Near-Eastern Echoes in Iliad XVI 33-35

Citation with persistent identifier: Alepidou, Apostolia. “Near-Eastern Echoes in Iliad XVI 33-35.” CHS Research Bulletin 7 (2019).

The aim of this research project is to shed light on a peculiar phrase found in Iliad 16.33-35, the meaning and origin of which have troubled scholars and readers since antiquity. At this point of the Iliadic plot, Patroclus, devastated by the numerous deaths inflicted on the Achaean army by Hector, accuses Achilles of being idle in the face of the disaster. Among the harsh words that Patroclus addresses to his dear friend, there is an odd comment related to his parentage: […] οὐκ ἄρα σοί γε πατὴρ ἦν ἱππότα Πηλεύς,/ οὐδὲ Θέτις μήτηρ˙ γλαυκὴ δέ σε τίκτε θάλασσα /πέτραι τ᾽ ἠλίβατοι […], “You were born from the sea and the rocks, not from Thetis and Peleus.” This phrase, although clearly a reproach to cruel and merciless Achilles, is unparalleled in Homer’s epic and, as I try to show in my paper, should be read in the light of certain Near-Eastern traditions that employ the theme of a creature being born from the sea and the rocks.

The need to examine the Near-Eastern material emerges partially from the inadequacy of the so-far proposed interpretations, which fall into two groups. The first one, summarized by Janko in his 1992 commentary on Iliad 16, associates Patroclus’ phrasing with a general idea that mankind originated from inanimate elements, in combination with the fact that such elements are used in the Homeric epic as a comparatum for a person’s harshness or coldness. This twofold argument can be easily countered: Il.16.33-35 is a specific reproach to Achilles, thus unlikely to refer to mankind as a whole, while at the same time there are considerable discrepancies on the level of diction between Il.16.33-35 and the passages that Janko associates with it. The second interpretative strand can be traced back to ancient commentators, though endorsed by modern scholars, too. The general idea is that, in this context, the sea and the rocks function as metonymies for Thetis and Peleus respectively, on the grounds of their habitual environment: the sea in Thetis’ case and Mount Pelion in Peleus’. What seems to be problematic here is that, even if we accept that the sea could have been used as a metonymy for Thetis, who was after all a sea-goddess, Mount Pelion could not have functioned in a similar way for Peleus: the two words are not etymologically related, Peleus in the Iliad is specifically located in Phthia, not Pelion, and, last but not least, the meaning “rock, rocky cliff” conveyed by πέτρη in Il. 33.35 is incompatible with the adjective εἰνοσίφυλλον, ‘with quivering foliage’, used elsewhere in Homer to describe Pelion (Il. 2.757, Od.11.316).

Given the fact that, when it comes to the interpretation of fossilized idioms in Homer, Near-Eastern literature can often supply us with a useful backdrop of relevant material, I propose that we tread a different path. In Near-Eastern tradition, the actual birth of a creature from the sea and the rocks is a frequently employed theme with specific connotations. In Mesopotamia, for example, rocks and the sea are often depicted as genitors and birthplaces of ferocious monsters which threaten mortals and immortals. Classicists may be familiar with the Enûma Eliš, the Babylonian epic in which Marduk’s main opponent is Tiamat, the sea, and the monstrous offspring she produces, but there are other texts, too, that are relevant to this discussion.

The most striking parallel though is to be found in the Kumarbi Cycle of the Hurro-Hittite tradition. Two texts are of particular interest, the Song of Hedammu and the Song of Ullikummi. The plotlines of these two narratives are similar: Both stories refer to the initial intention of god Kumarbi —the former king of the gods— to challenge Tarhun/ Teshshub —the storm-god and current ultimate sovereign—, his idea to bear a disastrous monster as a rival to Tarhun, the evolution of this monster to a severe threat to the divine status quo, and Tarhun’s attempts to destroy it. In the Song of Hedammu, this is a sea serpent born from the sea and in the Song of Ullikummi a rock-monster born from a rock.

From a mythological perspective, Hedammu, Ullikummi, and Achilles share a common feature: all three are involved in the succession myth. In this scheme of a cosmic king deposed by another, Hedammu and Ullikummi are rivals to the storm god and ultimate supreme governor, Tarhun, while Achilles, according to a famous story elaborately told by Pindar (Isth. 8.27–45) is himself a potential threat to Zeus’ sovereignty. Thus Zeus, the Greek storm god and ultimate governor, takes precaution against him by forcing Thetis to marry a mortal man and, hence, have a mortal son.

From a literal perspective, the poor state in which the Song of Hedammu is preserved does not, unfortunately, allow us to detect any parallels to the context of Il. 16.33-35 that go further than the general theme of some creature being born from the sea. We are luckier however with the Song of Ullikummi, since in this case the text is much better preserved, providing important information on Ullikummi’s conception and birth, as well as his character and conduct. Surprisingly, the monster Ullikummi, a rock-giant, born from a rock on which Kumarbi ejaculated, has some features similar to those attributed to Achilles by Patroclus in his aforementioned speech. According to Patroclus, Achilles is νηλεής, i.e merciless, αἰναρέτης, i.e exceedingly brave/heroic, he is ἀμήχανος and his νόος is απηνής, i.e nothing can be done against him and he has an unbending mind. All these have an equivalent in the case of Ullikummi. According to the extant text, Ullikummi lacks mercy (kariyašḫaš, CTH 345.I 2.9.101), he is exceedingly heroic and (UR.SAG-tar = ‘bone- hardness/heroism’ has been given to him tenfold, CTH 345.I 2.6.68–69), and, being literally made of stone, nothing can be done against him (CTH 345.I 2.9.95–102).

The thematic, mythological and literal connections between the Song of Ullikummi and Il. 16.33-35 may also contribute to another complex issue: the unknown meaning and origin of the word ἠλίβατοι modifying πέτραι in Il.16.35. The word occurs 6 times in Homer, always together with πέτρη, and as for its etymology, the most convincing explanation has been given by Calvert Watkins in his book How to Kill a Dragon. Watkins speculates a common origin between the first part of ἠλίβατος (ἀλίβατος in Doric) and the Luwian epithet āli-, which means ‘high, lofty, steep or the like’. His argument is reinforced by the fact that both epithets are coupled with words meaning ‘rock’ in each language, πέτρη in Greek and uwāni– in Luwian. Watkins, for the sake of his own argument, cites a phrase, found in a bilingual Hittite-Luwian text, in which the Luwian word for the rock (waniya– here) is modified by the Hittite adjective šalli (big). Based on these instances, I speculate that there must have been a Hittite equivalent of this phrase, with the epithet šalli– plus the Hittite word for the rock, NA4peruna.  Strikingly, this exact phrase is found in the Song of Ullikummi to denote the rock from which Ullikummi was born. What may have been the case then is that āli-, though not etymologically or semantically related to the Hittite šalli-, was chosen as its equivalent in the Luwian version of this phrase because of their similar sound. From that point, as Watkins has already shown, the Luwian phrase was borrowed by Mycenaean speakers and was translated into ἀλίβατος πέτρα/ἠλίβατος πέτρη.

Is it, however, safe to use the born from the rock theme as a link between the two texts? If we take a look at the material collected under the label “Birth from rock” in Thompson’s standard work Motif-Index of Folk Literature, things seem to be rather discouraging: the born from the rock theme is found all around the word, employed even in Chinese and Melanesian folktales. A closer reading however will prove that in all these cases, rocks are either described as the place from which mankind sprang forth or presented as the answer to the question “where do babies come from?.” Except for the Song of Ullikummi, the theme of non-recurring parturition by a rock seems to be reserved to the strands of stories related to the hero Sosruqo of the Nart Sagas in Caucasus and the myth of Agdistis, a creature to which Arnobius refers in the Adversus Nationes (5.5-6). Indeed, the thematic analogies between these stories and the Song of Ullikummi are remarkable and have already been discussed by Walter Burkert in a paper first published in 1979. All three stories include the following themes:

a) A rock/rocky cliff conceives a child and gives birth to it.

b) The offspring is extremely savage, a threat to the human/divine world.

c) Nothing can be done against this creature.

d) Divine intervention is required and the creature is finally destroyed by an assault at some part(s) of its lower body.

As mentioned above, points b) and c) of this thematic reconstruction are also observed in Achilles’ case, whereas point d) is an integral part of his myth, too.

From this perspective, Patroclus’ remark on Achilles’ parentage seems to correspond to point (a) of the aforementioned reconstruction. According to Burkert, the relation among Ullikummi, Agdistis, and Sosruqo is the result of the geographical vicinity of Hattusa to Phrygia on the one hand and of common ancestry between the Hurrians and the Caucasians on the other. If my interpretation is correct, then the born from the rock theme with its accompanying implications could have arrived in the world of Greek epic through the neighboring region of Phrygia.

To sum up, the phrase γλαυκή δε σε τίκτε θάλασσα/ πέτραι τ’ ηλίβατοι seems to be a proverbial phrase of the epic language, inseparably linked to Achilles’ harshness which originates from Near-Eastern narratives about ferocious monsters that were born from the sea and the rocks. This interpretation is based on the following:

a) The common theme of a creature being born from the sea and the rocks.

b) The role of Ullikummi, Hedammu, and Achilles in the succession myth.

c) The common features that Achilles and Ullikummi share.

d) The possible formation of the unknown word ἠλίβατοι, under the influence of the phrase šalliš NA4perunaš, found in the description of Ullikummi’s birth.

e) The oral transmission of a story with a specific plotline which begins with a creature’s birth from a rock in the wider region of western Asia, attested in the mythology of Sosruqo and Agdistis.


Burkert, W. 1979. “Von Ullikummi zum Kaukasus: Die Felsgeburt des Unholds; Zur Kontinuität einer mündlichen Erzählung.” Würzburger Jahrbücher für die Altertumswissenschaf, 5:253–261. Repr. 2003. In Kleine Schriften II: Orientalia, ed. Gemelli Marciano, L, 87-95. Gottingen:Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Janko, R. 1992. The Iliad: A Commentary. Vol. IV: Books 13–16. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thompson, S. 1955–1958. Motif-Index of Folk-Literature: a Classification of Narrative Elements in Folktales, Ballads, Myths, Fables, Mediaeval Romances, Exempla, Fabliaux, Jest-Books, and Local Legends. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Watkins, C. 1995. How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics. New York: Oxford University Press.