It Was a Small World After All

Podcast 17 addresses one of the prevailing orthodoxies of the ancient world: the relative lack of communication between regions. It is clear from evidence that continues to emerge that ancient cultures knew about and borrowed from each other. The most obvious of these exchanges across distinct cultures concerns Hellenistic and Semitic contact. The Greeks clearly borrowed from their Semitic neighbors, as Cyrus Gordon worked so hard to convey. Although still not universally acknowledged, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain that ancient societies were singular, isolated, and self-sufficient.

14 thoughts on “It Was a Small World After All

  1. Two questions…

    1) What was your paper on ugaritic studies about and why is it controversial?

    2) What “phoenician” aritifact did Gordon claim was discovered in the New World?

    Thanks and bring on more juicy tidbits in your podcast. 🙂


    • Steve Wiggins

      Hi Qohelet,

      Here are the answers to the best of my recollection:
      1) My paper was about the continuing evolution of the human brain. I was suggesting that certain memes that we take for granted simply did not exist in ancient times; i.e., consciousness was evolving. The idea is not new, Julian Jaynes played with it in the 70s. What I was specifically concerned about is that ancient writers did not have the same need to be consistent in their thought processes that we seem to have today. It has been almost 5 years since the paper, which ended up being practically a book before I even got to the conference, so I’m a tad rusty on the details. I never sent it in for publication.

      2) The artifact Gordon referenced was a Phoenician inscription reputed to have been found in Brazil. I’ll have to look up the exact details — I know I have a copy of Gordon’s article in my files somewhere. Most epigraphists declared the artifact a forgery on the basis of grammatical “errors” but these errors were later found to have been aspects of Phoenician unknown at the time of the discovery. If I can find the actual title of the artifact I’ll send that along too.

      Thanks for listening!


  2. Ah, the book title misled me—“Religions of the Ancient World”, “ancient” here means “ancient Mediterranean”! Between this great lecture and the previous one, I’ve been studying Shinto and the broader matrix of Japanese religious practices (only “disrupted” by the West 150 years ago). Ian Buruma wrote that “underneath, she [Japan] is in many ways closer to the European Middle Ages, before Christianity obliterated the last vestiges of paganism” (in *Behind the mask: on sexual demons, sacred mothers, transvestites, gangsters and other Japanese cultural heroes*), and your lectures are cementing my confidence in Buruma’s assessment there.

    I’m not sure how common this idea is, but whenever I get frustrated with the opacity of the past (“what did they really think of these myths?”), I remember that “the past is another country” and go read ethnographies.


    • A very good practice, Ahmed. Hinduism is another good example of this. It’s not a “religion” but a collection of ancient practices that modern, western people termed a “religion.” There’s a lot to be said about this, but the category of religion itself is somewhat a distortion of the available data.

      The past is opaque in many ways because of lack of written texts. Even those texts that do exist are imperfectly understood. We still have tons to learn about ancient religions. Universities, unfortunately, don’t share that outlook so we need to carry on in the best way we can—the internet may be that best way.


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