Texts in Context:
Now We're Getting Somewhen

By Gabriel Blanchard

Strange shapes move half-visibly in the mists of time; but as the grey recedes, often as not, we seem to find not a window but a mirror.

This post is part of a series on history and historiography, giving context to the writings of the CLT Author Bank. To read the introduction to that series, go here.


When it comes to the earliest parts of history, words like “legend” and “myth” tend to come up, so it will be worth our while to pause and define them. Myth comes from the Greek word müthos [μῦθος], which simply meant a story—any kind of story. Due to its association with ancient Greek literature, even as early as the Roman period, it came to mean specifically stories about the distant past, mostly dealing with the gods or with the origins of ritual practices, taboos, and the like. History can come into myths, but if it does, it is incidental. The Gilgamesh is a good example: there really does seem to have been a “Gilgamesh” or “Bilgamesh” who ruled the city of Uruk in the early third millennium BC, but his historicity or otherwise is completely irrelevant to the point of the story.

Legend, on the other hand, is a Latinate word, descending from legere, “to read.” Its meaning, at least at an informal level, has settled somewhere around “story about the past with at least some historical core, as well as at least some literary embroidery.” The stories of King Arthur or the Nibelungenlied—whose history is hopelessly garbled at best, yet not quite gone, nor quite irrelevant the way it is in a myth—are examples.

The transition from myth through legend to history proper is a very difficult thing to pin down. We can say with some confidence that there was probably no real Medea or Prometheus; we generally have confidence in the historicity of figures like Socrates or the Apostle Paul; but figures like Midas or Eteocles*—that’s hard to say. This is partly because, even though Herodotus is “the father of history” by some lights,** history was not really distinguished from legend (or even from deliberate fiction) for many centuries thereafter, not until the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. A passage from a lesser-known work by C. S. Lewis explains the ancient and medieval outlook nicely:

“It is my duty,” says Herodotus, “to record what has been told, but not always to believe it.” … The medieval purchaser of a manuscript which purported to give the British or Trojan story did not want some individual clerk’s opinions about the past, presumptuously setting themselves up against “what hath received approbation from many.” … I am inclined to think that most of those who read “historial” works about Troy, Alexander, Arthur, or Charlemagne, believed their matter to be in the main true. But I feel much more certain that they did not believe it to be false. I feel surest of all that the question of belief or disbelief was seldom uppermost in their minds. —The Discarded Image, Chapter VII-H. “The Human Past,” pp. 179-181

Re-Mythologizing the Past

Perhaps in reaction against this, from the end of the eighteenth century through at least the early twentieth, it was fashionable among many scholars to dismiss all of what we now call legends as having no more historical value than mythology does. The only sorts of people who believed any of that stuff were eccentrics, whom real scholars would have laughed at in, say, 1870—like this Henry Slime person, or whatever his name was, who’d published a silly book a couple of years ago and was now conducting diggings in the Ottoman Empire, looking for Troy! And isn’t he the same fellow who had run off from some sort of banking scandal in California twenty years back?

The right name of “the fellow” was Heinrich Schliemann, and his personal honesty, sad to say, did leave something to be desired. But one can only imagine the consternation in respectable Academe when he went and did the worst thing possible: he succeeded in excavating Troy. Nine layers of it!—although, lest we think this is a total defeat of stuffy bores the world over, Schliemann also carefully set an example of destroying several centuries’ worth of the site while he was at it with amateurish assumptions and careless techniques. And all this because he believed that the lowest level he reached, Troy II, contained the treasure of Priam—when in truth, Troy II was one or two thousand years too early for a historical Priam, who would have reigned over Troy VII, one of the layers Schliemann largely wrecked. (Of course, this is Greek stuff we’re talking about, so perhaps it would be inauthentic to expect things to go off without a touch of tragic irony.)

Just as geographers, O Sosius Senecio,† crowd onto the outer edges of their maps ... notes that What lies beyond is sandy desert without water and full of wild beasts, ... I might well say of the earlier periods: What lies beyond is full of marvels and unreality, a land of poets and fabulists, of doubt and obscurity.

In any event, much—most certainly not all, but much—of twentieth-century archæology consisted in discoveries of things that were not supposed to have existed at all, or were not supposed to have been invented for centuries. The Antikythera mechanism, extracted from a shipwreck dating to the second or first centuries BC, turned out to be a type of miniature planetarium, with planets that would revolve on gears as you turned a hand-crank. A tablet containing a Sumerian poem that sounds awfully like a forerunner of the Book of Job. The tomb and priceless treasures of Tutankamun. The ruins of the Serapeum, an offshoot of the Library of Alexandria. The Dead Sea Scrolls, some of the earliest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible ever discovered to this day. Göbekli Tepe, a piece of monumental architecture dating to around 9000 BC, suggesting that settled human life began centuries earlier than had been supposed.

Of course, much of what remains is hard to decipher, or, like Linear A, remains indecipherable. And, equally obviously, some of the “lies of poets” really were poets’ lies, or at least fantasies of how in their opinion things should have gone. So while we may not need to be much more skeptical than our medieval ancestors (who were armed with a certain amount of skepticism themselves), we need not be any more credulous than they were, either.

The Early Bronze Age

The very earliest parts of recorded history fall during the Bronze Age. This time is so named because it was when humans started smelting and using bronze, an alloy of copper and (usually) tin. Because different societies discovered bronze at different times, and also transitioned from bronze to iron at different times, the Bronze Ages of the world don’t always map up neatly; in the Near East and the Mediterranean, the starting date falls somewhere between 3300 BC in the Fertile Crescent and Anatolia, sinking toward 3200-3100 in places like Egypt and the Ægean, and then leaping more and more by centuries as one moves further west and north.

Bronze is far harder and more durable than either of its constituents, and a splendid stuff out of which to make knives and swords, shields, sculptures, fasteners for horses’ bridles, wheel-pins for chariots—practically anything we habitually used in the thriving business of killing each other in quantity. This business throve nearly as much in the ancient Near East as it does in the modern Near East. It is thus in the Early Bronze Age that, while Sumer and Canaan and Mycenæan Greece are still composed of city-states, we begin to see empires arise.

It is 3100 BC, give or take. The Hittites of Anatolia will be with us in a moment; a bit further south—there, you see that strange ribbon of blue-green near the eastern edge of the North African desert? That is the Nile Valley, and it is inhabited by two rough collections of peoples: Upper Egypt, in the south (yes, I know, but it’s “upper” because it’s in the highlands), and Lower Egypt, more in the flatlands of the Delta. The noise you hear, and those blinding flashes of bronze in the hot sun, are the work of Narmer, the King of Upper Egypt. He is in the process of conquering Lower Egypt and becoming, as the office was later called, the first Pharaoh.

Even older than a united Egypt, however, is an Egyptian script. In the city of Ebōt, or Abydos as we call it, rudimentary hieroglyphs are to be found, apparently independent of outside influence. It may seem odd to begin with the African system when the Mesopotamian system of cuneiform was not just going strong at the same time, but actually shows script-like antecedents going back almost as far as Göbekli Tepe! However, cuneiform, whether it influenced the idea of hieroglyphs or not, proved less important to history than they did. For Egyptian hieroglyphic writing was later repurposed by some clever folks called the Chanani on the northeastern outskirts of the Egyptian empire, used almost like an inverted acronym system: rather than each sign representing a word (the usual practice), it only represented the first sound made in that word. Habitual use and some further refinements made this Chananic form of writing very popular, and dozens of cultures adopted and adapted it, all the way down to the present author’s own. You see, the Greeks renamed the Chanani, after the beautiful red and purple dyes they extracted from local sea snails, calling them the Phoenicians; and it is ultimately the Phoenician alphabet, and through it the Egyptian glyphs, that are the root of the alphabet in which you are reading this sentence.

*Some readers may be puzzled by the choice of this particular, mostly insignificant, character from the Theban cycle; however, his existence (or at least his name) has received possible corroboration from Hittite royal archives, of all places.
**Admittedly, not by all: Plutarch, a Greek author of the late first and early second century, was the first to instead give Herodotus the unflattering moniker “the father of lies,” which has been picked up many times in the succeeding centuries. Incidentally, Herodotus correctly recorded that during the Græco-Persian War, the central region of Boeotia, led by Thebes, sided with the Persians. Also incidentally (as Will Cuppy points out in The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody), Plutarch was a Boeotian.
†Quintus Sosius Senecio was a Roman senator of the late first century, to whom Plutarch addressed several of his Lives.

Gabriel Blanchard is a proud uncle of seven nephews, and has ancestors stretching all the way back to the first humans. He is CLT’s editor at large, and lives in Baltimore, MD.

If you enjoyed this piece, be sure to check out the other offerings we have here at the Journal (from advice on preparing for college to analyses of what Mortimer Adler called “the Great Conversation”), and to tune in to our podcast, Anchored. Thank you for reading.

Published on 4th March, 2024. Author thumbnail depicts the “Mask of Agamemnon”; uncovered in the ruins of Mycenæ, this object was believed to be Agamemnon’s death-mask by Schliemann, who discovered this as well. Like many of Schliemann’s interpretations of his findings, this is now discredited: the mask in question is actually three or four hundred years older than the period in which the historical Trojan War would have occurred.

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