Friday, January 29, 2010

Chronology and Historical Dating of Myth

Let me take you through a day in the life of reconciling religious myths to one another for the purposes of writing my book. Pardon the mess. Mostly this is all so I can do math in my head, and find a way to fit the pieces of the puzzle together without anyone crying foul.

Did you know, Moses didn't actually lead the slaves out of Egypt during the reign of Ramses II? Hollywood and Charlton Heston were clearly conspiring against historical accuracy with the intent to confuse young children for decades.

According to Wikipedia, there are four choices of Pharaoh for the dating of "Traditional" Exodus (and Stephanie, you'll like this): Thutmose II, Hatshepsut, Thutmose III, and Amenhotep II. Now, I don't really trust wikipedia for dates when it comes to these things, as a general rule of thumb. I like to check my dates against other sources before I commit. But in this case, it wouldn't matter even if I did since we're talking about dates ranging between 1600 BCE and 1200 BCE. Four hundred years is a pretty big discrepancy in the data, and none of it is concrete.

The problem is that The Exodus didn't happen the way it's recorded in The Bible. There were no plagues, and there definitely wasn't any mass destruction. There is no historical record (or archaeological evidence) of any such mass migration (600,000 is a lot of people to disappear into the desert without a trace) outside of The Bible--and if Egypt had lost that many slaves, then lost most of their army trying to win them back, AND lost all their first-born-male-children on top of that, as record happy as the Egyptians were, it's hard to believe they wouldn't make a note of it somewhere.

Myth and historical dating really don't like to get in bed together.

So I'll put Exodus and Moses aside for a minute, since for all practical purposes, I have 400 years to play with, and regardless of whether I lean toward an early Exodus, or a late Exodus (as suggested by more modern argument) there are going to be a large number of people who think I'm wrong. The next major historical-mythological event on my timeline is the Trojan War.


Do you know how many places have been dug up and labeled Troy over the years? Basically, we have the same trouble with the Trojan War as we do with Moses with one difference-- every historian and their brother has been trying to pin a date to the Trojan war since Homer. (And I do use the term historian loosely.)

Eratosthenes (a Greek living in the late 200s BCE) dates the start of the Trojan War to 1194 BCE (perilously close to some of the dates for Moses). Herodotus (from the mid 400s BCE), the founding father of history, puts it somewhere around 1250 BCE. I could keep naming dead Greeks for another couple of paragraphs, but the dates range from roughly 1330 to 1130. Narrower than Moses by half, but still pretty foggy.

Then came Schliemann. Schliemann's agenda was Troy, and he was pretty successful at finding a city which matched the descriptions laid out by Homer--it had gold, walls, evidence of destruction, and it was somewhere in Asia Minor. Thanks to Schliemann, the world recognized Troy as an historical city and the Trojan War an actual event, though obviously it didn't happen the way Homer tells it. Our dates can be narrowed a bit by Schliemann's discovery, and those that came after. There's Troy VI, which was disgustingly rich, but appears to have been ultimately destroyed by an earthquake, not a war, around 1275 BCE, and there's Troy VIIa, not as rich, but much more promisingly destroyed by fire sometime during the 1180s BCE.

Just the fact that they have to identify archaeological sites of Troy with roman numeral and letter combinations should tell you something about how muddied these waters have gotten.

(At this point I'd like to point out that Eratosthenes date for the Trojan War matches with modern conclusions based on archaeological evidence, which honestly is something close to miraculous, but he seems to have been some kind of genius anyway, so maybe I shouldn't be surprised.)

The problem with all this historical evidence for Troy, is that it lays the Trojan War mighty close to the more modern conclusions about Exodus. Too close for the comfort of my narrative--OR, diabolically just close enough. Now what are the odds that the Trojan War and the Exodus of the Hebrews happened around the same time, historically? Two different mythologies, two totally different events, so close that one can flow right into the other! 

...At least until someone does new research on Moses, or a new city is found in Turkey that blows Troy VIIa out of the water. For now, I think I'm just going to run with it, and be thankful it isn't even more complicated.


  1. Thanks for posting this, Very interesting :)

    I had no idea the two events could have even come close historically speaking.

  2. Kosmos-- me neither. For some reason, going in, I was SURE the Trojan War was older.

  3. I've seen references to the Exodus taking place during Hat's reign, or her family's. And yet, there's not any evidence on the Egyptian side, at least none I've come across.

    Also, (not to offend anyone), there's no evidence the Egyptians had slaves. There's plenty of evidence of them massacring their enemies, but as far as a class of slaves? Nada. That doesn't mean they didn't have them, but simply that it's not in the historical record.

    People used to assume the Egyptians HAD to have slaves to accomplish their monumental building projects (who else would sign up for a job like that?), but it turns out they worked with the Nile to find laborers. Roughly three months out of the year the fields are underwater and since most Egyptians were farmers, the government would pay people in bread and beer (their form of currency) to come work during those months.

    And of course, they also used some projects as punishment. If you were really bad they'd send you to work in the granite quarries. Blecch.

  4. BTW- I thought of you when I saw this today.

  5. Stephanie: I knew I could count on you for the Egyptian side of the historical record! That seems totally logical to me, to be honest-- Egyptians left us a pretty good record of things, such as it is, and if there's no mention of it, it seems unlikely that it happened.

    And I saw that post too! I have to admit though, that I write first for myself, and only second for the market. I really don't mind having extra books under the bed, if that's the only reason not to keep writing. The comments were interesting-- that the people with series contracts hadn't mentioned the word "trilogy" or "series" at all in their queries. I'll definitely be keeping that in mind.

  6. That is utterly fascinating. I'd not thought about those events in the context of other myths and their timelines.

  7. SQRT(D): it gives me a headache if I don't write it down to organize it all. Otherwise the dates get confused in my brain. Something about counting backwards in BCE always messes with me. But you can see why it would be a problem for me if Exodus and the Trojan War happened at the same exact time...

  8. Christian Jacq who wrote the Ramses books has his hero meeting Menelaos and Helen, plus being a buddy of Moses.

    Almost every legend of Helen btw has her visiting Egypt either before, after or during the Trojan War. Even Homer says it (Jacq used the Homer version).

  9. Gary--Yeah, my favorite Helen in Egypt story is the one where they stop there and Pharaoh gives Paris a slap on the wrist, takes Helen and the treasure stolen from Sparta to return both to their rightful owner, and sends Paris back on his way to Troy empty handed. Of course it doesn't stop the international incident, but at least Helen is kept safe. Euripides' Helen places her safe in Egypt, too, during the entire war, and a fake Helen in Troy with Paris.

    I'm pretty sure Ramses III was Pharaoh in 1184, and if you go with a really late date for Moses you could make them contemporaries. I'm going to opt for a 1280 BCE birth of Moses though, for ease of narrative. And actually it isn't Moses who is my problem so much as it's his mother, Yocheved.

  10. Wow, Amalia, you have done some fascinating research and sorting. This was quite interesting to read.

  11. Thanks Tricia!

    I actually wasn't sure this was going to be that interesting to anyone but me. haha. But I'm glad you liked it!

  12. Wow, that is so freaking fascinating. I always thought of historical/mythological events as being so distinct from one another, that it never dawned on me that they could have happened so close together. Thanks (huge history lover here!)

  13. I'm glad you liked it, Diana! It never occurred to me, either, until I started doing the research. 1200 BCE does not seem like far enough back for this kind of stuff, to me.


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