(urth) Long Sun and the Ancient Mediterranean
Marcos Bidoli Gouvêa
mgouvea at uchicago.edu
Sun Jan 4 14:16:27 PST 2015
I’m a long time lurker but this is the first time I’ve posted in a quite a while. Last year I reread the whole Solar Cycle and gathered some thoughts to share. Between my first reading and this latest go I became Classicist, and I was surprised to find how much of the Long Sun was opened up by the knowledge I had picked up.
Usually when I think about Wolfe’s reading in classical literature I look to the Soldier books, but now I think it is even more vividly at work in how he draws daily life in Viron. For Latro, Greek culture and even his experience of the gods is alien to what he knows (even if he remembered what he knows). But for the Vironese animal sacrifice is a common affair (even if not on Sun Street). The same goes for dancing, shrill singing, augury, and reciting prayers. (I thought I read about a sistrum at one of the sacrifices, but I cannot find the place at the moment.) These are all practices that are very well-attested across ancient Mediterranean cultures. They were as central to what people meant by 'religion' then as they are distant to them now. One of the great effects of the Long Sun books is to paint all these characteristics—drawn out of our own history—into the ‘foreign’ culture of this future society. I think Wolfe is having fun disguising these commonplaces of the ancient world as futuristic developments, or at least playing the futuristic element off the ancient one.
My favorite example is his deployment of Euhemerism. Euhemerus famously proposed that the gods worshiped by Greeks and others were actually great kings and heroes who had been elevated to status of gods by reverent followers. (Fame is pretty much all Euhemerus has going for him-- none of works of his survive.) I think Wolfe engaged in something of a thought experiment in the Whorl: in what sort of scenario would men again find it a a relevant, even edgy explanation to say that the gods were once men? Belief in multiple gods is not commonly taken to be a plausible view in the west, and so it is easy to dismiss the disturbing character of Euhemerus' claim. It's just not our problem. However, it is much easier to find it plausible that computerized personalities might wield godlike power over us. In the Whorl, there is really very little difference between what Scylla is and what a sea goddess might have been to the Greeks.
There’s an impishly Chestertonian manner to how Wolfe takes makes an ancient theory of apparently little relevance to us and makes it a genuinely exciting development in his novel. He seems to be insisting that history does not leave everything behind, and that what made sense to humans in one day can again be plausible.
I have one more thought on this, but I’ll save it to avoid overstaying my welcome on a first foray in a long time. I’d be interested to hear thoughts; I could not find any discussion of Euhemerism directly in the Whorl archives, but I’m sure there’s something I’ve missed there.
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