The Land of a Thousand Gods
Trevor Bryce, The Kingdom of the Hittites (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Trevor Bryce, Life and Society in the Hittite World (Oxford University Press, 2002)
Through a process a not wholly unlike the one that brought the name “Rome” to Romania, the name “Hittite” ended its historical span in what had once been its periphery. The Old Testament applies it to a Canaanite tribe living in the vicinity of Hebron. Yet passages here and there hint at a mightier past: “Behold, the King of Israel has hired against us the Kings of the Hittites and the Kings of Egypt to come upon us!” (II Kings 7:6)
There was indeed a mightier past, when it was natural to write of the Hittites in the same sentence as the empire of Pharoah. In the past century, archeology has brought to light the great Hittite kingdom, the self-styled “Land of a Thousand Gods”, which for nearly five hundred years, from the middle of the 17th Century B.C. to the very end of the 13th, dominated Anatolia and rivaled Egypt, Assyria and Babylon in Bronze Age power politics.
Trevor Bryce’s complementary pair of studies summarize what is now known about the Hittites in the days of their glory. The quantity of information is surprisingly large, thanks to the discovery and publication of thousands of clay tablets containing historical, economic and religious writings. The Hittites seem to have been compulsive archivists, storing and recopying records for generation after generation. There are large gaps in what has survived, as well as in our ability to understand the relicts fully, but enough remains to permit a coherent reconstruction of this once-vanished realm.
The Kingdom of the Hittites concentrates on political and military history, while its companion volume covers the social, religious and economic spheres. The author is at his strongest on the “kings and battles” side, melding the historical fragments into a credible narrative. His account brings out much of the drama of a long, storm-tossed history. He also gives that history a comprehensible shape, showing how the Hittite monarchs persistently failed to establish a secure dominion in their Anatolian heartland and thus lacked the solid base necessary for permanent conquests further afield. The only serious flaw is a tendency to read ancient texts with what might be termed academic naiveté, making too little allowance for propaganda, pre-modern conceptions of reality and outright falsehood: At one point the author seems to take seriously the possibility that a murder committed by witchcraft might be detected through an oracle.
Dr. Bryce’s approach to the Hittite mentalité is less well-wrought, occasionally and without warning mixing imaginative speculation with documented fact. Life and Society in the Hittite World is best read after or in conjunction with the earlier work, since it assumes historical background that ordinary readers are highly unlikely to possess. It undertakes a more daunting task than political history. It is hard enough to wrest the names and deeds of the Hittite monarchs from a miscellany of historical inscriptions, treaties, letters, laws, questions put to oracles, royal seals and archeological surveys. Far more challenging is the recreation of an utterly vanished way of life on the basis of that sort of evidence. Except for a few private letters relating to trading activities, a fragmentary legal code and the physical remains of houses, farmsteads and shrines, the Hittites left almost nothing behind from which we can learn about the lives of ordinary people.
The author sets an ambitious goal: “to build up a picture of this society not merely as detached modern commentators but by seeing it through the eyes of someone actually living in it, taking part in its daily activities, its festive occasions, its celebrations, its crises and conflicts, experiencing its whole mix of sights, sounds, and smells”. With the exiguous materials at hand, no one can meet that standard, and Dr. Bryce naturally falls short. The effort leads him at times to fustian (“One can imagine the bustle, the dust, the noise, the babel of languages, and the combination of smells, both fragrant and foul, of these centres at the height of the trading season. . . .”) or to guesswork. For instance, since writings in eight languages have been found in the royal archives, he infers that the inhabitants of the Hittite capital Hattusa must have been multilingual and muses about the practicalities of day-to-life intercourse. Isn’t that a bit like supposing that a hundred languages are in common use today in Washington, D.C.? Is it really likely that Hattusan street vendors hawked their wares in Sumerian or Akkadian, or even Luwian?
The fullest evidence about Hittite life not unexpectedly deals with religion. A facile survey would find little difference between Hittite beliefs and those of their neighbors. Dr. Bryce instead emphasizes the ways in which the Land of a Thousand Gods was unique, its polytheism taking an extreme and unsyncretistic form.
To begin with, local Hattic deities predominated, but with the political and military expansion of the Hittite world, the divine ranks of the pantheon were swelled by new members, many of whom were gods of the city states and kingdoms that had succumbed to the military might of Hatti. The act of removing the local gods and relocating them in the temples of the conqueror physically marked the transference of these gods to the conqueror’s pantheon. . . . In this land they retained their individual identities, even if they were identical in function and character and name with the gods of other conquered territories, or gods already long established in the conqueror’s homeland. Thus there were a plethora of Storm Gods, of Sun Gods, or Ishtars or Ishtar-equivalents.
This was a people, one might say, who never met a god they didn’t like.
Each book devotes its final chapter to exploring the links between the Hittite world and that of Homer and Hesiod. On the political side, the “Ahhiyawa” of Hittite documents is very likely the Homeric “Achaea”, while the cities of Milawata and Wilusiya, both important as quondam allies or rivals of Hatti, can be identified with greater certainty as Miletos and Troy. Less tangibly, much of Hesiod’s Theogony is derived, at some number of removes, from myths current among the Hittites, who may have played a key role in transmitting the tales westward.
One of the first books to bring Hatti to the attention of the general public was titled The Secret of the Hittites. Dr. Bryce’s two volumes reveal how much of the secret has now been unraveled.