Sunday 23 January 2022

The chronology of Greek myth

Is it possible to build a chronology of Greek mythology? Yes, kind of. It’s hopeless to expect full internal consistency, though.

We see different traditions in different parts of the Greek world, and they’re often incompatible with each other. In some traditions, the first mortal to be created was Pandora, and the first mortal couple were Deukalion and Pyrrha. But in Argos, the first mortal man was Phoroneus, the son of the water divinities Inachos and Melia.

A vision of the mythical Heroic Age according to Walter Leaf’s 1900–1902 edition of the Iliad

For some parts of the world, the important mortals in the earliest phase of Greek legend were Agenor and Belos, supposedly early kings of Phoenicia and Egypt. But elsewhere the most important ancestral figure was Hellen, who gave his name to the Hellenes (the Greeks), and his children and grandchildren Aiolos, Doros, Ion, and Achaios, who gave their names to Greek ethnic groups: the Aiolians, Dorians, Ionians, and Achaians.

And while most family trees go back to divinities, some go back much further than others. Herakles’ family tree goes back thirteen generations to the divinities Inachos and Melia (twelve, if you stop at Io); Achilles’ goes back only three, to Zeus and Aigina.

The big picture

Ancient Greek writers paint a picture where there’s a gradual transition from the heroic age to the contemporary world: a gradient from purely legendary material, to material that looks more like history. In mainstream myth this gradient looks something like:

Cosmogonic Age myths about gods only; creation of cosmos; Titans, Typhoeus, etc.; establishment of Olympian pantheon
Heroic Age legendary heroes and wars; Perseus, Herakles, etc.; ends with Trojan War
Migration Age transitional period to explain differences between the Heroic Age and the ethnography of the contemporary world: migrations of Dorian, Ionian, Achaian, and Aiolian peoples
Colonial Age mythologised events which may potentially have a genuine historical kernel: some 8th–6th century wars; legendary lawgivers; ancestors of aristocratic families; increased interest in wider colonial world
Historical Age historical settings; events that may have actually taken place similarly to how they appear in extant sources

It’s the ‘Heroic Age’ that gets the most attention. The Theban Wars, the Trojan War, Herakles, Perseus, Jason and the Argonauts: they all belong in that timeframe.

But beware: the word ‘timeframe’ is a trap. These Ages aren’t real historical periods, they’re how classical-era Greeks imagined the past. The mythical Heroic Age isn’t a real historical period any more than the Cosmogonic Age is.

Even in the Colonial Age, it’s hard to be sure that myths have any resemblance to historical reality. No modern scholars think there’s anything real about the First Messenian War (even though the Wikipedia article in my link gives no hint that it’s pure fiction!). Conversely, many scholars suspect that the Lelantine War in Euboia was real, though it’s far from certain. And then there’s the founding of Cyrene, in what is now Libya. It’s possible that most of the story is fictional, but still, there’s no doubt that Greek colonists really did found a city there in the 600s BCE.

The actual historical period of early colonisation, roughly 800–500 BCE, had an impact on Greek myth beyond providing the setting for Colonial Age myths. It caused the wider colonial world to be incorporated into legends of the Heroic Age too. Any time we see a legend set in Italy, the Black Sea, the Maghreb, or the Atlantic, it must be during that real historical period that the legends were either invented, or transplanted to those geographical settings.

Recently we looked at the setting of the Medusa story in the western Maghreb and/or the Atlantic. Where did the Greeks imagine Medusa lived, before the historical colonisation period? Or did they not devise the legend until that time? We don’t know. Where did the Greeks imagine the Argonauts travelled to, in the time before Greek colonies began springing up around the Black Sea? Where did they think Odysseus had his wanderings, before Greek colonies sprang up in Italy? We don’t know.

The chronology of the Heroic Age

The Heroic Age is an entirely fictional setting, so don’t go expecting too much internal consistency. Take the example of the Dorians, a subethnicity of the Hellenes (Greeks). Many groups around the Peloponnesos, Crete, and the south-east Aegean identified as Dorians.

The Spartans believed the Dorians came from central Greece to the Peloponnesos along with the Heracleids, 80 years after the end of the Trojan War. The Cretans thought the Dorians came there from the Peloponnesos with Doros’ son Tektamos, four generations before the Trojan War. Hesiod claims that the namesake of the Dorians, Doros, married his daughter to the Argive hero Phoroneus — but in Argos, Phoroneus was considered to be the first mortal man. We have at least three chronological contexts for the myth of Dorians coming to southern Greece.

Similarly, the exact length of the Heroic Age varies depending where you look. The timeline is framed around individual heroes’ genealogies. Here are two branches of the family tree descended from Io, her son Epaphos, and her granddaughter Libya (Libya is the mythical namesake of ‘Libya’, the ancient Greek name for the Maghreb, that is to say northern Africa):

  • In Herakles’ genealogy, there are 11 generations from Libya to the Trojan War. Herakles’ son Tlepolemos, a half-brother of Hyllos, appears in the Iliad as the leader of the Rhodian contingent. From Hyllos there are 3 more generations to the Dorian invasion.
  • By contrast the genealogy of Idomeneus, who appears in the Iliad as the leader of the Cretan contingent, has 5 or 6 generations to the Trojan War.
The genealogies of Herakles (left) and Idomeneus (right), descended from the brothers Belos and Agenor, the primordial kings of Phoenicia and Egypt respectively. This genealogy omits siblings. Divinities have their names in blue. Europa is the daughter of Phoinix according to Homer; later authors make her the daughter of Agenor.

A five generation discrepancy is pretty drastic, but these generations were never designed to be part of a coherent timeline. Hellenistic- and Roman-era mythographers did often try to take a more systematic approach to mythical genealogies. My point isn’t that they failed, it’s that their goal was artificial. This isn't a system. It's a muddle of variant myths from different times and places.

It is fun, though. Just as another taster, here’s three genealogies which, when you combine them, results in a six generation discrepancy for when the Trojan War takes place. These are the family trees of Phoroneus, the first mortal man in Argive myth (left); Hellen, the eponymous ancestor of the Hellenes (top); and the house of Atreus (bottom right).

The family trees of Phoroneus (left), Hellen (top), and the Atreids (bottom right). Names of divinities are in blue.

Now, of course, this mash-up is built by cherry-picking genealogical chunks from different places. The story that Phoroneus married Doros’ daughter appears in only one ancient source, the Hesiodic Catalogue of women (fr. 11 ed. Most). Pelasgos, Phoroneus’ grandson, comes from the fragments of Akousilaos of Argos (FGrHist 2 F 25a, F 25b). And the story that Pelops murdered the Arkadian hero Stymphalos comes from yet another source, the Library of pseudo-Apollodoros (3.12.6).

There’s no objective timeline. But there are chunks of timelines. The duration of the Heroic Age can extend anywhere from seven to thirteen generations, depending on where you look. And that’s enough genealogical space to accommodate any hero you want.

The Myth of the Races

I haven’t said anything about how the Heroic Age fits into the Hesiodic ‘Myth of the Races’, which appears in Works and days lines 106-201. That’s because the Myth of the Races is a totally different way of imagining the past.

The model I’ve been outlining so far is the framework that houses actual mythical stories. The Myth of the Races isn't a framework at all: it’s a parable. Hesiod has added a new element to the traditional format, the ‘Race of Heroes’, but that’s his only gesture at the Heroic Age. No one ever envisioned cosmogonic myths or migration legends in terms of the Myth of the Races. Hesiod doesn’t try that either.

Here’s how the Hesiodic version begins (tr. Glenn Most):

If you wish, I shall recapitulate another story,
correctly and skillfully, and you lay it up in your spirit:
how the gods and mortal human beings came about from the same origin.
Golden was the race of speech-endowed human beings
which the immortals, who have their mansions on Olympus, made first of all.
They lived at the time of Cronus, when he was king in the sky ...

Hesiod describes the Golden Race, who live with no toil, no care, and no old age; a Silver Race who spend a hundred years as a small child, then skip over adulthood to hit old age as soon as they reach adolescence; a Bronze Race who are violent, have massive bronze limbs with hands sticking straight of their bodies, and who have only bronze tools and no iron; a Race of Heroes who wage wars — Hesiod specifies the Theban Wars and the Trojan War — and who dwell on the Islands of the Blest; and an Iron Race, the present race, whose lives are full of suffering, and who will end in misery one day when babies are born with grey hair, sons fight against fathers, and injustice and envy rule the day.

In the mythical timeline we looked at above, the Golden Race could arguably have a place if we were to imagine them living in the Cosmogonic Age. The Iron Age might make sense as a depressing view of history since the Trojan War. But there’s no space in Greek myth for the Silver and Bronze Races.

That’s because the Myth of the Races was never designed as a framework for Greek mythology. Rather, it’s an independent trope, borrowed from older Near Eastern models. The earliest evidence of the ages = metals trope comes from Bronze Age Sumerian texts: the An = Anum god list, and the Lagash king list. The latter, dating to around the 18th century BCE, describes the period just after the Flood as follows (tr. J. A. Black):

In those days a child spent a hundred years in [?nappies?],
spent a hundred years in his rearing.
He was not made to perform (any) assigned tasks.
He was small, he was feeble/stupid, he was [with] his mother.

Here we don’t yet have any links drawn between metals and races, but it's extraordinarily close to how Hesiod describes the Silver Race.

From there, and presumably other contexts that are long since lost to us, the parable found its way into a range of later poetic and literary texts: the most detailed later ones are

  • the Hebrew book of Daniel (2nd century BCE), 2.31–45, which describes a vision of a statue made of gold, silver, bronze, iron, and mixed iron and clay, representing historical kings or dynasties;
  • the Iranian Avesta (ca. 3rd–7th century CE) has a bit where Zoroaster sees ‘a tree with four branches of gold, silver, steel, and iron ore ... and Ahura Mazda explained to him that they were the ages of the world’;
  • there‘s a possible echo in the Indic Mahabharata and Laws of Manu, where eras are associated with die rolls, not metals, but the progressive degradation is similar to the other examples: ‘In the last age the law is ended, crops fail, sickness is rife. Men father children at the age of ten and are grey-haired at sixteen ...’

For further information on these parallels, how the Hesiodic version relates to them, and for source citations of the Sumerian, Iranian, and Indian quotations, see M. L. West, The east face of Helicon (Oxford, 1997), 312–319.

The Hesiodic version has the same overall sense: starting out in idyllic bliss and immortality, and each new race is worse than the last, until the last one ends in suffering and people dying young. The big difference is the Race of Heroes, which is a step up from the Silver and Bronze Races.

It’s pretty clear why: the Race of Heroes wasn’t originally part of the Myth of the Races. It’s an innovation, inserted just before the final race, that is, before the time of the now. And Hesiod has inserted it specifically in order to accommodate mainstream Greek myth and the Heroic Age.

There are other Greek versions of the Myth of the Races, and the scholarship on this subject is too extensive to sum up in a few sentences. Parts of the parable may go all the way back to Sumerian models, but there’s one element in the Greek, Hebrew, and Iranian versions that suggests that the parable as a whole has a more recent origin: namely, iron. Iron was in use before the end of the Bronze Age, but not in great quantity. It took time to develop the technology of smelting it. It seems likely to me that the parable as a whole ought to be later than the development of widespread iron smelting. That doesn’t rule out the possibility of older versions. But as things stand, Hesiod’s version is the oldest complete Myth of the Races that we have.

Tuesday 11 January 2022

Medusa in Libya

Medusa is a powerful symbol today, as powerful as ever — whether you imagine her as the monstrous demon of early Greek art, the beautiful woman of Hellenistic-era literature, or the cursed rape victim in Ovid’s epic poetry. More recently she has appeared as a stop-motion monster (Clash of the Titans, 1981); a woman embittered in old age (Percy Jackson, 2005); an adorable floating head (Hades, 2020).

And sometimes she has also become an afrocentrist symbol. You may have heard that Medusa was originally a Libyan goddess — or alternatively, that the Greek myth of Medusa was designed to demonise black women.

Late antique mosaic of Medusa from Hadrumetum, Tunisia (Sousse Archaeological Museum)

What’s the historical low-down? Well, in an important sense it doesn’t matter. Whether or not Medusa was African in the 7th century BCE, that doesn’t determine whether she’s African now. Myth evolves. Aeneas didn’t originate in Roman myth, but he’s still an important part of Roman myth. Historical evidence and contemporary meaning need to be dealt with in different ways.

Well, did Medusa start out as Greek, or not?

The short answer is yes, she was invented by Greeks. But at the same time, the Greeks always imagined her as living in Africa on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. In the very earliest sources, she lived on an island in the Atlantic.

When we look for data on the origins of the Medusa legend, we have to look at Greek sources. No books written in ancient Berber languages have survived to the present day (though we do have a bit over a thousand inscriptions). Here’s the earliest source, composed around 700 BCE:

... and the Gorgons who dwell beyond glorious Ocean
at the edge towards the night, where the clear-voiced Hesperides are:
Sthenno and Euryale, and Medusa who suffered woes.
She was mortal, but the others are immortal and ageless,
the two of them: with her alone the dark-haired one [Poseidon] lay down
in a soft meadow among spring flowers.
When Perseus cut her head off from her neck,
great Chrysaor and the horse Pegasus sprang forth ...
Hesiodic Theogony 274–281 (tr. Most)

Most of our geographical information comes from ancient stories about Perseus. Perseus had foolishly promised that he would provide the Gorgon’s head as a gift, and Polydectes, king of Seriphos, held him to his word. Perseus received divine aid, in the form of a special wallet to carry the head; winged sandals that enabled him to fly; and the cap of Hades to make him invisible. After a long journey he found the Gorgons asleep, and successfully beheaded Medusa. A Roman-era mythographic text describes the Gorgons as follows:

The Gorgons’ heads had hair intertwined with dragons’ scales, and enormous tusks like boars, and bronze arms, and gold wings with which they could fly. And they turned anyone that saw them to stone.
pseudo-Apollodorus, Library 2.4.2

Perseus escaped from the other two Gorgons using the cap of Hades. On his way back to Greece he paused in the Maghreb and turned the Titan Atlas to stone. And that is why we have the Atlas Mountains in Morocco and Algeria.

Medusa as portrayed in Clash of the Titans. Left: the 1981 film, with stop-motion animation by Ray Harryhausen. Right: the 2010 remake, with computer generated imagery.

Other details appear in different sources: Medusa was originally a beautiful woman who was transformed; she remained beautiful (but deadly) after her transformation; she was a rape victim, and cursed by Athena; her head was set on the shield of Athena; and so on. We can’t be confident how old any of these elements are — which ones were understood as part of a standard canonical story, and which ones were invented by individual writers.

The names are the clearest indication that the story has Greek origins. Ancient Greek names are normally built out of meaningful Greek words. Medusa and her family are no exception.

  • Medusa (Greek Médousa, Μέδουσα) is a feminine participle of the Greek verb μέδω: μέδουσα ‘guarding, governing’. The name has several parallels in Greek culture: two other mythological characters called Medusa (a daughter of Priam, ps.-Apollodorus 3.12.5, Pausanias 10.26.1; a daughter of Sthenelus, ps.-Apollodorus 2.4.5), and the masculine form Médōn, a character in Homer (Iliad 2.727, etc.).
  • Sthenno and Euryale, her sisters (Sthennṓ Σθεννώ, Euruálē Εὐρυάλη). ‘Sthenno’ comes from Greek σθένος ‘strength’; note the masculine parallels Sthénnios, Sthénon. ‘Eury-ale’ comes from εὐρύς ‘wide’ plus ἁλ- ‘sea’: note the masculine form Eurúalos, another Homeric character (also Anchíalos ‘next to the sea’, Amphíalos ‘sea-surrounded’, etc.).
  • Phorcys and Ceto, the sea divinities who are their parents (Phórkus Φόρκυς, Kētṓ Κητώ). ‘Phorcys’ comes from Greek φορκός ‘white, grey’ (Greek poetry regularly refers to sea foam as white). ‘Ceto’ comes from κῆτος ‘sea monster, whale’.
  • Gorgo(n) (Gorgṓ Γοργώ or Górgōn Γόργων) comes from Greek gorgṓps γοργώψ ‘rapid faced, grim faced’, a word that Sophocles uses to describe the goddess Athena.
‘Dusa’ wielding a feather-duster: Hades (2020; art direction by Jen Zee)

How did Medusa come to be Libyan, then?

‘Libya’ is a very misunderstood name. When ancient Greek writers say ‘Libya’, they don’t mean the modern country. Libúē (Λιβύη) was the ancient Greek name for the entirety of the Maghreb, that is, northern Africa all the way from the Strait of Gibraltar to what is now western Egypt. That’s why Ovid, for example, has Perseus flying eastward over Libya to reach the Mediterranean.

Ancient sources do indeed put Medusa in or near northern Africa. It’s just that if they’re thinking of a real place, it’s Morocco, not Libya.

Here’s a run-down of where ancient sources placed the Gorgons.

Source Date Medusa’s location
Hesiodic Theogony 274–281 ca. 700 BCE ‘beyond the Ocean, at the edge of night’, in the same region as the Hesperides (‘nymphs of the west’)
Cypria fr. 30 ed. West 600s/500s BCE ‘Sarpedon’, an island in the Ocean
Pindar, Olympian ode 10.44–48 476 BCE in or near Hyperborea
Pherecydes fr. 11 ed. Fowler (= FGrHist 3 F 11) mid-400s BCE Ocean
Herodotus, Histories 2.91 420s BCE Africa (‘Libya’)
pseudo-Apollodorus, Library 2.4.2–3 1st cent. BCE? Ocean
Ovid, Metamorphoses 4.612–620, 4.769–803 8 CE three days’ flight (for Perseus) west of the Atlas Mountains
Lucan, Civil war 9.619–699 60s CE border of Africa (‘Libya’), by the Ocean
Note. Relevant excerpts from each source:
  • Hesiod: ‘and the Gorgons, who dwell beyond famous Ocean, at the edge of night where the clear-voiced Hesperides are’ (Γοργούς θ’, αἳ ναίουσι πέρην κλυτοῦ Ὀκεανοῖο / ἐσχατιῇ πρὸς νυκτός, ἳν’ Ἑσπερίδες λιγύφωνοι)
  • Cypria: ‘the Gorgons ... who dwelt on Sarpedon, a rocky island in the deep-swirling Ocean’ (Γοργόνας ... / αἳ Σαρπηδόνα ναῖον ἐπ’ Ὠκεανῷ βαθυδίνῃ, / νῆσον πετρήεσσαν)
  • Pindar: Perseus came ‘to the land of the blessed [Hyperboreans], and he slew the Gorgon’ (ἐς Ὑπερβορέων ἀγῶνα ... ἐς ἀνδρῶν μακάρων ὅμιλον· ἔπεφνεν τε Γοργόνα)
  • Pherecydes: ‘flying, he came to the Ocean and the Gorgons’ (ἔρχεται πετόμενος πρὸς τὸν Ὠκεανὸν καὶ τὰς Γοργόνας)
  • Herodotus: ‘he brought from Libya the Gorgon’s head’ (οἴσοντα ἐκ Λιβύης τὴν Γοργοῦς κεφαλήν)
  • Ovid: ‘three times he saw the stars of the Bear ... and as day ended ... he landed in the western Mediterranean, in the realm of Atlas’ (ter gelidas arctos ... vidit / ... iamque cadente die ... / constitit Hesperio, regnis Atlantis, in orbe)
  • Lucan: ‘at the farthest edges of Libya, where the hot land welcomes the Ocean’ (finibus extremis Libyes, ubi fervida tellus / accipit Oceanum)
Northern Africa with modern names and borders (top), and with ancient Greek names (bottom).

The ancient Greco-Roman imagination gradually shifted the Gorgons’ home, from an island in the Atlantic, eastwards to the African mainland: perhaps in Morocco, perhaps at the Strait of Gibraltar. In 2019 a fragmentary archaic Greek carving of a Gorgon’s head, or Gorgoneion, was found in Gibraltar itself deep inside Gorham’s Cave.

The Cypria’s island of ‘Sarpedon’ may be purely imaginary — though I do wonder if it may reflect a very early awareness of the Canary Islands (just over 100 km from the mainland, and inhabited in antiquity, most likely by Berber people). Stesichorus (500s BCE) also mentions the ‘Sarpedonian island’ in connection with the story of Chrysaor, who sprang from Medusa’s neck after she was beheaded. (Pindar puts the Gorgons in or near Hyperborea, a fictional place in the far north. We can leave that aside: Hyperborea was sometimes imagined as being in northern Ukraine, or to the north of the Caspian Sea.)

Note. Stesichorus: Geryoneis fr. 6 ed. Davies and Finglass = PMG suppl. fr. 86.

Herodotus is responsible for much of the misunderstanding over Medusa being ‘Libyan’. He identifies the Greek Perseus with an Egyptian cult in the city of Chemmis, and writes as if all of Libya and Egypt are in the same direction from Greece:

(The Egyptians) actively avoid practising Greek customs ... but there is a great city in the nome of Thebes called Chemmis ... and in this city is a square shrine of Perseus, son of Danae. ... [The Chemmites claim that Perseus] came to Egypt for the same reason that the Greeks say, to bring the Gorgon’s head from Libúē. They said that he came to their city too and acknowledged his relatives there ...
Herodotus 2.91 (tr. Gainsford)

Herodotus always calls Egyptian divinities by Greek names, when he can. When he describes a festival of Osiris at Siwa, for example, he calls the god ‘Dionysus’, because of some minor parallels with Greek Dionysiac festivals (2.47–49). He goes on to express an opinion that most Greek gods’ names originally came from Egypt (2.50).

Translating names in this way is called interpretatio graeca. Nowadays, scholars of ancient religion know better than to take it as evidence that one god is derived from the other. Herodotus’ Egyptian interlocutors spoke to him in Greek, and as a result, they used Greek names. That’s clear from his description of the ethnic mix at Siwa (2.43): he tells us that the people there were a mix of ‘colonists from Egypt and Ethiopia, and they customarily use speech that is in between both.’ He was well aware of ethnic differences between Siwa and the Nile valley, but interpreted them in terms that were familiar to him. Nowadays Siwa is mostly Berber.

Herodotus gives us valuable data, but he’s no authority in interpreting the data. He’s entirely wrong about Greek gods’ names, for example: we know now that they’re mostly Indo-European. The leading candidate for the Egyptian deity at Chemmis that he calls ‘Perseus’ is Horus. There was a myth at nearby Antaeopolis that Horus made a pair of sandals from the hide of Seth; Perseus’ flying sandals would have made an obvious parallel. (See further Lloyd 1994: 367–369.)

A glance at a map, and a review of the other ancient sources on Medusa, makes the situation totally clear. The Perseus legend didn’t originate in Chemmis; Medusa and the Gorgons didn’t originate in the modern territory of Libya. The Gorgons were in the far west.

And, incidentally, Gorgon snake hair in Morocco certainly isn’t derived from Maasai dreadlocks in Kenya. (Yes, I’ve seen this claimed.)

Left: a Gorgoneion or Gorgon’s head on a hydria from Attica, Greece, ca. 490 BCE (British Museum 1867,0508.1048). Right: a reconstruction of the Gibraltar Gorgoneion, found in Gorham’s Cave in 2019 (Gibraltar National Museum; source: Gibraltar Chronicle, 19 May 2021)

Is Medusa African nowadays?

As I said at the start, it’s entirely a matter of what people want. If Medusa is African at all, she’s going to be Berber. So if Berber people want Medusa to be Berber, then yes, she’s Berber.

But it does seem to me that it isn’t Berber people who want to claim Medusa. When people do claim that she’s an African divinity, or an African symbol, it generally seems to be in the context of framing ethnicity in terms of ‘black’ and ‘white’.

The story of Medusa was created by Greek society to demonize black women, specifically those involved in traditionally African spiritual practices, with the hopes of discouraging race mixing with the genetically dominant melanated masses and maintain white genetic survival.
Jason Williams, ‘The story of Medusa is about European fear of African spirituality, melanin and black women with power’, 2019

This framework slots all European and African people into either ‘black’ or ‘white’ pigeonholes. Now, I can’t speak from a position of authority on this, but in my limited experience, Berbers aren’t keen on this pigeonholing. The pigeonholes aren’t designed with Berber people in mind — even though Berbers are regularly pigeonholed as ‘black’ by both white supremacists and black afrocentrists.

‘White’ and ‘black’, as a taxonomy of race, are inventions of the modern era. Ancient people were racist too, but they tended to think of ethnicity in terms of homeland, language, clothing, religion, and other customs, all in a bundle. An Ionian Greek city could change its ethnicity by changing its dialect and clothing styles. Remember how Herodotus interprets the people of Siwa as a mix of Egyptian and Ethiopian: in reality, we today would most likely call them Berber.

‘Berber’ itself isn’t a grouping by skin colour, it originated as a linguistic grouping. Berbers are people that speak one of the Berber group of languages — Tamazight, Shawiya, Tuareg, and so on. Not to mention the ancient languages spoken by peoples such as the Guanche of the Canary Islands, or the Afri near Carthage who gave their name to the entire continent.

Anthropologists and historians regularly tell us, in fact, that ‘Berber’ as an overarching ethnic category is a comparatively recent phenomenon. It’s partly the doing of Arab invaders in the mediaeval period; partly the doing of 20th century French colonial strategy in Morocco and Algeria, casting ‘Berber’ and ‘Arab’ as non-overlapping categories so as to divide and conquer — ‘to foster strong Berber support for the French presence’ (Moore 1974: 384; see also, in much greater detail, Rouighi 2019a, esp. 133–163; 2019b). Even the name ‘Berber’ is generally thought to be an imposition from the Latin language — either directly, from Latin barbarus, or indirectly, via mediaeval Arabic بربر.

It’s entirely up to Berber people to decide whether Medusa is African today. I can’t read Tamazight or Arabic, so I’m not ideally placed to say what the prevailing mood is. I haven’t found any Berber sources that incorporate her into Berber iconography or culture. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. And either way, she can still become Berber any time.

References and further reading

  • Lloyd, A. B. 1994. Herodotus book II. Commentary 1–98, 2nd edition. Leiden.
  • McDaniel, S. 2020. ‘Where does the myth of Medusa come from?’ Tales of Times Forgotten, Oct. 2020.
  • Moore, C. H. 1974. ‘The Berber myth and Arab realities.’ Government and opposition 9.3: 384–394. [JSTOR link]
  • Rouighi, R. 2019a. Inventing the Berbers. History and ideology in the Maghrib. Philadelphia.
  • Rouighi, R. 2019b. ‘How the West made Arabs and Berbers into races.’ Aeon 18 Sep. 2019.