Discover more from Matthew's Notebook
What if Homer told the story of David and Goliath?
The Greek and Hebrew traditions remember the "Sea People" raids quite differently. ChatGPT can change that.
Students of ancient history might be familiar with something called the Late Bronze Age Collapse. By the 12th century BCE, the eastern Mediterranean reached the pinnacle of Bronze Age civilization, with several major empires connected by flourishing trade and complex diplomacy. Then it all fell apart.
Within a few decades, almost every major city in the region had suffered violent destruction, the archaeological record shows. As for written records, writing seems to have disappeared completely from large parts of the civilized world. Egyptian inscriptions, which did survive, talk about an invasion of marauding pirates called the “Sea People” who swept through the region like an apocalyptic flood.
Scholars have different theories for why all that upheaval happened. The archaeologist David Cline argues it was a general system collapse, with tightly-bound economic networks failing to absorb different shocks and finally unravelling.1 Aris Roussinos wrote a chilling article comparing Cline’s theory to present-day “great power competition” and “supply chain issues.”
The era was the setting for the earliest parts of what we would call the “Western canon.” The Iliad and large parts of the Hebrew Bible both narrate late Bronze Age turmoil. In fact, they tell two separate sides of the same story. The sack of Troy was likely a composite of different Sea People legends, and the ancient Philistines who fought the Israelites are believed to be Sea People who settled down.2
In other words, Goliath was the kind of seafaring warrior that Homer wrote about, but remembered from the perspective of a victim (David) who fought back. Some scholars believe that the name “Goliath” was an Indo-European word meaning “lion-man” or “wolf-man,” which would have been written “Alyattes” in Greek.3
I’ve long wondered what the story of David and Goliath would have looked like had Homer written about it. Thanks to artificial intelligence, we (sort of) have an answer. I asked ChatGPT to write some verses about David and Goliath in the style of Homer, with some back and forth feedback and light reordering:
In ancient days of long ago,
When gods still walked the earth below,
A tale of valor, honor, might,
And a warrior felled in single fight.
King Alyattes was a giant's name,
A ruler of the Philistine claim,
His prowess in war was known far wide,
And all the armies trembled at his stride.
King Alyattes, a ruler feared,
His ferocity, a wolf's or lion's leer,
With strength unrivaled, in war he'd stand,
And foes would tremble, at his fierce command.
One day, a challenge rang across the land,
A single combat, with a champion's hand,
The Israelites with fear and dread,
For their foes a warrior had bred.
Young David, son of Jesse, then stepped forth,
With courage small, of little worth,
King Alyattes looked upon the lad,
And offered him a chance to back down and be glad.
"Zeus of thunder, hear my call,
Bring destruction to this youthful gall,
Poseidon of the sea, let him drown,
In the depths of sorrow, with no hope found.
Athena of wisdom, make him blind,
Let him falter, and fail to find,
His way in life, with his deeds unwise,
Hera of marriage, make him pay the price."
But David, blinded by his own pride,
Refused, and with a single stride,
He faced King Alyattes in the field,
With a heart full of fear, but courage concealed.
The battle raged, with clash of spear,
King Alyattes, with might and power clear,
But David's hand was guided by the gods,
And a single stone, from his sling, was wroth.
And as King Alyattes lay on the ground,
His life blood flowing, his power unbound,
With a final breath, he raised his hand,
And cursed the young warrior, by the gods of the land.
King Alyattes fell, his life blood spilling,
His warriors, with lament and tears filling,
The Israelites rejoiced in victory,
But the death of King Alyattes was a great calamity.
So let this tale of valor be told,
Of a warrior brave, and a battle bold,
King Alyattes, with prowess and might,
Felled by a lad, in a single fight.
Let us honor his memory, with pride and grace,
And remember the tales of this ancient place,
Where gods still walked, and warriors fought,
And King Alyattes, with courage, was brought.
And with that, King Alyattes was no more,
His spirit flown to the heavens of yore,
But his curse lingered on, as a warning sign,
To the young warrior, and the gods divine.
I also asked the AI to write a Trojan account of the war, in the style of the Hebrew Bible. I asked it to refer to Troy as Vilusa, since Wilusa is one candidate for the historical Troy,4 and to invoke the gods of the Luwian (western Anatolian) pantheon. “Achaeans” is how Homer referred to the Greeks of the time. After some back-and-forth with light edits:
And it came to pass in the days of King Priam, ruler of the city of Vilusa, that a great war was waged against the Achaeans. And the cause of this war was the dishonor of the loyal wife of Prince Paris, Helen, at the hands of the Achaeans.
And King Priam sent forth his armies, led by Hector, his bravest and most loyal warrior, to defend the honor of Vilusa and its people. But the Achaeans, armed with their weapons and guided by their gods Zeus and Athena, attacked with ferocity.
And the Lord Tarhunzas looked down upon the battlefield and saw the great conflict between the Vilusans and the Achaeans. And Tarhunzas said, "Fear not, my people, for I am with you. Wield your weapons with courage and trust in my power."
And the Vilusans fought with all their might, but Hector, the bravest of all the Vilusans, fell in battle.
And the people of Vilusa mourned greatly, for they had lost their greatest warrior and protector. But Tarhunzas spoke to King Priam, saying, "Do not despair, my faithful servant. I will send Runtia, my son, to guide Hector's spirit to the underworld and protect him in the afterlife."
The Lord Tarhunzas, who is powerful and merciful, saw the Vilusans' sorrow and spoke to Paris, saying, "Fear not, my son. Take up your sword and bow, and avenge the death of your brother. Prove to the Achaeans that the spirit of the Vilusans cannot be broken."
And Paris heeded the words of Tarhunzas, and approached the Achaean champion, Achilles. And the people of Vilusa and the Achaeans watched in awe as Paris faced off against the mighty Achilles.
But Paris did not cower in fear, for he was strengthened by the power of Tarhunzas and the love of Kamrushipa, the sun-goddess. And with a swift shot from his bow, Paris struck Achilles in his one vulnerable spot, and the Achaean champion fell to the ground.
And the people of Vilusa rejoiced, for they had witnessed the triumph of Paris over the mighty Achilles. And they praised the name of Tarhunzas, who is mightier than any idol worshipped by the Achaeans.
And the war raged on, with the Achaeans committing many wicked acts against the Vilusans. But the spirit of the Vilusans could not be broken, for they knew that Tarhunzas, Tivad, Kamrushipa, Arma, Runtia, and Shanta were with them, even in the face of the Achaeans' wickedness and deceit.
One thing I noticed was that ChatGPT kept inserting very New Testament-like language, in the way it described the protection of the Luwian gods and the falseness of the Achaean (Greek) ones. I tried to edit it out as best I could.
Thanks to the rapid advances in archaeological knowledge over the past century, there is no reason to put the Homeric and Biblical views of the late Bronze Age into separate silos. Of course, the Iliad and the Bible are still classic sources of the Anglophone literary tradition, and should still be taught as such.
But taking them together, in their shared historical context, enriches both texts. There is no such thing as “The West” and there never was. The supposed start of the “Western canon” was a conflict between peoples in the wreckage of empire, and the protagonists were violently at odds with each other. Their memories make for haunting, timeless literature.
It’s a cliche at this point to say that history is written by the victors. Given historians’ doubts about what actually happened at Troy,5 it would be more accurate to say that everyone writes themselves into history as victors, if they’re still alive and around to write it.
Thanks for reading Matthew's Notebook! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Eric H. Cline, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Princeton University Press, 2021).
David Kaniewski et al., “The Sea Peoples, from Cuneiform Tablets to Carbon Dating,” PLoS ONE 6, no. 6 (August 2011), https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0020232.
Roger Woodard, “On Goliath, Alyattes, Indo-European Wolves, and Lydian Lions: A Reexamination of 1 Sam 17:1–11, 32–40,” in Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies in Honor of P. Kyle McCarter Jr., ed. Christopher Rollston (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature Press, 2022), pp. 239-254.
Another name for Troy was Ilion, which is why the story is called the “Iliad.” Scholars believe that Ilion came from Wilusa.
Trevor R. Bryce, “The Trojan War: Is There Truth behind the Legend?,” Near Eastern Archaeology 65, no. 3 (2002): pp. 182-195, https://doi.org/10.2307/3210883.