The Endless Tide Rises

July 23, 2012 § 1 Comment

We know barely anything about our world before we arrived on it, and we know scarcely more about our own time on this world. To speak authoritatively about the past before 3000 BC is difficult, although we have found sites such as Catal Hoyuk that date back to 7500 BC, and we do have evidence of our ancestors dating back much, much further than that. As just one example, there is evidence of Homo Erectus, our ancestors although not quite human as we would recognize it today, traveling all across the world from West Africa to China more than 1.8 million years ago. We do not know much of what they thought, how close it was to our thoughts. In this vast distance of the development of humanity, we can see only a little that has been preserved for us. A few bones. Eventually some tools. After that, settlements.


One of the reasons I love talking about Egypt is this sense of time. At present we’ve found evidence going back to 3150 BC of Egypt forming as a nation, with kings making war on other kings and creating new states. To put that into perspective, that means that during the time of the Trojan War and the rise of the Sea Peoples, the hundred year reign of Ramses II, Egypt was already two thousand years old. Egypt saw many foreign conquerors come and go, saw the Hyksos and fought the Hittites, conquered in its turn both north into Palestine and south towards Ethiopia. When the ‘ancient’ Greeks of the Classical period (5th century BC) were first reestablishing trade routes and cultural contact their Mycenaean ancestors had known seven hundred years before, Egyptians had 2500 years of civilization to look back on. Even Mesopotamia couldn’t boast so unbroken a cultural inheritance – while Sumer rivaled Egypt in antiquity, it was conquered and assimilated by the Assyrians, Akkadians and Babylonians in turn while Egypt remained. Persia digested the people of the land between the rivers, but when the great world empire came to Egypt, the ancient land simply endured. Even the Macedonian warlord Alexander came to Egypt as one willing to bow to Ammon, and the Ptolemies learned from his example and embraced Egypt’s culture rather than attempt to make it Greek.

Yet for all this, we still learn more about Egypt. There are sites in Egypt dating back to 21,000 BC. Men and women came and went from the arid deserts of Egypt, in part because Egypt itself was not always so arid, and the mighty Nile did not always flow so wide to the sea, did not always flood so regularly. Fishing villages can be found before 12,000 BC, and by 9300 BC settlements returned to the western regions of the Nile. Keep in mind how little we know of what passed between these enormous gulfs of time. It’s one thing to throw out a number like 9300 BC, and quite enough to realize that the first known kings of Egypt arose some six thousand years later. We know that these people lived their lives, fished, made tools, sooner or later discovered the principles of agriculture, of break making and beer brewing, and developed into the people we know of. But we don’t know much in the way of details. Whether writing developed independently in Egypt during the rise of the pre-dynastic kings, as is know considered likely, or came south from the cuneiform writings of Sumer, it didn’t make its appearance in Egypt much before 3000 BC, and so countless lives came and went and were not written down for us. But we know of many cultures that migrated into Egypt before 12,000 BC, and their descendants appear to us some six thousand years later, forming city centers. What did they do for so long?

One of the things that always catches my eye, however, when I read about pre-historical Egypt is that 9300 BC date for the return of settlement to western Egypt. It catches my eye because, in the Timaeus with which I am ridiculously obsessed, Plato has the priests at Sais tell Solon that his people have forgotten their own past, that many catastrophes had come and gone and wiped away Greece’s knowledge of itself, that 9000 years before Athens had been the greatest city in the world and Sais had been founded later, also by Athena. This similarity of dates is purely coincidence. 9000 years before Solon would have been 9600 BC, not 9300, and it was Athens that the priests told Solon was founded then. Sais was said to have been founded in 8000 BC. But it does make me wonder, and ponder, how easily we disregard the idea of cities, societies, existing in this time. This despite Catal H0yuk, despite Jericho with its Holocene era settlements dating back to 9000 BC, and hosts of other ancient cities.

In the Atlantean dialogues the Timaeus and the Critias Plato has the ancient priests of Neith act as mouthpieces for his tale of the great, world-wide war of Atlanteans and Athenians some 9000 years before the life of Solon, so roughly 9600 BC. This war was reportedly a world-wide war, and while the idea of such a thing may seem ridiculous to us, we must remember that before our ancestors were even human they managed to make their way from Africa up the Nile, and spread east and west to cover all of Eurasia. That was one million, eight hundred thousand years ago.

But to me, it’s not that the idea of war between ancient peoples is ludicrous, because it clearly isn’t. We’ve found mass graves full of human remains that died by violence, as many as fifty or more, dating back before 11,000 BC. No, the real problem with the idea of a proto Athens some 9000 years before Christ is that there weren’t any Greeks at the site of Athens before 3000 BC, and those Greeks would be later displaced by their own relatives the Dorians in the 11th Century, bring about the end of Mycenaean civilization just as it had ended that of Crete. Even if we were generous and credited the Minoans and/or the Cycladic islanders as Greek, they didn’t develop anything like agriculture before 5000 BC, putting them some 4000 years short of the date given in the dialogues and many many miles south of the site of Athens. Also, since the Egyptians knew of Crete, traded with its people (called by them the Keftiu) it seems unlikely that, were they the same people, the priests at Sais would have forgotten to mention that. Also, we know that the language of the Minoans wasn’t a form of Greek. Whoever they were, they were their own people, and they weren’t in any way a predecessor to or forerunner of Athens.

And even if we ignore that it seems very clear that the proto-greek spoken by the ancestors to the Greeks of 3000 BC, the language of the Mycenaeans’ direct ancestors, was very similar to the proto-indo-iranian languages, which gave rise to ancient sanskrit. It’s very hard for me to accept that this division could have taken place over 3000 years before the Mehrharh society that predated the Indus Valley Civilization of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro.

Of course, all of this quibbling assumes a lot. It assumes that Plato wasn’t just making it all up, for one thing. But we do know Solon went to Egypt (at least according to Herodotus) and he stopped to discuss philosophy with priests in Sais according to Plutarch. This could simply have been detail that Plato latched upon to lend believability to his story, of course. But what we’re left with is a twofold conundrum – did Plato invent the story of the priests of Sais instructing Solon of the distant past, and if he didn’t, does that make the priests of Sais reliable sources about a past that was more than six thousand years before the invention of writing in Egypt? Who passed this secret down to them? How was it passed down?

Now, I often like to read mythology just because I love speculating. And one of the things that strikes me when reading the myths of the Greeks regarding the ancient past and the Bronze Age heroes is how some of these figures seem to predate the Bronze Age entirely. Theseus comes to mind, at least in his travel to Athens from Troezen. Between bludgeoning a man to death with his own club (and at a time when the sword and the spear were considered the weapons of a proper warrior, Theseus and Heracles were both identified by the massive clubs they used in battle) to fighting with the Crommyonian Sow, an enormous pig ravaging the countryside (and sounding more like an enteleodont than any pig species). What seems to come of all this is a compression of vast gulfs of time in a narrative.

Remember what I said before about how we don’t know even a fraction of what happened in these immense gulfs of time. For instance, we don’t know where the people who were ancestral to all indo-european speaking groups came from. And we really mostly track languages and artifacts, because we don’t have all that many bodies to study, especially the further back you go. We know that every time a new group enters an area they tend to breed with the people who were already there – this phenomenon is why most modern citizens of England have both celtic and germanic ancestry. So basically, what I’m saying is this: we have no real idea, so why not make something up? Well, if I were an archaeologist, a palaeo-lingust or an anthropologist I’d have literally dozens of reasons not to make something up. But since I’m none of those things, I have no reason at all not to.

When we discussed Atlantis, Tiamat, and the Enuma Elish we talked about ancient religious ideas, how they tend to try and sublimate each other. Graves’ mentioning of the Zeus cult marrying Zeus off to every local version of the Goddess comes to mind. Therefore, let us look at the Theseus myth cycle. He grows to manhood as the son both of a mighty king and of the god of the sea, marches to his mortal father’s city destroying monsters and murderers along the way, fights with a witch, travels across the sea to a great island empire and navigates its labyrinth, slays a monster bull-man and steals the king’s daughter  only to lose her to the god of wanton drunkenness. There’s more, of course – the descent into the realm of the dead, the shelter of the Heraklids, his son’s death at the hands of his own curse – but for now, let us consider. One of the neater explanations for the Atlantis myth is the idea that Plato made a math error.
Instead of it having been 9000 years before Solon, they argue, it was 900 years, which puts it right in line with the Mycenaean war with the Minoans at around 1500 BC and the eruption of Thera. The monster wave, they then argue, caused by the enormous volcanic explosion that created the caldera of Santorin would have swamped Crete and smashed their culture so thoroughly that they would have ceased trading with the Egyptians, and therefore to the Egyptians it would have seemed as though the Keftiu had been swallowed by the sea. Now, there’s a few problems with this – the Minoans weren’t even remotely expansionist, like the Atlanteans of the story, they certainly didn’t attempt to take over all the known world, and Crete is well within the Pillars of Herakles – but on the whole it’s an elegant little theory. But now let us consider a more unlikely alternative.

What if, instead, the heroic tales of the Greek Bronze Age heroes are compressed?

We don’t have many sources for Greek myth. We primarily have Homer, Hesiod and a few others, really, and then a whole host who came after and made additions. From them we have the notions of the war between the Titans and the Gods, the lost golden age, the flood that wiped out most of humanity requiring that mankind be recreated from rocks. And we know that writing is a late invention, but that oral traditions existed and endured throughout the world, sometimes coming down to us today as they were eventually written down. Now, how long did, how long could those oral traditions have lasted, and could later storytellers have resisted the urge to place them into understandable context? Hell, we have writing, and look at how our King Arthur stories have taken Arthur and Camelot and contextualized them as medieval knights with all the trappings of chivalry and mounted combat and armor articulated and plate-riveted. Placing King Arthur in articulated plate is like giving Jesus a flying surfboard, but we do it.

So imagine, if you would, the world of 20,000 years BC. Mankind, without writing, with only the bare rudiments of agriculture, is yet spreading out to cover the world. There are humans in Ice Age Europe, and the glaciers have reached as far as they’re going to. To our ancestors the Neandertal are no more, and no less, than another kind of man. The sea levels have receded to the point where the British Isles are part of mainland Europe, Sicily is connected to Italy, and so too is Asia Minor one land mass with Europe. The Dardanelles are land.

Now, one of the things we know is that mankind tends to build by water sources like rivers, and near harbors and shorelines. We like to be able to fish, and use the rivers and seas for transport. Even in those ancient sites in Egypt, well before the known rise of agriculture, we find evidence of heavy industry in the form of fishing. Mankind builds by water. And 20,000 years ago, as the glaciers reached their furthest extent, that water would have been surrounding land that today is completely under the sea.  Imagine this time before our knowledge, this time unrecorded, only dimly seen in digs and grave sites and almost none of those grave sites and digs taking place where these men and women would have lived. They would have lived by the sea, and the sea was miles, sometimes dozens of miles or even hundreds of miles further away than it is now. The entire North Sea region we know today was either a flat grassland or covered in ice. The Greeks spoke of Hyperborea and Thule to the north, but knew little of those regions save that they were beyond the land of Boreas the North Wind.

We are forced to imagine – how does a pre-literate people preserve a culture so ancient, and how could we know for sure if they were pre-literate? We can’t know, of course, because their most populous settlements, the ones with the greatest flowering of civilization would have been drowned when the glaciers retreated and the sea levels rose. Not in a day, or an hour, but over thousands of years. We today have seen how generations can ignore the changes to climate and the dangers they pose to our society. If we flooded New York, London, Boston, the Japanese Islands, much of Europe and Asia… if we lost those cities, the eastern and western seaboards of the United States, if we flooded the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes with melted glacial ice, if we divided North America with a shallow sea just like the one that covered most of the western continent during the Cretaceous, how long would our technological society endure? Could it endure? And what would our descendents know of us, with our great works covered by the oceans, only a few cities left to be cannibalized? Both Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro were nearly totally destroyed before we ‘rediscovered’ them by people who had lived among them for thousands of years, who thought nothing of using their brick for their own purposes. How many ancient sites have been lost? How many towns, villages could have lived, risen, and then fallen and been forgotten by the world in 20,000 years?

Imagine then, this great neolithic society. Perhaps doing all of its work of inventing civilization with stone age tools, hides and skins, yet building vast (for the time) settlements and taming the land. Who knows how far they got? Perhaps they invented languages, perhaps they began to develop agriculture and even metallurgy, who knows? Did they develop a form of writing? Did they develop city planning? Domestication? And then, slowly, the oceans rose up and swallowed their world while they argued and debated and fought one another over what was to be done and eventually fought one another to see who would survive at all, to hold onto the shrinking edges of their world and their civilization. Slowly it rose, and slowly it died. Until all that was left were tribes moving inland, away from the lost world swallowed by the sea, and their myths and legends were no longer written down but were passed by telling tales, and each tale always shifts and mutates in the telling. The story of the grim escape from the waves becomes the deluge tales of several people, altered and mutated in the telling. Deucalion, Ziusudra, Utnapish, Noah… all the result of a tale told again and again and again over this vast (to us) gulf of time.

I said before that the Enuma Elish reminded me of the old conceits of many later writers such as Diodorus Siculius, who made of Atlantis the original home of the gods and populated it with names from mythology. Perhaps men and women from that vast Hyperborean grass plain, drowned by the ocean’s return and the ice’s retreat, made their way south and settled in Greece, and founded their cities and towns in the same region the Mycenaeans would invade thousands of years earlier, and interbred with them, telling their stories as they had done for thousands of years. In time those stories were conflated, and given contexts familiar to those telling them. Figures like Herakles and Theseus, who wore animal skins and used clubs in combat, make more sense when considered not as direct ancestors to the boar’s tusk helmeted Achaeans who sacked Troy but rather as mythologized forerunners brought up to the then-modern world and given as much of a veneer of that civilization as could be managed, after tens of thousands of years of losing their own society and culture. The goddess brought them to that land, and planted them in soil that would shape them in her image, we could say.

In the end we can’t possibly know. Are there many drowned cities of the late stone age waiting for us to discover them at the bottom of our oceans? Did mankind ascend to society only to see it drowned, flooded away? Shades of Robert E. Howard and his Hyborian age, I admit.

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§ One Response to The Endless Tide Rises

  • A fan from your WOW Insider work, this post got my attention on Twitter and I proceeded to spend way too much of my work day reading it and considering the points. Well done, sir. I’ll choose more appropriate times to read the linked & subsequent posts!

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