Old writings

10 December, 2007

The Bible and the works of Homer both include much that is obvious mythology. The question arises as to how much of these ancient stories is rooted in actual history. The work of archaeology has revealed that both contain a surprising amount of accuracy regarding the situation of the world several centuries before the books were first written down. Oral tradition had maintained images, names and political situations that no one writing centuries later had direct experience of.

The Iliad is an epic poem about the wrath of Achilles, set during the events of the Trojan war. The story of the war was widely used by the classical Greek playwrights, and so while it is possible that the Iliad was not written down until Hellenistic times (after the 3rd century BCE), I will assume that at least some of the information in the Iliad was written down much earlier, probably in the 6th century BCE. At one point of the poem a catalogue of ships is read. This (fairly dull) part of the poem recounts the number of ships and armed men of the Greek forces and where they came from. What is interesting is that some of the locations mentioned are known to have been abandoned since the end of the bronze age, around the 12th century BCE. The poem therefore contains elements that are drawn from post-dark age Greece (about 750 BCE and onwards), plus elements from over five centuries before! To answer the question of when the Iliad was written is not as simple as asking when a modern book was written. Clearly some parts of the epic were passed down across hundreds of years, and also clearly more was added later.

Dating the writing of the bible presents a similar problem. There are elements of mythology that are much more ancient than the oldest versions of the Hebrew bible. The first writing down of some of the stories that are now in the bible probably occurred in the late 7th century BCE. This was the first time that there is evidence of writing around the area of Judah. Prior to this the lands around Jerusalem were a backwater with no large centres of population to allow a scribal class. But again there are elements of older information. The early stories of David tell of his wanderings as a bandit leader and his interactions with the philistines. One of the major cities mentioned is Gath, which, like the Mycenaean cities of the Iliad, had long been abandoned by the time the stories were being written down. Also, like the Iliad, events and cultural ideas of the time the story was being written down are incorporated into the text, showing that the final version we have now was composed over many, many centuries.

So within the mythological narratives there is some evidence of historical fact. As to how much is historical, that is very debatable, but the very fact that some history survives in these myths at all adds something to their flavour. If they are as half historical as the films Braveheart, or Elizabeth, then we have much more to pick over than perhaps we thought.

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