Saturday, June 24, 2006

BOOK: L. Sprague de Camp, "Citadels of Mystery" (cont.)

[Continued from last week.]

L. Sprague de Camp and Catherine C. de Camp: Citadels of Mystery. London: Fontana Books, 1972. (First ed.: Ancient Ruins and Archaeology, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1964.) xii + 292 pp.

See pp. 72–3 for an interesting discussion about the letter digamma (‘Ϝ’) and the sound it represented: “Scholars had long been puzzled by the fact that many lines of Homer refused to scan. Bentley discovered that the Greek of Homer's time had a sound represented by the letter digamma, resembling our F. [. . .] The sound represented was either a v, or a w, or something in between. Between the time of Homer and that of Peisistratos, both sound and letter disappeared from the Attic dialect [. . .] With the restoration of the digammas, Homer scanned perfectly.”

Another very interesting passage is on pp. 90–1, on the light thrown on the history of Troy and on the Homeric legends by the Hittite written records.

“Homer was not unaware of the problem of anachronism” (p. 74) and took care to describe weapons that would have been used in the Mycenean age, rather than in his own (e.g. bronze instead of iron).

Schliemann “obtained a doctor's degree from the University of Rostock by the extraordinary method of submitting as his thesis an autobiography in classical Greek” (pp. 76–7). His children were named Andromache and Agamemnon (p. 77). In their defence, Schliemann's wife was Greek — perhaps those names don't seem as absurdly pretentious to the Greeks as they do to me. I went to Athens for a week a couple of years ago, and among other things we were given a tour round the Acropolis by a middle-aged guide named Aphrodite. I doubt that she had ever looked pretty. What on earth must her parents have been thinking? But of course one must admit that the Greeks have no monopoly on absurdly hubristic names. I understand that in Spanish-speaking countries, Jesus is a fairly common name, and in fact I myself once had the pleasure of starting an e-mail with “Dear Jesus”... :-)

There's an interesting chapter about Ma'rib, the Queen of Sheba's capital, located in present-day Yemen. Apparently Yemen was an exceedingly backward place in de Camp's time (I don't know whether it still is or not). De Camp mentions its “ignorant, bloodthirsty, foreigner-hating populace” (p. 96); foreign visitors, explorers and archaeologists had no end of trouble from the Yemenites (p. 105). For most of the first half of the 20th century, Yemen was ruled by “a tough old tyrant” (p. 106) extremely successful at dodging an endless series of assassination attempts and assorted court intrigues: “Life in Yemen made the palaces of Caligula and the Borgias look like health resorts” (p. 109).

As for the Queen of Sheba herself, the Bible mentions her only very briefly and does not “say how old she was, nor how beautiful, nor state that she and Solomon had any sort of love affair. For aught anybody knows, the queen might have been a tough old beldam like Ḥatshepsut or Elizabeth I in her later years.” (P. 97). Eew. I am reminded of Burns' splendid lines: “But wither'd beldams, auld and droll”, etc.

Pp. 130–1 mention Dr. Carl Peters, the German explorer and imperialist who “more or less singlehandedly annexed Tanganyika to the German Empire”. I remember him from Thomas Pakenham's Scramble for Africa, which mentions that he obtained a doctorate in philosophy with a “brilliant metaphysical dissertation, ‘Willenswelt und Weltwille’ ” (Pakenham ch. 16, p. 290). De Camp mentions Peters' extremely harsh attitude towards the “ ‘niggers,’ whom he regarded as ‘sickly and useless rubbish.’ This ‘useless rabble,’ said he, should either be made to work for the whites by a system of forced labor [. . .] or be wiped out.” (P. 130.)

In the earlier versions of the legend, King Arthur “cheerfully begat Mordred on his own half sister, the wife of King Lot of Orkney (thus combining incest with adultery).” In the Victorian era, people like Tennyson sanitized Arthur to a point quite absurd for someone who was supposed to have lived in the early middle ages (p. 145). The chapter about King Arthur also contains an interesting discussion of the struggle of the Celtic Britons against the Germanic invaders, and mentions various speculations regarding real-life people that may have inspired the legends about Arthur (pp. 146–54).

About Thomas Malory: “Besides his literary gifts he was a first-class rascal and ruffian who spent much of his life in jail for assaulting and robbing his neighbors and raping their wives.” (P. 157.)

“The Indo-Chinese, like the Polynesians, took a permissive attitude towards sex. [. . .] An eighteenth-century English diplomat posted to Indo-China complained that he could not enjoy a stroll in the evening because of the ‘horrible fornications’ he was compelled to witness.” (P. 171.)

A few interesting tidbits on Romano-Chinese contact: “In +120 a band of Greek and Roman acrobats and musicians passed over this route [i.e. through Funan in Indochina] on their way to China; and in +160 a Roman embassy did likewise.” (P. 171.) See also my post on Golding's Envoy Extraordinary.

“The Khmer armies [. . .] included elephants with catapults mounted on their backs.” (P. 174.)

“Lianas [. . .] hang everywhere, like the clotheslines of a tribe of sluttish dryads.” (P. 180.) Woo hoo — hot wet scantily-clad dryad sluts cavorting in the woods! Not only it sounds great, it should also bring lots of visitors from Google. Hello, you wankers!

So thorough was the destruction of the pre-Columbian civilizations of America that during the 18th century the prevailing opinion was that the reports about their magnificence, written by the conquistadors in the 16th century, must be gross exaggerations (p. 183).

The chapter about Tikal and the Mayas contains a few fascinating pages about one ‘Count’ de Waldeck. Among other things, he published a book about his travels around the Mayan sites in Yucatan; an unreliable book, but there wasn't much competition at the time (1838). Anyway, he was quite a colourful character: “He went on to marry, at 84, a 17-year-old girl by whom he had a son, to publish his second book at 100, and finally to drop dead at 109 just after turning to look at a pretty girl on the boulevards of Paris.” (P. 186.)

P. 190 mentions “the Mayan road system, comparable on a smaller scale to that of Rome.” I find this interesting — until now I had a vague notion (not quite sure where I got it from) that one of the reasons why the Mayans didn't invent and use the wheel was that it wouldn't have been of any use in the muddy roads and trails of their jungle-like environment. But this argument fails if they really had a decent road system comparable to the Roman one. I now found this interesting web page, which says that they were familiar with the concept of the wheel, but did not use it in transportation, mostly because they had no suitable animals to pull the cart.

The “Aztec ‘emperor’ Montezuma II was no hereditary despot of the European kind, but an elected tribal chief, of limited powers, whose tribe had established a precarious rule over some of their neighbors.” (P. 194.)

“It must be said for the Incas that, for at least a couple of centuries, they ran as efficient, well-organized, and benign a despotism as men have ever achieved. Their rule was the nearest thing yet to a practical communism.” (P. 212. He argues that the idea of communism is also a form of benevolent despotism, since the party demands all power for itself and claims that it will use this power for the common good. See pp. 213–4 for more about the Inca system.)

“There is some fossil evidence that mastodons roamed the valleys of Ecuador down to the early centuries of the Christian Era, and so the Chavín people and their successors probably knew about them; but it has not yet been proved that they hunted them or used their ivory.” (Pp. 215–6.)

“The natives [of Easter Island] do not seem to have had any name for their island; so isolated were they that they needed no special word to distinguish their land from any other. When the first Tahitians arrived in the 1870s, they called the island Rapa Nui, ‘Great Rapa,’ because it looked like little Rapa Iti in the Tubuai Islands. And Rapa Nui it has remained in the speech of the Pascuans or Easter Islanders.” (P. 237. He uses the word ‘Pascuan’ often; it's apparently derived from the Dutch name of the island, ‘Paasch Eyland’, as Dutchmen were the first Europeans to discover and name the island.)

In the 18th century, scarcity (probably due to overpopulation and deforestation; see Jared Diamond's Collapse) led to terrible intertribal wars, including cannibalism. “A favorite Pascuan taunt was: ‘Your flesh has stuck between my teeth,’ meaning: ‘I have eaten your kinsmen!’ ” (P. 249.)

Easter Island “gave its people a good living—at least until they became too numerous—but it afforded almost no variety. [. . .] So they got bored. To relieve the tedium they went in for games and sports, for fantastic rites and ceremonies, for bizarre forms of personal adornment, for megalithic construction projects, and finally for ferocious warfare. Anything was better than simply eating sweet potatoes day after day and listening to the boom of the surf.” (Pp. 259–60.) De Camp tries to infer from this a lesson about various philantropic efforts to improve the world, especially the standard of living; he speculates that, if “most of the risks and injustices [were] removed from life, many would begin to yearn, not for more social justice or self-improvement, but for more change and excitement. And then their conduct would not much resemble that of the inhabitants of a paper Utopia. Instead, they would behave more like those delightful thieves, killers, and cannibals of Easter Island.” (P. 260.) But this is surely ridiculous. It's yet another example of his expressing a political opinion with which I strongly disagree. I guess I'll never understand why some people like to imply that, if people were finally liberated from the requirement to run around like hamsters on a wheel in order to make a living, they would then somehow be less happy or behave in a worse manner than they do now. The obvious fact is that it is precisely the opposite — the need to work for a living requires us to act like knaves in a million horrible ways, and, if freed from that, we could finally follow our own interests without minding those of other people, or getting into conflicts with them. The idea that people would be bored in such an utopian world (or that they would resort to crime and violence to relieve their boredom) is, of course, ridiculous. Even in the case of Easter Island it would not have come to so much warfare and cannibalism if it hadn't been for the competition over scarce resources (the very opposite of an idle utopian life). Besides, modern technology means that we have innumerable ways of keeping ourselves occupied and entertained, without having to resort to either work or violence: television and the internet, music and sports, etc., etc. The idea that people will be bored if they don't have to work so much any more is the lamest excuse for avoiding utopia that I've ever heard.

“The Turkish letter ı represents a sound something like the vowels in the words tick, tuck, and took, but not exactly like any of them.” (P. 265.) This makes about as much sense as saying that a certain color is something like red, green, and blue, but not exactly like any of them. From this description I haven't got the foggiest idea what this vowel actually sounds like. The wikipedia has a more useful description, and it seems that the sound is much like /u/, except that your lips should be spread rather than rounded.

Anyway, I recommend this book to anyone interested in some accessible and enjoyable reading about the dozen or so sites mentioned here; if, however, you are more interested in the various crackpot theories that have become attached to them, it would probably be better to read de Camp's Lost Continents instead. Another possible drawback of the book is that it was first published in 1964 (and according to the copyright page it's partly based on articles that de Camp wrote even earlier, some dating as far back as 1946); thus, it's possible that much more is known about the sites discussed here than it was known in the 1960s when the de Camps wrote this book. And it isn't only archaeology that has moved ahead in the last 30–40 years, but pseudoscience as well — Citadels of Mystery never mentions von Däniken, let alone the veterans of the new crank wave of the nineties, such as Hancock, Bauval, Colin Wilson (the author of the pricelessly-titled Atlantis and the Kingdom of the Neanderthals) and other such luminaries of pseudoscientifical crankdom.

(Incidentally, another little detail in which the book shows its age is that it consistently uses ‘men’ in the meaning ‘people’. This was of course quite OK in the 60s but would probably be unthinkable nowadays.)


  • According to his Wikipedia page, de Camp wrote several other nonfiction books. Two of them sound quite interesting: Ancient Engineers and Great Cities Of The Ancient World.
  • Colin Wilson: Atlantis and the Kingdom of the Neanderthals. This title is simply too priceless to miss.
  • Frank Joseph: The Destruction of Atlantis: Compelling Evidence of the Sudden Fall of the Legendary Civilization. That which we call fiction marketed under any other name is just as fine to read.
  • Carl Peters: The Eldorado of the Ancients (1903). Contains Peters' weird ideas about Zimbabwe. Mentioned on p. 131.
  • Gilbert and Colette Charles-Picard: Daily Life in Carthage (1961). Sounds interesting.
  • W. M. Flinders Petrie: Seventy Years in Archaeology (1931).

Besides the last three, the bibliography in Citadels of Mystery mentions a number of other potentially interesting books.


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