaoh Ahmose (ca. 1539 - 1292 BCE), Minoan culture
Egyptian history. Indeed, in the aftermath of the sack of
Avaris (Tell el-Dab'a - ca. 1540 BCE), the capital of the Hyksos in the Second
Intermediate Period (ca. 1759 - 1539 BCE), the fortifications and palace of the
last Hyksos king (Khamudi) were systematically destroyed. Pharaoh Ahmose
replaced them with short lived buildings reconstructed from foundations
and fragments of wall paintings of the ruins. The fragments were found in dumps to level
& palatial structures of Ahmose. These paintings were Minoan !
Their presence, 100 years
earlier than the first representations of Cretans in Theban tombs and earlier
than the surviving frescos at Knossos, whose naturalistic subject matter they
share, shows the cultural links between Crete and Egypt (before and
after the sack of Avaris). These frescos
seem to owe little to Egyptian tradition and serve a ritual purpose : bull-leapers,
acrobats and the motives of the bull's head and the labyrinth point to Early Cretan
As a small amount of Minoan Kamares ware pottery was found in
XIIIth Dynasty strata (Middle Kingdom), it is not impossible Egyptian
artistic style influenced Crete as far back as the Old Kingdom (jewels). These
early periods do not evidence the systematic immigration of Greeks. The links
between Greece and Egypt, as with many other nations, were probably foremost
We know Pharaoh Psammetichus I (664 - 610 BCE) employed Carian and
Ionian mercenaries in his efforts to strengthen his authority (ca. 658 BCE)
against the Assyrians. He also put some boys into the charge of the Greeks, and
their learning of the language was the origin of the class of Egyptian
interpreters, and the "regular intercourse with the Egyptians" began.
He allowed Milesians to settle in Upper Egypt (not far from the capital Sais).
This was the first time Greeks were allowed to stay in Egypt.
"With the enrollment of Greek mercenaries into his
service, Egypt became more important from the Greeks' point of view than the
ruined cities of Syria."
It is Herodotus who, in his Histories, informs us that camps
("stratopeda") were established between Bubastis and the sea on the
Pelusiac branch of the Nile. They were occupied without a break for over a
century until these Greek mercenaries were moved to Memphis at the beginning of
the reign of Pharaoh Ahmose II or "Amasis" (570 - 526 BCE). They were
reintroduced in the area at a later stage to counter the growing menace of
Persia (525 BCE).
The Greek inscription found on the leg of one of the colossi at Abu Simbel,
indeed indicates that mercenaries, under Egyptian command, formed one of two
corps in the army, whose supreme commander was also an Egyptian. Under Pharaoh
Apries (589 - 570 BCE), there was a revolt of mercenaries at Elephantine ...
Because the Ionians and Carians were also active in piracy, the Egyptians were
forced to restrict the immigration of Greeks, punishing infringement by the
sacrifice of the victim.
Herodotus (II.177,1) also comments that during Pharaoh Amasis, Egypt attained
its highest level of prosperity both in respect to crops and the number of
inhabited cities (indeed, an estimated 3 million people lived in Egypt). It
was under this Pharaoh that the Greeks were allowed to move beyond the
coast of Lower Egypt. Trade was encouraged and the sources, mostly Greek,
refer to trading stations such as "The Wall of the Milesians", and
"Islands" bearing names as Ephesus, Chios, Lesbos, Cyprus and Samos.
lot of Greek centres emerged, but the best-documented trading centre was
Naukratis on the Canopic branch of the Nile not far from Sais and with excellent
communications. It was founded by Milesians between 650 - 610 BCE (under Pharaoh
Psammetichus I). From ca. 570 BCE, all Greek trade had to move through Naukratis
by law. So, before the end of the 6th century BCE, the Greeks had their own
colony in Egypt. The travels of individual Greeks to Egypt for the purpose of
their education, as well as Greek immigration to Kemet, the "black"
land, is usually dated at the time of the Persian invasion (525 BCE). However,
it can not be excluded that Pharaoh Psammetichus I allowed Greek intelligentsia
to study in Memphis.
Summarizing Greece/Egypt chronology (all dates BCE) :
ca.2600 : Neolithic Crete :
first sporadic contacts with Old Kingdom Egypt (Dynasty IV) ;
ca.1700 : neopalatial Minoan
Crete : Mediterranean network of artistic and iconographic exchange,
communication between Minoan high culture and Egypt (XIIIth Dynasty) ;
ca.1530 : Hyksos ruins in
Minoan style (Avaris) are used by Pharaoh Ahmose I ;
ca. 670 : Pharaoh Psammetichus
I initiated the study of Greek, employed Greek mercenaries against the
Assyrians, set up a camp that stayed in the western Delta and allowed the
Miletians to found Neukratis
570 : under Pharaoh Ahmose II
(Amasis) the Greeks were allowed to travel beyond the western Delta - Neukratis became an
exclusive Greek trading centre complete with Greek temples. He cultivated close relations with Greek states to help him against the
impending Persian onslaught ;
525 : Egypt a satrapy of the
Persia empire, start of a more pronounced Greek immigration to Egypt ;
332 : Egypt invaded &
plundered by the Macedonians ;
305 : Egypt ruled by Greek
30 : death of Queen Cleopatra
last Egyptian ruler.
before Pharaoh Amasis (before 570 BCE).
history of Ancient Greece.
The earliest traces of habitation on Crete belong to the 7th millenium BCE.
Continuous Neolithic habitation have been noted at Knossos from the middle of
the fifth millenium BCE. Towards the middle of the 3th millenium BCE (ca. 2600
BCE) a peaceful immigration took place, probably from Asia Minor and Africa,
introducing the Bronze Age to Crete. Before establishing a list of historical parallels, let us summarize the
evolution of Ancient Greek culture as follows (all dates BCE) :
Minoan Crete (ca. 2600 -
1150) : This period is subdivided on the basis of the pottery or the
rebuilding of the palaces.
The Palatial Chronology is :
prepalatial (ca. 2600 - 1900) : The arrival of
new racial elements in Crete brought the use of bronze and strongly built
houses of stone and brick with a large number of rooms and paved courtyards,
with a varied pottery of many styles - society was organized in
"clans" ("genos"), and farming, stock-raising, shipping
and commerce were developed to a systematic level - the appearance of
figurines of the Mother Goddess - Egyptian influence at work in golden &
ivory jewels ;
protopalatial (ca. 1900 - 1730) : Centralization
of power in the hands of kings, and the first large palace centres with wide
cultural influence : Knossos, Phaestos, Malia and Zakros (and there must
have been more) - production of very fine vases or vessels of stone and
faience, sealstones of precious or semi-precious stones, elegant weapons
& tools - the emergence of naturalistic hieroglyphic and dynamic scenes
- the pantheon has the Great Goddess as its main element as well as the use
of sacred symbols such as the sacred horns and the double axe - society is
hierarchical and contacts with the outside world become frequent -
hieroglyphic script (derived from Egyptian models ?) developed into Linear A (late
protopalatial) - a terrible disaster,
perhaps caused by earthquakes, destroyed the first palace centres ca. 1730
neopalatial (ca. 1730 - 1380) : Minoan civilization reached its zenith with the reconstruction of more
magnificient palaces on the ruins of the old - increase in the number of roads,
organization of the harbours, increase of trade - feudal & theocratic
society installing & maintaining the "Pax Minoica",
facilitating the cultural development of Crete - main deity is still the
Great Goddess, portrayed as a chthonic goddess with the snakes, the
"Mistress of the Animals" (lions & chamois) or the goddess of
the heavens (birds & stars), worshipped together with the god of
fertility, who had the form of a bull - the hieroglyphic script became Linear A (with two
hundred surviving texts), used until the collapse of the Pax Minoica -
in ca. 1530 the Thera
volcano on Santorini erupted - from
about 1500 onwards there was a significant increase of Mycenæan
influence - the rise of the use of a syllabic, ruling-class language, Mycenæan
Greek, now called "Linear B" (imported by the Mycenæans to Crete)
postpalatial (ca. 1380 - 1100) : after the final destruction of
Knossos in 1380, none of the Minoan
palaces were re-inhabited - Mycenæan
culture took over (ca. 1450) and their presence is attested both by Linear B and the appearance of typical pottery.
Ca. 1100, the descent of the Dorians heralded the demise of Minoan
(ca. 2800 -
1100) : This period is preceded by the Neolithical Period. The
earliest settlers reached Greece from Anatolia during the 7th millenium.
Good pasturage drew them to the plains of Thessaly or Boeotia and the land
round the gulf or Argos. They did not know the plough. The transition from
this Neolithic communites to a metal-working culture (first half of the 3th
millenium) was not always peacefully accomplished.
Following subdivisions prevail :
Early Helladic I (ca. 2800 - 2600) : Greece
inhabited by these so-called "pre-Helladics" who did not speak
Greek. At first, they lacked farming expertise. They worshipped the Mother
Goddess. Stone houses replaced mud-bricks. The Stone Age sites they erected
provided collective defence against some external threat. Trade, especially
by sea, began to flourish. Political and economical agricultural urbanism.
Local barons ruled an area of up to ten miles' radius round a walled hilltop
Early Helladic II (ca. 2600 - 2100) : They
eventually capitalized and developed this progress and formed a civilized
Middle Helladic (ca. 2100 - 1600) : The
arrival, in 2100 and later between 1950 and 1900, of marauding barbarians
who burnt and destroyed the fortified towns.
"Greece, at all events, like Italy, Anatolia, and
India, only came under Indo-European influence during the migrations of the
Bronze Age. Nevertheless, the arrival of the Greeks in Greece, or, more
precisely, the immigration of a people bearing a language derived from
Indo-European and known to us as the language of the Hellenes, as Greek, is
a question scarcely less controversial, even if somewhat more defined. The
Greek language is first encountered in the fourtheenth century in the Linear
These newcomers formed the
spearhead of a vast collective migrant movement originating somewhere in the
great plateau of central Asia, sweeping West and South from Russia across
the Danube and penetrating the Balkans from the North. The Greek language they
spoke was a branch of the Indo-European group (as is Vedic Sanskrit) and they are regarded as the
first, true "archaic" Greeks. The female fertility images vanished
and were replaced by a male sky-god cult and a feudal, palace-based society
akin to that of Homer's Olympians. These warrior-aristocrats were totally
unaware of seafaring and became Mediterranean traders once the slow process
of acclimatization was on its way.
Mycenæan Age (ca. 1600 -
1100) : The mythical Danaus (ca. 1600 - 1570), a Hyksos
refugee, took over Mycenæ and established the "Shaft Grave
dynasty" which lasted for several generations. Mycenæan Greece was
split up into a number of small districts (and hence to regard Mycenæ
itself as a "capital" is misleading), with a scribal caste at the
service of warrior leaders, vigorous commercial economy (based on indirect
consumption) and a high level of mostly imported craftsmanship. New were the "tholos"
burials, with their domeshaped burial-chambers. Their palaces followed the
architectural style of Crete, although their structure was more
straightforward and simple. Linear B texts reveal the names of certain gods
of the later Greek pantheon : Hera, Poseidon, Zeus, Ares and perhaps
Dionysius. There are no extant theological treatises, hymns or short texts
on ritual objects (as was the case in Crete). Their impressive tombs
indicate that their funerary cult was more developed than the Minoan.
During the mid thirteenth century (ca. 1200 - 1190) several Peloponnesian
sites suffered damage and within a century every major Mycenæan stronghold
had fallen, never to be recovered. Indeed, a vast, anonymous horde with
horned helmets and ox-driven covered wagons had made its way, locust-like,
across the Hellespont, through the Hittite Empire, by way of Cilicia and the
Phoenician coast to the gates of Egypt, to be defeated by Pharaoh Ramesses III (ca.
1186 - 1155) in two great battles. These nomadic "Dorians"
destroyed what came in touch with them, and after their defeat, they
vanished amid the wreckage of their own making. Athens never fell, and it is
unconquered Athens we have to thank for what survives of the Mycenæan
legends, although their customs vanished.
Dark Ages (ca. 1100 - 750)
: Over a period of nearly two centuries, beginning soon after 1100,
we find eastward migrations, from mainland Greece to the coast of Asia
Minor. These movements were driven by Mycenæan refugees, shaping a
diaspora, speaking a dialect known as Aeolic. The rich central strip of
Ionia was colonized (after a bitter struggle) after the Dorians overran
mainland Greece. About 900, the Dorians themselves spread out eastward from
the Peloponnese. Aeolic, Ionic and Doric elements intermingled. When Homer
wrote his Illiad and Odyssey (ca. 750) or Hesiod his Theogony,
the Greek world was desperately poor. The Dark Age practice of relying on a
local chieftain for protection was encouraged. Greece was a series of small,
isolated communities, clustering round a hilltop "big
Archaic Period (ca. 750 -
478) : This period has also been called the "Age of Revolution", because after the slow recovery of the Dark Age, there
came a sudden spurt or accelerated intellectual, cultural, economical and
political efflorescence. Two divisions :
from the Dark Age to the "Greek Miracle"
(ca. 750 - 600) :
The alphabet was derived from Phoenician, but scholars differ as to when
this has happened. Some say shortly before the earliest inscriptions -found
on pottery ca. 730-, while others propose an earlier date. The latter do not
accept an illiterate Dark Age. Phoenician attained its classical form ca.
1050, and so a transmission of the alphabet in the late Mycenæan age could
not be excluded. However, by 800 there was unity in language and, to some
extent, a culture throughout the Aegean world. And in the same period as
seagoing trade resurged (ca. 750), writing was reintroduced. Thanks to the
use of a viable, fully vowelized, Phoenician-derived alphabet rather than a
restricted syllabary (Linear B), literacy became a fact. This paved the way
for the "Greek Miracle" in sixth-century Ionia.
Government was based -through hereditary aristocracy- on landownership.
Between ca. 750 and 600, we find the crystallization of the city-state and
the rise in power of the non-aristocrats, allying themselves with
frustrated noble families and putting the hereditary principle under
pressure. The two main leitmotivs of this age are discovery (literal and
figural) and the process of settlement & codification.
With Hesiod (ca.
700), the poet-farmer from Ascra, described as the forerunner of the pre-Socratics, we find a mere lay poet taking upon himself the priestly task
of systematizing myth according to the pattern of the family tree (genos).
He saw the world as a muddled, chaotic place where the only hope lay in
working out man's right relations with the gods, his fellow men and his
natural, barely controllable environment. Homeric ideals, looking back five
centuries in the past (to idealize the Mycenæan age), were swept away.
Although Hesiod betrays nostalgia for the good old days, he knows that they
are over. Those who have no power to implement their wishes, must appeal to
general principles. Hence, his morality is that of the underprivileged and
his emphasis on the omnipotent Zeus, who bestows the gift of justice ("dike").
Shortly after Hesiod, we see the rise of lyric poetry which -in the fifth
century- gave way to drama (in choral form) and to prose.
Although Homer (ca. 700) thought along paratactic (creating sentences without
subcoordinating or subordinating connectives), symbolical and
mythical lines, Hesiod did not know what an abstraction was. The idea of the
polis emerged, but was characterized by the tension between rational
progressivism and emotional conservatism, between civic ideals and ties of
consanguinity, between blood-guilt and jury justice, between old religion
and the new secularizing philosophy. Indeed, with the Ionians Thales and Anaximander of
Miletus, Greek philosophy was born
(ca. 600). Between 650 - 600 we also witness the rapidly developing
emphasis on human concerns : anthropocentrism. From about 675 onwards, the
"tyrannoi" began to seize power in the city-states all over the
Aegean world : Argos, Sicyon, Corinth, Mytilene, Samos, Naxos, Miletus and
Magara among other fell in their hands. They were an urban-based phenomenon
and were eager to promote fresh colonizing ventures.
from the "Greek Miracle" to the Classical
Period (ca. 600 - 478) :
During this period, Greece's great revolution was brought to completion. The
stiff, Egyptian stance of the male statues ("kouroi") began to
lose its hieratic formality. Politically, the slow evolution of democratic
government at Athens and the rise of Persia have to be noticed. The
predominantly "scientific" interests associated with Miletus, gave
way between 550 and 500 to a more mystically oriented movement, to which
Pythagoras, Heracleitus and Xenophanes each contributed. Between 514 and 479
all Greek history is dominated by the shadow of Persia, which contributed to
finally establish the right of mainland Greece to persue its own way of
life. A mere handful of Greek states did stand out against the gigantism of
the Persian Empire and the palace absolutism of the Near East.
During this Archaic period, pre-Socratic philosophy developed.
Imperialism (478 - 404)
: With the formation of the "Delian League", Athens
broke away from the "Hellenic League", which had fought against
Xerxes. In 469, Cimon took a large fleet to the eastern Mediterranean and
routed Persia's forces. He reopened the old Levant-route to Rhodes, Cyprus,
Phoenicia and Egypt. The drift of new learning, both in the speculative as
in other fields, was firmly anthropocentric. The gods were left out or
replaced by exotic, enthusiastic and uncivic foreign cults. The
Eleusinian Mysteries were an attempt to provide this trend with some
official outlook. The Sophists emerged and pioneered the great liberal
movement, criticized by Plato. In 404, Athens at last surrendered to Sparta,
and exchanged one despotism by another.
Decline of the polis (404 -
323) : The next three decades, the isolationist, old-fashioned and
autocratic Spartan government ruled, triggering the formation of an
anti-Spartan coalition and Persia playing each side off against the other.
Thebes and Athens were thrown into alliance, the latter breaking Sparta's
hold on Greece. This proved a mere repetition, but under a better
leadership, of the Spartan experience. Sparta, Athens, Elis, Achaea and
Mantinea formed a coalition against Thebes. With the rise of Philip II of
Macedonia (359), the whole picture changed, and in 338 all organized
resistance to Macedonia ceased. With the death of his son, Alexander the
Great (323) a new era began (namely Hellenism). The city-states vanished and
became part of the new imperial rule.
Table of the Aegean Bronze Age compared with Ancient Egypt
This historical sketch of Ancient
Greece presents us with a lot of dynamic players and is characterized by a lot
of inner tensions and interactions with the environment (invasions, migrations,
colonizations). Natural disasters, immigration, "Doric" invasions,
Persian Wars, the Peloponnesian War and the
Macedonian rule were primordial in the formation of the Greek mentality. This
conflictual interpretation of the complexity of Greek culture explains the
extraordinary cognitive reequilibrations which happened, before but especially after
the Dark Age. This catastrophic evolution being the outer side of an inner,
mental state of discontent. It also shows the importance of cosmopolitanism, individualism, anthropocentrism
and adaptability in the formation of the Greek cultural form and its
Using another chronological order, five fundamental stages may be discerned
Age (7000 - 2600 BCE) : settlements of farmers in Crete and mainland
Age (2600 - 1100 BCE) : the Bronze Age, starting with the arrival of
peaceful immigrants on Crete, can be divided in two periods :
Minoan : This culture was palace-based. Between
ca. 2600 and 1600 BCE, no Greek influence was present on the island. The
Minoans reached their zenith between ca. 1730 and 1500 (the "Pax
Minoica"). Two scripts are attested : hieroglyphic (not yet deciphered)
& Linear A. The latter is nearly always used for administrative purposes
(the count of peoples & objects). The last phase of the Minoan
neopalatial civilization was characterized by Mycenæan
influence (i.e. after ca.1600 BCE).
Mycenæan : Initiated ca. 1600 BCE, the
culture of these Greek speaking people spread over mainland Greece and
reached Crete. It was strongly influenced by Minoan protopalatial (ending
with the destruction of ca. 1730 BCE) & neopalatial culture, but
remained loyal to its own Greek character. Eventually they conquered Crete
(ca. 1450 BCE) and caused the elaboration of Greek Linear B based on Cretan
Linear A, which is not a Greek language as evidenced by the few tablets
found in Linear A (for example, the word for "total" -often used in
texts- cannot be understood as the archaic matrix of a Greek
So Minoan and Mycenæan cultures
interpenetraded : before 1600 BCE, Crete had directly influenced the
formation of Early Helladic Greece but was itself non-Greek (Linear A) -
after 1450 BCE, Mycenæan Greece took
over Minoan culture on Crete and Greek Linear B was used by the Minoan
treasury of Crete in the postpalatial.
Age (1100 - 750 BCE) : Dorian Greece, pushing Greek culture a step
Age (750 - 478 BCE) : Greek culture reemerges ;
Age (478 - 323 BCE) : the "polis" and the emergence of classical,
What happened with literacy during the Dark Age ? Although it is likely
the scattered Mycenæan refugees kept some of their linguistic traditions alive,
so that some were still able to read and write Linear B, it is clear the
cultural network which had existed beforehand had been destroyed by the Dorians
and with it a unified cultural form in Greece based on a shared language. If these refugees wrote their literary texts (if any) down on tablets in Linear
B in the same way as had happened on Crete, then the reason why none were found
may be explained by the fact the clay of these tablets had been dried only
and/or reused. It is more likely though their culture was oral.
During these obscure centuries, Greek culture, as a form shared by all the
inhabitants of Greece, was nonexistent. The marauding barbarians,
who had destroyed the fortified towns of the pre-Helladics, and had developed
(thanks to Crete) into the grand Mycenæan culture, were themselves destroyed by horned plundering
hords from the North, identified by some as belonging to the Doric branch of the
Greek family ...
The length of the Dark Age (300 years) must have thrown a devastating shadow on the survival of Mycenæan
culture. Note that the name of this period refers to how little is
known about it and also points to the remarkable contrast between Doric Greece
and Mycenæan culture. Fact is the Dorians had no written language of
their own and did not use Linear B. Isolation and loss of skills
characterized the period. About the religious practices, Snodgrass (2000) says
"Such practices seldom leave a substantial material
record, even in a well-documented period ; they are known to us largely from
literary sources. We should not therefore doubt the possibility of their
transmission through the dark age, simply because we cannot find proof of it in
the material evidence."
Snodgrass, 2000, p.399.
In the memories of the few able to safeguard the original Mycenæan form,
Mycenæ became legendary and heroic. In a sense, the Mycenæans
represented the "mythical" past of the Ancient Greeks.
2.2 The invention of the "phoinikeïa" for both vowels
"The impact of writing as opposed to oral
culture is perhaps the most dramatic example of transformation wrought
from the outside, through borrowing."
Before the reemergence of writing in Ancient Greece at the end of the
Dark Age (ca. 750 BCE), linguists distinguish between pictographic
(hieroglyphic) writing, Linear A and Linear B writing.
hieroglyhic script :
ca. 1900 (begin protopalatial) - 1730 BCE (destruction first palace) :
probably a Cretan, non-Greek language ;
Linear A : ca.
1900 - 1450 BCE (destruction second palace) : a Cretan picture-based
language which does not represent Greek words (reached its zenith
ca. 1650 BCE) - in the beginning it existed side by side with the
hieroglyphic script ;
Linear B :
ca. 1450 - 1380 BCE (final destruction of Knossos) : a Cretan and
Greek sound-based, syllabic language representing the archaic matrix
of Greek words - recast of Linear A ;
Alphabet : ca. 800 BCE : advent of one spoken language in
Greece - ca. 750 BCE : a Greek script
derived from Phoenician and adapted to Greek needs.
script on seals - Crete (Lyttos)
A pictogram is the representation of a complete word (not individual letters of
phonemes) directly by a picture of the object actually denoted.
This hieroglyphic script
developed ca. 1730 BCE into Linear A. It is called
"hieroglyphic", because it resembles the signary of Old Egyptian. This
typical "pictoral narrative" can also be found on the Predynastic
Narmer Palette or the Label of Djer (Dynasty I - tomb of Hemaka).
Possibly their inspiration indeed came from Egypt, as sporadic trade was
initiated as early as the prepalatial period (during Egypt's Old Kingdom and its
Old Egyptian literature), as
evidenced in Cretan ivory & gold jewellery.
If so, then the script had various pictograms which would have received a phonetic (consonantal) and/or an ideographic value
(assisting in the determination of the meaning implied). Vowels would be absent
and the artistic, contextual placing of the signs would have played an important
Next to these formal considerations, there would have been the pragmatical fact
that Egyptian hieroglyphs were "sacred" signs, only used to write down
religious, funerary, literary & philosophical thoughts of monumental &
lasting importance. The Minoans had no "cursive" form of hieroglyphic,
mostly used for secular purposes (in Egypt, this "hieratic" developed
alongside hieroglyphic, starting ca. 3000 BCE).
Indeed, Linear B seems to have
been an administrative & bureaucratic language. No linear B literature has
(yet) been found ...
A Tablet Co 907 - Crete (Knossos)
Linear A is
mostly inscribed on stone. The shape of these signs suggests an earlier
development, but nothing can be said for sure.
Most inscriptions were found in
the south of Crete. The script was primarily used -unlike the sacred Egyptian hieroglyphs- for
administrative purposes. Linear A was in use when Egyptian had
already entered its classical, so-called "Middle Egyptian" format. Linear
is not a Greek language. Although phonograms may occur, Linear A is (like
the hieroglyphic script) picture-based. It also appeared in religious contexts.
13 & 85 - Crete (Haghia Triada)
Linear B (derived from Linear A) is not picture-based (pictogram) but
sound-based (phonogram). A
series of 87 signs are used. The basic syllabary consists of 60 biliteral signs.
With these the phonetic value
of words are written down. The basic syllabary is the combination of 5 vowels with 12 consonants.
Linear B adds 16 optional signs and 11 signs are not yet identified. The
optional signs are used to allow one to identify words more precisely or
to represent two basic signs. It is read from left to right. Linear B
(also used in the last phase of the Minoan culture) was the script of the Mycenæns
(ca. 1600 - 1100 BCE) and its language was Greek. Archaeological evidence showed
that Linear B was not used a lot in mainland Greece. No private use of the
language has been discovered. It was deciphered by Ventris in 1951.
Apparently, Linear B was only used to keep records in Greek at Knossos and later
at the palaces of Thebes, Mycenæ
"L'écriture semble avoir été employée
exclusivement comme un outil bureaucratique, le moyen indispensable de
conserver les comptes et documents administratifs, mais jamais dans une
perspective historique et encore moins profane. (...) le contenu des
tablettes en linéaire B consiste, presque sans exception, en listes
d'individus, d'animaux, de produits agricoles et d'objects
Chadwick, 1994, p.191.
Phoenicia, its language & alphabet
alphabet of Byblos - ca. 1050 BCE
with Aramaic & Hebrew derivations
Phoenicia was the region corresponding to modern Lebanon, with adjoining parts of modern
Syria and Israel. Its inhabitants, the Phoenicians, were notable merchants,
traders, and colonizers of the Mediterranean in the 1st millennium BCE. Its chief
Sidon, Tyre, and Berot (modern Beirut).
It is not certain what the Phoenicians called themselves in their own
language. It appears to have been "Kena'ani" (Akkadian : "Kinahna")
"Canaanites." In Hebrew the word "kena'ani" has the secondary
meaning of "merchant," a term characterizing the Phoenicians well.
The Phoenicians probably arrived in the area about 3000 BCE. Nothing is known of
their original homeland, though some traditions place it in the region of the
commercial and religious connections with Egypt are attested from the IVth
Dynasty. Extensive trade was certainly
carried on by the 16th century, and the Egyptians soon established suzerainty
over much of Phoenicia. The 14th century, however, was one of much
political unrest, and Egypt eventually lost its hold over the area. Beginning in
the 9th century, the independence of Phoenicia was increasingly
threatened by the advance of Assyria,
the kings of which several times exacted tribute and took control of parts or
all of Phoenicia. In 538 BCE, Phoenicia passed under the rule of the
Persians. The country was later taken by Alexander the Great and in 64 BCE was
incorporated into the Roman province of Syria. Aradus, Sidon, and Tyre, however,
retained self-government. The oldest form of government in the Phoenician cities
seems to have been kingship limited by the power of the wealthy merchant
families. Federation of the cities on a large scale never seems to have
The Phoenicians were well known to their contemporaries as sea traders and
colonizers, and by the 2nd millennium they had already extended their influence
along the coast of the Levant by a series of settlements, including Joppa
(Jaffa, modern Yafo), Dor, Acre, and Ugarit. Colonization of areas in North
Africa (like Carthage), Anatolia, and Cyprus also occurred at an early
date. Carthage became the chief maritime and commercial power in the western
Mediterranean. Several smaller Phoenician settlements were planted as stepping
stones along the route to Spain and its mineral wealth. Phoenician exports
included cedar and pine wood, fine linen from Tyre, Byblos, and Berytos, cloths
dyed with the famous Tyrian purple (made from the snail Murex),
embroideries from Sidon, wine, metalwork and glass, glazed faience, salt, and
dried fish. In addition, the Phoenicians conducted an important transit trade.
In the artistic products of Phoenicia, Egyptian motifs and ideas were
mingled with those of Mesopotamia, the Aegean, and Syria. Though little survives
of Phoenician sculpture, the round, relief sculpture is much more abundant.
The earliest major work of Phoenician sculpture to survive was found at Byblos :
the limestone sarcophagus of Ahiram, king of Byblos
at the end of the 11th century. Ivory and wood carving became Phoenician specialties, and Phoenician
goldsmiths' and metalsmiths' work was also well known.
Although the Phoenicians used cuneiform (Mesopotamian writing), they also
produced a script of their own. The Phoenician alphabetic script of 22 letters
appeared at Byblos ca. 1050 BCE, but earlier stages are likely. The
inscription on the sarcophagus of Ahiram (ca. 1000 BCE), shows a scripture
which had already attained its classical form. This method of writing, later
adopted by the Greeks, is the ancestor of the modern Roman alphabet. It was the
Phoenicians' most remarkable and distinctive contribution to arts and
This writing system developed out of the North Semitic alphabet and was spread over the Mediterranean area by Phoenician
traders. It is the ancestor of the Greek alphabet and, hence, of all
Western alphabets. The
Phoenician alphabet gradually developed from this North Semitic prototype and
was in use until about the 1st century BCE in Phoenicia proper, when the language was already being
superceded by Aramaic. Phoenician
colonial scripts, variants of the mainland Phoenician alphabet, are classified
as Cypro-Phoenician (10th - 2nd century BCE) and Sardinian
(ca. 9th century BCE) varieties. A third variety of the colonial Phoenician
script evolved into the Punic and neo-Punic alphabets of Carthage, which continued to be written until about the 3rd
century CE. Punic was a monumental script and neo-Punic a cursive form. Punic
was influenced throughout its history by the language of the Berbers and
continued to be used by North African peasants until the 6th century CE.
The Phoenician alphabet in all its variants changed from its North Semitic
ancestor only in external form. The shapes of the letters varied a little in
mainland Phoenician and a good deal in Punic and neo-Punic. The alphabet
remained, however, essentially a Semitic alphabet of 22 letters, written from
right to left, with only consonants represented and phonetic values unchanged
from the North Semitic script. Phoenician is very close to Hebrew and
Moabite, with which it forms a Canaanite subgroup of the Northern Central
Phoenician words are found in Greek and Latin classical literature as well as
in Egyptian, Akkadian, and Hebrew writings. Phoenician and Hebrew scripts, both
monumental and cursive, were closely akin and developed along parallel
lines. Modern decipherment of Phoenician took place in the 18th century
(Swinton, Barthélemy). Phoenician epigraphic material is far from
the Greek adaptation of the Phoenician
Greek Alphabets derived from Phoenician
the Greeks played no important role in the formation of their own
alphabet, they added a crucial dimension : the five vowels. Indeed,
Phoenician, like Aramaic and Hebrew, was essentially a Semitic alphabet.
It consisted of 22 letters, written from
right to left, with only consonants. Semitic languages remained written from
right to left, while archaic Greek inscription had both directions before
fixating the opposite direction (from left to right). Moreover, the order
of the letters was also fundamentally Phoenician, and the Hebrew meaning
given to the individual letters corresponded with the Greek name for the
aleph / alpha (ox), beth / bèta
(house), gimel / gamma (camel), daleth / delta
(door), he / epsilon (window), vau / upsilon
(nail), zain / zèta (sword), cheth / èta
(fence), teth / thèta (serpent), yod /
iota (hand), kaph / kappa (hollow
hand), lamed / lambda (ox-goat), mem / mu
(water), nun / nu (fish), sameth / xi
(prop), ayin / omicron (eye), pe / pi
(mouth), tzaddi (fish hook), qoph (back of hand), resh / rho
(head), shin / sigma (tooth), tau / tau
Seven Phoenician consonants (cf. "phoinikeia grammata", the
"Phoenician letters") were unnecessary in Greek (identified by
their Hebrew names) : "aleph", "he", "vau",
"yod", "ayin", "tzaddi" &
These unnecessary consonants were used to represent the vowels and two
consonants, "tzaddi" and "qoph", were dropped. The
"vau" was taken out of the Phoenician alphabetical order and
added as "upsilon" at the end of the new Greek alphabet,
together with four typical Greek sounds.
was used for "a" ;
the "he" was
used for "e" ;
the "vaw" was
used for "u" ;
the "yod" was
used for "i" ;
was used for "o" ;
Finally, they added four
Greek sounds :
for "ph" ;
for "ch" ;
for "ps" ;
This alphabetic system
provided the Greeks ca. 750 BCE with 7 voweled sounds : "a",
"e", "ee", "i", "o",
"oo" and "u". The complete alphabet ensued : (a) alpha,
(b) bèta, (g) gamma,
(d) delta, (e) epsilon,
(z) zèta, (è) èta,
(th) thèta, (i or j) iota,
(k) kappa, (l) lambda,
(m) mu, (n) nu,
(x) xi, (o) omicron,
(p) pi, (r) rho,
(s) sigma, (t) tau,
(u) upsilon, (f or ph) phi,
(ch) chi, (ps), psi
and (oo) omega.
In all Ancient Semitic languages vowels were omitted. Even in Ancient
Egyptian, only the consonantal structure was recorded. Vowels are
dynamical, and constitute the variety & adaptability of a script to
concrete situations like gender, number and measurements. In Linear B,
vowels (a and o) were used to define gender and were recorded. By adding
vowels to their alphabet, the Archaic Greeks allowed the written language to
reflect the spoken one, so that a text seemed a fixating copy of the concrete,
living situation which triggered its composition (in Egypt, the difference
between the spoken word and the "sacred" hieroglyphs was
considerable). Thanks to vowels, the event could be exactely recorded, and
made present "in abstracto" as text. Hence, Greek cultural forms could
be transmitted with more precision, which triggered the formation of a
"historical memory" based on records which reflected the past as it
was (devoid of the ante-rational connotations & contexts necessary to
decipher non-voweled texts). Literacy meant thus much more than access to the
sacred (as in Egypt) : by writing down their language using a voweled alphabet,
the Greeks were able to captivate & describe the living, concrete context
in such a way that the text better represented the real or ideal thing.
In my opinion, binding vowels fits well the linearizing and defining state of
mind of the Greeks. In Mycenæan Linear B, the
system was till syllabic, joining each vowel with a consonant. In Cretan Linear
A, the pictogram ruled but phonetic value might have been present. But Linear B
offered a clear advantage : it was sound-based and fixated the vowels, though
not absolutely. With the adaptation of the Phoenician script at the
beginning of the Archaic Age, the Greeks took a fundamental cognitive step
forward and eliminated the exclusive consonantals, identifying each vowel with an
alphabetic sign of its own !
The evolution of cognition may hence be linked with these various scripts as follows (for
Ancient Egypt see : theology,
philosophy and magic)
hieroglyphic script :
mythical mode : loose pictograms on Creta ;
Linear A : mythical mode :
pictoral system ;
Linear B : pre-rational mode
: syllabic system with relatively fixed vowels ;
Archaic Greek :
proto-rational mode : alphabetic system with fixed vowels.
The fixation of the vowels in
an absolute, phonographic sense, allowed the Greeks to define a series of
categories which had remained outside the scope of any other script of
Antiquity. The vowels could be used to write down gender, verbal inflections
and suffixes making the language fluid. Suddenly, about 750 BCE, the Greeks had a tool
to define meaning
with an unprecedented precision and clarity, adapted to the spoken tongue.
This accomplishment must not have passed unnoticed when -under Pharaoh Psammetichus
I- they arrived in
Egypt. There was however no direct information
available to the Greeks about Egypt as a whole, for -as a group-
they were forced by law to remain in the western Delta, a situation which would
change when Pharaoh Amasis ascended the throne of Egypt in 570 BCE.
Greek literature, religion & architecture.
at the treshold of archaic literature
At the beginning of recorded Greek
literature stand two grand epic stories, the Iliad and the Odyssey,
attributed to Homer, and the works of Hesiod (White,
1964), like the Theogony.
Some features of the Homeric poems reach far into the Mycenæan age, perhaps to 1500
BCE, but the written works are traditionally ascribed to Homer. In their
present form, they probably date to the 8th century (recorded ca. 750 BCE).
It goes without saying that the elaborated compositional framework evidenced
in these masterpieces proves the existence of an oral tradition.
"The likely conclusion is that the
Homeric political system, like other Homeric pictures, is an artificial amalgam
of widely separated historical stages. And yet there is natural and almost
irresistible urge to look for a single period in which as many features as
possible of the picture can be credibly and simultaneously set."
Snodgrass, 2000, p.389.
Implicit references to Homer and
quotations from the poems date to the middle of the 7th century BCE.
Archilochus, Alcman, Tyrtaeus, and Callinus in the 7th century and Sappho
and others in the early 6th adapted Homeric phraseology and metre to their
own purposes and rhythms. At the same time, scenes from the epics became
popular in works of art. The pseudo-Homeric "Hymn to Apollo of
Delos," probably of late 7th-century composition, claimed to be the
work of "a blind man who dwells in rugged Chios", a reference to a
tradition about Homer himself.
The general belief that Homer was a native of Ionia (the central part of the
western seaboard of Asia Minor) seems a reasonable conjecture, for the poems
themselves are in predominantly Ionic dialect. Although Smyrna and Chios
early began competing for the honour, and others joined in, no authenticated
local memory survived anywhere of someone who, oral poet or not, must have
been remarkable in his time ...
With Hesiod, the farmer-poet from Ascra, apparently of the eighth century
BCE, described as a forerunner of the pre-Socratics, we encounter a lay poet
taking upon himself the task of systematizing myth. He saw the world as a
muddled, confusing, chaotic place where the only hope lay in the hands of the
Pantheon, one's fellow men and natural factors around him. The barely
controllable essence of the world springs to the fore. Brute necessity is more
important than Homeric ideals, and the individual emerges out of the collective
in a desperate mode. Grim might seems right here. Zeus however, has the gift of
justice ("dike") and crime does not pay. Hesiod stands midway Homer
and the Milesian philosophers.
There is no evidence to substantiate the existence of Greek literature in Linear
B, although Indo-European poetry is attested as an art form in "measured
lines with fixed poetic flourished, some of which appear in identical form in
Vedic and Greek." (Burkert, 1985, p.17, my italics).
The use of leather, combined with a sea climate, makes it unlikely to ever discover
texts. The Linear B tablets found survived because of
catastrophic fires which destroyed the buildings they were stored in (for the
original were only sun-dried). It is likely that under the Mycenæans and the Dorians,
the bulk of all Homeric and Hesiodic ideas were transmitted exclusively orally.
Let us speculate, and assume Mycenæan poets at times wrote down
a brief sketch of their works, assisting memory with small inscriptions in
Linear B on leather and sun-dried clay, and assuring the continuity of the
synopsis of their thought (combined with extensive oral training). A strong
contra-argument has always been the absence of inscriptions on pottery (instead,
geometrical forms were used). But this is apparently less significant in Greece
in terms of scriptoral capacity than it was in Ancient Egypt, with its
and "divine" interpretation of language and its eternalization.
"... the criterion of ceramic style as an indicator
of major cultural changes is less satisfactory. We have found it misleading ..."
Snodgrass, 2000, p.393.
► towards Archaic
Minoan religion was associated with the
miracle of nature, and our principal source of knowledge are artistic
representations inspired by a deified natural world and depicting or
facilitating religious cult.
"They might be described as high-class hedonists with
a strong religious sense ; and their religion, characteristically, seems to have
been a gay open-air everyday faith, with holy spots on mountain-tops and in
groves or by springs and well-houses, with fertility goddess and an Artemis-like
Mistress of Beasts ..."
Three important features of the Minoan religious experience stand out :
sacrality of the tree : the tree marks a sanctuary and is surrounded
by a sacred enclosure. During processions, the anthropomorphic Great Goddess
is enthroned beneath it. The same holds for pillars, columns and stones
chthonic powers : sacrifice of the bull (symbol of the fecundity of
nature, the male god of vegetation), bull-games, double axe and sacral horns
point to the mastering of the chthonic powers of the mother goddess, who
played a central role ;
epiphany of the deity from above in the sacred dance : it seems that
mystical communion with the god (i.e. the direct experience of the Divine)
was important and momentary scenes of epiphany show the deity besides the
sacred tree, in front of shrines, next to a stepped altar or on a mountain
Although obvious differences are
present, Minoan and Egyptian religion are of the same family. Both are based on
nature, the exhaltation of life and divine kingship. They share identical
iconography : the bull as symbol of permanence, the sacrality of trees and
elevated places, the ample use of colorful representations of fauna and flora
and similar jewelry. On Crete, nature at times was a rumbling, bull-like
underground which knocked down their best palaces. Hence, to find and keep the
proper "equilibrium" was what was needed to allow the acrobat to jump
over the back of the bull. In Egypt, were chaotic Nile-floods could cause famine
and wreck social order, the
image of the balance
expressed a solidarity with nature, despite its darker, destructive sides.
"Bull-leaping" fresco, East wing of the palace of Knossos - 15th
But in Egypt, the mystical approach in the daily ritual was restricted to
Pharaoh, son of Re, and his representatives, although the Egyptian people had a strong
religious sense and organized many yearly festivals and special days. Also :
Minoans apparently did not share Egypt's convictions regarding sacred
script and the magic of words, both spoken and written. The hypothesis of a
direct influence of Egypt on Crete should not be excluded. If so, this started
as early as the Old Kingdom.
The Palace of Nestor at Pylos -
tentative reconstruction by
Higgings of the
The contrast with Mycenæan religion, with its Indo-European
"sky-god" and "father of the Olympians" should be clear. The
Elysium, ruled over by the Cretan Rhadamanthus, the judge of the dead, was
unlike the gloomy Hades. Here a happy Sunlit paradise, there the darkness of
wandering shades. For the Mycenæans, the
human was placed at the centre of the universe and military confronted with
nature. The human was no longer part of nature, but endowed with the power to
protect and fortify himself. The palaces also point to the difference : the Mycenæans
built according to a rigid plan, based on rectangular units
("megaron"), whereas the Cretan palaces possessed a plastic layout
(also true for the Egyptian temple).
Plan of the Palace of Minos at
Knossos - in its heart is a rectangular central court
sense of linearity will become the
outstanding feature of Archaic and Classical Greece. The "megaron"
returned in the Dorian temple and contributed to the finished and complete
sense of any major Greek building.
"Les dieux égyptiens
ressemblent, de par leur nature et leurs manifestations en mutation constante,
aux temples du pays, qui n'étaient jamais achevés, mais toujours 'en
construction'. La forme axiale des temples en Égypte est clairement ordonnée,
articulée, et pourtant n'exclut jamais la possibilité d'extension et de
transformation continues. (...) En cela, l'Égypte diffère considérablement de
la Grèce, où temples et dieux sont relativement finis et complets."
Hornung, 1986, p.235, my italics.
On Linear B tablets found at Knossos, the
names of Zeus, Hera, Pæan, Enyalios & Poseidon appear. A rich and
differentiated system of Mycenæan gods was worshipped by priests in a lifelong,
official position. Sacrificial rituals are attested.
But although rooted in Minoan and Mycenæan elements, Archaic Greek religion is
not to be equated with it. For example, nowhere at any time is the triad : altar, temple and cult-image,
found in the Minoan-Mycenæan world.
At the end of the Dark Age, external elements caused the Greek cultural form (nearly extinct during the Dark
Age) to rejuvenate and reemerge. These may be
summarized as an "Oriental influence", in which Egypt played a
prominent factor :
"Alongside the fragmentary, but undeniably effective Mycenaean-Minoan tradition, there are therefore repeated, noteworthy impulses from the East, or more precisely from the Hittite/North Syrian area, which must be registered, with Cyprus having a special importance as the meeting-place and centre for dissemination. Intensive contacts exist in the twelfth century and then again in the ninth/eighth centuries, when Greek traders establish settlements in
Syria, until there is a true breakthrough of Eastern fashion about 700 with the Orientalizing
Style ; then from 660 onwards, thanks to the role of Greek mercenaries in the twenty-sixth dynasty, Egypt sets the tone.
But before the seventh century is over, the culture drift is reversed ; Greek art now comes into its own and for centuries is taken as a model by both East and West. In particular cases it is often difficult to decide in which phase of East-West relations a given element of religious culture has been taken
over ; even the Homeric epic does not always provide clear clues. But the history of religion cannot disregard the fact that
it was precisely during the dark age, the time of confusion and debilitation, that the gates to an Oriental influence were
1992, p.52, my italics.
► archaic architecture
Mycenæan palaces were fortified
citadels. These feudal and local barons lived of commerce and plunder. Each
ruled an area of up to ten miles' radius around a hilltop site. Their
architecture was military and stern (cf. the "megaron"), although superficial resemblances with
Minoan architecture are obvious.
The Citadel of Mycenæ -
reconstruction by Higgings as it would have been
in the 13th century BCE
The major structural improvement made by the Archaic Greeks was the outer
colonnade, also called "peripteros", around the sacred space of the
temple (the "cella"). In Egypt, columns were used in the hypostyle
hall, which referred to the primordial marsh of creation or to the forests that
had vanished along the Nile. Colonnade-temples as such did not occur.
Originally, the "peripteros" was made out of wood, for the temple, in
Minoan fashion, was conceived as a space surrounded by trees. The
"cella" was the "open" space in the sacred, original
"wood", eventually represented in a rigid, linear way. Because the rich donated
money to replace the wood by stone, the wooden sanctuary eventually became a
stone temple ...
One of the oldest examples of a Greek temple or palace, was found on the island
of Euboia :
Temple or Palace of Lefkandi -
9th/8th century BCE
"Even if the Greeks had wanted to build
monumentally before they found themselves on the banks of the Nile they would have lacked the technical know-how for quarrying, transporting, and
masonry. It is plausible that Egyptian technology served as a primary player in the re-emergence of monumental architecture in archaic
Ionia. This is not to say that the Ionian Greeks simply copied Egyptian
temples. Indeed, quite to the contrary, the evidence suggests that the Ionian Greeks created structures that were unique, and the
evidence for this will be taken up later. For now, the main point is that the Egyptian techniques for monumental construction and the exemplars they had produced stimulated the Ionian
Greeks. And that from Naucratis where they had a thriving colony, no more than a weekend's travel away, the Ionians had
extraordinary access to a grateful Egypt."
Hahn, 2001, p.69.
Temple or Hera in Olympia shows
the hesitations of the first archaic architects :
two colonnades in the cella instead of one in the middle (statica) and plump
the original wooden columns of the peripteros were slowly replaced by stone ones
- ca. 600 BCE
forward realized by the Greeks in their Dorian temples is evident in the
linearization of the layout, as well as in the precise cardinal orientation of the edifice.
However, it takes some time before these architects feel confident enough to
erect slender buildings. In contrast with sculpture and painting, which are
judged according to "eros" (mutual attraction) and "mimesis"
(likeness), architecture is defined by abstract mathematical standards of
symmetry and proportion. In the latter, the natural numbers (introduced by
Pythagoras) played an essential part. Indeed, natural numbers (the set 1, 2, 3
...) can be squared, raised to the third power, and placed in a series etc.
First Temple of Hera in
Poseidonia, Paestum, called "basilica" - ca. 540 - 530 BCE
These symmetries introduced a
play of proportion and "natural number" symbolism, which has been
defined as the classical standard of beauty. And although each temple is indeed
a representation in stone of a particular mathematical equilibrium or
"logos" (word), they may be placed together with no real
consideration for the overall architectonic balance between them, as we see
in Poseidonia, with its two Hera temples erected bluntly next to each other :
Foreground : first Temple of Hera
in Poseidonia, Paestum, called "basilica" - ca. 540 - 530 BCE
Background : Great Temple of Hera - ca. 460 - 440 BCE (contemporary of the
For the Greek architects,
symmetry was a system of proportions, which regulated coherence, reciprocity and
balance. These defined harmony. Proportions could be expressed numerically in
"natural" numbers. The influence of Pythagorism on Greek architecture
was therefore decisive.
Memphite thought and the birth of Greek philosophy.
Greek philosophy & science has been acclaimed as the most original
contribution of the Greeks to the intellectual tradition of the world.
"What does change as soon as philosophy appears on
the scene is perspective and verbalization, the kind of questions asked.
Previously religion had been defined by forms of behaviour and by institutions ;
now it becomes a matter of the theories and thoughts of individual men who
express themselves in writing, in the form of books addressed to a nascent
reading public. These are texts of a sort that did not exist before in either
form or content : the new is incommensurable with the old. Philosophy indeed
begins with the prose book."
1985, p.305, my italics.
It is clear the Greek philosophical mentality was unique, but it did not
come forth "ex nihilo", but was the result of the network of forces
that triggered the so-called "Greek Renaissance", which was based on
traditional Minoan & Mycenæan elements, but made explicit by a series of
"new" concepts derived from Mesopotamia, Iran and, last but not least,
onta" : language refers to an object (correspondence &
realism) - when understood in its most general (universal, abstract, linear)
form as "being", it takes the plural "the beings" or
"that what is", "things that are" ;
: this being has a beginning in time and space and when this is
known, the essence of the entity can be ascertained ;
: moreover, after its initiation as a "thing" by the
"arche", there is a process of becoming which can not be
influenced by human beings ;
: the totality of what exists is not a random amalgam, but has
intrinsic order, organization, lawfulness and determination ;
: besides being expressed through ritual acts in the domain of
justice ("dike"), truth qualifies as a particular type of speech,
pronounced under particular circumstances, by a figure invested with
particular functions ;
or "sophistai" : men who came forward with books about
these matters, but who had as yet no name for themselves and their work and
designated as "wise". These men "understood" and
"perceived" ("nous") certain truths and commanded
intelligence and eloquence.
These "new" concepts
were fully developed in Ancient Egyptian literature at the time when they first
emerged in Greece to animate the Greek Renaissance and its philosophy :
creation as the totality of
existing things is attested in the
as well as in the Hymn to the Aten :
"Thus Ptah was satisfied after he had made all things and all
He gave birth to the gods, he made the towns, he established the nomes, he
placed the gods in their shrines, he settled their offerings, he established their shrines, he made
their bodies according to their wishes. Thus the gods entered into their bodies
of every kind of wood, of every kind of stone, of every kind of clay, in every
kind of thing that grows upon him in which they came to be. Thus all the gods and their
ka's were gathered to
him, content and united with the Lord of the Two Lands." (Memphis
Theology, Lines 59 -61)
all things viewed as rooted
in the "arche" is the Greek equivalent of the Egyptian idea that
all deities and creation itself emerge out of the singular Atum, who creates
himself "in the first time" and defies the preexisting
"ultimate cause", namely the primordial ocean ("Nun") ;
the "physis" of the
process of becoming is the equivalent of Atum simultaneously creating Shu
and Tefnut (unfolding into an Ennead) and therewith the whole of creation (0
> 1 = 2 ... 9 = ALL) ;
the Enneadic structure of the
pantheon and the interconnectedness between the Two Lands as well as their
harmonization and unification by
Pharaoh, is suggestive of the pyramidal
order of a society ruled by a divine king who is the unique son of the
creator (Ennead + Pharaoh = the decad, completion) ;
the importance of Maat (in
Greece also personified by a female deity called "Themis" who -as
in Egypt- was a daughter of the supreme god of the sky, Zeus) is both
cosmical (Pharaoh sustaining creation by offering truth & justice to his
father) and social (the accomplished discourse discussed by
: "He who lessens falsehood, fosters truth." (The Eloquent
Peasant, Sixth Petition, Middle Kingdom) ;
Egypt are able to live "in" truth & justice and are also
exceptional individuals, with particular verbal qualities, understood in a
sense as well as reflecting a particular social position in society (as
Ptahhotep and the other sapiental authors, known by name, confirm).
The origin of Greek philosophy : Thales, Anaximander & Anaximenes.
archetypal, Afrocentric, communicational
Regarding the historical origins of Greek philosophy, three
hypothesis have been put forward :
Aryan model (Lefkowitz, 1996
& 1997) : denies the influence of Ancient tradition on
Archaic Greece and proposes a purely white, European Greek archetype,
rooted in the Indo-European experience. This model is Hellenocentric and
Europacentric and in conflict with what is known about the historical
interaction between cultures. Its core of truth is the idea that a
"Greek mentality" existed and with it the particular linearity which allowed Greek rationality to see the light ;
Afrocentric model (James, 1954) : denies the Greeks their own cultural
originality and proposes a "stolen legacy". This model is in
conflict with the fact that the Greeks developed a rational system based
on open dialogue, abstract thought & syllogistic logic (absent in
Ancient Egypt and the cultures of the Middle East). Its core of truth is
the acknowledgment that qua practical experience (the "minor"
of the syllogism), the Greeks were "a young people" who had
few or no written traditions of their own and who indeed allowed
themselves to be influenced by the, in comparison, grand and old
Egyptian civilization ;
communicational (diffusionist) hypothesis : tries to understand
the emergence of a new cultural form in terms of the open interaction
between peoples and the formative, cognitive effects of communication
and apprenticeship arising between them. The pre-Socratics
a group, been significantly influenced by Egyptians and Mesopotamians, but Greece subsequently influenced these ancient
cultures, namely by linearizing and rationalizing their traditions. Between
all cultures a constant flow of information is present which allows
for creative interaction and exchange. Isolation is rare and
contraproductive in terms of cultural development. Economical,
demographical, political, social & theological variables are
constantly at work. In this model, the weight of all major players
should always been taken into consideration (as well as the versatility
of new cultures, such as that of Archaic Greece). It is clear that in
Mediterranean Antiquity, the long history of Egyptian civilization
(entering history ca. 3000 BCE) represented the ultimate accomplishment
of human civilization. Hence, for curious Greeks, there was a lot to
learn in Egypt ...
Let us focus on the third
The Egyptians produced monumental funerary and other works of art, which were
intimately bound by the "divine words" inscribed on them. In fact,
the "neter medu" ("nTr mdw"), the "words of the
god" or any book or inscription in hieroglyphs ("sacred
glyphs") were deemed more important than the pieces which eternalized
them. Moreover, every large temple had its library, containing hundreds if not
thousands of papyri, records of the practical information & procedures
(coded in the concrete concepts of proto-rationality) pertaining to the
various sciences studied and applied by the members of these high places of
Egyptian intellectual activity. The Egyptians were constanty sending out
messages and every Greek who was intelligent enough to be interested in written
traditions must have been overtaken by all these various, pictoral
symbol-sources. The coining of the world "hieroglyphs" is suggestive
of the fact that the use of a special pictoral "sacred script"
(Middle Egyptian) impressed the Greeks. Indeed, they realized that the
Egyptians also used cursive hieroglyphs, hieratic and demotic. Egyptian beauty
was far more scriptoral than was the case in Mesopotamian art. This
outstanding linguistic nature of the Egyptian symbol-source should be taken
RECEIVER & ENVIRONMENT
That the Greeks were curious people is evident. But as receivers, they were
ca.670 BCE in a special position, for their urge to learn was that of an
emergent Greek nation which had lost touch with its roots during the Dark Age
and which was left with Homeric poetical dreams, which were nothing more than
an amalgam of the Minoan and Mycenæan experience intermingled with the
grimness of the Dorians. No genuine track-record was present. Before 800 BCE,
the Greeks spoke various dialects and they could no longer read and write ! So
the Dorian catastrophe preceding the Greek Renaissance, involved a major
cultural crisis, which culminated in the Greeks seeking out "new"
models and "good" examples. Note that the reception of Egyptian
civilization was also a recognition and a rememberance. For when the
travellers returned home, they spoke of Egyptian kings, monuments, rituals and
festivals rooted in a religion of nature which strongly resembled Minoan Crete. Were there traces of the Minoan experience left in the Greek
data-base which made them approve Egyptian thought ? Did history repeat itself
(Mycenæan Greeks influenced by Minoan Crete, Archaic Greeks influenced by
Egypt) ? It is clear the Greeks became fruitful Egyptian info-sources, as
Alexandrian Hermetism proves.
" ... it is inaccurate to refer to the relationship
between Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece as one of cultural theft. Probably
the best description of the relationship is as 'approbation'. The Ancient
Greeks as a whole were only partially guilthy of the more severe charge of
plagiarism, as they often cited their Egyptian and Oriental antecedents. It
was the classicists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who completed the
denial of the earlier sources, giving all the credit to the European
2001, p.393, my italics.
So, although the negative insight that there is not one single origin of Greek
philosophy holds, we may discern the following formative components which
induced the "Greek Miracle" :
past Minoan factor : this non-Greek, Linear A civilization strongly
influenced the Greek mainland and the Greeks arriving there between
ca. 1900 & 2100 BCE - the differences between Minoan and Indo-European
mythology are considerable, whereas, at some point, early Minoan Crete was
influenced by Egypt ;
past Mycenæan factor
: this Greek civilization was first influenced by Crete and
would eventually conquer the island and recast Linear A (no vowels) into Linear
B (syllabic). Although there are no direct sources available, evidence
suggests the presence of an original Greek pantheon (with a focus on the
sky god) and an organized society. Traces of the typical
"philosophical" questions posed by the Ionians have not been
found, but the stern, linear and fortified constructions of these Greeks,
as well as their grim shadowy funerary expectations, are suggestive of the
discontent and martial mental attitudes of the Classical Greeks (thought
as crisis & catastrophe), which contrast with both Cretan myth and
"The finished literary masterpieces of the Iliad
and Odyssey, like the curiously sophisticated and analytical
mentality behind the contemporary Late Geometrical paintings, show the
magnitude of the renaissance that now enveloped Greece."
Snodgrass, 2000, p.436.
Intermediate Period Egyptians : although the "age of
empire" (the New Kingdom) was over, Egypt stood, ca.1075 BCE, in
comparison with other nations, still at such a high point of cultural
development, that its decline took another millenium, during which time
Egypt continued to be outstanding and inspiring (most of the Egyptian
temples we can visit today were erected under Greek, Ptolemaic rule). The
marvel of its temples and the erudition of its priests very probably
astonished the Greeks, who quickly "approved" these realizations
to readapt them to their own linear mentality ;
Mediterranean cultural formations : the Phoenicians, Babylonians,
Hittites, Jews etc. also influenced the Greek travellers, but my reading
of the evidence present today shows that the affiliation qua
philosophical intent was not as marked as the Egyptian
Although commerce (the
invention of "money"), the voweled alphabet, astronomy & the
astral religions of the Middle East served as additional ingredients, the
focus on the mental (the heart of truth & justice), the verbal (great
speech, generative command, creative command), the ceremonial (the magic of
the just deed), the scriptoral (the magic of words) and the dialogal
(accomplished discourse) witnessed in Egyptian thought, was truly unique (both
qua persistence in time as qua internal structure and balance). Egyptian
thought came close to the philosophical intent of wanting to understand
creation and the place of humanity therein and had developed theological (cf.
to Amon), naturalistic (cf.
Great Hymn to the Aten),
sapiental (cf. Maxims of Ptahhotep) and quasi
phenomenological (cf. Cannibal Hymn) answers,
albeit in an ante-rational mode of thought.
Over the millenia, the practical results of this proto-rational thinking had
been preserved on monuments and in the various libraries, to be studied by Pharaoh and his
representatives when a major task was initiated (like erecting a new temple)
or an unforseen problem rose (so as to seek out what their predecessors did).
When the first Greeks arrived, and given the Egyptian conservative love of
writing, we can only speculate about the number of papyri that were carefully
stored away in all the major and minor libraries of Egypt. We have extant
lists of books found in the "House of Life" of major temples. They
reveal categories and a system of classification.
Egyptian thought was, ex hypothesi, the decisive (but not the only) catalyst
enabling Greek philosophy to emerge in Ionia ca. 600 BCE. It played a crucial part
the Greek Renaissance giving way to Classical Greece and its philosophy.
If asked which characteristics of Egyptian thought played a prominent role
in the constitution of Greek philosophy, following points spring to the fore :
the words of god and
the love of writing : it should be emphasized, that
in Ancient Egypt, both spoken and written
were very important : hieroglyphs were "divine words", endowed
with magical properties, "set apart" and
distinguished from everyday language and writing (in hieratic and later
demotic). Pharaoh Unis (ca. 2378 - 2348 BCE) decorated his tomb with
hieroglyphs to assure his ascension and subsequent arrival in heaven. Even
if the offerings to his Ka would end, the hieroglyphs -hidden in
the total obscurity of the tomb- contained enough "inner" power
("sekhem") to assure Wenis'
felicity ad perpetuam ... Egyptian rituals were a unity of gestures and words. The latter were
vibrations which opened the secret gates of the Netherworld, offerings of
sound (voice-offerings) and subtle bodies for the deities to dwell in (as
"ka" and/or "ba"). But ritual gestures were a
"language" too. For example : two raised hands -the hieroglyph
for "ka"- indicated embrace. Each morning, the
cult-statue was likewise "embraced" by the officiating priest to
pass on vital energy and to invite the deity to dwell in its idol.
In that sense, Egyptian civilization was quite unique in the
Mediterranean, and perhaps even in the world. It is remarkable that a
civilization producing such a vast literary corpus, never reached (as a
rational mode of cognition. Egypt's attachment to the
contextual and the local, as well as the special pictoral nature of the
"sacred script", all point to an ante-rational mentality, rooted
in the mythical, pre-rational (pre-concepts) and proto-rational (concrete
concepts) layers of early African cognition.
From a philosophical point of view, the fact the Greek word "nous" (mind, thinking, perceiving)
seems to be
derived from the Egyptian "nw", "to see, look, perceive,
observe", is noteworthy. The
"logoic" nature of Greek philosophy, as well as its
preoccupation with "aletheia" or "truth", are thus
linearizations of the Memphite philosophy to be found in both
work of Ptahhotep, the
sapiental authors, and the
theology of the priests of Ptah.
accomplished discourse : The fundamental categories of Memphite philosophy
were "heart/tongue/heart" insofar as
magic were at hand
and "hearing/listening/hearing" in moral, anthropological,
didactical and political matters. The first category reflected the excellence
of the active and outer (the father), the second the perfection of the passive
and inner (the son). The active polarity was linked with Pharaoh's "Great
Speech", which was an "authoritative utterance"
("Hu") and a
"creative command", which no counter-force could stop ("heka"). The passive
polarity was nursed by the intimacy of the teacher/pupil relationship, based
on the subtle and far-reaching encounters of excellent discourse with a
perfected hearing, i.e. true listening.
The "locus" of Egyptian
wisdom was this intimacy. Although Pharaoh was also called "wise", the
sapiental discourses alone name their (possible) author. Wisdom was always
linked with a "niche" defined by the vignettes of life the sage
wished to use as good examples to confer his wisdom to posterity, to
understand how he balanced Maat in all circumstances and made the social
order endure by serving "the great house", being at peace with himself.
truth and the plummet of the balance :
In Egyptian, the word "maat" ("mAat") is used
for "truth" and "justice" (in Arabic,
"al-haq", is both "truth" and "real"). Truth
is linked with a measurable state of affairs as given by the balance :
"Pay attention to the decision of
and the plummet of the balance, according to its stance !"
Papyrus of Ani, Plate 3 - XXVIIIth Dynasty - British Museum
summarizes the practice of wisdom and its persuit of truth found in Ancient
Egypt. It also points to their philosophy of well-being and art of living happily &
light-heartedly (for the outcome of the weighing is determined by the
condition of the heart or mind alone). In this short sentence, the "practical
method of truth" of the Ancient Egyptians springs to the fore : concentration,
observation, quantification (analysis, spatiotemporal flow, measurements)
& recording (fixating) with the sole purpose of rebalancing,
reequilibrating & correcting concrete states of affairs, using the
plumb-line of the various equilibria in which these actual aggregates of
events are dynamically -scale-wise- involved, causing Maat (truth and
justice personified as the daughter of Re, equivalent with the Greek Themis,
daughter of Zeus - cf. "maâti" as the Greek "dike") to be done for
them and their environments and the proper Ka, at peace with itself, to flow
between all vital parts of creation.
The "logic" behind this
operation involves four rules :
: when a concept is introduced, its opposite is also invoked (the
two scale of the balance) ;
: flow is the outcome of inequality (the feather-scale of the
balance is a priori correct) ;
: the two sides of everything interact and are interdependent (the
beam of the balance) ;
: the possibilities between every pair are measured by one standard
& Justice as Cosmic Logos
divine thought (what Ptah has on his mind,
namely the image of Atum) as the ultimate and efficient cause of words -
the immaterial cause of creation and excellent discourse - seat of the
personality and free will in the individual
divine words as
physical manifestations of what is conceived by the heart of Ptah (or
divine mind) - the material cause of creation and excellent discourse,
the agents used by the creator to fashion creation (preexistence,
first time, the Ennead)
and Justice as Social Order
the material entrance
of well-formed sounds (language) in the healthy ear - to grasp the
meaning of what is said - the ability to reproduce what has been said
without "inner" understanding - the non-wise who aspire
to grasp the intent, possible hidden
implications and "Ka" of what was perfectly heard - to listen
with the heart is to truly understand the message with one's "inner
being" - the wise who live "in" truth
► the colonizations
: the imprint of the Greek foot
The second half of the tenth century
brought a distinct easing off in depopulation, isolation, metal-shortages,
architectural and artistic impoverishment & regional disparities, but this
"true end" (Kirk, 1961) of the Dark Age has also been called a
"false dawn" (Snodgrass, 2000,
p.402). Because important centres of Greek civilization were still wrapped in
obscurity, one can not claim that the "Greek Renaissance" had
already begun ... Moreover, these changes are confined to the Aegean and its
coasts. It is only since the middle and late eight century that profuse
changes came about, which changed the outlook of Greek civilization
fundamentally. This "Greek Renaissance" was an Age of
Revolution. Exploration and codification (settlement) were its leitmotivs. The "second colonization" of the Greeks,
which accompanied this revival, took place between ca. 750
and 650 BCE. The rise of Greek philosophy, the "Greek miracle",
happened in Asia Minor, starting in Ionia ca. 600 BCE.
The Corinthian expansion probably took place at the end of the ninth century,
while the establishment of a Greek settlement in the Levant is slightly
earlier. These colonizations did not leave a strong impact, while the eighth
century Greek colonies in southern Italy and Sicily shaped the history of
these regions for the next centuries. Hence, the forerunners were probably
voluntary and spontaneous venturers, whereas those of the eight century were
the work of organized bodies of Greeks, possibly led by an individual
aristocrat, and stimulated by the growth of population in the Greek homeland.
Greeks may have been marauding the Egyptian Delta perhaps as early as ca. 800
BCE, if not earlier.
Because Ionian mercenaries had successfully assisted Pharaoh Psammetichus I (664 - 610 BCE)
in his battle against the Assyrians, the Greeks were welcomed in Egypt, enabling
Miletus to found Neukratis and the Greeks to settle in the Delta of Lower Egypt.
Pharaoh Amasis (570 - 526 BCE) allowed them to settle upstream
(Heliopolis, Thebes). So between 664 and somewhere in the reign of Pharaoh
Amasis, the only major temple-complex the Greeks had seen at work, was that of
the priests of Ptah of Memphis.
Thales of Miletus
There is a consensus, dating back at least
to the 4th century BCE and continuing to the present in our academical history
of Greek philosophy, that Thales of Miletus was the first Greek philosopher. According
to the Greek thinker Apollodorus, he was born in 624 BCE. The Greek historian
Diogenes Laërtius (ca. 3th century CE) placed his death in the 58th Olympiad
(548 - 545 BCE) at the age of 78. He also affirms Thales travelled to
Egypt, while Iamblichius explains how he advised other intellectual Greeks to
go to Egypt in order to learn :
"Thales advised Pythagoras to go to Egypt and to
entertain himself as much as possible with the priests of Memphis and
Diospolis : it was from them that he had drawn all the knowledge which made
him a sage and a scientist in the eyes of the masses."
Iamblichius : Life of Pythagoras,
12, my italics.
During his lifetime, the word "philosopher" (or "lover of
wisdom") had not yet been coined. Thales was counted, however, among the
so-called "Seven Wise Men" (the "sophoi"), whose name
derives from a term designating inventiveness and practical wisdom rather
than speculative insight (consistent with the Ancient Egyptians'
of wisdom). In fact, today we reckon Thales to be the only
"philosopher" on that list ! Thales tried to transmit to the Greeks
the mathematical knowledge he had derived from the Babylonians (who, when
conquering Egypt in the Third Intermediate Period, had influenced its astronomy
profoundly). Thales sought to give it a more exact foundation and used it for
the solution of practical problems, such as the determination of the distance of
a ship as seen from the shore or of the height of the Gizza pyramids. Though he was
also credited with predicting an eclipse of the Sun, it is likely that he merely
gave a natural explanation of one on the basis of Babylonian astronomical
knowledge (cf. the Saros-period between eclipses).
Indeed, it was the Greek writer Xenophanes (ca. 580/577 - 485/480 BCE), who
claimed Thales predicted the Solar eclipse that stopped the battle between
the Lydian Alyattes and the Median Cyaxares, evidently on May 28, 585 BCE.
However, Herodotus spoke of his foretelling the year only. That the eclipse was
nearly total and occurred during a crucial battle, probably contributed
considerably to his exaggerated reputation as an astronomer. No
writings by Thales survive, and no contemporary sources exist. Hence, the truth
of his achievements is difficult to assess. Inclusion of his name in the canon
of the legendary "Seven Wise Men" led to his idealization, and
numerous acts and sayings, many of them no doubt spurious, were attributed to
him. Again according to Herodotus, Thales was a practical statesman who
advocated the federation of the Ionian cities of the Aegean region. The Greek
scholar Callimachus recorded a traditional belief stating Thales advised navigators
to steer by the Little Bear (Ursa Minor) rather than by the Great Bear (Ursa
Major), both prominent constellations in the North. Although such stories are
probably apocryphal, they illustrate Thales' reputation.
Thales' significance for Greek philosophy, lies less in his choice of water as
the essential substance, than in his attempt to explain nature by the
simplification of phenomena. Indeed, Thales searched for causes within nature
itself rather than in the caprices of the anthropomorphic gods. He was
deemed the first Greek to give a purely natural explanation of the origin of the
world, free from all mythological ingredients and unnecessary complexities
(linearization and homogeneity). The claim Thales was the founder of Greek philosophy rests primarily on Aristotle,
who wrote he was the first (Greek) to suggest a single material substratum
for the universe, namely, water, or moisture ... Aristotle apparently had no
knowledge of Heliopolitan theology (Old Kingdom) and New Solar Theology (New
Even though Thales renounced mythology, his choice of water as
the fundamental building block of matter had its precedent in the Egyptian tradition
(cf. "Nun", the undifferentiated primordial waters before time and space and its
"Ba" or "soul", the autogenetor Atum). To Thales, the
entire universe is a living organism, nourished by exhalations from water (cf.
Egypt's organic, hylezoistic view on creation).
It is true Thales made a fresh start on the basis of what a person could
observe and figure out by looking at the world as it presented itself. This
procedure naturally resulted in a tendency to make sweeping generalizations on
the basis of rather restricted but carefully checked observations. But it also
allowed Milesian philosophy to move beyond the localized and contextualized
traditional thinking of the cultures surrounding it. The catastrophe of the Dark
Age, as well as the vitality of the Greek spirit (its immaturity ?) favoured the
rise of conceptual rationality, a mode of thought devoid of contextual
In geometry, Thales has been credited with
the discovery of five theorems :
(1) a circle is bisected by its diameter ;
(2) angles at the base of a triangle having two sides of equal length are
(3) opposite angles of intersecting straight lines are equal ;
the angle inscribed in a semicircle is a right angle ;
triangle is determined if its base and the angles relative to the base are
Because of the ancient practice of crediting particular discoveries to
men with a general reputation for wisdom, his mathematical achievements are
difficult to assess. However, they evidence the linear and geometric spirit of
the Greeks. Surely, Egyptians and Mesopotamians had arrived at the truths
represented by these theorems before Thales, but their theoretical record and
fixation (in abstract, discursive, denotative and context-independent terms) is
highly original. It is this linearizing activity which foremost characterizes
the "Greek miracle", not observation, recording and comparison. The latter can
be done with proto-rational concepts too. But formal reason is precisely this :
a reduction of a variety (a manifold) to a limited number of categories.
Anaximander of Miletus
Thales' friend, disciple and successor,
Anaximander of Miletus (ca. 611 - 547 BCE),
is said to have given a more elaborate account of the origin and development of
the ordered world (the cosmos). However, his writings are lost, and although
still available to Apollodorus of Athens (cf. Chronica, ca. 140 BCE),
they are not known to have been used by any other writer later than Aristotle
and his successor Theophrastus of Eresus (ca. 370 - 285 BCE). The latter's Phusikos
Doxai is also lost, but repeated by Simplicius (6th century CE). All ancient
doxographers depend on the latter's Physics (Diels) .
Doxographical evidence exists Anaximander wrote treatises on geography,
astronomy, and cosmology that survived for several centuries, and made a map of
the known world. He prized symmetry and introduced geometry and mathematical
proportions into his efforts to map the heavens. Thus, his theories departed
from earlier, more cosmogonical conceptions of the universe and prefigured the
achievements of later astronomers.
Unfortunately, we only possess one sentence of Anaximander's writings. In this
sentence, Anaximander explains a "need" or "necessity"
(a moral imperative at work in creation) operating between the elements (as well
as in human society) :
things have their origin, there too they must pass away, as it should ; for
indeed, they give one another justice and penalty for their injustice, in accord
with the ordinance of time."
Simplicius : Commentary on the Physics,
24.13v, my translation.
According to him, the cosmos developed out of the "apeiron", the
boundless, infinite and indefinite (without distinguishable qualities).
Aristotle would add : immortal, divine and unperishable.
Within this "apeiron" something arose to produce the opposites of hot
and cold. These at once began to struggle with each other and produced the
cosmos. The cold (and wet) partly dried up (becoming solid Earth), partly
remained (as water), and -by means of the hot- partly evaporated (becoming air
and mist), its evaporating part (by expansion) splitting up the hot into fiery
rings, which surround the whole cosmos. Because these rings are enveloped by
mist, however, there remain only certain breathing holes that are visible to
men, appearing to them as Sun, Moon, and stars.
"The Greeks seem to have received from Egypt their
old celestial architecture, as well as that of their temples. It is only when
conceived in this way, as a roof, that the 'ouranos' can be described as
'brazen' or (in the Odyssey) as made of iron. The reference is no doubt
to the great solidity of the edifice. Hesiod has much the same thing in mind
when he calls it, 'a seat set firm'."
Anaximander realized upward and downward are not absolute. Downward means toward the middle of the Earth and upward away from it,
so the Earth has no need to be supported by
anything (as Thales had believed). Instead, he asserted the Earth
remained in its unsupported position at the centre of the universe because it
had no reason to move in any direction and therefore was at rest.
Thales' observations, Anaximander tried to reconstruct the development of life
in more detail. Life, being closely bound up with moisture, originated in the
sea. All land animals, he held, are descendants of sea animals. Gradually,
however, the moisture will be partly evaporated, until in the end all things
will have returned into the undifferentiated "apeiron", in order
to pay the "penalty for their injustice", i.e. of having struggled against
Anaximander subscribed to the philosophical view that unity could definitely be
found behind all multiplicity. In Ancient Egypt, the same idea had ruled for
millenia. The origin of creation was Atum, but the moment he autogenerates he
splits into a pair (Shu and Tefnut). Unity and differentiation walk hand in
hand. Also, in the Heliopolitan Ennead, the first two "generations of gods" are
natural principles : Shu, Tefnut, Geb and Nut are hypostases of physical
phenomena : Air, Moist, Earth & Sky. To indicate the primordial ocean had no
bounds, the Egyptians gave Nun no cult. Only with the third generation, did the
principles of human drama enter the picture. They are represented by
anthropomorphic deities (as is to be expected). Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys
are the prime actors in the mystery play of the mythical "golden age", the grand
story of Osiris.
► Anaximenes of Miletus
Anaximander's successor, Anaximenes of
Miletus (ca. 585 - 525 BCE), taught Air was the origin of all things.
Neither Thales nor Anaximander appear to have specified the way in which "the
other things" arose out of the water or the "apeiron". Anaximenes,
however, declared the other types of matter arose out of Air by
condensation and rarefaction. In this way, what to Thales had been merely a
beginning, became a fundamental principle remaining essentially the same
through all of its transmutations.
Thus, the term "arche", which originally simply meant
"beginning," acquired the new meaning of "principle," a term
that henceforth played an enormous role in philosophy. This concept of a
principle remaining the same through many transmutations is,
furthermore, the presupposition of the idea nothing can come out of nothing. All of the comings to be and passings away we observe, are nothing
but transmutations of something remaining essentially the same for ever (the
law of conservation).
Both ideas are found in Egyptian thought.
In the cult of Re and the funerary
theology of Osiris, the principle of transformation is fundamental. The basic
verb of Egyptian theology, "kheper", ("xpr") represented by a scarab, means :
"becoming, coming into existence, transformation, manifestation", and
shows the self-creative capacity of the creator to perpetually rejuvenate, i.e.
move through the cycle of rebirth, death and resurrection, while his spirit
("akh", his essence) remains the same. The fact preexistence was described in
positive terms, so that the "absent god" of pre-creation, Nun, was
always at work in the background (except in the very short period of
theology), points to the Egyptian idea of a continuity of being, manifesting
in various modes, of which the primordial one "in the beginning" is the undifferentiated water of original chaos (cf. the cultless
"Nun", the "father of the gods"). In the Late New Kingdom,
Amun-Re theology points in the same direction. Amun is
hidden, one and millions. He is behind the world (spatiotemporally) and hidden
unity in the world. As such, he is every god and every goddess. Amun-Re
functions as Anaximenes' "arche".
In Egyptian culture, the importance of Maat cannot be underestimated. The
goddess was a personification of a divine concept of truth and justice. The
transformation of Atum ends with the first dawn of Re. He sends forth rays of
light (petrified as an obelix) upon the "risen land", the primordial hill whose
emergence heralds the end of the "first time" and the coming into being of
phenomena (to be witnessed). Together with Re, Maat appears. She personifies the
law of the universe, a combination of natural and moral insights and
considerations. This law cannot be broken and is offered by the divine king to
his divine father. This "offering of Maat" was the fundamental ritual of
The Greek mentality removed the mythical and pre-rational contexts which the Egyptians
had left intact in their (difficult) proto-rational literature and eventually
they linearized (simplified) Egyptian thought, a process initiated by the
► Milesian philosophy :
individual observation and emergent proto-rationality
Architecture (the Dorian temple) is a good example of the Greek linear
state of mind.
"The architects, along with the Milesian phusiologoi,
were no doubt stunned by their discoveries of geometric thought and its curious
application to a world of change, a world grasped first of all by the senses.
The imposition of certain patterns on physical things allowed them to become
intelligible in a manner previously unknown. No doubt it was partly an inherited
wisdom, from Egypt, Bablylon and elsewhere, but the archaic Greeks in Ionia
transformed that vision and so also its meaning."
The Egyptians kept extensive pictoral & written
records of their political, economical, funerary and, since the Middle Kingdom,
personal reflections, as well as of the dynamics of the Nile (the core of which
they never discovered, for the process is
1997). The image of the balance (cf. supra) is essential to understand Egyptian
thought as a whole. To measure the distance from equilibrium with a plumb-line
in a process of
confrontation between two opposing forces and to reestablish harmony (the
transcendent factor, projected on Pharaoh) was the overarching, endless work of
"justice and truth" ("Maat")
which ruled, as a natural moral law, since the first day of creation.
The mathematical Rhind
Papyrus (second half of the 19th century BCE) shows the
empirico-pragmatics of numerals, units of measurement, multiplication,
division, addition of fractions, summing to 1, doubling of unit fractions,
division of numbers by 10, solution of equations, unequal distribution of goods,
squaring the circle, rectangles, triangles and pyramidal forms were mastered
Egyptians. Badawy (1965), based on a study of 55
case studies belonging to all periods of Egyptian history, demonstrated that in
Egyptian painting, sculpture and architecture a "harmonic design" based on the
8:5 triangle (approximating the golden section) was used.
The archaic mentality of the Greeks (prefigurated in the rigid Mycenæan "megaron" as well as
in the complex geometrical design of Dorian pottery) was stern, courageous, young and geometrizing. But just
like the rigid Mycenæans had been fascinated by Minoan Crete and its
"African" natural scenery, the Archaic
Greeks were awestrikken by the formidable grandeur of (Afro-)Egyptian culture. Their own insistence on this should
be taken serious. There was more than intellectual opportunism at work here. Of
course, as Indo-Europeans, the Archaic Greeks had a couple of typical features
of their own :
individuality / authority :
at the beginning of the Archaic Age, there was a "crisis of
sovereignty" (Vernant, 1962). It
implied a new political problem : Who should rule and by virtue of what
authority ? The collapse of the Mycenæan
palace civilization was followed by a return to the small tribal
organization (cf. the "ethnos"). This tension between
individuality and social unity is fundamental to understand Greek philosophy
(culminating in the judgment of Socrates). The view that an individual had
the right to rule by virtue of divine lineage was undermined. Heroic
individualism was slowly replaced by an egalitarian ideal, in which archaic
aristocratic authority was challenged. The building of temples was an
"argument" for the appropriation of civic authority and helpful to
keep control of the foundation of the economic power of the landowners, the
aristocrats (Hahn, 2001, p.237). They
secured their claim by drawing a particular connection between themselves
and a given deity and integrated the divergent fractions of the community
through the regularity of worship. This swing of the pendulum between the
particularism of the aristocrats and the egalitarism of the democrats,
remained a core ingredient of Greek culture & animated the
Classical Greek "polis" ;
: at the beginning of the Archaic Age, the population quadrupled and
citizenship was increasingly connected with land ownership, triggering a
competition for land which motivated the colonization. But besides these
external causes, the fact remains that the Greeks were a curious people,
always eager to learn more by approving new ideas and linearizing them in
accord with their own abstract frame of mind. The dynamic nature of the
Greek cultural form assisted a decontextual approach (while in Egypt, a
sedentary mentality reigned) ;
unique dynamical script
: the importance of their new system of writing should not be
underestimated : by fixating the vowels, the Greeks were able to describe an
state of affairs with a precision no other script of antiquity possessed.
This referential, objective linguistic capacity enabled them to communicate
through writing with more ease, precision and objective validity ;
linearizing, geometrizing mentality
: proportion, measurement, number, spatial organization, cyclical
processes etc. "reveal" the structure, form, order, organization
of the cosmos. Numbers are more than practical tools to categorize, for they
reflect the genuine, authentic, essential features of any object. A number
never stands alone, for it entertains numerous fixed mathematical
relationships with other numbers and spatial characteristics. These are
described in general, universal, abstract terms ("theoria"), to be
distinguished from their particular, local, concrete applications in
architecture, sculpture, poetry etc. ("techne") ;
: deities had a human face and in the Mycenæan
age, they were at times combined in one cult. At the beginning of the
Archaic Age, the pantheon was systematized by Homer and Hesiod, and each
deity received its task (as in human society). However, Greek religion was
undogmatic, for no sacred text existed (as in Egypt). Xenophanes was
critical about Greek anthropomorphic (and anthropocentric) polytheism,
proposing One Supreme God who was unlike anything human. Typical for Greek
soteriology (salvic theory), is insisting the human
soul had to liberate itself from the physical body through purification (cf.
"ascesis" in Orphism) or somehow trigger its release (cf.
"katharsis" & "ekstasis" in the Dionysian cult). Most major Greek emancipatoric
theories will return to this and understand the body as the prison of the
soul (cf. Plato & Plotinus). This would become the cornerstone of the
Greek idea of "mystery", as opposed to the
The "Greek Miracle", i.e. the rise of
Greek philosophy in Ionia, commenced with the study of nature (which could be
called the "materialistic polarity") but, thanks to the Ionian
Pythagoras, developed into a study of proportion and number (the
"mathematical polarity"). Natural philosophy tried to do away with
mythological explanations, whereas the symbolism of Pythagoras coupled this
naturalism with a mysticism of numbers, which allowed natural phenomena to be
related to each other in abstract, theoretical terms.
The broad schemes developed by the Egyptians (cosmology, theology, sapiental
wisdom, literature, theocracy, architecture, art) were decontextualized and
linearized (simplified) by the Greeks. The foundational stones of their
forthcoming rational edifice : a pre-existing "first matter", a co-existing
divine moral law, a transformation of one into millions, etc. were gathered by
the Egyptian "barbarians" before them. Milesian philosophy is a rationalization
of mostly Egyptian source-material. Likewise, Alexandrian Hermetism is a
Hellenization of Ancient Egyptian, Jewish and Greek thought. The Ancient Greeks
were extremely adaptable and flexible.
Two original components
(naturalism and mathematics) define Greek philosophy, which,
with the thought of Parmenides and Heraclitus and their study of being,
acquired, its first, truly metaphysical orientation (it has been argued that
Parmenides importance for Greek philosophy is to be compared with Kant's impact
on modern philosophy). Add to this the anthropocentrism, dialogism and
relativism of the Sophists, and the stage is set for the classical period of Greek philosophy.
The Stela of Pharaoh Shabaka
and Greek philosophy.
►the importance of the Shabaka Stone