A Twinkle in My Eye

by George Gauthier

Chapter 9


Kyle's interest in architecture recently led us to watch a YouTube channel which explored famous archeological sites. It followed a engaging young archeologist as he toured Europe, the Mediterranean Basin, and the Middle East.

This must have been a dream assignment for an archeologist so early in his career. Besides the professional exposure, he was traveling on an all expenses paid tour, something which he personally nor his institution nor any grants making organizations would ever have sponsored, and all of it on top of what he got paid at his university. I warmed to his charming Scottish accent with its burred Rs, as in "world" pronounced as if it were the verb "whirled."

Now as you might expect, the itinerary was a tour of the usual top ten. So viewers vicariously visited the Pyramids, Abu Simbel, and Karnak in Egypt, Rome and Athens, Pompei and Herculaneum, Jerusalem, and the Inca site of Machu Picchu in Peru. The series succeeded as much as a colorful travelogue as a series of lessons in archeology.

For me the most interesting program was the one about the Minoan Civilization on the island of Crete often regarded as the first European civilization. I had long had an interest in the Minoans, a people I would love to have known and mingled with. As a boy I had had heard stories about them, but alas their time was over before mine had begun. Their civilization arose during the late Bronze Age. It was centered on Crete the largest of the Greek islands and the fifth largest in the Mediterranean.

Arising long before coinage was invented, the Minoan economy was a palace economy, a term used to describe ancient pre-monetary cultures where governmental or religious institutions collected crops and artisanal goods, while holding back a portion for their own use as taxes in kind. Functionaries at the palace marshaled the factors of production including land, labor, draft animals and tools. After the harvest the bulk of the crops were redistributed to the population at large. The Minoans were a mercantile people engaged in international trade, but what part the palace played in that economic sphere is as yet unknown.

Probably best know for its monumental architecture, and its vivid frescos in bold colors which depict landscapes and the sport of bull leaping, Minoan art had a naturalistic aesthetic best seen in the Dolphin fresco from Knossos. Though tourists visiting the palace at Knossos should know that its reconstruction at the beginning of the twentieth century has been challenged as inauthentic. The red columns you see today are made of concrete and the dolphin fresco was suggested by mere fragments. So the palace was as much Disneyland as ancient ruin. More authentic are the remaining stretches of paved roads which linked their towns.

To judge from their art, the Minoans were a handsome fair skinned people with fine athletic builds. Minoans males went clean shaven with their hair short except for ringlets along the sides. They wore loincloths or robes or kilts but went bare chested. Both men and women were depicted in paintings and sculpture with improbably small waists though never as grotesque as during the heyday of the wasp waist silhouette once briefly fashionable among upper class Western women, much to their detriment.

Minoan is a reference to King Minos, the mythological king of Knossos, he who had the craftsman Daedalus construct the Labyrinth to contain the monstrous Minotaur. The many rooms and courtyards in the palace complex at Knossos may have given rise to the myth of the Labyrinth. Quite advanced for it day the palace complex featured aqueducts which supplied fresh water and sewers to remove wastes. The kingdom's prosperity was primarily based on oil, wine, wool, and foreign trade. Their navy dominated the seas during the era known as the Minoan Thalassocracy from the Greek word for sea, "thalassos".

The story of Theseus and the Minotaur may be a distorted echo of the labyrinthine structure of the city of Knossos and its maritime empire which, in myth anyway, levied an annual tribute of seven youths and seven maidens destined for sacrifice to the Minotaur. The Cretan dominance of the eastern Mediterranean ended with the eruption of the volcano on the island of Thira, also called Santorini.

One of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history, dubbed the Minoan eruption, occurred some three and a half millennia ago, at the very height of the Minoan civilization. On the island of Thira, the eruption left a large caldera surrounded by deposits of volcanic ash hundreds of meters deep. The tsunami from the explosion might have destroyed the Minoan fleet and much of the northern shore of Crete.

Kyle asked me if I thought that this disaster was the the source of the myth of Atlantis.

"It certainly is a tempting hypothesis though against it is the fact that Crete is definitely not beyond the Pillars of Hercules nor is it circular. A lot of ink has been spilled by writers arguing for this or that alternate location. Most place it in the Atlantic ocean, though from plate tectonics we know for sure that there is no sunken continent out there. Some writers bizarrely favor a circular structure in the middle of the Sahara Desert, arguing against all logic, that it matches the literary description perfectly."

"I have always understood Atlantis as no more than a literary dystopia, like Lilliput or Brobdingnag in "Gulliver's Travels" or Oceania in the Orwell's novel "1984". Utopian novels like Thomas More's "Utopia" or Butler's "Erewhon" (which is Nowhere spelled backwards) cast the writers' own societies as the dystopia. Indeed, a literary dystopia was the consensus for most of the two thousand years since Plato wrote about Atlantis in two of his dialogues."

"So what changed the minds of so many people?" Kyle asked.

"The modern myth of Atlantis as a lost continent dates from 1882 with the publication of "Atlantis: The Antediluvian World" by a crackpot named Ignatius Donnelly who linked the destruction of Atlantis with the Biblical Flood. He followed this up with a book blaming those disasters on the near miss of the earth by a massive comet, a notion later taken up by Immanuel Velikovsky seventy years later later in his "Worlds in Collision" where he claimed that it was not a comet but the planet Venus which was ejected from Jupiter and passed near Earth, its gravity causing world wide disasters, including the collapse of Bronze Age civilizations. Despite the lurid title of his best-seller no planets actually collided in his telling."

"Good thing too. We wouldn't be here otherwise. A planetary collision would surely have cracked both planets apart."

"As seems to have happened early in the history of the solar sytem when an planet called Thera crashed into the proto- Earth."

"Wow! You know Troy, you speak so knowledgeably about the Ancient World that it sometimes makes me wonder whether you might have lived back in the Bronze Age."


"No, I am serious Troy, or rather half serious. I am thinking that maybe I should turn crackpot myself and write a best selling expose revealing the truth about how the Ganymede of myth, the loveliest youth born of mortals and paramour of Zeus, was and is a very real person, one who is living in our fair city today under his real name, and that he is my boyfriend Troy Ganymede."

"Go right ahead, but I'll want a share of the royalties."

As the video explained, after the decline of the Minoans, their dominance in the Eastern Mediterranean was replaced by the Mycenaean civilization, the last phase of the Bronze Age on mainland Greece. Noted for the Cyclopean structures in their cities of Mycenae and Tiryns, it was they who ultimately destroyed my native Troy in the long war chronicled, however fictionalized, in the Iliad.

Their religion was unlike that of the later Greeks. Without relevant inscriptions and text, the picture is murky, but it seems that the Minoans worshipped a mother goddess, a surmise archeologists have made from statues of a female deity with a snake in each hand and of her priests dressed in distinctive garb. In their funerary practices, tomb burial was more common than cremation.

The presence of grave goods as in Egyptian tombs and burials, suggests the vain belief common to many cultures, of a resurrection in an afterlife. As a rationalist I can only shake my head at their hopes that corpses rotting in the earth would ever make use of the food and drink buried with them. It all so much grasping at straws.


The Olympians told me that they were fortunate to arrive in the Solar System during the Mycenaean Age whose culture featured a fully populated pantheon of deities whom they might mimic. The religion of the Greeks featured an afterlife with the same duality as in other religions: the Elysian Fields the place where the good went to while Hades was a version of a Hell. The gods were said to punish sin but very often not in an afterlife but during the mortal live, inflicting blindness or insanity for sins like patricide, impiety or overweening pride.

Now false as a promised afterlife and a last judgment may be, no one can deny the psychological efficacy of the consolations of religion which allow mortals to accept their inevitable demise with hope and with dignity, and satisfaction that wickedness which flourish in life would now be punished. And though such hopes are false, none of the dead are ever disappointed. It takes a working brain to register disappointment.

The threat of punishment of sin in the next life underpinned laws and moral codes, but could we really say that humans had free will when our moral decisions were coerced? Instead of being good because that was the right thing to do, should humans act morally from expediency, to avoid the flames of Hell and to win entry into the bliss of Heaven. I am puzzled by the doctrine of salvation. If Jesus died for my sins, why I am going to be punished for them anyway?

More than just from vain hopes, belief in the supernatural arises from attributing agency to natural phenomena. So when the wind blows it must be that the work of Aeolus or one of his chief lieutenants, one for each cardinal direction from which the wind blows, such as Zephyr the god of the West Wind. These minor wind gods were depicted in art as nude or nearly nude human males, sometimes winged, with cheeks puffed out as they blow the winds around the planet.

A river like the Scamander had its own god responsible for keeping the water flowing in its bed unless the river god took it into his head to make it overtop its banks and flood farmers' fields. Nowadays we attribute the phenomenon of rivers to the interplay of the hydrological cycle, topography, and gravity.

Belief in agency can become pernicious as when male witch doctors prey on the weak and unpopular women of the tribe, accusing them of witchcraft and dark arts by which they inflict illness or misfortune on their neighbors. The responsibility for a neighbor's miscarriage or death by malaria must be assigned to a witch and her curse and not to Mother Nature. No one dares defend the accused, likely a friendless loner or a cranky old biddy who does indeed curse her neighbors though only verbally.

The only magic which really works is stage magic.

I sometimes grumble about what I call the Perversity of the Inanimate as when dropped coins roll under the bureau or when that dropped pencil skitters away from my fingers as I reach for it or when I have to chase a piece of paper carried off by the wind. Now my irritation is not directed to some imagined agent but more at the fact that agency is not involved so that I have no one to blame. The wind after all is nothing more than the result of differential solar heating of the atmosphere, as channeled by topography and the Coriolis effect.

I really have to wonder how happy my boyfriend Paolo is going to be if his Catholic Heaven turns out to be real. Suppose that after a long and full life Paolo finally joined the billions of others to whom salvation was vouchsafed. He would take his place standing before the throne of God (no chairs), worshiping and singing His praises. But for how long would that Paolo find that enjoyable? The experience would surely pall and likely sooner rather than later for someone like Paolo who has no ear for music and often sings off key. For him Heaven would be like being stuck in church attending high mass but not just for an hour but continuously for eternity.

In time the saved would surely hope for something else to do, for better ways to pass the centuries than endlessly worshiping, praising, and feeding the ego of a vainglorious deity. After all if Heaven is supposed to be so wonderful shouldn't it at least have a lending library with all the books ever written, translated into every language? As a bookworm, that is high on my list of what I would want in an afterlife.

Next on the list is internet service and cable TV. I understand that the dearly departed must no longer post on social media, but at least they could lurk and follow events in the lives of their loved ones. And wouldn't it be nice to keep up with your favorite teams or just keep up with the news in general on planet Earth. No doubt former New Yorkers in particular would welcome the chance to watch the ceremony marking the completion of the long delayed Second Avenue Subway.

Another important question is whether the saved can have sex in Heaven and would that include gay sex? Have you never wondered why, if gay sex is so awful, a deity who is supposed to be all-knowing, everywhere, and all-powerful doesn't simply make gay males impotent the instant they try to get it on with other males. That would not be an infringement on free will since frustrating an action in no way cancels the desire or the will to commit it.

In Islam the faithful are promised an eternal bacchanal with seventy-two virgins at the beck and call of the righteous so I don't think I am asking too much of an improved Christian version. Both religions also offer to the faithful the moral high ground from which to gloat over those of other faiths who were or will be damned to burn in Hell for eternity.

I cannot fathom the psychological appeal of religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikkism, and Jainism whose offer of immortality applies only to the soul but not to the person. What can it matter that your immortal soul will be reborn in a new body, one not even necessarily human, if everything else about you vanishes. For practical purposes you, your mind, your memories, your skills, and knowledge all die a final death and nothing of the real you survives.

It would be as if a total unbeliever like me took comfort in the thought that the atoms of his body, would be incorporated, I use that word advisedly, not only in new generations of humans, but also of lower animals like rabbits, birds, lizards, and snakes but also creepy-crawlies like spiders, scorpions, centipedes, and leeches -- not to mention disease vectors like rats, flies, and mosquitos. Only the social elites benefit from such a pernicious doctrine which offers a specious justification for the unfair and unequal status the lower orders find themselves in, supposedly deservedly so for their sins in an earlier life, sins of which they themselves cannot be aware.

Realistically then, this earthly life is the only one we can expect to have. I can draw no consolation from empty promises of immortality in a next life. I am already immortal in the only way a human can be -- not as a spirt but in the flesh, though in my case that flesh is immortal in the sense that I cannot die but I can be killed like anyone else.

Forget about the soul, that it is as an eternal spirit, the non-material essence of a person, by which one's identity, personality, and memories survive physical death. What is a spirit anyway but a reification of life, regarding a complex process as an entity a thing?

The reason for the mistake is that the most obvious symptom of death is the cessation of breathing. That is when people are likely to say that the dead man's "spirit has gone out of him". But the only thing that has gone out of the body at death is that last breath, not some immaterial essence. The very origins of the term spirit indicate the source of the error. Spirit comes from the same root as respiration or breathing, for without breath there is no life, not for air breathers anyway.

The rise of the revealed religions baffled and disappointed the Olympians. What was with revelation anyway? The truth about the cosmos was finally revealed by a supposedly inspired book or anthology, whether the Old or New Testaments, the Quran, the Book of Mormon or some other holy scripture. Why didn't the gods of revealed religions simply reveal themselves early on and not wait till the Iron Age. Why not explain their theology directly, dispensing with intermediaries and holy books? The least they could do would be to write or "inspire" better books. Instead of an anthology of cosmological myths, legends, distorted history, and poetry like the Bible how about an authoritative catechism written in plain language?

The Olympians were disappointed that few humans ever asked themselves why these newly revealed gods cared about belief anyway. What could these new gods get out of it? Was belief something which Yahweh, Ahura Mazda, Mithras, or Allah needed otherwise they would become less than they were? If so, wouldn't that make humanity's imagined gods dependent on their worshipers? If not, why so much emphasis on mere belief.

The Olympians wondered how these credulous humans could be beguiled by the false hopes offered by self-appointed messengers of the gods, who were so obviously crazies, crackpots, or con men, whether they called themselves messengers, prophets or apostles. Wasn't it obvious that hope for an afterlife was the ultimate in wishful thinking, a denial of the human condition which in its simplest terms is this: humans are mortal. They are born, they live for a time, and then they die.

What especially dismayed the Olympians was the cruel way these new gods and their followers criminalized and punished unbelief. Why was that even a sin? Why did they criminalize mere thought, a difference of opinion, dogma really, and call it heresy?

And were those who adhered to wrong belief at fault themselves? For almost everybody, the religion they profess is the result of an accident of birth and of upbringing in a particular family and country. The majority faiths in particular lands were the results of accidents of history such as migrations, wars won or lost, or the choices made by rulers for political or dynastic reasons. Remember the Henri IV of France, a Protestant whose rationale for his conversion to Catholicism was that Paris was well worth a mass.

The existence and geographic distribution of different religions really should have made skeptics of everyone.

Apollo was especially dismissive toward the intolerant faiths, those which sponsored jihads, wars of religion, pogroms, and witch hunts or which celebrated the mortification of the flesh or the deaths of martyrs.

The Olympians have their faults but they were never guilty of those sins. The only blood ever spilled in their name was that of sacrificial animals, whose burnt offerings were actually so much roasted meat which, after the ritual, was eaten with relish by the congregants or at least by the priests.

And don't get me started on the musings of the philosophers and theologians claimed to be proofs of God's existence which are merely rationalizations for what the writers not only wanted to believe but already did believe before devising their so-called proofs. Take Anselm of Canterbury. Born into a pious family and successively a monk, a theologian, and Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm was already a high churchman before he devised his proof, which, as far as it makes any sense at all, rests on the limitations of the human imagination, as if our imagination could tell us anything about objective reality. Since he himself was not persuaded to believe in a deity by his own ontological proof of God, why should anyone else be?

And yet, at our best, we humans are capable of so much that is admirable. In the field of scientific discovery humanity has surpassed many alien species in the speed of our progress in scientific fields from astronomy to zymurgy and in mathematics from algebra to topology.

Our technological progress has been even faster. Julius Caesar could easily have understood the tech of George Washington's day but our first president could hardly begin to understand that of the twenty-first century.

Literature, and the arts have flourished including whole new fields like the cinema and computer art. If in anything, in our intellect and in our art lies our saving grace as a species.

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