Barnaby Thieme's Reviews > The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age

The Orientalizing Revolution by Walter Burkert
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Jan 01, 2011

it was ok
bookshelves: greece, history, mesopotamia, religion-mythology

In this short volume, Walter Burkert sifts through literary and linguistic evidence with a fine-tooth comb, searching for Mesopotamian, Anatolian and Levantine influences on Archaic Greek culture, especially the writings of Hesiod and Homer.

Burkert introduces the book with a historical account of the migrant culture of soothsayers, skilled craftsmen and poets from the Near East who traveled the Mediterranean. He then puts numerous cases of arts of letters under his microscope, establishing modest but persuasive parallels between motifs. Gilgamesh and Enuma Elish receive extensive comparison with the Iliad and Odyssey, and he makes many other salient comparisons besides.

In his conclusion, he refers to the preceding matter as "a long and often torturous investigation," and he is not wrong. I was disappointed but not surprised that he wrote this book in his usual tone-deaf style, giving the impression of an active hostility toward elegance or beauty, as though such qualities would spoil the science of the enterprise.

I was frequently genuinely baffled by the great effort he expended to analyze incidental tropes or symbols, while ignoring some of the most persuasive and well-established evidence. The obvious Mesopotamian influence on figure sculpture receives scarcely a single notice (!), nor does the clear similarities evidenced by Enuma Elish and Hesiod's Theogony. He passes the myths and icons of Heracles by in silence; material of which he himself observed "Oriental motifs have obviously entered this complex," in his Greek Religion.

The book was at times illuminating but was studiously unconcerned with making a larger point about the significance of historical interplay between Greece and the Near East. Burkert's intellect is ever alive to minutiae, but his heart seems strangely dead in the face of splendid images of great vitality and significance. I can't comprehend how one could apply one's intellect so coldly to this splendid body of material, or why one would want to.
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