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Old gods when?

Let me start with a quick overview of the oldest of ancient history, the history that preceded the time of the Greek gods. Starting around 10,000 BCE, human beings almost everywhere abandoned the lifestyle of the new stone age (Neolithic) and what we call the bronze age began. Bronze metallurgy was only the least of the changes, though. The really big changes were economic and political. Hunter gatherer societies developed and then based their lives around annual cereal crops. When these crops were harvested, nearly 100% was paid out in taxes and offerings to two sometimes competing but generally cooperating sets of granaries: the palace of the king, and the temples. The temples doled out the grain as offerings, and as wages to pay to build religious buildings and produce religious spectacles. The king doled out the grain as needed, and as wages for public works like roads and monuments and yes, more granaries. But the king also used a lot of that grain to pay for and provision a small, elite, professionalized and expensively equipped force of chariot archers. This chariot army was used to annex other tribes or kingdoms that had embraced agriculture more slowly, to defend the kingdom from annexation by other empires, and to put down the occasional revolt.

This was the most stable way of life that human beings have ever known. The capital city of the empire would occasionally change, the names of the gods sometimes changing with it, but the actual way of life didn't change for thousands of years. Then, in the space of about 27 years, everything turned upside down. Out of all of the major bronze age cities we know of, all but two were attacked and burned viciously to the ground by unknown invaders or rebels. The first city burned around 1225 BCE. The last sighting of the city burners was when they were defeated at great cost by Ramses II in the Second Battle of the Sea Peoples in 1198 BCE. The effects varied from place to place, depending on how thorough the city burners were and how friendly the environment was to feral human scavengers. Let's take it counter-clockwise from that last battle of the end of the bronze age, empire by empire:
  • Egypt: The only two great bronze age cities to survive were Memphis and Thebes. But the Pharoah spent so much of his army saving the kingdom that his dynasty ended, as Egyptian subjects from the south, up the Nile, came north and captured the throne. Written language and the bronze age model of society survived, but the change in dynasties marked the end of Egypt as an expanding empire; indeed, it is at this point that Egypt more or less withdraws from Gaza and Libya; the area along the Nile is all that they can afford to control.

  • Hittites: Right before the end, the Hittites controlled everything that we now know as the middle east, having long ago conquered other empires such as Babylon and Assyria; they were at war with Egypt up to the very end. After the fall, for all practical purposes, there were no more Hittites, only a scattering of tiny towns too small and unimportant to attract the attention of the city burners. The largest and most successful of those small towns, Perseopolis, therefore got a jump start on the dark age, and when the dark age was over hundreds of years later became the seat of the mighty Persian Empire.

  • Anatolia and others: We know almost nothing about the inhabitants of modern day Turkey from before the fall. Until archaeological discoveries in my lifetime, we didn't even know that there were empires in Turkey during the bronze age; the city burners were that thorough. Egyptian battle records from the Bronze Age list dozens of empires and kingdoms we've never heard of; only recently have we begun to suspect just how urbanized and wealthy and powerful Turkey was before the fall. Indeed, the crisis of 1200 BCE may have even started here. And archaeologists think that at at least one site in Turkey, the city burners came back only a few years later, found survivors trying to rebuild the city, and burned them out again. The scattered survivors went feral, and spread across the subcontinent as tiny hunter/gatherer bands.

  • Greece: There was only one large bronze age city, the one we now call Mycenae (after a later town miles away, because nobody knows what its name was then), and as elsewhere it was burned and the inhabitants mostly massacred. One tiny trading port town at the southern tip was left behind to starve; starve because they had to have been importing food from Egypt or the Hittites or Turkey before. There is hardly anywhere in Greece is there enough naturally occuring well-watered flat land to grow annual cereal crops on even if you wanted to. (There's more now. Credit 2500 years of human engineering for terracing and fertilizing and channeling of streams.) For the most part, the survivors of Mycenae and Eleusis revert to feral hunter gatherer bands.

  • The rest of Europe: Hadn't progressed much beyond that hunter gatherer stage, hadn't fully adopted bronze age civilization by the time it fell elsewhere. Went on slowly developing.
And thus it was to the people who called themselves the Ionians, the people of Greece and western Turkey, that the gods appeared, and it was at this time, more or less: some time in the first couple of hundred years after 1200 BCE. We can't pin it down much more precisely than that. From city histories and genealogical records, I feel strongly tempted to aim for a late date, no earlier than 1000 or 900 BCE. It absolutely must have come well before around 775 BCE, because that's when Homer and Hesiod composed the definitive histories of that dark age, and the gods were definitely in them. So we're talking about a space of three or four generations stretching from around 950 to 850 or so BCE, the absolute center of what's called the archaic dark age.

Next: What's a feral human being, and what difference did the gods make, and is this why they came?


( 25 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 27th, 2005 02:58 am (UTC)
Jan. 27th, 2005 03:44 am (UTC)
Has there been any conjecture as to who the 'city burners' were?
Jan. 27th, 2005 04:06 am (UTC)
Tons of it. None conclusive, though. Most importantly and fascinatingly to me, we also have no idea at all what their motive was for spending 27 years of their lives, plus however long they spent preparing for it, systematically attempting to destroy bronze age civilization.
Jan. 27th, 2005 02:09 pm (UTC)
I've always been interested in those people. It's not as if we don't have similar ones in the current world, though. In the absence of contrary evidence, my money is on religion as the motive.
Jan. 27th, 2005 03:47 am (UTC)
That's all news to me. Thank you. (Can you recommend any good books?)
Jan. 27th, 2005 04:13 am (UTC)
The one that was recommended to me by the most historians, and that I found absolutely fascinating as well as informative, is the one I linked to via its cover image above: Robert Drews, The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe of 1200 B.C.

His theory is that the crisis was basically a civilization-wide slave revolt, made possible by two innovations in weapons technology that made it possible for a peasant army with minimal training to defeat a chariot army: the rifled javelin for out-ranging chariot archers and bringing down their horses, and the leaf-bladed two-edged ("Naue type 2") sword for defeating the lightly-armed and mostly unarmored chariot team in close combat after dehorsing them.

In a nutshell, his theory suggests that whole armies didn't have to march or sail the length and width of the bronze age world, only their ideas, their plan for a successful peasant revolt, had to travel. If his theory is correct, then that suggests to me that the bronze age model of civilization may have been stable, but it must have built up some pretty powerful and widespread resentments literally all over the world.

But barring some so-far unforseen archaeological find, we are unlikely to find out what their actual motivation was, because one thing that the city burners seem to have gone way out of their way to do was to completely destroy the technology of written language everywhere they won battles.
Jan. 27th, 2005 05:28 am (UTC)
Thank you! I missed the link.
Jan. 27th, 2005 01:49 pm (UTC)
one thing that the city burners seem to have gone way out of their way to do was to completely destroy the technology of written language everywhere they won battles

Fredy Perlman would have said that that was because writing in the bronze age civilisations was devised and used as a mechanism of oppression; something that was there basically to define and record the ownership and value of grain and slaves (and the glory of the kings and priesthood) would necessarily be seen, by slaves with an oral history of the time before they were enslaved, as something to destroy.

No way of knowing for sure, of course, but it makes sense to me at least...
Jan. 27th, 2005 06:41 pm (UTC)
You know, I would have been prepared to bet a small amount of money that I was the only person I knew who owned, let alone had read, or even heard of, Fredy Perlman's Against His-story, Against Leviathan. Obviously I would have been wrong.

Yes, when I read Drews, I found it fascinating to compare it to Perlman. Perlman's book was almost entirely speculative, but at first it does sound like a plausible motive for the city burners, isn't it? But it doesn't explain why they wouldn't do what other people who wanted to escape civilization had done both before 1200 BCE and then again afterwards all the way up to the "closing of the frontier," namely, simply run away into the stone age wilderness?
Jan. 27th, 2005 09:42 pm (UTC)
Well, I think you're the first person I've come across for 15-odd years who's heard of the thing :)

One could speculate that most did, indeed, just fade away into the wilds but that some were either angry enough, or wanted to try and prevent a recurrence of what to them was anything but a societal advance, or both, and did their best to destroy the structures that oppressed them without taking on that armour themselves. If they succeeded in that last, they were a rare thing indeed in revolutionary movements.
Jan. 27th, 2005 04:20 am (UTC)
I really like MacNeill's The Rise of the West.
Jan. 27th, 2005 04:22 am (UTC)
Wow, I'm ordering that book RIGHT NOW.
Jan. 27th, 2005 04:49 am (UTC)
Good plan, I guess, since I see that Amazon was down to their last copy not counting used bookstore links. Here it is at BarnesAndNoble.com, too.
Jan. 27th, 2005 07:16 am (UTC)
We are on the Persian War here with homeschooling but I am gonna back up and talk about this theory. We are extremely interested in the dynamics of slave societies around here.
Jan. 27th, 2005 05:19 am (UTC)
I love reading "prehistory" stuff. Like the Earth's Children books, even though they're fictional and stretch things a little. Cave paintings, omg. I remember seeing pictures of the ones in France in the paper and literally crying. It wasn't the pictures themselves that got to me, as awesome and skillful and artistic as they are, it was the handprint--the artist had put their hand on the wall and blown paint (ink? wtf-ever) on it to create the shadow of their hand. They'd "signed" it. The idea that the people who existed back then, are so similar to us.... the idea that the artist wanted to make a sign saying, "I did this," and that we can still see it....gah! It gets me, and I don't know if I can explain why. Like someone reaching across the milennia to speak to me.

But the move to agricultural society is also fascinating... like when written language was invented, and the early laws, and how that turned into cities and whatnot....wooo! So exciting.
Jan. 27th, 2005 09:40 am (UTC)
I understand why you're making this stylistic choice, but I gotta point out that you're talking about one little part of the world as if it is The World. At this point, most of the globe is inhabited. There are multiple centers of civilization.
Jan. 27th, 2005 11:03 am (UTC)
However this would be the bit that got burnanated... my understanding of the period (which is sketchy because I am bad at correlating history from different areas) is that this problem affect principly the civilisations described here. The civilisations in India and China were too different to be affect by the same politics and too far to be affected by the same army. America is even further away and harder to get to.

Yes, this 'dark age' was local to the Meditaranian area of Europe and Arabia but that's because that was the local concentration of 'culture' and finding other concentrations of such would entail many months travel. For all intents and purposes Europe *was* The World to these people and remained The World for a very long time (if you lived in it), indeed for your average villager it is likely that The World was my village and the next one over and possibly the town where the market is held. No one knew about the Americas and the only contact with the East for many centuries was via the silk trade (probably didn't exist yet, who knows?) which was allways expensive meaning that only the very richest would be buying and even then likely thinking of the silk as from 'far off lands' rather than some specific place that was known and understood.

It is possible (probable?) that other areas of the world have had similar upheavals and dark ages and possibly similar visitations by gods to go allong with. Unfortunately my knowledge is limited and ony encompases this part of the world to the degree that it encompases anything atall so I can't provide enlightenment either.
Jan. 28th, 2005 06:54 am (UTC)
I'll deal with the most interesting speculation first:

It is possible (probable?) that other areas of the world have had similar upheavals and dark ages and possibly similar visitations by gods to go allong with.

What if not, because other parts of the world never got so out of whack with the right way for humans to live that the gods had to come fix things?

Now for the less interesting bit: like I said, it's a stylistic choice and I understand it. It's difficult to write otherwise. But if you go through the texts, you'll see a lot of use of universalizing language when what is being referred to is localized.
Jan. 28th, 2005 11:22 am (UTC)
Well, I've no real idea who got out of whack how. But my small understanding of central American culture is that it went up and down. What about (refering to the original speculation about Gods appearing in dark ages) gods apearing in the original dark age from whence we all had to escape at one point or another to get here. Certainly there are no records of this that I know of - of course why would there be? Primitive societies don't tend to write letters to the future.
Jan. 27th, 2005 06:21 pm (UTC)
I am leaving out the following parts of the world for the following reasons:
  • China and surroundings: The Gobi desert poses a nearly impenetrable barrier both ways at this point; it will be centuries before there is any significant contact or commerce between the places where the Greek gods showed up and China.
  • Western hemisphere: Atlantic and Pacific ocean, same.
  • Russia, northern Europe: Scattered semi-feral bands of stone age hunter/gatherers. They neither have much civilization worth talking about, nor travel very far, nor have any perceptible impact on the region where the Greek gods showed up until a much later date, many centuries later.
I wrote about the other areas, though, because those were areas where, during the bronze age before the archaic dark age, and then again in the iron age and the Macedonian/Roman imperial periods afterwards, there was extensive contact and commerce. The Pelopponese, the area we now call Greece, was one part of a larger human community, but not one that stretched to the edges of the Earth.
Jan. 28th, 2005 07:02 am (UTC)
Like I said above, I don't mean to be impugning your analysis here. It's very difficult to write the story of the West without sounding like you're telling the story of the world, for the very good reason that the West is our world. This is something I struggle with as I teach history. Constantly, you find yourself saying "people" when you mean "these specific people." There were other people doing other things that if we could fully understand them - which we never will - could change the story that we're telling.

I'll give you one easy example: you're communicating, intentionally or not, that all hunter-gatherer bands are more or less equivalent, when that's clearly not the case. Some h-g's are/have been extremely sophisticated cultures; some are/ have been what you describe as "feral humans." You have a pretty big bias towards settled agricultural life and written language, though.
Jan. 27th, 2005 02:39 pm (UTC)
There is a very, very interesting theory out there that there were no Dark Ages, only a chronological miscalculation. See Centuries of Darkness. David Rohl has some interesting theories, though his inclination to take the Hebrew Bible seriously as an historical source is offensive to some.
Jan. 5th, 2008 05:15 pm (UTC)
You mention that this period obviously precedes Homer. I wonder if tales such as the Iliad are echoes of the loss the 'city' civilisation, ie is the story of the fall of Troy the story of the fall of all of these cities?
Feb. 14th, 2008 03:41 am (UTC)
I know this is an old post, but I'm curious: do you have any other resources (aside from the book you link above) regarding the City Burners?

I've studied a decent amount of history of the period, so I know that around the same time, all over the ancient world, something big went down that resulted in the collapse of most extant civilizations. But I'm hoping to learn more about what that was, and why. You're the only person I know who might know where to begin looking.
Feb. 14th, 2008 06:24 am (UTC)
Nothing handy. Drews' book seems to be the one that everybody else cites.
( 25 comments — Leave a comment )