1. Early Greek Contact with Africa

The earliest known contact between Greece and Africa occurred in the Bronze Age, during the fourteenth century BCE, when the Minoans began to trade with Egypt. The first narratives mentioning Greek contact with Africa are in the Homeric poems, which date to the eighth century BCE.
The Homeric poems contain reflections of Bronze Age civilization, although the poems themselves are from a later date. The Bronze Age is the time from which our earliest evidence for contact between Greece and Egypt comes. Besides Homer, we get evidence from material culture, art, and inscriptions containing place names. Without contemporary literary or historical narratives, we must piece together the nature of the interaction based primarily on images and objects.

1.1 Minoan Seafaring

The Minoan culture, centered on the island of Crete, flourished from the twenty-seventh to the fifteenth century BCE. Since they lived on an island, the sea and seafaring figured prominently in their culture and economy. Evidence that the Minoans constructed large sailing ships comes from seal stones and frescoes. [1] In addition, archaeologists have discovered stone anchors and even entire shipwrecks. [2]
Archaeological finds in Egypt indicate that the Minoan trade network extended to Africa. As early as the Middle Kingdom (2030–1640 BCE), Egypt had pottery decorated in the Minoan style. The Dolphin Vase from Lisht (1750–1700 BCE) provides a good example of the cultural exchange trade brought about. The vessel, excavated at Lisht in Egypt, features dolphins painted in the style seen in Minoan palaces on Crete. The shape of the vessel, however, is characteristic of pottery from the Levant and chemical analysis of the clay indicates that the vase was manufactured in southern Palestine. [3]
The Egyptian site of Avaris (modern Tell el-Dab'a), occupied from 1783–1550 BCE, has yielded artifacts from all over the Aegean. Of particular interest are the frescoes found in the site's temple. In both technique and subject matter, they resemble frescoes from the Minoan site of Knossos on Crete. Mazes, bulls, bull-leaping, and lion and leopard hunts appear in frescoes at both Knossos and Avaris. [4]
Egyptian influences also appear in Greek regions. On Santorini, archaeologists have discovered a drinking vessel made from an ostrich egg and frescoes that depict papyrus plants. Both ostrich eggs and papyrus point to Africa, as Egypt was the primary source of papyrus in the ancient world and ostriches were native to northern Africa. [5]
All of the evidence above could indicate only that the Minoans and Egyptians traded with common intermediaries and that itinerant artists traveled the Mediterranean producing similar frescoes in different places. During the Egyptian New Kingdom, however, we have evidence that Minoans visited Egypt. Minoans appear in several Theban tomb paintings from the reigns of Hatshepsut (c. 1479–1458 BCE), Thutmose III (c. 1479–1425 BCE) and Amenhotep II (c. 1428–1397 BCE). The paintings show men labeled as being from Keftiu (see below on this place name) carrying items including metal ingots identical in shape to ingots found on Crete. [6]

1.2 Mycenaean Contact with Egypt

Mycenaean pottery has been found at New Kingdom sites in Egypt. Vessels with distinctively Mycenaean shapes such as stirrup jars point to trade between Mycenaean kingdoms and Egypt. Egyptian goods also appear in Greece during this period. Common finds include storage jars, jugs, glass objects, scarabs and faience figures. Some objects bear the name of a king, most commonly Amenhotep III, perhaps suggesting royal gifts from one court to another. Egyptian goods also appear in Mycenaean shipwrecks. The late fourteenth or early thirteenth century BCE wreck at Ulu Burun contained a cargo of items including ingots for metal and glass production, which originated in Egypt. [7]

1.3 Written Sources

Without literary or historical narratives from the Bronze Age, scholars primarily rely on artifacts reveal the relationships between Egypt and the Minoans and Mycenaeans. Some writing does survive, however. Texts from Crete written in Linear B contain some geographical names. Tablets found at Knossos contain the words mi-sa-ra-jo ‘Egyptian’ and a3-ku-pi-ti-jo ‘Memphite’ or ‘Egyptian’. The term mi-sa-ra-jo may come from the Semitic word for Egypt, Miraim. The term a3-ku-pi-ti-jo seems to come from a Syro-Palestinian reference to Egypt, given that an Ugaritic name for both Egypt and Memphis was Ikupta. [8]

1.4 Myths of Africa: Ethiopians

In myth, Africa appears as a remote and mysterious place. Its people may be marked as different by their appearance and their relationship to the gods. Africa not only produces those who stand apart from he rest of the human race, but may conceal those who land on its shores, either protecting them or hindering their travels. In this way, Africa stands apart from the rest of the world. Those who go there may experience a sort of suspended animation, as they are removed from ongoing action elsewhere.
The Greek term aithiops (aitho- ‘burnt’ + ops- ‘face’) identifies African peoples as darker-skinned than their Greek counterparts. The place name, Aithiopia, can denote the upper Nile region just to the south of Egypt plus the Sahara and areas beyond. (Herodotus reserves the term Aithiopia for sub-Saharan Africa.) In the Iliad and Odyssey, Homer's Ethiopians inhabit the edges of the earth, where they are in close proximity to the sun, which has darkened their skin. In addition, they are notable for their privileged relationship with the gods. Related to the notion of the Ethiopians inhabiting the edges of the earth is the use of Africa in myth to indicate remoteness. Frequently, a visiting the Ethiopians is given as a reason for the absence of unavailability of a god or goddess. The Ethiopians themselves have the reputation of being unusually good providers of sacrifices to the gods. [9]

1.4.1 Homer Iliad 1.423–424 (8th c. BCE; Greek)

Thetis speaks to Achilles.
423    Zeus went yesterday to Ocean to a feast
          with the blameless Ethiopians, and all the gods followed.

1.4.2 Homer Iliad 23.205–207 (8th c. BCE; Greek)

Iris speaks to the winds.
205    There is no time to sit. To the streams of Ocean to the land
          of the Ethiopians, where they offer a hecatomb [10] to the gods,
          I go once again, so as to receive my share of the feast.

1.4.3 Homer Odyssey 1.22–26 (8th c. BCE; Greek)

Poseidon's visit is an example of the special relationship between the gods and the Ethiopians.
          But Poseidon was visiting the far-off Ethiopians,
          the Ethiopians who are divided in half, the remotest of men,
          some of whom live where the Sun god sets and some where he rises. [11]
25      There, Poseidon receiving a hecatomb of bulls and rams,
          delighted in sitting at the feast…

1.4.4 Hesiod Theogony 984–985 (c. 700 BCE; Greek)

Hesiod's Theogony recounts the genealogy of the Greek gods and the origin of the world.
          To Tithonus, Eos bore bronze-armored Memnon,
985    king of the Ethiopians, and the lord Emathion. [12]

1.4.5 Proclus Chrestomathia 2, excerpts (5th c. CE; Greek)

Proclus gives a short summary of the events covered in the Aethiopis, an epic poem that dates to the seventh century BCE. This poem was part of the Epic Cycle, a group of poems that together tell the story of the Trojan War. The Iliad and Odyssey are part of the Epic Cycle. The other poems are preserved only in fragments and summaries.
After Homer's Iliad are five the books of the Aethiopis by Arctinus of Miletus. The Amazon, Penthesilea, the Thracian daughter of Ares, comes to fight on the Trojan side. After earning glory in battle, she is killed by Achilles and the Trojans bury her. … Memnon, son of Eos, having armor made by Hephaestus, comes to help the Trojans. [13] Thetis tells her son about Memnon. Battle is joined and Antilochus is slain by Memnon. Achilles then kills Memnon. Eos, having obtained the favor from Zeus, gives to Memnon immortality. Achilles drives back the Trojans, rushes into the city with them, and is slain by Paris and Apollo.

1.4.6 Pliny Natural History 6.187 (77–79 CE; Latin)

Pliny's account of the origins of the name Ethiopia (from eponymous king Aethiops) also relates to burning.
The whole people had the name Aetheria, then Atlantia, and last Aethiopia, after Aethiops the son of Vulcan. It is no wonder that these remote places produce people and animals strange in appearance, through the speed and skill of fire to mold their bodies and sculpt their features.

1.5 Other Parts of Africa in Myth

Like Ethiopia, myths involving other parts of Africa accentuate the remoteness of Africa: Io ends her flight in Egypt, the Pygmies live in Africa on the shores of Ocean, and, in the version of the Troy story in which Helen does not go to Troy, Africa conceals her.

1.5.1 Ovid Metamorphoses 1.728–750, excerpts (c. 8 CE; Latin)

Zeus (Jupiter) transformed Io into a heifer to conceal from Hera (Juno) his relationship with Io. Hera caused a stinging fly to pursue Io to the ends of the earth.
          Nile, you remained the endpoint to her immeasurable labor.
          As soon as Io reached you, she fell to her knees [14]
730    on your bank and, bending her neck back,
          raised her head to the stars and, with all the groaning,
          weeping, and mournful mooing she could manage,
          begged Jove to end her troubles. Jupiter,
          putting his arms around his wife's neck, asked that
735    she end the punishment at last, saying, "Put off
          your fear; she will never cause you grief."
          He called upon the Styx to witness his words.
          The goddess was mollified and Io took on her
          prior countenance and became what she was before.
740    The hair fell from her body; her horns shrank; her eyes
          narrowed; her mouth grew smaller; her shoulders and hands
          returned; and each hoof dissolved into five fingernails.
          Nothing resembled the heifer except her pure white skin
          . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
747    Now, the people who wear linen worship her as a goddess. [15]
          Now, finally, Epaphus, [16] born from divine stock,
          is believed to be Jove's son and, together with his mother,
750    has temples throughout the land.

1.5.2 Isidore of Seville Etymologies 14.5.1–3 (560–636 CE; Latin)

Isidore collects a number of earlier myths in his discussion of possible origins of African place-names.
Libya was named because the wind called Libs, also known as Africus, blows from there. Others say that Epaphus, son of Jupiter and founder of Memphis in Egypt, with his wife Cassiopeia, had a daughter named Libya, who later founded a kingdom in Africa. From her name, the land was called Libya. Moreover, some people think that Africa was named as though the word were aprica ("exposed to the sun"), because it is open to the sky and sun and does not have extreme cold. Others say that Africa got its name from a man called Afer, a descendent of Abraham and Cethura. Africa begins at the borders of Egypt and extends to the south through Ethiopia up to Mount Atlas. The Mediterranean Sea forms its northern border, which extends to the Straits of Gibraltar. It contains the provinces Libya, Cyrenensis, Pentapolis, Tripolis, Byzacium, Carthage, Numidia, Mauretania Sitifensis, Marretania Tingitana, and Ethiopia with the burning sun.

1.5.3 Pseudo-Apollodorus Library 2.1.4–5, excerpts (1st–2nd c. CE; Greek)

Apollodorus (now known as Pseudo-Apollodorus to distinguish him from the second-century BCE Apollodorus) collected numerous Greek myths. In this myth, Danaus and Aegyptus are twin brothers, one of whom represents Greece (Danaus) and one Egypt (Aegyptus). They have fifty daughters and fifty sons, respectively. A reconciliation between the brothers, cemented by arranged marriages between the daughters and sons, goes awry.
4. … With Poseidon, Libya bore twin sons, Agenor and Belus. Agenor returned to Phoenicia and ruled there, becoming the ancestor of a great line, to which I will return. Belus, remaining in Egypt, ruled there and married Anchinoe, daughter of the Nile. She bore him twin sons, Aegyptus and Danaus. [17] As Euripides says, Cepheus and Phineus were his sons too. Belus settled Danaus in Libya and Aegyptus in Arabia. Aegyptus took over the land of the Melampods and named it Egypt after himself. The brothers had children with many wives. Aegyptus had fifty sons and Danaus had fifty daughters. When they later quarreled about the kingdom, Danaus feared the sons of Aegyptus and on Athena's advice he built a ship—he was the first man ever to build one—and fled with his daughters. After landing at Rhodes, he dedicated a statue to Lindian Athena. From there, he went to Argos and the king Gelanor handed over the kingdom to him…
5. But the sons of Aegyptus came to Argos, calling for an end to the quarrel and requesting Danaus' daughters' hands in marriage. Danaus, however, was distrustful of and their promises, since he still held a grudge for his exile. Nevertheless, he agreed to the marriages… After they were paired off by lot, Danaus held a marriage feast and gave daggers to his daughters. The Danaids killed their sleeping husbands, all except Hypermnestra, who saved Lynceus because he respected her virginity. …

1.5.4 Homer Iliad 3.2–6 (8th c. BCE; Greek)

The Trojans entering battle are compared to cranes attacking the Pygmies.
          The Trojans went with a clamor and shout like birds,
          just as the cry of cranes comes from the sky
          as they flee storms and heavy rains. Calling out they fly
5        to the streams of Ocean, where they bring
          slaughter and death to the Pygmy men; [18]

1.5.5 Euripides Helen 31–55 (412 BCE; Greek)

Helen describes how an image of her went to Troy, while she was spirited away to Egypt, where she remained hidden during the Trojan War.
          Hera, dissatisfied because she did not best the goddesses, [19]
          made my marriage to Paris a mere figment and
          gave the king's son not me, but a breathing
          image fashioned out of sky that she made
35      to resemble me. And it seemed to him that
          he had me, although he did not, since it was
          an empty apparition. Again, the designs of Zeus joined
          other evils to these. For he brought war to the land
          of the Greeks and to the unfortunate Trojans, so that
40      he might relieve mother Earth of the multitude and throng
          of mortals and make the strongest man of the Greeks
          well-known. I, or more correctly my name,
          was handed over to the Trojans as a spear prize
          for the Greeks. Hermestook me in the folds
45      of the ether and hid me in a cloud—for Zeus had not
          forgotten about me—and settled me in the house of Proteus. [20]
          (He chose the most chaste of all mortals so that
          I might keep my marriage bed pure for Menelaus.)
          Thus, I am here, but my long-suffering husband has
50      amassed a army and traveled to the towers
          of Troy in pursuit of his plundered wife.
          Many souls have perished on the banks of the Scamander [21]
          on my account and I, who have suffered all these things,
          am cursed and I seem to have betrayed my husband
55      and engaged the Greeks in a great war.

1.5.6 Homer Odyssey 4.219–232 (8th c. BCE; Greek)

Already in the Odyssey, Helen has a connection with Egypt, though not because she is said to have visited there. In this passage, she offers help to those lamenting that Odysseus has not returned from Troy.
          Then Helen, born from Zeus, had another idea:
220    just then, she cast a drug into the wine they were drinking,
          a drug to banish sorrow and pain, making one forgetful of all evils.
          Whoever consumed it, once it was mixed into the wine bowl,
          would not that day let fall upon his cheek a tear, not even if
          his mother and father should die, not even if in front of him
225    someone should kill his brother or dear son
          with a sword and he should see it with his own eyes.
          The daughter of Zeus had such good and clever
          drugs, given to her by Polydama, wife of Thon and
          a woman from Egypt, where the fertile and life-giving
230    earth produces the most drugs, which when mixed, many are
          good and many harmful; where each man is a physician,
          wise among men. For they come from the stock of Paieon. [22]

1.5.7 Homer Odyssey 4.351–397; 435–480 (8th c. BCE; Greek)

On his way home to Sparta after the Trojan War, Menelaus describes how he was detained in Egypt. There he encountered Proteus, a shape-shifting prophet, who revealed what Menelaus must do in order to return home.
          The gods kept me in Egypt, although I was striving to return home, [23]
          since I did not perform perfect sacrifices for them
          and the gods always want their demands to be remembered.
          There is a certain island in the rough waters of the sea
355    off the coast of Egypt—they call it Pharos—
          as far out as a hollow ship sails in a full day
          with a stiff breeze at its back. It has a safe harbor
          from which well-balanced ships are launched
          out to sea, once they have take on a supply of fresh water.
360    There the gods kept me for twenty days without
          the seaward-blowing winds that escort ships on
          the broad back of the deep. All of my supplies would have
          been exhausted, as would the strength of my men,
          if some god had not pitied and saved me: Eidothea,
365    daughter of mighty Proteus, the old man of the sea,
          for I had especially moved her heart. She encountered me
          wandering alone, apart from my companions, for they
          were always wandering the island and fishing with
          curved hooks, distressed as they were from hunger.
370    Standing near me, she spoke as follows: "Are you naïve,
          stranger, or so excessively thoughtless or willfully
          neglectful? Do you enjoy suffering grief? You have been
          detained for a long time on this island, unable to find a remedy,
          and your companions' hearts grow weak." So she spoke, and I,
375    answering her, said, "I will tell you, whoever
          of the goddesses you are, that I am by no means
          willingly detained, but doubtless I have offended
          the immortal ones who rule the wide heavens.
          But tell me—for gods know all—
380    who of the immortals shackles me and keeps me
          from my voyage? And tell me of my return: how will I traverse
          the sea laden with fish?" So I spoke, and the heavenly goddess
          again answered, "And so I will tell you, stranger, very precisely.
          The infallible old man of the sea frequents this place,
385    the immortal Egyptian Proteus, Poseidon's servant,
          who knows the depth of every Ocean. They say
          that he it is he who fathered me. If somehow,
          by lying in wait, you could catch him, he would tell you
          the route and length of your journey; he will describe your homecoming
390    and how you should traverse the sea laden with fish.
          He will tell you also, Zeus-born, if you wish,
          the things—good and bad—that have come to pass
          in your halls, while you were on this long and painful journey."
          So she spoke, but I, in answer, addressed her,
395    "You show me how to lie in wait for the divine old man,
          lest he somehow escape me because he saw or anticipated me.
          For it is difficult for a mortal man to tame a god."
          . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Eidothea explains to Menelaus how to subdue Proteus. The next morning, he and several of his men go to meet her.
435    Meanwhile, Eidothea, having submerged herself in the broad bosom
          of the sea, brought from the deep four sealskins,
          all of which were freshly stripped off, a trick she devised
          for her father. [24] She had made hollows in the sand at the water's edge
          and sat waiting as we came very close to her. She had us
440    lie down in a row and placed a skin over each of us.
          Then our ambush became most horrible, for the putrid
          stench of the sea-born seals oppressed us terribly:
          who would sleep next to a monster of the sea?
          But she saved us and contrived a great advantage for us:
445    bringing sweet-smelling ambrosia, she placed it
          under everyone's nose, killing the beast's odor.
          We waited all morning with enduring hearts and
          the seals came all together from the sea. Then,
          they lay down to sleep in rows at the water's edge;
450    at midday, the old man came from the sea and found
          the well fed seals. He approached and counted them
          all. He counted us first among his herd and did not
          perceive in his heart that there was a trick. Next, he lay down
          himself. With a battle cry, we charged him and threw
455    our arms around him. The old man was not forgetful
          of his treacherous skill, but first became a lion with flowing mane,
          followed by a snake, a leopard, and a great wild pig;
          he became fluid water and a tree with high foliage.
          For our part, we held on relentlessly, with courage in our hearts.
460    But when the old man versed in deadly arts was in distress,
          he addressed me and inquired, "Son of Atreus,
          who contrived these plans so that you might
          ambush me and take me against my will? What do you need?"
          So he spoke and I, in turn, addressed him:
465    "You know, old man. Why do you ask me these things
          and cause me to stray from my purpose? I have been detained
          for a long time on this island, unable to see an endpoint,
          and the heart within me grows weak. Tell me—for the gods
          know all—who of the immortals shackles me and hinders my journey and
470    my homecoming and how may I traverse the fish-laden sea?"
          So I spoke and he again addressed me in answer,
          "But surely you made the necessary auspicious sacrifices to Zeus
          and the other gods when you embarked, so that you might return
          most quickly to your homeland as you sail the wine-dark sea.
475    For you are not fated to see your loved ones and reach your
          well built house and your homeland before you have gone again
          to the water of Egypt's river swollen with rain and
          performed sacred hecatombs to the immortal gods,
          who possess the broad heavens. Only then will
480    the gods grant you the path you so eagerly desire."


[ back ] 1. Casteldon 2002:26.
[ back ] 2. Hadjidaki and Betancourt 2005-2006:79; Wachsmann 2008:283.
[ back ] 3. Kemp and Merrillees 1980:221.
[ back ] 4. Bietak and Marinatos 1995:49-62.
[ back ] 5. Herodotus describes the Macae (located in modern Libya) using shields made of ostrich skin (Histories 4.175).
[ back ] 6. Redford 2001:363.
[ back ] 7. Nicholson, Jackson, and Trott 1997:151.
[ back ] 8. Cline 1994:35.
[ back ] 9. From a narrative perspective, the lavish feasts the Ethiopians put on for the gods contrast with the hardships that prevail in the rest of the world of the Homeric world (Romm 1994:52).
[ back ] 10. A sacrifice of 100 animals.
[ back ] 11. The idea of the Ethiopians occupying the edges of the earth may further mark them as an "other," given the tendency of early geographers to envision Greece as occupying the center of the known world.
[ back ] 12. Eos was the goddess of the dawn. She fell in love with the mortal Tithonus and asked Zeus to make him immortal. She neglected to ask that he be eternally young, however, so he grew older and older. In some versions, he finally is transformed into a cicada. Their second son, Emathion, became king of Ethiopia after Memnon's death and was eventually killed by Heracles.
[ back ] 13. Achilles, too, had armor made by Hephaestus.
[ back ] 14. A river is an appropriate place for Io, the daughter of the river god Inachus, to end her journey.
[ back ] 15. I.e. as Isis.
[ back ] 16. The Greeks identified Epaphus with the Egyptian Apis, the sacred black bull worshipped in Memphis.
[ back ] 17. Their names represent the Egyptians and the Greeks, as Aegyptus conquers Egypt and names it after himself and Danaus re-founds Argos in Greece. In Homer, the Argives are referred to as Danaans.
[ back ] 18. Like the Ethiopians, the Pygmies are envisioned living at the edge of the earth.
[ back ] 19. A reference to the judgment of Paris, in which the Paris, son of the Trojan king Priam, was asked to determine which goddess was the fairest, Hera, Athena, or Aphrodite. Paris chose Aphrodite, accepting her bribe of the most beautiful woman in the world.
[ back ] 20. A legendary king of Egypt.
[ back ] 21. The river on which Troy is located.
[ back ] 22. Paieon was the physician to the Olympian gods. Paian ("healer") was an epithet given to Asclepius and Apollo.
[ back ] 23. Nostos, a return or homecoming, is a central theme in the Odyssey. In addition to the primary narrative of Odysseus' return from Troy to Ithaca, the poem describes in compressed form the homecomings of other Greek heroes, including Menelaus and Agamemnon.
[ back ] 24. Proteus was a herdsman of seals for Poseidon.