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
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.”
“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
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!’ ”
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
let alone the veterans of the new crank wave of the nineties, such as
(the author of the pricelessly-titled Atlantis
and the Kingdom of the Neanderthals) and other such luminaries of
(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).
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.