Unlocking the Power of Myth

By Wishna, Victor | Humanities, May/June 2005 | Go to article overview

Unlocking the Power of Myth


Wishna, Victor, Humanities


THE ANCIENT CITY OF TROY HAS ENDURED THROUGH the human imagination. Abandoned in the fifth century CE. and not rediscovered until the 1870s, the city for centuries seemed no more real than Camelot or Valhalla.

No one knows exactly why the Trojan War was waged, when it took place, or whether it took place at all. Excavations at the ancient site of Troy have unearthed no wreckage of a giant wooden horse, no statues of Helen, no physical evidence that a warrior named Achilles ever existed.

Some of the strongest evidence for the Trojan War, or any war there, is that the city grew layer upon layer because of a series of destructions. "You can imagine destruction coming in many different forms, but clearly a lot of it had to do with military aggression," says Elizabeth Riorden, director of Troy on the Internet, a project under way with NEH funding at the University of Cincinnati. Riorden has spent fourteen years studying and excavating at Troy and is developing an online resource to bring that knowledge to schoolchildren.

Roughly three thousand years ago, a people known as the Mycenaeans -prehistoric settlers of mainland Greece-might very well have battled with an obscure population in Northwest Anatolia, what is now present-day Turkey. It would have been one of dozens of major skirmishes likely fought in that period for any number of reasons: a trade dispute; a dissolving alliance; territorial expansion; or perhaps, as the story of the Trojan War goes, for the lost love of the most beautiful woman in the world.

Troy sits on the entrance to the Dardanelles, the only route from the Mediterranean and Aegean to the Black Sea-and the only way for ancient traders to get goods such as amber, gold, timber, and wool from the Black Sea Region. "It was like a toll gate that everyone had to pass through," she says. "So you can be sure they probably made some enemies. And they wouldn't have built all those series of fortification walls unless they were afraid of being attacked by somebody."

Decades of digging and research have revealed that there was not one Troy but at least nine distinct cities over a period of two-and-a-half thousand years, one built on top of the other. Troy grew powerful in the Early Bronze Age, a thousand years before the kingdom of Homer's epic, and other societies followed in the centuries afterward. Based on structural remains and discovered plans, archaeologists have been able to envision-and with the help of computers, depict-what some of those impressive civilizations looked like.

Seemingly commonplace architectural findings help unlock the power of myth. Reconstructed on the Web site is a simple wellhead dating from the Hellenistic period that likely covered a passageway used by Locrian maidens-women from Locris who were enslaved in the Temple of Athena as retribution for when, as the legend says, centuries earlier, Ajax of Locris attempted to rape Cassandra of Troy, an Athenian priestess. Legal inscriptions discovered from the same era allowed that if a citizen saw one of these maidens in public, she could be put to death. Hence, she could only move at night- or through this underground passage.

"That's just one strange ritual, which has no meat to it unless you say, 'Wow, these people really believed in this legend,'" Riorden says. "Or you could be cynical and say they used it to their advantage . . . but either way, you have to consider it."

Part of the purpose of Troy on the Internet is to show how integral myth and fact are to appreciating what happened there. Says Riorden, "You have to understand a lot of the myths to understand what they were thinking and what purpose the buildings were serving."

Students visiting the Web site will have the opportunity to examine many of those buildings and learn about the history and the mythology that makes them significant. For example, a short video tour of the Temple of Athena, the center of Troy's citadel, will be followed by links to the legends, such as the story of Athena and how she sided with the Greeks in the Trojan War.

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