There were two ancient languages and literatures: Greek and Hebrew. One of them, probably Hebrew, was the original language, from which (after the Fall) all the others arose as degenerate and distorted descendants. That was, roughly, how things looked to educated Westerners until, in the early nineteenth century, there began a great age of discoveries and decipherments. European conquests and Western inquisitiveness combined to unearth, and gradually to make intelligible, a huge variety of ancient scripts and forgotten languages: Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Hittite, Phoenician, and more. The history of mankind became suddenly much longer and more complex. At the same time, the sciences of geology and archaeology were busy extending the age of the world and the evolution of species, the human race itself—very controversially—not excluded.
The decipherment of those scripts and those languages is one of the truly great stories of human intellectual history. An extraordinary series of achievements, it has changed our image of the world and of our place in it at least as much, perhaps, as the invention of nuclear fission or the possibility of space travel.
The world, it turned out, was enormously older, and history enormously more complex, than anyone had suspected. What of civilization? What of culture, the arts, literature, religion? Passions ran high over the theory of evolution and its impact on literalist belief in the Book of Genesis. The unquestioned ascendancy, in education and history, of the classical world of Greece and Rome, their status as the fountainhead of culture, seemed no less threatened than that of the Bible in matters of faith. What to do, in fact, with all this new material: How to fit it into a coherent and intelligible history?
As some of the dust began, slowly, to settle, the shaken disciplines of theology and classical studies began to mark out fields which they could claim as especially their own. Assyrian histories of conquest, Egyptian creation myths, Canaanite legends: none of them, really, could claim the unique truth of the Bible, or the aesthetic beauty or deep human significance of the masterpieces of classical literature—of the serene yet terrible poetry of Homer, or the penetrating and skeptical history of Thucydides, or the universal genius of Plato or Aristotle.
That was, perhaps, not wholly unconnected with the fact that in those days many educated people had learned some Greek and Latin, could read some of those literatures, felt at home with their forms and their content; while the new discoveries, which were never going to make it onto school syllabuses, have remained exotic, unfamiliar, and rather remote.
How good, in fact, was any of this literature? Did it really stand comparison with the glory that was Greece, or even with the grandeur that was Rome? One of the strongest cases, it emerged, could be made for an extraordinary epic poem, turning up and gradually becoming known in several recensions, of quite widely separated dates and in various languages, on the mythical career of the great Mesopotamian …
‘The Wrong Sow’ May 25, 2006