Who were the Ancient Danites & Danaan? Part I


The Danaan and Danites are a mystery people for many historians. Speculated to have been Greek seafarers in the late Bronze Age, they are also closely associated with the Sea Peoples who ravaged the Eastern Mediterranean during the same period. Other evidence suggests they originated somewhere along the coast of the Levant, or they were an Israelite tribe that fled with Moses during the biblical Exodus from Egypt. Whoever the Danaan or Danites were, they left a conflicting legacy.

The warriors who sacked Egypt for its spoils, or Homer’s Troy may explain the mysterious identity and origins of these people, along with the use of Greek mythologies and the Bible itself. Let us first look at the Bible and its description of the events that took place before delving into the Greek story about Danaus and Aegyptus.

Who are the Danites?

According to the Book of Genesis, Dan was the fifth son of Jacob and was mother Bilhah’s first son. He was the founder of the Israelite Tribe of Dan. In the biblical account, Dan’s mother is described as Rachel’s handmaid, who becomes one of Jacob’s wives. (Genesis 30:1-6). The tribe of Dan fled Egypt with the rest of the Israelites led by Moses during the Exodus.

The Dan tribe's serpent plate

The Dan tribe’s serpent plate (CC BY 2.0)

Afterwards, the Danites along with their Israelite brethren fought and defeated many foes, such as the Canaanites, Ammonites, Moabites and the most troublesome: the Philistines. Dan’s territorial allotment, recorded in Joshua 19:40-46, only gives a list of towns:

The seventh lot came out for the tribe of Dan according to its clans. The territory of their inheritance included:

Zorah, Eshtaol, Ir Shemesh, Shaalabbin, Aijalon, Ithlah, Elon, Timnah, Ekron, Eltekeh, Gibbethon, Baalath, Jehud, Bene Berak, Gath Rimmon, Me Jarkon and Rakkon, with the area facing Joppa.

While verses 42-46 describe settlements, verses 47-48 mention that the Danites left and “went up to fight against Leshem, and took it, and smote it with the edge of the sword, and possessed it, and dwelt therein, and called Leshem, Dan, after the name of Dan their father.” However, verses 40-48 were likely added later. The reason the author of Joshua did not describe borders but provided a list of settlements and a quick mention of their move to the north is that the borders of Dan were constantly changing due to the rift they had with the Philistines, which caused them to pack up and migrate north. However, Dan’s relationship with the Philistines may not have always been hostile.

When the Danites had settled between the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Ephraim, a problem arose; their territory was too small. They could not expand north, south, or east, for that was their brethren’s territory. Therefore, they looked west but ran into another problem. Further expansion west was not possible due to the powerful city-states along the coast of southern Canaan. Because of this, the Danites were landlocked.

A mosaic in the Jewish Quarter representing the 12 Tribes of Israel, including the Danites

A mosaic in the Jewish Quarter representing the 12 Tribes of Israel, including the Danites (CC BY 2.0)

The elders of Dan sought a means to acquire more territory. However, Joshua 19:47 suggests that they were not militarily capable on their own to push out the Canaanites along the coast. While the elders probably considered asking their kin to assist them in their endeavor to expand further, the Israelite tribes around Dan had problems of their own. Because of this, they understandably refrained from any military action that could jeopardize their holdings. This would change when the Philistines arrived.

Philistines, or Peleset, captives of the Egyptians, from a graphic wall relief at Medinet Habu. Circa 1185-52 BC, during the reign of Ramesses III.

Philistines, or Peleset, captives of the Egyptians, from a graphic wall relief at Medinet Habu. Circa 1185-52 BC, during the reign of Ramesses III. (Public Domain)

Who are the Sea Peoples?

The Philistines were of Aegean origin, possibly originating from Cyprus or Crete. They were known in Egyptian inscriptions as the Peleset, and were a part of a conjectured conglomerate of sea raiders that Egyptologist Gaston Maspero came to call Sea Peoples. They took part in a large migration/invasion towards the end of the Bronze Age.

The Danites may have joined this conglomerate. While there is no proof that they ever did, the Medinet Habu inscriptions of Ramses III, mention a group known as the Denyen who were defeated by his forces at the Battle of the Djahy (1179):

The foreign countries made a conspiracy in their islands. All at once the lands were removed and scattered in the fray. No land could stand before their arms: from Hatti, Qode, Carchemish, Arzawa and Alashiya on, being cut off at one time. A camp was set up in Amurru. They desolated its people, and its land was like that which has never come into being. They were coming forward toward Egypt, while the flame was prepared before them. Their confederation was the Peleset, Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denyen and Weshesh, lands united. They laid their hands upon the land as far as the circuit of the earth, their hearts confident and trusting: ‘Our plans will succeed!’

Whether the Denyen were, in fact, the Biblical tribe of Dan will remain disputed. However, one could argue from a military and political perspective that the Danites did aid the Philistines against the Egyptians.

Philistine Bichrome pottery, theorized to be of Sea Peoples origin.

Philistine Bichrome pottery, theorized to be of Sea Peoples origin. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

As mentioned, the Danites allotted territory was too small. Their desire to expand was cut short because they had not the military means to go it alone. When the Philistines and company were making their way south, the Danites saw an opportunity. They joined this coalition of marauders, who were possibly led by the Philistines, in an attempt to expand territorially along the coast of southern Canaan around 1179 BCE. However, as this conglomerate made their way south, they attacked the Canaanite city-states subject to the Egyptians and took them. Afterwards, they continued south, where they engaged the Egyptian army at Djahy and were defeated.

One would think that the Egyptians would have executed or enslaved the defeated forces. Even though the Philistines lost the battle, they won the spoils. Instead, Ramses III decided that since he lost his garrison in southern Canaan, he would use the Philistines to regarrison the coastal fortified cities of Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Gaza—not only to secure the land but also to secure the trade route. The Philistines were assigned to govern and protect a stretch of land along the coast 40 miles long (64 km) and roughly 15 miles (24 km) wide.

Outer gate wall at Ashkelon. Original mud bricks of the outer gate structure of Philistine Ashkelon. The bricks are from the middle bronze age, roughly 4000 years ago.

Outer gate wall at Ashkelon. Original mud bricks of the outer gate structure of Philistine Ashkelon. The bricks are from the middle bronze age, roughly 4000 years ago. (Ian Scott/CC BY-SA 2.0)

While the Philistines won the land grab, the tribe of Dan during this ordeal was thwarted twice. Dan’s first setback was the defeat at Djahy (1179 BCE) by the Egyptians.

Sea Peoples in conflict with the Egyptians in the battle of Djahy.

Sea Peoples in conflict with the Egyptians in the battle of Djahy. (Public Domain)

Their second setback was that after the defeat, their allies, the Philistines, were given land and were now the allies of Egypt. With Egyptian backing, the Philistine occupation of southern Canaan denied the tribe of Dan and that of Judah any hopes to expand. Besides the Biblical account, we can look at the Greek account regarding another people who have a similar name.

Who are the Danaan?

According to the Greeks, the Danaan were a branch of what would become the Greek people over time. In Greek mythology, the Danaan originally dwelt next to the Nile River in Egypt. Their founder was a man by the name of Danaus, who was a descendant of Io.

Zeus and Io

Zeus and Io (Public Domain)

Danaus had fifty daughters, and his brother Aegyptus had fifty sons. Aegyptus wanted to marry off his fifty sons to the daughters of Danaus. Danaus gathered his daughters and fled by ship from the marriage proposal offered by his brother, and settled in a place called Argos where they found safety among the Argives. Aegyptus, furious that Danaus had fled, gathered his fifty sons and followed suit only to be repulsed by the Argives once they landed. It is said that eventually, the daughters of Danaus married their cousins—how this happened is unknown.

According to the tale, Danaus gave his daughters daggers at the wedding feast and instructed them to kill their husbands the night of the wedding.

The Danaides kill their husbands.

The Danaides kill their husbands. (Public Domain)

The daughters agreed to this very act— all except one. Her name was Hypermnestra, she was moved by pity, and thus let her husband Lynceus live. She was the only daughter to marry and have a child within her own family, and thus by Greek law, which will discuss shortly, their child inherited not only the spoils of Aegyptus but also the spoils of Danaus.

Woodcut of 49 of the Danaids killing their husbands, while Hypermnestra tells Lynceus to flee.

Woodcut of 49 of the Danaids killing their husbands, while Hypermnestra tells Lynceus to flee. (CC BY 2.0)

What is striking about this story is that it may be three stories made into one, and possibly of Hebrew origin. Let us first begin with the names Danaus and Aegyptus.

The Possible Connection

The name Danaus, which the Danaan tribes are named after, bears a striking resemblance to the Hebrew tribe of Dan, and may possibly be associated with the tribe of Dan due to name and phonetic similarities. The name Aegyptus is of great interest also.

First, one must understand that the Pharaohs of Egypt did not use the term Egypt, it was the Greeks who called them Egypt or in Greek “Aigyptos”. However, it seems that the name Aigyptos was used in reference to the Nile country from which our story first takes place between Danaus and Aegyptus and not Egypt as a whole, which opens another possibility that will be discussed shortly. In addition, many of the near eastern kingdoms and small nations never used the name “Aigyptos” when referring to Egypt, either. instead, nations like Assyria/Babylonia used the terms “Mutsri,” “Musur,” and “Misir” when referring to Egypt, while the Hebrews referred to them as “Mitsrayim” or “Mizraim.” However, the Mycenaean Linear B text mentions the name Egypt/Egyptian twice: the first name is Misirayo, while the second in the text is Aikupitiyo — two names considered by modern scholars to mean the same thing. Both names have major differences, and yet no modern scholar can tell us why Egypt is referred to by these two vastly different renderings of the name.

The first name mentioned in the Linear B text, “Misiryo” is very similar and connected to the Semitic variations of the name already mentioned. However, it is the second name, Aikupitiyo, which is in dispute, since it has no connection to Egypt. Both names seem to be personal names that point to an identity. If Misiryo means “The Egyptian” then the name Aikupitiyo is alien to the land of Egypt and does not indicate that this person is Egyptian. Another solution to this person’s identity can be demonstrated.

Remember the story of Danaus and Aegyptus, both are said to be brothers, and both dwelt by the Nile; both could escape by sea as well, as in the case of Danaus fleeing with his fifty daughters, and evidently so could Aegyptius when he pursued Danaus. With that said, it seems plausible to suspect that both Danaus and Aegyptus lived in the land of Goshen, where the Israelites dwelt. Thus, Danaus represents the Danites, and Aegyptus represents the Israelite as a whole, including the tribe of Dan, for the name Aikupitiyo could very well be a rendering of the name “Jacob”, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel.

For further consideration, that the name Aikupitiyo is a rendering of Jacob, one must take notice that the name Jacob is “Ya’aqov” in Hebrew. In Ancient Egypt, a certain Hyksos ruler bears a very similar name, and that name is “Yakubher” also rendered as “Yak-Baal,” and “Yakeb-Baal”.  Notice the similarities between the two names Aikupitiyo and Yakubher? Now compare that to the name Jacob found in New Testament Greek in the book of Matthew 1:2, that is rendered as “Iakob,” thus the plausibility that the name Aegyptus is a variation of the name Jacob found in the Bible becomes potentially clearer in our search of the Danaan identity.

Top Image: A mosaic in the Jewish Quarter representing the 12 Tribes of Israel, including the Danites (CC BY 2.0)  and Philistines (Public Domain); Deriv.

By Cam Rea


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