And so it was that the ancient Greeks were embarrassed around the other civilizations forever.
Just kidding, those people were incapable of being embarrassed! Just how many jokes about Zeus’s sexual escapades can I actually make? Stay tuned to find out!
After domination of Egypt by Alexander the Great, trade flourished between the ancient Greeks and the older Egyptian civilization. As Greeks made their way into Egypt, more than just material goods were passed back and forth. Concepts and philosophies were shared and the inquiring minds of the Greek people, upon learning of the religion of the Egyptians, began to draw parallels between their own gods and goddesses and the deities of the Nile. While much of what we know of as Greek mythology and religion today was fairly well formed by this point in history, the Greeks were no strangers to adopting and accepting religious concepts from outside their own borders. Greek religion did not spring forth fully-formed from nothing, instead it was created from a collection of religious concepts native to the area and influenced by the cultures that surrounded them. Community and conflict forged many early ideas into a cohesive philosophy and set of religious principles that we now know of as Greek myth.
The Greek interactions with the Egyptian people offered a mirror with which the Greek people could examine their own culture. Unlike most foreigners, the Greeks did not consider the Egyptians to be “barbarians”. Instead, they seem to have recognized the rich history, traditions, and knowledge native to the Nile River Valley. When Alexander conquered Egypt, he showed his respect for Egyptian religion and many Egyptians looked upon him as the coming of Amun. The Greeks, intrigued by Egyptian deities, compared gods and goddesses and would refer to Egyptian gods by Greek names or even create whole new religious concepts such as that of Hermes Trismegistus, the combination of the Greek Hermes and his perceived counterpart, the Egyptian Thoth.
While there were some basic connections to be made between the gods and goddesses of each civilization, it’s interesting looking back on the perception the Greeks had of their Egyptian counterparts. Greek concepts of their deities, though more fluid than more modern constructs, had much more solidified roles and personalities, even in their early days, whereas Egyptian gods were often combined to represent different concepts though it’s possible this practice was in decline by the Hellenstic Period.
The point of all this is that there was certainly a very lively exchange of ideas between the Greeks and Romans during the Hellenistic Period, the Ptolemaic, and for some time after. With all this talk, there’s no doubt that the Egyptians learned all about Zeus and his man-slut nonsense. It’s hard to imagine how they must have reacted to those stories. The Egyptians certainly didn’t shy away from weird sexual stories, Set bangs Horus, Horus impregnates Set, Isis bangs her dead husband after fashioning him a magical dong, etc, but there’s a very different tone, or at least there seems to be. The Greek stories of Zeus seem genuinely humorous and entertaining to us now and they were almost certainly seen as such back then as well. It’s hard to know for sure these days, but the Egyptian tales seem more respectful and almost mystical in their approach. Very odd stuff indeed.
Not to say that Zeus and Greek myth in general isn’t odd, it certainly is and it will always be funny. It’s too ridiculous not to be!
Thanks Ancient Greece!