January 26th, 2005


Other historical gods

Yesterday I said that there is an alternative to the philosophers' gods and the schizophrenics' gods, and that alternative is the historical gods. I restricted that to gods that were actually reliably witnessed, in person, by more than one person at a time. In other words, I'm talking about gods whose interventions in human history are at least as reliably attested to as any other historical event. I admitted that I've only had half a lifetime to study this, so there are probably a few examples (at least) that I don't know about. For example, I know very little about the origins of Native American spirituality, or to what extent the lives of gods and humans intermingle in the Hindu scriptures. But I did cite ancient Greece about halfway through the archaic dark age as one example, and I told you that I had another.

In the 4th century CE, almost all human tribes and nations west of the Gobi desert was united under a single rule, the civilizing iron age empire of Rome. But Rome over-reached, responded poorly to several environmental and economic crises, and made itself vulnerable to the barbarians outside the empire who viewed the whole idea of civilization with a skeptical eye. Wave after wave of barbarian tribes conquered Rome, but didn't stay to rule it. On the contrary, they set about sacking it over and over again until nobody could rule from Rome. And with the fall of the empire, and the civil wars that were sparked by that fall, civilization retreated pretty far away from what had been the outermost borders of the empire. Unfortunately for a lot of people living in those areas, Rome had already achieved a central place in their governance, in their law enforcement and justice, and in the administration of their farming economy. You all know the result, yet another dark age: anarchy, mass starvation, and educational standards falling even faster than population. This fall wasn't as bad as the previous one had been; written language and history survived in more places, this time. But still, it got pretty grim, and human beings reverted to their default feral social order in pretty short order. (More about that feral social order and the alternatives in the entry after next.)

And it is at the far northwestern part of the former empire, among the scattered pre-feudal Celtic tribes of Brittany, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, and in this particular time, when humans were dying like flies because nobody knew how to live any more, that there came to be sightings of the Good Neighbors. This is what the stories mean when they say, "long ago and far away."

The Good Neighbors, the Faerie folk, the Sidhe, were very protective of their privacy. They wouldn't say much about where they were from, or what they were really like. But other than this nervous or compulsive privacy, they were observed to have certain traits. They appeared in human form at will, always or nearly always beautiful or handsome. They could be injured by special weapons, but were otherwise deathless and mostly unaging. So many of them are described as being able to shape-shift at will that one must assume they all could. The nobility among them had some mysterious way of traveling vast distances supernaturally quickly. No door or wall or enclosure could keep them out. They were capable of passing among us unseen or unnoticed, observing our behavior; at times when they didn't, they were capable of receiving reports about our behavior from ghosts, from nature spirits, or just from ordinary gossip overheard in their travels. They were interested in us; some of them fatally romantically so. They had their own code of ethics and their own values, they esteemed certain behaviors and personalities more highly than their opposites. They were capable of rewarding behavior they admired, but seldom under any obligation to do so. They were capable of being bound to a conduct of behavior by oaths; the keeping of oaths was very nearly their highest value.

Were these beings the exact same ones who walked among the Greeks about a thousand years ago? Almost certainly not. The names don't match. The physical descriptions don't match. The virtues rewarded don't exactly match. But the similarities fascinate me. And here's the other thing that I find fascinating: the two times when these kinds of beings walked among human beings were during dark ages, and the places were both places where the collapse of civilization left almost everybody in danger of dying out, or at least dying back to only a handful of feral bands. And the places where these beings walked, and the descendants of the people whose virtues they rewarded, became the nucleus of new civilizations: the classical Greeks in ancient times, and the early Irish of the Irish renaissance.

This is running way too long. Three paragraphs from here I wasn't even done explaining why the archaic dark age was so much bigger a deal than the fall of Rome; to get from there to where I wanted to be tonight would have been at least another three or four paragraphs. So I'm cutting it here for tonight. I'll explain what I mean by comparing the Good Neighbors to the gods, and why I think it's significant that the faerie folk and the Greek gods showed up during a dark age, tomorrow.

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?
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