Eponymous, King of Kings

H. Smiggy McStudge returns from sabbatical with another load of notorious codswallop. All the usual disclaimers apply, and possibly some unusual ones, too.

Since I have been on secondment to the Historical Branch, my lovelies, I have had a chance to observe some of the so-called talent that our academies have been vomiting forth. Just the other day, during a marathon committee meeting, we heard from a bright young thing who must be fresh out of the breeding vats. He had his full share of the myopic optimism and theory-fed smugness that one usually sees in those who have been extensively schooled but never educated: a type, fortunately, that breeds just as copiously among the humans as in our own genus. We are at no disadvantage there. Still it soured my gizzard to hear this puling brat snigger mechanically and say: ‘You know, we really ought to call ourselves the Society for the Prevention of Historical Knowledge.’

Fortunately the chairman squashed him like a beetle, but not as convincingly, perhaps, as I would have done. His objection was that whatever we might do for the grand cause of preventing historical knowledge among the humans, that in no way made us a society. Abhorrent word! It still stinks of its own etymology; for the Latin language, in which (as some of you poppets may have omitted to learn) socius means ally, is not yet as dead as we should like. Allies! Faugh! Society means cooperation; means mutual benefit; means, if anything at all, a voluntary gathering of people in pursuit of some common good. The Historical Branch does not exist for anybody’s good, except in so far as we all benefit from wreaking harm upon the humans. An army in battle is not a society, and nor is a plague of locusts. So spake the chairman; and they were sound enough remarks, but wide of the point.

The point, you see, is that our committee actually is there to prevent historical knowledge; and the worst way to go about it is to say so. Back at home in the Cultural Division, we have worked main hard for many years to infect the humans with a visceral loathing and contempt for the obvious; but even a human can take a hint, sometimes, when it is dropped on his skull in the form of an anvil. In the last century, the Communist Party U.S.A. (which learnt so much from us in methods and philosophy) operated numerous front groups in order to infiltrate and control liberal organizations. These front groups had names like ‘Patriotic Americans for a Brighter Tomorrow’. They were not called ‘Bolshevik Bastards with Bombs’. That much truth in advertising they dared not risk; nor should we.

That issue having been expertly mishandled, we returned to the subject of the meeting: how to destroy the various social sciences by contaminating them with each other’s methods. We have achieved great and lasting success by teaching silly historians to apply the techniques of anthropology to their own field. Anthropology is an inherently bogus field to begin with, for the proper study of mankind is anything but man. Man, if such an insect deserves to be studied at all, is the proper study of us McStudges, who have the proper critical distance to be objective about it. Even a human anthropologist can be right sometimes; or wrong in an interesting direction. But if we can once get a social scientist to work on solid historical evidence in the same vague and woolly way that he works on folkways and tribal tales, we can be sure that the result will be neither good anthropology nor good history. Motor oil is good for lubricating engines, and wine is good for lubricating souls; a mixture of the two is good for nothing. That is the principle that we follow, and it works beautifully as long as the humans never figure out what we are actually making them do.

I have before me a book not intended for scholarly consumption, but written by an ostensible scholar (a worm named Cavendish) to give gullible laymen the idea that they are reading a valuable summary of scientific findings. It is called Legends of the World. So far as this goes, it does us little good. Legends are harmless enough; a human can consume several tons of the things without any apparent ill effect. Where the Historical Branch goes to work is in smudging the border between legend and history: a harmful thing for the humans, and therefore very profitable for us.

Formerly we got the humans to accept legends, and sometimes quite silly ones, as historical fact. This method was still in use as recently as the nineteenth century, when we got one of our agents (Irving, I believe, was his name) to propagate the notion that humans in the Middle Ages, and sober and learned ones at that, believed that the world was flat, and that the superstitious crew of Christopher Columbus feared lest they should sail off the edge. Some people still believe this ridiculous story. But even among those who know better, this and other falsehoods have created a sort of glamour of ignorance about the Middle Ages, so that the very word mediaeval is thought to be a synonym for stupid; and thus the danger that the humans will learn anything from the books of that period, or believe it if they do learn it, is greatly reduced.

Nowadays, among academics, and especially among ignorant laymen who want to play at being academical, we take the opposite tack. We take sound, sober historical fact, never disputed by any reputable source, and nudge it over into the realm of legend. We first used this trick, back in the eighteenth century, to destroy religious belief among the intelligentsia by making them treat all their religious texts as fiction. Then we went to work on secular history, and we are still having enormous fun with this. Our best agent was a creature by the name of Frazer, who purported to show that all religions were at bottom merely retellings of a secret solar myth: as if it could ever be any kind of secret, even among humans, that day alternates with night, or that there are such things as seasons. But we have had many others in our pay.

One of the most fruitful methods of destroying knowledge is to trace nonexistent lines of purely literary influence. That is, if the same story, or a similar one, is told about two different historical figures, we put it about that it did not happen to either one of them; that the legend ‘became attached’ to both figures, as if men were ships and legends were barnacles. Now, something rather like this does periodically happen. That is, perfectly true stories about one personage get told about somebody else; because humans are far better at remembering interesting stories than they are at names, places, or dates.

So, for instance, we have a minor bandit from thirteenth-century Yorkshire, remembered chiefly for his salutary habit of taking pot shots at royal officers with a Welsh bow. In the confusion of oral transmission (which is very seldom equipped with a bibliography) he inherited some perfectly true anecdotes about Hereward the Wake, who made trouble for the Normans over a hundred years before, along with stories about other bandits, or rather, boasts about the deeds they let on to have achieved, and the whole show was relocated to Sherwood Forest: and so the legend of Robin Hood was born.

This kind of borrowing and attaching goes on all the time. My cousin Wermut, who headed up our German office for a time, informs me that the early Danes and Franks, and that sort of people, occasionally used to shoot apples off of slave boys’ heads for a drunken wager. (The usual result was that the apple and the boy both survived intact, and after about three shots, someone less inebriated took away the bow.) Actually hitting the apple was enough to make a man famous for life and beyond, as it did for old Egil, who was very good at archery and useless at everything else. Centuries later, Egil’s story, with alterations and accretions, was misapplied to William Tell: so saith Wermut.

Now for the trick. We have taught the anthropologists (and through them the historians, mixing the motor oil into their wine) to say that if the same story is told about two different figures, it did not happen to either one of them, and probably never happened to anyone at all. One of the keenest and most learned of the humans had a short way with this foolishness:

…the fact that a story resembling the one known as The Goosegirl (Die Gänsemagd in Grimm) is told in the thirteenth century of Bertha Broadfoot, mother of Charlemagne, really proves nothing either way…. The story is found to be widespread, unattached to the mother of Charlemagne or to any historical character. From this fact by itself we certainly cannot deduce that it is not true of Charlemagne’s mother, though that is the kind of deduction that is most frequently made from that kind of evidence.… No one, I fancy, would discredit a story that the Archbishop of Canterbury slipped on a banana skin merely because he found that a similar comic mishap had been reported of many people, and especially of elderly gentlemen of dignity.

Fortunately, the man who wrote that was J. R. R. Tolkien, and we have dealt with him. All we need to do, when a pinchbeck academic is in danger of heeding anything he says, is to laugh and say: ‘Oh, Tolkien! Are we really so hard up for evidence that we have to take it from a fantasy writer?’ The implication, you see, is that a writer of fiction is a liar, and an indiscriminate one; and a fantasy writer is a particularly obvious and inept liar, because he does not even know enough to make his lies realistic. Tolkien wrote some stories about elves and hobbits, you see; there are no such things as elves and hobbits; therefore everything that Tolkien ever said is false. Put thus baldly, even an academic can see the fallacy; but we never put it baldly. We sneer and insinuate, and make flippant remarks, and let the victim’s shame stampede his reason. It is evidently a faux pas to believe anything that a Tolkien says; and the average human will not ask why it is a faux pas, or what rule he has actually broken, but will shrink back, and let on that he knew better, and he will not make that mistake anymore. Thousands of humans, even the most learned and often the most skeptical, are annually saved by this ploy from truths that we do not wish them to perceive.

You will notice that this is merely a different application of the same method that we use with the legends themselves. We divorce the sense of intellectual shame from its proper object, which is falsehood. We teach the humans to be ashamed, not because they have believed false data, but because they have believed data that fashionable intellectuals don’t accept. ‘Oh, that‘s a folktale! Those things are told by peasants and illiterates. You aren’t one of those people, are you?’ The mere phrase ‘old wives’ tale’ is a potent spell to ward off belief among phony intellectuals.

It is worth noting, at this point, that all intellectuals are more or less phony. The enormous increase in the sum of human knowledge, which could have done us so much harm, has been largely rendered innocuous because no one human can possibly know it all. A human, in his limited lifespan, can only become expert in one small facet of knowledge by remaining steadfastly ignorant of nearly everything else. We teach people to become experts in X-ray crystallography, or fourteenth-century French poetry, or the history of bimetallism; and because they know one little thing thoroughly and well, we teach them to be so proud of their intellects that they honestly trust their own superior judgement about shoes and ships and sealing-wax, of which they know nothing. Every intellectual as such, unless he takes constant care to rein in his pride, becomes a phony intellectual the moment he steps outside of his speciality.

There used to be some moderately learned people – newspaper reporters, popular philosophers, and schoolteachers, for instance – who actually had what was known as general knowledge. That is, they were not experts in any one thing, but they had a superficial familiarity with the shape of knowledge in many different fields, and could draw fruitful conclusions by finding connections between widely separated bits of information. G. K. Chesterton (who might have been a valuable agent for us, if caught young) lamented the decline of this kind of generalism:

I have nothing but general information; but it is fairly general. What surprises me in people younger, brighter, and more progressively educated than myself is that their general information is very patchy.

In recent decades, we have turned general information into a parlour game, where the object is to remember as many bits of useless data as possible, without making the slightest effort to construct them into a consistent understanding of the world. We call this game, or rather the counters it is played with, trivia. A human can recall that Euler flunked mathematics as a boy, and pride himself on the knowledge, without knowing enough mathematics to understand one single theorem of Euler’s; or tell you the Latin motto of the University of North Dakota, without being able to read a single sentence of Latin. These bits of knowledge, if assembled by a careful artist, can form a mosaic picture of the world. But we have made the humans forget the art of mosaic-making, and taught them to sit on the floor and play with the bits of broken glass.

Cavendish, to return to our muttons, could have made a mosaic out of his book of legends; instead, under our guidance, he made a collection of broken glass. If he had organized his book thematically, and compared similar legends from different cultures, he might have infected some of his readers with useful knowledge. Instead, he stuck his legends in geographic pigeonholes, so that by the time a human has read all the pious taradiddles about the mediaeval kings of Ethiopia, he will have quite forgotten how or whether they resembled the fantasies about the mediaeval saints of Germany and France. (They do, quite. Don’t tell your victims.) In the end we have a fat book of trivia, useful perhaps for a game-show contestant to do a bit of cribbing with, but largely useless for inculcating any general knowledge of legends. We approve of this.

When Cavendish unbends himself to make any general observations at all, they are just the kind of foolish dismissals that Tolkien warned the humans against. His treatment of Sargon I and Moses, for instance, is exactly what we want from him. Both these historical personages, according to legend, were put out to foster as infants by hiding them in baskets among the rushes beside the river. This, all by itself, is enough to prove to Cavendish that no such thing happened to either of them. But in fact it is no more impossible that it happened to one of them, or both, than that an archbishop of Canterbury should at some time in history have slipped on a banana skin.

Consider the circumstances. Let us suppose (if your gorge will stand it) that you are a human, living in early Egypt or Sumeria. The whole civilized world, so far as you know it, is exactly coterminous with the lands flooded by the river along whose banks you live. The Euphrates, the Tigris, or the Nile deposits rich alluvium over the floodplain, fertilizing and watering the soil. No other ground within many days’ travel is good for agriculture; a mile beyond the high-water mark is worthless scrub and desert, fit only for nomads to graze their goats and cows and suchlike herbivorous vermin. Every place worth going, for a civilized man, is on the river. And since there are no roads deserving of the name, the river is your highway.

Now an object has come into your possession, something that you wish to be rid of, for you cannot be caught with it, but so valuable in itself that you do not want it to be lost or destroyed. Something perishable: a baby, let us say. How do you get rid of it without killing it? You cannot drop it off at the nearest Catholic orphanage; that useful method of waste disposal will not be invented for thousands of years yet. But you can sneak through a patch of tall vegetation, so that nobody will see what you are doing, and leave the brat at the side of the road: that is, in the shallows of the river, out of the current. With the traffic of your whole civilization passing by that spot, somebody is sure to find the parcel in time: somebody who wants an extra son to work his fields and carry on his family line. This method of disposal for unwanted boys (girls, much more sensibly, were simply killed) was quite usual in those regions; it happened thousands of times over the ages. I have it on the authority of the Historical Branch that it actually did happen to the child later known as Moses.

The case of Sargon, however, is quite interesting, for it reveals an amusing twist to this whole foolishness. The claim that Sargon was left as a foundling in the rushes is not found in any documents of his own time; it occurs in a late cuneiform book of the last millennium B.C. – that is, two thousand years after Sargon died, and several centuries even after Moses. I cannot now be bothered to look up in the records whether the story is true of Sargon or not. Rather, I should say, the librarians of the Historical Branch cannot be bothered to give me the answer, and I have not the leisure just now to get it out of them by torture. But if I had to wager on a guess, I should say that the actual story about Moses ‘became attached’, as they say, to Sargon at a late date; as some of the things that really happened to Charlemagne in the ninth century were later ‘attached’ to King Arthur of the sixth. The late Babylonians knew a good yarn when they heard it, but the name of Moses didn’t mean anything to them, so they substituted a name that did. To Cavendish, the fact that the story was stolen away from Moses and given to an earlier figure proves that it never belonged to Moses in the first place. Such is academic logic, as we have made it.

Of course, it is also possible that Sargon really was a riverside foundling of the usual type, and the older records of the fact have not happened to survive. The argument from silence, on events of three or four thousand years ago, is extraordinarily weak: there is so much silence that you could prove anything by it.

Elsewhere in his book, Cavendish takes the proper sneering attitude towards what is known to anthropologizing historians as the Eponymous Founder. The orthodox position is this: If a country, or a city, or a nationality, is said to be named after a particular person, then that person did not exist, but was invented after the fact to explain the name. So Moses (whose existence Cavendish doubts, as we have taught him) was an Israelite; that is, he was a member of one of the tribes originally led by Israel, who changed his name from Jacob. We have taught the academics to say that Jacob never existed; that the nation of Israel invented its own founder to account for its name.

In fact, Israel occurs as a personal name centuries before the Hebrews appeared; there were men named Israel in Ebla and Ugarit. The sequence is clear and obvious: first the name, then the nation – not the other way round. But our sneers at the Bible, and our efforts to cultivate the broken-glass attitude towards learning, have kept this knowledge from reaching the general public, or even the general academic population. Thousands of historians and anthropologists and comparative-religion wonks still believe in the nonexistence of the man called Israel, even though the truth may be known to a researcher three doors down the corridor.

As with the sacred, so with the secular. There is no particular religious reason why people should disbelieve in the founder of Rome, as atheists have a motive to disbelieve in the founder of the Israelites. But we make sure that they do, just to keep them in practice. It is good mental hygiene to disbelieve as many things as possible: it keeps the mind uncontaminated by facts. So somebody observed that the name Roma, for the city, is descended from an Etruscan word meaning river; and they concluded (as we taught them) that Romulus, the first King of Rome, never existed.

But of course there was a first King of Rome; and the librarians of the Branch revealed, even without torture, that Romulus was a sort of epithet or nickname that he got, as the chieftain of the band of robbers and cutthroats who set up in business at the fords of the Tiber. ‘Little River Man’ is the approximate meaning of the name. Like so many Latin names, it was originally given as a sort of affectionate insult. Much later, we see the emperors Caligula (‘Bootykins’) and Caracalla (‘Gallic Cloak’), named after their peculiarities of dress; and the senior branch of the Julii was called Caesar, that is ‘a fine head of hair’, because baldness ran in the family – much as a bald man today may be nicknamed Curly.

The Romans themselves were remarkably frank about their first king’s curriculum vitae; they mythologized him to a fair extent (identifying his genius with the god Quirinus, and suchlike rot), but they never attempted to whitewash him, or to soft-pedal the fact that Rome, as a political entity, was founded by red-handed brigands. It is only modern academics who are too fastidious to believe the old records. The Historical Branch teaches them to say that Romulus was too good to be real – that he was a romantic idealization, the kind of founder the Romans only wished they had. (In fact, when the Romans wanted such a figure, they had to go and steal Aeneas from the Trojans.) This shows that the Historical Branch, as a body, possesses a fine sense of humour.

Of course, the same technique is applied to all sorts of ancient cities and nations. Thus Byzantium was never founded by Byzas; the Jews were not named after Judah ben Israel; and so down the line. Alas, despite our best efforts, nobody has yet been silly enough to take the process to its logical conclusion. By the very same rule, one could prove that Alexander the Great never existed, but was invented to explain the name of Alexandria; nor Julius Caesar, who was invented to explain Caesarea; nor Constantine, who was invented to explain Constantinople. Obviously Simón Bolívar is a fictitious character, invented to account for the name of Bolivia. And George Washington, who has both a city and a state named after him? Clearly, he was nonexistent twice.

Let us finish with the great Russian metropolis of St. Petersburg. Clearly somebody was invented as the legendary eponym of that city; but who? The city was actually founded by Peter the Great; but according to the records (those shady and legendary sources), it was actually named after St. Peter himself. The careful historian will take deep thought before deciding which one of those Peters did not exist; and if he is true to the discipline we have taught him, he will err on the side of caution, and decide that both of them are myths.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, under our prompting, once wrote a scurrilous bit of propaganda about the fall of empires and the vanity of kings. I refer, of course, to the sonnet ‘Ozymandias’, which contains the lines:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains.

But we have gone Shelley one better. We can get an academic to look at the thriving civilization of modern Rome, St. Petersburg, or Washington, the State of Israel or the Republic of Bolivia, where everything remains, and not see the pedestal or the statue itself. Then we could make the founder say: ‘My name is Eponymous, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Learned, and conclude that I never existed!’ The truth is hidden in plain sight; it is perceived, but never believed. Our work there is done.

     H. Smiggy McStudge


  1. Andrew Parrish says:

    Strange game, isn’t it? We are sawing off our temporal branch, taking a hard and critical look at the existence of our ancestors without realizing that we depend on them in a particularly obvious way. The result reminds me of that wonderful bit from the introduction to Chesterton’s White Horse: “eyeless centuries floating free”, or something along those lines. Well written. I seem to recall that Master McStudge’s essays were being numbered at some point – has that grouping been concluded?

    I hope this posting to the Historical Branch does not indicate some sort of loss of prestige or rank for our resident devil. He’s far too catankerous a fellow to lie by unused.

    • The ‘Theyocracy’ series will resume at some point; soon, I hope, but that depends upon my own health and the weight of other work. However, I am thinking of saving most of the series and issuing it as an ebook. The McStudge is as vain as a human, easily (though he would not appreciate the comparison), and positively glows with cheerful ill-will at the thought of having his very own name on a book cover.

      Stay tuned for further developments, same Studge time, same Studge channel.

      • Andrew Parrish says:

        I’m tickled to have just noticed your update of the blog metatext to include McStudge. Looking forward to what comes next.

  2. Caloo! Callay! The return of the revenge of the McStudge is back! And in force, no less. Welcome, my good sir. I must say my own mood is much better these days, so hopefully the conversation can resume in earnest.

    Speaking of which: I am mildly disappointed to see you attack atheists based on the widespread misconception that we actively “disbelieve” in things, rather than, you know, waiting for verifiable evidence. (Which people all too often seem incapable of providing, or in fact recognizing; too many people think “somebody said so” is definite proof that a claim is true.) But so many people make the exact same mistake, I can’t be angry with you. Mind, I am acquianted with overly enthusiastic skeptics who rush to proclaim a simple explanation to unusual events when things are obviously not so simple at all. That doesn’t mean being skeptical is wrong as a general rule, but merely that they, too, misunderstand what it means to be rational.

    More on topic, I am happy to report that nobody in Romania disbelieves the legend according to which the city of Bucureşti (better known as Bucharest in your neck of the woods) was founded by a shepherd named Bucur. We don’t exactly believe the legend to be literal, either. Rather, we accept it probably has some truth to it, the way legends tend to. Sadly, I could not say what actual historians have to say about this issue. And given that historians, too, are highly specialized nowadays, finding one who knows enough about the history of this particular city might prove to be an arduous task. Oh well.

    • Matt Osterndorf says:

      Speaking of which: I am mildly disappointed to see you attack atheists based on the widespread misconception that we actively “disbelieve” in things, rather than, you know, waiting for verifiable evidence.

      This would make you an agnostic, no? And while you might not make much out of your disbelief (a sensible enough attitude), that hardly applies to the majority of your louder coreligionists, for lack of a better term.

  3. They were not called ‘Bolshevik Bastards with Bombs’.

    Of course not. The Muppets have that one covered.

  4. H. Smiggy McStudge and the Historical Branch have succeeded. Human history is curved, and beyond its event horizon, facts pass into myth.

    “History must be curved, for there is a horizon in the affairs of mankind. Beyond this horizon, events pass out of historical consciousness and into myth. . . . In oral societies this horizon lies typically at eighty years, but historical consciousness endures longer in literate societies, and the horizon may fall as far back as three centuries.” –Michael F. Flynn, ‘The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown and Down-and-Dirty-Mud-Wrassle’, http://www2.fiu.edu/~blissl/Flynngs.pdf
    (Cf: The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown, tofspot.blogspot.com/2013/08/the-great-ptolemaic-smackdown.html/)

  5. Tom R says:

    Ten years ago, when the US managed to hold reasonably free and democratic elections in Iraq, a meme went around by email quoting similar-sounding news reports of US-backed elections in the Republic of South Viet Nam 35 years earlier. The implication was that, just as the US backed regime in South Viet Nam was doomed to collapse, so too was the US-backed regime in Iraq.
    Now, I’d bet that upwards of 90% of those who forwarded that email with a chuckle would also say that the fact Abr[ah]am lied to two kings that his wife was his sister, proves that it never happened in either case.
    I wonder what historians in 3000 or 4000 will make of our era… when the supposedly more secular, rationalist, and “reality-based” of the two major US political parties makes so much of the fact that its presidential candidate in 1992 once received the anointing at the hands of the Blessed JFK at a Youth Nation camp, or that its 2004 presidential candidate shares initials with the Blessed JFK…

    • Matt Osterndorf says:

      I once read a science fiction story where inhabitants of some decadent far future decided to resurrect all the gods and legends of Old Earth, including JFK—not the historical figure, but the ahistorical symbol of American vitality and principled power.

      Something about “martyrdom” must make it easier to do that to people; Che Guevera has the same sort of totemic influence among a somewhat different crowd owing, most likely, to the fact that he was executed by a drunken Bolivian soldier rather than living out his twilight years in a villa in Cuba.

  6. My favorite one is the people who announce that St. Hippolytus was merely the Greek legend reworked. Even though you don’t have anything about history’s first anti-Pope in the legend. Even though he died in the Coliseum, and we know for a fact that they re-enacted mythological scenes at times, so there is nothing contradictory about his dying by being dragged behind horses just like the legendary one.

  7. Carbonel says:

    If you ever do publish a McStuge compilation, I will front you the ready to get a create space print on demand title if you like. I would very much like to set it next to Screwtape in my library.

  8. Am I to get from this, Mr. Simon, that you are not a fan of the poem “Ozymandias”? That’s always been one of my favorites.

  9. Unconcord says:

    This is virtuoso-level McStudge, right here. Bravo.

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