Tag Archives: mythology


Blog about dinosaurs and you also end up blogging about the great age of dinosaur discovery that began almost 200 years ago. But dinosaurs hunting didn’t begin with the Victorians. Adrienne Mayor wrote a great book called The First Fossil Hunters, about how many of the monsters of ancient Greek and Roman myth were based on the discovery of the bones of extinct species, from mammoths (likely basis for the legend of Cyclops) to dinosaurs.

The griffin is a fine example. The Greeks from the 7th century BCE picked up stories from the Scythian nomads of the Eurasian steppe about griffins far to the east who guarded treasures of gold. These griffins were supposed to be “four-legged birds” with feathers, wings, eagle-like beaks, and clawed feet. The legendary homeland of the griffins was explored in 1922 by the great fossil-hunting expedition of Ray Chapman Andrews, which discovered abundant remains of the late Cretaceous (about 83 million years ago) Protoceratops, along with dinosaur eggs. The resemblance to the legendary griffins is striking.

griffinceratops copy

Mayor argues that Scythian discoveries of ceratopsian skeletons inspired the story of the griffin. The main difference is the griffin’s wings, which might have been a misreading of ceratopsian collar bones. Remarkably, the ancient idea of the griffin is close to recent reconstructions of feathered agile dinosaurs. The word “dinosaur” literally means “terrible lizard,” but many dinosaurs really were closer to “four-legged birds.”

The last of the magicians


If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

These familiar quotations from Newton are sometimes presented as expressions of his humility (a quality not otherwise much in evidence). In fact, though, it became clear in the course of the twentieth century that they are really an expression of Newton being not just a great scientist, but a kook. Here’s a less familiar quotation from Newton about the intellectual origins of heliocentrism

It was the opinion of not a few, in the earliest ages of philosophy … that under the fixed stars the planets were carried about the sun; that the earth, as one of the planets, described an annual course about the sun, while by a diurnal motion it was in time revolved about its own axis. … This was the philosophy taught of old by Philolaus, Aristarchus of Samos, Plato, … and of that wise king of the Romans, Numa Pompilius, who, as a symbol of the figure of the world, erected a round temple … and ordained perpetual fire to be kept in the middle of it.

The Egyptians were early observers of the heavens; and from them, probably, this philosophy was spread abroad among other nations … It was their way to deliver their mysteries, that is, their philosophy of things above the common way of thinking, under the veil of religious rites and hieroglyphic symbols.

The Renaissance was committed to recovering the ancient past. This led not only to the recovery of ancient art, literature and science, but also to the recovery of a whole body of ancient magic and pseudoscience. For example, many Renaissance thinkers, and Newton, were fascinated by the mystical writings of “Thrice Great Hermes,” an alleged Egyptian sage. By Newton’s time it had already been demonstrated that these writings were “pseudepigraphia,” a nice scholarly term for “fakes”; Hermes Trismegistus never existed. Nevertheless, Newton was convinced that there was an esoteric tradition preserved by the ancient Egyptians, passed on to Moses, Pythagoras, and Plato, and hidden away in the Bible. Read the Bible or stories of Pythagoras closely enough and you could recover the inverse square law of gravitation. Newton spent huge amounts of time throughout his life trying to recover further scientific secrets from the Bible.

John Maynard Keynes, who got hold of some of Newton’s papers wrote

In the eighteenth century and since, Newton came to be thought of as the first and greatest of the modern age of scientists, a rationalist, one who taught us to think on the lines of cold and untinctured reason.

I do not see him in this light. I do not think that any one who has pored over the contents of that box which he packed up when he finally left Cambridge in 1696 and which, though partly dispersed, have come down to us, can see him like that. Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago.

After Newton, it became clear that modern science had surpassed anything achieved by the ancient world, and natural science and the humanities went their separate ways. Reverence for the secret wisdom of the ancients would survive in the novels of Dan Brown and in the weird Masonic pyramid on the back of the US one dollar bill.dollar-bill-eye

Homo hierarchicus


The Rajatrangini (River of Kings) is a history of Kashmir, dating to about 1150. A striking thing about it is that it is pretty much the only work in Sanskrit that clearly qualifies as history. Other material about the past in traditional Hindu India is heavily mythological, or limited to genealogies and chronicles, and contains virtually no dates. The paucity of historical works in pre-Muslim India is striking, given that the country has an impressive intellectual tradition, with important achievements in mathematics, linguistics, literature, and literary theory. Hindu India is very different in this respect from China, where there is a rich historical record and the study of history has been a major intellectual concern for millennia.

Donald Brown is an anthropologist who has worked in Southeast Asia. He became curious about why some Southeast Asian societies seem to have been more interested than others in developing an accurate understanding of the past. His eventual conclusion, after reviewing evidence from many societies, is that historical consciousness is underdeveloped in societies with closed, hereditary systems of stratification. India of course is famously a caste society. True, there are scholars who argue that Indian caste-consciousness has been exaggerated by Western Orientalists bent on making the place seem exotic. But recent DNA evidence shows that high levels of caste endogamy have been characteristic of India for at least 2000 years. And in economist Gregory Clark’s recent analyses of surnames and social stratification in a number of societies, India is an outlier, with exceptionally enduring associations between surnames and social class, reflecting the caste system. (Kashmir may have been an atypical part of India in this regard.)

In societies with hereditary ruling elites and caste-like social stratification, according to Brown, history is an inconvenience. The preference (at least out in public – people may talk differently in private) is for mythological accounts of caste origins that link caste hierarchy to the order of the cosmos. There are other differences as well associated closed versus open hierarchies. Individual personality receives less attention in societies with closed hierarchies; behavior is explained by role, office, and social category. The art of biography is less developed. Closed societies are less interested in divination (presumably you don’t need a fortune teller to know what your future holds). The differences extend even to visual art: closed societies show less interest in realistic portraiture, showing types rather than individuals. In sum, there is a real difference, Brown argues, between historical knowledge and ideology, and caste-like societies generate more of the latter.

In addition to India vs. China, other closed vs. open pairs of societies in Brown’s review include Egypt vs. Mesopotamia+Israel, Sparta vs. Athens, Early vs. Imperial Rome, Medieval West vs. Islam+Byzantium, and Venice vs. Florence.

The historical Jesus

8 – 117 CE

The historical Jesus will be to our time a stranger and an enigma. The study of the Life of Jesus has had a curious history. It set out in quest of the historical Jesus, believing that when it had found Him it could bring him straight into our time as a Teacher and Savior. It loosed the bands by which He had been riveted for centuries to the stony rocks of ecclesiastical doctrine, and rejoiced to see life and movement coming into the figure once more, and the historical Jesus advancing, as it seemed to meet it. But He does not stay: He passes by our time and returns to His own … by the same historical inevitability by which the liberated pendulum returns to its original position. (Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus)

Taking stories of the past seriously is not the same as taking them literally, as we’ve already seen in the cases of Crater Lake and the Exodus. By the time Albert Schweitzer wrote the words above, scholars of the New Testament, working for more than a century, especially in Germany, had pieced together an account of Jesus and his message very much at variance with millennia-old Christian doctrine. It’s a testament to Schweitzer’s intellectual integrity that he – a believing Christian – followed the evidence where it took him. His general conclusions (although not all the details) are now very much the scholarly mainstream. Bart Ehrman summarizes in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium:

Jesus is best understood as a first-century Jewish apocalypticist. This is a shorthand way of saying that Jesus fully expected that the history of the world as we know it (well, as he knew it) was going to come to a screeching halt, that God was soon going to intervene in the affairs of this world, overthrow the forces of evil in a cosmic act of judgment, destroy huge masses of humanity, and abolish existing human political and religious institutions. All this would be a prelude to the arrival of a new order on earth, the Kingdom of God. Moreover, Jesus expected that this cataclysmic end of history would come in his own generation, at least during the lifetime of his disciples. It’s pretty shocking stuff, really. And the evidence that Jesus believed and taught it is fairly impressive.

The study of the past – by biologists, geologists, physicists, and philologists – had a disturbing effect on the intellectual equilibrium of a Christian society. No doubt it will go on disturbing us, Christian or not.

The Fall of Troy

1200s BCE

Those who had dreamed that force, thanks to progress, belonged only to the past, have been able to see in the Iliad a historical document; those who know how to see force, today as yesterday, at the center of all human history, can find there the most beautiful, the purest of mirrors.

Simone Weil, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” 1940-1941

Some things we know (probably) about Late Bronze Age Trojans and Greeks.

  • Troy is represented by the archeological site of Hisarlik, in Turkey near the Dardanelles. It covered over fifty acres and probably had a population in the high thousands. The kingdom of Troy was a client state of the Hittites, known to them as Wilusa (Greek Ilion).
  • Troy was devastated around 1300 BCE, probably by an earthquake, and again, just after 1200 BCE, by fire. There are earlier episodes of destruction as well.
  • The Hittites knew a kingdom to their west called Ahhiyawa. The Ahhiyawans were the people known to Homer as the “Achaians,” i.e. the Greeks. The Egyptians knew a kingdom to their north, beyond Kefta (= Crete = Biblical Kaphthor), called Danaja, whose chief cities match those of Mycenaean Greece. The Danajans probably correspond to the “Danaans,” an alternative Homeric name for the Achaians. Ahhiyawa/Danaja may have been a single state, with vassals under the rule of a “King of Kings,” capitol Mycenae.
  • Homer probably composed the Iliad in the eighth century BCE (762 BCE, give or take 50 years, according to recent research applying evolutionary models to the text). But he relied on sources – presumably earlier oral poems – that went back centuries earlier. The names he gives for the Greeks were not current in his own time. Many lines of his epics only scan if he was drawing on poetic formulas from a Bronze Age dialect of Greek. The cities he lists among those who contributed to the war effort match the Bronze Age better than his own time. And he is familiar with Bronze Age helmets and shields that had long since gone out of use.

So the story of the Trojan war dates back to the Bronze Age, and incorporates real geography and material culture. Just how true the story itself is less certain. It has had an enormous influence of course. Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed that England’s first king was a descendant of refugees from fallen Troy. Sultan Mehmet II claimed to be avenging the Trojans when he conquered Constantinople in 1453.

There a many books on the Trojan War (apart from the ones by Homer). Here are some good ones.

And a remark on war in the lives of ants and men.


1628 BCE, and later. There are two great stories in the Western tradition that stand somewhere between legend and history: The Flight from Egypt and the Trojan War. Both have been scholarly battlegrounds, dismissed as pure invention by some, accepted as at least partly historical by others. In the case of the exodus story, a great many archeologists nowadays are strong skeptics. Here I’ll summarize what I think is the best argument for the other side.

Barbara Sivertsen, in her book The Parting of the Sea, argues that the exodus story combines oral traditions arising from two different flights from Egypt. First, she suggests that some of the story reflects events around the time of a huge volcanic explosion, the largest in the last five thousand years, which destroyed most of the island of Thera (= Santorini) in 1628 BCE. Most of the Biblical plagues fit what would have been expected in northern Egypt at the time. A tsunami reaching the Nile delta would have contaminated water, and caused fish to die off. Frogs would have been driven from the water. Caustic ash would have stung human skin (in later recountings, “stinging like gnats” was remembered as “stinging gnats”). Insects affected by ash would have sought shelter in people’s houses. Livestock outdoors would have died from breathing ash, and humans and livestock would have developed blisters. Eventually dust in the atmosphere would have precipitated hailstorms. The arrival of the heaviest part of the dust cloud would have shrouded the land in darkness. (Locusts, however, don’t fit the volcano story, and may be an embellishment or a coincidental plague.) All these developments would have precipitated a panicked flight from Egypt on the part of Israelites, led by Moses. According to the archeological evidence, the Wadi Tumilat, an oasis/caravanserai east of the Nile commonly identified as the Biblical Land of Goshen, is abandoned at this time and left uninhabited for centuries.

Other authors have suggested that the Thera eruption had some role in the exodus, but Sivertsen thinks there was also a later flight. In the mid-1400s, Egypt had a significant population of prisoners of war employed as slaves at Tell el-Da’ba, a naval base on the Mediterranean. In Sivertsen’s account, a wave of deaths of Egyptian children led Pharaoh Tuthmose III, frightened of the Israelite god, to expel a group of Israelite slaves. The pharaoh changed his mind, however, and sent an army in pursuit of the slaves along the northern shore of the Sinai. We know that in the mid-1400s, another volcanic eruption, on the Aegean island of Yalli, sent a tsunami around the shores of the eastern Mediterranean. This tsumani caught up with the Egyptian army, but missed Israelites camped further inland. The event was spectacular enough to be melded with the earlier exodus story.

A major reason for skepticism about the exodus story is that it has been very hard to find evidence for the Israelite conquest of Canaan in the fourteenth or thirteenth century BCE, which is when many accounts place the exodus. But if we follow Sivertsen in putting the first exodus much earlier, and allow that the “forty years” in the wilderness was really eighty years, then there is plenty of evidence for massive invasion and destruction of cities in Canaan in the mid 1500s, at the end of the Middle Bronze Age. Israelites could have been among the invaders of Canaan. Around 1550 BCE, the city of Jericho suffered an earthquake that knocked down some of the city walls. The city then burned to the ground, and was largely abandoned subsequently.

We saw earlier on Logarithmic History that oral history can preserve detailed memories of natural catastrophes for long periods of time. At the same time information about numbers and absolute dates mostly gets lost. It will be interesting to see how Sivertsen’s work holds up in the face of further discoveries.

History became legend, legend became myth, 2 (Noah’s Flood)

7.6 kya. We’ve already seen that the whole Mediterranean basin once dried out for hundreds of thousands of years, only to be flooded in the course of just a few years once its connection with the Atlantic was restored. But this happened 5.3 million years ago. If any human ancestors were around in the neighborhood, and survived the flood, they hadn’t reached the stage of passing on the story to the kids.

But a similar story, on a smaller scale, may have happened within the possible limits of human remembrance. At the end of the last Ice Age the Black Sea was a freshwater lake, cut off from the Mediterranean. The water level was lower in Black Sea than in Mediterranean, so this was a potentially unstable situation. According to one theory, around 7,500 years ago the Mediterranean breached the Bosporus, and water poured in, raising sea levels at the rate of up to six inches a day, until the area of the Black Sea expanded by more than 50%. (However some researchers think the flooding was less dramatic.)

Of course just about any reader knows the famous story of Noah and the Flood. Many readers will also know that Noah’s story seems to be connected with an earlier Babylonian flood story. This is recounted, for example, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, where Gilgamesh travels north from his hometown of Uruk seeking Utnapishtim, who survived the flood that drowned most of his neighbors. (Utnapishtim also tells Gigamesh about a plant that will grant immortality. Gilgamesh gets the plant, but then a snake eats it. D’oh!)

It’s natural to speculate that the Black Sea flood inspired the Gilgamesh story. But flood stories are found through much of the world, so the story may be an amalgam. Another ingredient may be the story of Ziusudra, maybe a real early Sumerian king from about 2900 BCE who is recorded as surviving a major flood and getting washed into the Persian Gulf.