Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

August 31, 2018

The gray moral world of the Greeks

Filed under: Iliad,Myth — Razib Khan @ 7:02 pm

Listening to the Ancient Greece Declassified podcast on The Iliad was very interesting. As some readers know, I came across Greek mythology as a child. Though I began with Bulfinch’s Mythology, I did not stop there. Soon enough I moved beyond the juvenile material, and read darker, more violent and sexual material that to be entirely frank I was not prepared to comprehend.

Of course, Greek myths are not the only literature from the ancient world which contains adult material. Jonathan Kirsch’s The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible highlights those stories passed down from Hebrew tradition which is perhaps glossed over. The young David’s defeat of the giant Goliath is known to all schoolchildren. Less well publicized to the religiously illiterate American public is his adultery with Bathsheba (though obviously more observant people are quite aware of this aspect of his biography).

In the podcast above there is extensive discussion of the fact that the Trojans are not depicted as evil in The Iliad. As someone who came to maturity at the end of the 20th century, this struck me as somewhat strange as a child. I grew up on a diet of films about evil Nazi and Communist adversaries. The game of great powers for me was also fundamentally a moral one. We were the good guys. They were the bad guys.

In reading The Iliad it was difficult for me to understand why the Trojans were often depicted as such noble characters. And it wasn’t clear that the Greeks were good and moral. I particularly recall the vicious brutality of Neoptolemus, Achilles’ son.

This comes to mind because of late because due to the popularity of George R. R. Martin’s work there has been a rise in popularity of gritty and morally gray works of speculative fiction. And when I read histories of World War I, it is also not entirely clearly to me that the Central Powers were truly malevolent and dark forces. I do wonder if the second half of the 20th century was a world of particular blacks an whites, of an almost Manichaean vision of conflict which emerged out of World War II, and continued with the rise of global Communism.

June 20, 2010

“Here be dragons”

Filed under: Folk,Human Evolution,Myth,Paleoanthropology — Razib Khan @ 8:21 am

I just stumbled onto two amusing articles, Ancient legends once walked among early humans?, and The discovery of material evidence of a distinct hominin lineage in Central Asia as recently as 30,000 years ago is no surprise. The second is a letter from a folklorist:

Sir, The discovery of material evidence of a distinct hominin lineage in Central Asia as recently as 30,000 years ago (report, Mar 25) does not come as a surprise to those who have looked at the historical and anecdotal evidence of “wild people” inhabiting the region. The evidence stretches from Herodotus to the present day. The Russian historian Boris Porshnev suggested that they are relict Neanderthals, although the lack of evidence of material culture suggests a type closer to Home erectus.


Needless to say many are skeptical of folk memories persisting for 30,000 years, though a standard assumption in paleontology is that the earliest and last fossil find of any given species is going to underestimate their period of origin and overestimate the period of extinction. In other words the Denisova hominin lineage almost certainly persisted more recently than 41,000 years ago. But recently enough to spawn legends of Enkidu? I’m skeptical. Someone with a better grasp of the mutation rate in oral history can clarify, but it seems that tall tales would be so distorted over a few thousand years that the initial kernel of truth would quickly be obscured.

Here’s my model for why almost all cultures have tales of various semi-human groups: cross-cultural differences are stark enough that it isn’t too hard to dehumanize other populations. More specifically, I think the biggest gap is going to be between groups who practice different modes of production. Many of the “wild people” as perceived by agriculturalists were probably just marginalized hunter-gatherers who hadn’t taken up the ways of “humans.” Consider how many upper middle class white Americans perceive rural people from Appalachia even in our enlightened age. There are even biological differences, as agricultural populations seem smaller and more gracile in comparison to hunter-gatherers (who consume more fibrous food stuffs, and probably have a more balanced nutritional intake). How hard is to conceive of a small and malnourished agriculturalist being cowed by more robust hunter-gatherer group upon first contact?*

Combine real cultural and biological differences with human imagination, and it seems that this is the most likely explanation for the universality of wild people and strange semi-human folk. It is in other words simply an aspect of evoked culture, nothing that needs special triggers in the form of other human lineages. The main exception I can think of would be Flores Hobbits, who may have persisted down to a very recent period.

* The immediate objection to this possibility is that hunter-gatherer groups tend to get sick very quickly with the approach of high density humanity, and already pushed to less productive land by the time they’re confronting the agriculturists on a daily basis. So they are less likely to be robust.

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