The History of White People
(W. W. Norton)
US: Mar 2010
Excerpted from Chapter 1: “Greeks and Scythians”, from The History of White People by ©Nell Irvin Painter (footnotes and images excluded) Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Were there “white” people in antiquity? Certainly some assume so, as though categories we use today could be read backwards over the millennia. People with light skin certainly existed well before our own times. But did anyone think they were “white” or that their character related to their color? No, for neither the idea of race nor the idea of “white” people had been invented, and people’s skin color did not carry useful meaning. What mattered was where they lived; were their lands damp or dry; were they virile or prone to impotence, hard or soft; could they be seduced by the luxuries of civilized society or were they warriors through and through? What were their habits of life? Rather than as “white” people, northern Europeans were known by vague tribal names: Scythians and Celts, then Gauls and Germani.
But if one asks, say, who are the Scythians? the question sets us off down a slippery slope, for, over time and especially in earliest times, any search for the ancestors of white Americans perforce leads back to nonliterate peoples who left no documents describing themselves. Thus, we must sift through the intellectual history Americans claim as Westerners, keeping in mind that long before science dictated the terms of human difference as “race,” long before racial scientists began to measure heads and concoct racial theory, ancient Greeks and Romans had their own means of describing the peoples of their world as they knew it more than two millennia ago. And inevitably, the earliest accounts of our story are told from on high, by rulers dominant at a particular time. Power affixes the markers of history.
Furthermore, any attempt to trace biological ancestry quickly turns into legend, for human beings have multiplied so rapidly: by 1,000 or more times in some two hundred years, and by more than 32,000 times in three hundred years. Evolutionary biologists now reckon that the six to seven billion people now living share the same small number of ancestors living two or three thousand years ago. These circumstances make nonsense of anybody’s pretensions to find a pure racial ancestry. Nor are notions of Western cultural purity any less spurious. Without a doubt, the sophisticated Egyptian, Phoenician, Minoan, and Persian societies deeply influenced the classical culture of ancient Greece, which some still imagine as the West’s pure and unique source. That story is still to come, for the obsession with purity—racial and cultural—arose many centuries after the demise of the ancients. Suffice it to say that our search for the history of white people must begin in the misty mixture of myth and reality that comprises ancient Greek literature.
Early on, most Greek notions about peoples living along their northeastern border, especially that vaguely known place called the Caucasus, were mythological. Known to Westerners since prehistoric times, the Caucasus is a geographically and ethnically complex area lying between the Black and Caspian Seas and flanked north and south by two ranges of the Caucasus Mountains. The northern Caucasus range forms a natural border with Russia; the southern, lesser Caucasus physically separates the area from Turkey and Iran. The Republic of Georgia lies between the disputed region of the Caucasus, Turkey, Armenia, Iran, and Azerbaijan.
According to Greek mythology, Jason and his Argonauts sought the Golden Fleece in the (Caucasus) land of Colchis (near the present-day Georgian city of Poti) obtaining it from King Aeetes, thanks to the magical powers of the king’s daughter, the princess Medea. In Homer’s Odyssey, Circe, the sister of King Aeetes, transforms half of Odysseus’s men into animals and seduces Odysseus. Later on, Hesiod and Aeschylus take up the tale of Prometheus, son of a Titan, punished for having stolen the secret of fire from Zeus, who chains Prometheus to a mountain in the Caucasus and sends an eagle to peck at his liver every day for thirty thousand years. One can see that to the Greeks, almost anything goes on in the Caucasus. Furthermore, Greek mythology accords women of the Caucasus extraordinary powers, whether the magical of Medea and Circe, or the warlike of the Amazons, variously located in a number of places, including the Caucasus. Even today, these myths reverberate.
Underlying the idea that all people originated between the Black and the Caspian Seas is the text of Genesis 8:1, which has Noah’s ark coming to rest “on the mountains of Ararat” after the flood. In the thirteenth century Marco Polo located Mount Ararat in Armenia, just south of Georgia in eastern Turkey, at the juncture of Armenia, Iraq, and Iran in the country of the Kurds. At any rate, Mount Ararat, at 5,185 meters, or some 17,000 feet high, is Turkey’s highest mountain and is still believed by many to mark the site of postdiluvian human history in western Asia. Nor have recent events lessened its importance.
Twentieth- and twenty-first-century wars contest access to oil (South Ossetia, Azerbaijan, Grozny, Maykop, and the Caspian Sea, especially Baku, hold rich old deposits); earlier trade brought slaves, wine, fruit, and other agricultural produce from the valleys along the Black Sea, and a variety of natural resources (e.g., manganese, coal, copper, molybdenum, and tungsten). Current iconography of the Caucasus shows bombed-out cities and oil rigs of Chechnya or bearded nationalists called “terrorists” by the Russians. Occasional photographs of Caucasians show gnarled old people as proof of the life-prolonging powers of yogurt. There was a time when the people of the Caucasus were thought the most beautiful in the world. But documentary images making this case—in pictures, not just words—have proven illusive.
By contrast, vague and savage notions had lodged in the Greek mind concerning Scythians and Celts, who lived in what is now considered Europe. Voicing broad ethnic generalities, Greeks had words—Skythai (Scythian) and Keltoi (Celt)—to designate far distant barbarians. Scythian, for instance, simply meant little known, northeastern, illiterate, Stone Age peoples, and Celt denoted hidden people, painted people, strange people, and barbarians to the west. We cannot know what those people called themselves, for the Greek names stuck. Nor can we know how many of those situated in northern, western, and eastern Europe, two or three thousand years ago or earlier, became the biological ancestors of nineteenth-century German, English, and Irish people and twentieth-century Italians, Jews, and Slavs. We know from Greek descriptions of their habits that, whether chiefs or slaves, all had light-colored skin.
For a sense of this vagueness, recall the naming skills of fifteenth-century Europeans as they looked west in the Americas. Their backs to the Atlantic Ocean, Europeans described sparsely settled people they had never seen before as “Indians.” Such precision regarding faraway, unlettered peoples has been commonplace throughout the ages. Those at a distance became the Other and, easily conquered, the lesser. But not in antiquity because of race. Ancient Greeks did not think in terms of race (later translators would put that word in their mouths); instead, Greeks thought of place. Africa meant Egypt and Libya. Asia meant Persia as far to the east as India. Europe meant Greece and neighboring lands as far west as Sicily. Western Turkey belonged to Europe because Greeks lived there. Indeed, most of the Greek known world lay to the east and south of what would become recognizable later as Europe.
Mostly, Greek scholars focused on climate to explain human difference. Humors arising from each climate’s relative humidity or aridness explained a people’s temperament. Where the seasons do not change, people were labeled placid. Where seasons shift dramatically, their dispositions were said to display “wildness, unsociability and spirit. For frequent shocks to the mind impart wildness, destroying tameness and gentleness.” Those words come from Hippocrates’ Airs, Waters, and Places.
Distance was all, for travel went at the speed of foot and hoof. Scythians roamed from Georgia in the Caucasus and the lands around the Euxine (Black) Sea to the steppes of Ukraine and on east to Siberia. Interestingly, the word “Ukraine” stems from Polish and Russian language roots meaning “edge of the world.” Russians and Ukrainians who now claim ancient Scythians as glorious ancestors look to Yalta in the Crimea as their ancestral home. Some Russian ancestors surely would have lived there, but the region’s tumultuous history renders any single origin an invented tradition. Black Sea ancestors were Scythians, yes, but must also have included invaders and migrants of Tartar, Russian, Polish, Turkish, Iranian, and Chinese origin—at the very least.
Nowadays, the notion of Celtic ancestry is widely appealing. Thinking wishfully, self-proclaimed Celts like to root themselves in French Brittany, the islands of the English Channel, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, easily separating themselves from Germans, Anglo-Saxons, and Franks. The Greeks, for their part, could not go so far. Across two and a half millennia and lacking good intelligence, they first situated the barbarian Celts in various places from the Danube to the Iberian Peninsula, only later widening Celtic ethnography as Greek scholars learned from long-distance traders, travelers, and one another.