The Ancient Mindset

Discussion in 'Research' started by Yora, Apr 22, 2018.

  1. Yora

    Yora Lore Master

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    I want to give my stories a feel like they come from antiquity or the bronze age, while being set in a completely made up world. I don't just want to use the vocabulary or technology we associate with cultures from those times, but to have the characters appear like they think in ways different from people in the 21st century.

    Now I already researched quite a lot about this field over the years, but I am always interested to hear other people's thoughts and views on it. What things in the ways characters behave would you associate with people from antiquity and prehistory?
     
  2. Gurkhal

    Gurkhal Scribal Lord

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    Well, that's a very broad time period that covers very many cultures that see things differently. But some things which I have considered for my own writing are the following.

    The world is not a rational and understandable place - Its a fact that science and philosophy was not widely dissminated through society and so there's little questioning among the broader masses of the religio-magic explainations for the world. As such whims of gods, prophecies and spirits determine what happens and what does not. And if one has this view of the universe then it really is a waste trying to order the world as no one can know when this god or that spirit will throw a tantrum and wreck your life as collatoral damage. Sure there are patterns, just like many people have habits and patterns in their lives, but ultimately its down to supernatural wills and not natural laws.

    Inequality is natural and good - Perhaps most incomprehensible to us is that inequality and hierarchies are not something to frown upon or try to hide. Its natural and perfectly ok to say that "I am better than you and my life is worth more than yours." and its the other guy who will be without an acceptable answer to this if you would have the right gender or a higher class. Either he, or she, will have to agree or look like a total wierdo. Same with xenophobia, classism, sexism and more. There's just no or very little push for equality as we understand it, with some short-lived attempts in Central and Western Mediterrranean that were cut short by the Hellenistic kings and Roman Caesars. Its the radical reformers who must fight an uphill against conventation and "the natural state of affairs" and get the wierdo stamp on them by the mainstream. Not to mention that while in Rome and Greece the economically or socially poor men howled when they were denied influence, when they got influence, they were perfectly ok with denying it to both women and foreigner with the same zeal they had opposed their own elites as seen in democratic Athens.

    Local space and local mind - Most people will live local lives. Yes, under a great empire like Rome the world will be less local, but for most people its about my local community that I will interact with and everything beyond that is mostly just "far away". As such this can explain the regionalism that one can see of local revolts and what we would see as petty regionalism. Because people don't see or know about what goes on far away, they are less likely to listen to a king telling them that he's doing good far away that will benefit them in the long term. To them he is most likely just making up BS excuses to not do anything.

    Life is short and cheap - People die for all manner of reasons and so the value of human lives is really low. I'm sure that people mourn their loves ones but you only have so many tears to shed. And with people dying in accidents, illness and stuff all the time, then what's really another life cut short by infant exposure or execution for some crime?

    Hard labour - Labour is HARD. There are very few machines so almost everything is done by muscle power. You will labour hard and harder and be ready for the grave in a short while.
     
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  3. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Valar Lord

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    And it can start VERY young. I was reading that a copper mine the Romans had access to, had cut channels in which a very small child could only just fit. Apparently, there were records of children as young as three being used in the mine. I don't think this would be too unusual.
     
  4. Yora

    Yora Lore Master

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    That's also the impression that I got. Life is inherently unfair and it's very rarely questioned. It's the natural and only way of things. You get the fight against and overthrow of particularly unpleasant rulers, but no efforts to reform the system that gave them their power. You get a bit of that with the Romans, but they seem to be an exception rather than a template for the average societies of the period. And even in those cases those conflicts about government and power took place entirely among the men the very top layer of society. Or look at Greece. Equal voting rights for all citizens can apply to a very small number of the population.

    To translate this into fantasy characters, I think a good approach is to make frequent use of previlege by both protagonists and antagonists where it applies, and most importantly keeping clear of having anyone act with outrage to it. To be outraged about something you need to have internalized the thought that a different way of things is normal and that the thing you don't like is the aberrant outlier.

    I also think that many things we now regard as being deep in ideals and emotions were seen in much more practical terms. The reason societies without centralized authorities accepted revenge as a response to injustice was probably not so much a belief that causing harm is a commendable and healthy response to anger and pain. The social function lies in creating an environment in which people are afraid of the consequences of certain crimes. Nobody can win anything in a blood feud, but it is regared as important for both parties to show everyone that anyone who messes with them will pay very dearly for it.
    Related to that comes the idea of collective guilt and collective punishment. Nobody is really acting as an individual. Nobody is doing things without the knowledge of their family or clan. If someone commits a crime, their relatives should have been aware that something is up and therefore had a responsibility to step in. And people will take this responsibility much more series when they know that they can be punished for the crimes of a relative. Our ideas of guilt and justice come from thinking of people as individuals who are fully responsible for their own actions alone. And it makes sense in societies where individuals can live pwefectly well on their own. They are protected by the police and use infrastructure provided by the state in return for paying taxes. In a non-state society, it's very hard to survive on your own. You're almost never alone and in constant close contact with the other people of your group.
     
  5. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Dark Lord

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    The world is completely rational... just sacrifice a virgin! No probem.
     
  6. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Dark Lord

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    Here is reality... we have no idea what the hell people were actually thinking, outside of a few nobles and philosophers and priests, and the selection we have there is pretty damned sparse. On top of that, we have our modern prejudices hindering our own ability to interpret what little info we have.

    Why does nobody seem to question the hierarchy? Because the historical record remaining is written by those in power. Hell no, they aren’t going to question their rightful position in the universe! In the bible, the Jews do question their position in Egypt. But without the bible for the record, what would we know?

    Now once you get to Medieval times you can broaden your perspective a little. And there are fun nuggets of thinking... such as shame instead of guilt.

    The Great Courses has some interesting lectures on the ancient mindset, trying to delve into the lives and thinking of the common man... but, as fun as they are, tidbits must be consumed with a grain of modern salt.
     
  7. pmmg

    pmmg Shadow Lord

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    They were probably thinking they wish those nobles, philosophers and priests would shut the hell up.

    While I am I sure I can speculate and maybe come pretty close to how a person in ancient times may have thought or felt about something, I don't think I could ever get it exactly right. Somethings I consider, one is just the inexactness of language. As an English speaker, I think in English, and I have a certain set of words for things, and so, I tend to approach my problems in English. But if I knew a different language and suddenly had different words, and perhaps words with meanings for things I had not even considered, it might influence the way I think. Further, consider the notion of a King. Here in western civ, we are used to our opinions mattering, but if we had a king instead, does it matter what I think of environment, and child labor laws? No....we just do what the King says (more or less). Do I then fight with my neighbor over stuff like yard signs and bumper stickers? Well, what would be the point? I think the world would be much different if in fact, individuals opinions don't matter very much, and people don't have power.

    I think I can imagine it, but I am not sure I can relate. I have been given a great blessing, I am educated, had the benefit of philosophy, and logic, and a liberal education (small l), And whether I've done it or not, I bet I can figure out a lot of things earlier people could not, because I've been trained in a world where the scientific method is applied. I am not sure I would live the same way if I grew up in Samaria or with the Assyrians.

    But, I suppose, and I understand if others don't wish to write this way, but I want to write stories that relate to people today, and maybe just a little take them back on a journey. So, while it is true that I don't think my hero (ine), would really rise from farm boy/girl to world savior, that seems more along the lines of what I would like to write.

    I fear, if I attempted to really capture the mindset of these, I might succeed, but I don't know if I would remain relatable. Meh, maybe I am just blathering on.

    I recently finished the Illiad, and I must say, there was quite a heavy focus on how much everything they did was only because the Gods had willed it. That in itself was a type of time capsule. Imagine going into battle thinking "what if the other guy gave more hecatombs of gold to Zeus that I did?". Does the whole battle really depend on that. According to Homer, apparently it did.
     
    Last edited: Apr 23, 2018
  8. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

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    I do think it's possible to get glimpses into various aspects of ancient society. Greek and Roman, anyway, the only two about which I even pretend to have knowledge. And by Greeks I mostly mean the Athenians, but we get glimpses elsewhere.

    Look at the playwrights, especially someone like Aristophanes. Besides being funny (still!), he gives us looks into interactions between masters and slaves, men and women, and even upper classes and ordinary folk. The presumption is that if what he was writing was way off base, did not reflect how people genuinely thought and behaved, his plays would have long since been forgotten.

    With the Romans we get a much richer tapestry. Not only do we get great stuff like Petronius, but we can infer a great deal even from Livy or Polybius. The life not merely of the aristocrats but also of the common folk can (and has) been reconstructed. Enough, certainly, for an author to work with.

    Modern folk tend to have all sorts of mistaken notions about the ancient world. I know this better for the Middle Ages, but I've seen enough of it for Rome and Greece as well. I won't try to argue all that; instead, I have to say read, read, read. Then read some more. Don't only read history books, but also read historical fiction (there are some great authors out there) and *then* read some historical fantasy. And even then, even when you know tons, you'll still get bits wrong. Even more frustrating, you will get bits right and have readers insist that it's wrong because they will still be operating from stereotypes.
     
  9. Yora

    Yora Lore Master

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    We're writing fiction, and not even historical one. Accurately representing things we can't really now is neither possible, nor really desirable. Making it feel to contemporary audiences like it is related to what seems plausible should be the real goal.
     
  10. Gurkhal

    Gurkhal Scribal Lord

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    While its true that we don't have a time machine to travel back and figure out what's going on in detail, written sources alongside of archeology and cross-discipline approaches often give us very educated guesses of what's going on and why. Educated enough that we can form a picture of what life was like also beyond the Greco-Roman world. Like the Sumerians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Samnites, Ligurians and so on. And the archeology record is by far not restricted to the upper class remains. Indeed social history is a pretty mature part of history that goes into detail of how people lived in older days.
     
  11. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

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    So, the OP stated the desire to give the "feel" of an ancient culture. What would you regard as the touches necessary, or just plain helpful, in giving that feel? Not exclusively ancient, in case someone has a tip from another culture.

    The main story elements are plot, character, theme, dialogue, narrative. I can see opportunities in each of those for adding the "foreign" touch. Another way to think about this, btw, would be to bring the question closer to home. What do Americans regard as sufficient touches to give an American feel to a book? Or English? After all, we're all foreigners to someone.
     
  12. Gurkhal

    Gurkhal Scribal Lord

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    Read up on the literature about the culture that you're using as a foundation for your setting and most of the well known have some social history connected to it. Many ancient cultures beyond the Greco-Romans are not well developed in terms of historical fiction due to not having the same kind of accesseble scholarship as the Greco-Roman or cultures have.

    But if there is recognized good historical fiction or historical fantasy, then please read it and see if it makes "sense" to you. For example I could mention Christian Jacq as an example of a good author of historical fantasy writing about ancient Egypt. And there are some nuggets here and there for those interested in other cultures. You just may have to flex your Google or Amazon search skills a little to find them and be ready that they may, in all honestly, not exact be literary master pieces.

    Does this make sense and answer the question?
     
  13. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Dark Lord

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    I would start with throwing out the notion that there is such a thing as an "ancient mindset". There are only many different, unique human people living in and reacting to the world around them. Humans don't really change. It's their environment that changes. Human intelligence hasn't changed, what has changed is the common knowledge and education that every person has to work with.

    The Ancient Egyptians revered the Nile River not because they had a built in desire to worship bodies of water, but because they lived in an environment where the behavior of the river literally made the difference between life and death.

    So you questions you have to ask yourself are first, how does the physical environment impact the lives of people. Second, what kind of social interaction has developed in this environment. Third, what kind of factual knowledge, education or training is available to them. Fourth, how would a regular human being, not dissimilar from myself and the people I know, react to these factors?
     
  14. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

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    I dunno about that one, Mythopoet. I would also throw out the notion of an ancient mindset, but only insofar that the phrase implies all ancients thought alike. Romans would be horrified and offended if I said they thought like Egyptians or Persians.

    I'm a big advocate of considering the individual. I cannot, however, deny that Germans are not Italians, Chinese are not Spaniards. There is such a thing as cultural reality. It's even more fine-grained than that--Bavarians differ from Mecklenburgers, and Bretons will proudly insist they are not at all like Alsatians, even as most Brits will call all the former Germans and all the latter Frenchmen, and Indonesians would likely just call them all Westerners. There are matters of diet, custom, dress, law, language, and a host of other factors that persist even in the face of mass transportation and communication. Prior to industrialization those factors were even more powerful.

    Beyond those factors, or alongside them I should say, lie the divide between city and country, between religions, between aristocrat and commoner, and even between trades. And our generation is keenly aware of the influence of gender identity.

    The trick for a writer, especially for the historical writer, is to write in the interstices of culture and individual, trying to do justice to both. The trick for the fantasy writer is arguably even more subtle--to write with all that in mind while yet adding in non-human races.
     
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