Are all ancient memories true?

Photo by Jack B on Unsplash

Recently, a stone circle created during the Neolithic period was discovered near Wales in England. It has a diameter of 110 meters just like the more famous stone circle. The Welshian stone circle is also aligned on the midsummer solstice sunrise, just like Stonehenge. This similarity between the two circles proved a century-old theory that the original circle was created in Wales, dismantled, and dragged over to Wiltshire, where it stands now.

This incident was mentioned in an Anglo-Saxon myth recorded about 900 years back. The myth spoke of the wizard Merlin leading men to Ireland to capture a magical stone circle called the Giants’ Dance and rebuilding it in England as a memorial to the dead. Since it’s not kosher to trust “myths”, it was not taken seriously. This discovery shows that the “myth” had a kernel of truth.

Myths endure because there is some truth to them. They boil down some human experience to its core, making it easy to repeat and transmit. There is the tendency to think of ancient texts as either history or fiction with nothing in between. Usually, these texts blend stories, history, magic, supernatural elements, theology, etc. If historians and archaeologists had an open mind to peel through the layers of exaggeration and investigate, they might make discoveries that otherwise would have taken a lot of time.

Another example would be the discovery of the river Sarasvati. Displaying great familiarity with the Indian North-West, the nadistuti sukta lists nineteen rivers from the Ganga to the Kurram sequentially from East to West. According to the Vedic tradition, Sarasvati flowed between the Yamuna and Sutlej, a location mentioned in other texts.

When British explorers visited the region between Yamuna and Sutlej, instead of “mother of waters”, they found seasonal streams like Ghaggar, Sarsuti, Markanda, and Chautang. Synthesizing tradition, the Vedic texts, and the accounts of surveyors, geologists, administrators, and army officers, scholars identified the Ghaggar, Sarsuti, Markanda, and other small tributaries as part of the Rig Vedic Sarasvati. Historians like M. L. Bhargava, B.C.Law, H.C. Raychaudhuri, A.D. Pusalker, and D.C. Sirkar, along with many Western scholars, concurred.

Then, all ancient memories are not the same. Some are manufactured to rationalize a power grab or establish an earlier date of arrival, or rationalize conquest. They exist to create a truth.

A famous one is the Western mythology of Francisco Pizarro as a larger-than-life hero. According to this narrative, he was responsible for single-handedly conquering Peru with a small army. Conveniently left out was the fact that Pizarro was helped by a large army of native American allies and the battle was not between the Spaniards and Incas but between two Inca groups.

Another one is the Pocahontas-James Smith mythology, immortalized by the Disney movie. According to the popular narrative, Smith was about to be executed. As they were about to strike, Pocahantas threw herself on James Smith, and he is spared. According to a discussion in BBC’s In Our Time, this incident never happened. Pocahontas, who lived nearby, visited the colony often. Her age was around 10, making it unlikely that she threw herself to save a 30-year-old Smith. In a narrative written by James Smith in 1608, this incident is never mentioned. In another version written in 1624, seven years after Pocahontas died, this incident appears. Not just that, in his voyages, there seems to be a pattern; James Smith is saved by maidens three other times as well.

A popular one in Kerala is about the conversion of King Cheraman Perumal. Once a king — a Perumal, no less — was walking on the balcony of his palace when he spotted the moon splitting into two and joining back again. From a few Arab visitors, the king learned that Prophet Muhammad was behind this miracle. The king abdicated the throne, divvied up the kingdom, and set sail to Mecca to meet this man. He met the Prophet, converted to Islam, and lived in Arabia for a while. To spread the religion in his homeland, the converted Perumal returned to Kerala but died somewhere along the way. What does not smell right is that the mosque he established dates before the first mosques in Iraq (639 CE),  Syria (715 CE),  Egypt (642 CE), and Tunisia (670 CE), thus making it the oldest mosque after the first mosques in Saudi Arabia. Imagine this – a newly forming religion setups a mosque where it’s born, and the next one is in Kerala. There is a lot of evidence to show that this narrative is false.

Another one is the myth of St. Thomas. The myth says that a disciple of Christ left Jerusalem and came all way to Kerala to establish churches. According to Pope Benedict, St. Thomas went only as far as Western India. According to Romila Thapar, there is no historical evidence to the claim that he was martyred in Mylapore. According to her, the first coming of Christians is associated with the migration of Persian Christians led by Thomas Cana around 345 CE.

How do you know which ones to trust? If you pay attention to who benefits, you can get a clue. Brutal conquests required a mythological origin to erase the reality of a violent origin. The Pocahontas myth — the affair between a Native American and a White settler — gave imperialism a human face. This military and economic success required a foundational narrative, powered by literary conceit to justify land grabbing and the subsequent loot.

Sometimes, the absence of facts causes myths to be created. It could be to insert themselves into ancient antiquity like Cheraman Perumal’s myth. Considering the trade relations between Kerala and the Western world, it’s quite possible that someone went to Arabia and got converted. Elevating it to an elite gives respectability.

Fortunately, each of these can be verified. The ancients were not writing objective history for 21st-century historians. If the texts present a consistent tale, which agrees with archaeology, geology, and local tradition, it cannot be brushed away. The truth of ancient history is indifferent to our wishes, our politics, our religion.

2 thoughts on “Are all ancient memories true?

  1. Very informative.
    The narratives of St.Thomas and Cheraman Perumal going to Mecca has to be discarded at the earliest.
    Now a new narrative is being created in the ninth standard text book of Kerala .
    The father of surgery is not Sushruta but Abu al-Qasim Al-Zahwari an Arab physician who lived in 10’th century CE

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