The war on terror has become the organizing theme of today's foreign policy. It follows a 70-year theme of the war between capitalism and communism, which in turn follows a war to save the world for democracy, following a war to carry the white man's burden to the frontiers, following a war for independence, and so on forever backward to the origins of western history. The continuing thread is the storied fabrication that war is the means by which civilization is advanced, as if war and civilization were partners in some grand human journey. Heraclitus said as much in the 6th century BC, and we have believed it to be true ever since.
For 2,800 years, that is, since the Iliad and the Odyssey, we have been teaching children that heroism is the path to immortality, that war is the basis of power, and, in a supporting message, that women should wait, like Penelope, for their hero husbands to decide when war is done. Since the poet Homer, men have not doubted the efficacy of war to secure their property and their homes. Now in the last 100 years comes evidence to disprove the notion that war and civilization are inextricably bound.
On the islands of Crete and Santorini we have recently uncovered information about a very ancient civilization before Homer, and before the Iliad, which sheds a whole new light on the nature of the species and our claimed need for war. On these two islands, between 2,600 BC and 1500 BC, a trading society flourished connecting to ports all over the Mediterranean, from Gibraltar to the Black Sea. Far from primitive, the society was highly advanced, trading olive oil, pots, ivory and tin.
On Crete itself, four large palaces with running water and indoor plumbing were constructed on broad, flat, unprotected plains. From these ruins we have in the last century uncovered large wall paintings, frescoes, engraved seal rings, figurines, dancing figures, decorated pots and jars. And in all this material, from thousands of images, we find no evidence to support the idea of a genetic predisposition of humankind to war. Scholars differ on the date, but between 1650 BC and 1450 BC, a gigantic volcanic explosion destroyed this civilization. Theran cities were buried under 30 meters of white ash. Pots, jars, wall paintings and furniture were totally covered and remained buried until 1900.
Some of this material on Thera has only been uncovered in the last 30 years, too recently to yet make its way into schoolbooks. The message contained in the material, however, is stunningly opposite to the message of Homer and Greek mythology.
Wall paintings reveal swallows kissing under the full moon, monkeys gathering crocuses, women dancing under the stars, men bringing gifts to women, women and men together leaping bulls for sport, dolphins leaping above the waves, flowers in stages of budding, blooming and dying. In the thousands of images, all of which were completely unknown to Homer or Plato, to Augustine or Aquinas, even to modern scholars like Arnold Toynbee, there is not one authentic or confirmed image of two men fighting. This is a civilization that was at the forefront of Mediterranean trading for approximately 1100 years, but evidently which did not make a culture of war.
Were these people angry, or at least frustrated, and did they sometimes beat one another and explode in fury? Probably. Did they organize these frustrations into battle plans; turn their plowshares into swords and their culture into a culture of kings and conquest? There is simply no evidence for that conclusion. Was there anger and even murder? Of course. We are not supposing paradise here. However, there is no evidence that this was a culture which, because of its wealth and dominance in commerce, celebrated heroes and conquest.
As the ash has been dug away on Thera, we have found a celebration of women, female sexuality, the cycles of the seasons, religious or ecstatic experience, a sense of death as seminal, the cause of new life rather than the dreadful, dull end which was the message of the patriarchy.
On these walls are no lists of kings, no lists of conquests, no lists of princes who are to become grand in the eyes of God. There is not one image of a man attacking a woman. The contrast with the stories of Iphigenia, sacrificed by her father so that he might get a fair wind to go off to war in Troy, is dramatic. There is no celebration here of a story like that of poor princess Polyxena, sacrificed over the grave of Achilles, to atone for the death of a Greek hero.
The archeology of Crete and Thera spans the years from 2,600 BC to 1,500 BC. For over one thousand years, a civilization that dominated the trade of the Mediterranean did not celebrate war, nor denigrate women, nor glorify the heroes who die in war, nor diminish death but rather celebrated death as a stage in a cycle.
This is to say that the long story of war and civilization as if they were bound together, (as in the modern war on terror), comes to an end when we get back to 1,500 BC. Only after the horrific volcano of approximately that date did the Homeric and Biblical stories glorifying war and kings and treating the gods as erratic and fearful, come into being. Storytellers must have been forced to explain that explosion. They had also to explain the tsunami and flood that followed. They had to justify sons as a way to win wars and wars as a way to re-establish stability. The storytellers who came along to perform that purpose included Homer and the authors of the earliest Biblical chapters.
That is the beginning of the story that ends with the war on terror.
We are still reading those mythical chapters today and still teaching the inevitability of war in our stories about conquering the frontier, winning the world for democracy, and fighting terror. But these are only stories. They are not histories. Now, within our lifetime, we have evidence to correct this history and begin to see chapters that can be written of our other, non-war human experience. We could anchor the new story with those ancient images, when we celebrated the swallows kissing, dolphins leaping, and women dancing under the moon.
Under the hard crust of patriarchy another fire has burned in the human heart, which is not explained by, nor inspired by, the war story. The heroes and heroines of this alternate story have not yet been celebrated, as they might have been, as those who have carried the light of civilization, or, to change the image, those who have practiced collaboration and cooperation all along and who have been truly responsible for humanity's advance. We have come now to the time when their story is waiting to be to told, and sung, and danced, and remembered.
Craig Barnes is the author of In Search of the Lost Feminine, Decoding the Myths that Radically Reshaped Civilization, Fulcrum, 2006.