Open Thread: Things lost to time

(posted by chris the cynic)

The past is badly recorded (the present isn’t much better.)  You can’t even see The Return of the Jedi as it originally appeared in theaters.  That’s a mere 31 years ago.  If you want to know about the Minoan Civilization (≈ three and a half thousand years ago) you … have foundations.  No literature, no stories, no idea what it was all about.

What poorly preserved/understood things intrigue you?

[As a reminder, open thread prompts are meant to inspire conversation, not stifle it. Have no fear of going off topic for there is no off topic here.]


6 thoughts on “Open Thread: Things lost to time

  1. genesistrine September 17, 2014 at 8:52 am

    Prehistory fascinates me, especially all the stuff that gets pigeonholed under “ritual objects” because hey, we can’t figure out what it was so it must have been religious

  2. christhecynic September 17, 2014 at 9:51 am

    It’s a running gag in the classics program here that anything you don’t understand is a votive object. To the point that if someone says, “It was a votive object,” you can be pretty sure they mean, “We don’t know what it was.” “Votive Object” is distinguished from actual votive object via tone of voice.

    Classical mythology is probably our best preserved western religious tradition (Christianity and Judaism suffer from people not wanting to preserve heresy.) It’s still not preserved well enough for my tastes.

    For example, I’d love to know the story of Jason if it weren’t filtered through Euripides (who was bleak and misanthropic even when compared to other tragedians) and Apollonius (who wrote incredibly dense text that was meant to be read by other librarians who, by virtue of being librarians, could set down the scroll and look up each of his obscure unexplained references.)

    Odysseus and Achilles get much better PR because they come to us from Homer, if we knew Odysseus from Sophocles’ Philoctetes we’d all think he was an irredeemable asshole who had no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

    There’s also things like Hecate. She seems to have been a really important deity just before people started writing stuff down. Hesiod devotes a decent sized chunk of text to telling us how awesome she is, but doesn’t tell us what makes her awesome, later texts just sort of chart the decline until she’s a rarely mentioned sidekick.

    The Odyssey reveals that Persephone was apparently a person to dread and fear, but by the time anyone got around to writing her story she was thoroughly de-fanged.

    The Odyssey also gives us glimpses of traditions that are entirely unlike the mythology we know (Odepius stayed king after learning that his kids were also his half siblings?! But I thought…)

    And other mythologies make me wish their own preservation were anywhere near as good as classical myth.

    Records of Norse mythology are sadly lacking. At least one of the primary sources buys into the ancient version of ancient aliens theory. (The gods weren’t actually gods, they were just highly advanced foreigners [Trojans] that the ancients mistook for gods.)

    It’s hard to make judgments about, say, Loki when we have so little to go on.

  3. genesistrine September 17, 2014 at 3:27 pm

    With literate societies at least there’s always the faint hope that somewhere out there there’s a lurking manuscript; buried in a jar, uncatalogued in a library, brought back as a souvenir. (I saw a lovely documentary yesterday about Irving Finkel; some years ago someone brought his dad’s WWII souvenirs into the British Museum, which turned out to include a Babylonian cuneiform tablet containing the earliest known version of the Ark myth – this being a modern documentary they then naturally had to build an Ark from the specs in it, but eh, giant coracles are pretty cool too.)

    Barring time travel, we’ll only have ever guesswork as to why people built souterrains or cursi; whether Neolithic Venuses were made as e.g. deities, handy pocket porn for lonely guys and/or (my favourite suggestion) selfies by female sculptors.

    But I honestly never realized there was so much unknown about Classical mythology – I suppose it’s all these “Dictionaries of Classical Mythology” making me think that it was all laid out in the original sources rather than a reconstructed patchwork of versions.

  4. Silver Adept September 18, 2014 at 7:37 pm

    The Medium Aevum is also a lot of lost possibilities, since most of the history of Latin Christendom is written by biased sources who are not very interested in the lives of common people, or in their religious practice outside of the monk’s practice, except to demonize it. There surely has to be a wealth of common practice and folklore that has been distorted by the writers of the histories, and even more that hasn’t been recorded.

  5. Lonespark September 19, 2014 at 11:03 am

    Or all of the above, no? I think the Venuses would work for general purpose good luck, fertility, etc. But the selfies thing is awesome.

  6. Lonespark September 19, 2014 at 11:05 am

    I seem to recall something about a whole bunch of Maya codexes being burned because some Bishop decided he was supposed to. Screw that nonsense. Time travelling scholars FTW!

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