Posted by: francesthomas | January 14, 2011

Where are the stories?

Probably seasoned travellers will be amused by the fact that I’ve only just got round to going to Greece. Always wanted to, but there was never enough time, or enough money, or enough both. We went for history, not sunshine, which was just as well, as there wasn’t much of the latter.
In many ways it was Mycenae that fascinated me most. So old, so mysterious. It seems to have been a civilisation with such charm; the elegant frescoes of long-tressed maidens, or snake-hipped graceful youths, the pottery playfully decorated with swirly octopuses, the delicate gold jewellery, the finely-chased swords. You can even see what they looked like now; in the museum there they’ve made reconstructions of the faces of some of the royals who were buried there; their surprisingly ordinary and familiar faces look out at you across centuries.
But one thing is missing – only one thing,  though it’s a big thing. For years their writing was a mystery . But now it’s been decoded, and what have we got? Shopping lists. Lists of tribute items, but essentially shopping lists. No stories, no poems, no prayers, no dedications. No names. These kings and queens, for all their elegance and sophistication are nameless and unknown.
Other civilisations at the time told stories – and wrote them down. The Egyptians left lots of stories. We know about Gilgamesh and Moses, and we feel that the people who wrote these stories down took pleasure in the telling.
So what happened to the Mycenaean stories? They must have had stories – it’s inconceivable that they didn’t. Maybe they wrote them on a material that didn’t last. Or – more likely – they were simply told orally, handed on and on by word of mouth , for the hundreds of years the civilisation flourished. And the problem with oral tradition is that once the voices die, then so do the stories.
After the Mycenaeans died out so did their scratchy laundry-list script. It wasn’t till many hundreds of years later that another generation of Greeks rediscovered another more adaptable form of writing and at last started to write those stories down. But by then so many years had passed that it was myth they were writing about, not history. Perhaps there really was a king called Agamemnon and perhaps he really was killed by his wife, having come back from a long war. Perhaps. We’ll never know. Without those stories the Mycenaeans are just blurred ghosts.
Made me think how important stories are – fiction, history, myth. A civilisation without them is only half a civilisation. And stories need to be written down – stories need books. E-books are fine – I look forward to getting my first Kindle. But there’s no substitute for print on paper.

And books need readers;  and readers need libraries.  Babies and children need books.

You can see what I’m getting at.  Societies must treasure their writers, their books, and their places where books are kept.  Otherwise all our wonderful literary heritage will vanish  into thin air – just like that of the Myceneans did.



  1. Lovely post. It’s somewhere I’d like to visit one day too!
    As for preserving books…I’ve just heard that the secondary school my sister-in-law attends has decided to get rid of ALL the books in the library. From now on, all reading will be electronic. *headdesk*.

  2. Madness. Some time ago I think the newspaper library at Colindale decided to transfer everything to technology. So they put everything on microfilm and destroyed the originals. Now they’re stuck with outdated technology – have you ever tried reading something on a microfilm reader? And the real newspapers are gone forever.

  3. We were talking in my Future Visions Book Group last night about this, at one point talking about hunter-gathering peoples and their oral traditions. Adam Thorogood mentioned The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin, and how the aborgines of Australia encode information necessary for the continued survival of their tribes and clans in ways that embed individuals in their landscape, their ancestry and the flora and fauna that surrounds them.

    This type of racial memory is the trans-generational correlate of DNA – instinctive memory that promotes survival down the generations. I’m not trying to be reductionist, but it’s marvellous to me how the origin of stories lies here – how the human imagination can construct a marvellous epic like an Oddysey or Gilgamesh unconsciously from this basic drive.

    Songlines and other oral stories are no less great for not being written down, and it’s sad to think that whenever an indigenous tribal culture is destroyed by ‘development’ or colonialism or commercial interests all their oral tradition is lost too.

    Of course, this happened in Wales – when the Romans came and massacred the Druids in 61AD, who were the guardians of the oral tradition. Then the country was Christianised. Both of these cultures destroyed the original oral tradition which is why there are no gods in the Mabinogion, only kings, prices and bards, with quasi-magical powers.

    If you squint, you can see that these characters are pale shadows perhaps of Gods and Goddesses in earlier stories, lost hundreds of years earlier in the sieve of tribal memory.

    Some of the druidic stories made it to Ireland, but even there, after centuries of disapproval from Christian priests, the gods were demoted to the Tuatha de Danaan.

    So the Celtic tradition has no Thor, Odin or Freya. Instead in the British Isles we take our gods from later conquerors, the Viking Norsemen. They gave us our day names – Thursday for Thor, Wednesday fore Odin, or Woden, Friday for Freya or Frigga. The Romans gave us Saturn-day. Our pagan roots are revealed in Moon-Day and Sun-Day. Tiu’sDay belongs to a Germanic God of War.

    What would our day names be if the Druids and Boudicaa had never been conquered, or if they had discovered writing, I wonder?

  4. What a great article. I have visited Mycenae and was completely enthralled by it, even at one point thought of doing a historical novel set there.

  5. An excellent, thought provoking post, France. Generation after generation bemoan the technologies favoured by the young, concerned that they are losing something cherished. Plato, in the Phaedrus, wrote “[Writing] will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own.” (Although the irony is not lost on me that had Plato not at some point written this, Socrates’ words would be lost to us).

    Perhaps the earlier Mycenaeans felt the same way. When I’ve seen skilled professional storytellers at work, I see how utterly captivated children are, and being part of an audience is so much more social and convivial than reading alone. As you point out, Frances, perhaps the stories of Mycenae died along with those who told them.

  6. I believe the first writing– Sumerian cuneiform – mostly consists of official accounts. A sobering thought as we approach January 31st: the taxman beats the author!

  7. Good post, Frances. Books that exist entirely in e-format will just disappear into the ether once there are no longer the devices around to read them. But hopefully the best stories will survive… as they always have survived… by word of mouth, passed down through the generations, changed and borrowed from and rewritten in new forms for a brave new future?

    Lots about e-books on my blog this year!

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