Charles Penglase, Greek Myths and Mesopotamia: Parallels and Influence in the Homeric Hymns and Hesiod. London and New York: Routledge, 1994. Pp. xii + 278, including a chronological chart, 2 maps and 2 appendices. ISBN 0-415-08371-0. UK£40.00.
University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg.
This laborious, somewhat frustrating book sets out to do three things: (a) to proclaim its methodology, (b) to examine in detail a selection of Mesopotamian mythological texts, and (c) to draw comparisons between those texts and a number of archaic Greek texts (notably, the Homeric hymns to Apollo, Demeter, Aphrodite, Hermes and Athena, and the parts of Hesiod's poetry relevant to those deities and also to Pandora and Prometheus).
Classicists, even those who specialize in mythology, may well feel some trepidation where Mesopotamian material is concerned: the latter is the sort of area we 'should' know more about but seldom do, in spite of illuminating work done over the years by (in particular) Hans GŁterbock, Peter Walcot and Walter Burkert. This new book, while providing much information about the material, does little to dispel that trepidation, partly because of quite frequent obscurity (on p. 22 we meet something called 'the Abzu', which could be almost anything or anybody until p. 41, where it turns out to be a temple) and partly because of Penglase's generally indigestible, plodding, repetitious (of which more later) style.
Another problem lies in the very business of comparative work, especially in a volatile field like mythology--above all, where the myths are thousands of years old. How can one be sure that one is finding genuine parallels, rather than sheer coincidence? Or is the coincidence in fact meaningful, in some Jungian and 'archetypal' way? How do we avoid falling into the trap of mistaking what is mere similarity for actual identity? Are we inappropriately forcing our own modern presuppositions onto ancient material?
Penglase, in his first chapter ('Foundations', pp. 1-14) sensibly notes these problems, but claims that he will probably rise above them by maintaining 'complete objectivity' (p. 11) and allowing the myths to 'speak for themselves' (p. 10). Neither goal is easy to attain; Penglase certainly proves unable to reach either.
A more serious drawback in this book, however, is Penglase's persistent failure to produce cogent evidence in support of his identification of supposed parallels. Instead, he appears to feel that saying something often enough and loudly enough will prove his point. This book must hold some sort of record for almost non-stop repetitiousness--a feature that not only renders most of Penglase's 'parallels' suspect but also makes the book exceptionally tedious to read. He also proves to be an expert in showing how one can prove almost anything if one really tries: his Chapter 11 ('Conclusion', pp. 237-245) begins with the resounding proclamation, 'The compelling conclusion which is indicated by this investigation . . . is that extensive influence from Mesopotamia exists in these Homeric hymns and in the works of Hesiod . . .' (p. 237); but, aware that the 'parallels' look rather shaky on occasion, he concedes that there are indeed many differences between the two sets of material, to the extent of almost totally negating his whole argument: ' . . . it is clear that a large number of mythological, religious and cosmological ideas which are found in these Mesopotamian myths were not taken over or accepted, whether they were known to the Greeks or not. Some ideas seem to have had a large impact on Greece, while others are not found at all. In the same way, some Mesopotamian myths seem to have been influential, . . . In the case of other Mesopotamian myths, only a few parallels are found' (p. 237). Earlier, he had noted (in connection with the Homeric hymn to Demeter) that 'the Mesopotamian works of literature and their story-lines appear superficially quite different from the Greek hymn and have many features which are not found in this Greek hymn' (p. 144: my italics, Penglase's repetition). Whose side is the author on? However, it appears (mirabile dictu) that a lack of parallels in one hymn actually proves Penglase's point: with regard to the hymn to Hermes, Penglase contends that 'The lack of parallels with Mesopotamian myths in . . . the hymn to Hermes is highly significant to this study of parallels in Mesopotamian and Greek journey myths. This difference in the hymn emphasizes the fact that the ideas of the journeys and accompanying motifs in the other hymns are no accident' (p.184). Clearly, armed with this kind of 'logic', nothing is unprovable.
Penglase's repetitiousness emerges even from these limited quotations, and is ruthlessly highlighted by Peter Walcot in his short review:[] he states that Penglase relies on repetition 'in the apparent belief that if we are told that a particular parallel exists often enough and emphatically enough, we shall eventually be bludgeoned into acceptance' (p. 184). One other quotation from Walcot's review is irresistible: 'Penglase is, I fear, a (very) poor man's Walter Burkert.' (p. 185).
It must be said that Penglase's book contains much detailed and useful information about some of the Mesopotamian material (the parts that appear to prove eastern influence on Greece), and fairly detailed analyses of the relevant Greek poems. The book is also scholarly in the sense of having a plethora of footnotes and a 14-page bibliography; and its Appendix II ('Some sources for Mesopotamian literature', pp. 248-250) is a 2-page bibliography which might prove helpful for those not well-up on such matters. It should also be admitted that some of the apparent parallels adduced by Penglase might throw some light on the Greek myths in question (and that is doubtful: it is not clear to this reviewer what on earth the supposed parallels discovered by Penglase have to offer the student of Greek mythology: the 'parallels' put forward in the book seem unusually vulnerable to that question which can make the stoutest academic heart quail: the question, 'So what?').
Ultimately, this is a disappointing book: it looks good, it makes lofty methodological claims, and it examines a substantial body of interesting texts; but it also (as suggested earlier) mostly fails to live up to its initial claims, indulges in some extremely dubious argumentation, and is written in a style so laboured, monotonous and 'pushy' that this reviewer, at least, felt moved on many occasions to intense irritation.
[] P. Walcot, review of C. Penglase, Greek Myths and Mesopotamia in CR ns 45.1 (1995) 184-85.