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Raising the Dead: The Assyrian Empire as Political Background for Odysseus’ Descent to the Underworld

Marcus Daniel Ziemann

The Ohio State University

In this paper, I will argue that the ritual that Odysseus performs to summon the dead souls in Book 11 of the Odyssey demonstrates a Greek interest in being part of the East Mediterranean cultural koine. In particular, I will show that it betrays a Greek engagement with the Neo-Assyrian Empire, whose culture was the basis for the newly “globalized” high culture of the East Mediterranean of the 8th-7th centuries BCE (the so-called Orientalizing Revolution). This paper will fit into several larger projects in which I argue that ideological responses to the Neo-Assyrian Empire lay behind the Orientalizing Revolution.

When he descends to the Underworld, Odysseus digs a pit, pours milk and wine into it, and mixes in the blood from a goat in order to call forth the spirits of the dead. Traditionally, scholars have seen this ritual as borrowed from Hittite/Hurrian necromantic pit-rituals (e.g. West 1997; Graziosi/Haubold 2005; Bachvarova 2016). However, as Beate Pongratz-Leisten has recently pointed out, Assyrian culture was a syncretic combination of Hurrian and Babylonian elements (Pongratz-Leisten 2015). Moreover, the Neo-Assyrian emperors performed a similar pit-ritual to expel ghosts and affirm the authority of the emperor (Scurlock 1995). Odysseus performs this ritual while attempting to regain his identity and authority as the king of Ithaca. It is therefore far more likely that the Odyssey is responding to the contemporary Assyrian ritual rather than the Hittite ritual attested only centuries before the Odyssey was composed.

            Furthermore, First Isaiah has been shown to respond to this same ritual. Christopher Hayes recently argued that Helel ben Shahar (traditionally rendered as Lucifer/the Morning Star) in Isaiah 14 is to be identified with the Mesopotamian god Enlil. Specifically, he argues that the fall of Helel/Enlil in Isaiah 14 is to be connected with the overthrow of Enlil by Marduk in the Assyrian cultic explanatory text that interpreted the symbolism of the pit-ritual mentioned above (Hayes 2011). Isaiah 14 therefore subverts the legitimacy of the Assyrian emperor using Assyria’s own semiotic system and also demonstrates that the Assyrian pit-ritual was a literary topos that could be exploited by an international audience.

            This international context for the ritual is important for understanding its place in the Odyssey. It has long been recognized that the tale of Odysseus’ wanderings that make up the middle portion of the Odyssey is inextricably linked to Odysseus’ own self-presentation to the Phaeacians and the regaining of his identity (e.g. Segal 1994). Moreover, the Phaeacians are emphatically not Greek (Winter 1995; Dougherty 2001), so they constitute a decidedly international audience. Furthermore, the architeture of the palace has been linked to Assyrian conventions (Faraone 1992). Therefore, it is significant that Odysseus chooses to portray himself as making use of this ritual. Before the international audience of the Phaeacians, he is attempting to show that he is a king to be respected who knows how to partake of the recognized international high culture.

            Along with the spread of Assyrian military power came Assyrian soft power in the form of an international cultural koine that reached the Aegean during the Orientalizing Revolution (8th-7th centuries BCE). While this pit-ritual was originally used to bolster the power of the Assyrian kings, it was adopted and adapted in various ways by the peoples in Assyria’s shadow. Isaiah could tap into this international koine to attempt to delegitimize Assyrian power while the Greeks could use the koine to assert their position within this prestigious international system.

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Homer and Hesiod

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