Happily, though secretively, I watch The History Channel; it’s digestible content is hardly more elevated than the commercials studding it; but I am weak, at this hour, hardly able to formulate my thoughts. I know this will not seem like an appropriate diet for a serious author. A man of my ilk might not see it redound to his reputation, in the neighborhood, to be caught with his feet up and a bag of Fritos in front of the television as it pours forth a show called The Fossil Hunters. Though I quickly add that I only feed myself this pablum very late at night, when there is no one on the street, and history itself has become a forgotten terrain, an altogether irrelevant thesis, at best. As if it, history, had–once again, to be conjured up from scratch. In this light, archeologists don’t look so ridiculous, with their flak jackets and thermos, scratching their faces, holding up the cheekbones of their ancestors, or creatures who are so grotesque they could not be–their ancestors. It’s their quandary, not mine–I want to say. I know I am descended from gods. What a lark. Being a novelist (that is what I really am, I insist!), and yet, as is the plight of a novelist, being more than eighty percent of the time between novels, I can be forgiven, eighty percent of the time. For no matter what I do. And it is usually when I have come home from Monty’s Krown Lounge, the bar up the street, that I deign to cave in–literally, to The History Channel. Cave in, did I say? Ha! I am dissolute, I admit that too. Which is to say, out of words at that hour.
Griffins, centaurs, cyclopes, and giants, these fabulous creatures of classical mythology continue to live in the modern imagination, says the voice-over narrator (like reading from promotional copy), through the vivid accounts that have come down to us from the ancient Greeks and Romans. But what if monstrous creatures like these once actually did roam the earth? And in the very places where their legends first arose? What if these beings were more than merely fictions? This is the “arresting and original” thesis that Adrienne Mayor explores in The First Fossil Hunters. Through careful research and meticulous documentation, she shows that many of the giants and monsters of myth did have a basis in fact. Where, what fact! It is right in front of you, Johnny. In the glass case! It is in the enormous bones of the long extinct species that were once abundant in the lands of the Greeks and Romans. These bones which have been rediscovered, and in plenty, by modern archeologists like Adrieene Mayor. There she is, the one in the parachute outfit! In the television.
The Greeks and Romans were aware that a different breed of creatures once inhabited their lands. (I am splicing this together, God help me.) They stumbled over the fossilised remains of these primeval beings. They developed sophisticated concepts to explain the fossil evidence; well, not sophisticated concepts, but unforgettable poetic concepts expressed in mythological stories that have become world literature, and the foundation of social sciences like. . . um, psychology. The gold-guarding Griffins, dealing with them–they sprang from tales told by ancient gold prospectors, who had observed bizarre skeletons. Bizarre to you, Johnny of Patmos. We now know these skeletons, once decked out with scales and flesh, were of Protocertops, and T-Rex, beaked dinosaurs of the Gobi desert. Like their modern counterpart scientists, but ignorant as hell of what they were actually doing, the ancient fossil hunters collected these impressive fossil bones, tusks, and teeth. And, children that they were, unlike their modern counterparts, they displayed them in temples as the remains of giants, heroes, and monsters from the deeper past, the days of myth. “Long thought to be fantasy, the remarkably perceptive Greek and Roman accounts of discoveries of giant bones were actually based on solid paleontological facts,” mandates Adrienne Mayor.
“I can’t tell if you are proposing this, or mocking this,” declared my barstool buddy, and raconteur, to whom I was venting at Monty’s. Must have been the night after, couldn’t have been the night before . . . Though anything is possible in this life. “What, do you think these are my ideas?” I said. One must pay a price for harbouring paradoxes, speaking in conundrums, and trafficking in black mirrors, I thought. Surely this idea that ancient Greeks stumbled across fossils of prehistoric animals and figured them as belonging to former giant gods and heroes who must have traversed the same land in a Golden Age–surely!, this makes the Greeks into fools, and dreamers. Without benefit of modern evolutionary theory, which knows . . . what? It knows that human beings couldn’t possibly have lived at the same time as any creatures like this roamed the earth. “This must be protected,” I said to John, who was not listening. And why are they ignoring the basic setting of all mythology, which is the sky. But also, why get into it, at this hour? It’s like someone tripped and all the slides fell out of the tray, for the lecture I never get to give. Bones of dinosaurs, and evolutionary theory do not mix. It is impossible that people could have lived at the same time as these dinosaurs. But Greeks did talk of fossils of woolly mammoths, etc. So ancient Greeks wrote like this was the setting of their ancestors, flying reptiles, dragons. Records recently unearthed, or newly understood, show plenty of bones were dispersed in ancient temples, and even museums. All this to help explain the literary record of Homer, Heroditus, et al, which tells of gods and creatures like the griffin, and also explain artwork, cave drawings!, broken statues, of the same time showing these creatures. In summary, finally, it is asserted that these pictorial and literary records, resulting in myths and legends still carried around in knapsacks by college students today, were dreamed up to explain the fossils.
To explain the fossils? Maybe I am still at the bar. Around the corner there is a band playing, calling itself, you guessed it, Cyclops. Very original drummer, seems to have six hands. Memorable, I should look this band up on YouTube. Primarily–I almost said, primordially, I am just sitting in front of my little television in my cluttered office, I mean my cave, at 3 a.m. There is nothing else on, otherwise I could change the channel. The one thing I can’t do, is go to sleep.