Chronicle 5. THE ENIGMATIC SEA PEOPLES
BEFORE WE GO WEST, we need to sail into the “Great Green” (the Mediterranean to the Egyptians) in search of the Sea Peoples, meeting more migrant bands on the way. Voyaging in space and time, in history, legend and myth, we must go back to the explosive finale of the 17th century BCE, the “big bang” of the Minoan volcanic eruption on Thera-Santorini, for it occurred very close to the period the Sea Peoples initially appeared in Egypt. If we take into account the wrecking of the Minoan navy policing the seas, we can presume that these peoples were nothing but pirates at the time, and we also realize how interdependent the great powers were in the ancient world. Later the Egyptians started identifying various bands of Sea Peoples in their own style, and one of the first mentioned were the Sherden or Shardana, a large group of pirates.
They disrupted trade in the end of the 13th century and contributed greatly to the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization. Nonetheless, they are not mentioned in either Hellenic or Hittite legends or documents, suggesting that they did not originate from either sphere of influence. Many scholars relate the Shardana to Sardinia due to the similarity between the two words. Based on the same principle, the archaeologist Margaret Guido proposed that the Shardana might have ultimately derived from Sardis and the Sardinian plain nearby, in Lydia, and perhaps migrated later to Sardinia. It seems that many people, and not only the Trojans that would become Romans, left Anatolia and the Aegean for the Italian peninsula and its islands due to the Bronze Age collapse, rather than before. There is evidence that gives credit to Virgil’s Aeneid – without excluding the possibility of earlier migrations. Recent genetic studies indicate that the populations not only of people, but even of cattle, in various Italian regions, especially in Tuscany, are more related to Anatolia, mainly in the northwest, than to anywhere else.
A famous passage from Herodotus portrays the migration and drifting of Lydians because of famine:
“Their king divided the people into two groups, so that the one should remain and the other leave the country. His son, Tyrrhenus, was to be the head of those who departed. They went down to Smyrna and built themselves ships. After sailing past many countries they came to the Ombrici, where they founded cities and called themselves Tyrrhenians.”
We can’t but remember that Anatolia faced the same acute problem of famine in the time of the collapse and, as a result, the Sea Peoples, then a coalition of seagoing migrants, closed ranks seeking relief from scarcity. Drought could have easily precipitated socio-economic problems and wars. As regards the story told by Herodotus and its link to the Sea Peoples, several scholars contend that those called Teresh by the Egyptians were none others than the Tyrrhenians, or Tyrsenians, who are often identified with the Tusci (hence Tuscany), the Latin exonym for the Etruscans, or Rasena, as they called themselves. The Tyrsenian linguistic family, together with Etruscan, includes the Lemnian language, spoken on the Aegean island of Lemnos until the 6th century BCE. Another Aegean tongue possibly related to the Etruscan was the Minoan Cretan. A third Aegean island close to Anatolia mentioned as their possible homeland by Thucydides is that of Lesbos. The Romans, as Virgil’s readers, identified the Teresh with the Trojans. This version would serve their interests for the Etruscans were their rivals. If they showed that they had a common ancestry, any further animosity between them would be considered fratricidal. There are some clues to support this view. Several writers, as e.g. Andrea Salimbeti in “The Greek Age of Bronze: Sea Peoples”, note that a Trojan connection in the case of the Teresh or Tursha should be at first taken under consideration:
“Troy appears in a Hittite record as Taruisa. It is a reasonable assumption that the people of Taruisa called themselves by some name close to this; stripped of vowels so that it can be compared to the Egyptian spelling”.
The Troad was outside the territory but within the sphere of influence of Hatti. However, another Hittite record points to a different location, for it contains a list of cities, among them Tarsa, most likely Tarsus. These toponyms and corresponding ethnicities would be written down in Egyptian hieroglyphs or in any Semitic script as “T-r-s” or “T-r-sh” – that is, without vowels.(a)
Anatolian connections have been suggested for other Sea Peoples, as well, like the Lukka (Lycians). Most striking is that the vast majority of them seem to have descended from the Troad. Therefore, some researchers, such as the Swiss geoarchaeologist Eberhard Zangger, have proposed that “the Sea Peoples may well have been Troy and its confederated allies, and the literary tradition of the Trojan War [e.g. the Iliad] may well reflect the Greek effort to counter those raids.”(b) Therefore, despite the attempts of many historians to discredit the historicity of the Iliad, the Trojan War is considered a historical event and a key to grasp the underlying causes of these epoch-making developments. “For sure, the Sea Peoples’ movement was one of the largest and most important migrations in history that changed the face of the ancient world more than any other single event before the time of Alexander the Great”, Andrea Salimbeti remarks. This long, ravaging war, in combination with the widespread famine in the entire peninsula, created the explosive conditions leading to the collapse. Under the circumstances, many Trojans, allies or neighbours became refugees, and some survived by their wits and swords. Archeological evidence leads to the conclusion that the Sea Peoples were not pirates anymore, nor raiders plundering and pillaging established cities, but instead a mass of people looking for a place to settle, in search of a home. This was obvious since their first invasion of Egypt under Libyan leadership when they were accompanied by their families and belongings. The Libyan tribes also played a role in the first campaigns against Egypt. Herodotus and Hecataeus mentioned one of them centuries later. It was the Berber tribe of the Maxyes or Mazyes, the Mazaces to the Romans or the Meshwesh to the Egyptians, who also claimed to have a Trojan heritage.
Despite the attempts to discredit the historicity of the “Iliad”, the Trojan War is considered a historical event. “The Sea Peoples may well have been Troy and its confederated allies, and the literary tradition of the Trojan War may well reflect the Greek effort to counter those raids.” (Eberhard Zangger)
“One of the theories links them to the Pelasgians who were allies of Troy, and one group of them lived in Thrace”, Andrea Salimbeti explains.(c) “Those Pelasgians would have migrated south, overrunning and fatally damaging Achaean Greek civilization. Shortly after, many would have gone farther south to Crete.” In addition, there are Biblical references to the Philistines as coming from a place called Caphtor, identified by certain scholars with Crete.(d) “This theory”, Salimbeti adds, “has been somewhat strengthened by the discovery in Crete of the Phaestos disc. One of the symbols shows the head of a man crowned with feathers – very similar to the feather-topped helmets of the Peleset depicted” at the Temple of Ramses III.(e)
Another ‘Trojan’ Sea People might have been the Weshesh. The scarcity of information led ‘necessarily’ to speculation about possible links between their name and that of Ilion, as the city of Troy was also called by the Greeks, or Wilusa (Wilusiya) by the Hittites – after king Ilus (thence the Iliad). “The W of Weshesh”, Salimbeti notes, “is a modern invention for ease of pronunciation; the Egyptian records refer to Uashesh”. Some scholars associate this people with Assos, also in the Troad, or with Iasos (Iassos) in Caria, or with Issos in Cilicia. Others have theorized that they became part of the Israelite confederacy, as the tribe of Asher. Another people connected with the Hebrews were the Tjeker. Moving to Canaan, they captured the city-state of Dor and turned it into a large, well-fortified capital of their kingdom. Dor was violently destroyed in the mid-11th century BCE by the expanding Phoenicians, who were checked by the Philistines, and then by the Hebrews. King David (if he was something more than just a mythological figure) supposedly conquered Dor and the Tjeker were mentioned no more.
A possible linguistic connection has been proposed between the Tjeker and the Tekrur, identified with the Teucri, a tribe described by some ancient sources as inhabiting northwest Anatolia to the south of Troy. Tradition offers basically two candidates for a homeland: Crete or Attica. Legend links all three places and goes even further, following two heroes with the same name: Teucer (or Teucrus). According to Virgil, the older Teucer was from Crete but left the island with a third part of its inhabitants during a great famine (how many such stories…). They settled near a river, which was named Scamander after his father. Dionysius of Halicarnassus claims Teucer had gone to the Troad from Attica. Scamander (or Xanthos) was said to have been a river-god, a son of Oceanus. According to Homer, he fought on the side of the Trojans after Achilles insulted him. He was the personification of the river that flowed by Troy. The Hellenes had set up their camp near its mouth, and their battles with the Trojans were fought on its plain. With the arrival of Dardanus there, Teucria was renamed as Dardania (thence Dardenelles), and later Troad (from king Tros). But these toponymic changes would not deter the Trojans to often call themselves Teucrians. Aeneas e.g. is described as “the great captain of the Teucrians”.
The younger Teucer (or Teucrus) was a son of king Telamon of Salamis, the island of Attica where the decisive naval battle of the Graeco-Persian Wars would be fought. He was half Trojan because his mother was a princess of Ilion. He also fought in the Trojan War, but on the side of the Hellenes, having his half-brother, Ajax, as a co-fighter, while his cousins, Hector and Paris, and his uncle Priam were ‘enemies’. After all, war was a family affair – let alone for Teucer Jr! On his return to Salamis, however, his father accused him for not bringing Ajax’s body back home. He was disowned, exiled, and set out to find a new home. With his departing words that Horace turned into a moving ode, he exhorted his companions to “despair in no way… tomorrow we shall set out upon the vast ocean”.(f) This speech, related later to the theme of voyages of discovery, is also found in Dante’s Inferno and in Tennyson’s Ulysses. Teucer eventually joined the Phoenician king Belus of Tyre in his campaign against Cyprus, and when the island was seized, Belus handed it over to Teucer as a reward. He founded there the city of Salamis, named after his homeland.
The “copper island”, a vital node in the trade networks, experienced two waves of Greek settlement: The initial consisted of Mycenaean traders around 1400 BCE. Towards the end of this period, great amounts of ‘Mycenaean’ pottery were produced in Cyprus. A major second wave, connected with Teucer’s story, took place just after the Bronze Age collapse ca 1100 BCE, with the island’s predominantly Hellenic character dating from this era, due to the ‘invasion’ of Helladic refugees. Apart from Salamis, Teucer is credited as a founder of other cities, as well. A local legend in Galicia, in northwestern Iberia, relates the foundation of Pontevedra to ‘Teucro’. The legend seems to be based more on the conjecture that Greek traders might have arrived there in ancient times. Though legends appear for a certain reason, historians and archaeologists tend to agree that the initial settlement was probably formed when Gallaecia was integrated into the Roman Empire (1st century BCE). Pontevedra, which means “the old bridge”, in reference to an old Roman bridge across the Lérez River, is sometimes poetically called The City of Teucro, and its inhabitants teucrinos – like the Trojans.(g)
Up to now, with the sole exception of Teucer attacking Cyprus in collaboration with the Phoenicians and representing the people who found refuge there (well, at the expense of the locals), we have seen no Hellenes fighting alongside the Sea Peoples, but rather against them, in the Trojan War. It is what Sanford Holst already said in our previous Chronicle:
“The Mycenaeans attacked the Anatolian people from the seaward side. To deal with this problem, warriors and ships in the Sea Peoples confederacy poured from Anatolia and the Black Sea into the Aegean, where they ravaged the Mycenaeans.”
Let us try to verify this in Wikipedia:
“The invaders, that is, the replacement cultures at those sites, apparently made no attempt to retain the cities’ wealth but instead built new settlements of a materially simpler cultural and less complex economic level atop the ruins. For example, no one appropriated the palace and rich stores at Pylos, but all were burned up, and the successors (whoever they were) moved in over the ruins with plain pottery and simple goods. This demonstrates a cultural discontinuity.”
This may demonstrate a logical discontinuity, as well! The author leaves the question of who the invaders were open. However, he/she identifies them with “the replacement cultures”, who were stupid enough to “burn up the palace and rich stores” instead of appropriating them. Quite simply, the invaders had no plan to settle there; they went there just to destroy: they were not “the replacement cultures”.
The Anatolians predominated among the Sea Peoples but were not alone. Names of tribes with dubious or unknown origin are several in the Egyptian files – like the Shekelesh, probably the Siculi, who moved to Sicily from the Italian mainland.
“There was a gigantic series of migratory waves, extending all the way from the Danube valley to the plains of China”, Michael Grant comments, and Moses I. Finley agrees: “A large-scale movement of people is indicated… The original centre of disturbance was in the Carpatho-Danubian region of Europe… pushing in different directions at different times.”
However, if we have faith in Michael Wood, they were Greeks:
“Were the sea peoples in part actually composed of Mycenaean Greeks – rootless migrants, warrior bands and condottieri on the move? Certainly there seem to be suggestive parallels between the war gear and helmets of the Greeks and those of the Sea Peoples”. Moreover, including the Sherden and Shekelesh among the ‘villains’, he reminds us that “there were migrations of Greek-speaking peoples to [Sardinia and Sicily] at this time”. Troy, he concludes, “was sacked by essentially [!] Greek Sea Peoples”…(h)
Michael Wood is not alone, too. The identification of the Denyen and Ekwesh with the Danaans and Achaeans respectively are long-standing issues in Bronze Age scholarship, especially as the “suspects” lived “in the isles”…(i) Were the Egyptian scribes so naïve to use two names for one and the same people? What kind of Bronze Age scholars are they if they (pretend to) ignore that Achaeans and Danaans are synonymous terms? Have they not been schooled in the Iliad? Homer mentions the name Achaeans 598 times; Danaans 138 times; Argives 182 times; and Hellenes only once. According to a version of the myth, they were ancestors of the Greeks and their tribes: Hellen, Graecos, Magnes, and Macedon (Makednos) were sons of Deucalion and Pyrrha, the only survivors of the Great Flood. Sons of Hellen were Dorus, Xuthus, and Aeolus; sons of Xuthus were Ion and Achaeus. Danaus from Egypt, Pelops from Anatolia, and Cadmus from Phoenicia gained a foothold in Greece and were assimilated and Hellenized. At least for the Danaans, perhaps due to their ‘Egyptian’ origin, there is some “flexibility”: they are either identified with the people of Adana in Cilicia, or possibly related to the land of the Danuna near Ugarit in Syria, or perhaps they are rumoured to have joined Hebrews to form one of the original 12 tribes of Israel, that of Dan.
The major event in Pharaoh Merneptah‘s reign (1213-1203 BCE) was a war against a confederacy termed the ‘Nine Bows’ acting under the leadership of the king of Libya. The pharaoh states that he defeated the invasion, killing 6,000 soldiers and taking 9,000 prisoners. To be sure of the numbers, among other things, he took the penises of all uncircumcised dead and the hands of all the circumcised. We mention this macabre detail because, as it turned out, the Ekwesh were circumcised, a fact that would certainly have obliged any Bronze Age scholar to ‘acquit’ the Greeks.(j)
The next round in this protracted war took place some three decades later, during the reign of Ramses III (1186-1155 BCE), the last great pharaoh of Egypt. His inscriptions state that the ‘Nine Bows’ re-appeared as a “conspiracy in their isles”. Most tribes mentioned above were there again; we also learn that there were at least two great battles, one in the sea and the other on the land.
“When it was over”, the Wikipedia article on the Sea Peoples says, “several chiefs were captive: of Hatti, Amor, and Shasu among the ‘land peoples’, and the Tjeker, ‘Sherden of the sea’, ‘Teresh of the sea’ and Peleset or Philistines (in whose name some have seen the ancient Greek name for sea people: Pelasgians).”
What conclusions can we draw? We are surprised first of all since our scholars were not… surprised at all when they read about a Hittite chief among the captives: Hatti had been a Sea Peoples’ arch-enemy – and one of their greatest victims! But scholars are usually aware of such “details” and are not taken by surprise. Furthermore, the same thing had happened before and the pharaoh’s complaints had been officially forwarded to the Hittite monarch – as long as the Hittite kingdom still existed. OK, but why don’t they bother to explain, instead of wasting their time trying to involve the Greeks in this… “conspiracy theory”? We eventually realize that the destruction of the established civilizations, above all the Hittite and Mycenaean, was a deliberate tactics of the Sea Peoples to garner more strength at sea and amass land forces, as well. After all, the empires belonged to the aristocracies, Hittite or Mycenaean. What else could a desperate Hellene or a destitute Anatolian do under the circumstances but to follow the peoples with whom he shared the same aspirations for a better life? But what a pity for our scholars: not even one Greek among the captive chiefs… He probably managed to escape! The other captives were chiefs of the Amorites, who lived in Syria and part of Mesopotamia, and possibly of the Hebrews: Shasu is a term for nomad wanderers, and at least one of their tribes worshipped the Jewish god Yahweh. The rest were captains of ships. The pharaoh concluded his report as follows: “I slew the Denyen in their isles” and “burned” the Tjeker and Peleset… He thus implied some maritime raids of his own, some punitive expeditions elsewhere in the Mediterranean. In the Aegean? Where, what and whose were these “isles”? Whatever the answers, the chain reaction of the raids went on; it was the Egyptians’ turn to destroy – but destruction bears no signature.
The destruction of the established civilizations was a deliberate tactics of the Sea Peoples to garner more strength at sea and amass land forces, as well. After all, the empires belonged to the aristocracies, Hittite or Mycenaean. What else could a desperate Hellene or a destitute Anatolian do under the circumstances but to follow the peoples with whom he shared the same aspirations for a better life?
Homer mentions an Achaean attack upon the Nile delta, and Menelaus speaks of the same in the Odyssey recounting his own return home from the Trojan War. This was not the only such action by Mycenaeans against Egypt, where they went ‘just for the fun of it’, and some gain, of course. Taking into account the turbulence among and within the great Mycenaean royal families, the hypothesis that they may have destroyed themselves completely is long-standing and seems to find support by the reputable historian Thucydides:
“For in early times the Hellenes and the barbarians of the coast and islands… were tempted to turn to piracy, under the conduct of their most powerful men… They would fall upon a town unprotected by walls… and would plunder it… no disgrace being yet attached to such an achievement, but even some glory.”