The Greco-Germanic Family Cycles III :
The European Existential Period—The Source of the Family Cyclesby Thomas Sefton
Subjects: (click links to jump directly to subjects in the text)
Bell Beaker Culture 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
Copper Age 1, 2, 3, 4
Corded Ware Culture 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Existentialism in Family Cycles 1, 2, 3, 4
Family Cycles 1, 2, 3, 4
Indo-Europeans 1, 2, 3, 4
Linear Band Culture
Megalithic Cultures 1, 2
Third Millennium BC 1, 2, 3, 4, 4, 5
About this Essay
In Part I and Part II we saw that the Greco-Germanic Family Cycle form goes back at least to the time when the people who eventually became Greek and the people who eventually became Germanic shared the same culture and the same literature. Further, we saw that to an extent, the stories themselves go back to such a time. Now in Part III, we will see where and when that time was.
The content of the stories is such that they could not have come from the group thinking and the changeless and cyclical worlds of the Neolithic farming cultures, so they have to have come from the time after those cultures had faded away. Further, they could not have come from the Bronze Age, because first, the content of the stories could not have come from the Bronze Age’s intense hierarchy. And second, they came from a time when the proto-Greeks and the proto-Germanic peoples shared the same culture and the same literature, and that has to be before the time when the Greeks migrated into the Greek peninsula. Since that migration happened right at the beginning of the European Bronze Age, and since the stories have to have come from before that beginning, these cannot be Bronze Age stories. There was a period of several centuries, after the farming cultures passed on and before the Bronze Age began, that was dominated by the Corded Ware culture, the Bell Beaker culture and the hybrid Indo-European cultures of South-East Europe. We normally consider this period to be either a step on the road to Bronze Age hierarchy or to be an obscure, unknowable hiccup. But now that we know that the Family Cycles come from this period, we can see that it is unique and extremely important
Further, there are two kinds of Indo-European literature, and they have to have two sources. There is the literature that we find in the Vedic tradition, in Persia and in the Keltic countries and to an extent in Greece, and that is imaginative, exotic, complicated, supernatural and fantastic. That clearly comes from the steppes. Then there are the Family Cycles. They are simple and natural and plausible and earthy, and furthermore they have a specific content not obviously found in steppe literature. The people of the Corded Ware and the Bell Beaker cultures are thought of as Indo-European and they adopted Indo-European languages, but they were native Europeans and had a different origin than the people of the steppes. Furthermore, when the Corded Ware culture transformed into the Bell Beaker culture-- and there were places where this transformation took place-- we would expect a flowering of literature. The two most important aspects of the Greco-Germanic Family cycles are, first, the God that all the Cycles are about, and second, the choice that was made about that God. Both the God and the choice can be traced back to the Corded Ware culture and the Bell Beaker culture.
The absolutely crucial point I want to make is this: We have always known that the stories in the Family Cycle form are very old, but they do not simply come from somewhere in the mists of time. They come from identifiable times and places, thought can be applied to them, and we can determine what and where these places are. These stories can tell us much that we did not know about European pre-history, and they can bring us face-to-face with the people of prehistoric Europe in ways that traditional archeological and linguistic evidence cannot.
The Family Cycles are always about a choice that the story’s principal character makes. This choice is never a climax, it is never made at the end of the story, but always in the second-to-last generation, and it does not necessarily resolve the plot. The point of the choice is that the principal character chooses the God that the story is about, and this God is different than anything we are familiar with today.
The Greco-Germanic Family Cycles are very different from modern stories. A modern story is about a battle between Good and Evil. There is a climax, Good is on some level triumphant, and things either get better or at least get back to normal. The point of such a story is that Good is better that Evil, Good is superior to Evil. These stories are not like that, these stories are about someone making a choice, and the choice is not made in the context of a battle between Good and Evil, this choice is made regardless of any consideration of Good or Evil. Either he who makes the choice does something he is Fated to do, or he accepts the whole of his Fate and the whole of his life. Again, his choice is not a climax, it does not come at the end of the story, it does not necessarily resolve the plot, and it always comes in the second-to-last generation.
His choice does not lead him to some kind of triumph, he is not triumphant. He is annihilated. He is utterly defeated, things do not come out right, but on the contrary, life just goes on however it goes. But. As he makes this choice, he becomes human. The act of making this choice makes him human. Sigurd chooses the totality of his Fate, the totality of his life, just as Oidipous does. Sigurd chooses knowledge, just as Oidipous does. Sigurd chooses Odin, just as Oidipous chooses Apollo. And Sigurd chooses Brynhild. All this is one choice, all these are different sides of the same choice. And he chooses all this knowing that nothing good is going to come of this choice, he chooses this knowing that the result of this choice will be evil. He knows this. But. Making this choice makes him human, and no one who is fully human could have chosen any other way, no one who is fully human could have made any other choice. And the point of the story is not that good is better than evil, the point of the story is that it is possible to be human, that he has the power to be human. And if he has the power to be human, then so do we. And no consideration of good or evil has the power to stop us.
Origin of the Family Cycles
Because the specifics of this form are so detailed, and because they are so unique, and because the content of these stories is so distinctive, the Family Cycle stories are obviously a single block of literature. Since you find elements of this block in both Greece and Northern Europe, it has to have come from a time when the people who eventually became the Greeks and the people who eventually became Germanic shared the same literature, and that would have to be before Greek- speaking people migrated into the Greek peninsula, before 2,200 BC. It has to come from a time when the Greeks were still in the interior of Europe. The Family Cycle stories were so deep inside the core of both the Greek and the Germanic cultures, they were not simply something picked up from travelers, they are an integral part of both cultures. And since they were an integral part of both cultures, they have to come from the time when the two cultures were forming, and that would have to be before the Greeks migrated into Greece.
illustration: Autumn Whitehurst
Family Cycles in Prehistory
So what was Europe like during the centuries before the Greeks migrated into the Greek peninsula? Much of South-Eastern Europe had been occupied by farming cultures for quite a long time. During the time that these cultures were vital, they were more populous and farther along the road to civilization than were Mesopotamian cultures of the same period. (Chapman 1981: 51, 133 and Ellis 1984: 197-199) If these cultures in South-East Europe had continued to advance, the cradle of our civilization would have been South-Eastern Europe and not Mesopotamia, and our whole concept of what civilization is and ought to be would be different than it is now. But they did not continue to advance. They were weakened in much of their territory by a century and a half of extremely cold weather, (Anthony 2007: 227-229) and this was followed by influence and migration by Indo-Europeans from the steppes, (Anthony 2007: 228-240, 249-262 ) and then they were swamped by such migration on a really massive scale. (Anthony 2007: 361) The old farming cultures were completely gone by 2,600 BC, (Anthony, 2007: 346) and they were superseded by Indo-European cultures with some of the aspects of the old farming ways hybridized into them. (Bankoff & Winter 1990: 190 and Dumitrescu, Bolomey & Mogosanu 1982: 40-42 and Berciu 1967: 66)
For example, female figures, like those characteristic of the old farming cultures, have been found with the hybrid cultures. (Zanotti 1982: 295) The people of these new hybrid cultures weren’t settled farmers, but rather they tended to have lots of cattle and a few fields as their Indo-European ancestors had. (Dumitrescu, Bolomey & Mogosanu 1982: 40-42 and Anthony 2007: 324) They did not re-build the same house in the same place generation after generation, as the farmers had done. (Stevanovic 1997: 381-388) They were not anchored to family, house and land to the extent that the farmers had been, and overall they lived a looser, freer, more individual life. Some of the farmers continued as agricultural and crafts specialists under the protection of Indo-European warrior-herdsmen. (Anthony 2007: 366) All of these occupied area 4 on the map.
About the same time the Indo-Europeans migrated into Southern Europe on a really large scale, the Corded Ware culture began in Northern and Central Europe, in area 1 on the map. This happened about 2,800 BC. This culture was not formed by Indo- Europeans from the steppes, it was formed by people who were physically different from the steppe Indo-Europeans, (Merk 1980: 363, 374-377, 383-389 and Schwidetzky 1980: 346, 350-353 & 357) and who had been living in Northern Europe for a very long time. These native Europeans had knowledge of agriculture, but they had never actually been farmers in the sense that the Neolithic people of Southern and Central Europe were farmers. And to form the Corded Ware culture, they cut back on such agriculture as they had been practicing and adopted a leaner, simpler, less material culture. They adopted many of the same traits that we find among the Indo-Europeans, (Anthony 2008: 40) and they became so similar to the Indo-Europeans that we usually refer to them as Indo-Europeans as well, even though they had different origins. They did have contact with the steppe Indo-Europeans, (Anthony 2007: 368) because at some point they began to speak an Indo-European language. (Anthony 2007: 305-306)
What is a culture? A culture is a way of looking at the world, and a way of dealing with the world. A particular way of looking at the world and dealing with the world, the Corded Ware Culture, spread north and east into Sweden and Finland, and out to the Baltic States and into North-West Russia, area 2 on the map. It didn’t spread down onto the steppes, that was occupied by Indo-European horse cultures, it spread into the forested areas farther north. It’s broadly the same throughout most of this whole area, which suggests that it spread at least partially through migration, and it doesn’t change all that much through the centuries. (Cunliffe 2008: 167)
Until the Bell Beaker culture arose. The Bell Beaker was a set of cultural ideas, some of which arose earlier and apart from the Corded Ware culture, (Harrison 1974: 104, 106-107 and Harrison 1977: 94-99 and Cunliffe 2008: 205 and Vandkilde 2007: 74 and Chapman 2008: 230) but a lot of the Bell Beaker culture that we are concerned with here originated in the same area as did the Corded Ware culture, but about 2,500 BC. That’s in area 1 on the map. (Vandkilde 2007: 71 and Turek & Peska 2001: 414, 426) The Bell Beaker culture that arose here in 2,500 BC was not that different from the older, Corded Ware culture, but as we shall see, it was different in some ways. Then the ideas of the Bell Beaker culture replaced those of the Corded Ware in most of central Europe (Shennan 1993: 143) and spread into the areas that had for a long time been occupied by the Megalithic cultures, in area 3 on the map. There probably wasn’t much migration involved here, mostly what spread was ideas. (Turek, Dvorak & Peska 2003: 184)
The Megalithic cultures could be described as farming cultures, even if they were not fully Neolithic, and they were different in many ways from the Corded Ware and the Bell Beaker. The Bell Beaker ideas entered the Megalithic cultures and changed them in various ways and to various degrees. (Sherratt 1994b: 250-256) This conversion is not astonishing. The Megalithic cultures had appeared wherever there had been really strong Mesolithic culture. Such places had large populations and were quite able to stand up to Neolithic migrants (Arias 1999: 446), so they adopted Neolithic technology at their own pace and converted to Neolithic cultural ideas rather than being overwhelmed by them. (Sherratt 1997: 361) As a result, they did not form villages as Neolithic people did, and may have had fewer grain fields. (Sherratt 1997: 359) They had cattle, but their houses were ephemeral, and they were really very different from the truly Neolithic people farther south. (Mithen 2003: 195) On the whole, the Megalithic cultures that converted to Bell Beaker thereby became simpler and more individualistic, and much more like the Corded Ware culture.
Both the Megalithic people of North-West Europe and the Funnel Beaker people of North-Central Europe, (area 1 on the map) who formed the Corded Ware culture, had strong Mesolithic roots. Both did some farming, both built Megaliths. But the Westerners parted with their Mesolithic ways reluctantly, (Cunliffe 2008: 152, 157 and McIntosh 2006: 39, 43-44, 50-51) and the Funnel Beaker people didn’t stop being Mesolithic at all, not altogether. (Midgley 1992: 477-478) The Funnel Beaker people of North-Central Europe adopted Neolithic technology much later that did the Westerners, and they were influenced by it for a much shorter time. (Cunliffe 2001: 152, 157, 162-171 and McIntosh 2006: 47) So it was the North-Central Europeans who formed the Corded Ware culture in 2,800 BC, and the Corded Ware culture spread north and east, and it could have spread west as well-- but it didn’t. The Westerners could have then adopted the Corded Ware culture or something like it, but they didn’t. So there was some difference between the North-Western and the North-Central Europeans. On the other hand, the Westerners did adopt the very similar Bell Beaker culture 300 years later, so clearly this difference was not vast.
The Funnel Beaker people developed into the Corded Ware people. And both the Funnel Beaker people and the Western Megalithic people developed, or adopted, the Bell Beaker cultures. The literature we have been looking at here came from the Corded Ware/ Bell Beaker cultures, and these came from the Funnel Beaker and from the Western Megalithic cultures. So although the Neolithic technology that they adopted certainly had an effect on them, it is clear that they continued to have an existential side, and that the Funnel Beaker people especially, remained hunter-gatherers in spirit, and never lost touch with the existential world.
Now these cultures, these ways of looking at and dealing with the world, lasted until the European Bronze Age, which began just about the time of the Greek migration, 2,200 BC. The Corded Ware culture and the Bell Beaker culture end when bronze is introduced, they change into something else. Because bronze, for the first time, enables really enormous quantities of wealth and power to be concentrated in a very few hands and to be easy to manipulate. Bronze made it possible to establish the kind of hierarchy that we are all too familiar with today— a pyramid with nearly all the wealth and power and advantage concentrated in a very few people at the top, the famous “upper one percent,” while below them are more and more people with less and less. Now the Corded Ware and Bell Beaker cultures ended when this was established, it was antithetical to what they were all about. In Southern France, where the Corded Ware culture was never established, the local Late Neolithic culture was marching steadfastly towards hierarchy— until 2,400 BC when the area converted to the Bell Beaker culture. Then, ostentation in ornaments and weapons disappeared, cultural, and possibly political boundaries, disappeared, marks of social ranking disappeared, and most importantly, skeletons with traumatic wounds disappeared. (Vander Linden 2006: 325-327) Of course after the Bell Beaker culture faded, the march towards domination continued.
The Family Cycle form arose in what we could call an “existential period” in European history, the period when the farming cultures were gone, and bronze hadn’t been introduced yet. The people who would become Greek and the people who would become Germanic were shaped by the ideas of a unique set of cultures, broadly the same, these were the Corded Ware culture, the Bell Beaker culture, the Indo-European hybrid cultures and a few smaller, very similar cultures.
I think these stories and the meaning we find in them come from the time of the Corded Ware culture and the Bell Beaker culture, and one of the reasons I think that is because the stories are so existential. Here is what I mean by existential:
Baseball. You’re in left field. You’re all alone in left field. The ball gets hit your way. You’re all alone, there’s nothing there but you. And either you catch the ball, or you don’t. It doesn’t matter what you think you are, it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks you are, it doesn’t matter what you think you have or what you think you are connected with or what you think you know. Either you catch the ball or you don’t. There’s nothing there but you. That’s “existential,” and it’s pretty much the opposite of any kind of hierarchy. Hierarchy is about what you think you are, and hierarchy is what other people think you are. This is the opposite of that, this is antithetical to that. And these stories are completely existential, each of these stories is about a choice, and this choice has to be made alone. What Oidipous thinks he is, means nothing, the illusions that have gathered around him, that cling to him, mean nothing. All that matters is that he has a choice to make, and he will choose to accept what he really is or he will not, he will choose to accept his own humanity or he will not. Either way he will do it alone, it’s all up to him. Sigurd stares at the monstrosity that his life has become, and he has to choose. Brynhild can’t help him. She offers him the choice, but she doesn’t understand the enormity of what she is asking him to accept. She can’t help him. He has to choose his own life, he has to choose his own humanity, he has to choose to accept her. It’s all the same choice, and he has to make it alone. There is plenty of great literature from the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, but there is nothing like Oidipous or Sigurd. This is also a long way from anything that could have come from the old Neolithic cultures.
Either the Corded Ware people or the Bell Beaker people could have produced an existential literature. The Megalithic people, the ones in Western Europe who eventually adopted the Bell Beaker culture, they couldn’t have done it while they were still Megalithic people. They then lived and thought as a group, not as individuals. They were even buried in common graves, often in heaps of bones rather than individual skeletons. They don’t seem to have been all that existential, and that was even more true of the European farming cultures farther south, they too clearly thought of themselves as parts of an extended family or some kind of larger group. The Linear Band culture of the European river valleys lived in some of the richest forests on earth, but they depended on their dairy cattle and their permanent fields, and did very little hunting. (Bogucki 1988: 58, 89) They also lived in communal houses (Cunliffe 2008: 106, 109 and Mallory 1997: 355) and clearly had a strong group identity. The Linear Band people were fully Neolithic immigrates from Anatolia, and very different from the hunters of the deep forests of ancient Europe. (Fagan 2004: 114-115) They established themselves in the same changeless pattern wherever they settled, and except at the western end of their territory, they accepted no cultural influence from the surrounding hunter-gatherers and apparently had very little to do with them. (Sherratt 1997: 362-363) Furthermore, the various groups within their culture seem to have been extraordinarily brutal to one another. (Cunliffe 2008: 111) They were far from existential.
The early farming communities of South-Eastern Europe re-built the same houses on the same plan so many times for so many generations that they formed a “tell,” a hill that rose a fair distance above the surrounding countryside. (Stevanovic 1997: 381-388) This is one of the oldest aspects of Neolithic culture, older than farming itself. It goes back to 9,400 BC, (Mithen 2003: 424-428) and some version of it was practiced by some of the first Mesopotamian farmers in 8,000 BC. (Mithen 2003: 431) The areas in which these early Mesopotamian Neolithic cultures built and re-built their homes were carefully separated from the outside world, (Mithen 2003: 431) a practice that would be reflected in the Neolithic Cultures that followed.
The nomadic Indo-Europeans from the steppe who replaced these farming cultures and who took on some of their traits, they are more of a possibility. Then there were the people of Northern Europe, the people in area 1 on the map. They were Mesolithic hunters who gradually began to do some farming— some grain, some cattle— still a lot of hunting and gathering. They also tended to be semi-nomadic; you wouldn’t actually think of them as “farmers.” Midgley says that for much of their history they were “only beginning to experiment with growing cereals and keeping farm animals.” (Midgley 1992: 402-405) And especially in the North, they at all times continued to do a very substantial amount of hunting and plant and shellfish gathering. (Midgely 1992: 371, 376-377) They were certainly not farmers in the sense that truly Neolithic people such as those of the Linear Band Culture were.
But for short while, the Northern Europeans were well-organized enough to build small megalithic tombs: A megalith is just a very big stone. And the stones they would use to build these tombs with were much too big for individuals to deal with, they could only be handled by organized groups. They could have used individual-sized stones for the burial chamber so that one or a few individuals could have built that chamber, but they didn’t. Not only did these huge stones have to be handled, they weren’t lying right there where you wanted them for a tomb, they had to be transported for a long distance cross-country. According to Sherratt, huge stones were deliberately used to create a symbol of the group. (Sherratt 1997: 338) They would build a small room out of these very big stones, with rows of stones standing upright for the sides and back, and stones laid across for the roof. And then they might cover the whole thing with a big mound of earth, so you had a big mound with a stone room in the middle of it and that would be the burial chamber, and there would often be a passage to this chamber. (Sherratt 1997: 143-144) Now you had large, organized groups of people all over Western Europe, because you had tombs like this everywhere. And in some areas you had very, very large, very well organized groups, because some of these tombs were really enormous and very elaborate. In Northern Europe you had megalithic tombs, but only small ones. They kept the practice of building them for relatively short time, (Cunliffe 2008: 166) and then they stopped altogether. (Midgley 1992: 490) That’s because in Northern Europe, people weren’t progressing towards more and more organized and elaborate ways of doing things. On the contrary, they were moving back towards simplicity.
They were moving back to simpler ways of doing things, but the place they were moving back from wasn’t itself all that complicated. These people had never really entered the Neolithic, and they had never really become farmers. We think of people as naturally coming together to form settled, stable farming communities, then evolving into something more complicated than that. But that doesn’t necessarily happen, and it didn’t happen to these people. They had learned to do some farming and some stockbreeding. But though they kept their herds, they became less interested in agriculture, and they began to do less of it. (McIntosh 2006: 55, 59-60) They learned to make very fine, very impressive pottery for a while, probably done by specialists, but they lost interest in that too. (Midgley 1992: 193-197) Some of them learned to build substantial houses, (Midgley 1992: 318-319 335-340, 484 and Volpe 1996: 153) but then they stopped building them, just like they stopped building their Megalithic tombs. Because all this time, even with all the knowledge they had acquired, they were not all that far from being Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. They never entered the Neolithic.
These people are often called farmers since they had fields and cattle, and though some of them had virtually no domestic animals, others got sixty percent of their meat from their livestock. (Midgley 1992: 355, 371-372 & 376) But their settlements were mostly short-term and often seasonal (Midgley 1992: 317-318, 320-323 & 393), and most of their houses were flimsy. They were basically still Mesolithic hunters following Mesolithic patterns, but with added technology. (Midgley 1992: 477-478 and Sherratt 1997: 335, 346) Only late in their history did any of them leave anything behind that suggested permanent houses and settlements, and even then they were nothing like the South-East European farmers or the Linear Band people. (Midgley 1992: 477-478) It is clear to me that if I were to go back there and meet them, I would not think of them as farmers.
Then they changed. But they still didn’t enter the neolithic. In Germany and Poland, they became simpler and less agricultural when they became Corded Ware. But when they spread north and east into Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Sweden, their herds and such fields as they had made them seem like ambassadors of the new technology. (Rimantiene 1992: 126-127, 131, 136, 139) When they became Corded Ware they didn’t thus simply return to the Mesolithic, they became something new.
This change happened before the first dynasty of Egypt, this change happened as civilization was beginning in Mesopotamia. At this time the people of Northern Europe, who had never been part of the Neolithic, had never been farmers and who were in the process of moving back towards a simpler way of doing things, formed the culture that we call the Corded Ware culture. And this Corded Ware culture was in many ways like the hybrid Indo-European cultures of South-East Europe, which were being formed at the same time. Both had stone battle maces, both had similar cord-marked pottery (Jovanovic 1983: 31-32), both had more herds than fields and both had a sparse material culture—and in both cases their settlements were few and left few traces. There was probably contact between the two. (Anthony 2007: 368 and Anthony 2008: 22-39) And as these cultures were being formed, something new happened. While civilization was being created in Mesopotamia and Egypt, something new was being created in Europe. But this something new wasn’t civilization, it was something existential, and it is the foundation of our liberal and humanistic tradition.
The Corded Ware culture was formed more by discarding than by adopting, and in many ways it was a fairly simple culture. The sites, if you can find them at all, have only scanty artifacts (Shennan 1993: 126-127, 142 and Turek & Peska 2001: 413, 422-423 and Kriiska 2000: 64, 70-74) and perhaps some traces of very flimsy houses, flimsier than previous cultures had. (Sherratt 1994a: 192) On a material level, they really didn’t have much at all. All they really left us, besides possibly the most profound literature in existence, was their graves.
Their graves were simple, as we would expect. And they no longer buried each other in communal graves, now their graves were always individual. (Vandkilde 2007: 67-68) Where the Megalithic graves involved very elaborate rituals, the only ritual items these graves contained were a ceramic cup full of beer. But the most important thing about these graves, apart from their simplicity, was that they were of two classes. One class contained lots of weapons and ornaments, and a cup of beer, and the other class, equally numerous, contained nothing. (Vandkilde 2007: 83-87) No respect, no provision, no consideration, no recognition. You’re dead, you’re in the ground, good luck. Bronze-Age hierarchy did not exist yet, so both classes were equal in numbers and everyone was equal within each class. (Vandkilde 2007: 85)
But at a certain point things changed, and what we now call the Bell Beaker culture appeared in Northern Europe, in area 1 on the map. (Vandkilde 2007: 71) Now as I have said, the Bell Beaker culture in this area was similar to the Corded Ware, but it was also different in some ways. Like the Corded Ware, the Bell Beaker didn’t leave much behind apart from their graves, (Turek & Peska 2001: 415, 418) and their graves were individual. (Vandkilde 2007: 71-72) Their graves had drinking cups, but a different kind of drinking cup, they had weapons, but a different kind of weapon, (Vandkilde 2007: 72) but the most important thing that happened as the Bell Beaker culture appeared is that the class of barren graves disappeared. (Vandkilde 2007: 88) In Britain, all known graves are provisioned, (Thomas 1989: 34-35) though not necessarily with pots of the same quality. (Brodie 1997: 300-301) In Denmark and Central Europe, generally all males were buried with weapons. (Sarauw 2007: 65-82) The Bell Beaker was dispersed over a wide area, and, the culture seems to have had more than one source, (Harrison 1974: 104, 106-107 and Chapman 2008: 230) so the graves were more equally provisioned in some localities, less so in others. But in no place was there a classof barren graves, everybody was given some honor, some respect.
Now what happened here? What seems to have happened is what happened when the Athenian democracy arose. The respect and the esteem and the consideration that had been reserved for the elite, spread to everyone. (Kitto 1968: 95- 96, 107-109) Suddenly everyone was alive, everyone was real. And because everyone was real, there was a flowering of literature. Everyone mattered, everyone’s choices mattered, and everyone understood how important their choices were. And so there was a flowering of existential literature. And where did the Athenians get much of this literature that flowered among them? From the Bell Beaker and Corded Ware cultures, where the honor and the respect and consideration that had been reserved for one class had spread to include everyone, and where there had been a similar flowering of literature for the same reasons. In fact much Athenian literature was just recycled Corded Ware/ Bell Beaker literature.
It is obvious that the Family Cycles did not arise under the influence of either the Neolithic cultures or the Bronze Age, so they had to have arisen sometime between 2,800 BC and 2,200 BC. Now we have reason to believe that they arose at the beginning of the Northern European Bell Beaker culture, 2,500 BC.
The Corded Ware and Bell Beaker peoples left so little behind that is tangible. What can we say about them?
Well, there isn’t much that we can say about them, but we can say a few things. In the first place, we can definitely say that they looked at themselves as individuals, that they didn’t look at themselves as parts of a group. I have said that Kadmos was a Canaanite and Sigurd was a Hun, but that means nothing in these stories. These stories are completely existential and nationalities and other group identities mean nothing whatever. This was more true in Northern than in Southern Europe. (Mithen 2003: 186)
Secondly, they left very few material traces. And this isn’t just one or two sites, this is many sites over a very large area, so if there isn’t much evidence of material culture, they didn’t have much material culture. They could have made more stuff, better stuff, certainly they could have made better houses, but they didn’t. So obviously they didn’t want to. This might have been because they were nomads, and they simply didn’t want to carry a lot of stuff around with them. The problem with this is that there isn’t any reason to believe that they were nomads except that they didn’t have a lot of stuff. (van der Waals 1984: 5) But if they were capable of traveling lightly, you have to assume they did some traveling. And if they didn’t put much time into building their houses, and so it was easy for them to move and build a new house somewhere else, you can assume that they did some moving. Personally, I don’t care how they are characterized. What remains true is that they didn’t produce good houses or lots of material things. It may well be that the obvious thing is true, and they just weren’t that materialistic, that their energies, their lives, were being put into something else, were going in some non-material direction.
Finally, we can say that their literature had great strength and that it was a very important part of their lives, and we can say that because it still survives today. We can see that it had great power because we can read it. And there were no libraries or universities then, there wasn’t even writing, and so if a literature did not have deep popular roots, it had no way to survive. And this has survived. Furthermore, this literature survived for two thousand years without being written down; it was obviously very important to people— people cared about this literature.
The people who made this literature did not see themselves as parts of a great family as the Megalithic people did, as farming people in general did, and as even their own ancestors tended to do. And they did not see themselves as part of a great hierarchy as Bronze Age people did, and as we still do today. These people were unlike anyone who ever lived before, and they were unlike anyone who has ever lived since. The Family Cycle stories that came out of these people could not have come from the settled, changeless worlds and the group thinking of the European farming cultures. And they could not have come from the Bronze Age. In the first place, they could not have come from the artificial hierarchy of the Bronze Age. In the second place, they had to come from the time before the Greek migration, and that was at the beginning of the Bronze Age.
I am saying that the Ancient Family Cycle was first made in Europe somewhere north of the Greek Peninsula, and then brought in with the migrating Greek-speakers, and that explains why the Family Cycles are so different from the rest of ancient Greek literature. Now we call ancient Greek literature, “Greek Mythology,” and what we call, “Greek Mythology” is simply all the stories that the Greeks knew— whether they brought these stories with them from the North or got them from somewhere in the East Mediterranean. The stories of Perseus, Jason and Odysseus mostly don’t take place in Greece, but overseas, and to a large extent that’s probably where those parts of the stories come from. Many of the stories about Herakles take place overseas, and they may come from there as well. And they, and the other stories I just mentioned, are imaginative, exotic and implausible, and very different from the Family Cycle stories.
This is not true of the Iliad. The Iliad is quite plausible with only a few supernatural elements, but it is not about Gods. Gods enter, do something specific and then leave. Like ancient Greek stories in general that are not part of a Family Cycle, the Iliad is about people.
Gods are Universal Principles. The Family Cycle stories are about Gods, they are about Universal Principles. I’ve already said that the Family Cycle stories are about Universal Principles that interact with other Universal Principles, the ancient Greek stories outside the Family Cycles are not, they are about people. Even in non-Family Cycle stories that are supposedly about Gods, like that of Zeus and Typhon, the characters are not Principles at all, but just enormously powerful people— like the characters in a modern graphic novel. I am not saying that the conflict between what the Greeks called, “Zeus” and what the Greeks called “Typhon” was meaningless, and I’m not saying that it has no more meaning than we would expect from a comic book. I’m saying that the meaning is not expressed in the story. There was at least one ritual associated with the story and probably more, and the meaning was probably expressed in those. (Burkert 1985: 127) Here’s a better example: Demeter was the Mother-Goddess, and Persephone was her daughter who had to spend part of the year in Hades. We know that Demeter and Persephone had a very profound meaning for the ancient Greeks, but there is no particular meaning in their story itself. There was an elaborate ritual attached to the story called the Eleusian Mysteries, and we know, historically, that the Greeks found an enormous meaning in that ritual. The meaning lay in the ritual.
There are several things that are distinctive about the Family Cycle stories, but they are also distinctive in that they are fully what we think of as literature. They are not simply part of a ritual; their meaning lies in the stories themselves. Most ancient Greek stories are about people and their adventures, but the Family Cycle stories are about Universal Principles, that is, Gods, as these Gods actually exist in the world that you and I experience every day. In other words, they are literature. That’s what is unique about the Family Cycle stories, and since the stories are so unique, I think we can assume that there is something unique about their origin.
The Family Cycle has to have originated in Europe sometime between 2,800 BC and 2,200 BC, before the Greek migration into the Greek Peninsula, when the Greeks were still somewhere in the interior of Europe. The Family Cycle has to have originated after the old European farming cultures passed away, and before the Bronze Age arose. The Family Cycle has to have arisen during Europe’s Existential period, when the cultural ideas that pervaded Europe were different than they had ever been before and different than they would ever be again, and when they came from the Bell Beaker, the Corded Ware and presumably the Indo-European hybrid cultures. The old farming cultures that these three cultures replaced had settled agriculture, extensive agriculture, lots of material things, communal graves, sometimes communal houses, communal thinking, cyclical thinking, and changeless thinking. The cultures of the existential period had large herds, a few fields, minimal houses, minimal possessions, completely individual graves, individual thinking, humanistic thinking, and possibly the greatest literature ever made. And these existential cultures existed before the hierarchy of the Bronze Age was even possible, they were antithetical to it, and they ended when it arose. This is reported to have happened very clearly and obviously in Spain. Bell Beakers disappeared from graves exactly when the local elites consolidated their power in each region. (Pena 1997: 202-203)
Did the cultural ideas that formed the Family Cycles come from all three of these new cultures? Did they come from the Bell Beaker, the Corded Ware and the Indo-European hybrid cultures?
Most of Indo-European literature is so different from the Family Cycles, so elaborate and imaginative and exotic, the Family Cycles and related stories are simple and plausible and earthy. What we call Indo-European literature has to have two sources. The Family Cycles are so different in so many ways, they have to have a different origin than most of the rest of Indo-European literature. The Corded Ware cultures and the Bell Beaker cultures were formed by native Europeans who had lived in Northern and Western Europe for a very long time. They were geographically and physically different from the steppe Indo-Europeans, and they have to be the second source, they have to be the source of the Family Cycles.
Perhaps nothing happened. The Family Cycles that came from this continuum suggest that Corded Ware and Bell Beaker were simply a return to the existential simplicity that is the source of everything we are.
Did the Corded Ware and Bell Beaker people just create the Family Cycle form, or did they create the actual stories as well?
Well, we can find specific parts of the stories in both Greece and Northern Europe, and so at least to some extent, the actual stories came from Corded Ware and Bell Beaker. The Hoard of Treasure and the Ring in the story of the House of Volsung is the same as the Robe and the Necklace in the Greek story of the House of Melampous. Odin and Apollo are not necessarily the same when we encounter them outside of these stories, but as we find them in the Family Cycle stories, Odin and Apollo are identical— they are the same God. Odin and Apollo, in these stories, are a God that goes back to the Corded Ware and Bell Beaker cultures, this is the oldest God that we have any real knowledge of. And most important of all, the choice Oidipous makes and the choice Sigurd makes regarding this God—the choice to accept the whole of their Fate, the whole of their lives and the whole of their humanity, is exactly the same. And so this choice goes back to the Corded Ware and the Bell Beaker cultures.
Furthermore, Oidipous is a completely typical member of a family of characters otherwise found entirely in Northern Europe. This group includes Kullervo from Finland, the Son of Kalev from Estonia, Sigurd from Germany, Starkath from Norway and Denmark, Beowulf from Sweden, Grettir from Iceland, and of course Oidipous himself down in Greece. These characters are all of a very specific type and they tend to share certain characteristics. In the first place they were orphans or effectively orphans, they were not raised by their parents. Oidipous is completely typical. They have positive and intimate relations with their mothers or mother-figures and hostile and destructive relationships with their fathers or father-figures. Their intentions are good and noble, but they are impatient and violent, they destroy things out of excessive strength, and they destroy everything they wish to love and protect. They have great potency but that potency is damaged and perverse, not because of any fault on their part, but because of their Fate, and because of the way they were raised, and because of the poisonous interaction between them and their father or father-figures. Their great potency which should engender life, destroys life and makes it sterile. They cause infertility. Oidipous is typical, he caused the women to have miscarriages, he caused the offspring of the livestock to be stillborn, he caused the crops to die in the fields— that was the plague— and that was completely typical for these characters. And their attempts at sex and marriage either were not made at all, or they were absolute disasters.
And again, Oidipous is completely typical. Recall that his relationship with his father was as destructive as possible, his relationship with his mother was as intimate as possible, and his intentions were noble but he was impatient and violent. He was supremely potent, but his great potency was warped, and it destroyed him, his family, his people and everything he wanted to protect. Further, his potency made the whole countryside infertile, and obviously his attempt at marriage was a disaster. Oidipous is a completely typical North European hero. I have discussed all this more throughly in “Greco-Germanic Family Cycles II.”
So since not just the form, but so many of the particulars of these stores are found in both Greece and Northern Europe, that we will have to conclude that some aspects of the stories themselves go back to the Corded Ware culture and the Bell Beaker culture. And furthermore, by far the most important aspect of these stories, the choice of Oidipous and Sigurd, the choice to accept the whole of their lives and the whole of their humanity, regardless of any consideration of good and evil— this too goes back to the Corded Ware and the Bell Beaker cultures. This is very typical of stories preserved in an oral tradition. Details can vary widely, but the most fundamental points of a story are very well preserved. And further still, I think we can say that a significant part of what we call, “Greek Mythology” is in fact Corded Ware or Bell Beaker mythology.
The Greek language has much in common with both Indic and Iranian languages, (Anthony 2007: 55) and that connects the Greeks with the steppe Indo-Europeans. Some Greek literature such as the Iliad and the story of the Seven Against Thebes, which have Vedic equivalents,may point in towards the steppes as well. But the Family Cycles constitute a substantial proportion of all of ancient Greek literature, and the Family Cycles and the character of Oidipous connect the Greeks firmly with Northern Europe. The Greeks and Greek culture have to be considered to have antecedents in both the Indo-Europeans of the steppe and the native peoples of Northern Europe.
I have established that these aspects of the stories go back to the period of the Corded Ware and Bell Beaker cultures, but do these aspects go back to the Corded Ware and Bell Beaker cultures themselves?
There could be a “black swan,” that is, an unlikely and far-fetched result. But everything would indicate that the Family Cycle form, and to a large extent the stories themselves, go back to the Corded Ware and Bell Beaker cultures. Anything else would be a black swan.
There was an idea that was broadly and deeply rooted in that time. And the idea was that it was less important to triumph over the bad guys, whoever you decided the bad guys were, it was less important to make everything good and right and satisfying, according to whatever you decided was good and right and whatever you felt to be satisfying, and it was more important to accept the whole of your life and the whole of what you are. You have to decide what is right, and you have to decide who the bad guys are, and you have to decide what constitutes triumph. But you don’t have to decide what your life is and you don’t have to decide what you are, it’s just you. The choice you have to make is this: Are you are willing to be this little fleeting breath of humanity? Whatever its cost in good and evil?
Brynhild asks whether Sigurd will take her, but she doesn’t fully understand what she is asking him to take. She loves him without limit and with nothing held back, but something will use the strength and purity of her feelings to force her to murder him. If he takes her, the result of his choice will be evil. He takes her. And no one who is fully human could have chosen any other way. He choses to be human regardless of any consideration of good or evil.
Our civilized traditions of order, good and evil, right and wrong, are, by themselves, inhuman and insane, only when they combine with our humanistic and liberal traditions do they become anything else. And this idea, that was formed in the Corded Ware and Bell Beaker cultures, from much older material, this idea is the source of our humanistic and liberal traditions.
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