Many societies have had the idea that the universe or reality was hatched from some sort of ‘cosmic egg’. In a beautiful version of this story from Finland, the egg breaks in half, with the the top becoming the sky, the bottom the land, the yolk the sun and the white the moon. The ancient Greeks had the ‘Orphic Egg’ from which the god Phanes hatched, a deity of procreation and new life, a bringer of light to the cosmos, and a possible ancestor of Lucifer.
Our own society was hatched from those old Greek eggs, as well, although we often underestimate these days just how much of our understanding and view of the world is still essentially a Greco-Roman one. When Europe burst onto the world stage as a major player and not just a provincial backwater, in the centuries after the conquests of the Americas, elites looked back to the powerful civilisations of Europe that had gone before upon which to build and justify their claim to world domination. It was important to legitimise their lust for wealth and destruction of other peoples and cultures by insisting that European philosophy, art, technology and religion were the epitome of human products. In that way, we could pretend that we were ‘doing them a favour’ in annihilating these people and their societies.
But how much of this was anywhere near the truth? There is no doubt that Greco-Roman culture produced immensely beautiful and unique art and architecture, and also significant philosophy and ‘science’ (although that is a modern term). None of it appeared from out of a vacuum, though, and most was built upon firm foundations laid by ancient Asian and North African civilisations. But the Greeks in their writings of all kinds were trying to establish themselves in opposition to these great cultures to the east and the south, especially the Persians.
The Romans built upon this legacy, admiring the Greeks and picking up much of their aesthetic and philosophical sense from them. In Republican Rome, the principal enemy was the huge maritime power of Carthage (based in modern-day Tunisia), and when Rome finally crushed and destroyed that civilisation, it demonised the Carthaginians as monstrous barbarians, while eradicating entirely any histories that the Carthaginians might have left themselves. Both Greek and Roman traditions insisted upon the corruption, ‘effeminacy’ and sycophancy of eastern and southern peoples, who were characterised as glutted and spoiled with wealth and who prostrated themselves before great kings. When European empire-builders came to write histories in the 19th century, they not only picked up these Greek and Roman biases, but in fact made the dividing lines between the ‘Classical World’ and the rest of the ancient civilisations even more definite.
As early as the Crusades, travellers to the eastern Mediterranean region encountered the written works of the ancients, preserved by Arabic-speaking scholars who had continued to pursue the philosophy, science and mathematics they found in them. In the Renaissance (14th-17th centuries in Europe), great works of sculpture from the Greek and Roman periods were unearthed as cities were expanded and rebuilt. Dazzlingly lifelike compared to Medieval artforms, these and the texts might indeed appear to be the work of superior beings. Moreover, they were European in origin. Although made by pagan hands, which horrified some Christians, the art, architecture, drama and thought of the Classical world became the basis of Western culture.
And so it makes perfect sense that the empires that we created would share the Classical values of slave ownership, misogyny and prejudice. If, indeed, our Classical forebears were so wise, talented, even perfect (except for their paganism), then it would be heretical not to build a civilisation on slavery and inequality, and to insist, just as the Romans had (about our Northern European ancestors, no less!), that theirs was a civilising mission, and one that could now also bring the light of Christianity as well as that of Phanes. We are killing them in their millions, but we are saving them for God! I’m sure all those Africans, Americans and Indians were grateful for that.
Right into the 20th century, if you wanted to make a building have gravitas and authority, you based its design on Classical forms of architecture, and probably placed a Latin inscription upon it. So many of our great public buildings in Classical style were also built with money derived from slavery. Philosophy and medicine were based on works by Aristotle and Hippocrates. Early on, modern medicine had to struggle hard against the theory of the humours. The value of works of art was judged by their resemblance to real-life objects and forms. It was not until the works of colonised peoples and distant cultures, like Benin or Japan, flooded into Europe, that modern art began to dismantle these judgments and strive for another kind of representation and another kind of reality.
These attitudes run so deep, and the version of history where the Greeks invented everything good and the Romans promoted it and stamped it out all over the ‘known world’ (a lie in itself, Rome knew perfectly well that India and China existed), is so exclusively presented as the truth, that it can be hard to even find out about the wonderful, colourful, wise, violent and dynamic cultures that have always existed as well. We are still using this myth to justify our quest for world domination long after the pink bits of the map have been painted other colours. We are still insisting that this model is morally superior and that therefore, so are ‘we’.
I liked David Olusaga’s episode of Civilisations: ‘First Contact’ for a taste of the multi-coloured world that has always existed, and this link is interesting and can lead you on to more information on this subject: