An excellent poet, translator (of the Odyssey & the Iliad, among others), essayist, travel writer, born in Germany and living today in Austria, Raoul Schrott, whom I have been reading for some 20 years now, is virtually unknown, because untranslated, in this country — which is a crying shame! In the context of a series of articles concerning the politics & cultures of the Mediterranean basin connected to the present boat-people refugee crisis, the German newspaper taz published an interview with Schrott in which he gives a sweeping overview of how Europe came to be Europe. Here some extracts I have translated:
taz: Mr. Schrott, was Ulysses the first boat-immigrant?
RS: No. He was able to return home after many years spent in a war. But he too, like the refugees today, wanted to get to Europe after a long war, in order to survive. Both are in their own ways war refugees.
As translator of not only the Iliad but also the Gilgamesh epos, as a spcialist of Homer, you are an expert in the antique Mediterranean world. What role did the Mediterranean play for people back then?
The Mediterranean and the countries that border it is a space in which humans as well as ideas have been wandering forever — where our area is only the end-station of this unending migration. But we ourselves are nothing else than the product of permanent migrations. Genetically we belong to the species Homo Sapiens which immigrated here from Ethiopia some 60,000 years ago.
Here Homo Sapiens met Neanderthal, the remainder of the homo erectus population, who had himself immigrated from Georgia some 1.3 million years ago. To the latter we owe that we lost our curly hair and have a gene for white skin — otherwise we would be black. Some 9000 years ago, farmers from North Syria and Anatolia come into our Northern lands, bringing bags of single-grain wheat and barley, mix with us, bring the first Indo-European language and teaching us agriculture.
And then some 5000 years ago people from the kazakh steppes, who know how to ride horses and had carriages, migrated all over Europe. They also brought the use of milk and cheese-making, brought also specific types of ceramics. The Europeans are wide mixture of peoples. The idea that there is something autochthonously European, something like a modern form of a “race,” that we are who we are, here, and all the others are strangers, is not only a total illusion, but totally absurd — we have always only been the end-station because the peninsula Europe happened to end here.
What does that mean in terms of culture?
That for example from the last ice-age until antiquity, Europe has taken over everything that came from Syria and Iraq: various grains, domesticated cattle, sheep, goats, the first urban centers, the first democracy and also the script — and all the knowledge connected with it.
Culturally speaking this is even more obvious. Our writing comes from the two-rivers land, Mesopotamia. The road traveled by this invention shows already how complexly things move, winding their ways around the Mediterranean. Culture does not mean to settle in one fixed place, culture means to develop something that is handed on that in a new context will be newly adapted. Our alphabet was originally adapted from egyptian hieroglyphs by semitic forced laborers in the Sinai peninsula. In North Syria these signs were enriched with vocals. The Phoenicians spread this script. It was then taken over by the Greeks who called it the Phoenician script. The first traces of it were found on the island of Ischia. From there the script wanders over to the Etruscans in the Toscana and reaches the Romans — and only then does it come to us. Or look at the Middle Ages: when we took over everything from the Arab high culture. And you may be surprised when I tell you that even the most Greek of the gods all came from the Near east.
Apollo, Athene and Zeus too?
Apollo was originally an anatolian god called Apalunias, meaning father of the lions. Athena was Anat, the sister of the semitic war-god Baal. Zeus was the god Sius a sun-god already imported in Mycenaean times from Anatolia. Everything that the very first European text — Hesiod’s Theogony — tells us, stories ranging from the creation of the world to the origins of the gods, of man, of woman, were transported from Northern Syria, from what is today the Syrian-Turkish border, to Greece. And constitutes the basis of our European thinking. Add to this as second text the Iliad (which Hesiod already uses as resource) — & this didn’t just become for the Greeks a first historical document with which they could show that they too had a past, because before that they were migrants, before that they were working on ships, as sailors but also as pirates, and so on, in the most various countries of the Eastern Mediterranean. In 19C Germany this same document was then instrumentalized for another purpose: the unification of all this various Greeks fighting amongst themselves became a model that legitimized the unification of the various German Länder. In that sense we are not thinkable without ancient Greece just as ancient Greece is not thinkable without the other countries of the Mediterranean, especially the high cultures of the surrounding countries.
(to be continued)