Thursday, 26 August 2010

Odysseus' palace and the value of oral history


The Sydney Morning Herald reports today on an archaeologist who claims to have found Odysseus' palace on the Island of Ithaca.  The claim is of course being disputed, firstly by those who regard Homer's entire story as a myth, and secondly by those who claim that the modern Ithiki is not the Ithaca of Odysseus and prefer to support alternative sites as the hero's home.

I imagine it will take some time before the dust settles on this one and objective assessments can be made, but my instinct is to give the claim the benefit of the doubt.  Why?  Because though many contemporary historians prefer to dismiss the value of oral history, Christianity and the Church actually depend on it: things handed down after all is the literal meaning of tradition. 

History wars

Over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries competing approaches to the practice of history have developed.  One of the most destructive directions of nineteenth and twentieth century historical method was the insistence of some on what they saw as the 'scientific method': what happened had to be documented, and not in story form, but in charters, letters and legislation.  the presumption becmae that if it wasn't adequately documented, then it didn't happen.  Nor were eyewitness accounts regarded as in any way useful or potentially reliable: instead, disproportionate attention was devoted to decontructing texts (including the Bible) to reach back to their speculated origins, creating elaborate fantasy texts such as a presumed precursor text to the synoptic Gospels.

In the Church the results of this approach have often been ideologically driven, and have had disastrous results.  In relation to Scripture it has been used to justify a 'demythologising' of the text including a disdain for the miraculous, and a disregard for certain uncomfortable passages on the grounds that they were later additions.  These methods were the basis for justifying the jettisoning of many saints cults from the universal calendar on the grounds that they were inadequately documented. Theologians such as Yves Congar constructed an entire history and theology of the laity by selective reliance on (and jettisoning of) texts using this approach.  And this method has been used to promote a hermeneutic of discontinuity that has undermined the viability of many religious orders, including the Benedictine.  And one could go on.

So it's always nice when yet another archaeological or other discovery contributes to debunking this school of history, whether in the Church or more broadly, hence my glee at the Odysseus palace report (regardless of whether it proves accurate).

Oral history is real history

Because the reality is that the other nineteenth and twentieth century direction, of increasing interest in folk and other oral traditions, very creative use of less used documentary and non-documentary sources, as well as use of archaeological and anthropological approaches to gain a greater understanding of history continues to yield fascinating and plausible results. 

The fightback on Scriptural methods is being championed by the Pope, with the second volume of his Jesus of Nazareth series now due out next Lent.  The case of St Philomena perhaps best illustrates the problematic nature of many decisions on saints cults taken in the 1960s and beyond.  In the sphere of lay engagement, writers such as Eamonn Duffy have done much to recover a sense of the vibrancy of the Church in periods such as late medieval England, and the genuine commitment of the laity to catholicism around the time of the Henrician suppression of the Church.  The problematic nature of the reforms of religious orders are slowly being rectified with the growth of the traditional orders.

But of course on all these fronts there is a long way to go. 

But every little bit helps.

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