Stories shape lives. Stories underpin civilisations.
In the world of Ancient Greece, two poems by Homer were treasured. Of course, I speak of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Both stories include a cast of fascinating characters such as the greedy Agamemnon, the conflicted Achilles, the beautiful but disloyal Helen, the love-blind Paris, the protective Hector and the world-wise Odysseus. These are stories of love, hate, courage, cunning, victory, defeat and the foibles of human nature.
The Iliad and Odyssey told their listeners and readers, who they were, their values, their fears and vulnerabilities and how they could be overcome.
Epic tales help explain a people’s place in the vast expanse of time and the universe. They are filled with truths that inspire one generation after another. They allow people to re-enact vicariously the adventures of their ancestors. They expand our consciousness so that we can see that we have a past and a future to anticipate.
The enduring quality of an epic tale is that it addresses fundamental human questions such as: Who am I? Where do I come from? Who came before me? Why am I here? What is right and wrong? Where do I belong?
The Iliad and Odyssey began as oral traditions. Faithfully transmitted from one generation to the next over hundreds of years. Then the written word became available and these stories were transcribed into precious volumes and preserved for eternity.
The Bible has a similar history. It once began as an oral tradition passed down the ages. At times the stories were supplemented, at others they were changed to match the particular circumstances facing the Jewish people. It is a collection of stories gathered over a thousand years. The stories are varied, sometimes with conflicting messages, but over time these differences were forgiven or accepted as the tales defined a people and their relationship with God.
These stories were captured in writing and preserved in the Temple and later the Synagogue. They helped define Western Civilisation as Judaism morphed into Christianity and Christianity grew into the Roman Empire’s religion under Constantine in the 4th Century.
The Christians claimed the Jewish texts as their own and wrote their own stories inspired by an extraordinary individual called Jesus Christ. Hence the Old Testament meaning the Old Covenant became the New Testament. Passover became Easter and Shavuot, recalling Moses receiving the Commandments became Pentecost and the sacrificial lamb of Yom Kippur, whose blood was shed and sprinkled on the people to expiate their sins became Jesus himself.
Many commentators say that had the Homeric works become the foundation of Western Civilisation instead of the Bible the world would be a different place. The Bible is perhaps the most misquoted text in history and has been used to support many evils. It has been quoted to justify the exploitation and destruction of the environment, subjugation of women, crusades and inquisitions, original sin and the essential evil of man, wars, homophobia, anti-science, colonialism and anti-semitism.
But the abuse and misuse of Biblical texts is a story for another time.
The Sumerian epic, Gilgamesh (the oldest known written literature) dates back to 2,800 to 2,500 BCE. The earliest Bibilical stories date back to 1,200 BCE. The Iliad and Odyssey date back to about 800 BCE.
The spoken language is about 50,000 years old. The written language is quite recent and is about 5,000 to 10,000 years old. The Native Americans migrated from Asia across the Bering Strait about 15,000 to 25,000 years ago. European explorers were surprised to discover that Native Americans had no written language, such is the recent nature of this form of communication.
Australia’s indigenous people have occupied this land for 65,000 years! The world’s oldest living population, no doubt has the world’s oldest stories, legends and epics. The Aborigines speak of the Dreamtime. Their tradition is entirely oral and no doubt pre-dates our Western stories by many thousands of years.
What are the epic tales of the Indigenous Australians? What events and experiences inspired these myths and legends? What do they tell us about the First Australians or the land on which we live? Why can we not answer these questions with any degree of certainty or confidence? We have probably some of the oldest human stories and tales in our own backyard and we remain enraptured with more recent stories forged in different lands.
As Australians, living on this great continent how do we answer the important questions: Who am I? Where do I come from? Who came before me? Why am I here? What is right and wrong? Where do I belong?
There is rich and deep vein of tradition and foundation material to be explored and studied. How will the traditions of Indigenous Australians shape our national story?
References: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicholson. Henry Holt (2014)
The Sins of Scripture by John Shelby Spong. Harper Collins (2005)