Mesopotamian Olympics?

A legendary hero, shown on a relief from the Assyrian capital Khorsabad (Louvre)

A legendary hero, shown on a relief from the Assyrian capital Khorsabad (Louvre)

The modern Olympics are not the subject of ancient history and under normal circumstances, I would not have mentioned the Games at all. But here’s a subject that I like to mention: Mesopotamian influences on the origins of the Greek Olympic Games. This is the link to a new website that presents the evidence for cultural borrowing; the author, David Chibo, claims to have found eleven parallels between oriental and Greek athletic contests.

He points at a key text from Babylonia: the Sumerian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was known throughout the ancient Near East and has jumped to Greece as well (it is referred to by Aelian, who also knows the name of “Gilgamos”). The idea that the archaic Greeks, who accepted oriental artistic motifs, were inspired by the Epic of Gilgamesh, is by no means far-fetched, especially since Gilgamesh and Heracles (the mythological founder of the Olympic Games) closely resemble each other.

As I said, Chibo claims to have found eleven parallels. I was not convinced by all of them, but yes, athletic contests, in July/August, to honor the gods, awarding wreaths, ending with a victory banquet – well, five parallels is at least quite suggestive.

The remaining six parallels I find unconvincing and I think that the author overstates his case when he suggests that it is still necessary to prove “that civilisation evolved naturally at the confluence of three continenents rather than miraculously in the isolated mountainous terrain of Greece”. I think only very old-fashioned scholars still make the last-mentioned claim: no scholar worthy of that title denies, for instance, that the Alexandrine Library was inspired by Babylon or that Alexander the Great ordered the Mesopotamian astronomical texts to be translated into Greek. At least on my website, Livius, I have never excluded the ancient Near East, and I think Chibo is putting up a strawman.

That being said, he has found five parallels, and I think his article is worth reading.

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One Response to Mesopotamian Olympics?

  1. nsgill says:

    I read the article and thought even the examples you found parallel not so convincing — not that the Mesopotamians didn’t influence the Greeks. Mesopotamian artwork from well before the legendary start of the Olympics shows similar sports, including boxing and wrestling.

    The war season was in the spring and summer and so games like Achilles’ games for Patroclus would have been held then, too. Banquets were part of religious celebrations. Honoring the gods was an important component of many parts of ancient life. The wreaths were the only parallel I found significant and Donald G. Kyle, in Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World says wreaths may have been a vestige of camouflage worn by hunters.

    Anyway, I could well be wrong, but that was my reaction to the article.

    N.S. Gill
    About.com Guide to Ancient/Classical History
    http://ancientistory.about.com

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