Africa: Greek and Roman Perspectives from Homer to Apuleius

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1. Early Greek Contact with Africa

The earliest known contact between Greece and Africa occurred in the Bronze Age, during the fourteenth century BCE, when the Minoans began to trade with Egypt. The first narratives mentioning Greek contact with Africa are in the Homeric poems, which date to the eighth century BCE.

The Homeric poems contain reflections of Bronze Age civilization, although the poems themselves are from a later date. The Bronze Age is the time from which our earliest evidence for contact between Greece and Egypt comes. Besides Homer, we get evidence from material culture, art, and inscriptions containing place names. Without contemporary literary or historical narratives, we must piece together the nature of the interaction based primarily on images and objects.

1.1 Minoan Seafaring

The Minoan culture, centered on the island of Crete, flourished from the twenty-seventh to the fifteenth century BCE. Since they lived on an island, the sea and seafaring figured prominently in their culture and economy. Evidence that the Minoans constructed large sailing ships comes from seal stones and frescoes. [1] In addition, archaeologists have discovered stone anchors and even entire shipwrecks. [2]

1.2 Mycenaean Contact with Egypt

1.3 Written Sources

1.4 Myths of Africa: Ethiopians

In myth, Africa appears as a remote and mysterious place. Its people may be marked as different by their appearance and their relationship to the gods. Africa not only produces those who stand apart from he rest of the human race, but may conceal those who land on its shores, either protecting them or hindering their travels. In this way, Africa stands apart from the rest of the world. Those who go there may experience a sort of suspended animation, as they are removed from ongoing action elsewhere.

1.4.1 Homer Iliad 1.423–424 (8th c. BCE; Greek)

Thetis speaks to Achilles.

423    Zeus went yesterday to Ocean to a feast
          with the blameless Ethiopians, and all the gods followed.

1.4.2 Homer Iliad 23.205–207 (8th c. BCE; Greek)

1.4.3 Homer Odyssey 1.22–26 (8th c. BCE; Greek)

1.4.4 Hesiod Theogony 984–985 (c. 700 BCE; Greek)

1.4.5 Proclus Chrestomathia 2, excerpts (5th c. CE; Greek)

1.4.6 Pliny Natural History 6.187 (77–79 CE; Latin)

Pliny’s account of the origins of the name Ethiopia (from eponymous king Aethiops) also relates to burning.

The whole people had the name Aetheria, then Atlantia, and last Aethiopia, after Aethiops the son of Vulcan. It is no wonder that these remote places produce people and animals strange in appearance, through the speed and skill of fire to mold their bodies and sculpt their features.

1.5 Other Parts of Africa in Myth

Like Ethiopia, myths involving other parts of Africa accentuate the remoteness of Africa: Io ends her flight in Egypt, the Pygmies live in Africa on the shores of Ocean, and, in the version of the Troy story in which Helen does not go to Troy, Africa conceals her.

1.5.1 Ovid Metamorphoses 1.728–750, excerpts (c. 8 CE; Latin)

Zeus (Jupiter) transformed Io into a heifer to conceal from Hera (Juno) his relationship with Io. Hera caused a stinging fly to pursue Io to the ends of the earth.

1.5.2 Isidore of Seville Etymologies 14.5.1–3 (560–636 CE; Latin)

Isidore collects a number of earlier myths in his discussion of possible origins of African place-names.

Libya was named because the wind called Libs, also known as Africus, blows from there. Others say that Epaphus, son of Jupiter and founder of Memphis in Egypt, with his wife Cassiopeia, had a daughter named Libya, who later founded a kingdom in Africa. From her name, the land was called Libya. Moreover, some people think that Africa was named as though the word were aprica (“exposed to the sun”), because it is open to the sky and sun and does not have extreme cold. Others say that Africa got its name from a man called Afer, a descendent of Abraham and Cethura. Africa begins at the borders of Egypt and extends to the south through Ethiopia up to Mount Atlas. The Mediterranean Sea forms its northern border, which extends to the Straits of Gibraltar. It contains the provinces Libya, Cyrenensis, Pentapolis, Tripolis, Byzacium, Carthage, Numidia, Mauretania Sitifensis, Marretania Tingitana, and Ethiopia with the burning sun.

1.5.3 Pseudo-Apollodorus Library 2.1.4–5, excerpts (1st–2nd c. CE; Greek)

Apollodorus (now known as Pseudo-Apollodorus to distinguish him from the second-century BCE Apollodorus) collected numerous Greek myths. In this myth, Danaus and Aegyptus are twin brothers, one of whom represents Greece (Danaus) and one Egypt (Aegyptus). They have fifty daughters and fifty sons, respectively. A reconciliation between the brothers, cemented by arranged marriages between the daughters and sons, goes awry.

1.5.4 Homer Iliad 3.2–6 (8th c. BCE; Greek)

1.5.5 Euripides Helen 31–55 (412 BCE; Greek)

Helen describes how an image of her went to Troy, while she was spirited away to Egypt, where she remained hidden during the Trojan War.

          Hera, dissatisfied because she did not best the goddesses, [19]
          made my marriage to Paris a mere figment and
          gave the king’s son not me, but a breathing
          image fashioned out of sky that she made
35      to resemble me. And it seemed to him that
          he had me, although he did not, since it was
          an empty apparition. Again, the designs of Zeus joined
          other evils to these. For he brought war to the land
          of the Greeks and to the unfortunate Trojans, so that
40      he might relieve mother Earth of the multitude and throng
          of mortals and make the strongest man of the Greeks
          well-known. I, or more correctly my name,
          was handed over to the Trojans as a spear prize
          for the Greeks. Hermestook me in the folds
45      of the ether and hid me in a cloud—for Zeus had not
          forgotten about me—and settled me in the house of Proteus. [
          (He chose the most chaste of all mortals so that
          I might keep my marriage bed pure for Menelaus.)
          Thus, I am here, but my long-suffering husband has
50      amassed a army and traveled to the towers
          of Troy in pursuit of his plundered wife.
          Many souls have perished on the banks of the Scamander [
          on my account and I, who have suffered all these things,
          am cursed and I seem to have betrayed my husband
55      and engaged the Greeks in a great war.

1.5.6 Homer Odyssey 4.219–232 (8th c. BCE; Greek)

1.5.7 Homer Odyssey 4.351–397; 435–480 (8th c. BCE; Greek)

On his way home to Sparta after the Trojan War, Menelaus describes how he was detained in Egypt. There he encountered Proteus, a shape-shifting prophet, who revealed what Menelaus must do in order to return home.

          The gods kept me in Egypt, although I was striving to return home, [23]
          since I did not perform perfect sacrifices for them
          and the gods always want their demands to be remembered.
          There is a certain island in the rough waters of the sea
355    off the coast of Egypt—they call it Pharos—
          as far out as a hollow ship sails in a full day
          with a stiff breeze at its back. It has a safe harbor
          from which well-balanced ships are launched
          out to sea, once they have take on a supply of fresh water.
360    There the gods kept me for twenty days without
          the seaward-blowing winds that escort ships on
          the broad back of the deep. All of my supplies would have
          been exhausted, as would the strength of my men,
          if some god had not pitied and saved me: Eidothea,
365    daughter of mighty Proteus, the old man of the sea,
          for I had especially moved her heart. She encountered me
          wandering alone, apart from my companions, for they
          were always wandering the island and fishing with
          curved hooks, distressed as they were from hunger.
370    Standing near me, she spoke as follows: “Are you naïve,
          stranger, or so excessively thoughtless or willfully
          neglectful? Do you enjoy suffering grief? You have been
          detained for a long time on this island, unable to find a remedy,
          and your companions’ hearts grow weak.” So she spoke, and I,
375    answering her, said, “I will tell you, whoever
          of the goddesses you are, that I am by no means
          willingly detained, but doubtless I have offended
          the immortal ones who rule the wide heavens.
          But tell me—for gods know all—
380    who of the immortals shackles me and keeps me
          from my voyage? And tell me of my return: how will I traverse
          the sea laden with fish?” So I spoke, and the heavenly goddess
          again answered, “And so I will tell you, stranger, very precisely.
          The infallible old man of the sea frequents this place,
385    the immortal Egyptian Proteus, Poseidon’s servant,
          who knows the depth of every Ocean. They say
          that he it is he who fathered me. If somehow,
          by lying in wait, you could catch him, he would tell you
          the route and length of your journey; he will describe your homecoming
390    and how you should traverse the sea laden with fish.
          He will tell you also, Zeus-born, if you wish,
          the things—good and bad—that have come to pass
          in your halls, while you were on this long and painful journey.”
          So she spoke, but I, in answer, addressed her,
395    “You show me how to lie in wait for the divine old man,
          lest he somehow escape me because he saw or anticipated me.
          For it is difficult for a mortal man to tame a god.”
          . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Eidothea explains to Menelaus how to subdue Proteus. The next morning, he and several of his men go to meet her.

435    Meanwhile, Eidothea, having submerged herself in the broad bosom
          of the sea, brought from the deep four sealskins,
          all of which were freshly stripped off, a trick she devised
          for her father. [
24] She had made hollows in the sand at the water’s edge
          and sat waiting as we came very close to her. She had us
440    lie down in a row and placed a skin over each of us.
          Then our ambush became most horrible, for the putrid
          stench of the sea-born seals oppressed us terribly:
          who would sleep next to a monster of the sea?
          But she saved us and contrived a great advantage for us:
445    bringing sweet-smelling ambrosia, she placed it
          under everyone’s nose, killing the beast’s odor.
          We waited all morning with enduring hearts and
          the seals came all together from the sea. Then,
          they lay down to sleep in rows at the water’s edge;
450    at midday, the old man came from the sea and found
          the well fed seals. He approached and counted them
          all. He counted us first among his herd and did not
          perceive in his heart that there was a trick. Next, he lay down
          himself. With a battle cry, we charged him and threw
455    our arms around him. The old man was not forgetful
          of his treacherous skill, but first became a lion with flowing mane,
          followed by a snake, a leopard, and a great wild pig;
          he became fluid water and a tree with high foliage.
          For our part, we held on relentlessly, with courage in our hearts.
460    But when the old man versed in deadly arts was in distress,
          he addressed me and inquired, “Son of Atreus,
          who contrived these plans so that you might
          ambush me and take me against my will? What do you need?”
          So he spoke and I, in turn, addressed him:
465    “You know, old man. Why do you ask me these things
          and cause me to stray from my purpose? I have been detained
          for a long time on this island, unable to see an endpoint,
          and the heart within me grows weak. Tell me—for the gods
          know all—who of the immortals shackles me and hinders my journey and
470    my homecoming and how may I traverse the fish-laden sea?”
          So I spoke and he again addressed me in answer,
          “But surely you made the necessary auspicious sacrifices to Zeus
          and the other gods when you embarked, so that you might return
          most quickly to your homeland as you sail the wine-dark sea.
475    For you are not fated to see your loved ones and reach your
          well built house and your homeland before you have gone again
          to the water of Egypt’s river swollen with rain and
          performed sacred hecatombs to the immortal gods,
          who possess the broad heavens. Only then will
480    the gods grant you the path you so eagerly desire.”


[ back ] 1. Casteldon 2002:26.

[ back ] 2. Hadjidaki and Betancourt 2005-2006:79; Wachsmann 2008:283.

[ back ] 3. Kemp and Merrillees 1980:221.

[ back ] 4. Bietak and Marinatos 1995:49-62.

[ back ] 5. Herodotus describes the Macae (located in modern Libya) using shields made of ostrich skin (Histories 4.175).

[ back ] 6. Redford 2001:363.

[ back ] 7. Nicholson, Jackson, and Trott 1997:151.

[ back ] 8. Cline 1994:35.

[ back ] 9. From a narrative perspective, the lavish feasts the Ethiopians put on for the gods contrast with the hardships that prevail in the rest of the world of the Homeric world (Romm 1994:52).

[ back ] 10. A sacrifice of 100 animals.

[ back ] 11. The idea of the Ethiopians occupying the edges of the earth may further mark them as an “other,” given the tendency of early geographers to envision Greece as occupying the center of the known world.

[ back ] 12. Eos was the goddess of the dawn. She fell in love with the mortal Tithonus and asked Zeus to make him immortal. She neglected to ask that he be eternally young, however, so he grew older and older. In some versions, he finally is transformed into a cicada. Their second son, Emathion, became king of Ethiopia after Memnon’s death and was eventually killed by Heracles.

[ back ] 13. Achilles, too, had armor made by Hephaestus.

[ back ] 14. A river is an appropriate place for Io, the daughter of the river god Inachus, to end her journey.

[ back ] 15. I.e. as Isis.

[ back ] 16. The Greeks identified Epaphus with the Egyptian Apis, the sacred black bull worshipped in Memphis.

[ back ] 17. Their names represent the Egyptians and the Greeks, as Aegyptus conquers Egypt and names it after himself and Danaus re-founds Argos in Greece. In Homer, the Argives are referred to as Danaans.

[ back ] 18. Like the Ethiopians, the Pygmies are envisioned living at the edge of the earth.

[ back ] 19. A reference to the judgment of Paris, in which the Paris, son of the Trojan king Priam, was asked to determine which goddess was the fairest, Hera, Athena, or Aphrodite. Paris chose Aphrodite, accepting her bribe of the most beautiful woman in the world.

[ back ] 20. A legendary king of Egypt.

[ back ] 21. The river on which Troy is located.

[ back ] 22. Paieon was the physician to the Olympian gods. Paian (“healer”) was an epithet given to Asclepius and Apollo.

[ back ] 23. Nostos, a return or homecoming, is a central theme in the Odyssey. In addition to the primary narrative of Odysseus’ return from Troy to Ithaca, the poem describes in compressed form the homecomings of other Greek heroes, including Menelaus and Agamemnon.

[ back ] 24. Proteus was a herdsman of seals for Poseidon.