Tag Archives: Phoenicians

Ocean Blue

I suspect with Trump in office Columbus Day will get a boost. After all, it’s the narrative of the white man coming to America and improving on what anybody else had done. Making America great, one might say. That wobbly narrative has been justifiably under fire for some time. Not least for historical reasons. We know beyond reasonable doubt that the Vikings were here before Columbus. Ironically, the savage Vikings appear the more benign of the two. A friend recently sent me a story from Realm of History that asks “Did The Irish Reach The New World Before The Vikings And Columbus?” The story by Alok Bannerjee tells of St. Brendan, a sixth-century Irish monk who may have made the voyage even before the Vikings. And don’t get me started on the Bat Creek inscription or the Kensington Runestone.

The problem with early history is that it’s early. Evidence, when it exists, is rare and often perishable. We know that the technology to cross the Atlantic existed at least as early as the Phoenicians. And we know that no matter how crazy others tell us we are, people are insanely curious. And those who go down to the sea in ships might even make it into the Bible. Objections to anyone making it to the “New World” prior to the Vikings tells us something of the nature of orthodoxy. Yes, historians and scientists have it too. Orthodoxy is where evidence crosses the line into belief. And belief, as I’ve often said, is difficult to dislodge.

So, am I throwing open the doors for any who wish to claim they were here first? Hardly. Well maybe. My own opinions aside, when unorthodox evidence arises, what should we do? The traditional response of “when in doubt, throw it out” may not serve us well. Perhaps we should have a shelf, or locker somewhere. A receptacle in which we might store the stories. When I was a kid learning about Columbus, teachers doubted Vikings had made it this far. Orthodoxy has had to back off on the Norsemen, of course, since archaeology now backs them up. Vineland was a reality, it seems. Even before the purported Irish or Phoenicians, the first nations were here. Where is their federal holiday? We don’t like to think about that. Far too much investing in “superiority” has gone into it. It’s Columbus Day and most of us are at work anyway. Some of us dreaming of new worlds all the same.

Avoiding Ritual


While on my current British kick—not really intentional, but sometimes life gives you limes—I thought I’d mention another piece sent to me by a friend. This one falls under BBC Earth, and it’s about “Why Ancient Brits threw out their most valuable possessions.” You can find the story by Amanda Ruggeri at the link. The basics are pretty simple: some people with a metal detector discovered what turned out to be a Bronze Age “hoard” in Lincolnshire. You have to understand that, in a way that makes me totally jealous, the United Kingdom has tonnes of ancient artefacts still undiscovered. While my wife and I lived there it wasn’t unusual to read about such finds in the newspaper. (Newspapers still existed then.) People had been smelting in the British Isles for a long time. The Phoenicians actually popped round the pub to get their tin—which can be one of the main ingredients for Bronze. What the article somewhat embarrassingly addresses is the nature of the hoard.

Hoards are where a large number of (usually metal) objects are discovered, after having been deliberately buried. These are not uncommon, what with Phoenicians, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Franks, Vikings, and others invading all the time. The issue that embarrasses is the “r word.” Ritual. While we don’t know the reason, the fact that people deliberately deep-sixed their valuables, routinely, suggests a ritual. As the article makes clear, professionals try to avoid the r word. Ironically, such deliberate burials, often with items purposefully broken, is also known from the ancient Levant, often predating the hoards of the prehistoric UK. Intentionally broken items—often of clay, and not infrequently depicting perhaps deities—were buried in biblical times. We don’t know why, but scholars suggest they could’ve been offerings. After all, breaking something potentially useful is an act of faith.

I’m not suggesting a direct connection here. I took a sound scholarly thrashing some years ago for suggesting a tale I heard on the streets of late twentieth-century Scotland had its origins in ancient Sumer (grad students are prone to such thinking). Still, it might not hurt anthropologists to cast a wider eye now and again. People had similar rit— well, let’s just say strange habits, in a land far away. Just cross the Channel and make a left. When it starts getting arid head south. The ancient world may have had more of an “internet” than we think. While that pathway may not always be marked by material remains, we now know ideas travel fast. Even something such as putting a daily post on a blog might become a ri—, strange habit.

Maritime Dreams

MaineEarly in my teaching career, I used to arrive in Milwaukee on a train after midnight. A student from Nashotah House on work-study would pick me up at the train station and drive me the thirty miles to the seminary so that I could teach the next morning. Along the way, depending on the student, conversation ensued. One time I asked the driver why he was interested in what seemed to me an arcane topic (and that’s saying something!). He replied, “Who can ever say why they’re interested in something?” There was some deep wisdom there, I realized. Can any of us say why we’re interested in what we are? I, for example, don’t know why I’m interested in life on the sea. And in the sea. I fell in love with the idea of living on the coast when I was a landlocked child. The ocean came to me only in books, and I never actually saw an ocean until I went to graduate school. The experience confirmed for me that this was where my heart lies. The salt air, the gray waves, the constant call of the pounding surf. Moby Dick immediately became a kind of personal scripture when I first read it. A life near the sea felt right.

I could never really answer the question why. I don’t swim, and besides, the ocean currents I have experienced are really too strong for the placid kind of swimming a lake or pool seems to offer. I don’t own a boat, and I’m a poor pilot when asked to drive one. I’ve been out over the ocean on commercial boats only a couple of times. Still, the imagination is fired by the idea of the ocean. Especially the stormy north Atlantic. As a child Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us was one of my favorite books. Just staring at the cover could transport me to places I’d never seen. When landlocked in Wisconsin for several years, I turned to the Great Lakes for consolation. “Those who go down to the sea in ships” Psalm 107 declares, “Who do business on great waters; They have seen the works of the Lord.” Even so those who dream of the sea.

Ironically, for the Psalm, the Israelites were not a seafaring nation. Good harbors are rare on the coast of ancient Israel, and the maritime trade of antiquity was dominated by the neighbors to the north, the Phoenicians. Still, even the psalmist could dream of the sea. It has been said by various commentators, that the sea represents sexuality, or transcendence, or both. It is larger than we are. Indeed, the earth is by far mostly water as opposed to dry land. Life, even according to Genesis, first began in the waters. So I find myself in the midst of winter thinking about the ocean. It has been a long while since I’ve indulged in a day on the coast, even though I’m pretty much daily in a city on the sea. But I can’t experience the ocean so well with so many people around. Besides, there’s work to do. In those moments when my time is my own, however, I still dream of the ocean and the endless possibilities it represents.

Clockwork Universe

longitudeIn a clockwork universe, time is an essential interpretive factor. Those of us constantly crushed for time hardly realize just how recent of an invention it is. Time has, of course, been around forever. Human interaction with it, in the daily sense of what defines work and what defines leisure, dates only to modernity. Train schedules, in the Victorian Era, led to the need for standardized time across large land masses such as North America. Prior to that, with an uncanny precision to those of us who infrequently take the time even to look at the sky, clocks across the nation were set at noon by observing the sun at its zenith. Even though the concept of longitude existed, its measurement at sea was maddeningly difficult. The Phoenicians, the ancient mariners who circumnavigated Africa, did so by staying in sight of land as much as possible. The open ocean gives few clues as to those imaginary lines we assign to keep our location certain.

Dava Sobel’s Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, is, despite the lengthy title, a brief book laying out the story of John Harrison. Harrison, a clock-maker whose precision clocks made the calculation of longitude a much more precise science, was in a race for a royal grant to reward the discoverer of a method for giving precision to ships at sea. Harrison represented those who believed accurate clocks could solve the problem, while others argued that mapping the heavens would give sailors the best chance. Often we forget that loss of life greater than that on the Titanic could occur when ships ran aground, due to lack of knowledge concerning their longitude. Navigating the seas before GPS and before accurate watches, was often a matter of informed guessing with very high stakes. Harrison never did get to claim fully what he’d earned and we’ve all but forgotten how difficult finding the correct time was when our computers remind us, to the second, of precisely when we are.

Prior to science, the keeping of time was a religious function. Sacred calendars marked holidays—often with the ulterior motive of keeping farmers on track for when planting time for various crops, and their harvests, should commence. Telling the change of seasons by when to add or discard a layer of clothing seems eminently practical, but it doesn’t help an agricultural society to plan ahead adequately. The gods would give the time, and all they would require was a cut of the profits. It was, all things considered, a reasonable trade-off. And now holidays have mostly slipped their religious moorings to become times when we simply don’t have to go to work. Speaking of which—look at the time…

Be Kind to Your Canaanites

You can never find a Canaanite when you need one. This has been the bane of scholars of the Ancient Near East for many years. While teaching my class on Ancient Near Eastern Religions the question frequently arises: who are the Canaanites? Problem is, nobody really knows.

The Canaanites have prominence in the ancient world due to the Bible. The people already occupying the land that would one day become Israel are called Canaanites. They appear to have been culturally contiguous with Aramaeans in what is now Syria, the Phoenicians in what is now Lebanon, and even with the Israelites. While there are references to the Canaanites in antiquity, we have yet to discover a people who call themselves Canaanites (unless the Phoenician inscription from Brazil is legitimate!). Canaanite, at this point in time, is only attested as a name used for somebody else. “They are Canaanites,” not “we are Canaanites.”

An Egyptian version of a Canaanite

In this we have a useful paradigm. Today religions continue the “us versus them” mentality. In the Hebrew Bible it is often open season on Canaanites since they worship other gods. Today this fear and distrust continues with members of some religions declaring war on those in other traditions. Sometimes it is even within a single religion: Catholic versus Protestant, Baptist versus Catholic, or everyone versus Unitarians.

Religion is, however, always taken on faith. No technique exists to determine, empirically, which is the “true religion” or whether they are all paths up the same mountain. Religions are not fact, they are belief. And religions evolve. It would be the greatest evolutionary leap forward for religions to accept each other, to do away with the ersatz Canaanites. Not that Canaanites should be decimated or eradicated, but they should be accepted for who they are. Who are the Canaanites? They are anyone who practices a religion different from your own.