M. L. West, The East Face of Helicon. West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Pp. 662. ISBN 0-19-815221-3 (pb). $55.00.
Reviewed by Barry Powell, University of Wisconsin-Madison (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Word count: 5203 words
In M. L. West's exemplary edition of Hesiod's Theogony, published in 1966, W. claimed that "Greece is part of Asia; Greek literature is a Near Eastern literature" (p. 31), a remarkable claim when everyone knew that Greece is part of Europe and its literature unlike anything that appeared in the Near East. Yet in the last thirty years others have made similar claims. W. Burkert, especially, argued that "Akkadian cuneiform side by side with Aramaic, Phoenician, and Greek alphabetic script produces a continuum of written culture in the eighth century which stretches from the Euphrates to Italy" (The Orientalizing Revolution, Cambridge, Mass., 1992, p. 31). Here W. sets out to prove his thesis, now a generation old, and we might be disturbed that he has succeeded so well.
There are twelve chapters, which I will briefly review in order.
In the first chapter, "Aegean and Orient," W. takes a bird's-eye view of salient features of Near Eastern and Aegean cultures that for explanation cry out for direct transmission or a common origin. He does not say this, but if one were to compare Bronze Age Greece with Bronze Age China or the Hopi Indians of Arizona one would not expect to find such common elements, here traceable to ancient routes of trade and communication over north Syria, through Cyprus and Rhodes, to Crete and the Aegean. These are cultural artifacts and not the result of parallel evolution.
Such common elements include a substantial list of loan words, often designating commodities, but also social institutions such as kingship with its complex functions and trappings of ritual. The treaties cast by Aegean and Near Eastern kings contain similar formulas. Means of accounting, counting, and weighing are similar or identical. No one disputes the Near Eastern origin of writing on clay tablets or of the Greek alphabet. Musical instruments, and no doubt how they were played and for what reasons, are the same in East and West, as are styles of luxurious behavior. Zeus is a god of storm and high places, and so was Baal of the Levant; each received the same kinds of sacrifices performed in the same way. Finally, W. emphasizes how the transmission of cultural artifacts did not take place at one time but was an ongoing process demonstrable from the Early Mycenaean period down to the sixth century B.C. Chapter 1 is an overview of the whole argument, developed in the rest of the book.
It is hard to restrain enthusiasm, or measure praise, for Chapter 2, "Ancient Literatures of Western Asia," which tells us in short compass the things we want to know about these opaque literatures but could not find the time to discover. First, a bilingual cultural continuum of the Sumero-Akkadians beginning in the third millennium has left mythical narrative poems about a man who escaped the flood, about a hero Gilgamesh who killed a great monster and sought to escape mortality, and about the emergence of the world order through the agency of watery beings. These myths, which tell of the exploits of gods, are now fairly well known among classicists, but little known is the evidence for "historical epic," narratives flattering the conquests of kings. As W. proceeds he illuminates with consistent clarity the meaning of his terms, the relations of language to language and script to script, and in his bibliography alerts the reader to the major publications. W. also describes Sumero-Akkadian wisdom literature, hymns, disputations, and royal inscriptions.
W. turns next to the extremely important Bronze Age literature from Ugarit, the north Syrian port and virtual gateway to the West. Ugaritic literature was written in a writing structurally identical to the later West Semitic Phoenician, Aramaic, and Hebrew scripts, whence sprang the Greek alphabet; so-called Ugaritic cuneiform is the earliest clear historical attestation to this family of scripts. Ugarit therefore offers hope for a tradition in which Homer appears in a direct line of descent. Extant Ugaritic poetry preserves accounts of war among the gods, especially the storm-god Baal's war against Yammu, "Sea," and Mot, "Death." Some poems are about men, however, and we have some hymns.
Next, Hebrew literature, by which is meant, of course, the Bible, a topic of gargantuan proportions that W. somehow summarizes in eight pages: songs, psalms, prophets, wisdom, the Song of Songs, history. Remarkably, there is no epic in Hebrew literature.
Our most regretted loss is the closely related Phoenician literature, because the inventor of the Greek alphabet knew this form of the West Semitic writing, or was even himself a Phoenician. Its nearly complete loss must depend on its having been preserved on papyrus or leather, on the lack of a tradition of writing on clay.
Finally, the ill-defended Hurrians of north Syria, called the Mitanni, prominent internationally in the Late Bronze Age, took over Sumero-Akkadian traditions and handed them to the Indo-European Hittites of Anatolia, who occupied the lands of Mitanni in the ninth to seventh centuries B.C. From this tradition must come the Hurro-Hittite stories about the storm god Teshub's conflict with the older god Kumarbi, evidently the model for Hesiod's Theogony.
Chapter 3, "Of Heaven and Earth," explores the world of the gods, arguing that the features of divine apparatus so familiar to us from Greek poetry are not Greek at all, but raw imports from the East. The organization of heaven, presided over by a company of gods at which stands a powerful patriarch, appears to be Sumerian in origin, copied by Akkadians, Hurrians, Hittites, West Semites, and finally the Greeks. In both East and West the world is divided into provinces over which certain gods exercise priority. From time to time they appear among mortals, their presence revealed by an aura of brilliance. Although Zeus is Indo-European in origin, his office, epithets, and forms of behavior are taken from Eastern literary archetypes.
Even so are the relations of humans to the divine realm similar in the East and West, and such specific myths as the destruction of mankind, and such themes as the loss of perpetual youth, the knowledge of good and evil, and the necessity for toil to survive in a fallen world that is distant from a heaven to which men once had admittance. Even so, in East as in West, does human suffering come from the gods' anger, as do human blessings and divine favor granted to certain individuals. Kingship comes from heaven, or has its blessing, and human kings can even become gods. The division of the universe into heaven, earth, sea, and underworld is Eastern, as is the notion that a gate opens into heaven and that water bounds the cosmos.
Such very odd expressions as "the navel of the earth" turn out to have Semitic models. Ghosts, too behave in similar ways in Greece and the ancient East: they "go down" to their abode, but never return. Water separates this world from the next, which, like heaven, is entered through gates. The land of no return is also a house, ruled over by a king or queen, a place of gloom and filth. There the strengthless dead abide, bloodless and weak.
In Chapter 4, "Ars Poetica," West examines specific forms of style and expression, things we ordinarily take to be culturally specific. Whereas verse forms so complex as the hexameter cannot be found in the East (on the other hand, they could not have been notated in prealphabetic writings), recurring phrases and otiose means of expression are as common there as they are in Homeric epic. Narrative strategies are strikingly similar, too, for example the initiation of action by describing an unsatisfactory situation followed by complaint to the gods, their deliberation, and finally measures taken. In just this way Homer initiates the action of the Iliad, and it recurs repeatedly in Near Eastern narrative.
The "Divine Comedy" of gods familiar from Greek archaic poetry can be paralleled in most particulars: the assembly to determine action, often on a mountain top, but often too with dissension of certain gods against the chief god; the gods' intervention on earth among the affairs of men; the dream, either as message or symbol; the messenger as agent of narrative action; the use of direct speech introduced by stereotyped formulas and such responses a speech can elicit as downcast eyes, biting one's lip, or smacking one's thighs.
Genre scenes that punctuate the narrative are similar in Greece and in the East: scenes of feasting where singers entertain and visitors arrive, sometimes refusing to take their seats, and scenes of dressing and journeys by chariot. In descriptions of war, focus falls on the last year or the final stages of the war. The king addresses his army. Gideon, like Agamemnon, "tested" his troops, only to discover they all wanted to go home. We get a catalogue of forces. Gods lead armies in battle. They smash the weapons of heroes. In battle, first comes a kill, then a breaking-up into individual encounters. Dust envelops the warriors. A great man goes berserk and kills many. Single combat is waged, as between Hector and Ajax or David and Goliath. Threats are made, for example that the enemy will be eaten by dogs. A plea for mercy is refused. City-sackers kill everything in sight, men, women, children. Similes, long or short, enhance vividness. In Ugaritic "he was groaning like a lion"; in Homer he was "groaning like a bearded lion." So pervasive and detailed are the similarities between such elements in Near Eastern poetry and Greek poetry that we cannot doubt a historical connection.
Chapter 5, "A Form of Words," looks more closely at resemblances between actual verbal formulations. So the earth is "broad" and "dark" in both traditions. Decisions are made "by the will of the gods" and the outcome "lies on the knees of the gods." The hands of God or the gods lie upon the people. Kings are "servants " of gods. The gods "hear the voice" of suppliants. Collections of deities are "sons of gods." Battles are "mixed," the slain "bite the dust." In speeches words flow "like honey" and if false are "twisted." Tears are common in moments of tension. Thoughts are formed "in the heart" or come from outside, falling upon one. Soil is "fat." Iniquity "reaches to heaven" and warriors "trust in their strength." "Forever" is "all days." Beautiful women are "equal to a goddess." Kings are "bulls." Battalions advance "like storm-clouds," as numberless "as sand" or "as the stars." Heroes are "lions" or "wolves."
The bird of prey destroying the weak is a common image. The fearful enemy flee "like deer." Warriors pour forth like "wasps from a nest." Missiles "rain from the sky." Heroes groan for fallen comrades like "a lion whose cubs are stolen." The wounded groan "like women in childbirth." Important structures gleam "like the sun or the moon." Cloth "shines like a star." Hearts are "of stone," words are "windy," and the same word designates "grain" and "life."
Speech is figured in similar ways, making use of anaphora, epanalepsis, and rhetorical questions. A story may begin, "There is a city called...." Numerals in the first class are increased by one in the second ("seven years were completed, eight revolutions of time"). Peoples say "Ooh" and "Ah." Hymns and prayers present similar imagery. The power of divinities is cosmic in extent. The king of the gods assigns powers to lesser gods. A god increases or decreases "as he wishes." Prayers begin with the god's name in the vocative. The god is asked to come to the suppliant's side. Requests of certain kinds follow a certain order. Past benefits are recorded. Some prayers issue blank checks, for anything desirable.
Chapter 6, "Hesiod," takes up an author about which W. can be said to be the world's leading expert (although he still insists that Hesiod is older than Homer). About the Eastern background to Hesiod there has been long agreement. The Succession Myth of the Theogony, whereby one generation of gods replaces another, appears to have originated in the Near East. W. summarizes Hesiod's account, then those of the Hurro-Hittite story of Kumarbi and draws astute points of comparison. He does the same with the Babylonian Enuma elish and the so-called Phoenician History of Sanchuniathion, a Hadrianic work that preserves genuine Phoenician tradition.
Henceforth W. goes through the Theogony systematically. Hesiod receives his gift of song from the Muses; even so do Eastern scribes receive messages in dreams. Sky mates with Earth, but this nearly universal motif could come from anywhere, W. admits. Iapetos looks like Japheth, but there the similarity ends. Eastern Ea and Greek Kronos each take the initiative when the other gods cower in fear. For Hesiod, the castration of Ouranos is the separation of heaven and earth, but castration in the Hurro-Hittite myth of Kumarbi does not seem to have the same meaning. Aphrodite, sprung from the genitals of Ouranos, looks like the Phoenician Astarte, called Queen of Heaven. The odd Greek god Oath has a close Assyrian parallel. Hesiod's hymn to Hecate has close parallels in Babylonian hymns. At Delphi could be seen the stone that Kronos swallowed; it was called baidylos, from the Semitic "house of God" like the stone on which Jacob slept. In the Ugaritic Baal epic, and in Hesiod, a divine craftsman makes weapons for the storm god. Prometheus and Ea, crafty gods each, help mankind against a persecuting senior god. Atlas bears resemblance to the Hurro-Hittite monster Ubelluri and to Ullikummi, a stone monster that grows from Ubelluri's shoulder.
In the Greek theomachy, descriptions of battle parallel Eastern ones, including the image of a horde of weapons blocking the sky. Titans are like the Hittite "Former Gods," who too were imprisoned in the underworld, sometimes, like the Titans, twelve in number. Typhon seems to be derived from the Ugaritic Sapon, god of Mount Casius north of Ugarit; Sapon was equivalent to the storm god Baal, but an early story may have told how Baal imprisoned Sapon in the mountain. Certainly an ancient Eastern story told of a god's war against a many-headed serpent; Typhoeus was the monster with the hundred heads, whom in one version Zeus defeated on Mount Casius. After his victory Zeus assigned the gods their offices, just as in Eastern parallels.
Of course Works and Days belongs to the ancient Eastern genre of wisdom literature wherein a wise or prophetic teacher admonishes errant rulers, or a relative. Many of Hesiod's apothegms have strong Eastern parallels, for example the admonishment to labor and the need to avoid idleness. The Prometheus myth's explanation of sacrificial practice has Eastern precedents, as does Zeus's gleeful prediction of disaster when deceived. Many deities, as often in the East, work to make a creature, Pandora; her jar may reflect Hittite incantation ritual. Parallels to the certainly non-Greek myths of the five races have long been noticed in Iran and Judea, including specific features: long-life, good weather, and a single language for the Golden Age, followed by short-life and a breakdown of family and virtue in the last age. The folktale of the hawk and nightingale is not attested specifically in the East, but animal fable is part of the genre of wisdom literature from the earliest times. The promise of good times to follow on righteous behavior is paralleled closely by Yahweh's instructions to Moses on Mount Sinai, as are similar Hesiodic moral precepts by other Eastern sources, as well as Hesiod's hemerology and bird-omens.
W. begins Chapter 7, "The Iliad", with a comparison between the Greek hero Achilles, anomalous in many ways, with Gilgamesh. Each has a divine mother important to the action, who intercedes with the other gods on her son's behalf; each hero is impulsive and emotional; each has a close friend who dies, prompting a railing against mortality, followed by an acceptance of it. W. then gathers interesting detailed comparanda between Ninsun (Gilgamesh' divine mother) and Thetis; similarities to Patroclus' sortie, the kinds of lamentations held over Patroclus' body, and especially details of the ghostly appearance to Patroclus, so like that of Enkidu to Gilgamesh. Priam's meeting with Achilles is in some ways similar to Gilgamesh's meeting with Utnapishtim.
The rest of the long chapter is devoted to a detailed and manifold catalogue of incidents, motifs, and expressions in the Iliad that appear to have Near Eastern antecedents. For example, the gods leaping to their feet at an assembly, advice to yield to the storm god when he is angry, the houses and sleep of the gods, the false dream before a battle, the portent of a snake turned to stone, the use of messengers for transmitting instructions, flies gathering around milk pails, the breaking of a truce, a god who grows sky-high, a god's imprisonment in a jar, gods who give mighty war shouts, humans who come and go like leaves on the trees, the Chimaera, wise never to have been born, armor hung in a temple as booty, the weak isolated hero who kills a giant, making love to one's father's concubine, picturesque personifications; drops of blood from the sky; a hero-sized cup; a wall destroyed by flood, a magic staff, seduction by the sex goddess, images of cows protecting calves, speech that is sweeter than honey, animals that prophesy, the scale of fate, peace between lions and men, and many more.
Chapter 8, "The Odyssey," follows the same method. Odysseus, who prefers cunning to brute face-off, is no Gilgamesh but in his adventures sometimes has similar experiences. Both heroes are said in a prologue to have traveled widely and to have gained knowledge thereby. The strange Circe and Calypso, friendly goddesses in remote parts, are like the ale-wife Siduri who meets Gilgamesh at the edge of the waters. The Greek island of Aiaia, where Circe daughter of Helios lives, is evidently traceable to the Babylonian goddess Aya, wife of the sun-god and goddess of sexual love. Circe's very name, "hawk," may be connected with the hawk-headed sun-god of Egypt, exported to Phoenicia. Circe otherwise resembles Ishtar, with her competence over transforming drugs and wild animals. The Mesopotamian poem about Nergal and Ereshkigal show Nergal bullying Ereshkigal as Odysseus does Circe, with similar results. Each goddess gives advice about crossing the dangerous waters of death to consult with a prophet. Calypso, "the veiled one," reminds us that Siduri too is veiled, and both goddesses send heroes into the woods to cut timber for a sea journey. Calypso's list of men punished through a goddess's love sounds like Ishtar's complaint when Gilgamesh spurns her. Her offer of immortality to Odysseus reminds us that Gilgamesh, in his journey across the waters, sought just that.
The never-never land of the Phaeacians has much in common with the land of Utnapishtim, as Odysseus' savage appearance before Nausicaa echoes Gilgamesh's appearance before Siduri. The theme of the naked unkempt man who is clothed and taken to the city, as Nausicaa takes Odysseus to town, parallels the harlot's taming of Enkidu by the waterhole. Returning from Aeolus' island, Odysseus falls asleep and loses Ithaca, just as Gilgamesh cannot remain awake outside the house of Utnapishtim. Numerous similarities tie the Odyssean Nekuia with the poem Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Underworld, including the man who died by falling off a roof. As Odysseus' men perish when they kill the cattle of the sun, so does Enkidu die after he and Gilgamesh kill the bull of heaven, and in both cases a god threatens to invert the upper and lower worlds unless the god's will prevails.
In the remainder of the chapter W. presents a catalogue of incidents and passages with possible Near Eastern antecedents: Menelaus' fathering of a child on a concubine; the splendor of Alcinous' palace; Menelaus' transportation to a paradise at the ends of the earth; Penelope's refusal to eat; the four streams of water on Calypso's island; Calypso's special food of ambrosia and nectar; the simile of the wind and the chaff; Nausicaa compared to a date palm; the metal dogs before the palace of Alcinous; the disappearance of the island of the Phaeacians; the spurned sacrifice; the use of protective plants (moly); Odysseus' necromancy on the shores of Ocean; the name of the Sirens; the suitors' reluctance to kill one of royal stock; Penelope's bed, covered with tears; the punishment by amputation of ears and nose; the radiance surrounding a divinity; birth "from oak or stone"; the bow that only the hero can draw; the archery contest; a suitor's hurling of a leg of beef at Odysseus; Laertes' fainting at reunion with Odysseus. In conclusion, W. notes how twice as many Eastern poetic motifs are found in the Iliad as in the Odyssey, and that those parallels to the Iliad belong to the early parts of the Gilgamesh story, as those parallel to the Odyssey are modeled on wanderings after the death of Enkidu.
In Chapter 9, "Myths and Legends of Heroes," W. discusses Near Eastern elements in Greek literature of the archaic period. Some such features are folktale motifs, for example the foundling; the magic hair that ensures power or security; the twin brothers who fight in the womb; the man who is thrown from a ship and rescued by a fish; the person who escapes pursuit by praying to a god and being changed into something else; and the hasty oath, like the one Jephthah made to Yahweh. From the story of Io we find such familiar Eastern themes as the celestial god's love for a heifer, attested in Akkadian, Hurro-Hittite, and Ugaritic myth. Epaphos, son of Io and Zeus, is evidently the Egyptian bull-god Apis, while Belos, Arabos, Nilos, and Libya have obvious Eastern origins. The strange story of the fifty sons of Aegyptos and the fifty sons of Danaos has a near parallel in a Hittite myth.
W.'s discussion of the Kadmos myth is especially strong, and he builds a cogent model for the name Kadmeioi (whence Kadmos) as coming from the Semitic "men of eld," an iron-age description of the inhabitants of the Theban acropolis, and even the name of Harmonia may derive from Semitic for "fortress," the Kadmeia. Asterios, who married Europa, he derives from Semitic Astarte, the male form, so that the story of their marriage may derive from a sacred union of bull and cow.
Among Argive myths, the odd leprosy that strikes the Proetids is common in the Near East. The Gorgo's head has long been connected with representations of Humbaba, whose glance too could bring death; kibisis, Perseus' pouch, seems to be a Semitic word. Turning to the myths of Thebes, W. picks up W. Burkert's speculative attachment of the myth of the seven to an Eastern rite of exorcism, in which seven demons are expelled.
The myths of Heracles seem almost entirely Eastern in origin: the story of his birth, so like Egyptian propaganda for the birth of pharaoh in the New Kingdom; his being cheated of his birthright, as was Esau by Jacob; his strangling of serpents, illustrated on Eastern seals. Most of the exploits find Eastern parallels, sometimes very close (the lion combat, the seven-headed hydra, the golden apples of the Hesperides), and are especially reminiscent of the adventures of Samson, who like Heracles killed a lion with his bare hands and was undone by a woman. The very notion of a cycle of labors is Eastern too, reminiscent of the eleven labors of the hero Ninurta.
Stories of the Tantalids show tantalizing similarities with Hittite myths, appropriate because Lydia, whence came Pelops, is in the cultural sphere of the Hittites of central Anatolia. The name of Myrtilus, Pelops' charioteer, sounds like Mursili, name of three Hittite kings, and Tantalus' name too may be Hittite. The backwards course of the sun in the struggle between Atreus and Thyestes for the throne of Mycenae is easily paralleled from the reign of Hezekiah.
Phaethon looks a lot like Eastern gods who fell from heaven (including Lucifer). A bird carried Ganymede to heaven, as an eagle cared Mesopotamian Etana there. The Golden Fleece of the Argonautica looks like the holy fleece common in Hittite rite.
From the Trojan cycle, Zeus' desire to alleviate an overpopulated earth appears in the Mesopotamian story of Atrahasis, telling of the Flood. Peleus' struggle with Thetis looks like Jacob's struggle with an angel, probably in origin a river spirit, and the motif of the wedding which the gods attended appears also in the Ugaritic Keret epic. Odysseus' feigned madness to avoid the draft looks like the madness of David on the run from Saul. The extraordinary self-immolation of Ajax is paralleled by Saul's falling on his sword, as Philoctetes' special bow, and narrative role, also appear in the East. The theft of the Palladion is like that of the statue of Marduk, stolen and restolen over a period of 800 years. Enlil's statue flashes and moves of its own accord, as does the Palladion. The wooden horse looks like an Assyrian siege engine, both in design and function. The mission of Menelaus and Odysseus to Troy, where Antenor, later spared, protects them, looks like that of Joshua's spies into Jericho, where a prostitute, later spared, protects them.
The flood story is unknown to Hesiod and, except in disguised form, to Homer, but comes to Greece perhaps in the sixth century B.C. Its similarities to Eastern versions, both in general theme and in specific detail, have long been noticed, and there can be no question of its origin. If it does come to Greece only in the archaic age, there is clear evidence for the continuation of the transmission of culture from the late Iron Age, at least, into the classical period: transmission did not take place all at one time.
Chapter 10, devoted to the The Lyric Poets, reviews elements of all kinds in the poets of the Archaic period, to find various phrases, sentiments, or rhetorical postures common also in Eastern literatures. W. fixes on social institutions such as that of the scurrilous commentator, found in Mesopotamia as well as on Paros. He finds arresting parallels in the East for the licentious women important to the poetry of Archilochus, as well as fellatio, performed against a temple wall, compared to sucking beer through a tube. Such proverbial statements as "nothing surprises me any more" are Eastern in origin too, as are animal fables and their morals.
He finds verbal echoes in Callinus and Mimnermus of Eastern poetry, and Solon's moral maxims belong to Eastern wisdom literature. Even the social tension in Theognis, and the fear of the rising lower class, is closely paralleled by older Semitic models. In the Melic poets, "dream-like" to mean "fine" is Eastern. In an interesting discussion, he shows how Sappho consistently takes imagery generated in an Eastern religious context then secularizes it and applies it to love. Antiphony in Sappho appears to be Eastern, and she is our oldest testimony to the Eastern cult of Adonis. W. notes other similarities in Stesichorus, Ibycus, Anacreon, Simonides, Pindar, and Bacchylides.
Chapter 11 is given to Aeschylus. W. goes through each play systematically. From the Persai he notices an odd use of "lord," very like a Semitic idiom, the motif of the royal person worried by a dream, and certain features of Assyrian cult practice. The raising of the ghost of Darius looks like the witch of Endor, and the series of rhetorical questions meaning, "Where are they now?" reflect Eastern convention.
The Supplices offers a clear imitation of divine titles and epithets for Zeus earlier applied to Baal. Also here we find the Eastern metaphor the "tablets of the heart." So are scepter and throne coupled, and the Danaids, as in Akkadian prayers, wish to turn into smoke and escape. Victories are awarded by divine judgment.
Various phrases and images of divine power in the Agamemnon, including the net, have good Eastern parallels. So do "panegyric metaphor-strings," where a potentate is praised by a list of bold metaphors. From other plays he gathers such parallels as calling the sun "the lamp of the gods." W. does not regard the Prometheus as composed by Aeschylus, but perhaps by his son. Its debt to Eastern models is, however, deep, including the notion that humans once lived in primitive conditions and the cosmic cataclysm that closes the play. The traditions that W. has been tracing appear to dry up after Aeschylus, when Greek writers grow away from habits of their Eastern forebears to fashion new styles of expression.
Chapter 12, "The Question of Transmission," addresses the extremely complex question of just how Eastern traditions might have passed to Greece. W. identifies two historical periods in which such transmission was likely to have taken place, in the Late Bronze Age and in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. The question of transmission is of course intimately bound up with writing and how writing was used and by whom. In the East, writing was in the hands of a scribal class, whereas in Greece amateurs could write. Eastern scribes were always biliterate or bilingual, whereas in Greece they never were. The relation between oral performance and transmission is especially tangled. From hints here and there we can conclude that Eastern singers were not, in general, literate, but learned their songs from written texts, read aloud by scribes. The style of Eastern literary texts leaves no doubt that they were sometimes intended to be heard as song; the enormously repetitive style only makes sense on this assumption. Sometimes colophons indicate that an Eastern text is to be accompanied by this or that musical instrument. We hear of a professional singer called naru, evidently something like the Greek aoidos. Dictation of poetic texts does not seem likely for the cuneiform tradition, but far more likely for the West Semitic one, whence the Greek descended directly. Certainly the Ugaritic poems were meant to support oral performance in some way. The scribe of the Baal epic even signed his work, which he may have taken down by dictation (just as the Homeric poems were recorded).
Still, we cannot expect transmission of the cultural artifacts described in this book to have taken place through written means. The ethnically mixed populations of north Syria, Cyprus, Crete, Sicily, and southern Italy must have produced many bilingual speakers of Semitic and Greek, and some of these must have been singers. We know of the presence of interpreters at all times to serve the international community of traders and travelers, and much other intermingling was brought about through war, mercenary service, and colonization. Assyrian aggression beginning in the ninth century B.C. surely drove the Phoenician expansion in the Western Mediterranean, and into various Greek lands. At the hands of the immigrant bilingual poet we must place responsibility for the transmission of culture from East to West.
This is an extraordinary book, rich in deep learning, astute insight, and pellucid argument to support a radical thesis. I was happy to be persuaded, because I have long felt that something like this must have happened; but we can only admire the thoroughness and sobriety by which W. makes his argument. Every classicist should read this book, one of the most important in the last generation.
Taken from: http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2000/2000-05-08.html