The evolutionary basis of humanity’s obsession with the past must be the demands of performance on human behaviour. To avoid making the same, potentially fatal, mistake again, memory and memorisation are required.
To reach tomorrow, remembering and understanding yesterday is key. Fishing stops the moment fish become historians.
Ancient historiography, or the practice of doing/writing history, is obsessed with past deeds, what Romans, and the medievals after them, referred to as ‘gesta’, things done in the past. For Cicero, history is life’s greatest teacher, the magistra vitae.
The past stays alive through being narrativised. The longer it’s called upon, the more mythological it becomes. Mythology is history coming alive, being transacted every day in the minds of those keeping it alive.
Culture thrives when the past is remembered, but remembrance is no mere feat. The stories we tell have a double effect: they change us and they change themselves. Not even myth remains always the same. Take any mythological story, you’ll see that what we moderns refer to the myth of X was never a unified story. The more central a story is for the population concerned with it, the more variegated the story becomes. The ancient gods and heroes never had a single story to be told about them. Instead, their memory, whatever it may have come from, varied from group to group. We find it hard to keep track of all that variation simply because the myth of our culture is that there are only single stories out there. And therefore we put the past, the past that we no longer find meaningful, on a Procrustian bed, cutting it in our own image, trying to make it fit our own specifications, never successfully.
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