Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Sea People

A lot of myth, especially of the National Epic variety, is based in some amount of truth. The events as recorded probably didn’t happen in most cases, but that doesn’t mean absolutely nothing like those events happened. In the case of history this might not be such a big deal. But in the case of, say, the Jewish Bible, wherein the non-historical event becomes a lynch-pin in the story of the religious identity things get more complicated. Then, of course, when Christianity comes along and co-opts the story as part of its own tale, a whole new layer of problems is added to the mix. I started thinking about this last week when I popped in to Dwindling in Unbelief and left a random comment about ancient Egyptian chariot tactics. This is, apparently, something I know a bit about. Either way, the post was about the logistics of the Exodus. The story of the Egyptians keeping Jewish slaves numbering 600,000 men and, therefore, probably a number of slaves that actually adds up to close to three million is, quite simply, absurd. There is, for one thing, absolutely no evidence that there were Hebrew slaves in Egypt at any time. Tradition says the Pharaoh of the Exodus was Ramses II. Ol’ Rammy, as his friends called him exactly once before getting killed for daring to give familiar nicknames to an actual god on Earth, was a Pharaoh of the New Kingdom. Studies indicate that the population of Egypt during the New Kingdom was somewhere around three to five million. This means that the Biblical numbers of Hebrews are, quite simply, impossible. That and the fact that there’s no way a three million strong band of refugees would have spent forty years wandering about in the Sinai. No, something else was going on there. I have a theory. During a period that included the time of Ramses II Egypt was hit by a mysterious band called “the Sea Peoples.” Egyptian records indicate that ultimately Ramses III beat back the Sea People, who then settled in the Levant, which was just fine by Ol’ Rammy, Jr., since they were another buffer between Egypt and its mortal enemy, the Hittites. Now, historians seem to think that the arrival of the Sea People coincided with the start of the Philistinian kingdoms in Canaan. Exodus indicates that the Philistines were already there when the Hebrews showed up. This is entirely plausible if we look at the records of the New Kingdom and see that there were many different references to Sea People across the reign of several different Pharaohs. The interesting thing, too, is that this period of unrest and reference to Sea People coincides with a complete re-ordering of the Mediterranean. This was the time of the Dorian Invasion, a massive migration of people from somewhere around the Danube to Greece at about the time of the fall of Mycenae. The Dorian Invasion is often used to explain the transition from Mycenaean Greece to Classical Greece, since there are key cultural and linguistic differences between the people of the two ages. There are also some interesting indications in the Illiad that the Greeks of Homer’s time simply did not understand Mycenaean culture all that well. Either way, we find an interesting collection of coincidental events in a period of a century or two leading up to 1200 BCE: the fall of Troy, the fall of Mycenae, the fall of the Minoan civilization, the fall of the Hittite civilization, the wholesale replacement of culture groups around the Levant and Anatolia, the Biblical Exodus, and the documentation in Egypt of successive invasions by the Sea People. There’s also incidental information, such as the existence of what appear to by Mycenaean artifacts in Philistia and descriptions of the Sea People that are quite similar to descriptions of Mycenaeans. I, therefore, have a theory. It’s not necessarily correct, but it’s a theory: The Exodus is actually the story of the Sea People. There’s a mass migration, whether we’re talking Dorians, Trojans, or Greeks and Minoans fleeing from the Dorians or seeking to colonize or conquer Egypt I cannot say. There’s a brief time in Egypt. There’s a move from Egypt to the Levant. Interestingly enough, too, there are stories in Joshua, Judges, and Kings about intrigues between the Jews, Egyptians, and Hittites. This would be consistent with the role of the Levant as a buffer territory between the two great empires of the area. There was an existing Semitic population in the Levant at the time of the New Kingdom in Egypt, too. We can probably place a Hebrew or proto-Hebrew population in and among those groups. Meanwhile, the Pentateuch was not written until the Babylonian Captivity some six centuries after the supposed events. There is a strong possibility, then, that the stories of the migratory Sea People were mixed in with the legends of the Semitic populations and what came out was the Exodus. This is, as I said, speculation on my part. However, we have plenty of evidence of mass displacement over a certain period of time and a specific geographic space. We do not, however, have any evidence that the Biblical Hebrew population was involved. It is, therefore, worthwhile to read between the lines and see if there are any alternate explanations that fit the data we have on hand. Also, this is a decidedly short post for me. Weird.


hapax said...

I've got a theory
It's a demon
A dancing demon...
No, something isn't right there

As I'm sure you know, the Sea People / Exodus connection has been drawn before.

It's plausible, but I think the Exodus story is much more likely the case of national mythologizing exaggerating a small historical occurrence into one of Great! Global! Significance!

(see founding of Rome, Alfred v. the Danes, Battle of Roncevaux Pass, the Battle of Concord, etc. etc. etc.)

A small family group of Semites rebels against some sort of serfdom in Egypt, is pursued by a military force, escapes aoross a marshy ford, say. After a period of nomadic wandering, they manage to displace a pre-existing agricultural settlement by force, an entireily unexpected success .

However it *actually* happened, it is remembered and retold by their descendents as "we were slaves in Egypt"; "our God led us out with a mighty arm and an outstretched hand"; "we were given a good land, flowing with milk and honey."

As I argue repeatedly on my own place, stories come come to possess an ontological weight that is greater than actual events.

Whether or not it "really happened", the story becomes True, with the power to affect real people and real events.

(or maybe it was bunnies...)

GailVortex said...

Ooo. Cool! Egyptian stuff. I love Egyptian history. [I checked this time for the storytelling tag. ;)]

I've taken classes on ancient Egypt at the Field Museum before, but I've never heard of the Sea People before (not my period--never that interested in Ramses). Will have to research.

Geds said...


I fully agree that it could well be an case of a small group of Hebrews hanging out in Egypt, then having to leave.

I've also heard the theory repeated that it has to do with the volcanic eruption that leveled Santorini. This is a more naturalistic explanation that attempts to come up with reasons for the 10 plagues. But that, of course, requires the Exodus itself to be a more or less actual historical event.

I just find it fascinating that there is a period of time where the entire Mediterranean world was in upheaval, there are mysterious migratory people groups (the Dorians and "Sea People") and it coincides with a certain Biblical story of mass numbers of people wandering about looking for a homeland. As I said, it doesn't have to be true. It's just an interesting thing to think about.


Look in to The Oriental Institute. It's one the U of C campus and it's one of the premier institutions of Middle Eastern studies in the world.

You can pretty much get through their galleries in an afternoon, but there's a lot of cool stuff. And it's one of those free-with-suggested-donation places.

jessa said...

I think you have plenty of solid evidence there to write a better book than After the Flood or 1421.

I don't necessarily think there was any nefarious intentions in exaggerating the events of the old testament. I see it as just a bigger version of the things we do all the time. I could tell the story of my life any number of different ways with any number of different themes. In each story, the event that is the turning point will be different. What is the turning point in one story might not even show up in another, which means that event has been exaggerated in the story where it shows up as the turning point. I know the full story, but my children don't, so when I tell them that story, their knowledge of the story extends only so far as what I tell them. Then my children tell the story to their children, but they shorten the story a little bit more, and the exaggeration becomes a bit more extreme. First I had to work really hard for below average wages, then I had to work really hard for very little, then I was practically a slave, then I was a slave, then I was a slave and so was my entire race.

That is a pretty typical thing to happen in the telling of stories. But usually, people start to notice that the story doesn't really make much sense, and they add in that caveat, "I'm pretty sure that this is what my mom told me about my grandpa, but it doesn't make much sense, so take it with a grain of salt." I guess maybe it is easier to add in that caveat when I am telling a story about my grandpa being left on a doorstep as an infant, which is important, but not vital, to my family, than it is to add that caveat in a story that is vital to entire religions.

It's like a little white lie that got out of control. They could have owned up to the evident exaggeration a long time ago, but by now the consequences are far too great.

Geds said...


I totally agree that there may well have been no nefarious purpose. That's why I started the post like I did.

These things happen all the time in historical accounts. The farther back in time you go the more likely they are to occur, too.

Whoever recorded the Exodus account wasn't interested in writing history in the way I learned to write history. The writer was interested in telling about how the Jewish people became the Jewish people. The story of Abraham probably has a similar origin. In that case there was a migration of people from the Sumerian lands to the area of Palestine around 2100 BCE or so. Chances are that "Abraham" and "Lot" were just meant as representatives of that migration.

It's entirely possible that the Exodus story was meant as a re-telling of the Abraham story for thematic purposes. Whether it was an actual population in Egypt, the Sea People, or just a made-up tale to fill gaps will never be known.

The problem that I think needs to be addressed, though, are those pesky "literal" interpretations of the Bible. Revelation is, at its core, a re-telling of Exodus, but from the present (y'know, the present of 2000-ish years ago) looking forward. The message is the same, with a hardened god-on-Earth being beat back by plagues and ultimately doomed in a sea (of fire, this time) and an arrival in the Promised Land for the faithful.

Looking for the origin of the stories and saying, "There's no way this happened, but here's a possible alternative," opens up the idea that if the Exodus can't be taken literally, then maybe we should be re-thinking Revelation, too.

And, really, when it gets right down to it, history is often at least as interesting (and usually far more so) as the mythologies that attempt to twist real events in to stepping stones on the path to greatness...

hapax said...

Hmm. Geds, I think that you are leaving out a fundamental component of Exodus-As-Myth (although to be fair, it is frequently glossed over in the triumphalist versions of all flavors of Abrahamic religion."

Yes, there's the "God smote the Egyptians, we get Canaan as a door prize, yays!" strain.

But there is also the very very powerful "NEVER FORGET we were slaves and strangers in the land of Egypt -- and WE DIDN'T LIKE IT. So let's try not to be dicks ourselves, hmm-kay?"

From this strain pretty much develops all of the ethics of compassion and liberation that inform most of the progressive movements in the Abrahamic religions today.

There may be such a thing as a monomyth, but the hero -- and the nation -- still has a thousand faces. So spake Joseph Campbell, and I heed his words.

Geds said...

I didn't see the need to point out that part of the Exodus story.

I'm not trying to run a Bible study here. I'm trying to point out the danger of literal interpretations of mythologized possibly historic events.

The simple fact is, we don't find that, "Remember, you were slaves once," lesson in Revelation. We have the letters to the various churches at the beginning, but those letters are all about their own internal shortcomings/successes as believers in Jesus, not as human beings. Then whatever good there may be in those messages is immediately ignored in place of death, bloodshed, and final judgment.

I don't like Revelation, but sadly I have to contend with its message. I think it helps immensely to understand that Revelation is an attempted re-telling of a much older, equally dubious tale.

True, pointing out that Revelation is also a tone-deaf retelling and that it totally misses one of Exodus's central points is a helpful addition to the commentary. But considering the people who read Revelation as a history of the future tend to be the same ones who totally ignore the Sermon on the Mount, I don't know how much that actually helps...

hapax said...

Okay. I missed out that your focus was a comparison of Exodus /past history to Revelation / future history.

Consider it an artifact of zero-ing in on one's personal areas of fascination (in my case, how stories work in national and personal identity)

One of the problems of putting up a blog on these here public intertubes: any damfool can wander by and derail the conversation by riding her personal hobbyhorse :-)