Sunday, 21 January 2018

The myth of the Greek ‘dark ages’ and the Orientalising revolution

Except the blind forces of Nature, nothing moves in this world which is not Greek in its origins. (Sir Henry Maine)

Robin Lane Fox’s book, Travelling Heroes: Greeks and Their Myths in the Epic Age of Homer is a mesmerising account of the journeys Greek traders, settlers and adventurers made across the Mediterranean in the eighth and seventh centuries BC,  their contact with beguiling landscapes and exhilarating stories that helped them explain the origins of the Greek gods and advance Greek civilisation.

Not that Lane Fox’s book is an exercise in wonderment at Greek endeavour or an anthropological quest to explain the origins of Greek myths. Rather, it is an assertion that the so-called Greek ‘dark ages’ were, in fact, quite luminous; that between the collapse of Mycenaean civilisation (1200 BC) and the Archaic Period (800 BC), Greek civilisation was not introverted and lacking in ambition but sophisticated and progressive and the evidence of this is the intrepid seafarers from the island of Evia who, in their journeys to the Near East, Cyprus, Crete, Sicily and Italy – where they mingled with Greeks and barbarians alike –  absorbed what they saw and returned to Greece not with a new culture or new ways of thinking but with a deeper understanding of their own culture and an enhanced appreciation of their distinctive worldview.

Cyprus plays a key role in this narrative, the island’s strong Greek presence providing a natural place for western Greeks to trade and settle, and an ideal launching pad for further Greek exploration of the Levant. Lane Fox doesn’t deny these Levantine adventures left cultural and intellectual impressions on the Evians – it was from Phoenician colonists in Cyprus that Greeks learned the Alphabet – but he does refute the suggestion that this amounted to a Levantine or Oriental colonising of the Greek mind.

The theory that Greece only emerged from its ‘dark ages’ due to an Orientalising revolution, the massive importing and borrowing by Greeks of religion, literature and crafts from Anatolia, Assyria, Phoenicia and Egypt, is most associated with Walter Burkert, who is explicit about his objective; which is to mock the West’s traditional anti-Semitism by showing how Semitic culture shaped Greek and hence Western civilisation. For Burkert, the denial of formative Semitic influences on Greek culture was a calculated act of anti-Semitism devised by 18th and 19th century German classicists.

But for Lane Fox, these modern political considerations fly in the face of the evidence; which is that the East did not come to Greece, it was the Greeks who went to the East and that the Greeks used what they found there not to transform their identity but to embellish or explain what they already knew or believed. Thus, Greek originality and innovation not Oriental influence and models remain the key elements in any narrative on the origins of Western civilisation.

*The video above is the BBC documentary with Robin Lane Fox based on his book. Watch it while you can, before Metacafe takes it down.