One of the greatest problems when dealing with ancient history is the difficulty of thinking like an ancient human. We are all aware that humans have looked at the world in different ways during different eras, but despite the difficulties we are frequently called upon to try and imagine ourselves as a resident of ancient Rome, or a 1st century Jew, or some other ancient character.
I’d like to speak for a moment about one of the most important differences between ourselves and ancient peoples. Most of this is drawn from the lectures of Professor Darren Staloff, and in specific his lectures drawing from Mircea Eliade’s work on the ancient understanding of history.
Linear vs. Cyclical Time
Pullquote: Ancient people understood great events and influential people by casting them in terms of mythic themes or figures.
Since the Enlightenment, we have lived in linear time. We understand that time moves along in a straight line, with one event happening after another. Each event is influenced by the previous events, and in turn it influences future events. Nevertheless, each event is unique in its context. This gives us our idea of history, a record of events in the past and how they relate to each other.
Well before the enlightenment, however, people lived in cyclical time. Time did not move forward for them the way it does for us. Instead, it moved in endless loops, reminiscent of the cycles of the seasons. History did not advance — instead, it continually recapitulated previous archetypal stories. People understood great events and influential people by casting them in terms of mythic themes or figures.
Cyclical time is still with us to some degree. Consider the way we talk about our presidents. Have you noticed how we continually compare Obama to men like Abraham Lincoln, FDR or Martin Luther King? Bill Clinton was compared to JFK, Truman and FDR. Of course, if you go back, you find we did that to all our great men. George Washington was called the American Cincinnatus, while Robert Livingston was the American Cicero.
When we compare Obama to Lincoln, we don’t mean that Obama is a tall, white and unattractive railsplitter. We mean something basic, like he’s a great statesman. But we’ve reduced a complex and contradictory man like Lincoln down to an archetypal figure in our national story, and we use figures like that to understand our current situation. Eventually Obama himself will be reduced to an archetypal figure; perhaps even within his lifetime.
The Uses of Cyclical TimeThe ancients used the same techniques to a much greater degree. When something unique and impressive occurred, they rushed to wrap it in a layer of mythic language. This was how they could understand it. Stories were recast and retold using mythic themes and characters.
If I could sum it up in one sentence, it would be something like this: modern people care about what happened; ancient people cared about what it meant. It may seem odd to us, but I suspect we’d seem shallow and fussy to them. Why quibble over the details? It’s all a part of the same cyclic drama anyway.
The Myth of the Historical Jesus
Pullquote: The followers of Jesus were interested in what his life and death meant.
This theory has implications for the argument over the historical Jesus. For starters, it’s sometimes argued that there wasn’t enough time between the crucifixion and the writings of the Gospels for fanciful stories about Jesus to pop up. This is false; fanciful stories were likely popping up before Jesus was even dead.
On the other hand, the mythicists argue that the gospel story of Jesus seems to be stitched together from mythic themes. Well, yes, but this is exactly what we’d expect to see, even if Jesus were a historical figure. The followers of Jesus were interested in what his life and death meant. So Paul understands him using the figure of Adam, Matthew uses Moses, Luke uses Isiah, and the author of Hebrews uses Melchizedek. This is a classic example of archetypal understanding.
I’ve grossly simplified a complex topic, and for that I apologize. If there’s one take-away message for this, it’s that the modern idea of history is a recent and strange invention. Eliade suggests that we’re likely to abandon it before too long. Whether we do or not, we shouldn’t assume that people in the distant past shared our historical concerns. They had their own way of making sense of history.
Vorjack is a librarian/archivist and a public historian, living with his wife in history-soaked Albany, New York.