Thursday, July 17, 2008

Stories and Legends

Hello all -

Thad Olson here – your guest blogger for a day. I'm a 2nd year grad student in the history department at Penn State. This is my first archaeological experience, and one of my favorite parts of the experience has been hearing the wealth of stories and legends related to us by the people we have met. The richness of the religious and mythical landscape here is fascinating.

Many of the stories we have heard have come from old men we meet in coffee shops when we stop for breakfast. We've learned to ask if there are any old men in town who know the old stories well. We've had a lot of success with this, and thought we would share some of our favorite stories with you.

Most of the stories we've encountered have related to huyuks (earth mounds) on which we've found ancient artifacts. They often center on a treasure buried in the hill long ago, and some kind of guardian creature or being who protects the treasure. It is interesting to note that the villiagers have similar ideas about the mounds that we do – there's buried treasure to be found!

Here's a selection of the stories we've encountered thus far:

1) At Tell al-Abd, a steep high hill which contained Bronze age pottery, a local man named Nihat told us that before the time of Alexander the Great, the local people had buried precious and magical weapons in the hill. Since the weapons were buried, a giant has protected the hill and the weapons as a guardian spirit.
2) At UcGulluk, a small hill near town which contained Bronze Age through Roman material, Nihat told us that a magical rooster guards the hill. He believes the rooster may be guarding a treasure. The magical rooster used to crow about 4AM, but it has not been seen for about 20 years. Many of the older people in town claim to have seen the rooster prior to 20 years ago.
3) Near UcGulluk, Nihat and another villiager Sezai lead us to a small stream, which they believe has healing powers. The spring has been mostly covered with dirt by the villiagers, as its water is not good for the olive trees growing nearby. Nihat and Sezai believe the spring cures skin diseases.
4) Nihat also pointed out another hill near the sacred spring, which he says is guarded by a magic goat. Around 1000 years ago, people buried weapons on that hill, and now the goat guards the hill.
5) Another hill near UcGulluk, which we did not see, was reported by Nihat and Sezai to be guarded by a woman with the lower body of a snake.
6) In the town of Mandenli, a man named Ali showed us a classical site on a hill near town. A modern cemetary is located on the top of the hill, and many members of Ali's family were buried there. According to Ali, a magic rooster has also appeared at this site. During the lifetime of Ali's father (who died in 1990), an Imam came to sleep on the hill and try to discern the reason for its holy nature, but was unable to understand what made the site holy. In addition to the rooster, from under the tomb of Ali's uncle, a spring now moistens the ground, which Ali believes to be a miracle. At the same site, 2 years ago, a light appeared in the sky during a wedding, which Ali believes to have been a miracle.
7) In the town of Beykoyu, an 84 year old man named Çemil told us a story about a huyuk near his house, upon which we found Bronze Age pottery. A few hundred years ago, a man named Abdul found a door into the hillside with light coming out. Inside the doorway was a woman with two dogs. Slipping into the doorway, the man was able to steal a silver bowl, which was very heavy, before the woman ordered the dogs to attack. He just managed to slip out before the door slammed shut behind him. Çemil claimed to have seen this bowl himself. Some time ago, the bowl was sold to a man from a town near Iskenderun.

My own studies at Penn State have focused a lot on early Roman and Italian religious systems, and listening to the amazing stories we've encountered here have given me something of a new appreciation for early twentieth century scholars like James Frazier and W. Warde-Fowler, who tried to use then-current anthropological theories to explain the emergence of religion. Warde-Fowler in particular wrote a lot about the emergence of early Roman religion in terms of vaguely understood spirits or powers known as numen. Warde-Fowler thought about these numen as protective powers often tied to specific places, some of which eventually developed into the well-known dieties of the classical Roman pantheon. The stories we are hearing in Turkey seem like they could fit very nicely into what Warde-Fowler was saying about the development of early Roman religion. Today, most students of classical polytheism have rejected the anthropological models of religious development proposed by Warde-Fowler and his generation. There are many reasons for this, but three important ones are that 1) archaeological evidence became increasingly available which could be used to test these theories (they didn't hold up well) 2) Anglophone scholars became increasingly aware that German scholarship had long since passed them by (and in fact, had never really adopted English anthropological models) 3) It was realized that there was really no evidence at all to support the elaborate theories created by Warde-Fowler and his successors. Today, scholers such as John Scheid, Mary Beard and others are increasingly returning to the use of anthropological models to explain the emergence of Roman religion, but todays scholars are much more cautious in their approach and much less speculative. I suppose all of this is a reminder to use the utmost caution in utilizing a comparative methodology in your research. On another level, though, hearing stories like these has been personally very useful as a reminder that my own preconceptions can get in the way of understanding others, both ancient and modern. And despite the fact that Warde-Fowler is today seen as quite out of style, I do think there is some insight into early religion to be gained by reflecting on these old stories from the villiages.

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