Sunday 10 July 2016

From Myth To History

As Greece emerged from a "Dark Age" and writing was recovered, new ways of passing on knowledge and stories developed. For the first time in the Western world, history was recorded in prose, rather than verse - the poet became historian and artistic licence gave way to the goal of accuracy and explanation.

The epic(long narrative poem) of Gilgamesh is the story of a semi-divine king of Uruk that was told by story tellers in 3rd millennium BC. Some part of the story are fantastical and others may be based on real events. Scribes in Babylon recorded events relating to the history of their city from 2nd millennium BC.

A Scene From the Epic of Gilgamesh
The first example of early Greek writing was found at the palace of Knossos in form of written clay tablets that had survived a fire that had destroyed the palace in around 1400 BC. The script on these tablets was known as Linear B. The art of writing then seems to have been lost to the Greeks during the so-called "Dark Age"(c.1100-c.750 BC).

Linear B Script

Ancient Greeks' most famous poet Homer, is believed to have lived in the 8th or 7th century BC. His two great works, the Iliad(two intense weeks of Trojan War) and the Odyssey(Odyssey's 10 year journey home from Trojan War) , began life as epic poetry recited aloud to audiences and only later they were written down. 

A vast city complex was found at Hissalik in northwest Turkey whose one layer had been destroyed by fire c.1180 BC. This city is believed to be Troy, where the mythical Achilles had killed the Trojan hero Hector.  Later experts were appalled and questioned the authenticity of the many gold artifacts found at that place.

Achilles kills Hector

Writers like Hecataeus of Miletus(c.550-490 BC) and Simonides(c.556-469 BC) were considered to be one the first history writers. Herodotus(484-425 BC) wrote The Histories, which focused on the origins of the war between Greece and Persia that took place at the beginning of 5th century BC. He is today known as "Father of History". He was also interested in studying human nature and recorded what he saw as he traveled.


The later Greek historian and biographer Plutarch(c.46-119 CE) had a very low opinion of accuracy of The Histories and called Herodotus "a father of lies". The Athenian writer Thucydides(c.460-400 BC) also took a new approach to history, his work History of the Peloponnesian War, written in 41 books, tells story of wars between Athens and Sparta.

The Mask Of Agamemnon
This astonishing burial mask was found at Mycenae, Greece in 1876 CE. It is part of a collection of royal treasure dating from c.1600 BC. The artifact is a funeral mask made in gold, and was found over the face of a body in a burial shaft. The mask is currently displayed in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

This map from a woodcut made in 1867, shows Herodotus's view of the world, based on the descriptions found in his writings, with Asia minor and Middle East in the center. He included extraordinary details of the places he visited like Egypt, Africa, Italy, Sicily and also included length of rivers and size of continents.

View of the World

Old stories told in the traditional ways connect powerfully with the listeners, as they are rooted in local landscape., history and folklore. Beowulf  is an English epic poem of the 10th century CE consisting of 3182 lines. The story concerns the struggle between good and evil. In Cyprus, shepherds still tell stories of one-eyed giants and horned gods.

Beowulf Manuscript

Kathakali stories of Hindu myth, using dance and masks, costumes and music, to accompany oral texts, are still performed today. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana tales about various Hindu divinities , are told to people who may be unable to read, in the same way stories of Homer were told in ancient Greece.

Kathakali Dancer

Over the centuries written histories, like the folk tales that preceded them, have been shaped by the values of the time in which they have been recorded.

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