Cretan Lie and Historical Truth: Examining Odysseus’ Raid on Egypt in its Late Bronze Age Context

Jeffrey P. Emanuel [1]


Though Odysseus’ ainos in Odyssey xiv 199–359 is presented as a fictional tale within Homer’s larger myth, some elements have striking analogs in historical reality. This paper examines the “Cretan Lie” within its fictive Late Bronze–Early Iron Age context for the purpose of identifying and evaluating those elements that parallel historical reality, with a particular focus on three aspects of the tale: Odysseus’ declaration that he led nine successful maritime raids prior to the Trojan War; his description of a similar, though ill–fated, assault on Egypt; and his claim not only of having been spared in the wake of the Egyptian raid, but of spending a subsequent seven years in the land of the pharaohs, during which he gathered great wealth. Through a comparative examination of literary and archaeological evidence, it is shown that these aspects of Odysseus’ story are not only reflective of the historical reality surrounding the time in which the epic is set, but that Odysseus’ fictive experience is remarkably similar to the experience of one specific member of the ‘Sea Peoples’ groups best known from 19th and 20th dynasty Egyptian records.


The “Cretan Lie” of Odyssey xiv 199–359 is, to use Gregory Nagy’s artful description, a “masterpiece of mythmaking” (2013:10§45). [2] Even within the poetic framework of the epic, the story Odysseus tells to Eumaios is not “true.” However, as can be the case in epic and oral tradition, [3] there is a measure of historical truth transmitted within the received fiction – or, in the case of the Cretan Lie, the fiction within a fiction.
Of the many narrative strains embedded within the many–sided man’s ainos, three are of particular note here: Odysseus’ declaration that he led nine successful maritime raids prior to the Trojan War; his description of a similar, though ill–fated, assault on Egypt; and his claim not only of having been spared in the wake of the Egyptian raid, but of having spent a subsequent seven years in the land of the pharaohs, during which he gathered great wealth. In this paper, I explore the Cretan Lie within its fictive Late Bronze–Early Iron Age [4] context for the purpose of demonstrating not only that these aspects of Odysseus’ story are reflective of historical reality in the time at which the epic is set, but that Odysseus’ fictive experience is remarkably analogous to the experience of one specific member of the ‘Sea Peoples’ groups known from 19th and 20th dynasty Egyptian records, the so-called “Šrdn of the sea” (Fig. 1). [5]

Seaborne Threats and Refuge Settlements

πρὶν μὲν γὰρ Τροίης ἐπιβήμεναι υἷας Ἀχαιῶν
εἰνάκις ἀνδράσιν ἄρξα καὶ ὠκυπόροισι νέεσσιν
ἄνδρας ἐς ἀλλοδαπούς, καί μοι μάλα τύγχανε πολλά.
For before the sons of the Achaeans set foot on the land of Troy, I had nine times led warriors and swift-faring ships against foreign folk, and great spoil had ever fallen to my hands. Of this I would choose what pleased my mind, and much I afterwards obtained by lot.
Odyssey xiv 229–232 [6]
Seaborne threats to coastal polities were present in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean long before the end of the 13th century BC. However, evidence from several sources suggests that they increased in number and severity as the age of Bronze gave way to that of Iron (inter alia, Baruffi 1998:10–13, 188; Hurwit 1985:49; Nowicki 1996:285; Wachsmann 1998:320–21). [7] In the Aegean world, scenes of naval warfare appear for the first time on Mycenaean pottery in Transitional Late Helladic (LH) IIIB–IIIC Early or LH IIIC Early (Figs. 2–4), while Linear B tablets from the last days of Pylos appear to communicate an effort to coordinate a large–scale defensive action or evacuation in response to a heightened threat from the coast. [8]
Further evidence for a growing threat from the sea at this time can be seen in settlement changes and destructions around the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean, including at Odysseus’ fictive home port of Crete (Kanta 1980:30; Andreadaki-Vlasaki 1991:405; Rehak and Younger 1998:166–8). [9] Settlements across Crete appear to have been abandoned or destroyed at the end of Late Minoan (LM) IIIB ca. 1200 BC, while new sites with larger, more concentrated populations were founded in defensible areas of the island, both inland and on coastal hilltops (Nowicki 1987:217; 2001:25–36; 2011). The inland refuge settlements seem to have been a reaction to a new, or more serious, threat from the sea (Nowicki 2001:37; also Desborough 1973:62-9; Watrous 1975:326; Rehak and Younger 1988:167; Nowicki 1994:268). The coastal hilltop settlements, on the other hand, were primarily founded on rocky promontories overlooking the water. These not only provided for early warnings of approaching ships, but they may have been used as bases for seaborne raiding of exactly the type claimed by Odysseus (Nowicki 1996:285; 2001:29–30). [10]
Seaborne piracy, like all sailing in the ancient Mediterranean, was a seasonal pursuit, and the same groups seem to have partaken in it on an annual basis. [11] Two texts in particular which will be discussed more fully below, a Hittite document (CTH 27) and a letter from the Amarna archives (EA 38), speak of “often raiding the land of Alašiya and taking captives” and sea raiders who “year by year seize villages,” respectively. Additionally, the Tanis II rhetorical stela of Ramesses II, also discussed in greater detail below, refers to the piratical Šrdn as those “whom none could ever fight against” – a reference which likely means that they, too, had been raiding coastal settlements for several years prior to that point. Given the seasonality of shipping and Odysseus’ claim of raiding as an occupation that made him very wealthy, it seems likely that his claim of nine successful conquests is in fact a veiled reference to raids that were regularly carried out over the course of multiple years – perhaps as many as nine.

Crew size and ship capacity

ἐννέα νῆας στεῖλα, θοῶς δ᾽ ἐσαγείρ ε το λαός.
Nine ships I fitted out, and the host gathered speedily.
Odyssey XIV 248
The nine vessels outfitted by Odysseus may seem like a rather ineffective “fleet” at first blush. However, it is important to bear in mind the type and potential capacity of the hero’s ships. It is around this time that a new type of sailing vessel, the Helladic oared galley, appears to have been introduced in the Aegean (Figs. 1–7). [12] Propelled primarily by rowers and designed specifically for speed, the galley was “best suited for raiding, piracy, and sea–based warfare,” (Wedde 1999:470), and its invention has been called “the single most significant advance in the weaponry of the Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean” (Wedde 1999:465). [13]
Further, painted pottery provides evidence for the use of pentekonters, or galleys rowed by fifty men (twenty–five on each side), as early as LH IIIB–IIIC. A LH IIIC pyxis from Tholos Tomb 1 at Tragana (near Pylos) features a ship with twenty–four vertical stanchions, [14] thereby separating the rowers’ gallery into twenty–five sections (Fig. 5). A LM IIIB larnax from Gazi on Crete features a large ship with what appears to be twenty–seven stanchions, which could signify a ship crewed by even more than fifty men (Fig. 6) – though, as the “horizontal ladder” motif used to represent rowers’ galleries on Late Helladic ship depictions also seems to have served to address a certain horror vacui on the part of Mycenaean artists (cf. Wachsmann 1998:figs. 7.7, 7.27, 7.30–31), it seems more likely that the Gazi painter intended to portray a pentekonter than a ship with fifty–four oarsmen (Wachsmann 1998:138). The Kynos A vessel (Fig. 2, right), which features 19 oars and schematically–rendered rowers, may also have been intended as a pentekonter that the artist was forced to abbreviate due to space constraints (Wachsmann 1998:132).
A remarkable recently-published model of a Helladic oared galley from a tomb at Gurob in Egypt may provide further evidence both for the use of pentekonters in the years surrounding the Late Bronze–Early Iron transition, and for the employment of the Helladic oared galley by Šrdn sailors (Wachsmann 2013; see below). [15] Like the vessels shown on LH IIIB and IIIC pottery, the polychromatic model features stanchions and a stempost decorated with what may be an upturned bird’s head. [16] Also present is the bow projection at the junction of stempost and keel, shown on some depictions of Late Helladic ships, which would become a standard feature of oared galleys in the Iron Age (this is discussed further below). Flanking the model are rows of black dots, interpreted by Wachsmann as oarports, whose number and spacing make it probable that the vessel after which the model was patterned was also manned by fifty rowers (Fig. 7).
Crews of roughly this size may also be attested in aforementioned “rower tablets” from Pylos. An 610 records approximately 600 oarsmen, while An 1 lists thirty rowers who are being summoned to man a single ship, a triakonter. If the ships crewed by the men of An 610 were pentekonters, the 600–man force would be enough to man only twelve ships. Even if they were triakonters, like the vessel crewed by the An 1 rowers, there would only be enough to fully man twenty ships. Whether the ships sailed on Odysseus’ Egyptian raid were in fact fifty-oared pentekonters or thirty-oared triakonters, his nine vessels may well have carried between 360 and 450 combatants – certainly enough to carry out a raid on a coastal settlement.
Two late 13th–early 12th c. texts from Ugarit attest to the panic small numbers of ships could sew in the inhabitants of coastal targets. The first, RS 20.238, is addressed from King Ammurapi of Ugarit to the King of Alašiya (Cyprus):
“My father, now the ships of the enemy have been coming. They have been setting fire to my cities and have done harm to the land. Doesn’t my father know that all of my infantry and [chariotry] are stationed in Ḫatti, and that all of my ships are stationed in the land of Lukka? They haven’t arrived back yet, so the land is thus prostrate. May my father be aware of this matter. Now the seven ships of the enemy which have been coming have done harm to us. Now if other ships of the enemy turn up, send me a report somehow(?) so that I will know.”
RS 20.238 (Beckman 1994:27)
The second, RS 20.18, is addressed from the prefect of Alašiya to King Ammurapi:
“But now, (the) twenty enemy ships – even before they would reach the mountain (shore) – have not stayed around but have quickly moved on, and where they have pitched camp we do not know. I am writing you to inform and protect you. Be aware!”
RS 20.18 (Hoftijzer and Van Soldt 1998:343)

The need for speed (and stealth)

οἱ δ᾽ ὕβρει εἴξαντες, ἐπισπόμενοι μένεϊ σφῷ,
αἶψα μάλ᾽ Αἰγυπτίων ἀνδρῶν περικαλλέας ἀγροὺς
πόρθεον, ἐκ δὲ γυναῖκας ἄγον καὶ νήπια τέκνα,
αὐτούς τ᾽ ἔκτεινον· τάχα δ᾽ ἐς πόλιν ἵκετ᾽ ἀϋτή.
οἱ δὲ βοῆς ἀΐοντες ἅμ᾽ ἠοῖ φαινομένηφιν
ἦλθον· πλῆτο δὲ πᾶν πεδίον πεζῶν τε καὶ ἵππων
χαλκοῦ τε στεροπῆς· ἐν δὲ Ζεὺς τερπικέραυνος
φύζαν ἐμοῖς ἑτάροισι κακὴν βάλεν, οὐδέ τις ἔτλη
μεῖναι ἐναντίβιον· περὶ γὰρ κακὰ πάντοθεν ἔστη.
ἔνθ᾽ ἡμέων πολλοὺς μὲν ἀπέκτανον ὀξέϊ χαλκῷ,
τοὺς δ᾽ ἄναγον ζωούς, σφίσιν ἐργάζεσθαι ἀνάγκῃ.
But my comrades, yielding to wantonness, and led on by their own might, straightway set about wasting the fair fields of the men of Egypt; and they carried off the women and little children, and slew the men; and the cry came quickly to the city. Then, hearing the shouting, the people came forth at break of day, and the whole plain was filled with footmen, and chariots and the flashing of bronze. But Zeus who hurls the thunderbolt cast an evil panic upon my comrades, and none had the courage to hold his ground and face the foe; for evil surrounded us on every side. So then they slew many of us with the sharp bronze, and others they led up to their city alive, to work for them perforce.
Odyssey xiv 262–272
The combination of small raiding parties and heavily militarized targets (with Egypt serving as an excellent example of the latter) meant that success in piratical endeavors was dependent on a combination of speed, stealth, and – above all – the avoidance of conflict with professional soldiers (Ormerod 1924:31; Wachsmann 1998:320). As Oliver Dickinson has noted, “raiders and pirates in the Aegean and elsewhere…historically tended to operate in relatively small groups, whose basic tactic would be fast sweeps to gather up what could be easily taken, whether human captives, livestock, or portable loot” (2006:48).
This not only required the adoption of new sailing technology, but it also required the development of tactics that could satisfy such a life–and–death need for stealth and celerity. [17] One such tactic was the deliberate beaching of vessels, which allowed attackers to disembark and conduct their raid as quickly as possible. The fastest way to land, and disembark from, a vessel is to row it bow first directly up onto the beach. The aforementioned keel extensions seen on some depictions of Helladic oared galleys, on the Sea Peoples vessels in the naval battle at Medinet Habu (Fig. 8), and on the Gurob ship–cart model may have served as beaching aids, allowing raiders’ ships to sail more easily up onto land for the purpose of facilitating a rapid disembarkation (Kirk 1949:125–7; Wachsmann 2013:70; Wedde 1999:469). [18] Such a technique is described elsewhere in Odyssey, when the Phaeacians, returning Odysseus to Ithaca, beach their vessel for the purpose of quickly offloading their human cargo:
ἔνθ᾽ οἵ γ᾽ εἰσέλασαν, πρὶν εἰδότες. ἡ μὲν ἔπειτα
ἠπείρῳ ἐπέκελσεν, ὅσον τ᾽ ἐπὶ ἥμισυ πάσης,
σπερχομένη· τοῖον γὰρ ἐπείγετο χέρσ᾽ ἐρετάων
The ship, hard-driven, ran up onto the beach for as much as
half her length, such was the force the hands of the oarsmen
gave her. [19]
Odyssey xiii 113–115

Pylos, Aḫḫiyawa, and the ra-wi-ja-ja

Traces of the sea raiders referenced in the aforementioned texts from the last days of Ugarit can be found in several other LBA literary sources, as well. In both Amarna Letters [20] and Hittite documents, they can be found intercepting ships at sea (e.g. EA 105, 114), conducting blockades (e.g. EA 126), and carrying out coastal raids (e.g. CTH 147:181; EA 38). [21]
The Hittites in particular, who were not historically inclined toward maritime affairs, seem to have been forced to look to the sea with more interest in the waning years of the LBA, possibly as a result of the threat posed by an increase in coastal raiding. Two texts especially stand out in this regard. In the first, the Hittite king writes to the prefect of Ugarit about the Šikala “who live on ships,” and requests that a Ugaritian who had been taken captive by them be sent to Ḫattuša so that the king can question him about this people and their homeland: [22]
“…I, His Majesty, had issued him an order concerning Ibnadušu, whom the people from Šikala – who live on ships – had abducted.
Herewith I send Nirga’ili, who is kartappu with me, to you. And you, send Ibnadušu, whom the people from Šikala had abducted, to me. I will question him about the land Šikala, and afterwards he may leave for Ugarit again.”
RS 34.129 (trans. Hoftijzer and van Soldt 1998:343)
The second text, attributed to the last Hittite king, Šuppiluliuma II (ca. 1207-1178 BC), mentions a series of three naval skirmishes against the “ships of Alašiya,” followed by a land battle (presumably against the same people he had fought at sea):
“The ships of Alašiya met me in the sea three times for battle, and I smote them; and I seized the ships and set fire to them in the sea.
But when I arrived on dry land(?), the enemies from Alašiya came in multitude against me for battle. I [fought] them, and [……] me [……]...”
KBo XII 38 (trans. Güterbock 1967:78)
The latter is reminiscent of Ramesses III’s (1183–1152 BC) claims to have fought land and sea battles against migratory Sea Peoples, which would have taken place during this same chronological timeframe. [23] This raises the question of whether Šuppiluliuma was facing repeated waves of raiders or migrant warriors, while clearly reinforcing the aforementioned threat felt from the previously distant Mediterranean coast during the Hittite Empire’s last days. Rather than belonging to the Alašiyan state, it is likely that the vessels against which Šuppiluliuma fought were called “ships of Alašiya” because they had either sailed eastward via, or launched from a captured portion of, Cyprus (contra Linder 1973:319). While the island had long been a target of seaborne raids, [24] textual evidence also supports the use of Cyprus as a base for launching raids against coastal polities in the eastern Mediterranean in the LBA, [25] much as Odysseus claims to have done from Crete.

Aḫḫiyawa and foreign women

ἐκ πόλιος δ᾽ ἀλόχους καὶ κτήματα πολλὰ λαβόντες
δασσάμεθ᾽, ὡς μή τίς μοι ἀτεμβόμενος κίοι ἴσης.
There I sacked the city and slew the men; and from the city we took their wives and great store of treasure…
Odyssey ix 41–42
ἐμὲ δ᾽ ὠνητὴ τέκε μήτηρ / παλλακίς
a bought woman, a concubine, was my mother.
Odyssey xiv 202–203 [26]
References in Hittite texts to an entity called Aḫḫiyawa, which has largely been accepted as referring to territory within the eastern Aegean–western Anatolian interface, if not to Mycenae proper, [27] frequently mention both raids and captives (the NAM.RAmeš), and thus may serve as evidence for Aegean seafarers obtaining slaves and other booty through such means (cf. Odyssey xiv 229–232 mentioned above; also Bryce 1992:126–7). A representative example is also the earliest mention of Aḫḫiyawa in the Hittite records: [28] the so–called Indictment of Madduwatta (CTH 27 = KBo 14.1), which refers to frequent Aḫḫiyawan raids on Cyprus:
“‘His Majesty said as follows [about the land of Alašiya]: “Because [the land] of Alašiya belongs to My Majesty, [and the people of Alašiya] pay [me tribute – why have you continually raided it?’” But] Madduwatta said as follows: ‘[When Attarissiya and] the ruler [of Piggaya] were raiding the land of Alašiya, I often raided it too.”
CTH 27 (= KBo 14.1; Beckman 1999:151)
The Linear B tablets may provide a glimpse of the results of such raids. Women from Lemnos (ra-mi-ni–ja = Lâmniai), Chios (ki-si-wi-ja = Kswiai), Miletos (mi-ra-ti-ja = Milatiai), Knidos (ki-ni-di-ja = Knidiai), Halikarnassos (ze-pu 2- ra 3 = Dzephurrai), and Asia (a-*64-ja = Aswiai) are all represented in the Pylian archives, where they appear among those listed as dependents of the palace, receiving rations from the state. (Michailidou and Voutsa 2005:19; Yasur–Landau 2010:40). Meanwhile, people referred to as ra-wi-ja-ja (= lâwiai) ‘women taken as booty’ or ‘captives’ also appear in multiple Pylian tablets (PY Aa 807, Ab 596, and Ad 686), though unfortunately no mention is made of their homeland(s) (Chadwick 1988:80, 83; Ergin 2007:273).
As might be expected, such a theme appears repeatedly in Homer. Consider, for example, Odyssey ix 41–42 (cited above), as well as Iliad XX 193 (ληϊάδας δὲ γυναῖκας ἐλεύθερον ἦμαρ ἀπούρας / ἦγον). More relevantly, consider Odyssey xiv 202–203 (ἐμὲ δ᾽ ὠνητὴ τέκε / μήτηρ παλλακίς; also cited above) from the Cretan Lie itself, wherein Odysseus claims to be the son of a woman who was purchased as a slave. How the hero’s fictional mother was acquired is not mentioned, but the apparent precedent in Hittite and Linear B texts for Mycenaeans taking female captives certainly raises the possibility that she came to Crete via a similar seaborne raid.


αὐτὰρ ἔπειτα
Αἴγυπτόνδε με θυμὸς ἀνώγει ναυτίλλεσθαι,
νῆας ἐῢ στείλαντα σὺν ἀντιθέοις ἑτάροισιν.
And then to Egypt did my spirit bid me voyage with my godlike comrades, when I had fitted out my ships with care.
Odyssey xiv 245–247
The polities of the Aegean, Anatolia, and the Levantine coast were not the only victims of seaborne attackers during the Late Bronze Age and in the years surrounding the LBA–Iron I transition. Evidence from the mid–14th c. BC onward shows that the land of the pharaohs bore no special immunity to maritime marauding, either. The historical precedents for Odysseus’ raid on Egypt can be seen both directly, in accounts of coastal attacks, and indirectly, in records of defensive measures taken to combat such assaults. An example of the latter can be seen in an inscription of Amenhotep son of Hapu, a public official under Amenhotep III (1388–1351 BC), which refers to the need to secure the Nile Delta against a seaborne threat:
“I placed troops at the heads of the way(s) to turn back the foreigners in their places. The two regions were surrounded with a watch scouting for the Sand–rangers. I did likewise at the heads of the river–mouths, which were closed under my troops except to the troops of royal marines.”
Inscription of Amenhotep Son of Hapu (Helck 1958:1821.13f)
Additionally, in a letter to Akhenaten (1351–1334 BC) from the el–Amarna archive, the King of Alašiya responds to an accusation of Cypriot involvement in a raid on Egypt by recounting annual raids carried out by “men of Lukki” against his own villages:
“Why, my brother, do you say such a thing to me, “Does my brother not know this?” As far as I am concerned, I have done nothing of the sort. Indeed, men of Lukki, year by year, seize villages in my own country.”
EA 38 (Moran 1992:111)

“He has destroyed the warriors of the Great Green…”

ἐν δὲ Ζεὺς τερπικέραυνος
φύζαν ἐμοῖσ' ἑτάροισι κακὴν βάλεν, οὐδέ τις ἔτλη
μεῖναι ἐναντίβιον· περὶ γὰρ κακὰ πάντοθεν ἔστη.
ἔνθ' ἡμέων πολλοὺς μὲν ἀπέκτανον ὀξέϊ χαλκῷ,
τοὺς δ' ἄναγον ζωούς, σφίσιν ἐργάζεσθαι ἀνάγκῃ.
αὐτὰρ ἐμοὶ Ζεὺς αὐτὸς ἐνὶ φρεσὶν ὧδε νόημα
ποίησ'· ὡς ὄφελον θανέειν καὶ πότμον ἐπισπεῖν
αὐτοῦ ἐν Αἰγύπτῳ· ἔτι γάρ νύ με πῆμ' ὑπέδεκτο·
αὐτίκ' ἀπὸ κρατὸς κυνέην εὔτυκτον ἔθηκα
καὶ σάκος ὤμοιϊν, δόρυ δ' ἔκβαλον ἔκτοσε χειρός·
αὐτὰρ ἐγὼ βασιλῆος ἐναντίον ἤλυθον ἵππων
καὶ κύσα γούναθ' ἑλών· ὁ δ' ἐρύσατο καί μ' ἐλέησεν,
ἐς δίφρον δέ μ' ἕσας ἄγεν οἴκαδε δάκρυ χέοντα.
ἦ μέν μοι μάλα πολλοὶ ἐπήϊσσον μελίῃσιν,
ἱέμενοι κτεῖναι – δὴ γὰρ κεχολώατο λίην–
ἀλλ' ἀπὸ κεῖνος ἔρυκε, Διὸς δ' ὠπίζετο μῆνιν
ξεινίου, ὅς τε μάλιστα νεμεσσᾶται κακὰ ἔργα.
But Zeus who hurls the thunderbolt cast an evil panic upon my comrades, and none had the courage to hold his ground and face the foe; for evil surrounded us on every side. So then they slew many of us with the sharp bronze, and others they led up to their city alive, to work for them perforce. But in my heart Zeus himself put this thought—I would that I had rather died and met my fate there in Egypt, for still was sorrow to give me welcome. Straightway I put off from my head my well-wrought helmet, and the shield from off my shoulders, and let the spear fall from my hand, and went toward the chariot horses of the king. I clasped, and kissed his knees, and he delivered me, and took pity on me, and, setting me in his chariot, took me weeping to his home. Verily full many rushed upon me with their ashen spears, eager to slay me, for they were exceeding angry. But he warded them off, and had regard for the wrath of Zeus, the stranger's god, who above all others hath indignation at evil deeds.
Odyssey xiv 268–284
Further evidence for such threats can be found in the formulaic Aswan stela of Ramesses II’s (1279–1213 BC) second year, in which he claims among other conquests to have “destroyed the warriors of the Great Green (Sea),” so that Lower Egypt can “spend the night sleeping peacefully” (de Rougé 1877:253.8; Kitchen 1996:182).
The Egyptians first give a specific name to these troublesome sea raiders in the aforementioned Tanis II rhetorical stela, one of twelve “triumph–hymn” stelae originally erected at Ramesses II’s capital of Pi–Ramesse and later transshipped to the eastern Delta city of Tanis (Yoyotte 1949:58; Kitchen 1999:173; 2004:264). The stela tells of the “Šrdn…whom none could withstand” who “sailed in warships from the midst of the Sea,” and claims the pharaoh defeated and imprisoned them:
“(As for) the Sherden of rebellious mind, whom none could ever fight against, who came bold–[hearted, they sailed in], in warships from the midst of the Sea, those whom none could withstand;
[He plundered them by the victories of his valiant arm, they being carried off to Egypt] – (even by) King of S & N Egypt, Usimare Setepenre, Son of Re, Ramesses II, given life like Re.”
Tanis II Rhetorical Stela (Kitchen 1996:120)

Life, prosperity, and health in the land of the Pharaohs

ἔνθα μὲν ἑπτάετες μένον αὐτόθι, πολλὰ δ' ἄγειρα
χρήματ' ἀν' Αἰγυπτίους ἄνδρας· δίδοσαν γὰρ ἅπαντες.
There then I stayed seven years, and much wealth did I gather among the Egyptians, for all men gave me gifts.
Odyssey xiv 285–286
The Tanis II rhetorical stela marks the first of many Ramesside claims to have captured named maritime foes. [29] Despite Ramesses II’s typical bombast, though, those Šrdn who were “carried off to Egypt” did not languish in prison or spend the rest of their days serving the state as slave laborers, as the survivors of Odysseus’ fictional raiding party were said to have done. Rather, like Odysseus himself, they appear to have been welcomed into Egypt and allowed to profit from the employment of their unique skills, which were utilized in the direct service of the pharaoh. Already in the fifth year of Ramesses II’s reign, for example, Šrdn appear as members of the Pharaonic bodyguard at the battle of Qidš (1275 BC) against the Hittite forces of Muwatallis II (Breasted 1906:2–3; Spalinger 2005:256) – surely a place of high honor among soldiers, as well as one requiring great trust.
The place of honor afforded those Šrdn who gave allegiance to Egypt can be seen in §75 of the Great Harris Papyrus, wherein Ramesses III addresses “the officials and leaders of the land, the infantry, the chariotry, the Šrdn, the many bowmen, and all the souls of Egypt” (trans. Wilson 1974:260). Whatever their military role by this point, it is noteworthy that Šrdn is the only ethnikon employed in the pharaoh’s address to his people, the rest of whom are grouped solely by rank, title, and occupation.
Like the Odysseus of the Cretan Lie, the importance of the Šrdn within Egyptian military and society also earned them significant material benefits. This can be seen in particular in the Wilbour Papyrus, a land registry from the reign of Ramesses V covering portions of the Fayum region of Middle Egypt, including Gurob (Gardiner 1941:40; Faulkner 1953:44–5). [30] Among those listed in this text as land owners and occupiers are 109 Šrdn, “standard–bearers of the Šrdn,” and “retainers of the Šrdn.” Of the 59 plots assigned to Šrdn in the Wilbour Papyrus, 42 are five arourae in size – an allocation commensurate with priests, standard bearers, stablemasters, and others of similarly high rank. [31] Further, the wealth bestowed on the pharaoh’s Šrdn in the form of land was not limited to a temporary inhabitation of this key Middle Egyptian oasis. Rather, their significant contributions were repaid with an equally significant reward: land they could pass down through the generations. [32]
It would be far from surprising if Šrdn fighters, like Odysseus, also accumulated significant material wealth. Papyrus Anastasi I, a text from the 19th and 20th dynasties that discusses proper preparation and provisioning for a mission to Canaan, lists 520 Šrdn among a mixed force of 5,000 soldiers. This suggests that, by midway through Ramesses II’s reign, they had already become a standard component of Egypt’s northern expeditionary forces. With regular exposure to warfare most likely came regular opportunities for plunder, which could be both taken individually and divided among the conquering forces after a successful siege or battle – much in the way that Šrdn pirates and Odysseus’ raiding crews likely divided the booty after their own successful raids:
τῶν ἐξαιρεύμην μενοεικέα, πολλὰ δ᾽ ὀπίσσω
λάγχανον: αἶψα δὲ οἶκος ὀφέλλετο, καί ῥα ἔπειτα
δεινός τ᾽ αἰδοῖός τε μετὰ Κρήτεσσι τετύγμην.
Of this I would choose what pleased my mind, and much I afterwards obtained by lot. Thus my house straightway grew rich, and thereafter I became one feared and honored among the Cretans.
Odyssey xiv 232–234
Rather than being a benefit of Egyptian generosity, it seems likely that the wealth Odysseus characterizes as being amassed via gifts from the Egyptians (δίδοσαν γὰρ ἅπαντες [Odyssey xiv 286, cited above]) was likewise gained through a division of plunder from further raids in which he was a (now-legitimate) participant.


The “master myth” of the Odyssey contains many fascinating micronarratives, each of which has its own individual grounding (or lack thereof) in historical truth. Though the stories Odysseus tells Eumaios are portrayed as fiction within Homer’s macronarrative, several of its elements have precedent in archaeological and literary records dating to the Late Bronze Age and the LBA–Iron I transition (LH IIIB-C).
Further, Odysseus’ fictitious experiences have a remarkable analogue in a very real and very specific group of sea raiders, the Šrdn, who set upon Egypt in their ships around the same time Odysseus claims to have carried out his ill–fated raid. This people is of uncertain origin, but their story is extraordinarily similar to the tales that make up Odysseus’ Cretan Lie: years of successful maritime raiding culminating in an ill–fated attempt on the Nile Delta, followed by a sojourn in Egypt during which they were valued as a part of society and made prosperous for their efforts. The two stories diverge as Odysseus’ seven year stay in Egypt draws to a close: while the nostos that makes up the Odyssey’s macronarrative dictated that its hero move on, those Šrdn who settled in Egypt were able to create a new home for themselves in the land of the pharaohs, complete with wives, children, and land they could pass down through generations.


QP Emanuel fig1

Figure 1. Captured Šrdn “prince” from an uncontextualized row of foreign captives on the front pavilion wall of Ramesses III’s mortuary temple at Medinet Habu. The image is captioned “Šrdn of the Sea” (after Epigraphic Survey 1970:Pl. 600b).

QP Emanuel fig2

Figure 2. Fragments of a krater from Pyrgos Livanaton (Kynos) featuring a naval combat scene (LH IIIC; Mountjoy 2011:485).

QP Emanuel fig3

Figure 3. Fragments of a locally–made krater from Bademgediği Tepe featuring a naval combat scene (Transitional LH IIIB–IIIC Early or LH IIIC Early; Mountjoy 2011:486).

QP Emanuel fig4

Figure 4. Fragment of a krater from Pyrgos Livanaton (Kynos) featuring a naval combat scene (LH IIIC; Wedde 2000:no. 6002).

QP Emanuel fig5

Figure 5. Ship depicted on the side of a LM IIIB larnax from Gazi (Wedde 2000:no. 608).

QP Emanuel fig6

Figure 6. Ship painted on a Late Helladic IIIC Early pyxis from Tragana (Wedde 2000:no. 643).

QP Emanuel fig7a QP Emanuel fig7b

Figure 7. (a) Model of a Helladic oared galley from a tomb in Gurob, Middle Egypt. (b) 3D reconstruction of the Gurob ship-cart model. (© Institute for the Visualization of History, Inc.)

QP Emanuel fig8

Figure 8. Sea Peoples ship N.4 from the naval battle depicted at Medinet Habu, crewed by possible Šrdn fighters (1175 BC; after Epigraphic Survey 1930:Pl. 39).


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[ back ] 1. It is with great pleasure that I dedicate this paper to a great mentor, friend, and colleague in Gregory Nagy, on the joyous occasion of his seventieth birthday.
[ back ] 2. “As a master of the ainos, Odysseus keeps on adapting his identity by making his noos fit the noos of the many different characters he encounters. And the multiple ainoi of Odysseus can thus be adapted to the master myth of the Odyssey” (Nagy 2013:10§45; cf. Nagy 2009:80).
[ back ] 3. See now Morris and Laffineur 2007.
[ back ] 4. The Near Eastern LBA–Iron I transition, which is traditionally placed in the vicinity of 1200 BC, is contemporaneous with the transitions from Late Helladic (LH) IIIB to the postpalatial LHIIIC in Greece, Late Minoan (LM) IIIB to LMIIIC on Crete, and LC IIIB-IIIC on Cyprus (see Hankey and Warren 1974:152 for one absolute chronology).
[ back ] 5. Šrdn (also ŠȜrdn; pl. Š[Ȝ]rdny) is commonly vocalized “Sherden.” For a more comprehensive biographical sketch of this group, see Emanuel 2013.
[ back ] 6. All translations of Odyssey come from Murray (1919), unless otherwise indicated.
[ back ] 7. E.g., RS 20.18 and EA 38, although in the latter the King of Alašiya is quick to protest that the raiders did not stage from an area under his control.
[ back ] 8. Three sets of tablets, commonly grouped together, are relevant here. The first, a group known as the o-ka tablets, list the disposition of military personnel – both “watchers” and e-qe-ta (= ἡπέτας) – assigned to the task of “guarding the coastal areas,” perhaps in the city’s waning days (Deger–Jalkotzy 1978:14; Hooker 1987:264). The second relevant record is a set of three texts (PY An 610, An 1, and An 724) commonly referred to as “rower tablets” for their references to e-re-ta (= ἐρέται) ‘rowers’ being called up to man what was most likely a fleet of galleys (Palmer 1980:143–4; Palaima 1991:286; Wachsmann 1998:159–61). The third, a single tablet (Jn 829), records the collection of bronze from Pylian temples for the purpose of forging “points for spears and javelins” – another martial reference, and a further suggestion of increased military readiness in response to an increasing coastal threat (Chadwick 1976:141).
[ back ] 9. E.g., RS 20.18 and EA 38, although in the latter the King of Alašiya is quick to protest that the raiders did not stage from an area under his control.
[ back ] 10. See also Schliardi (1992: 639) for similar sites in the Cyclades having been used as bases for piracy.
[ back ] 11. See Wachsmann (1998:320) for an interesting comparison of seasonal piracy in the ancient Mediterranean and seasonal Viking raids two millennia later.
[ back ] 12. Wedde has placed the galley’s development as early as the LH IIIA (late 15th and first half of the 14th centuries [Hankey and Warren 1974:152]), though he admittedly bases this on an “assum[ption] that the pictorial evidence post-dates the actual invention by some time” (1999: 468), wherein the value of “some time” is arbitrary. The first depictions of the oared galley (Wedde’s “Type V” [1999: Pl. XXXVIII]) appear in the LH IIIB, which extends from the latter half of the 14th to the beginning of the 12th centuries.
[ back ] 13. Wedde notes that “the history of the galley is the struggle to place as many rowers as possible into as small a hull as practical” (1999: 465).
[ back ] 14. Stanchions supported the superstructure and partial decking on Helladic oared galleys, while also serving to divide the rower’s gallery in ship representations.
[ back ] 15. That the ship model was a cult vessel is suggested by its wheeled cart, as well as its hole for a pavois, to which bars were attached for priestly porters to shoulder as they carried a cultic ship over land.
[ back ] 16. E.g., RS 20.18 and EA 38, although in the latter the King of Alašiya is quick to protest that the raiders did not stage from an area under his control.
[ back ] 17. Hara Georgiou has declared that “the island and coastal populations of the Aegean, the pirates, the raiders and the traders were surely the most innovative and experimental boat designers” (2010: 527). Additionally, the attribution that can be given the ‘Sea Peoples’ for the development, adoption, and transference of new maritime technologies was explored by the present author in “Egypt, the ‘Sea Peoples,’ and the Brailed Sail: Technological Transference in the Early Ramesside Period?,” a paper read to the 2012 annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research in Chicago, Illinois. An expanded version of that paper is currently being prepared for publication.
[ back ] 18. The prominence of these extensions, which also appear at the waterline in Late Helladic depictions (Fig. 2, right), and which would become a standard feature of oared galleys in the Iron Age, serve as the delineating feature between Wedde’s Type V and Type VI galleys (1999: 467).
[ back ] 19. Trans. Lattimore (1965).
[ back ] 20. On the miši people in the Amarna Letters, see especially Linder (1973: 317-324).
[ back ] 21. These raiders may be associated with (or seen as a precursor to) the ‘Sea Peoples’ of Ramesside Egyptian fame. These heterogeneous, shifting coalitions of foreigners, whose name comes from the Egyptian Pharaoh Merneptah’s 1213–1202 BC) Great Karnak Inscription (ca. 1207 BC) and from the writings of French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero (1881), included the Šrdn among their various members.
[ back ] 22. The Šikala have been connected to two groups of Sea Peoples from the records of Merneptah and Ramesses III: the Škrš (= šá-ka-lú-ša)(Lehmann 1979; Yon 1992:116) and the Škl (= ší-ka-ar)(Rainey 1982:134; Wachsmann 1982:297; 1998:359n10; Stager 1991:19n23). The Škrš appear alongside the Šrdn in the aforementioned Great Karnak Inscription and the Athribis Stela, two accounts of Merneptah’s battle against an invading coalition of Libyans and Sea Peoples. The Škrš also appear in Ramesses III’s records at Medinet Habu, while the Šrdn seem to be mentioned in their place in Ramesses’ posthumous Great Harris Papyrus. The Škl, on the other hand, are included in both of Ramesses III’s major accounts.
[ back ] 23. Though almost always ascribed to Ramesses III’s eighth year (1175 BC), these migratory land and sea invasions are mentioned in no less than five inscriptions at the pharaoh’s mortuary temple: the Great Inscriptions of Years 5 and 8, the text accompanying the naval battle relief, the South Rhetorical Stela of Year 12, and the “celebration of victory over the Sea Peoples.” A particularly relevant portion of Ramesses III’s Great Inscription of Year 8 reads:
“Those who reached my frontier [on land], their seed is not, their heart and their soul are finished forever and ever. Those who came forward together on the sea, the full flame was in front of them at the river–mouths, while a stockade of lances surrounded them on the shore. They were dragged in, enclosed, and prostrated on the beach, killed, and made into heaps from tail to head. Their ships and their goods were as if fallen into the water” (trans. Wilson 1974: 262–3).
[ back ] 24. E.g., CTH 27, dating from the 15th–14th c. BC, which speaks of “often” raiding the land of Alašiya and taking (most likely civilian) captives (see below).
[ back ] 25. E.g., RS 20.18 and EA 38, although in the latter the King of Alašiya is quick to protest that the raiders did not stage from an area under his control.
[ back ] 26. Trans. Lattimore (1965).
[ back ] 27. Theories about Aḫḫiyawa’s location within the eastern Aegean–western Anatolian interface have ranged from Troy(!) in the north (Zangger 1995) to Rhodes in the south (Mountjoy 1998). Others have placed Aḫḫiyawa everywhere from the Greek mainland, including Mycenae or Boeotian Thebes (Forrer 1924; Güterbock 1984:121; Redford 1992: 242–3), to Cilicia, Crete, and Cyprus (Niemeier 2011:18), to Thrace (Mellaart 1982:375; Easton 1984:33–5). For a further history of Aḫḫiyawa’s placement, and an archaeological assessment of theories put forth to date, see Niemeier (1998:20–23, with references).
Aḫḫiyawa’s place within the geopolitics of the LBA only slightly less uncertain than its geographic location. This status is exacerbated by a late 13th c. suzerain treaty between King Tudhaliya IV of Ḫatti and King Shaushga–Muwa of Amurru (CTH 105). In §11 of the document, the Hittite king declares, “[T]he Kings who are my equals in rank are the King of Egypt, the King of Babylonia, the King of Assyria, and the King of Aḫḫiyawa” (Beckman 1999:98-102). However, the name Aḫḫiyawa was later erased, perhaps by the same scribe who originally wrote the document (Beckman 1999:118n23; cf. Van de Mieroop 2007:102, 263n2). Prior to the Shaushga–Muwa treaty, Tudhaliya IV’s predecessor Hattusilis III had addressed the ruler of Aḫḫiyawa as an equal in a document erroneously referred to as the “Tawagalawa letter” (CTH 181; Bryce 1998:323; Baruffi, 1998:120n16; Singer 1983). This seems to support the fluid nature of LBA geopolitics, particularly on the periphery of the great empires of the age (Egypt, Babylonia, Hatti, and Assyria – which, in turn, had supplanted Mitanni as a Near Eastern power), while also pointing to the changes that were beginning to take place in the region as the end of the Bronze Age approached.
[ back ] 28. The Indictment of Madduwatta dates to LH IIIA1 or IIIA2 Early (Mountjoy 1998: 47).
[ back ] 29. Various Sea Peoples groups, including Šrdn, are claimed by name as victims and captives by Ramesses II in the Tanis II rhetorical stela and the Poem recounting his “victory” at Qidš; by Merneptah in the Great Karnak Inscription and Papyrus Anastasi II, as well as on the Aswan Stela, Cairo Column, Heliopolis Victory Column; and by Ramesses III in three of the five inscriptions at Medinet Habu that reference the Sea Peoples invasions, on the front pavilion wall at Medinet Habu, in the Great Harris Papyrus, and on a stela at Deir el-Medineh.
[ back ] 30. If the Gurob ship-cart model belonged to one of these Šrdn or their descendant, as Wachsmann has proposed (2013:206), then members of this group may have been sailing Helladic oared galleys as they plundered the coasts of the eastern Mediterranean – a fact that would tie them even more closely to the culture that spawned Homer’s Odyssey.
[ back ] 31. Soldiers were generally allocated three arourae (Katary 1989: 49).
[ back ] 32. E.g. §§59.27.19, and 150.59.9, and 150.59.25, which refer to land belonging to deceased Šrdn being “cultivated by the hand of [their] children.”