Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Off limits: these theories aren't for debunking (not here, anyway)

Initiation scene at Eleusinian Mysteries. Left: Demeter is shown sitting on the sacred kistē (basket) containing secret initiation paraphernalia. The basket is wound about by a snake. Demeter looks back at Persephone, who is holding a burning torch. Right: thronōsis scene. An initiate, veiled, sits on a ramskin; a priestess, approaching from behind, holds a burning torch close to his hand. (Relief on a Roman-era sarcophagus from Torre Nova; composite image)

Not all modern myths about antiquity come from misunderstandings. People at the centre of the academic discipline, too, sometimes come up with theories that I for one regard as 'myths', in the popular sense of theories that are widely believed but untrue. Some of these people are tenured professors in university departments, surrounded by eminent colleagues.

Sometimes these theories go unrefuted by their peers, in spite of or maybe because of their idiosyncrasies. In these cases, I won't be doing any kind of debunking. This is partly out of professional respect, but mainly because of the limitations of blogs. Even if I am dead sure that these theories are untrue, this isn't the right place to do so -- unless I'm just supporting an existing published refutation. The right place is in the pages of an academic journal. The catch is that writing an academic article is generally a tad harder than debunking myths in a blog, even if some blog posts involve nearly as much work and research.

A debunking in an academic journal requires, or should require, an absolutely masterful command of both the primary evidence and the modern scholarship. Now, for some topics, that's actually achievable in a blog format. For example, I think this post on irrational numbers covers all the relevant testimony in existence, and there won't be any real controversy among specialists in the field. For some topics I have to settle for a lower goal: I can cite ancient testimony about broad beans as well as anyone, but that doesn't mean my coverage of the epidemiology of G6PD deficiency is good enough for a journal. Yet here, again, I don't think there'll be any controversy among scholars of ancient religions.

And then there are topics that are controversial, and which have no dedicated counter-arguments in scholarly journals. (Or at least, not yet.) These are the ones I've decided not to touch.

This policy decision came about after I had already done a fair amount of work on one of the topics I'll mention below. I think I have the broad outline of a compelling debunking of it. But
  • the principal living proponent deserves some professional respect;
  • there is no dedicated debunking of the idea in any academic publication;
  • what would be the point of doing the one and only debunking, if it's in a place that can't realistically be cited by any future studies?
So I won't offer any comment on the following theories. But I will offer them up in their authors' own words. I think they don't have enough support to stand up. You judge them on their own terms, and see what you think:
  • Do you get a sense of what evidence they are relying on? If so, do they deal with that evidence in a balanced fashion, or selectively?
  • What competing theories can you think of? How would you expect the authors to deal with those competing theories?

Drugs at Eleusis

The ancient testimony about Eleusis is unanimous. Eleusis was the supreme experience in an initiate's life. It was both physical and mystical: trembling, vertigo, cold sweat, and then a sight that made all previous seeing seem like blindness, a sense of awe and wonder at a brilliance that caused a profound silence since what had just been seen and felt could never be communicated: words are unequal to the task. Those symptoms are unmistakably the experience induced by an entheogen ...
-- Carl Ruck, Sacred mushrooms of the goddess. Secrets of Eleusis (Berkeley, 2006) p. 14
(Note: the above is rephrased from Wasson, Hofmann, and Ruck, The road to Eleusis: unveiling the secret of the Mysteries (1978), chapter 3, also by Ruck.)

Suggested bibliography:
  • Burkert, W. 1983. Homo necans. The anthropology of ancient Greek sacrificial ritual and myth. U. of California Press. (Orig. publ. in German as Homo necans, 1972.) pp. 265-293.
  • Richardson, N. J. 1974. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 344-348.
  • Sourvinou-Inwood, C. 2003. 'Festival and Mysteries: aspects of the Eleusinian cult.' In: Cosmopoulos, M. B. (ed.). Greek mysteries. The archaeology and ritual of ancient Greek secret cults. London: Routledge. pp. 25-49.
  • Walcot, P. 1979. Review of Wasson et al., The road to Eleusis. Greece & Rome 26: 104.

Fossils and mythical monsters

Herakles (left) fights the monster Kētos (right) to rescue Hesione (centre). (Corinthian black-figure kratēr, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Monsters of Greek myth were perceived in the popular imagination and portrayed by artists either as huge beasts or as giant humans. The artist of the Copenhagen vase has opted for the latter. The Perseus vase and the Copenhagen vase therefore illustrate the two branches of mythical interpretation of monsters. But the unparalleled depiction of the Monster of Troy as a large fossil animal skull on the Boston vase points to a natural basis for the two branches of monster and giant images in art and literature. Here is powerful evidence that fossil remains of prehistoric animals influenced ancient ideas about primeval monsters!
-- Adrienne Mayor, The first fossil hunters. Paleontology in Greek and Roman times (Princeton, 2001) p. 163
Suggested bibliography: I know of none, other than Mayor's own book.

Herakles and Kētos: here, Kētos is depicted as he usually is, as a giant snake's head attached to a fish's body. (Caeretan black-figure vase, Stavros S. Niarchos collection)

The alphabet was invented in order to write down the Iliad

Homer's floruit falls within the first half of the eighth century [BCE]. He is pehaps an exact contemporary of the adapter [of the Phoenician alphabet]. At the very least, he lived within fifty years of the invention of an idiosyncratic writing that cocks the ear to fine distinctions of sound and is used in its earliest remains to record hexametric verse. If the alphabet was fashioned to record the poet Homer and no other, we can account for the coincidence in time. If we believe that the adapter restructured Phoenician writing not in order to record Homer specifically, but in order to record 'hexametric verse in general,' meaning a poet or poets of whose existence and achievement all memory has been lost, we must admit that at the same time, or within a generation and a half at most, the new writing was also used to write down Homer.
-- Barry Powell, Homer and the origin of the Greek alphabet (Cambridge, 1991) p. 221
Suggested bibliography:
  • Graziosi, B. 2002. Inventing Homer. The early reception of epic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 90-98.
  • Svenbro, J. 1993. Phrasikleia. An anthropology of reading in ancient Greece. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. (Orig. publ. in French as Phrasikleia, 1988.) pp. 26-43.
  • Van Wees, H. 1994. 'The Homeric way of war: the Iliad and the hoplite phalanx.' Greece & Rome 41: 1-18 and 131-155, at pp. 138-146.

You too can own a 'Nestor's cup' coffee mug! Only NZD$27.85 plus shipping from Zazzle. Just be aware that line 1 contains a very doubtful supplement.

The Mahābhārata was based on the Iliad

I have, in effect, been attempting to prove that the author(s) of the Mahābhārata, based on their fervor for the Homeric epics and interest in other mythological figures such as Heracles, utilize very diverse Greek sources and put them into play in very versatile and creative ways all throughout their story built around the massacre of the Pāṇḍavas and Kauravas. ... We are not talking about minor details, motifs, or loose elements. The creative genius behind the work is articulated from within an extensive blueprint inspired by the one which underlies the Iliad. Accordingly, those chronological frameworks, situations and characters are changed or inverted at will, and, amongst numerous other possibilities, some stories are embedded in larger, more central ones or components of all sorts are mixed to form fascinating amalgamations.
-- Ferdinand Wulff Alonso, The Mahābhārata and Greek mythology (Delhi, 2014) pp. 446-447
Suggested bibliography:
  • Watkins, C. 1995. How to kill a dragon. Aspects of Indo-European poetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Entire book, but esp. pp. 12-27.
  • West, M. L. 2007. Indo-European poetry and myth. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Entire book, but especially pp. 19-24.
Heroes take part in bow contests to win a bride. Left: Arjuna shoots at a fish's eye to win Draupadi (source: a 19th century edition of the Mahābhārata). Right: Odysseus shoots through twelve axes to win Penelope (source: Ulysses (1954), starring Kirk Douglas).

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