Tolkien, Fantasy, and Race

Wizards of the Coast recently announced that they will be changing how the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game system handles race. These changes include, among others, reimagining the traditionally evil Drow and Orcs as complex and nuanced cultures, revising how a player’s choice of race affects their character’s stats, and removing racially insensitive text from reissues of old content. You can read the company’s statement about these changes here.

Some of these changes are more obviously necessary than others. It’s not hard for most of us to see how having a race of dark-skinned Elves who are almost universally evil in your game is a poor design choice that needs to be rectified, but it’s less obvious to a lot of people why the game should be changed so that your Elf isn’t necessarily clever and dexterous or your Dwarf stout and tough. To understand why rules like these are problematic, it helps to look at how ideas about portraying non-human beings in fantasy have been shaped. Fantasy is as complex and varied as any other genre of literature and no single person is responsible for the development of its tropes and principles, but when we think about race in fantasy, there is one crucial place to start: Tolkien.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth legendarium profoundly shaped fantasy literature in the twentieth century and the other media drawing from it, such as role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. Tolkien’s versions of Elves and Dwarves, as well as his invention of Hobbits (made lawyer-friendly as “Halflings”), formed the basis for D&D’s early options for players who wanted an alternative to humans. Much of the popular fantasy archetypes for what non-human races are like (ethereal, wise, bow-wielding Elves; stubborn, pugnacious, axe-hefting Dwarves) were either created or codified by Tolkien.

Tolkien’s relationship to race is complicated. On one hand, he was vocally opposed to the antisemitism common in his time and to the Nazis’ attempts to claim his beloved Germanic mythology as a prop to their racist regime. His Middle Earth tales can be read as a counter-argument to white supremacist ideology, as the “lesser” folk of Middle Earth, like the Hobbits and the Wild Men, prove more resistant to the lies of evil than the “higher” races of Men. At the same time, there is no denying that Tolkien’s fiction is suffused with familiar racial assumptions, filled with white characters and portraying dark-skinned people only as strange or threatening others.

But it is Tolkien’s work as a scholar that is most important for understanding his effect on the depiction of race in fantasy. Tolkien’s academic training as an Oxford student in the early twentieth century was grounded in the traditions of the nineteenth century, which defined nations as coherent, natural entities existing across time and marked by inherent characteristics. This academic worldview was linked to the Romantic and nationalist movements at work in Europe in that century, as well as the ongoing imperialist projects of Britain, France, and other nations of Europe. At its core was the belief that culture and biology are equivalent, that people have fundamental national traits inherited from their ancestors which define their culture, character, even moral worth.

Every academic discipline concerned with the human past was engaged in some way with this project. Historians traced the ancestry of their own and other peoples as far back as written sources would allow, at which point archaeologists stepped in to carry the line further back. Scholars of literature and art looked to both nationally famous artists and rural folk traditions to delineate the defining characteristics of a culture. Scholars in different nations concocted their own versions of national culture and interpreted both ancient and recent history in terms of discreet nations wrangling with one another: while English writers explained their early history as the victory of the serious, diligent Anglo-Saxon over the moody, whimsical Celt, French historians conceived of the French Revolution as a primordial Gallic peasantry overthrowing the Germanic overlords who had dominated them since the fifth century CE. Even forgeries and hoaxes followed the same principle, like the collection of Gaelic poetry attributed to the bard Ossian or the fake primordial Englishman buried with a battered cricket bat at Piltdown. While the work of such historians, folklorists, artists, pranksters and others was in itself fairly benign, it was part of a larger politics that justified the exploitation and oppression of some ethnic groups for the benefit of others based on specious claims about national characters and destinies.

Tolkien’s subject, philology, was no exception. Scholars believed that language could be a key to those parts of the past that neither history nor archaeology could reach, perhaps even the most important parts, for what can be more fundamental to our identity than the words we use to describe our world? Linguistic research, starting in the eighteenth century with the realization that the ancient Indian language Sanskrit came from the same source as Greek and Latin, had demonstrated that it was possible to discover regular principles that governed shifts in sound as languages evolved and split into new languages. Applying these principles to the earliest documented fragments of existing languages made it possible to reconstruct, with a high degree of certainty, elements of vocabulary and grammar belonging to languages that had never been written down.

Tolkien, and other philologists of his generation, believed that it was possible to go a step further and apply the same principles to myths, legends, even history. Working backwards from the earliest recorded elements of a culture—its oldest literature and art, archaeological remains, and whatever fragments of ancient knowledge survived in folk tradition—they hoped to reconstruct the primordial beliefs, practices, and character of that culture. Tolkien carried this same spirit into his literary work and with his Middle Earth stories tried to reimagine a history that might have lain behind the scattered remnants of Germanic mythology that come down to us through English, Norse, German, and Icelandic sources.

The result of this labor was a fictional world that incorporates numerous traces of ancient tradition—Smaug, from The Hobbit, has shades of Fafnir from the Volsunga Saga, while the arrival of Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, and Gandalf at Edoras in The Lord of the Rings recreates the Geatish heroes’ arrival at Heorot in Beowulf—but put together in a distinctly nineteenth-century way. The various races of Men in Tolkien’s work reflect contemporary belief in inherent national cultures to the extent that the Dunedain of the north retained their culture for many long generations cut off from Gondor in the south. Other peoples of Tolkien’s world are culturally defined by their ancestry, stretching over thousands of years.

Tolkien’s Elves and Dwarves are a similar combination of ancient Nordic lore and nineteenth-century nationalistic culture-construction. Tolkien took stories about Elves and Dwarves from different times, cultures, and genres, extracted the elements he believed were characteristic, and fused them together to create the kind of singular, coherent cultures that scholars of his day believed could be found among real peoples. The idea of Elves as archers comes from a Scottish tradition of referring to prehistoric arrow points as “Elf-shot.” The intermarriage of Elves and humans comes from Icelandic sagas. The bewildering power of an encounter with Elves derives from medieval German folklore. Tolkien believed that these various fragments were the remains of what had once been a clear, consistent belief in Elves as beings with defined characteristics, much as words in Sanskrit, Greek, and Old Norse were the remains of an older language, and that by putting them together he could reconstruct the nature of Elves in same way philologists reconstructed lost languages. The same applies to Tolkien’s Dwarves.

Tolkien’s assumptions about lost cultural knowledge only make sense in the context of the scholarship he worked in. Modern research has found that the image of Elves in northern European mythology is widely varied. Writers in different times and cultures had vastly different ideas about what Elves were, ranging from benevolent ancestor spirits to malicious swamp creatures that would steal your baby and eat it. There is no evidence that the original Elf Tolkien thought he could reconstruct was ever anything but a mirage. Indeed, it is not just that Elves did not have consistent characteristics in northern mythology, early northern writers don’t even seem to have viewed “Elf” as a stable category that could be defined. Many texts use the term fluidly for many different sorts of supernatural creature, overlapping with Dwarves, demons, angels, and others in ways that do not allow for any clear definition.

It is primarily to Tolkien that we owe the idea, not just that Elves, Dwarves, and other fantastical creatures have consistent characteristics, but that they exist as discreet groups that can be defined. This conception of fantasy folks is a product of a particular cultural and scholarly worldview, one that is increasingly out of date. Aloof archer Elves and beefy brawling Dwarves running around your game world may seem perfectly harmless, but the archetypes that define these as the standard types of Elves and Dwarves are rooted in a history of imperialism and racism.

It is time to leave behind this artifact of the nineteenth century and embrace a world in which Dwarves can be slender bookworms and Elves can be boisterous bruisers, or anything else you want them to be.

Post edited for grammar

Image: Elf and Dwarf cosplay, photograph by Tomasz Stasiuk via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

How We Lost the Library of Alexandria

There are a couple of persistent myths floating around about how the Library of Alexandria was destroyed. One says that it was burned down by Julius Caesar in the first century BCE, the other that it was destroyed by Christians in the fourth century CE. Both of these stories are wrong. That’s not what happened to the Library. The actual history is instructive, especially now.

The story begins with the foundation of the Library itself. After the death of Alexander the Great, his followers fell into a fifty-year struggle for control of his empire. When the dust settled, three major successor states founded by Alexander’s generals controlled most of the eastern Mediterranean and the old Persian Empire: the descendants of Antigonus in Macedonia, the descendants of Seleucus in Syria and Mesopotamia, and the descendants of Ptolemy in Egypt. Other, smaller, states, some of them also led by former officers of Alexander’s army, filled the edges and the gaps in between the Antigonid, Seleucid, and Ptolemaic kingdoms.

Ptolemy and his dynasty ruled from Alexandria, the new city founded at the westernmost mouth of the Nile by Alexander during his campaign. The Ptolemies and their court made up a small Greco-Macedonian elite ruling over a vast and ancient land whose people had a strong sense of cultural identity and a long history of resistance to foreign rule. The Ptolemies faced two major problems in ruling their kingdom: competing against the other successor states, and asserting control over the native population of Egypt.

A large part of the challenge in both cases came down to questions of culture. The Ptolemies needed to attract skilled administrators and mercenary soldiers to staff their bureaucracy and enforce their rule, but they were competing with all the other successor kingdoms who wanted the same people for the same reasons. One way of drawing desirable recruits to Alexandria was to demonstrate the richness and refinement of the Ptolemaic court. At the same time, maintaining order in Egypt meant reaching some degree of accommodation with members of the native elite who could keep the peasants in line. To Egyptian nobles who were proud of their own history and culture, the Ptolemies had to show that they were worthy partners who could live up to the standards of culture and sophistication Egyptians expected from their kings.

The Ptolemies’ propaganda approached these challenges in many different ways, but the Library was one important part of their cultural program. Under royal patronage, the Library amassed the largest collection of literary works in Greek assembled anywhere in the Mediterranean. In doing so, it projected the Ptolemies’ cultural sophistication in the common language of the eastern Mediterranean world. It was one of the institutions that made the city of Alexandria noteworthy and demonstrated the Ptolemaic kings’ power and wealth.

The Library of Alexandria was not created as a benevolent or altruistic center of knowledge. It was as much a part of power politics as the king’s mercenary army, and it could be as ruthless in its operations. Ships arriving in Alexandria were reportedly ransacked for any texts the Library might be lacking. The Library borrowed the official texts of winning dramas from the Athenian state archives, then kept the originals and returned cheap copies. The collection was only accessible by royal permission; it was not a place for the public.

Maintaining such a large collection required a dedicated staff of both specialist curators and laborers. Adding new texts to the collection took a lot of work to prepare the papyrus scrolls on which they were recorded and house them safely, but just maintaining the collection was a major job in itself. Papyrus scrolls are not permanent; they break down over time, even in the best conditions. Every text in the Library had to be periodically recopied as the old scrolls decayed. All of this work was funded by the Ptolemaic kings, for whom the Library was an important prop to their power.

In the mid-first century BCE, Julius Caesar fought a campaign in Alexandria against the reigning king Ptolemy XIV in support of his sister Cleopatra, who would go on to rule as the last Ptolemaic monarch. During the fighting, Caesar’s troops set fire to some of the ships in the port. The fire spread to some dockside buildings, including warehouses that held papyrus intended for the Library. The exact extent of the fire is unclear. While some ancient sources report that the Library itself suffered damage, it is clear that the most of the collection was unharmed, and the loss was largely of materials, not finished texts.

Decades later, after Cleopatra was killed and Egypt was annexed to the Roman Empire, however, the Library went into decline. The later Ptolemaic kings had been less enthusiastic in their support of the Library than the earlier kings had been, and by the first century BCE the Library was already a diminished institution. With no Ptolemaic dynasty to prop up, it no longer served a purpose. Some Roman emperors showed an interest in the Library, but most had no desire to keep supporting an institution that rivaled their own propaganda works in Rome. Without money to pay for upkeep and repairs, to pay the salaries of librarians and workers, the Library of Alexandria faded away. Support from the local elite kept some of the collection intact, some part of which remained active as a much smaller, provincial version of its former self through the third century CE.

Just how long this reduced version of the Library continued on is unclear. The third century was a time of widespread violence and unrest in the Roman world, and Alexandria had always been a rowdy city prone to riots. The growing community of Christians in Alexandria sometimes participated in these upheavals, but they were far from the only ones. In one famous incident, an attack by pagans sparked a Christian counterattack which wrecked a Neoplatonist school, but there is no record that any books were kept there. Whatever was left of the collection may well have suffered in the violence of the times, but by then the Library-with-a-capital-L was a thing of the distant past.

There is a lesson for us in the end of the Library of Alexandria, but it is not one about the brutishness of Caesar or the violence of early Christians. What doomed the Library was not some act of willful destruction but the slow decay that comes on when there is not enough money to keep basic operations going. In these days when we all find our budgets stretched tight, it is important to remember how much the cultural institutions we depend on also depend on us.

As many people have noted recently, the covid-19 pandemic isn’t the apocalypse we expected. We like to imagine that great things end in cataclysm, not in the slow grinding down of underfunded institutions. We prefer the bang to the whimper. But just like the Library of Alexandria, the establishments we rely on—be they local libraries, theater companies, independent bookstores, niche comics publishers, or anything else—will not be destroyed by invaders or violent mobs. They will wear away by inertia and neglect. Now is the time to show your support, in whatever ways you can manage, to the things that make your life brighter, richer, and fuller.

Image: A modern artist’s interpretation of the Library of Alexandria via Wikimedia (19th c.; engraving; by O. Von Corven)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Disruptive Technology: Iron

These days, every new decade seems to bring a new technology that totally upends the way we live our lives, but the ability of new technologies to disrupt societal structures is not new. Many times in history, the development or introduction of a new technology had far-reaching effects on how people lived their lives. One such technology is iron. The development of iron for military purposes—to make stronger weapons and tougher armor—led to plenty of disruption, but iron could have powerful effects even when used for peaceful and mundane purposes.

One place we can see an example of iron’s effect on society is in southern Scandinavia. The iron age began in Denmark around 500 BCE. The changes that came as a result can be seen throughout much of northern Europe, but they have been particularly well studied in Denmark.

Southwestern Denmark is rich in deposits of bog iron, a form of iron ore that is comparatively easy to extract and process. Iron was soon put to use to produce stronger swords, axes, and spearheads, but it was also used to make sturdy blades for agricultural tools such as sickles, scythes, and pruning knives.

The introduction of iron-bladed tools made possible a dramatic change in the agrarian economy. Earlier flint or bronze tools could not hold a cutting edge well enough to effectively cut large quantities of hay or twigs to be stored as fodder for cattle. Accordingly, cattle could only be kept in relatively small numbers to avoid overgrazing the sparse vegetation available through the winter. With iron tools, winter fodder could be cut, dried, and stored in quantity for the winter, allowing large herds of cattle to be kept in denser concentrations. These cattle provided meat and milk as a food source in addition to the grain people were already growing.

Cattle also produce something else: manure. Manure is a rich source of nitrogen for fertilizing fields. With larger herds of cattle producing more manure, exhausted fields could be refertilized without a long period of lying fallow, which increased grain production.

Keeping larger herds of cattle significantly increased the available supply of food, which allowed for population growth. It also, however, changed social relations. Before iron, individual families largely tended their own fields and kept small herds of cattle, producing only enough for their own subsistence. There was little social differentiation between one family and the next because everyone did essentially the same work and there weren’t many opportunities to get richer than your neighbors. With iron came larger cattle herds, which meant that some people had to do the dirty scut work of cutting hay and mucking out stalls, while those who owned the cattle enjoyed extra food to use for trade or creating new social connections through the giving of expensive gifts. The archaeological evidence from iron age settlements in Denmark shows a process of social differentiation, as some families consolidated their economic power and rose to the top while others became dependent workers supporting the new elite.

The availability of economic surplus in the form of grain, cattle, and trade goods also meant that raiding nearby settlements could now be a profitable way of life for those strong enough to get away with it, and so the new cattle-owning elite soon also put iron to work to equip themselves for defense or to launch raids of their own. The agricultural elite became in time a military elite, with farming duties largely handed off to dependent workers. In time, this military elite consolidated its power enough to found royal dynasties commanding wide swaths of land and conducting raiding activities far from home.

These changes did not happen quickly. Unlike the effects of electricity, automobiles, and the Internet in the modern world, the effects of iron in ancient Denmark played out over centuries. The changes came slowly enough that, in lived experience, they probably did not seem all that disruptive. Looking back with the perspective of archaeology and history, though, we can see what enormous social transformations can be traced back to the introduction of stronger tools made of iron.

The most disruptive technologies don’t always come from the sources you expect, nor can we always predict the long-term effects of what seem like simple changes. These observations may seem very modern to us, but they were as true in the past as they are today.

Image: Raw bog iron, photograph by Tomasz Kruan via Wikimedia

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Hospitality Tokens

Ancient societies had a problem that we still find familiar today: how do you know that someone is who they say they are? Within small-scale societies (as discussed here) it’s easy enough; when everyone in your village knows you, or knows someone who knows you, it’s not hard to prove who you are. The difficulty comes when you leave your home community and travel far away.

Guest-friendship (which I wrote about here) was one important way of overcoming the challenges of traveling far from home in a time when it was risky to do so. Guest-friends had an established relationship in which each friend promised to help and support the other. Having a guest-friend in a distant place provided some security for when you were far from home.

But even guest-friends might find it difficult to prove their identity to one another. This sort of relationship existed between people whose communities might be widely separated and who might see each other only very rarely. If someone turned up at your door claiming to be a guest-friend who hadn’t visited in twenty years, how could you be sure that they were really who they said they were and not some thief or imposter trying to bluff their way into your house and hospitality? Since guest-friend relationships were often hereditary, the problem could be even more acute: how could you trust that the person who turned up on your doorstep was actually the grandson of your grandfather’s guest-friend and thus someone to whom you still owed a duty of hospitality?

The solution to this problem came with tesserae hospitales, or hospitality tokens. Typically made of bronze, these tokens were a matched pair, sometimes with holes drilled through them, each one inscribed with the name, ancestry, and origins of one of the pair of guest-friends. By putting the two pieces together, one could verify that they matched. A person carrying such a token could present it for verification by comparison with its other half and thus prove that they had a right to claim hospitality in a particular house.

Here’s an example of one such token, made in Spain, probably in the second or first century BCE. This one is in the shape of a pig and has a few holes drilled through it. The text, written in the local Celtiberian language, gives the identity of the man who first carried it: “Lubos, of the Aliso family, son of Aualos, from Contrebia Belaisca.”

Tesseara hospitalis in the shape of a pig, photograph by Carlosblh via Wikimedia (found Uxama, currently Museo Numantino de Soria; 2nd-1st c. BCE; bronze)


Of course, few problems have perfect solutions. Hospitality tokens could, in theory, be lost, stolen, damaged, or copied, but as a way of verifying identity they worked well enough to be used for many centuries in the ancient Mediterranean. Numerous examples have turned up in the archaeological record, and some matching pairs have been found from contexts as widely separated as North Africa and northern Italy.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

The Vivid Colors of the Dome of the Rock

We often picture history in muted terms, at least in the West. We think of the white marble statues of Greece and Rome, the gray stone of medieval castles, the dull brown cloth of historical costumes. It can be hard to remember how much color has been lost to age, weathering, even deliberate destruction. (A few useful examples here and here.) For an alternative view, it helps to look at examples that go far back in history but have been maintained and restored. One good example is the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

Originally completed in 692 CE, the shrine has continued to be an important Islamic site ever since. Its original design was colorful, and in the following centuries it was elaborated with tiles, mosaics, and metalwork. Several major restoration projects in the past several centuries have kept the colors vibrant. While individual details of the decor may not go back to the original construction, the overall effect gives us a sense of how richly colorful the built environment of the past could have been.

Tiled exterior wall of the Dome of the Rock, photograph by Godot13 via Wikimedia (Jerusalem; construction 692, tiles restored 1552; glazed tile; tiles by the workshop of Abdullah Tabrizi)


Interior mosaic, photograph by the Yorck Project via Wikimedia (Jerusalem; originally 692, later restored; glass, mother of pearl, and stone mosaic)


Dome interior, photograph by Virtutepetens via Wikimedia (Jerusalem; originally 692, later restored; metal and enamel)


The Dome of the Rock was a monument that was meant to make a statement. Other buildings of the time were not necessarily so dizzyingly colorful, but the shrine preserves a variety of visual culture we have very few other examples of. Even if nothing else exactly like it was ever built, many buildings once existed with just as bright an array of colors that are now long gone. When imagining what places in the past might have looked like, or when imagining new worlds inspired by them, remember that gray stone and white plaster are not the only options.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Sappho: Making a Life in Archaic Greece

The poet Sappho (c. 630 – c. 570 BCE) is among the earliest writers whose work comes down to us from ancient Greece. She is best known for her lyric poetry, much of it on themes of love and longing. (Read some of my translations of her work here and here, or hear a recreated musical performance of one of her poems here.) Her literary works were widely popular in Greece and Rome, and later authors wrote many things about her life, few of them reliable. Much of what we think we know about Sappho’s life is conjecture based on her poetry. Still, even amid this uncertainty, Sappho stands for us as a representative of one of the most important transformative forces in ancient Greek history: the rise of trade.

During the Early Iron Age, a period of Greek history extending from around 1200 to 750 BCE, the Greek world was largely isolated. People lived in small villages of at most a few thousand people. Most people got by at a subsistence level, producing enough for their own needs and engaging in trade outside their own households in only a limited way. Political power, such as it was, rested with an entrenched class of warrior-aristocrats who monopolized control of scarce farmland. This elite class occasionally traded their agricultural surplus overseas for modest amounts of foreign luxuries, but that trade had little impact on the Greek world, and to the extent that it did, it only reinforced the social status of an existing elite. The poetry of this elite is represented by the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, which celebrate martial values and the exploits of the warrior heroes that the aristocrats claimed as their ancestors.

Between 750 and 700, this stability was rapidly undermined by the development of new patterns of trade. Greeks began to venture out into the larger Mediterranean more often and more purposefully. The earliest accounts we have from the outside world describe the Greeks as pirates and raiders. Such dangerous ventures were not for the comfortably well off. The first Greeks to try their luck abroad were those who could not survive at home under the dominance of the entrenched aristocracy. Their risky raiding voyages had limited success, but the experience they gained in places like Egypt and the Levant prepared them for more profitable ventures as mercenaries and merchants. By the mid-600s, there was a growing class of successful merchants, artisans, and other professionals in Greece whose prosperity came from their connection to the outside world rather than control of land and who were increasingly agitating against the old aristocracy for a share of political power.

Sappho spoke for this new class of Greeks whose wealth came from abroad. Her brother Charaxus, whom she addresses in a few of her poems, was engaged in trading wine from their home on the island of Lesbos to Egypt. Sappho’s poetry invokes the importance of foreign contacts by using Lydia, a kingdom in Anatolia, as an image of beauty and luxury. Unlike the Homeric epics, Sappho’s lyrics speak of immediate, personal, emotional experiences. Individuals with their own desires and passions emerge as more important than family lines or warlike values.

Sappho’s poetry describes her intense romantic feelings for young women. Although we cannot know for sure to what extent these poems reflect Sappho’s personal experiences and how much is just literary invention, the idea that love mattered was, in its way, a radical thought. Among the landowning class, marriage was mostly a matter of family politics and economic negotiation. Ideally, of course, husbands and wives felt affectionately toward one another, but powerful, passionate love was not something to be sought out or valued. Homer’s heroes have little time for the emotional power of love: Helen is a prize to be fought over like any other piece of treasure, and the suitors who clamor for Penelope’s hand talk of their estates, not their feelings. In Sappho’s day, the Greeks who were making their living in trade could still be perfectly mercenary in their personal relationships, but the idea that love had power and that the feeling of longing for another person was worthy of attention was new and exciting. In much the same way that the shift from an agrarian economy to an industrial one in the nineteenth century CE brought with it a new interest in romantic love, Greeks in the seventh century BCE whose fortunes no longer depended on controlling land were beginning to think of individual feelings of love as something to value in a relationship.

Like the merchants and mercenaries who sought their fortunes amid the dangers of the unknown world outside Greece, the voices of Sappho’s poems dream that they might have what they long for, that their individual lives and struggles might matter.

Image: “Sappho embracing her lyre” via Wikimedia (Musee des Beaux-Arts de Brest; 19th c.; painting; by Jules-Elie de Launay)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Myths and Marketing

A lot of people have made comparisons between the pop-culture heroes of today like Marvel’s superheroes or the characters of Star Wars and the heroes of ancient Greek myth. (I’ve done it myself, here and here.) There’s a lot to be said for these comparisons in terms of narrative, but there are also interesting similarities in the way these characters are portrayed visually and sold to an admiring public.

Ancient Greek art went through an extraordinary transformation over a few centuries from the early archaic age (mid-700s BCE) to the high classical age (mid-400s BCE). One of the most telling signs of this transformation was the change in how mythic characters were represented.

Geometric krater, photograph by Metropolitan Museum of Art (found Attica, currently Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; 750-730 BCE; pottery; attributed to the Hirschfeld workshop)

Here is a scene from a Greek vase painted around 750. The human figures are highly abstracted with no individual identifying characteristics. We can make out some of what is happening in the scenes. In the upper register, a single figure lies horizontally on a table or bed surrounded by standing figures with their hands on their heads. This scene is generally interpreted as a funeral, with wailing mourners surrounding the deceased. On the lower register, warriors with shields ride in chariots. Still, for as much as we can make guesses about what is going on in these images, the details elude us. Are these generic images or are they meant to tell a story? Are the two registers even related to one another? One possibility is that this image represents the funeral for Patroclus, from the Iliad, with the funeral pyre on the upper register and the games in honor of the dead on the lower, but we have no way of knowing for sure whether that was what the artist intended or not.

Polyphemus amphora, photograph by Sarah C. Murray via Wikimedia (currently Archaeological Museum of Eleusis; c. 650 BCE; pottery; Polyphemus painter)

This image comes from a vase painted a hundred years later, around 650 BCE. Now we have a definite story. A group of men come from the left carrying a long spear to stab the eye of a larger, seated figure on the right holding a drinking cup. Putting all these elements together, it is clear that this scene represents the blinding of Polyphemus, the giant cyclops whom Odysseus and his men got drunk before stabbing his one eye out. The scene is clear enough if you know the story, but reading the image depends on knowing the whole story and seeing the whole picture. The figures within it are not distinctive. If you took any one of the figures out and looked at it on its own, you would have no way of identifying it or guessing what story it came from.

Black figure olpe, photograph by Jastrow via Wikimedia (currently Louvre; c. 540 BCE; pottery; Amasis)

Another century later, the ways of depicting mythic figures had developed into something new. In this vase painting, from about 540, we see figures with distinctive characteristics. On the left a robed and bearded man holds a trident: unmistakably Poseidon, god of the sea. Hermes, the messenger god, approaches him, recognizable from his broad-brimmed hat, his snake-twined herald’s staff, and the wings on his sandals. Athena comes next, indicated by her helmet and spear and the shield she carries bearing her symbol, the owl. Behind her comes Heracles, not so visible in this image but still recognizable from the bow he carries and the lion skin he wears. Even though nothing much is happening in the image—it’s just a line of people—with this combination of characters, we can tell that it is representing the story of Heracles’ ascension to join the gods on Mount Olympus. Each character, though, is distinct. You could take any one of them out of the scene, and you would still know who you were looking at.

Ancient Greek art developed a rich but understandable visual language for identifying important figures from mythology. To understand why this development mattered, we have to think about the Greeks’ place in the larger Mediterranean.

Despite the importance the modern West has accorded to ancient Greek culture, ancient Greece itself was not a powerhouse of the Mediterranean. Greece was a poor, fractious backwater compared with the great centers of wealth and culture like Egypt, Persia, and Carthage. Trade was crucial to the Greeks’ survival, which meant they had to have something to offer that other people wanted. Wine and olive oil were the major commodities the Greek traded overseas, but over time they increasingly began to export their cultural products as well. Greek artisans, poets, musicians, and actors found work throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond. The changes in how Greeks depicted myths in their art went along with their expansion into the Mediterranean’s trade networks.

Exporting culture only works if your culture can offer something the market wants. The most valuable cultural property the Greeks had was their mythology. Greek mythology was not a complete and canonical body of work to be exported whole (as I discuss here), but a flexible, malleable set of stories and characters ready to be reimagined and recombined in new and unique ways. This flexibility allowed individual Greek artists and merchants to offer their patrons and trading partners versions of myths that suited the tastes of the local market. Heracles, for instance, went over well in Etruria, and before long Etruscans were creating their own stories about the character (calling him “Herkle”) that no Greek would have imagined. The Amazons similarly found their way into Egyptian literature. Underlying it all was a set of characters (gods, heroes, monsters) with basic identifying characteristics, personalities, and stories. A Persian or Carthaginian picking up a new Greek vase in the market might not know all the myths depicted on it, but it was easy to recognize Athena’s owl or Heracles’ lion skin and begin to put together the story from there.

In a similar way, symbolic attributes have become an important part of how we identify our modern heroes. From Captain America’s shield to Luke Skywalker’s light saber, from the Doctor’s TARDIS to the house crests of Westeros, having a set of easily recognizable symbols helps us identify our favorite characters and stories at a glance. They are also great fodder for marketing merchandise—which is exactly what our ancient Greek counterparts were doing with their mythology, too. Besides being the common cultural property of a far-flung people, Greek myths and their visual representations were a brilliant marketing device that got lots of Etruscans, Romans, Egyptians, Scythians, and others to buy Greek goods.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

A Note to Future Historians

I’ve just been going through my expenses for the past month, comparing receipts and my notes with my bank statements and that sort of thing. Among my other expenses are a number of cases where I have lumped together a few separate expenses in my notes, or I’ve added tips left in cash to the figures I record having paid with a card, or subtracted rebates, or other inconsistencies like that. The experience has made me think of all the furious academic debates that have been sparked because of small inconsistencies in our written sources, and I feel bad for any future historian who comes across my financial records and tries to make sense of them.

Future historians, if you’re reading this: I’m sorry. I know my spreadsheets are incomprehensible, but I wrote them for myself, not for you, and they make sense to me. Anyway, I’m sure you have more important and interesting sources to read for 2020, like Twitter and British tabloids.

Good luck!

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.


In the hills of central northern Sri Lanka are the remains of a palace built over a thousand years ago on top of an extraordinary natural rock formation. The place is known as Sigiriya. At the base of the rock, intricately organized gardens incorporating sophisticated irrigation and water retention structures stretch out along the hillsides. On top of the rock was originally a fortress, later converted into a Buddhist monastery.

A view of Sigiriya from a nearby hilltop, photograph by Azharkhanam via Wikimedia

According to Sri Lankan literature, the site was built in the late 400s CE by the king Kashyapa. Sources describe colorful frescoes covering the sides of the rock and a great gate in the shape of a lion, both of which are now only to been seen in fragmentary form. After Kashyapa’s death, Sigiriya ceased to be a royal site and for the next thousand years was inhabited by monks and visited by pilgrims, many of whom left inscriptions on the frescoed faces of the rock. Today, it continues to attract many visitors, although writing on the walls is no longer allowed.

The remains of the lion gate at the base of the citadel, photograph by Cherubino via Wikimedia
Surviving fragments of fresco, photograph by Peter van der Sluijs via Wikimedia (Sigiriya; late 5th c. CE; fresco)

The next time you’re imagining where the royals of your world might live for a story, artwork, or game, think of Sigiriya and remember that a palace doesn’t have to look like Neuschwanstein or Versailles.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Myths Are Fanfiction

If you’re like me and a lot of my students, you grew up with Greek mythology. The monster-filled adventures of Odysseus, the (somewhat bowdlerized) philandering of Zeus, the just-so story of Echo and Narcissus, and others were part of my childhood reading. Myths seemed like any other sort of story, with well-defined characters and plots. But there’s something different about mythology. We can’t think of it the same way we think of other kinds of literature. Mythology, in fact, has more in common with fanfiction than with literature as we usually think of it. Greek mythology is one of the best documented and most widely known mythic traditions in the West, so it makes a useful example. When you dig into the primary sources of Greek mythology you find that it is stranger, more complicated, and less cohesive than it seemed when I was a child.

Defining exactly what makes a story a myth can be surprisingly difficult, but if we take as our starting point stories about fictional characters who are larger than life and more than human, we have a good chunk of Greek literature and art to work with. The literary versions of myths that have come down to us must themselves have been based on oral traditions passed down through generations, retold and reimagined in every new performance. There is no canon of Greek mythology. There is no original text that we (or the ancient Greeks themselves) can point to and say: “This story is the correct one; anything that conflicts with it is wrong.”

The nearest thing to a canonical text in ancient Greek culture was the two epics attributed to Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Neither of these epic poems was written down until the sixth century BCE, although some version of them circulated orally for hundreds of years prior. These poems were themselves just elaborated snippets of a much broader oral tradition which encompassed the whole story of the Trojan War and its heroes’ return to Greece. There was, however, some collective sense of how the epics ought to go. We know this because of the scandal caused by Peisistratus, the tyrant of Athens, who was accused of tampering with the Iliad by inserting a line to suggest that the nearby island of Salamis ought to belong to Athens. On one hand, the fact that such a minor tweak to the poem caused an uproar suggests a degree of reverence for the text. On the other hand, it is clear that the text could be tweaked. We have no idea how many changes the text of the epics may have gone through over the centuries that went by unremarked because they were less politically dicey.

If the Homeric epics were viewed with a certain reverence by the ancient Greeks, the same is not true of our other major sources of mythic stories. Our knowledge of Greek myth mostly comes from the literary productions of a few particular places and times. These works were regarded as literature, free to be debated, reinterpreted, or ignored. Apart from the oral traditions codified the Homeric poems, these include:

  • Athenian drama, mostly written in the fifth century BCE at a time when Athens was a major economic, military, and political power in Greece, the leader of an Aegean empire known as the Delian League, and wrapped up in ongoing conflicts with Sparta, Thebes, and the Persian Empire.
  • Poetry and prose composed in Hellenistic Alexandria, much of it by scholars working at the Library, which compiled and retold stories from earlier Greek traditions as part of the Ptolemaic kings’ propaganda program celebrating their links to classical Greek culture.
  • Roman poetry of the late republic and early empire, composed at a time when Roman society was in crisis and different factions within the elite were competing for power.

There are significant works of art and literature not from these times that add to our knowledge of Greek mythology, but much of what we know comes from one of these clusters. Each one represents a time of fraught cultural and political tensions, and these tensions are reflected in the literature of the period. Fifth-century Athenian drama often portrays Athens as a place of wisdom and sound democratic government while painting Athens’ major rival Thebes as a chaotic city of violence and tragic folly. Written at a different time and in a different context, Roman versions of mythic stories, such as Vergil’s Aeneid, position the Romans as worthy heirs to the glory of ancient Greece.

The works of these different periods also reflect different literary interests. Athenian comedy often took heroic figures from myth and put them into ridiculous situations for laughs. The Alexandrian authors liked to show off the breadth of their learning by tying together disparate characters and tales into grand narratives, or retelling familiar stories from the point of view of minor characters. The Roman poet Ovid played to the sexual culture of his day by composing a collection of imaginary love letters between famous mythic couples.

All of these variations on mythic tales depended on an audience who already knew the stories and characters that were being referenced. They could also end up representing wildly different interpretations of the same events or figures. Part of the fun for ancient readers and theatre-goers was recognizing familiar stories told in a new way. In this respect, mythology worked the same way fanfiction works today. Whether it’s a passionately rendered love scene between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, a quippy duel between Batman and Iron Man, or the adventures of Aragorn and Galadriel’s secret love child, the fun of fanfic comes in taking the stories we have in common and doing something new with them—sometimes something inspired by the social and political context around us, and sometimes just for the delight of bringing a favorite character back on the stage for an encore.

The fragmentary nature of the literary record from antiquity means that when we try to put together the narrative of a certain character or event from Greek mythology, we are often cobbling together bits and pieces of sources from many different genres, written centuries apart on different continents for widely varying audiences and purposes. The fact that we are able to make any sense out of these stories at all is a testament to how much the ancient Greeks and those who learned their stories loved their myths and enjoyed retelling them. But whenever we deal with mythology—Greek or otherwise—we have to remember that what we are dealing with is a wonderfully strange mishmash of stories, none of it canonical as we understand the term today, but all of it lovingly retold by generations of people who made the stories their own.

Image: Mosaic of Vergil with the muses of history and tragedy, photograph by Giorces via Wikimedia (currently Bardo Museum, Tunis; 3rd c. CE; mosaic)

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.