The labyrinthine Bronze Age palace of Knossos, on Crete, was the oldest site on our recent travels. Knossos was the center of the powerful Minoan civilization before the rise of the Greeks. Minoans traded throughout the eastern Mediterranean.
Here, according to legend, the Athenian prince Theseus slew the half-man-half-bull Minotaur and followed a thread out of the Labyrinth to escape the Minotaur’s father, King Minos. I came to Crete curious whether the myth dates from Minoan times or the later rise of Athens. That turned out to be the wrong question.
My first exposure to Greek mythology was flat: twelve Olympians, unchanging except within a particular myth. Later, feminist spirituality drew attention to the Minoan Great Goddess or Earth Mother, often shown holding snakes. Now we had two flat steps: Minoan matriarchy, displaced by the Olympic pantheon of the patriarchal Greeks.
Our knowledgeable guide at Knossos explained that the origin of the Theseus story can’t be approached as either/or. Homer and Hesiod in the 700s BCE combined elements from various times and places to create a unified narrative. Minoan art shows acrobats doing backflips over a bull. Minos was a position title, not an individual. Athenian princes came later. Meanwhile, aspects of the Earth Mother evolved into distinct deities such as Artemis for wild animals and Poseidon for earthquakes. Gradually gods from other sources joined the Greek pantheon in a mythology that was anything but flat.
High in the remote mountains northwest of Athens, the remains of a temple of Apollo overlook a magnificent panorama down to the Gulf of Corinth. Before any major decision, ancient leaders made the arduous journey here to consult the Delphic Oracle. Apollo spoke through the words of his priestess, the Pythia, as interpreted by a priest.
Ancient writers attributed the Pythia’s altered state to inhaling fumes from a chasm in the rock. The notion of real fumes was debunked in the 1950s but later revived after the discovery of hydrocarbon deposits and a fault line. The Pythia’s symptoms—usually a benign trance, but occasionally fatal delirium—are said to resemble effects of sniffing glue.
Before Apollo arrived in the shape of a dolphin and killed the monster python guarding the site, the same site featured worship and oracles of the earth mother goddess Gaia. Relief carvings on a remnant of Apollo’s temple show his forces defeating Gaia’s giants. Mythology, like history, is written by the winners.
Visiting Delphi last month, I heard Gaia’s voice more loudly than Apollo’s. The ancient temple is in ruins, the statues and treasure houses plundered centuries ago. Emperor Nero alone took 500 statues away to Rome. With little left of the elaborate structures built by people, the breathtaking natural setting still conjures up a sense of the divine.
Gazing up at the Acropolis of Athens or tracing Plato’s footsteps across the Agora a few weeks ago evoked awe. Much of the Anglo-European heritage of my upbringing can be traced back to ancient Greece. Here’s where it all began—depending what you mean by “it.”
Civilization. Surely the ancients didn’t foresee the traffic jams of modern Athens when they associated civic virtue with cities. While cities arose independently from the Aztecs to the Indus Valley, many in Europe originated with the Greeks and their cultural offspring, the Romans.
Democracy. Though lively political discussion enlivened our Greek adventure, the role of ancient Athens as the source of modern democracy is overrated. Medieval parliaments emerged from royal councils. Cities and colonies drew voting rights from royal charters, trade associations, and joint-stock companies. Founders of the United States looked in part to the example of the Iroquois Confederacy.
Culture. You can’t look at the Parthenon and miss the Greek impact on modern architecture. Comedy and tragedy still play in ancient stone theaters. Greeks gave us the Pythagorean theorem, the Hippocratic Oath, Aristotelian logic, and Euclidean geometry. Alphabets, created for business records and law codes, flowered in Greece into poetry, epic, drama, and philosophy. Only the ancient Hebrews influenced Western culture to a comparable degree, and their influence spread in Greek translation. For the cultural heritage I grew up with, Greece is where it all began.
My house is never so clean as when there’s some major big desk project I want to avoid. The project will get done by its due date – decades of freelancing instill that habit – and meanwhile whole closets get organized if I’m procrastinating really hard.
Stanford philosopher John Perry suggests that procrastinators quit trying to reform or clear their calendars. Instead, draw up a ranked list of things you have to do, with the most urgent at the top. The top one won’t get done, but you’ll throw yourself into other worthwhile things to avoid it. Eventually something even more urgent will come up, and you’ll turn to the previous top-ranked priority as a way to procrastinate on the new one.
“At this point, the observant reader may feel that structured procrastination requires a certain amount of self-deception, since one is, in effect, constantly perpetrating a pyramid scheme on oneself,” Perry writes. For his answer to this and other details of his method, click here to read his entertaining and instructive article.
Original historical research enthralls few besides professional historians, with one huge exception: family history. Genealogy is said to be the second most popular hobby in the United States, after gardening.
The desire to trace ancestry goes back millennia. Biblical lists detail generations of who begat whom. Family history has taken on new life with the expansion of retirement leisure; the computerization of vital records; the availability of DNA analysis; and disconnection from close-knit communities of kin.
Like any passionate research, genealogy offers the adventure of discovery. It’s exciting to dig out pieces of a puzzle and assemble them into an ever-growing story or picture. History provides an opening into distant times and cultures. Family history has the added draw of personal connection. It helps answer "Who am I?" and "Where do I fit in?"
Serious genealogists may trace every branch with equal vigor, but most of us pick and choose. Of my sixteen great-great-grandparents, only one was born a Gibbard, but that's who I mean when I say I’m descended from English bakers. Why take pride or identify more with one than another? Professor Henry Louis Gates of PBS’s Finding Your Roots says descendants of slaveholders needn’t feel ashamed; guilt isn’t hereditary. By the same token, while learning about our ancestors can help us understand ourselves, we can’t justly claim credit for their achievements.
Airplane pilots in the 1930s who went up without instruments or a flight plan were said to fly by the seat of their pants. The term still means making it up as you go along, whether by choice or because you have no idea what you’re doing. Some love the freedom and unpredictability. Others prefer every detail mapped out in advance.
Which describes you? Do you prepare a shopping list or wait to see what catches your eye? Make motel reservations before a car trip or decide daily where to stop for the night? Among authors of fiction, “plotters” outline their story before drafting the first paragraph, while “pantsers” write by the seat of their pants.
Plotting and pantsing aren’t a dichotomy but poles of a continuum. Pilots today make continual midcourse corrections to keep their planes aimed toward the destination. I begin a day or project with a plan. Then I hold to the details lightly, adjusting along the way.
A friend who teaches middle school English once said everything we teach about writing is wrong. We tell students to start each paragraph with a topic sentence and avoid sentence fragments at all costs. Then we introduce them to literature that opens with a hook and uses fragments to great effect.
While some “rules” are just plain wrong, others need to be learned before they’re broken. They bring clarity and focus. Not only scientific writing and business correspondence but even poetry strays from them only for a purpose. Strong writers may break the rules to convey a mood, set a tone, engage the reader – not to assert an excuse for incoherent rambling.
Something similar happens with rules of behavior and social interaction. No rulebook can cover every situation. We start by learning rules to show courtesy and respect. As we grow up, we learn to make judgment calls. I recall struggling over how far to participate in morning ceremonies as an American child at a Canadian summer camp, or in worship services of a faith that wasn’t mine. Those questions have no one right answer. Thoughtful adults may break a rule for a considered purpose, not as an excuse for rudeness.
The younger readers among you may have no memory of poliomyelitis. Older folks may remember avoiding swimming pools and movie theaters for fear of infection, or standing in lines in school yards to be vaccinated. Painter Frida Kahlo, actress Mia Farrow, and violinist Itzhak Perlman all had polio as children. This highly infectious, paralytic, sometimes fatal disease can be prevented by vaccination but can’t be treated or cured.
I was on the staff of Rotary International in the 1980s when Rotary joined with the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to eradicate polio. Thirty years later, the partnership also includes the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), and the global incidence of polio is down more than 99.9%. Wiping poliovirus from the face of the earth, like smallpox before it, is the only way to keep polio from surging back.
World Polio Day events around the world will raise awareness tomorrow, Tuesday, Oct. 24. The main celebration, at BMGF headquarters in Seattle, will be livestreamed. Click here to watch at 2:30 p.m. Pacific Time or view a recording afterward.
I finally watched the first four episodes of Outlander last week on a family visit. What fun! Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels continue a tradition of fascination with Scotland that goes back 200 years. It first flourished in the Romantic era, with its love for unfamiliar worlds, high emotions, and the supernatural – the same era that gave us the gothic novel.
In the late 1700s, Scottish poet James Macpherson published a cycle of epic poems he claimed to have translated from an ancient Gaelic bard, Ossian. Ossian became an international best seller. Admirers included Napoleon, Thomas Jefferson, and historical novelist Sir Walter Scott. Scotland was all the rage.
“The Highlanders were mythic, in the public imagination,” University of Michigan Professor Beth Genne told me. “The Scots became romantic figures instead of ‘those peasants’.” Adventuresome travelers toured the scarcely populated Highlands, home of what they considered the true Scots. Mendelssohn composed Fingal’s Cave and the Scottish Symphony after such a visit. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert chose the Highlands for the royal family's holiday home, Balmoral Castle.
In the 1954 movie Brigadoon, a Scottish Highland village rises out of the mist for one day every hundred years. Tommy, who happens on the village and falls in love with Fiona, must decide whether to stay with her or return to the twentieth century. Claire in Outlander faces a similar choice, in a more intricate plot with more attention to historical detail. Both are part of the long, rich tradition of romance in mythic Scotland.
Leif Erikson Day (Oct. 9), on the anniversary of the arrival in New York Harbor of the first organized shipload of immigrants from Norway, began in Wisconsin almost ninety years ago to celebrate Nordic heritage. But it’s the Italian-born explorer Christopher Columbus in whose controversial name banks and post offices are closed today. What are we celebrating, exactly?
Columbus Day was never chiefly about conquest and white supremacy. Protestant Americans of English and German ancestry, the dominant culture in the 1800s, paid little attention to Christopher Columbus. Immigrant minority communities – Roman Catholics and particularly Italians – created celebrations named for Columbus to affirm their place in a society that despised them.
Anti-immigrant groups rejected Columbus Day for its association with Catholicism. As Italian immigration peaked in the years around 1900, so did stereotypes of Italians: shifty, criminal, permanently foreign, fit only for manual labor, racially midway between white and Chinese. Violence mounted. Eleven Sicilians were lynched in a single incident in New Orleans in 1891. Ku Klux Klan activity targeted Italian Americans in New Jersey in the 1920s.
Lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, led to the establishment of a national Columbus Day holiday in 1937. Eighty years later, its associations with persecuted immigrants largely forgotten, should we rename it Indigenous Peoples Day? We might do better to let it fade into oblivion alongside Leif Erikson Day. In its place, we could create two holidays on unrelated dates: one named for an American Indian hero or event to honor indigenous peoples, and one to honor all immigrants regardless of faith or national origin.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.