Early horses

I picked up a book called The Age of the Horse: an Equine Journey through Human History by Susanna Forrest. It confirmed most of what I remembered from my childhood but also included so much more information. So much I am still trying to organize it in my head. This is what happens in research: one starts on one thread and then is drawn into many different paths.

Eurasia is the only place where the wild horse survived after the last Ice Age. A lot of archaeological digs have taken place here but because of the many milennia that have passed there is a lot of uncertainty about the when of certain milestones. For example: when was the horse truly domesticated?

Besides Forrest, I also looked at some other sources. A Natural History article by Sandra L. Olsen (a zooarchaeologist from Carnegie Mellon)  confirms that after hominids arrived cut marks on the bones made by stone tools begin appearing.

These early horses – and I use the term loosely since there were several different species – shared some common characteristics. Heavy heads, heavy hair and round bellies. Skeletons indicate they did not vary much from one another. There is no recognizable ancestor of the Shire horse or the Arabian. (Of course humans had a hand in creating horse breeds. Once horses were domesticated, humans began selective breeding for favored characteristics).

So the wild horses were hunted first. When were they domesticated? It is thought they were first domesticated – or beginning to be domesticated – about 6000 years ago. Some archaeologists believe a culture called the Botai were the first (although I suspect domestication was one of those jumps forward that took place in many places).  It is hard to know. The arguments rest on interpretation of skeletons and teeth wear. This was the Copper Age but the Botai may not have had copper. Although archaeologists believe the wear on some of the skeletal teeth and jaws indicate use of bits, they were probably from rawhide and no trace of them remains. Proof of bits and bridles, however, means that horses were herded and maybe ridden.

We do know the Botai ate horses. 90% of the bones found at their villages were from horses. The remnants of horse blood and mares’ milk has been found in their pots so some domestication must have occurred.


The Amazing Horse

Although horses are not as important to our civilization as they once were – Will Rees of my Historical murder mystery series – could not have functioned without his horses, they bear a weight of history and myth that is probably greater than a dog’s. And dogs have had a long history as special partners to humans.

When I first began my research for my Bronze Age series, I was astonished to find that horses did not arrive on Crete until sometime in the Middle Bronze Age. There is a picture of a man in one of the one-sailed Cretan ships with a horse in the bow. No one knows if that is actually how horses reached Crete of if the artist was employing creative license. I mean, who doesn’t visualize the amazing chariot race in Ben-Hur (set many hundreds of years later) or even the importance of horses in the Iliad (again later). The giant wooden horse represented a creature so familiar to everyone no even questioned it.

But I digress.

Here’s what I recall from my childhood dinosaur phase. First, the proto horses certainly did not foretell their importance in later millennia. They were small, about the size of a rabbit. But they survived when the mastodons and other enormous mammals did not. Fossils from these early horses have been found in Wyoming. (And in Eurasia where they became extinct.) But how can that be when there were no horses here until they were brought by Europeans? Well, as the climate changed, changing from forest to grasslands, the proto horse changed with it. Four toes evolved into into a large central toe and then into hooves.

Then what happened? They passed over the land bridge from what is now Alaska back to Eurasia – which turned out to be a good thing for these early horses. In North America, the change in climate and fauna brought woodland. Now the land bridge was submerged and they could not escape. So they died out on this continent. But they thrived in Eurasia.

Now fascinated with  this amazing animal, I began researching them, not how they interacted with humans – although I couldn’t really avoid us – and discovered they have a pretty astonishing  history of their own.

Who is Helen of Troy?

I’ve been blogging about Helen for a few weeks now so shouldn’t we know who she was? Well, not really.  Troy itself was thought to be mythic – until it was discovered.

Hughes believes Helen existed. I do too; the evidence is compelling. But the real Helen has been overlaid with so many other beliefs it is hard to know what to think.

For one thing, Hughes believes Helen became a minor Goddess in her own right. Women prayed to her for an easy childbirth. In a cave in Greece there is a stone worn flat by the gyrations of many women grinding against it as they prayed.

I have also heard that one cult believes Helen never went to Troy. (Thanks Sarah).

One thing is true, however. Helen has been viewed through the lens of (mostly) men’s eyes and decreed a harlot, a sinner, whose beauty lured men to destruction. (I always wonder about this attitude. It assumes men have no self-control. Seriously?) If Paris abducted her (and there is a lot of discussion on whether she was a willing participant or not), it was Helen’s fault. She was too beautiful. A woman’s beauty was to be possessed. It belonged to men.

And the men did not hesitate to take it, whether she was willing or not. Theseus (remember him? He was the destroyer of the Minotaur) was about fifty when he saw Helen dancing by the river bank with a number of other virgins. Dancing was a common religious ritual. Although still a child, she was already the most beautiful person in the world. Theseus saw her and just had to have her. Her age at this point has been given as 12, 10 or 7. He raped her and took her home. Helen’s brothers Castor and Pollux mounted a campaign against Theseus. Not only had he raped their sister but he had come into a country that did not belong to him and he attacked her in the middle of a religious rite. This early experience foreshadowed Helen’s future.

While many girls were married in their early teens, 7 seems incredibly young, even for that time. Theseus was the Mycenaean idea of a hero: aggressive and someone who took what he wanted.

Reading the writings of some of the early Christian monks is horrifying, depressing, enraging – pick your description. Everything is Helen’s fault simply because she is female and beautiful. The paintings of Helen and her abduction show a half-naked Rubenesque woman, her skin so pale it is luminous, surrounded by men as she is led away. Remember, she would have been a young girl at this point. Does anyone else see the disconnect between a woman condemned for her beauty being led away barely veiled in transparent draperies? What is it about the male psyche that hates the very thing that draws him so powerfully? A question for greater brains than mine.

But I digress.

In any event, after reading this book, I have a new appreciation of the complexity of Helen’s life (mythical or not) than I had before. Paraphrasing Shakespeare: she was “more sinned against than sinning.”


Princess Helen

My knowledge of Helen is taken from popular culture: movies, myths and the like. I began to realize that I actually knew very little of the story. I picked up a biography by Bettany Hughes called: Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore.

Very interesting.

One of the things that has always puzzled me is the description of the God Apollo – the sun God. He has blond hair. Why?  This is Greece after all.  Helen is always described as blond. And Menelaus is described as having red hair.

Like all of the countries in Europe, Greece has seen regular influxes of new people. In the Neolithic and Paleolithic such movements populated islands like Crete. But once a area is populated a wave of new people is viewed as an invasion.

The Mycenaeans were one such group. Described by archeologists as an Indo-Duropean culture, they swept onto the Greece mainland and then to Crete. By around 1500 B.C. the pottery and architecture on Crete, although heavily influenced by the Minoans, was now Mycenaean. And they were a warrior patriarchal culture.

But I digress.

These Mycenaeans apparently carried genes for both blond and red hair.

Helen is also described as fair and white-skinned.  Pale skin certainly goes with blond hair, that is true, but I think the association with fair skin and beauty has a much longer history. Both Egyptian and Cretan art color males as reddish-brown. The women, even the bull-leapers wearing loincloths like their male teammates, are white. White lead for the skin has been found in tombs. (So white lead to whiten the skin has a long history – take that Queen Elizabeth I.) Some of the frescos and cult figures show women with that unnaturally white skin. Red circles are painted on their cheeks and chin and the scarlet suns are surrounded by dots.  The research I have done suggests these decorations had some religious meaning but I don’t think anyone knows for sure.

Anyway,  Paintings of Helen right through the Middle Ages portray her with an almost corpse like pallor.  Why is that considered beautiful?  Because she clearly did not toil in the fields?

The other cosmetic used throughout the Mediterranean is kohl. We are familiar with the frescos that show both men and women with the heavy black lines around their eyes. The use of kohl actually had a practical purpose: it protected the eyelids from sunburn and acted as an insect repellent. A recipe for kohl includes charred almond shells, soot, and frankincense. It must have been incredibly sticky. However, it was probably necessary.

In the well-known bust of Nefertiti, one eye is blind. Is the statue damaged? Or is this an accurate representation of Nefertiti? Caused by the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis, trachoma is easily spread through direct personal contact, shared towels and cloths, and flies that have come in contact with the eyes or nose of an infected person. If left untreated, repeated trachoma infections can cause severe scarring of the inside of the eyelid and can cause the eyelashes to scratch the cornea (trichiasis). In addition to causing pain, trichiasis permanently damages the cornea and can lead to irreversible blindness.

One other note. Writings from that time, including Homer’s Iliad, describe Helen as ‘shimmering’ and ‘glittering’. Besides the jewelry she wore, Helen would have been dressed in the finest of clothing. According to Hughes, the linen clothing of that time would gave been brushed with olive oil which leaves a shiny residue. So she actually would have glittered. Who knew?


Princess Helen

Besides her reputation as a great beauty, Helen was a princess and a very wealthy one at that. Because property and wealth went down through the woman, Helen was the heir to Laconia and the surrounding area. So, as in common in myths and fairy tales, there was a great contest for Helen’s hand in marriage. After a full year of stick fighting and boxing and so on, there were still a number of contestants standing. After another contestant is chose and screws up his chance by getting drunk, Menelaus, the richest man in town, takes home the prize.

Helen would have been, at most, in her teens. Maybe even early teens. Menelaus was already a man. Remember that when you think of Paris. By all repute, he had the body of a God and a dewy beauty. The consensus back then that he was weak and effeminate – not a warrior. His own brother (Hector) says this: “Our prince of beauty – mad for women, you lure them all to ruin.” In my mind I picture him as a member of a boy band – catnip to an adolescent girl. So disaster was all but ensured.

And here’s a question that puzzled me until I began doing research. Helen spent more than ten years with Paris and by all accounts was not a reluctant participant. Why did Menelaus take her back? She fades from history when she returns to him.

Because this was a matrilineal society, the land, the position and the resources went from mother to daughter. Not father to son. So Menelaus had to take Helen back if he wanted to continue as king of Laconia.

Am I being too cynical to suspect the whole furor – the war and all – was not over Helen because of her great beauty but because without her Menelaus lost his kingship?

Helen of Troy

Helen of Troy should really be called Helen of Sparta since she was born in Sparta and was a Spartan princess. She was also a Mycenaen – part of the culture that swept into Bronze Age Crete. This period is probably fifty years after the period I am writing about but I did research into it anyway. We know a bit more about the Spartans and they were supposed to have been influenced by the Minoan civilization.

With that said, most of the Mediterranean cultures were influenced by this great civilization – maybe not in accordance with the wishes of the leaders since laws were passed forbidding perfume, cosmetics and jewelry. However, girls were also educated at state expense and encouraged to be physically active. They also married later than many of their peers in other countries so maternal and infant mortality was less. They were also the scandal of Classical Greece since the women had so much more freedom than the poor wives in Athens. Although named for a Goddess, Athena, the women were kept closeted in their homes weaving with no company but slaves and other women. Even in Sparta, though, patriarchy ruled and the women had much less influence than those in Crete.

But I digress.

I think everyone knows the basic story:  that Helen was the most beautiful woman of her age. She was married to Menelaus, brother to Agamemnon. She was either abducted or chose to run away with Paris. (It doesn’t much matter if she was innocent. For most of the intervening centuries she has been considered a harlot.)They fled to Troy and a great war was fought that lasted more than ten years.  The war is the basis of the Iliad. As everyone knows, Troy was considered a myth until Schliemann excavated it.

Here’s what I did not know about Helen.

Another familiar myth is Leda and the Swan. Zeus takes the form of a swan to rape Leda. The child created by this union was Helen. Her beauty was frequently ascribed to her divine paternity. Because Zeus took the form of a swan, Helen was born from an egg. I am not kidding. Besides the painting that shows her rising from an egg, an artifact reputed to be a piece of the eggshell was a sacred object.

Since everybody in these stories are related, Helen’s half-brothers were the twins Castor and Pollux and her half-sister was Clytemnestra, wife to Agamemnon.


the Minotaur

I’m sure most of us know something about Theseus and the Minotaur. Here’s the backstory. The Greeks revered Zeus. Poseidon wanted to be honored too so he sent a white bull to Minos, the King of Crete. Minos’s wife Parsiphae fell in love with the bull. She tasked Daedalus (yes, the inventor with the wax wings whose son was Icarus) to build a special wooden box in the shape of a cow. Once inside the box, she had intercourse with the bull. Nine months later she bore a half-man, half-bull. The Minotaur.

The myth reeks of patriarchy and a desire to, in modern parlance, throw shade on Cretan beliefs.

First, in Crete Zeus was not the primary God. He was an upstart, more akin to a harvest God, who died and was reborn.

We also don’t know if Crete had a King. Certainly it was a goddess centered, matrilineal culture. Many archeologists have assumed Crete had kings, but for decades these archeologists were men. Men, moreover, who lived with a strongly patriarchal structure. It is possible the Priestess’s consort acted as a wanax, or governor. Kingships came with the Mycenaeans.

Third several ancient cultures revered the bull or, in Indo-Europe the horse. One of the rites was mock intercourse with this symbol of fertility by the Queen/Priestess. This act was supposed to guarantee good crops, lots of livestock and of course healthy children for the coming year.

But what about the Minotaur?

Well, many many ancient and not so ancient cultures employ masks in religious rites. Animals are a frequently the subject.  Is it so far a stretch to believe that the Minotaur is a masked man involved in a religious rite?

Besides painting Theseus as a hero (which I dispute but more about that later), this myth spins Crete as decadent and deserving of conquest. By the Myceneans, naturally.