Thursday, June 12, 2008

“The Trojan War did not take place”

So says Ken Dowden on page 65 of his book “The Uses of Greek Mythology”, which I finished today. His point is that accounts of the battle of Troy and etc. are all from many hundreds of years later, and that those accounts are not “history” as we would understand it – assessments based on evidence.

The end of the Bronze Age (the Mycenaean period in Greece) is prehistoric – literally before history. That basically means we don’t have any written evidence; if they wrote anything done at the time we have lost it.

The equivalent I suppose is to think of historians in the space year 4500 AD. There’s been a terrible war in the meantime (probably featuring Daleks) and they only have scrappy evidence for the Norman invasion of 1066. In fact, all they’ve got are bootleg videos of Excalibur and The King’s Demons. How much can those tell them about real history?
“There is of course no Mycenaean history. There is Mycenaean archaeology and there is Greek Mythology. Archaeology has its limits as a historical tool: I do not think we can use it to distinguish between various Greek tribes; and we certainly cannot discover much about named important individuals of the past. There is no narrative … Myth is treacherous because its accounts of peoples and individuals are usually designed to construct identities and make statements … I think it is not going too far to say that there is not a single individual in mythology in whose actual existence we can believe.”

Ken Dowden, The Uses of Greek Mythology, p.62.

Even the classic writers of Greece and Roman acknowledged the problems of authenticity in myth, and justified it in terms of allegory and real-history-that’s-been-eroded, as more modern classicists have also done. Dowden is a little scathing of psychoanalytical readings, and prefers to see in stories of girls transforming into bears and young men transforming into wolves some kind of ritual significance.

This, I’m afraid, rings alarms bells. My taller brother once dabbled in things archaeological and says that when archaeologists speak of something having a religious or ritual purpose, what they mean is “no idea, Guv’.” Dowden, admittedly, makes the point repeatedly that we are at best guessing our way.

Myths are not facts; each fragment of story we possess now is just the end of a centuries-long game of Chinese Whispers. He quotes the chronological table given on the Marmor Parium (“Marble of Paros”), in which one bloke recorded history from Cecrops or Kekrops, first king of Athens in 1581 BC, to his own time of 264 BC. There are 25 entries for the years up to 1208 BC, and then just seven between then and 683 BC.
“There are two reasons for this phenomenon, both of which are revealing: first, real historical information just peters out in the Dark Age and the quantity of what precedes is a measure of the success with which myth masquerades as history of the prehistoric period. But second, this period of beginnings, firsts and legend has a magic aura about it, luring the Greeks into their mythology. That is what it is for.”

Ibid., p. 52.

Myth, then is often about origin stories: how the Gods were born (theogony), who has best claim to a particular bit of land because their heroic ancestor was born out of the earth there (autochthony) or experienced some adventure or event nearby (basically, who stuff is named after), where laws and religious observances come from, or even why particular trees and rivers furnish the landscape. Myths are then explanations of how we are here. And they’re also stories. Like our own present ideologies, the reasons given impose moral codes of conduct: not just how we are here but why, for what purpose.

I’ve argued before that stories don’t have to be true to mean something. Dowden shows that the same stories can be retold - have always been retold – to suit the particular needs of the teller. And, from this distance, we can barely glimpse what those needs might have been.

Origin stories, he says, tend to mark the beginning of order. A great flood washes away the chaotic past, leaving space for the new social system. It’s no coincidence then that, according to the Marmor Parium, the first king of Athens more or less coincides with Deucalion’s flood and the competition between Poseidon and Athene for the heart of the city. In an age before writing, with knowledge passed on by oral tradition, these origin stories aren’t just exciting adventures featuring gods and monsters. They answer the question eternally asked by any inquiring child: why do we do things like this. Because there must have been a point back in history when we didn’t.

But myths are also more than that. The fact that they survive after all three-and-a-half thousand years, and so infuse our own culture, speaks of an extra appeal.

(Incidentally, it’s odd realising how much of Doctor Who nicks from Greek mythology. That’s not just Troy and Byzantium or the two Tom Baker versions (this one and this one)of the story of Theseus. I assume when David Tennant talks of the Fall of Arcadia it’s a nod to the Doric invasion of Earth. And then there’s references to Demeter, Kronos, Lamia, Megara… Yes, so the writers have been classically educated. But diegetically, I assume so have the TARDIS’s telepathic circuits.)
“We have got to recognise that there is a deep yearning in us to make contact with the world of myth , as we can see from the Turin Shroud , the countless fragments of the True Cross and the multiple heads of St Peter.”

Ibid., p. 65.

Hence also Schliemann’s determination to uncover (and, in the process, rather demolish) the site of Troy. (Incidentally, I didn’t know that the “correct name” of the city we call Troy is really Ilion – hence the book about the siege there being the Iliad. Our modern name for the city follows the convention of naming a place after one its local heroes.)

We want to believe in stories when they make sense of the world. Perhaps we like myths because they reassure us that there’s a reason behind all the random-seeming viciousness tumbling out of the sky. If heroic, smart chaps like Oedipus or Odysseus are fated to get totally dumped on, at the whim of all-powerful gods and monsters, then we don’t really have cause to complain about our own, relatively petty concerns.

And stories are orchestrated contrivances that seek to manipulate the audience. So it’s no wonder they reassure us the world is ordered on moral lines; that there are rules we might not see, that we might suffer under, but rules nonetheless.

More than that, a good story makes us care for its characters and forget they’re constructed from smoke, there specifically to fulfil some kind of story function. Our heroes capture our imaginations, ignite our tawdry fantasies. We write to characters in soaps as if they are real or write our own knock-off Doctor Who adventures.

Myths are things that we know are not true and which tell of awful calamity and suffering. And yet the reason they still flourish so abundantly is because we want them to be true.

1 comment:

Paros Shepherd said...

Well written. Thank You.

We just returned from a visit to Delphi. It was quite interesting to see the combination of myth, history and tourism promotion.