Thursday, October 19, 2017

‘Homeric’ borrowings from life of King Saul

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Damien F. Mackey






Both Achilles and David are depicted in connection with performances of epic poetry; both shown playing the lyre. Both do so as part of their larger frictions with Agamemnon and Saul”.


Bruce Louden






One will find in Bruce Louden’s terrific article, “Agamemnon and the Hebrew Bible”, a collection of compelling parallels between the Old Testament and The Iliad. Louden’s view of things is different from mine insofar as he would regard the pagan Greek texts as being the model, or inspiration, for the biblical writings or the “Near Eastern narratives”.

I would see it as the other way around.

But, as Louden admits in his introduction, this had not previously been his view on influences:  


“I have always been a comparatist. I believe that placing a narrative in context with other relevant texts is one of the more certain ways to obtain understanding and meaning. As it became increasingly obvious in the twentieth century, as unexpected discoveries greatly expanded our vistas, it dawned on some that Near Eastern narratives provide invaluable contexts for the study of Homeric epic. However, including the Hebrew Bible among the comparanda has greatly lagged behind, until fairly recently. When I began studying correspondences between Homeric epic and the Bible fifteen years ago, I assumed the parallels were best understood as depending on earlier Near Eastern narratives, with which both Greek and Israelite culture had come in contact. But now I have changed my view. When one takes into account how widespread the respective languages were, Greek and Hebrew, which language has earlier documentation, which people enter the historical record first, which culture was a significant maritime power for over a millennium, and which established an empire including the other, if some form of diffusion, direct or indirect, accounts for the correspondences, the odds are far greater that the direction is from Greek to Israelite culture. I count myself, then, among those who regard the Hebrew Bible, in part, as a response to Greek culture”.


Louden also makes what I would consider to be the rather strange statement that the Hebrew Bible, unlike the literature of the polytheistic ancient nations, lacks epic.

My favourite epic is the Book of Judith (it’s in my Bible, at least), which is, unlike the pagan epics, a true story. See e.g. my:


Ignis de Caelo, Velikovsky and Sennacherib's 185,000



Moreover, Hollywood of the 1960’s had no trouble in finding biblical epics.

Anyway, Louden writes:


“Why does the Hebrew Bible lack epic? Epic is inherently polytheistic; and the Hebrew Bible is largely a prose work, which suggests a closer affinity with archives, as Van der Toorn notes. …. Though lacking epic, it nonetheless contains allusions to it, and re-workings [sic] of it. We may have allusions to lost epics in the mentions of Shamgar (Judges) and Nimrod (Genesis), as well as references to the Book of Yashar. On the other hand, commentators have argued that the Hebrew Bible consciously applies epic models of organization and characterization. Mark Smith, in his study of correspondences between David and Jonathan, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and Achilles and Patroclus, suggests so, “I would sympathize with Cross’s conviction that biblical books such as Samuel were ‘interpreting the later history of Israel in Epic patterns.’” …. But which “epic patterns”? Cross no doubt has in mind Ugaritic or Canaanite epic, and, we can assume, additional Babylonian or Assyrian narratives. I am making the case for including ancient Greek epic as well”.


The famous Ugaritic (Ras Shamra), or Canaanite, corpus of documents has been grossly mis-dated as was clearly demonstrated by Dr. I. Velikovsky (and others since). As with the literature, so with the architecture, the pagan culture is always given the precedence.

But, as is asked in the following Velikovskian article: “How did these tombs of Ugarit serve as models for Cypriots, Israelites, Urartians, Anatolian peoples, and Phoenician colonists, if contemporaneity is denied, and they went out of use and were thus forgotten 500-600 years earlier?”


“In the published volume of Ages in Chaos, Velikovsky made a strong case for challenging Ugarit’s conventional dates.1 He pointed out many 500-year problems in the literary texts uncovered at the site, and shows the difficulty relating to vaulted Cypriote tombs constructed in the style of those from Ugarit but set 500 years later. For those who have not read or were not already convinced by the material presented by Velikovsky for Ras Shamra-Ugarit, perhaps a couple of additional problems will suffice.

Let us again look at the vaulted tombs of Cyprus. Velikovsky has already mentioned some of these, especially the 7th-century example from Trachonas. The island of Cyprus has an “astonishing” number of these tombs2 which divide neatly into two series: those assigned to 1550-1200 B.C., and those beginning in 950 B.C. And continuing for some time.3 The first group of vaulted tombs (at Enkomi) corresponds closely in date and style to the Ugaritic tombs, and the type is thought to have come from Syria to Cyprus.4 The second group of Cypriote tombs corresponds to both the Ugaritic and earlier Cypriote examples, but a 250-year gap separates the inception of the second group from the end of the Bronze Age tombs. More important than the 250-year period when no tombs were built in Syria or Cyprus to connect the later tombs to the earlier ones, is the fact that the earliest tombs of each group (i.e., those of 1550 and 950 B.C.), separated by 600 years, are most similar.5

The Cypriote vaulted tombs from 950-600 B.C. seem to undergo the same development as the Enkomi and Ugaritic tombs with 600 years separating the corresponding phases. It has been postulated that the later tombs somehow copied the earlier Cypriote or Syrian ones, but the tombs presumably copied must have been buried and invisible for some 600 years.6

Similar tombs are found in Jerusalem, Asia Minor, and Urartu of the 9th-7th centuries, and again it is thought that they originated in 9th-7th-century Syro-Phoenicia.7 But the only tombs of this type in that region, notably the ones from Ugarit, are placed centuries earlier.

Leaving behind the regions bordering Syro-Phoenicia, we shall travel briefly to an actual Punic colony. In the 9th or 8th century B.C.,8 a group of Phoenicians sailed to North Africa and founded Carthage. One of the oldest archaeological discoveries from the site is a late 8th-century B.C. built tomb “closely related” to the Ugaritic tombs in architectural plan. 9 It is a “faithful miniature rendering” of the Syrian tombs both in design and, apparently, in arrangements for religious rites.10 It would hardly be surprising for 8th-century Phoenician colonists to bring over a current tomb type and burial customs from their motherland. The only similar tomb type and burial customs that their motherland can produce, however, are put 500 years earlier. By the accepted scheme, the colonists’ ancestors would have been very familiar with these matters, but by the 8th century B.C., the Ugaritic tombs must have been buried over, invisible, and forgotten. 11

How did these tombs of Ugarit serve as models for Cypriots, Israelites, Urartians, Anatolian peoples, and Phoenician colonists, if contemporaneity is denied, and they went out of use and were thus forgotten 500-600 years earlier?”


Bruce Louden has detected some significant parallels between King Saul and King Agamemnon (op. cit., p. 16-18):



“Agamemnon and Saul


We turn, then to Saul. Like Agamemnon in so many ways, Saul is also a foil. The most powerful man in Israel, he spends much of his time nervously observing David’s increasing popularity and rise, as Agamemnon does Achilles. Samuel is not only his almost constant antagonist, but, behind the scenes, exercises greater influence and authority. We thus have a set of three analogous characters, Saul and Agamemnon, David and Achilles, and Samuel and Calchas. The entire saga plays out against confrontation with the Philistines (1 Sam 14:52), indirect affirmation of its links with Homeric epic, if we accept that the scribal tradition is aware of the identity of Philistine and Greek culture (though modern audiences are not).

Both Saul and Agamemnon are qualified warriors, capable of epic achievements on the battlefield. Agamemnon has his aristeia [greatest moment] in Iliad 11; 1 Samuel 11:6 presents us with an equivalent scenario for Saul, “the Spirit of God suddenly seized him.” However, while the motif normally initiates epic acts, as with Jephthah and Samson, here Saul proceeds to cut two oxen in pieces (perhaps borrowed from Judges 19, the last pre-king narrative), which recapitulates Agamemnon summoning the Greeks to reclaim Helen (recounted in Apollodorus E.3.6). After defeating the Amalekites, Saul erects a memorial to himself (1 Sam 15:12), like an Iliadic hero, and his overriding concern with kleos, fame.

In his interactions with Samuel, and subsequent loss of Yahweh’s favor, Saul moves into even closer correspondence with Agamemnon. After anointing Saul as king, Samuel places the destruction of the Amalekites under the ban. When Saul fails to carry this out completely, his relation with Samuel immediately disintegrates. Saul violates the ban not only by sparing King Agag, but by keeping some of the Amalekites’ choicest possessions for himself. In so doing he instantiates one of the Iliad’s central concerns, one of Agamemnon’s central characteristics, and the main cause for Agamemnon’s quarrel with Achilles: he distributes war winnings in a selfish, arbitrary manner. When Saul proceeds to set up a monument to himself, he furthers our impression of excessive self-involvement. The biggest difference with the Iliad in these relations is Samuel’s more dominant role than Agamemnon’s prophets.

A whole book, I suggest, could be written on David and Achilles. …. When, for instance, he defeats the Philistine Goliath, the Philistine’s preliminary arming scene has long been recognized as conforming in almost every respect to the Iliad’s arming scenes … and should be understood as referencing all three of its heroic duels, two of which, like that between David and Goliath, are to determine the entire battle between the opposing armies. The Iliad’s first duel between Paris and Menelaus employs a parodic arming scene. In 1 Samuel 17, the about-to-be-defeated Goliath’s arming scene is also parodic: for all his armor and weaponry he is easily slain. Of the three duels, that between Hector and Aias in Iliad 7 is far the closest to the preliminaries in 1 Samuel 17. The climax of the poem, however, is Achilles’ duel with Hector, which implicitly seals the Fall of Troy.

Additional tensions between Achilles and Agamemnon suggest they serve as a rubric for Saul and David’s interactions. After Achilles’ quarrel with Agamemnon erupts at the beginning of Book 1, Zeus supports him, not Agamemnon, for the remainder of the epic. In 1 Samuel, the audience knows David has already been anointed as king, and has Yahweh’s favor, near the beginning of his saga. After the quarrel, for the next three fourths of the epic, Achilles does not fight for the Greek army, and in so doing, indirectly renders significant aid to the Trojan cause. David, after Saul threatens him repeatedly, goes over to the Philistines, twice entering into relationships with King Achish, the Achaian (1 Sam 21:10–15). During the second occasion (1 Sam 27:1–6), having earned the Philistine king’s trust, David is ordered by Achish to take the field against the Israelites (1 Sam 28). Robert Alter sees the unusual circumstance, an Israelite king working with the enemy, as supporting the episode’s historicity—why else include such an ambivalent sequence? …. This may be, yet I suggest it can be understood as Israelite scribes fashioning David’s character to

… conform to a motif prominent in Achilles’ interactions with Agamemnon, the harm he causes his fellow Greeks, which Zeus supports, and which is even more prominent in the Iliad.

Both Achilles and David are depicted in connection with performances of epic poetry; both shown playing the lyre. Both do so as part of their larger frictions with Agamemnon and Saul. Midway through Agamemnon’s quarrel with Achilles, he sends an embassy to him, attempting reconciliation. When they reach Achilles’ tent, the embassy finds him (Iliad 9.186–189) playing the lyre, singing epic songs, an instance of Homeric epic’s well-known self-referentiality, or meta-poetics: the subject of his own epic is singing about other epic heroes. David is also referenced as the subject of something like epics in the recurring refrain, “Saul struck down thousands, but David tens of thousands” (1 Sam 18:6–8; 29:5). As Achilles plays to Agamemnon’s embassy, while the deluded leader attempts reconciliation with him, so David in his lyre-playing performs before a troubled, anxious Saul. This motif is much more at home in Homeric epic: both Homeric protagonists, Achilles and Odysseus, are so depicted.

While Agamemnon and Saul share several other corresponding motifs, we conclude with how they are both depicted as visited by an Evil Spirit. In Agamemnon’s case the Evil Spirit is more metaphorical. When he makes his public apology to Achilles for having begun their quarrel, he says it happened because Zeus sent the goddess, Ate, to delude him (below we also discuss the deceptive Dream Zeus sends him). When Saul loses his support, Yahweh repeatedly sends an evil spirit (16:23; 18:10). 1 Samuel combines this motif with the motif of David playing lyre (1 Sam 16:23), “And whenever an evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David would take his lyre and play it, so that relief would come to Saul.” Again, a tricky immortal figure seems more at home in the fully polytheistic Iliad than in the monotheistic Bible”.


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