Who Are the Danaans?

If you have read the Iliad you will know that one of the names for the Mycenean Greeks that fought at the battle of Troy is the Danaans. They fought alongside the Argives, which is the other main name with which they are referred to.

So, who are the Danaans? Because of the similarity of their name to one of the tribes of Israel in the Bible, I could not help but wonder if there is any connection between them and the Danites of biblical history.

According to Greek mythology, the Danaans comes from a man named Danaus who was one of the key leaders of the ancient city of Argos. Encyclopedia Brittanica tells us:

“Danaus, in Greek legend, son of Belus, king of Egypt, and twin brother of Aegyptus. Driven out of Egypt by his brother, he fled with his 50 daughters (the Danaïds) to Argos, where he became king. Soon thereafter the 50 sons of Aegyptus arrived in Argos, and Danaus was forced to consent to their marriage with his daughters. Danaus, however, commanded each daughter to slay her husband on the marriage night. They all obeyed except Hypermestra, who spared Lynceus. Being unable to find suitors for the other daughters, Danaus offered them as prizes in a footrace. (According to another story, Lynceus slew Danaus and his daughters and seized the throne of Argos.) In punishment for their crime the Danaïds in Hades were condemned to the endless task of filling with water a vessel that had no bottom. The murder of the sons of Aegyptus by their wives is thought to represent the drying up of the rivers and springs of Argolis in summer. Lynceus and Hypermestra became the ancestors of the royal line of Argos, which included Perseus and Heracles.”

So, according to Greek legend, the Danaans descend from a man who fled from Egypt to Argos in Greece. What is really fascinating about this is the precise time when he is said to have fled to Argos from Egypt, “Danaus was credited as the inventor of wells and is said to have migrated from Egypt about 1485 B.C. into that part of Greece previously known as Argos Dipsion.”

The reason I find this so fascinating is that some scholars argue that the Israelites fled Egypt around 1450 B.C.* This corresponds to a people called ‘Dan’ leaving Egypt roughly around the time that the Greeks believe the “Danaans” left Egypt.

This would mean that some of the Israelites either went another direction to the rest of the Hebrews from the beginning of the Exodus, or did not stay on the same course as the rest of the Israelites, or left some time after them; which some scholars have suggested about the Danites and appears to be indicated by the plethora of references to Dan in various parts of Europe in the ancient world.

To show this concept is supported by some of the evidence, it is important to mention how archaeologists have uncovered a deep connection between the Danites and the Greeks. Indeed, it appears they were far more intermingled than was previously believed:

“Tribe of Dan: Sons of Israel, or of Greek Mercenaries Hired by Egypt?…

…The discoveries have rekindled a longstanding academic brawl over the origin of the Danites. Were they really just a tribe of Israel that was left in the cold, found a conveniently isolated city and conquered it? Do they have anything to do with a mysterious kingdom called Danuna mentioned in ancient writing found in Turkey? Or maybe with the Denyen – a faction of invading Sea Peoples, according to ancient Egyptian sources? Or with the Danaoi, one of the Greek tribes? Or are these all one and the same? The findings at Tell el-Qadi (now Tel Dan) suggest they could well be…

… Among the Aegean influences in the city of Dan, Ilan identified pithoi (large storage vessels) in several of the houses, along with pottery, figurines and ritual items originating in the Aegean, Syria and Egypt…

… The finds indicate that the peoples living in Dan were a mixed bunch who brought their eating habits, grooming practices, weapons of choice, and their gods with them to the city.

Cultic chamber with bird bowl…

…Inside the putative sanctuary in Dan were fragments of a ceramic bowl to which a ceramic bird’s head was attached, called a “bird bowl”. A similar find was made at Tel Qasile (this is a good point to note that the Philistines who lived there are also thought by some to be of Aegean origin).

Ilan postulates that these Aegean-style artifacts in Dan suggest the presence of worshippers hailing from the Aegean—perhaps the Denyen, Danuna (or Danaoi in Greek), in short, one of the ancient Greek tribes. The Denyen/Danuna were also one of the so-called “Sea Peoples” of Aegean origin who invaded Egypt, as described in Ramesses IIIs mortuary temple relief (1175 B.C.E.).”

Philippe Bohstrom, 2016

This quoted article suggests the possibility that the Danites actually originated in Greece, or that they originated among the Sea Peoples that spread into the land of Canaan during the Bronze Age Collapse. But let me postulate another possibility.

I suggest that the ancient legend of the origin of the Danaans from Egypt is based on some level of truth. So either at the same time that the Hebrews left Egypt, or while they were in the wilderness wandering for those 40 years, a segment of the Danites left the larger body of Israel and migrated through Libya (likely via sea) and then on to Argos and eventually settled in Greece permanently.

They intermingled with the Greeks and became a part of the Greeks, but remained in close contact with their Israelite relatives, who they traded with extensively. We know that there was trade between the land of Canaan and the Greeks because the Bible itself mentions this:

“What are you to me, O Tyre and Sidon, and all the regions of Philistia? Are you paying me back for something? If you are paying me back, I will return your payment on your own head swiftly and speedily. 5 For you have taken my silver and my gold, and have carried my rich treasures into your temples. 6 You have sold the people of Judah and Jerusalem to the Greeks in order to remove them far from their own border.”

Joel 3:4-6

We also know that prominent Danites intermingled greatly with the Philistines who were also Greek settlers in Canaan, “The most famous Danite in the Bible is Samson, a quite essential archetype of a Greek hero: He is very strong, his power resides in his long hair, he tells riddles and he hangs out with Philistine women,” Ilan points out. Having read much of the Iliad now, I could imagine one of the Danaan heroes telling a tale of his achievements akin to the life of Samson.  

Of course, having escaped from corrupt kings in Egypt, the Danites would have quite the emphasis on freedom, “When Pausanias visited Argos in the 2nd century CE, he related the succession of Danaus to the throne, judged by the Argives, who “from the earliest times … have loved freedom and self-government, and they limited to the utmost the authority of their kings”:…” 

The Israelites after the Exodus did not have kings, and they also had a large emphasis on individual liberty in their own nation. It is not inconceivable that this influence went with them to Greece.  

Of course, this being such ancient history, without complete records we cannot be certain. But it is interesting to consider and it is interesting to wonder, just how far did the promise of Abraham go, that he would be the father of many nations? We know about the Israelites and the Arab peoples, but how far beyond this did the fulfilment go?

Were the Danaans related to the Danites? Some of the evidence indicates that this may be the case.

* It is true that this date is an estimate, and is debated amongst scholars. But 1446 B.C. lines up with the Bible’s internal chronology, give or take a few years in the counting.