Origins: A Fable Agreed Upon
1. Search for an Ancestor
“Our reason for turning to Palestine is that Palestine is our country. I have used that expression before and I refuse to adopt any other.”
The speaker was an Englishman, Dr. William Thomson, Archbishop of York, who was addressing the Palestine Exploration Fund in the year 1875. He went on to explain that Palestine was his country because it had given him the “laws by which I try to live” and the “best knowledge I possess.” He was referring of course to the Bible, the book of the Hebrew nation and its prophets that came in time to be, as Thomas Huxley said, the “national epic” of England.
For thousands of years already the English had turned toward Palestine in search of their antecedents as the salmon swims back from the sea to the headwaters of its birth. Long before modern archaeology provided a scientific answer, some dim race memory had drawn their thoughts eastward. Man’s earliest instinct has always been to find his ancestor—his Creator first, perhaps, and then his ancestor. He has been speculating about him, creating images of him, spinning tales about him, ever since he first began to think. The ancestor image evolved by the English was a dual personality compounded of Brutus, grandson of the Trojan Aeneas, and Gomer, grandson of Noah. He was, in short, a product of the classical legends of Greece and Rome and the Hebrew legends of Palestine; an emigrant from Asia Minor, the cradle of civilization.
In a sense the image-makers were right without knowing it. Centuries later the image of the first inhabitant of Britain evolved by the anthropologists from the accumulated data of head shapes, hair colorings, and flint fragments turns out, curiously enough, to have come from the same part of the world. Without going into the anthropological reasons for believing so, it may be said that the pre-Celt in Britain is considered to have been of Mediterranean if not actually Middle Eastern origin. This shadowy Stone Age figure whose curled-up skeleton lies so mutely, so nakedly in the unearthed burial chambers is the end product so far in the scientific search for a British ancestor.
But who was he, and where did he come from? Tradition, anticipating archaeology, had traced this British ancestor back to Asia Minor, to that remote, uncertain spot where Noah and his family began the repopulation of the world after the Flood. Tradition is, of course, not scientific fact, but scientific fact is not always available. When the truth—that is, verifiable fact—is unobtainable, then tradition must substitute. One historian, Sir John Morris-Jones, has defined tradition as “a popular account of what once took place.” It thus becomes, he adds, “one of our data to be accounted for and interpreted.” As such it usually has more influence than actual fact over the behavior of nations. A nation’s past history governs its present actions–but only in terms of what its citizens believe their past history to have been. For history, as Napoleon so succinctly put it, “is a fable agreed upon.”
Britain’s fable, then, begins with the traditions and legends about Brutus and Gomer and their respective grandfathers, Aeneas and Noah. Whether Aeneas really lived in Troy or Noah somewhere in Mesopotamia, who can say? We can say, however, that real migrants from the lands where Aeneas and Noah are supposed to have lived did people the nations of the Western world. Perhaps the pre-Celts who originally settled in the British Isles brought with them memories or legends of an Eastern ancestry. Thus the fable of Brutus-Gomer may have as sound a background as the theories of the archaeologists, who, in any case, arrived at no very different conclusion.
In any event, early in the Anglo-Saxon era, after the second conversion to Christianity in the seventh century, the fable began to take hold. The Roman occupation of Britain during the first three centuries A.D. had brought not only the classical mythology but a new religion from the East, the Judaeo-Christian. It spread widely among the Celts and was firmly enough established to outlast both the Roman withdrawal in 410 A.D. and the subsequent heathen influx of the Anglo-Saxons. Meanwhile the Britons, at least those directly in contact with the Roman administration, learned the Latin tongue and became acquainted with the Bible in the Vulgate. The very earliest surviving essay in England’s history (as written by a Briton, not a Roman), the Epistle of Gildas, written about the year 550, shows a thorough acquaintance with the Old Testament. Gildas’ tale is of the terrible assaults on his countrymen by Saxons, Jutes, and Danes, whom he compares to the scourge of the Assyrians and Philistines upon the Israelites of old. After every battle he cites an Old Testament analogy and on every page quotes from the Pentateuch, the Prophets, or the Psalms.
Two hundred years later the Venerable Bede, the true father of English history, offered certain cautious suppositions about national origins. He traces them back to Scythia, the name used by ancient geographers for the regions around the Black Sea. Here men believed the Ark landed on Mt. Ararat and the races of the world sprang from the progeny of Noah. Bede names the Cymbri, coming from somewhere in this region, as the people who first populated Britain. These Cymbri or Kimbri or Cimmeri or any one of a hundred spellings, migrating from the East, are met with at every turn in the search for the earliest Briton. They were a real tribe who, according to modern anthropologists, appeared in northern Europe along with the Teutonic tribes, some settling in Gaul and some in Britain.
Bede does not deal in fables about Brutus and the sons of Noah. They first appear as Britain’s ancestors in the work of a shrouded figure about whom nothing is known save his name, Nennius, and his manuscript, the Historia Britonum. Whether he lived in the eighth or the tenth century, in England or Ireland or Wales, whether there were two of him or whether he was someone else altogether has been the subject of learned controversies among the footnotes. Whoever he was, Nennius left an authentic pre-Conquest manuscript, which, as Professor Pollard has said, “makes no critical distinction between the deeds of dragons and those of Anglo-Saxons.” One would not expect him to be overcautious about origins and Nennius comes out forthrightly for Brutus who, he says, gave his name to Britain. Brutus was enthusiastically popularized by the twelfth-century chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth but less exuberant historians preferred to stay under the authority of Scripture and opted for Gomer who is named in Genesis as one of the sons of Japheth among whom the Isles of the Gentiles were divided.
The Reformation fixed Gomer’s position as the preferred eldest Briton, rather than Brutus. With the Reformation, the Bible as the revealed word of God became the final authority and Genesis the only acceptable or even thinkable account of man’s origin. Embellishments such as Geoffrey’s, so popular in medieval times, came to be regarded with suspicion. “If we fynde them mixed with superstycyons,” says John Bale, a historian of Henry VIII’s time, “we shall measure them by the Scriptures and somewhat beare with the corrupcyon of their tymes.” He was followed by the great Elizabethan historian William Camden, who made an attempt to settle the question of origins once and for all. He discarded Brutus and settled for Gomer, who, he says, “gave both original and name to the Gomerians who were afterward called Cimbri or Cimerri. . . . Our Britons, or Cimeri, are the true genuine posterity of Gomer. This is my judgment concerning the original of the Britons; or rather my conjecture.” Then, with the caution of the true scientist, Camden warns that the search for first ancestors may never be successful, “for indeed these first planters lie so in the dark hidden depths of antiquity (as it were in some thick grove) that there is very small or no hopes of retrieving by my diligence what hath for so many ages been buried in oblivion.”
From Camden on, the ancestor search becomes a process of fusing the Biblical story with the growing body of scientific knowledge about ancient man and his movements. By the time Milton came to write his History of England, a century after Camden, Gomer, worked upon by this process, has begun to change from a person to a tribe. Milton calls it an “outlandish figment” that any particular son of Japheth actually settled in Britain, but he carries on without question the tradition that the offspring of Gomer peopled the northern and western lands after the Flood. These offspring were by now generally conceded to be the tribe of Cimerii, whose name scholars derived from Gomer via learned treatises on the permutations of Hebrew, Greek, and Celtic alphabets.
Today anthropologists scorn language as a thread leading back to the past and follow instead the signposts of artifacts and bones. They declare that grammatical structure and not the survival of borrowed words is the criterion of racial affinities. They say the original investigators who followed language rather than bones took the wrong path. But they do not seem to have reached any startlingly different conclusion than that reached by their predecessors who had to fit their conjectures within the confines of Genesis. They have merely replaced an individual Gomer with a tribe from the East as the ancestor of the British Celts.
Bede, living in the very depths of what we are pleased to call the Dark Ages, found the Cimbri, and in the light of modern anthropology the Cimbri are allowed to remain although Gomer has faded out. All of which simply suggests that tradition, the “popular account of what once took place,” is not always superseded by science.
2. The Phoenicians in Albion
The personified ancestor represented by Gomer or Brutus is a legend. But a real link between ancient Albion and the land of Canaan was established about the time of Moses by peoples who have long since disappeared: the Phoenicians and the pre-Celts. The Phoenicians of Tyre and Sidon were the pre-eminent mariners and merchants of the ancient world. Without compass or sextant they somehow sailed the uncharted seas even into the Atlantic. In the Book of Kings it is told how they piloted King Solomon’s triremes as far as Tarshish, the ancient name for Cadiz.
The British hunger for antiquity has seized on these people and variously credited them with having discovered Britain, settled in Britain, or at least traded with Britain. Though not proved beyond all doubt, the Phoenician link is well within the realm of probability, but it is not so much its inherent probability as its association with a known people of antiquity, real figures from the Old Testament, that explains the passionate conviction with which British historians defend it.
The evidence for it centers on the use of tin as a Bronze Age alloy in the East. Tin was mined in Cornwall about that time. Tin appeared as an article of commerce in the markets of Tyre, as we know from the report of the prophet Ezekiel, about 600 B.C. This tin, according to Herodotus, writing in 440 B.C., came from the Isles of the Cassiterides, a name that offers no geographical clue at all, because it simply means “tin” in Greek. However, it came to be identified by all the classical geographers following Herodotus as either the Scilly Isles off Cornwall or as Cornwall itself.
As Camden was the first to put the Gomer-Cimbri-Celt genealogy on a modern footing, so was he the first to bring out the role of the Phoenicians in ancient Britain. With the revival of classical learning in sixteenth-century Europe, English scholars, following Camden, unearthed all the references to the tin trade of the ancients, finding to their delight that through this means Britain’s antiquity could be pushed back to equal that of ancient Greece and Troy and the lands of the Bible. One seventeenth-century Cambridge scholar, Aylett Sammes, was so carried away on the wings of this theory that he wrote a book called The Antiquities of Ancient Britain Derived from the Phoenicians in which he proved that “the language itself for the most part, as well as the Customs, Religions, Idols, Offices, Dignities of the ancient Britons are all clearly Phoenician.”
Another Phoenician monopoly, the famous purple dye derived from shellfish, provided a further clue when pre-Bronze Age shell dumps of the particular kind yielding the purple dye were found on the Cornwall and Devon coasts.
More significant than the tin and shells was the evidence in stone. The mighty and incredible stone monuments at Stonehenge and Avebury, raised, no one knows how, by primitive sun-worshipers in Britain, have an unmistakable affinity with the Canaanite use of sacred stones in the worship of various local Baals. Dr. Borlase, a pioneer Cornish archaeologist, digging among the rich prehistoric mounds of his native Cornwall, thought that the “rude obelisks” found in Britain might have been erected by early Phoenician visitors in honor of their own national deities, “it being the notorious infatuation of Canaanitish nations to pay divine honors to such rude stones.” This was written as early as 1769.
Borlase and succeeding scholars believed the Phoenicians discovered Britain about 1400 B.C. Curiously enough, modern archaeologists give 1400 B.C. as the approximate date of Stonehenge and Avebury. They ascribe the stones, of course, not to Phoenicians or Druids, but to the Beaker people, members of the Indo-European family of nations, who, from a starting point in western Mediterranean lands, spread over the Alps and into Britain about 1800 B.C. at the beginning of the Bronze Age. Large-boned muscular people of nomadic culture, depending chiefly on herds but acquainted with agriculture, they had round heads and built round barrows. In Britain they dispossessed the earlier Neolithic population, who (conveniently) had long heads and built long barrows. Archaeologists are immensely fond of the Beaker folk, whose astonishing migrations they trace all over Europe by a trail of Beaker shreds, metal buttons, and belt buckles. But whatever their aptitudes, they are too lately known to compete as forefathers in the imagination of a Bible-reading people. A buried skeleton in a barrow, with no matter how many beakers and buckles, is not so attractive an ancestor as the rulers of ancient Tyre and Sidon so familiar from the pages of the Old Testament.
The tradition achieved formal embodiment when Lord Leighton, president of the Royal Academy, was commissioned to paint a mural depicting “Ancient Commerce” on the walls of the Royal Exchange in London. Here for all to see are the black-bearded Phoenicians spreading out lengths of purple cloth before avid Britons who offer hides and ingots of tin in exchange.
In the year 146 B.C. the battle between Carthage and Rome for mastery of the Mediterranean world was won finally by the Romans. From then on the Phoenicians fade from history, and the temporal power of the East passed to the marching men of Italy. They were soon to be masters of both Palestine and Britain and to provide another link between the two.
Excerpted from Bible and Sword by Barbara W. Tuchman. Copyright © 1984 by Barbara W. Tuchman. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.