From History and Myth, Anatolians in Mycenaean Greece

By: Josh Cannon, University of Chicago

The Late Bronze Age (LBA) of Anatolia is a period that has been described to us through history and myth. The history of LBA Anatolia comes primarily from the Hittites, who actively created and maintained records. Written in cuneiform, these records provide us with a wealth of information ranging from sweeping royal military campaigns to the correspondence of local leaders discussing missing slaves. The myth comes predominantly from the Archaic and Classical Greeks who wrote about how their Bronze Age ancestors interacted with their Anatolian neighbors. The most famous story of this nature is Homer’s Iliad. If we carefully weave the historical knowledge together with the myth, we can use the two together to accomplish more than either can do alone. However, this is a delicate task. Both sources need to be treated with their shortcomings in mind. For instance, one issue with the historical record is that it is incomplete. This is due to several reasons, though time will allow us to improve some of them. With time, scholars will continue to translate the many Hittite tablets that have been uncovered. Also, additional Hittite tablets will come to light through archaeological excavations. What time cannot touch are the historical details that were never recorded by the Hittites, details that were left out because they were deemed insignificant or perhaps politically damaging.

Myth can help us contextualize the past if we treat it properly. While the historical record suffers from being incomplete, myth, by its nature, is a fantastical view of the past and has its origins in oral tradition. Thus, when we view myth, we must wade through the aspects that can be assigned to fantasy and try to identify aspects that may represent vestiges of memory. However, even if we are able to do this, we must then recognize that these vestiges of memory are the result of many generations passing myths down orally until they were finally recorded. Anyone who has played the game of telephone can attest to how easily a story can change when it is passed from person to person.

With the limitations of both of these resources in mind, we can explore Late Bronze Age Anatolia and its interactions with Greece. This has been an enormously popular subject over the years with numerous articles published on the topic. Much of the focus has been on the nature of the Greek movement across the Aegean from west to east. Did the Trojan War actually occur? Were the Ahhiyawans, who interacted with Western Anatolia, the Mycenaean Greeks? What was the nature of Mycenaean settlements in Western Anatolia and how did they interact with the Hittites? This blog entry seeks to examine these cultures and this time period by looking in the opposite direction. What can we say about Anatolians (specifically Western Anatolians) who crossed the Aegean to Mycenaean Greece?

While the phenomenon of Late Bronze Age Anatolians peoples coming to and living in Mycenaean Greece is relatively well accepted, the implications and nature of these movements have not been explored fully. This blog will review and examine the evidence for the presence of Anatolians in Mycenaean Greece and will propose some elementary observations as to what this may mean with regard to the further development of our understanding of Aegean cultures in the Late Bronze Age.

Bronze Age Western Anatolia

Western Anatolia in the LBA consisted of a collection of city states that alternately fought with and allied with one-another. Until recently, it has been accepted that the people of LBA Western Anatolia were Luwians, a member of the Anatolian branch of the Indo-European language family. However, work conducted by Yakubovich (2010) has led to a more complex picture of the ethno-linguistic make-up of these peoples. Yakubovich has demonstrated that the region may not have been homogenously Luwian and that significant and perhaps even dominant Proto-Carian and Lydian populations were present. While these two language groups were closely related to Luwian, they were distinct from that language and unlike Luwian, survived into the Iron Age.

Yakubovich’s work as well as nearly all historical and philological work done on the Late Bronze Age of this region is heavily dependent on Hittite records for information. This perspective presented severe limitations on the reconstruction of the political geography of Western Anatolia and thus was the source of much debate. It was not until Hawkins’ (1998) translation of the long known Karabel inscription that the locations of many major political entities of Western Anatolia were able to be identified with some clarity. This tremendous achievement allowed scholars greater insight into the numerous Hittite texts discussing this region. These texts are invaluable for understanding the political scene of Western Anatolia as almost no texts have been found there.

An 1864 depiction of one of the Karabel reliefs

An 1864 depiction of one of the Karabel reliefs

The work of Hawkins, Yakubovich, and many others who seek to clarify the details of Western Anatolian culture is important because it reminds us of the complexity of this region, which is too often overlooked due to its better documented and more popular neighbors, the Hittites and the Mycenaeans. It is impossible to conduct work on Western Anatolia without mentioning these two influential cultures, but it is important to recognize that there is great value in understanding Western Anatolia for its own merits in addition to its contribution to Mycenaean and Hittite scholarship. In its role as a middle man, Western Anatolia gives us the opportunity to explore Late Bronze Age cultural diffusion. It bestrides both the Classical and the Near Eastern disciplines and thus has the ability to harness tremendous scholarly attention and more importantly, cooperation. This is already happening through the works of scholars such as Christopher Roosevelt, Christina Luke, and Naoíse MacSweeney (2011), just to name a few. But, until archaeology uncovers more ground—a difficult task due to so many Classical sites covering Late Bronze Age sites—we are predominantly reliant on the textual record.


In this regard, a majority of what we know of LBA Western Anatolia comes to us through Hittite texts. As early as Hattušili I, the Hittites raided Western Anatolia and later suffered attacks from the peoples of this region in kind. The earliest Hittite attestation of a Western Anatolian political force relates the Aššuwa Rebellion which was ultimately put down by Tudhaliya I/II around the beginning of the 15th century BC. Aššuwa was a confederacy of 22 polities/city states in Western and NW Anatolia that had banded together to combat Hittite incursions. It is possible that this confederacy existed before this time as we have Aššuwa possibly appearing in Minoan Linear A tablets (Cline 1997: 191). Following Tudhaliya’s defeat of the Aššuwa confederacy, the Hittites referred to political entities in this area individually and the term Aššuwa almost entirely disappeared.

The interactions between the Hittites and Western Anatolia later on in the LBA are more informative with regards to the interests of this research. The details of the Tawagalawa Letter in particular are relevant as they discuss the harboring of rebels from the Lukka lands, a territory in SW Anatolia. The letter is believed to have been written by Hattušili III in the mid-13th century BC and is addressed to the king of Ahhiyawa, whom Hattušili refers to as a great king and brother. Hattušili’s respectful tone, in addition to many other details including the geographical setting and the possible etymological connection between Ahhiyawa and Achaean, have convinced most of the scholarly community that the Ahhiyawa must be the Mycenaean Greeks (called Achaeans in Homer’s Iliad).

The contents of the letter discuss a brigand named Pijamaradu and a group of fugitives he led away from Hittite forces. The fugitives were from the rebelling Lukka Lands and were some 7000 in number (Bryce 1999: 259). They fled from Hittite forces and were led by Pijamaradu to a man named Tawagalawa, who is referred to as the brother of the king of the Ahhiyawa. This king of Ahhiyawa, unfortunately, is not named. Tawagalawa’s name has been identified as a Hittite spelling of the Greek name Eteocles and it is believe that he was sent to Western Anatolia by his royal brother for the purpose of receiving these fugitives (Bryce 2005: 290).  Piyamaradu fled from the Hittites to Millawanda (Miletos), which was under Ahhiyawan political control at the time. The possibility that Tawagalawa, the brother of the Ahhiyawan king, came to Western Anatolia to receive fugitives is indirectly supported by Mycenaean Linear B documents and will be discussed further below. While we never learn if the fugitives were indeed returned, we do find evidence from Mycenaean records that peoples from Western Anatolia lived in Mycenaean Greece and were kept as slaves/workers/soldiers.

The Tawagalawa letter provides a political context for the trans-Aegean movement of Western Anatolians. It also may provide us with evidence of a non-Linear B scribal tradition that the Mycenaeans would have used to some degree. The Tawagalawa letter indicates that the King of Ahhiyawa was able to communicate with the King of the Hittites. The letter that exists today is a copy of the letter sent to the King of Ahhiyawa, indicating that the language of correspondence was Hittite. We know from the Amarna archive that Arzawa of Western Anatolia undertook diplomatic efforts with Egypt using Hittite as an intermediary language. We further know that they preferred Hittite over Akkadian as the Arzawan king requests that Egypt not use Akkadian in their correspondences. This makes it possible and even likely that if the Mycenaeans were communicating in Hittite, they were doing so through an Arzawan or another Western Anatolian scribe who served the Mycenaean royal court.

Bryce (1999) has carefully illustrated an argument that puts forth this very idea, arguing for Anatolian scribes living in Mycenaean Greece and translating Mycenaean into Hittite and vice-versa. Greek myth supports Bryce’s argument to some degree, as the only mention of writing found in Greek myth is Homer’s famous Bellerophontes story told in the Iliad (6.119-236). In this story, Bellerophontes, a Greek, bears a message across the Aegean Sea in a writing he cannot read to the king of Lycia (the aforementioned Lukka in SW Anatolia) who can read it. Was Bellerophontes’ letter composed by an Anatolian scribe living in Greece? This ventures dangerously far into the realm of speculation but does present a striking coincidence. We cannot view Bellerophontes or his acts as historical, but we can view this myth a source of support for the idea that Mycenaeans were communicating via writing with peoples in Anatolia.


Textual evidence for foreigners in Mycenae is, in fact, the strongest evidence yet available of Western Anatolians living in the Peloponnesus. Mycenaean texts, written in the Linear B syllabary, have thus far been determined to be mostly administrative and some have been found to make reference to individuals from Western Anatolia in their capacity as palace workers and slaves. Here, I will discuss Linear B documents that have come from Pylos, which is interestingly one of the more distant Mycenaean polities from Anatolia. As most Mycenaean documents are preserved through the accident of fire and destruction connected to the abandonment and collapse of the Mycenaean political control over Peloponnesian Greece, we only have the most recent ones to work with. Thus, our view is very limited, but telling nonetheless.

Morris (2001), among others (Stravroula 2006), has published on a collection of tablets found in room 38 of the palace at Pylos that are unique in both their location and their details. They describe enormous amounts of scented oil dedicated to two goddesses. These goddesses are named Potnia Aššuwa (a-si-wi-ya) translated as ‘the Lady of Aššuwa’ and the Divine Mother (ma-te-re te-i-ja). Almost all other tablets and storage areas for cults were located in room 23 of the palace, so the appearance of these two outliers is immediately interesting. Their names, the Lady of Aššuwa and the Divine Mother both point to Anatolian origins. I discussed Aššuwa earlier as the NW territory of Western Anatolia, and the Divine Mother has been argued to be linked to Cybele, an Anatolian goddess that became popular in Greece in later ages. The Divine Mother seen here may be an earlier and perhaps even forgotten manifestation of this goddess (Morris 2001; Roller 1999: 134) though this is still debated. The separate amounts of oil associated with each of these two goddesses are nearly the same and they are much higher than the amounts associated with any other god or goddess at Pylos (Morris 2001: 423). Thus, the location of their cultic storage areas and the quantities described set these two particular deities apart from other deities at Pylos. The significance of this is further demonstrated through an examination of individuals named as palace dependents (Stravroula 2006: 45-46).

We find among the tablets uncovered at Pylos populations of foreigners connected to the palace who are designated by their places of origin. The Pylos A-series in particular discusses many palace attendants from Western Anatolia. These include women from Eastern Aegean/Western Anatolian locations Lemnos, Miletos, Halicarnassos, Kythera, Chios, and Knidos. These women were predominantly assigned work in textile workshops which may relate them back to the perfumed oils associated with the Anatolian cults. Perfumed oils were used on textiles and the large quantities of oil would make better sense if we view them as being relevant to the textile industry (Morris 2001: 424-425). Once again, we can find parallels in literature for this archaeological and philological evidence. Homer (Il. 1.31, 6.456) and Euripides (Hekabe 466-474) both discuss the concerns of Trojan women who fear being captured by Greeks and being put to work on weaving (Morris 2001: 424).

A final, brief note concerns stone working. Blackwell (2012; personal communication) has done research on stone working techniques at Mycenae that indicate Anatolian influence on Mycenaean work. As Blackwell’s research remains unpublished, I cannot go into detail here, but this discovery has exciting implications. Blackwell’s research and argument are excellent and I would like to add the possibility that his proposed communication between Anatolian and Mycenaean craftsmen was mediated in some way along Western Anatolia. With the previously mentioned evidence of Anatolians in Mycenae, it is reasonable that it was not only techniques that crossed the Aegean, but expert craftsmen as well.

Here again we find parallels in literature, including Strabo’s (8.6.11) saying that Cyclopes from Lycia (Lukka) built the walls of Tiryns in the LBA. Wall building and stone-working are not necessarily the same craft, but this myth involving Anatolian wall builders reminds us that the relationship between Greece and Western Anatolia was a long and complicated one, with elements of its nature being reflected in myths and literature. Thus, while we cannot reconstruct historical events, traditions and attitudes can be identified that may reflect the context of relationships that existed between these two cultures in the Late Bronze Age or later.

Lack of Archaeological Evidence

Despite the epigraphic attestation of Anatolian presence in Mycenaean Greece found at Pylos, there is a relative paucity of evidence when it comes to recognizing an Anatolian presence in the archaeological record. While we would prefer to find an Anatolian enclave or neighborhood, or perhaps a number of clearly Anatolian objects, we have not. However, similar case studies reveal that it is in fact reasonable to expect the absence of such evidence. The absence of evidence is, after all, not the evidence of absence. The arrival of Western Anatolians would have most likely occurred gradually. Granted, the possible migration of the 7000 Lukka fugitives would have represented a significant population surge, but we do not know if it actually happened. What is more likely to have happened was a slow trickle of immigrants, fugitives, and individuals taken captive in battle or bought on slave markets. Even if the movement of peoples was more intense, there is precedence in Anatolia for a slightly similar situation that also failed to yield a strong archaeological signature.

Very early in the 2nd Millennium BC, the Assyrians began to establish trading communities attached to pre-existing settlements in Anatolia. These communities were called karums and sprang up in eastern and central Anatolia. The main city through which the Assyrians entered Anatolia was Kanesh (modern day Kültepe, near Kayseri). The presence of these karums was identifiable through the economic documents written in cuneiform in Old Assyrian. In terms of material culture, however, the Old Assyrians were well assimilated into the cultures of their Anatolian host settlements, though often located apart. The Assyrian merchants adopted Anatolian styles so completely that it was initially difficult for excavators make sense of this separate community outside the walls of the city of Kanesh (Dercksen 2008:111).

This case study differs in that the situations at Kanesh and Pylos had very different sociological and economic backgrounds. Kanesh played host to a militarily and economically more powerful culture in the Old Assyrians and was in some ways economically exploited by them. Also, Old Assyrian merchants returned home at times and were at the very least in touch with their homeland through letters. On the other hand, Pylos, and the rest of Mycenae presumably, was receiving a less organized and perhaps less voluntary stream of individuals who would have most likely been relegated to the lower tiers of society. The Pylos Linear B tablets support this theory as they include slaves and servants from foreign areas (Stravroula 2006: 45).

The analogy remains useful, however, because these differences would lead us to expect a smaller archaeological signature coming from Western Anatolia peoples in Mycenaean Greece. These people had neither the economic nor political clout that Assyrians enjoyed nor did they appear to have the freedom to return home at their leisure. Their description in Linear B tablets indicates that they were almost certainly a subservient class and possibly would have had less of a material record to recover.

Religion, Literature and Mythology

The effect of Western Anatolians on Mycenaean society can already be seen to some degree by the amount of oil allocated to the two goddesses of presumed Anatolian descent. This adoption of Anatolian culture appears to still be fairly Mycenaean in character as there is no comparable evidence for such oil usage from Hittite Anatolia (Singer 1987). However, we know very little of Western Anatolian cultic traditions and so it is difficult to determine how similar or different they were from those of the Hittites. Western Anatolian cultic practitioners were known in Hittite lands and called upon by Hittite kings for their services (Collins 2010: 58), and so we can determine that there was a degree of interconnectedness in this regard. That said, there is no Divine Mother figure in the Hittite pantheon. The closest figure to that role is perhaps the goddess Hannahannah adopted by the Hittites from the Hurrians, who is depicted as a grandmother.

What then can we say about the presence and influence of Western Anatolians in Mycenaean Greece? This blog has traced them on the peripheries of Mycenaean society, but without a greater archaeological signature or more significant textual evidence, they will continue to be elusive. Our ability to identify some small amount of their effect on Mycenaean cultic practice only tantalizes us and does little to further explicate their role in that society.

For a long time now, one of the more popular ways to trace the appearance of Near Eastern cultural influences has been through literature and mythology. This paper has already used several examples from literature to try and illustrate a possible vestige of these times and their attitudes. Scholars such as Burkert (1992), West (1999), Bachvarova (2002), Lopez-Ruiz (2010), and many others have identified and in some cases traced the diffusion of mythic and literary motifs across the Aegean. The discovery that so much of Greek myth and literature had been adapted from Near Eastern material was once a shocking revelation. That the Greeks would so readily accept foreign motifs in their beliefs about cosmogony and incorporate so many Near Eastern elements in their greatest works of literature (the Iliad, for example) is remarkable. Now though, we have come to accept that this is so and we are seeking to understand how and why it is so.

One way to do this is to explore the idea that the orientalization of Greece began well before the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries BC. Morris, Bachvarova, and others have already explored this concept and I would like to suggest that the presence of Western Anatolians in Mycenae provided yet another venue for this process. The cultic inventories provide a solid example, and the possibility of international diplomacy and stone carving techniques provide promising leads. There is more to be discovered by going in this direction and by distinguishing who the Western Anatolians were in Mycenaean Greece, we can learn more about who they were in their own homeland.

Bachvarova, Mary R. 2002. From Hittite to Homer: The Role of Anatolians in the Transmission of Epic and Prayer Motifs from the Near East to the Greeks. PhD Dissertation. University of Chicago. UMI # 3060281.

Blackwell, Nick. 2012.  “Tool Marks on the Lion Gate Relief at Mycenae.” Presentation given at the 2012 Archeological Institute of America Annual Conference.

Bryce, Trevor. 2005. The Kingdom of the Hittites. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bryce, Trevor. 1999. “Anatolian Scribes in Mycenaean Greece”, Historia 48:3.

Burkert, Walter. 1992. The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Cline, Eric. 1997. “Achilles in Anatolia: Myth, History, and the Aššuwa Rebellion”, in Gordon D. Young, Mark W. Chavalas and Richard E. Averbeck (eds.) Crossing Boundaries and Linking Horizons Studies in Honor of Michael C. Astour on His 80th Birthday. Bethesda: CDL Press.

Collins, Billy Jean. 2010. Hittite Religion and the West’, in Yoram Cohen, Amir Gilan, and Jared L. Miller (eds.) Pax Hethitica: Studies on the Hittites and their Neighbours in Honour of Itamar Singer.

Dercksen, J.-G. 2008. “The Assyrian Colony at Kanesh”, in Wilhelm, G. (Ed.), Hattuša Bogazköy. Das Hethiterreich im Spannungsfeld des Alten Orients, 109-124. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag

Hawkins, J. D. 1998.  “Tarkasnawa King of Mira ‘Tarkondemos’, Boǧazköy Sealings and Karabel”. Anatolian Studies, Vol. 48

Lopez-Ruiz, Carolina. 2010. When the Gods Were Born: Greek Cosmogonies and the Near East. Cambridge, MA/London:  Harvard University Press, 2010.

Mac Sweeney, Naoíse. 2011. Community Identity and Archaeology: Dynamic Communities at Aphrodisias and Beycesultan. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Morris, Sarah P. 2001. “Potnia Aswiya: Anatolian Contributions to Greek Religion.” Aegeum 22.

Roller, Lynn E. 1999. In Search of God Mother: the Cult of Anatolian Cybele. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Singer, Itamar. 1987. “Oil in Anatolia According to Hittite Texts”, in Heitzer M. and Eitam D. (ed.), Olive Oil in Antiquity. Israel and Neighbouring Countries from Neolithic to Early Arab Period. Conference 1987, Haifa: University of Haifa.

Stravroula, Nikoloudis. 2006. The ra-wa-ke-ta, Ministerial Authority and Mycenaean Cultural Identity. PhD Dissertation, University of Texas at Austin. UMI Number: 3266946

West, M. L. 1997. The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Yakubovich, Ilya S. 2010. Sociolinguistics of the Luvian Language. Leiden: Brill.


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2 thoughts on “From History and Myth, Anatolians in Mycenaean Greece

  1. Very interesting.
    A note on style: the bibliography at the end mentions “Stavroula, Nikoloudis”. Actualy, Stavroula is the first name, and Nikoloudis is her surname. So, references to her should rather be not in the form “Stavroula, 2006″, but rather “Nikoloudis, 2006″

  2. Pingback: Anatolian Archaeology Month on the ASOR Blog | Mediterranean Palimpsest

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