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Among the junk mail that arrives through our doors we find letters, sometimes impressively produced, promising to trace our name and ancestry back through the generations. We, too, can be entitled, for a fee, to claim kin with eminent or at least socially presentable ancestors; to have a pedigree drawn up and illuminated, on quality paper or indeed (why not?) on parchment, complete with the coat of arms of some long-dead person of the same name: some armigerous Griffin of yesteryear, who may impress our friends and put a snap in our walk and a sneer on our lip as we mingle in a world where, in these democratic times, we have to live on terms of apparent equality with poor fellows who have no ancestors at all. At the individual level, such attempts to gain status raise a smile. But it is a sad truth that groups, and nations, behave without shame in ways that would make their individual members blush; and the age we live in is one in which groups make such claims with great tenacity and great seriousness.
What is at stake when a group or a nation claims or is assigned descent from a past community? Very often it has been primarily a matter of glorifying one’s own group, attaching it to some prestigious name or dominant tradition from the past: thus the Romans descended from the city of Troy and the goddess Venus; the British are the Lost Tribes of Israel. It has also been a common way of fitting a foreign group, or a newly encountered people, into one’s own picture of the world and of history: Who, for instance, were the indigenous peoples of the New World, and how did they fit with the Bible and with Aristotle? In a modern mixed society it may be an assertion that one’s particular ancestors were the most important element in the mixture. At all times it has generally been true that statements apparently about the past are really claims about the present.
The early Greeks, “Hellenes” in their own language then as now, produced a simple genealogical account. They supposed that they were descended from a man called Hellen, the separate branches of the Greek people deriving from his sons and grandsons: Doros for the Dorians, Ion for the Ionians, and so on. As for Hellen’s parents, since he must have had some, they were simply declared to have been Deucalion and Pyrrha, the only couple to have survived the Flood. The claim here for the historical period is that all those who were called “Hellenes” really were related to each other, that they did form one people. No other claim is made.
Naturally, other peoples had their own ancestors. At various times, as a foreign people became significant or interesting to the Greeks, they could be attached to the Greek genealogical legends. The point was to explain how they were related to us. Thus the Latins were early declared to be…
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