10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About the Phoenicians


  10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About the Phoenicians 


From about 1550 to 300 BC, the Phoenicians  ruled the Mediterranean.  They influenced the ancient Greeks and Romans,  and traded with people from as far north as  Wales and throughout the continent of Africa.  In spite of inhabiting a large territory,  including modern day Lebanon, very little  is known about these people.  But what we do know about them is nothing  short of amazing.   

10- They Invented the Letters of the Alphabet  


Imagine having to write out a letter using  symbols to represent words, and imagine if  those symbols had different meanings in each  geographical area of your country.  It would be confusing and communication would  come to a near standstill.  Thankfully, there was an incredible invention  that broke words down into sounds and enabled  people across the European continent to begin  communicating more effectively with each other  and their neighbors.  It was one of the most well known inventions  of the Phoenicians: the letters of the alphabet.  Each letter was assigned a sound and it made  writing so much easier than having to paint  or chisel out elaborate pictographs and symbols  that represented entire words or ideas.  At around 800 BC, the Greeks adopted the Phoenician  alphabet, assigning mostly the same sounds  to the letters, while also adding four new  letters and sounds to create a 26 letter alphabet.  After the Greeks had started using this new  alphabet, the Etruscans and, later on, the  Romans followed suit.  The basic letters of the alphabet were easily  adapted to other languages across Europe,  leading to the alphabet we are familiar with  today.   

9- Lost Writings



Although the Phoenicians invented the letters  of the alphabet, very little of their writing  exists today.  While historical sources mention the poets  and philosophers of Phoenicia and we know  that they kept records of their finances and  religious beliefs, only a few inscriptions  have survived.  Ancient Greeks and Romans wrote on stone or  clay tablets, preserving their ideas for future  generations.  The Phoenicians were influenced by the ancient  Egyptians and kept their writings on papyrus  and parchment.  However, since Phoenicia was not hot and dry  like Egypt, the ancient writings did not survive  over time.  Furthermore, wars and raids also had a deep  impact on what would remain for future generations  to uncover.  Because of this great loss, much of what we  know about the Phoenicians comes to us from  what other cultures had written about them.  
 
 8-Worshipped Gods and Goddesses 


The Phoenicians were polytheists, and they  worshipped both gods and goddesses.  Their most popular deities included Baal,  the father-god, and Tanit (Astarte), the goddess  of sexuality and the Mother of Heaven.  The goddess Tanit was unlike the goddesses  we think of today.  She was both a nurturing and a sexual being.  People turned to her when they needed help  and guidance, but they also prayed to her  when they wanted love or physical attention.  In the minds of the Phoenicians, women could  be both mothers and sexually active, and the  powerful combination of the two was said to  have made the Phoenician women both brave  and desirable.  Wherever the Phoenician people would settle,  they were known to immediately begin work  on building temples to their deities, making  their religion a central part of their lives.  For this and other reasons, the ancient deities  of the Phoenicians influenced the gods and  goddesses of nearby cultures, including the  deities of the ancient Greeks. 
 
 7-They Practiced Magic 


While little of their writing survived, two  magic spells from the 6th century BC were  discovered in Syria.  What is interesting about these spells is  that they are both for protection.  The first spell is an exorcism that was inscribed  on a pendant.  Two gods are called upon in the spell, and  the invoker asked that these deities protect  the wearer from “Flyers” and “Stranglers.”  Both of these evil forces were believed to  haunt the night.  The second Phoenician spell was believed to  protect the talisman wearer from the demon  serpent.  It could have been used as protection from  the evil eye, and it called upon a god to  strike against the serpent. 
  
6- Egyptian Magic Symbols 


Phoenicians invented many things, but they  also borrowed from their neighbors and from  the people they traded with.  When it came to magical amulets, they borrowed  heavily from the ancient Egyptians.  Many of the magic symbols found on Phoenician  amulets can be traced to ancient Egyptian  symbology.  Like the ancient Egyptians, Phoenician amulets  also portrayed gods in their anthropomorphic  and zoomorphic forms.  For example, there were bodies of men, fitted  with the heads of dogs or lions.  The Phoenicians were also fascinated by the  sphinx and made amulets and statues of this  form for religious and magical purposes.
  
 5- Tyrian Purple   


Imagine a time when certain colors were reserved  only for the wealthy and the ruling elite.  If you were among the common classes, you  could have been executed for wearing a color  above your station.  One of ancient Phoenicia’s largest exports  was the dye for the color purple.  It was made from the secretions of a sea snail  that, when exposed to the air and sunlight,  underwent a chemical change and transformed  into what came to be known as Tyrian purple.  The Phoenicians themselves did not invent  the purple dye.  It was also discovered by the Chinese and  Peruvians.  However, for centuries the Phoenicians kept  the secret of how the dye was made from their  neighbors and were able to make the noble  classes pay an immense amount of money for  the unique color.  Eventually, Pliny the Elder discovered and  published the method on how to make the expensive  dye, and it did not take long before ancient  Rome began making its own purple dye for the  Emperor’s wardrobe.  
 
4- Masters of the Slave Trade   


Ancient Rome might best be known for its use  of slaves, but the Phoenicians were the true  masters in the slave trade.  First, the Phoenicians were highly skilled  kidnappers.  Unclaimed and unwatched women and children  were often grabbed by Phoenician slave traders  who travelled throughout the Mediterranean  regions in search of slaves.  They also kidnapped slaves from the African  continent.  Over time, neighboring people became extremely  upset with the Phoenicians’ habit of kidnapping  people to sell in the slave markets.  At that point, the Phoenician slave traders  made an effort to buy, instead of take, slaves  from other countries.  Prisoners of war were almost always placed  into slavery.  Some of the Northern tribes would sell off  unwanted children.  Slaves could also be cheaply bought in Egypt  and sold for a higher price in other regions.  People with debt were also sold into slavery.  There was no shortage of slaves, just as there  was no shortage in the need to own them.  The Phoenicians were the middle men in the  market, buying and selling, and making the  slave market one of their largest sources  of income.  

 3- Unrivaled at Sea


Much of what was written about Phoenicians  points to them as being excellent merchants  and seafarers.  They traveled great distances to trade for  raw materials, such as tin, to bring home  and make into objects for trade in their local  region.  Using rudimentary forms of navigation, it  is believed that Phoenicians mostly did coastal  navigation, following the coastline to various  trading posts along the African and European  coasts.  At night and when they were farther out at  sea, the Phoenicians navigated by the stars.  In fact, the North Star has also been called  the Phoenician Star because they used it as  a point of reference while they were out at  sea.
  
 2-  Phoenicians in the Americas 


There are a growing number of historians who  believe that the Phoenicians may have sailed  across the seas and landed in the Americas.  According to some, there is evidence of Phoenician  culture among the Mound Builders of North  America and the Olmecs of south-central Mexico.  Evidence of Phoenician influence may have  also been found in Iowa, Nevada, Oklahoma,  Brazil, and Ecuador.  When the “Skeleton in Armor” was uncovered  in Fall River, Massachusetts, 1830s, some  historians felt that a Phoenician ship must  have been taken off course, landed in Massachusetts,  and left behind one of its deceased soldiers.  There was also a rock inscription uncovered  in Nevada’s Massacre Lake that was believed  by some to be a prayer for rain, written in  the Phoenician language.  These, along with other archaeological oddities,  have left us with more questions than answers.  
 
1-  Named by the Greeks 

One of the most fascinating facts about the  Phoenicians is that we do not know with certainty  what they called themselves as a group.  The ancient Greeks referred to them as Phoenicians,  which means “red men.”  This name may have come from the purple dye  the Phoenicians were famous for.  The Greeks called the land of the Phoenicians  “Phoinike,” meaning “blood red.”  It seems almost strange that a large group  of people lived, traveled, and traded for  centuries, and yet there is no record, as  of yet, that tells us what they named themselves.  
  
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