Yesterday I looked at some of the ways folklore, mythology, legends, and traditions have gotten the facts wrong and asked the question of how we can therefore trust that alternative history writers’ selections are somehow unquestionably true. Today I’d like to continue by examining the work of Sir John Boardman, a retired Oxford professor of Classical archaeology. His 2002 book The Archaeology of Nostalgia explains clearly how the ancient Greeks used the shards left over from the preceding Mycenaean civilization to fabricate an ancient past that never was.
First a few facts: The Mycenaeans were a Greek-speaking civilization that flourished from roughly 1600 to 1200 BCE. The civilization collapsed, and four hundred years known as the Greek Dark Ages followed. During this period, there was no writing, populations migrated, whole cities vanished or were transformed, and even the gods themselves emerged in new forms. For example, Drimios, the son of Zeus, vanished from the pantheon; Paean, the god of healing, merged with Apollo; and Zeus superseded Poseidon as the most honored of the gods.
The exact degree of continuity and change between Mycenaean and Homeric Greece is open to dispute and is one of the most fascinating questions in Greek religion.
Boardman explains that the Greeks did not retain a historical memory of the Mycenaeans in the sense that we would consider history. Nevertheless, they saw around them the ruined cities of the Mycenaeans, whom they considered the Heroes, the men of old, the men of renown. [Note to the literarily impaired: Yes, I am making a Biblical allusion.] They found their artifacts, especially their bronze weapons, armor, and implements.
I have previously written about how alternative authors’ efforts to take Greek myth literally result in the actual destruction of historical knowledge. I will therefore pass over the mythic association of specific places with legendary heroes who could not possibly have lived there.
The ancient Greeks considered the Heroes to be giants for three reasons: 1) Mycenaean cities seemed so massively large that only giants—specifically Cyclopes—could have built them. 2) They believed that the world was in gradual decay, so earlier generations were therefore larger and more robust, and 3) they found the bones of prehistoric elephants and assumed they were the skeletons of the Heroes themselves.
Ancient astronaut writers have frequently asserted that ancient descriptions of “giant” skeletons are to be taken as literal proof of alien-human hybrid creatures of giant size. However, Boardman (following Adrienne Mayor) makes very clear that nearly all the ancient descriptions of “giant’s bones” observed in situ have nearly 1-to-1 correlation with locations where modern excavators have discovered the remains of fossil elephants and other megafauna.
Boardman also describes artifacts that the Greeks misinterpreted by filtering them through myth. At the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus there was displayed a Neolithic greenstone axe from 2000 BCE, which was taken to be a thunderbolt from Zeus, a “sacred stone that fell from the sky” as the Biblical writers were well aware (Acts 19:35). A similar axe head gave rise to an entire cult of Zeus at Labraunda in Libya (Plutarch, Greek Questions 45). Bronze Age armor from the Mycenaeans found its way into the treasury of Alexander the Great, who considered it a relic of the Trojan War (Arrianus, Alexandri anabasis 1.11.7-8). Elsewhere, Bronze Age arms were attributed to Heracles, Diomedes, Agamemnon Aeneas, and Odysseus and great effort was taken to preserve the ancient spears, swords, and shields from disintegration.
The Greek case is somewhat different from those described yesterday because the Greeks retained a vague, shadowy understanding of the Mycenaeans, and although their Heroic identifications were literally incorrect they did correctly attribute such relics to a bygone civilization. We know that some continuity must have existed because Homer discusses a boar’s tusk helmet (Iliad 10:260-5) that was for a long time thought fictional. But archaeologists found several of them in Mycenaean graves and could thus conclude that they ceased to be made at least two centuries before Homer composed the Iliad. Something of the past survived—but note we only know this because archaeology confirmed it.
Here’s the rub: The Greek mythic memory is the exception that proves the rule. The Greeks remembered something of the past, but freely mixed fragments of history with myth, misinterpretation, and imagination. Because we have archaeology to confirm or deny the claims of the Greeks, we can see how the myths and legends were distorted, what they got right and what they got wrong. Martin Nilsson recognized the Mycenaean origins of Greek mythology, but even he admitted that it is only the confirmation of archaeology that allowed such connections to be seen; the stories, on their own, were no substitute for history. As Lord Raglan wrote, if myths require outside confirmation to prove them true, the myth is therefore unnecessary as proof. A myth absent outside confirmation is essentially worthless; it can tell us what people believed at the time of the telling, but not whether their beliefs were correct.
So, when ancient astronaut writers ask us to take myths as truth, we are within our rights to ask for confirmation: Why is this true? Why is this story closer to the Greek memory of Mycenae than the (literally) fairy tales of fairies building the Irish dolmens?
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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