Imagining the Past

From the curse of the Pharaohs to the reception of Greek mythology, ancient history had an interesting week.

This week, I am experimenting with a newsletter format, featuring a longer piece of writing divided into shorter articles rather than separate posts. In this issue, we’ll look at the Today show’s promotion of the curse of the pharaohs, a new article about ancient Greek mythology’s connection to the Bronze Age, and we’ll review a historical piece by a famous writer linking American mounds to Atlantis.

Curse of the Today Show

To begin, we should mention the April 5 Today show story about the recent Golden Parade in Egypt that moved almost two dozen royal mummies to their new home in a recently constructed state-of-the-art museum. In a report during the 7:30 ET half-hour of Today, NBC News reporter Keir Simmons twice referred to the mummies as “cursed,” citing random Twitter users’ tweets about the so-called “curse of the pharaohs.” While he did quote Egyptologist Zahi Hawass to the effect that the curse isn’t real, NBC gave it credibility by referencing the allege curse as though it were a genuine ancient legend.

As I discuss in my new book Legends of the Pyramids, out this August from Red Lightning Books, the so-called curse is a modern fake, cobbled together from Victorian pulp fiction, sensational newspapers stories, and novelist Marie Corelli’s misremembered references to the medieval account of the living statues and ghostly guardians who murdered those who acted immorally in the pyramids in Murtaḍā ibn al-ʻAfīf’s thirteenth-century history of Egypt. I previously wrote about this on my website.

It’s disappointing that NBC News would pretend that a twentieth century fantasy was an ancient fact, but this wasn’t the only bad take about ancient history in the news this week.

Greek Memories of the Bronze Age

This past week, Josho Brouwers, the editor-in-chief of Ancient World magazine, published an article against the popular notion that Heroic Age of ancient Greek mythology could be identified with the Late Bronze Age known to archaeology. In so doing, he denied that there is a connection between the Greek mythology known from Homer onward and the Mycenaean culture occupying Greece in the late Bronze Age. His argument is a rather literal one, that Greek myths do not contain details perfectly matching the Bronze Age archaeological record, and no myths exist on Mycenaean Linear B tablets to demonstrate that any Greek stories go back to the Bronze Age:

By far the earliest mythological thing recognizable to us is a Centaur recovered from the site of Lefkandi and dated to ca. 950 BC, which may – based on a wound to the knee – may be identified as the Centaur Chiron, who, according to later Greek myth, had served as a teacher to a number of heroes, including Achilles and Jason. But nothing recognizable stretches back to the Bronze Age, though we do encounter familiar names of gods in the Mycenaean Linear B tablets.

This material is rather reductive. Jason’s own name may be on a Linear B tablet, though it is not certain whether the hero was meant. However, regardless of this, because Brouwers is an archaeologist, he focuses on the material aspects and therefore ignores the classic work on the Mycenaean origins of Greek mythology and religion in done by Martin Nilsson (whose 1932 book was literally titled The Mycenaean Origins of Greek Mythology), Walter Burkert, M. L. West, and others.

Aside from clear survivals of the Bronze Age in myth, such as the famous boar’s tusk helmet found in Homer and exactly matching a real one from the Bronze Age recovered by archaeologists, the internal evidence of the myths points to a Bronze Age origin for some parts of Greek mythology. For example, Homer already knew the epic of Jason and the Argonauts, which therefore had to predate him, likely by a long period. That he is associated with a centaur already known in 950 BCE demonstrates that the story likely stretches back still further. If the Linear B evidence is correct, it is a Bronze Age story at its core, however elaborated and revised over the centuries.

Nilsson collated all of the mentions of toponyms in myths of the Heroic Age and found that they had an almost 1:1 correlation with Mycenaean power centers, not with later Archaic or Classical Greek settlements, and he correctly predicted places where Mycenaean ruins would later be found by studying places in heroic myths that did not yet have archaeological evidence attached to them. He also noted the prevalence of Mycenaean name forms, those ending in –eus, in Heroic Age myths, in contrast to Archaic and Classical Greek style.

Burkert was able to trace Greek religious practices to Mycenean Linear B records, showing continuity, and therefore strongly suggesting the myths attached to those practices had their kernel in Bronze Age practice.

Bouwers does not discuss these data-driven conclusions (Brouwers told me via Twitter that he discounts Nilsson’s work because it is “outdated,” even though Classics scholars still cite the book in contemporary scholarship), instead suggesting that the stories of Greek mythology appeared ex nihilo among a people fundamentally disconnected from their own Mycenaean ancestors:

This is a key point to stress. While the stories were set in the past, the ancient Greeks had no idea what that past looked like. There were no archaeologists in the first millennium BC. But they did come across stuff that was clearly older, from the fortifications already mentioned to ancient tombs, like the tholos or beehive tombs in mainland Greece that date back to the Bronze Age (archaeologically speaking) and which the ancient Greeks tried to explain as having belonged to the kings and princes of an imagined age.

He is literally correct that the Greeks couldn’t imagine the past the way we do, and their mythology was constantly revised to reflect the Greek present. So while it is true that they didn’t imagine the Heroic Age as being the Bronze Age as we would envision it today, it isn’t right to say that it has no connection to the Bronze Age, nor that there is no continuity between the Bronze Age and Classical Greece.

Speaking of fake Greek stories about the deep past…

Mounds of Atlantis

In my book The Mound Builder Myth, I discussed the interconnection between the false claim that Native American earthworks had been the work of a lost race and the developing fantasy of a lost global empire of Atlantis in the middle nineteenth century. Many writers had bent indigenous American myths, legends, and history toward Atlantis, stretching all the way back to Francisco López de Gómara in 1552. In the middle nineteenth century, Charles-Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg staunchly advocated for a connection between the native peoples of the Americas and Atlantis, and such beliefs had become commonplace long before Ignatius Donnelly canonized them in 1882 in his Atlantis: The Antediluvian World. Nevertheless, even I am occasionally surprised to discover just who believed this nonsense.

Lafcadio Hearn is today best remembered as the Greek-born Irish writer who collected ghost stories and folklore before moving to Japan and changing his name to Koizumi Yakumo while explicating and explaining Japanese history and culture to the West. Less well known, however, is his long residence in the United States in his youth. In his 20s, he lived in Cincinnati, near the heart of Ohio’s native earthworks, during the decades when the mound builder myth reached its apex.

As a reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer and then the Commercial, he was best known as a crime reporter, covering all manner of horrific tragedies with a sensational, yellow coloring. That’s probably why I wasn’t aware that on April 24, 1876, a then-25-year-old Hearn published an article about the mound builders in the Commercial in which he reported that Ohio’s mounds had been built by refugees from Atlantis—and they were a “dead race of giants”!

Here is how Hearn describes the origins of the giant mound builders:

A highly interesting theory of the origin of the Mound-builders, is connected with the most awful and most wonderful of all historic traditions — the ancient Legend of Atlantis, whereof Plato and other ancient writers spake weirdly and dreamfully. Even in their day, it was probably but the echo of a most remote tradition, handed down through the ages. Classic travelers said that toward the setting sun, far beyond the pillars of Hercules, lay a great, fair island, in the midst of the Unknown Sea, and beyond, yet another island; and still beyond, the foam-kissed shore of the unknown land which girdled the ocean. The first fair island was called Atlantis, and it contained four great kingdoms, with principalities and palaces innumerable. No such island, as geographically described by these writers, has any place in the world, although the researches of modern travelers confirm many long-doubted statements written in the classic ages. But the Aztecs and other ancient races had a dim tradition of such an island, and of a frightful cataclysm which destroyed it, even as the classic authors had written. And some modern theorists believe that there was an Atlantis, inhabited by mighty and wealthy nations.

This is straight out of Brasseur de Bourbourg, so there is no need to go searching too far for the origins of the young Hearn’s imaginary history of the world. His ideas about mound builder serpent worship came, more or less, from the Serpent Worship (1830) John Bathurst Deane (P. G. Wodehouse’s grandfather!), one of the most important pseudo-historical religious texts of its era. The Serpent Mound of Ohio had long been roped into Deane’s idea that indigenous peoples and prehistoric cultures worshiped Satan in serpent form before the coming of Christianity. Hearn simply follows conventional wisdom in repeating the idea.

But it is noteworthy that he can’t imagine that the Atlanteans could be any other color than white. First, he describes them as coming from the Teutonic regions of Europe: “It is likewise supposed that it was from Northern Europe to Atlantis, and thence overland, or by short sea-journeys, to the continent beyond — that the Mound-builders came with their cattle.”  Then, he argues (from a nineteenth-century idea) that the climate of America was too warm to sustain their glorious whiteness, shriveling the magnificent ivory giants into Native Americans: “Perhaps those pale-skinned strangers were the emigrant Mound-builders, and perhaps thousands upon thousands of years in this western climate permanently bronzed the skins and sharpened the features, and dwarfed the physique of their progeny.” This is only a smidge more scientific than the Mormons’ claim that Native Americans emerged when God smote America’s original white people with dark skin for some sin or another.

While Hearn’s piece is entirely in keeping with the tenor of its era, it is nevertheless a fascinating sidelight in the career of a man who in his final years had cast aside many of those early racist ideas as he immersed himself in Japan, became Buddhist, and embraced Eastern culture.