Ancient Greece and Ethiopia: More Friends than Enemies

Santorini Monkey Wall. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Most of us only have a hazy idea of Ethiopia, a mountainous and now land-locked nation over 2,000 miles from Greece. But Homer has many allusions to a place he calls Aethiopia. The Odyssey tells us that Poseidon travelled to visit “the Aethiopians, who are the farthest of men, some in the East and some in the West,” which we can take to mean it was considered to stretch across the Red Sea into what is now Yemen.

If you know your Homer, you know that rosy-fingered Aurora, goddess of the dawn, spread her saffron robe over many a land. And you also know that in Ethiopia she did a little more, for mighty King Memnon was her son. Coming to the aid of the Trojans late in the war (ca. 1200 BC), he slew Nestor’s son Antilochus, but fell in turn before the fleet-footed Achilles.

Is Homer’s Aethiopia really Ethiopia? Most likely, as Professor Elizabeth Fisher, Director of Archaeological Studies at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, has argued. Speaking at the annual Nicholas and Theodora Matsakis lecture at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, she noted that Ethiopia is mentioned on clay tablets dated to 1200 BC, found in Nestor’s home town of Pylos.   Herodotus, in 450 BC, describes Ethiopia as “the last inhabited land in that direction, where gold is obtained in plenty, huge elephants abound, and the men are taller, handsomer, and longer lived than anywhere else”. Indeed, Ethiopia is the closest African land to meet this description, and I personally have learned to recognize Ethiopians because, to my eye, they look like angels.

Dr. Fisher discussed the murals uncovered beneath the ruins of Santorini, which date from the volcanic explosion in 1600 BC, give or take. They show Blue Monkeys, a type that live in Ethiopia. And they show elegant gazelles, with characteristic heads turned to scan behind them. And unique wire-tailed swallows.  Ostrich egg-shell vessels, objects of elephant and hippopotamus ivory, and other precious materials not found in Greece, have been uncovered at numerous Minoan sites. All of these animals and materials can be found in the Horn of Africa.

Egyptian records also make several references, spaced by centuries, of Pharaohs having undertaken highly successful labor-intensive long-distance trading expeditions to Ethiopia, returning with rare and valuable goods. There are pictures in Egyptian tombs as far back as the XVIIIth dynasty (around 1500 BC), showing people bearing tribute from Minoan Greece as well as from the land of Punt, which is most likely in Ethiopia. In the Tomb of Rekhmire, Minoans and Puntites are both pictured, which suggests they might have known each other.

And what of the Queen of Sheba? The Biblical record is scant, but it alludes to her long journey, bringing gifts of “gold, spices, and precious stones,” all of which are found in Ethiopia. In googling for background, I discovered the legendary Ethiopian King Menelik I was believed to be her son by King Solomon. There are claims that he later visited his father, and brought back the Arc of the Covenant.   Dr. Fisher humorously discounted the movie Raiders of the Lost Arc, which ends with the Arc being stored in a government warehouse. The Ethiopians say it is in the Aksum Chapel of the Church of Maryam Seyon. The only person allowed to see it is a caretaker monk who keeps this duty his entire natural life. The Wikipedia writes that the Menelik dynasty, with some interruptions, lasted 225 generations – all the way to Hailie Selassie.

Of course, in Christian times there is no doubt of the connections with the Greco-Roman empires as there are written records of Byzantine trade. The Bible mentions conversions of Ethiopians, and the Coptic Orthodox Church was founded in the fourth century AD. In St. Louis there is a special connection, as the St. Nicholas church gladly took in a large group of Ethiopian refugees, who later established their own Ethiopian Orthodox church.

When Dr. Fisher’s talk came to its conclusion, the Saint Louisans wildly applauded her. We make much of the multi-cultural character and inter-connectedness of modern life. Professor Fisher has shown in a new way that it was very true of the Old World too.