Monday, 29 June 2020

Stripping myths down to a historical core (part 1)

Part 1 | Part 2

In a few weeks the game A Total War Saga: Troy will come out, the latest installment in the long-running Total War series. The game’s director, Maya Georgieva, had this to say about it recently:
[W]e decided to draw from [classical-era Greek legend] — very carefully and concisely, by separating the impossible from the still less probable but feasible, until we could filter out a core that could be at the heart of a great new Total War game. We’re guided and reassured in this by the success of pioneers such as Heinrich Schliemann, who believed that there was substance behind those old tales and went on to prove this by excavating the sites of Troy and Mycenae ...
Maya Georgieva in interview, May 2020 (my emphasis)
A Total War Saga: Troy (2020) uses an ancient technique called ‘euhemerism’ to treat myth as a model of reality. Here, euhemerism takes the form of rationalising the mythical Minotaur as a man wearing a bull’s skull over his face.
There are some important historical concepts here. Do myths really grow from a historical core? Are there ways of stripping away the crust to reveal that core? Can a myth be treated as a historical document, to some extent?

The answers are: not normally, no, and never.

It’s imaginable that a myth might coincide with some things that actually happened. But even in those exceptionally rare situations, the myth isn’t evidence about the historical event. That’s backwards. Evidence is always external — archaeology, or historical linguistics, or documentary records. Without those things, a myth is just a myth.

As a game, Total War: Troy has no obligation to be rigorous. Verisimilitude is fine. No complaint. This verisimilitude is based on popular understandings of the relationship between the subject matter and actual history. But ‘popular understandings’ is the key phrase. My concern here is about two big misconceptions at the heart of the popular understanding:
  • The idea that there’s a historical core there to filter out.
  • The idea that Schliemann proved there was substance to a legend.
Today we’ll deal with the second one, because it’s more concrete.
Troy never needed to be ‘proved’, until 1791, when a debate temporarily obscured its location. Left: a coin from Ilium dating to ca. 165–150 BCE, inscribed ‘of Athena Ilias’: Ilium’s main civic cult was devoted to Athena. Right: a coin from Sigeium, dating to ca. 350–300 BCE, also showing Athena. Sigeium, on the west coast, was where ancient tourists could visit Achilles’ supposed gravesite.

Part 1. ‘The place is real, therefore so is the myth’

The first idea is that Schliemann’s excavation proved a legend true. All it really proves is that Heinrich Schliemann was good at PR.

It isn’t exactly unusual for a myth to be set in a real place. Troy is real? Fine! Lerna is real too, but that doesn’t mean Heracles is real and that he actually fought the Lernaean Hydra there. Nottingham is real, but that doesn’t mean Robin Hood is real. New York is real, but that doesn’t mean King Kong, Sesame Street, and the Avengers are real.

That, in a nutshell, is my response to the misconception about Schliemann.

But let’s carry on a bit: the fallacy is especially glaring, because Schliemann didn’t even discover Troy. He obfuscated a real debate. Troy was never lost.

An awful lot of people assume Ilium (to give it its strict name) was an empty hilltop from the Bronze Age until Schliemann ‘discovered’ it in the 1870s. It wasn’t. It was a sizeable city from the 700s BCE until around 500 CE, and it wasn’t abandoned until close to the 1300s. The city was in the northwest corner of Anatolia. Its citadel, or upper city, was on a hill that is now called Hisarlık, but the lower city sprawled far beyond that. There is precisely zero doubt about any of this.

Ancient people were mostly happy to regard their Ilium as the setting of the Iliad, in the same way that New York is the setting for The Avengers. Today, if you want to be a Robin Hood tourist, you’ll visit the real Nottingham: Ilium was like that for the classical Greeks. It was a tourist hotspot, visited by the likes of Xerxes, Alexander, and Scipio. As late as 1463 Sultan Mehmed II toured the ruins and the supposed gravesites of Achilles, Patroclus, and Antilochus on the coast.

But in the 1790s a debate arose, based on an alternate tradition. The 1st century geographical writer Strabo had accepted a theory that Ilium moved around a bit over the ages. Strabo thought ‘ancient Ilium’ had been a few kilometres further inland. In 1785 a French diplomatic aide named Jean-Baptiste Le Chevalier visited, armed with a copy of Strabo, and he decided that Strabo’s ‘ancient Ilium’ was on a hill next to the modern village of Pınarbaşı.

We now know that Strabo and Le Chevalier were wrong, but the argument carried on for a few decades. Ilium itself wasn’t lost. But there was a genuine doubt, at least among western Europeans, that classical Ilium was the same place as ‘Homer’s Ilios’, the fictionalised city in the Iliad. Troy was only really ‘lost’ from 1791 until 1822.

Then in the 1870s Schliemann came along. And somehow everyone got the idea that before him, no one had believed Ilium ever even existed.

The thing Schliemann really proved was that Strabo was wrong: the city hadn’t moved around, it stayed in one spot. But the impression everyone got was that he had discovered Ilium itself, out of thin air. Schliemann didn’t work hard to avoid this misconception. And, worse, he did work hard to conflate the pre-classical historical city with the city where the Iliad was set.

‘Homeric Troy’ is a slippery phrase. It gets used to mean three distinct things: the real Bronze Age city; the real city at the tme the Iliad was composed, which Homer might in principle have visited; and the city depicted in the Iliad. Schliemann exploited that confusion.

Schliemann succeeded in refuting Strabo, and that success got people thinking he was also right about blurring the lines between history and the Iliad — between the different ‘Homeric Troys’. But that isn’t right. It makes no more sense than finding out Hamelin is a real place, then thinking that means the Pied Piper story must have a historical core.
Strabo’s preferred site was a village ca. 5.5 km away (30 stadia), in the direction of Mount Ida/Kaz, that is to say, at a bearing of 119° from classical Ilium. This would imply a spot near the E87 road, about 3 km north of Taştepe. Le Chevalier got the site of classical Ilium wrong — he put it much closer to the coast, 5 km northwest of the actual site — and he put Strabo’s ‘ancient Ilium’ at Pınarbaşı, nearly 14 km from where he thought classical Ilium was.

Timeline: Hisarlık vs. Pınarbaşı

  • ca. 20. Strabo, Geography 13.1.35, reports a claim that ‘ancient Ilium’ was 30 stadia inland from the classical city.
  • 1740. Richard Pococke states that Troy was buried underneath classical Ilium.
  • 1769. Robert Wood, after visiting the Troad in 1750, notes that Homer’s descriptions don’t match the real topography.
  • 1791. Jean-Baptiste Le Chevalier, after examining the area in 1785, argues that Homer’s Troy was at a hill on the south side of the village of ‘Bunarbashi’, and that classical Ilium was just a stone’s throw from the coast, at the mouth of the Scamander (modern Menderes). He accepts Strabo’s idea that the site had moved over time, but rejects most of Strabo’s details, in the belief that he had a poor understanding of the topography.
  • 1795. Jacob Bryant criticises Le Chevalier’s argument, mainly using Homeric references. The argument continues in subsequent years, with Le Chevalier backed up by his former boss, Choiseul-Gouffier.
  • 1801. Edward Daniel Clarke visits the Troad and correctly identifies Hisarlık as (part of) classical Ilium.
  • 1822. Charles Maclaren argues that both ‘the Ilium of Homer’ and classical Ilium were at Hisarlık.
  • 1842. P. W. Forchhammer writes a survey labellng Hisarlık as ‘New Ilium’ (Ilium Novum), Pınarbaşı as ‘Troy, or Old Ilium’ (Troja vel Ilium Vetus), and labels Strabo’s preferred site separately in the hills south of Dümrek.
  • 1850s. John Brunton excavates at Hisarlık and finds a column capital and a Roman mosaic.
  • 1862. Frank Calvert, after investigating Hisarlık and Pınarbaşı, opts for Hisarlık.
  • 1864. Johann Georg von Hahn, an Austrian consul, excavates at Pınarbaşı and finds ‘nothing but the natural soil.’
  • 1865. Calvert excavates at Hisarlık and finds parts of a temple and a wall.
  • 1868. Heinrich Schliemann arrives in the Troad and investigates Pınarbaşı, until Calvert persuades him that Hisarlık is the correct spot.
  • 1871, Schliemann starts uncovering evidence of a Bronze Age city under the classical city, proving Strabo (and Le Chevalier) wrong.
For more details see Rachel B. Davies, Troy, Carthage and the Victorians. The drama of classical ruins in the nineteenth-century imagination (Cambridge, 2018), 67–74 on the 19th century ‘battle of Bunarbashi’.

Next time: Euhemerus, Phlegon of Tralles, and Lara Croft.


  1. Thank you so much for writing this!

    I often tell people that there are three approaches to mythological interpretation that I absolutely despise. The first is the "Euhemeristic approach," where the interpreter starts out with the assumption that every myth must ultimately be rooted in some kind of historical reality and then seeks to find the "truth" behind a myth without first providing any evidence that there is a historical basis behind that myth to begin with.

    The second approach is the "Campbellian approach," where the interpreter starts out with the assumption that all myths are fundamentally the same and then focuses on vague and largely meaningless similarities between myths from different cultures without paying any attention to the particular details of individual stories or how stories are shaped by cultural context.

    The third approach is the "Freudian approach," where the interpreter starts out with the assumption that all myths are really about Freudianism and then tries to tailor all myths to fit Freudian theory without paying any attention to they are interpreted by the people who originally told them. This approach invariably ends up telling us a lot more about the interpreter than about the myths being interpreted.

    The thing that all these approaches have in common is that they all start out with an assumption and then tailor the evidence to fit that assumption, rather than starting out with the evidence and basing their conclusions on the evidence.

    There are some factors here that make Maya Georgieva's claim that the makers of A Total War Saga: Troy have somehow "filtered" the Trojan War legend down to a historical "core" particularly laughable.

    As it happens, I myself wrote an article back in January, right after the trailer for the game came out, in which I note that the trailer contains a scene in which Achilles marches up to the gates of Troy and demands for Hektor to come out and face him—except no such scene ever occurs in the Iliad or in any other ancient Greek text. The scene actually comes from the 2004 film Troy!

    Evidently, the "filter" that the makers of the game ran their sources through wasn't working very well...

  2. Hello from Greece,
    Is it not fascinating when scientific research comes so much later to verify poor old Homer..?
    You might find this interesting, if you do not already know about it :

    Have a nice day !