Thursday, May 17, 2012

Here There be Monsters

My afternoon today found me spending time comforting my oldest daughter who had a rather nasty spill on the playground this morning. One of her requests was watching an old episode of Secrets of the Dead with me. She, like me, is really interested in how scientists can reconstruct events of the past through the study of bones, ruins, artifacts, etc. The episode in question was an investigation of the disappearance of the Minoans.

According to the show, we don’t know a lot about the Minoans. We just recently deciphered their written language (Linear A) and most of what we know is from myth. The Minoans had a cult based upon the bull and there is evidence that they made human sacrifices which were then eaten. This, of course, is strongly associated with the Greek story of the minotaur — the bull headed man who ate his victims alive.

The Minoans also likely had a female priesthood associated with some kind of snake goddess — among the various Minoan artifacts is a statue of a woman holding snakes in her hands. I couldn’t help but wonder if this weren’t the origin of Medusa or some other serpentine monster.

This also made me call to mind another episode which detailed how the Aztecs not only ripped the heart out of their human sacrificial victims, but took bones from their victims as trophies to hang in their homes and even ate them.

All of this reminded me that while we who are fond of fantasy and play FRPGs tend to associate such behavior with the mythological and the monstrous — the scene from Two Towers where the orcs are arguing over whether or not to eat Merry and Pippin comes immediately to mind — all of this nasty behavior can be traced back to human beings.

Not surprisingly, in both the case of the Minoans and the Aztecs this sacrificial cannibalism is justified via a twisted combination of religion and politics. Continuous sacrifice is made necessary to both appease the gods and keep various populations under control. This is a pattern, by the way, that Christianity shatters. Rather than demanding sacrifice, Christ gives Himself up as the ultimate sacrifice once and for all. It is also a pattern that keeps popping up once Christianity is pushed to the side — the Jews under Nazi Germany and the Bourgeois under Communism, for example.

Although one of the primary uses of RPGs in general is escapism, I cannot help but believe that RPGs (particularly FRPGs like D&D) can be very good at holding up that mirror to the fallenness and brokenness of humanity. Personally, I am forced to ask the question every time I play — are the monsters sin personified (and therefore unsalvageable) or are they human in some way fashion or form (and therefore worth saving)? This is particularly true when I have a group of players that enjoys talking to monsters as much as fighting them.

I have said it before, and I will say it again: one of the reasons that D&D is as successful and enduring as it is has to do with the fact that it is a pastiche. This allows a tremendous amount of freedom for we as players to explore (or not) just about anything we want to bring to the table. It can be both pure escapism and the horror of looking at the monster that is fallen humanity.

By the way, scientists have determined that the Minoans were wiped out by a combination of natural disasters. The island of what is now known as Santorini is a volcano that erupted with a Krakatoa-like force causing not just one tsunami comparable to the one that decimated Asia in 2004, but at least three of them. As a result, given the mythological connection with the minotaur, the show wondered if this destruction weren’t the source of the story of Atlantis. Food for thought for anyone who wants to include some version of Atlantis into a campaign...


Anthony said...

I didn't know Linear A had been translated. Last I read, there was a theory it might be a form of Luwian, an Anatolian language.(Spoken by Hittites, IIRC)

FrDave said...

There is a very real possibility that I misheard what the show said about the language, in that they mentioned it in passing and was not the main focus of the show. They did mention, though, that they thought it was related to a language once spoken in the region of modern Iran. Would that be the same thing as Luwian?

Clovis Cithog said...

according to Professor Elizabeth Vandiver, Ph.D., The University of Texas at Austin,
Whitman College
linear A was translated but the material they discovered was disappointing...
inventories (i.e., one spear, 2 barrels of olive oil)
NOT literature
Course No. 243

richard said...

Looking over here it looks like the problems of deciphering Linear A remain far from solved.

I love the whole Atlantean hypothesis, and so obviously does the Santorini tourist board, which prints maps giving the "traditional" name for the island, Thira, plus a putative "ancient" name, Strogili ("round," after the circular shape the island might have had before it exploded), and Kallisti ("the most beautiful), which carries a pleasing echo of Eris and discordia.

On the topic of Christianity shattering practices of human sacrifice and/or cannibalism, this may be true doctrinally and in church practice, and certainly cultures in Christendom tend to have pretty strong taboos about it, but it's a language we still all speak - the sacrifice of Christ is obviously supposed to make sense in those terms, and whenever people are shown to be living wrongly, this stuff is never far away. I've noticed a really strong concern for cannibalism in particular from my own reading of colonial and exploration narratives, to the point where I'm tempted to say that this weighed heavily on Europeans' thoughts the whole time they were at sea/in the Indies, and we should probably take reports that pretty much every native group that Europeans ever encountered were supposedly human-sacrificing cannibals with a big pinch of salt.

...and then I look back at what we "know" about various ancient civilisations and I wonder how well-sourced a lot of our popular and scholarly ideas are. It's kinda shooting fish in a barrel to pick on James Mellaart's work at Catal Huyuk, because we have the work of a subsequent generation of more careful scholars to compare it with, but he wasn't shy about spinning yarns around the fragments he found, and sure enough there's sacrifice (and sex cults and surprising gender relations and so on) galore in and around his work. I'm not suggesting he was making up salacious stories, but we tend to view "primitive" peoples in a certain set of ways - which are really obvious in 17th century travel journals.

Wow. Long rant, sorry about that. My point is, I find the whole cannibalism-and-sacrifice thing fascinating and have no idea where we the line of truth might lie, between the preoccupations of Christian, European explorers, the things they saw beyond Europe, and the interpretations that the non-Europeans they encountered might have had. Cf. the whole controversy around The Apotheosis of Captain Cook.

FrDave said...

I am all for skepticism when it comes to source material, especially when said material has a poltical motive; however, in the case of both the Aztecs and the Minoans, the source material is corraberated by archeological findings. The bones have gnaw marks from human teeth.

Anthony said...

Could be, though I know of Luwian as an Anatolian tongue. I've seen speculation that some form of it was also the language of Troy. But our knowledge of the movement of Bronze Age peoples is very spotty, so it's possible they migrated from ancient Iran, or that they and the people you're thinking of came from a different place, but went separate ways, hence the language similarities.

BTW, Hittite kings have great names. My favorite is Mursilis I, pronounced "merciless." Now that is a fitting name for a tyrant.

Steamtunnel said...

Yeah, ask any anthropological scientist and canibalism is pretty common. Think about it though- if Christianity is right then we have an instinctual yet corrupted understanding that eating the dead provides eternal life. Vampirism, canibalism, all corruptions of the eucharist and body and blood of Christ. Another thought- think of the Donner party, the Chilean Soccer team trapped in the alps, and various other documented survival situations where people turned to canibalism. Think of these situations occuring in the stone age and then entering the oral history of a culture. The culture grows into a civilzation and as a result practices ritual canibalism.

porphyre77 said...

Nah! It was the equipement list of a Minoan Character Sheet!

Anthony said...

"4th-level Bull-dancer"