The Aegean (Mycenean) origin of the Philistines

After all these centuries of calumny, the Philistines are finally having some good things said about them. They were not, it seems, deserving of that withering epithet: Philistine.

Archeologists are uncovering increasing evidence that the Philistines, arch foes of the Israelites in biblical times whose name became synonymous with barbarity and boorishness, were actually the creators of fine pottery and grand architecture, clever urban planners and cosmopolitan devotees of the grape. If anything, the Israelites, at the time mostly shepherds and farmers in the hills, were the less-sophisticated and -cultured folk.


In excavations this summer (Note: 1992) among the ruins of Ashkelon on Israel’s Mediterranean coast, archeologists from Harvard University came upon revealing remains of the Philistine city as it was on the day of its destruction by King Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian army in 604 B.C. They found inscribed pottery, stone altars, buildings and rooms of handsome design and advanced construction techniques and a wine press that belies the lingering image of the Philistines as a loutish, beer-drinking people.

The wine press, perhaps the property of King Aga, the last ruler of Ashkelon, consists of a shallow grape-treading basin with a channel directing the liquid into a deeper collecting tank. The masonry is said by experts to be similar to the work of later Roman artisans.

“One could not imagine a finer craftsmanship than what we see in these last stages of Philistine life,” Dr. Lawrence E. Stager, a Harvard archeologist and leader of the Leon Levy Expedition at Ashkelon, said in an interview.

Other excavations reinforce this new assessment of Philistine culture and extend it back to their first appearance in the Middle East, around 1175 B.C. Evidence of copper smelting in Philistine cities in Cyprus indicates a technology that anticipated Rome in this field by more than 1,000 years. At Ekron, the ruins of another Philistine city in the south of present-day Israel, archeologists have discovered that the Philistines were making pottery with imaginative red and black motifs, including decorations with fish, birds and geometric patterns, when the early Israelites were using crude, unpainted pottery.

Two Israeli archeologists, Trude Dothan and Moshe Dothan of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, say that from their 30 years of investigations has emerged a picture of the Philistines as great traders, master builders and one of the most civilized peoples of their time. The Philistines’ influence in bringing culture to the region was probably considerable.

In their book “People of the Sea”, the Dothans write: “As the complexity of Philistine culture has become evident, so has the vital role that the Philistines played in the cultural and political development of the region throughout the biblical period. At the same time, our search for the Philistines has shed new light on a unique period of interaction between the cultures of the Aegean and the Near East.

Indeed, scholars think the new findings may have solved the mystery of the Philistines’ origins. They were among the enigmatic Sea People who arrived in the Levant in the 12th century B.C., as recorded in Egyptian accounts, and settled between the Israelite tribes to the east and the Egyptian empire to the south. They supplanted the Canaanites in cities like Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, Gath and Gaza. But where had they come from? Link to Mycenaean Greeks

Excavations at several of these Philistine cities have revealed that their red-and-black ceramics bear a striking resemblance to the styles of the Mycenaean Greeks. This was not imported pottery, because recent analysis shows that it was made with local clays. Also, loom weights found at Philistine cities are similar to those dug up at Mycenae and other Greek sites by the great 19th century archeologist Heinrich Schliemann.

Other important clues are the brick cooking hearths uncovered in the ruins of Ekron by Trude Dothan and Dr. Seymour Gitin, director of the Albright Institute of Archeological Research in Jerusalem. The hearth had not been common in Canaan, the archeologists pointed out, but had a central place in the palaces of the Aegean world.

“More than an architectural element,” the Dothans note in their book, the hearth “represented a tradition that reflected the social structure and habits of everyday life” for the Aegean peoples.

Some circumstantial evidence also raises intriguing possibilities. The Greek epics are filled with tales of heroes wandering the eastern Mediterranean in the years after the fall of Troy, usually dated at 1183 B.C. — not long before the appearance of the Philistines on the coast of Canaan. In Homer’s “Odyssey,” the Greeks are frequently described in places like Cyprus, Phoenicia, Egypt and Libya. Epics of Founding Cities

Not all the Greeks made it back home, and in some epics it is told that these refugees founded cities in the eastern Mediterranean. Dr. Stager said that plaques depicting scenes from the Odyssey have been found in the ruins of Ashkelon; they were from the city’s later Roman period, but indicated, he said, that the people “still recalled their Greek heritage hundreds of years later.”

From the archeological evidence, mainly the Greek-style pottery, Dr. Stager concluded last year in an article in Biblical Archeological Review, “Throwing caution to the wind, I am willing to state flatly that the Sea Peoples, including the Philistines, were Mycenaean Greeks.”

If some scholars have been slow to accept this interpretation, it may be because of a reluctance to identify the so-called barbaric Philistines of the Bible with the elevated Greeks. “Nor has our upbringing in the classics helped,” Dr. Stager said in the article. “It has probably hindered us from recognizing that the heroes of the ‘Iliad’ and the ‘Odyssey’ — the ‘good guys’ — just might be akin to the ‘bad guys’ — namely, the Sea People.”

Apart from perhaps offering a solution to a mystery of ancient history, this new view of the Philistines has implications for interpreting some familiar biblical stories. Parallels to Mythology

Samson and Delilah, for example. In the Bible, Delilah is a kind of Philistine Mata Hari, sent to discover the secret of Samson’s superhuman strength: his seven magical locks of hair. When his hair is shorn, he is weakened and “like any man.”

Dr. Stager pointed out a Greek parallel. Scylla cut her father’s hair while he slept, thus removing his invincibility so that he could be captured by King Minos of Crete. For this reason, the Harvard archeologist has suggested that the Samson story may have Greek origins through the Philistines and that Samson’s tribe, Dan, might not have been Israelite originally but possibly of Greek origin.

(This is a good place for our reader to check this article:

Likewise, Goliath may have to be reconsidered. He was the Philistine giant who was slain with a slingshot by the young David in the 10th century B.C. The Greek influence on the Philistines may have still been strong, Dr. Stager said, because the Bible describes Goliath as going into the battle wearing bronze greaves on his legs. No Canaanite or Israelite soldier wore greaves, but Greek warriors did.

This new research does not clear up the other mystery about the Philistines: their ultimate fate. After Ashkelon and Ekron were destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, King Aga and many of his subjects were sent into exile in Babylon. In 586 B.C., with the fall of Jerusalem, the Jews joined the Philistines in Babylonian exile. The Jews eventually returned to Palestine. But about the Philistines, nothing more is known. Traces of Canaanites

In time Ashkelon was reoccupied and became an important seaport and wine producer through the Phoenician, Roman and Byzantine periods. The ancient city was finally destroyed by Crusaders in the 13th century A.D. The story of its many pasts has been found buried under a mound of sediment and rubble covering more than 150 acres, an area now protected as an Israeli national park.

In eight years of digging, the Harvard team has made many discoveries going back to Ashkelon’s past under the Canaanites, a Semitic people who lived there before the Philistines. Two years ago, they excavated the statuette of a silver calf, an icon associated with the worship of Baal in Canaan and, later, with the Israelite God, Yahweh. The silver calf casts light on early Canaanite and Israelite religious beliefs.

This summer’s (1992) digging produced another striking remnant of the Canaanites, a mud brick arch that the archeologists say is the oldest monumental arched gateway ever found. They dated the arch at about 1900 B.C., at least a hundred years earlier than one discovered recently in northern Israel. The Ashkelon arch, Dr. Stager said, “was a true load-bearing arch spanning a gap big enough for a chariot to drive through.”

From the time of Ashkelon’s destruction by the Babylonians, the archeologists exposed a veritable still-life of the moment of catastrophe. A complete skeleton of an adult male was found sprawled on its back, its arms and legs flung out and its skull crushed into many pieces. Large storage jars lay in fragments around and underneath the figure. Charred beams had fallen to the shell-and-plaster floor.

Also found in the ruins was a piece of pottery with an inscription in a Philistine script related to Hebrew. By this time, the Philistines had apparently abandoned their original language, which scholars have assumed was Indo-European, and adopted a Semitic tongue. The inscription seems to record a payment in silver for some commercial transaction.

Discovering and deciphering Philistine writings would be the next major development in understanding this culture. As Dr. Stager has written: “When we do discover Philistine texts (and it’s only a matter of time until this happens), those texts will be in Mycenaean Greek (that is, in Linear B or some related script). At that moment, we will be able to recover another lost civilization for world history.”

It will also be “most exciting to find what the Philistines thought of the Israelites,” Dr. Stager remarked, for until now they have suffered from a one-sided recounting of history, based as it is almost entirely on the Hebrew Bible. In the biblical version, the Philistines were villainous barbarians who plundered the land of the Israelites, killing King Saul and stealing the Ark of the Covenant, and worshiped the pagan gods Dagon and Beelzebub.

The modern meaning of Philistine as anything crude and uncultured is traced by scholars to the chaplain at the University of Jena in Germany. In 1693, he defended students who had had a row with some townspeople, contending that the God-fearing young scholars had been victims of crude, unlettered people who were nothing better than “Philistines.”

Whether or not the new scholarship can rescue the Philistines from their longstanding disrepute, Trude and Moshe Dothan write, “they have at least emerged from the web of myth onto the stage of history.”


(NovoScriptorium: We would suggest further reading of the following articles

…and finally a short comment about the name itself. ‘Philistine’ seems to come from two Greek words; φίλος & ιστίον (Philistine = ‘Φιλισταίος’ in Greek) which would practically mean the ‘good sailor’, literally, the one who loves using the means of navigation/navigating…)

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