Asia Minor

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1 Introduction

The name ‘Asia’ originally designated an area of land that is now contained in, and makes up the largest part of, the Republic of Turkey. The same area is usually designated today as Anatolia (Anadolu in Turkish). From a very early time, the ancient Greeks also applied the name ‘Asia’ to the whole continent that, from the perspective of the Greek mainland, begins with Anatolia. As a result, Anatolia was called ‘Little Asia’, that is Mikrá Asía in Greek, or Asia Minor in Latin.

The history of religion in Asia Minor is such as to utterly frustrate the widespread ethnic paradigm in modern views of polytheism. What I mean is the tendency to conceive of a modern nation as essentially continuous with an ancient people, and attributing one original religion to each, contrasted with its current religion, be that Christianity or Islam. “Continental Germanic” religion for Germany, “Gaulish Polytheism” for France, “Religio Romana” for Italy, and so on. In every case, such equations drastically oversimplify historical reality, but they are plausible fictions at first blush.

By contrast, it is immediately obvious that the modern Turkish people are not simply the Islamized descendants of a pagan people occupying the same land, since Turks as an ethnic group only entered Anatolia after it had been thoroughly Christianized, and after they themselves had become Islamized. The Christian peoples who live or used to live in the region (prior to the Armenian genocide, the Assyrian genocide, and the “population exchange” with Greece) are likewise affiliated with larger ethno-religious groups outside of Anatolia more closely than they would be with any one of the ancient indigenous peoples of Asia Minor. All this notwithstanding the deep and meaningful ancestral and cultural connections that do exist between ancient and modern Anatolia (as well as diasporic communities) – modern indigeneity must not be equated with ancient indigeneity.

Before and during Christianization, things were not simple either. It is quite difficult to say, for instance, whether the late antique pagans of Asia Minor practiced something that could be called “Greek religion”. The 5th-century CE Neoplatonic philosopher Proclus of Lycia, for instance, who is often called a “Greek philosopher” today, never refers to himself as Greek, but consistently and exclusively as Lycian. Yet it would be difficult to name a writer more invested in Greek learning than him in his or any century, and there are less than a handful references to anything specifically Lycian in his huge body of work. Again, John Laurentius Lydus, a 6th-century professor of Latin in Constantinople, proudly described himself as a Lydian (hence ‘Lydus’) and a Roman (in both a civic and a cultural sense), but is often called Greek by modern scholars because that was the language he wrote in.

Some would argue that the indigenous cultures of Lycia and Lydia (both in Western Anatolia) had become so attenuated by late antiquity that these two men were really Greeks in all but name; but clearly, they did not think so, and what gives us the right to adjudicate? That Hellenization made people less authentically indigenous represents a conception of ethnic purity we are projecting into the past, not a self-evident fact. That conception strips the ancient peoples of Asia Minor of any role in their own cultural history, reducing it to the impersonal interaction between a static indigeneity and a dynamic Hellenism. It also privileges the historian – who is supposedly able to discover and authenticate (or not) the true indigenous religion hiding behind Greek-language sources – over the ancient writers who expressed themselves in Greek as they wished.

So, instead of looking for “the” original pagan religion of Asia Minor, or any specific part of it, we must consider it as a region in flux, whose polytheism has no one original form but a long, changeful and fascinating history, parts of which are closely entangled with Greekness (and Romanness), while other parts are not. Perhaps the most helpful tool of subdividing that history is on the basis of the writing systems, whose use was not incidental to local cultures, but reflected their integration into wider and religious networks and intellectual frameworks.

2 Cuneiform writing in Asia Minor (2000–1200 BCE)

The earliest texts from Asia Minor stem from Assyrian merchants – Assyria being the northern part of Mesopotamia, reaching from Iraq into southwestern Turkey, and thus neighboring Asia Minor. These texts date to the 20th and 19th centuries BCE, and are limited to Cappadocia (Central Anatolia), where Assyrian trading posts had been established. These texts, written in the Assyrian dialect of Akkadian and using the cuneiform script, also include some words taken from local languages, principally Hittite, but also Luwian and Hattic (J.G. Dercksen, “On Anatolian Loanwords in Akkadian Texts from Kültepe”, in: Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 97 [2007], pp. 26–46). It is also in the cuneiform script that, at some unknown point in time, local languages began to be written, including the aforementioned Hittite, Luwian and Hattic. But before discussing these languages, it is necessary to briefly describe the character of Akkadian cuneiform writing, which frames both the ancient and modern understanding of the region’s gods.

Cuneiform writing was originally developed to write Sumerian, an ancient language of Mesopotamia, and later adapted to write the unrelated Semitic language Akkadian. Although at first associated with two regions or populations, Sumer and Akkad, the two languages came to be used alongside each other. Sumerian eventually fell out of use as a common spoken language (perhaps around 2000 BCE), but continued to be used as a written language alongside Akkadian for another two millennia, into the early centuries CE.

Throughout this time, the orthography of Akkadian remained logically anchored in the Sumerian language. For instance, the sign 𒌓 represented the Sumerian word utu, meaning ‘sun’, and deriving from this, it could be used in Akkadian to represent the syllable ut, or the word for ‘sun’, šamšu(m). Since the same word could also be spelled as 𒊭𒄠𒋗𒌝 (ša-am-šu-um), directly reflecting its Akkadian pronunciation, the spelling 𒌓 is called a ‘Sumerogram’, and conventionally transcribed in capital letters, UTU, so as to differentiate it from a phonetic Akkadian spelling. Sometimes, a Sumerogram is also combined with a partial phonetic rendering, as in 𒌓𒌝 (UTU-um, pronounced šamšum, i.e., shamshum).

Cuneiform also used so-called determinatives, signs that are not pronounced, but which indicate the kind of meaning he following sign or signs have. The only determinative we will have to consider here is 𒀭. When this sign occurs as a separate word, it means ‘god’ – dingir in Sumerian, ilum in Akkadian. When used as a determinative (transcribed ᵈ, short for dingir), it indicates that the following word is the name of a god, which sometimes makes a difference in pronunciation. Thus, the word 𒀭𒌓 (ᵈUTU) refers not to the sun in a purely astronomical sense, but to the god Sun. In Sumerian, this is pronounced Utu, just like the common noun, but in Akkadian, it is Šamaš – obviously related to, but still distinct from, the common noun šamšu(m).

When cuneiform was adapted to write the Hittite language, not only were Sumerograms retained in the orthography, but so were analogous ‘Akkadograms’: Akkadian spellings that represent Hittite words. Thus, while scribes of Hittite wrote 𒀭𒌓 (ᵈUTU) to indicate the Hittite name Ištanu, many of them would simultaneously have been aware of the word’s pronunciation in Sumerian, as well as Akkadian, and sometimes other languages besides, depending on the range of their scribal training. As such, the mutual transatability of names like Utu, Šamaš and Ištanu is fixed in their very orthography. In fact, the consistency with which Hittite scribes use Sumero- and Akkadograms means that there is sometimes doubt about the Hittite pronunciation of a god’s name, even while it is clear what it is translatable to in other languages!

The correct management of multilingualism and translatability was of central concern to the rulers of the land of Ḫatti and the scholars at their capital city Ḫattuša, whose perspective is reflected in most of the cuneiform material from this period and region. The indigenous language of Ḫatti, called Ḫattili or Hattic, was used in the worship of some of the most important gods of the kingdom, even as its use in speech declined in the face of the language we now call Hittite (at the time called Nešili, the language of the city Neša). But rituals, and in some cases other literature, were also adopted from neighboring and subject peoples, so that the scribes of Ḫattuša also copied texts in Hurrian (mostly spoken to the east of Anatolia) and two Anatolian languages related to Hittite, Luwian and Palaic.

This complex situation is often broken down as if each language corresponded to one ethnic group and one pantheon, with certain equivalences between them: Sumerians and Sumerian religion, Hittites and hittite religion, etc. But this is not the case. We have already seen that Sumerian and Akkadian are not merely languages alongside Hittite; rather, written Hittite is conceptually grounded and anchored in them (even if many Hittite scribes did not have any meaningful knowledge of Sumerian or Akkadian). In turn, much of the material in other languages was written or at least copied by and for speakers of Hittite, who were interested in different languages for different reasons:

  • Hurrian, spoken by the Hurrians (who largely lived to the east of Anatolia), was used as a language of ritual in Ḫatti, but also studied for its songs and narrative literature, including both texts with Sumero-Akkadian models and more independent creations. The so-called Kumarbi cycle, a series of mythical narratives about the gods survives in Hittite, but was translated from Hurrian. (Many elements of these narratives later recur in Hesiod’s Theogony and other Greek poets, attesting to a broader Anatolian tradition not limited to the royal court at Ḫattuša.)
  • Palaic, a language closely related to Hittite and spoken in northern Anatolia, by contrast to the above occurs exclusively as a ritual language, with Palaic passages integrated into Hittite-language ritual instructions.
  • Luwian, a language somewhat more distantly related to Hittite and spoken in southern and southwestern Anatolia, likewise occurs as a ritual language within Hittite-language texts. Reflecting their apparently oral rather than literary origin, and their practical purpose (to be pronounced properly by people whose own language may have been Hittite), the records of Luwian and Palaic in cuneiform are primarily spellled phonetically, with few Sumero- or Akkadograms.

In other words, the court in Ḫattuša was not a locus of Hittite religion with contacts to other regions and their religions, but a place where a variety of ritual traditions were managed under an overarching Hittite-language framework, whose logic was in part rooted in a broader Sumero-Akkadian framework, which had already long been known to the Hurrians and other peoples in and near the domains ruled by the kings of Ḫatti.

To continue the example from earlier, the Sumerogram 𒀭𒌓 (ᵈUTU), meaning ‘(the deity) Sun’, was read (at least some of the time) as Ištanu in the Hittite language, this word being a borrowing from the Hattic Eštan. Unlike in Sumerian and Akkadian, where the Sun is masculine, Eštan was understood as a goddess, and so the indigenous “Ištanu of Arinna”, a holy city of Ḫatti, was depicted in the shape of a woman (or, symbolically, as a solar disk).

However, aided by the absence of a grammatical distinction between masculine and feminine gender in Hittite, the spelling 𒀭𒌓 (ᵈUTU) and the name Ištanu could also refer to a male deity, reflecting other traditions connected to different languages.

[Add more info about UTU in Hittite, and sources]

For more information, see Polytheism in the Cuneiform Cosmopolis for a broader overview, and Thousand Gods of Ḫatti for more information about the Hittites and their integration of various religious milieus into an overarching system of royal patronage.

4 Hieroglyphic Luwian (?–700 BCE)

In the last period of Hittite literacy, there are also increasing intrusions of Luwian into Hittite-language texts, probably reflecting a shift from Hittite to Luwian as the spoken language at Ḫattuša.

5 Local alphabetic scripts (8th–4th cents. BCE)

6 Greek alphabet (from 8th cent. BCE onwards)