What has Athens to do with Pataliputra?

A recent twitter thread on the iconography of Zeus’ thunderbolt reminded me of earlier musings of mine on the rough similarities between Greek and Indian depictions of thunder-weaponry. Sometimes in ancient Greek art, Zeus’ thunderbolt is very much drawn as a few zigzagging lines – think of how Roman coinage and shields display Jupiter’s thunder or a child might draw lightning – other times it looks like a magic club. That’s what we’re currently concerned with.

Quickly routing around through the Beazley archives will give you an example of what I mean. I’m including links to #6996 and #10683 here, and an image from the British Museum below, since they have a less restrictive usage policy.

Pottery: red-figured neck-amphora: Zeus in pursuit. Reverse: a woman.


For comparison, here is an Indian variant. Note, the original Indic depiction has since, via the spread of Buddhism, generated variants in Thailand, China, Tibet, Nepal, Japan et al. The word for thunderbolt, vajra, is also a very fecund onomastic element across these cultures, historically.

Image result for vajra

Zeus and Indra

Let’s provide a bit of context before we go further. I suspect, quite strongly, that the Indo-European connection here is more than well known to anyone reading this but it can’t hurt to go over this in precis.

While Greek Zeus is cognate with Dyauṣ Pitṛ, in many ways they’re functionally distinct. ‘Indian Zeus’ is a very laid-back kind of king, mentioned largely in archaising ‘riddling’ hymns in the Rg Veda, like 1.64. In terms of activity, for all intents and purposes his son Indra is in charge.

Like Zeus, Indra originally seems to have been largely a rain god. It may also have been near eastern influence that emphasised his role as god of thunder. The earliest depictions have him going around with his mannerbund, the maruts (minor storm deities), and fighting various great beasts: as Zeus fights Typhon, he slays the engulfing wyrm Vritra. The story is detailed in hymns 1.32 and 4.18, much the greatest heroic poetry in any ancient Indo-European language. If there’s any interest, I’ll do some translations here on the blog. Within Indo-European studies, these stories (along with Thor vs Jormungandir and Teshub vs Illuyanka) have accrued a lot of interest over the years.

Later poetic versions have Indra act a little like the Zeus of pop culture, quaffing rivers of mead, soma (an intoxicant? A brew made of ephedra root and honey?) and despoiling the wives of priests. None the less, he is still the king of the gods and not a force to be trifled with.

There are some similarities in their divine armament too. Both wield thunderbolts made by divine smiths and are described in similar terms. Famously, the bolts of Zeus are made by the cyclopes and entrusted to him in thanks for freeing them from bondage:

οἳ οἱ ἀπεμνήσαντο χάριν ἐυεργεσιάων,
δῶκαν δὲ βροντὴν ἠδ᾽ αἰθαλόεντα κεραυνὸν
καὶ στεροπήν: τὸ πρὶν δὲ πελώρη Γαῖα κεκεύθει:
τοῖς πίσυνος θνητοῖσι καὶ ἀθανάτοισιν ἀνάσσει.

They remembered with gratitude, his kindly deeds

and gave him thunder, dazzling lightning

and the thunderbolt, which monstrous Earth had hitherto concealed

Trusting  to these, he reigned over both gods and men.

Hesiod, Theogony, 503-6

The earlier, explanatory, (interpolated?) lines about the cyclopes even gives them names to do with thunder and lightning (Brontes, Steropes, Arges, ll139). Between the cyclopes and lightning then, there was evidently a very close link. Later sources (e.g Pseudo-Apollodoros, Kallimakhos) confirm this and extend to them a more general divine handiness.

Indra’s vajra is made by a divine smith called Tvastr, whose name means something like craftsman/artificier. It is arjuna ‘bright’ (cf. ἀργής ) and the effect it has on Indra’s enemies is very much like the fate of Typhon described by Hesiod in the Theogony.

As an aside, Indra vs Vritra and Zeus vs Typhon is one of the most interesting set of compranda in Classical Philology. Both because it’s brilliant poetry, and because of the interpretive challenges. While there is most likely an Indo-European, or at least a Greco-Aryan, ‘template-myth’ here, the Greek version has been heavily influenced by near Eastern traditions, like Marduk vs Tiamat.

These parallels are both surprising, given the time depth, and underwhelming given that these are two closely related languages. I’m not necessarily positing any sort of genetic filiation between these two sets of (physical) iconography, just because the poetic language is similar. Years ago, M. West managed to convince me of a sort of lateral influence from the near East being the likeliest culprit. I wish I took notes since I can’t remember his reasoning or his evidence in anything like detail.

Lately, however, I’ve been wondering if one might posit a more direct route? From Greece to India during the Hellenistic age. After all, we know of the immense influence Hellenistic form and figuration had on Gandharan art. Who knows?  it’s a possibility. I’ll end with an image of someone whom specialists often refer to as an Indian depiction of Herakles. Apart from being beautiful to look at, it’s a perfect example of ancient Greek influence on Indian artwork.

Herakles here is a stand in for a strong, protective, companion of the Buddha in early Buddhist folk-lore, often thought to be a semi-secularised adaption of Indra – Indic thought after all is one big continuum, and though the Vedic pantheon may have lost prominence, they’re still important. He’s not wielding thunder, but like Herakles (and Meleagros) he is wielding a club with which to defend his guru.

His name by the way, was Vajrapani, or in English, Thunderbolt-Hand.

Image result for vajrapani gandhara


Bronze Age Swords and Mycenaean Ideology: A Primer

Despite being ostensibly about differing perceptions of utility and the importance of ritual ceremony between the ancients and ourselves, my last post was basically about swords.

That said, we barely touched upon them as archaeological and cultural artifacts. I thought I’d remedy that with an addendum about swords, or rather by providing a condense bibliography for anyone interested in reading a bit more about them.

The starting point for looking into bronze age swords is surely Sandar’s two articles (1961, 1963), whence the eponymous typology. Readers ought to be warned that the typology, though functional,  is suspect in terms of both sense and utility and far from the kind of quality one medievalists benefit from in Oakeshott (2009).

Barry Molloy is perhaps the single most promising scholar on the topic. His work includes a re-negotiation of the typology above (2010) as well as some attempts to treat swords as, well, swords by using them (2008). Experimental archaeology and reconstruction is always a bit suspect – Wardle (1988) is probably the pinnacle of what not to do – but Molloy takes a measured and sensible approach. Now, I’ve mentioned my love of combat sports before and also that I’ve fenced since I was a small child, so the use of these swords is something I’d like to do a future blog post on. Much of it would form a dialogue with Molloy’s article.

Once again, Medievalists are ahead of us and the  excellent Knight and the Blast Furnace is perhaps the single best academic treatment of arms, armour, and metallurgy from any period.

What about ideology and the warrior? As mentioned in the previous post, we lack narrative texts and so any ideology is by necessity inferred by us. Though seemingly unpromising, do bear in mind that this is done via sensitive reading of art and artefact on one hand, and careful comparison with other cultures on the other. The best introduction would be any generic book on Minoan and Mycenaean art. I’ve loved Higgins (1967) since I was a child but it’s hardly industry standard. Substitute your book of choice.

Molloy (2012) again, is worth reading in his presentation of the warrior ethos amongst the Minoans. Now Minoans =! Mycenaeans and are somewhat earlier but it helps add context on the Aegean background is a further demonstration of solid methodology.  The article itself got quite some press at the time for its shattering of the putative Pax Minoica that Evans first implanted in our cultural imagination. In this vein see Haysom (2010) on the double axe.

Kristiansen (2002) is a short and enjoyable introduction to bronze age sword fighters generally. Kramer-Hajos’ essay, “The ideology of the sword” has been one of my major influences in thinking about this topic again: long but informative, it represents the magic that happens when material culture meets informed theorising and supposition. Suffused with excellent pictures, the article covers feasting, fighting, hunting, artwork and a myriad of other related topics. Kramer-Hajos decisively demonstrates the importance of warrior ideology to the formation of Mycenaean states.

Last and certainly not least are the collected essays in Aegaeum 19, POLEMOS, which discuss several areas of BAA warfare. Occasionally, some of the essays are prone to romantic, euhemeristic, readings of later iron age texts which must be taken with mountains of salt. Surely then an excellent time to pick up Ian Morris’ (1986) oft-cited article on the (ab)use of Homer or, if you’re really in a Mycenaean mood, the penultimate chapter of Chadwick’s (1976) seminal study of the period. The articles contained therein in generally well argued and comprehensive.

Needless to say, all these articles come with their own bibliographies for those inclined to dig deeper. As I said, this is quite condensed and not meant to be exhaustive. Feel free to add anything interesting or share the list as you see fit. If this post format is useful, we can draw up lists for other classical topics too.


Chadwick, J. (1976). The Mycenaean world. Cambridge

Haysom, M (2010) The double-axe: A contextual approach to the understanding of a Cretan symbol of the Neopalatial period, Oxford Journal of Archaeology 29.1, 35–55.

Higgins, R. (1967). Minoan and Mycenaean art. London.

Kramer-Hajos, M. (n.d.). THE ETHOS OF THE SWORD: THE CREATION OF EARLY MYCENAEAN ELITE CULTURE. Mycenaean Greece and the Aegean World, 33-55.

Kristiansen, K (2002) The tale of the sword – swords and swordfighters in Bronze Age Europe Oxford Journal of Archaeology 21.4, 319–32.

Laffineur, R (1999) (ed.) POLEMOS: Le contexte guerrier en Égée á l’âge du Bronze. Belgium

Molloy, B (2008). Martial Arts and Materiality: A Combat Archaeology Perspective on Aegean Swords of the Fifteenth and Fourteenth Centuries BC World Archaeology, Vol. 40, No. 1, Experimental Archaeology  pp. 116-134

Molloy, B. (2010). Swords and Swordsmanship in the Aegean Bronze Age. American Journal of Archaeology, 114(3),

Molloy, B P C (2012) MARTIAL MINOANS? WAR AS SOCIAL PROCESS, PRACTICE AND EVENT IN BRONZE AGE CRETE The Annual of the British School at Athens, Vol. 107 pp. 87-142

Morris, I. (1986). The Use and Abuse of Homer. Classical Antiquity, 5(1), 81-138.

Oakeshott, E. (2009). Records of the medieval sword. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

Sandars, N. K. (1961). The First Aegean Swords and Their Ancestry. American Journal of Archaeology, 65(1), 17.

Sandars, N. K. (1963). Later Aegean Bronze Swords. American Journal of Archaeology, 67(2), 117.

Wardle, Diana E.H. (1988) Does Reconstruction Help? A Mycenaean Dress and the Dendra Suit of Armour in French, E.B. and K.A. Wardle, eds. Problems in Greek Prehistory. pp. 469-476.

Williams, A. (2003). The knight and the blast furnace: A history of the metallurgy of armour in the Middle Ages & the early modern period. Leiden: Brill.

Short Note: Utility in the ancient world

I was recently listening to an interesting interview with John Romer on the latest volume in his series of ancient Egyptian history when he said something interesting. On enumerating some of the changes apparent in the transition from Old to Middle Kingdom he mentioned that Egyptian traders and explorers often found themselves deep south into Africa trading and searching ‘…not for the essential things, but just for the rituals of the court’.

I don’t want to read anything into Romer’s offhand comment and in fact highly recommend his books to anyone interested in ancient Egypt, but what he said serves as a useful springboard for considering this contrast between essential things and court ritual. I don’t think such a dichotomy existed in the minds of the ancients at all.

We treat what remnants of court ritual we still possess with an airy familiarity. There’s a sense of quaintness to it all. It didn’t take Charles I’s head being removed from his body for us to realise that he was not God’s anointed. Mallorian fictions aside, no one would link the health and hale of the land to its monarch. A barrister or a judge still possesses learning and status without wig, robe, and gavel.  In a real sense these symbols are, like what Romer’s Egyptians bought from south of the Sahara, non-essential.

But can we say the same for the items of ancient court ceremonies? I wouldn’t be so sure. After all, Diocletian’s movement towards an ‘asiatic’ style of court ceremony had a very practical, necessary, goal of protecting the ruler in an age when emperors were made with the edge of a sword. If the secret of empire in Tacitus’ time was that emperors may be made outside of Rome and without the acclamation of the senate then the crisis of the third century made it quite clear that a man wearing the purple is still just a man and dies as readily. By turning to non-essential items (purple robes, coronae etc) and behaving in an a particular manner, Diocletian and his successors were sending a clear message.

Clearly then this is one example of a disjunction between ancient and modern thinking. But it’s not that we’re more practical, just that what’s pragmatic for us expresses itself a little differently.

Listening to Romer, I couldn’t help but think of the bronze age Aegean (BAA). Egypt to Mycenae is not such a stretch: recent popularising treatments (like Eric Cline’s) take a broad areal approach and we know the regions existed as parts of a wider political network. Also, my grasp of Egyptian is terrible and so the BAA is comfortable and familiar.

We don’t have a good sense of court ritual from the BAA. We have striking monuments (such as the horns of power outside Knossos), vivid frescos and a sense of exotic items in the linear B tablets and the detritus of shipwrecks like the one off Uluburun. Occasionally we catch glimpses of titles of court and religious officials, and the reference to an initiation in Pylos, but the tablets contain nothing descriptive. Nonetheless, Gazing into the face of Schliemann’s “Agamemnon” we intimate that these people had a sense of pomp and ritual.

Contrary to our modern expectations, weaponry in the BAA existed in a place where practicality and the ritual mindset intersect. Let’s take the earliest swords, types A, B, and C in the Sandar typology: Often mislabelled rapiers, they were around a metre or so in length yet possessed  perilously small tangs.  It’s hard to see these things being used to great effect in a physical altercation. Scholars have sensibly assumed they possessed some ritual importance.

This is all the more clear in the case of the double axe. Slender and unwieldy, they do not compare with the decent examples of battle axes we have from Norway to the Punjab: Axes employed in war had to have small heads to maximise the speed at which they could be moved.

By any sensible heuristic, these items were not practical. So why invest precious resources in making them? Why feature them so prominently? The ancient world was one where civilisation hung from a precarious thread, as the eventual destruction of the BAA palatial complexes attests, there had to be a sensible reason. As you may have guessed, it’s because the court ritual element conferred its own pragmatic benefits.

Court ritual has a grammar of its own and surely the message would have been obvious to those trained in its language. A sword that is not a sword, or an axe that is not an axe, subtly reinforces the relationship between power and military might, while offhandedly advertising the kind of conspicuous consumption that could afford to use rare metals hours of skilled labour.

Sitting in his court, the king didn’t need his sword to be functional or useful: After all he had many men with sharp ones of their own.

On such fickle things rest the illusions of political systems. Incense and funny robes and fragile sword like objects may not seem to be essential or practical to us but clearly the ancients got some returns on their investments therein. Also, I daresay the population of the bronze age Aegean were happy to take part in pomp if it meant seeing real weapons a little less often.