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Home » Kallithea » A Historian in Thessaly. From texts to material culture, by John Manderscheid

A Historian in Thessaly. From texts to material culture, by John Manderscheid


“but when Alcides’ hand Smote Ossa from Olympus at a blow,

And Nereus wondered at the sudden flood

Of waters to the main, then on the shore

(Would it had slept for ever ‘neath the deep)

Seaborn Achilles’ home Pharsalus rose;”

 – Lucan, “Pharsalia”


To say that ancient writers thought poorly of Thessaly in their writings is perhaps an understatement.  For the Roman poet Lucan, it was Thessalia infelix “the cursed”, “dire”, “ill-starred” land.  Home of “Abhorred Erictho”, greatest of the race of witches, and where grew the poisonous herbs used by Medea.  Lucan was not alone in such sentiments however, as the Christian writer Clement of Alexandria joins him, saying that in Thessaly human sacrifices were offered regularly to the cults of Achilles and Peleus.  Even Herodotus, father of history, speaks of barbarity here in the form of “Zeus the Devourer”, another such cult.



Being a student of History, mostly learning and relying on such texts, I must confess that it was primarily through these sources that my prior envisioning of Thessaly had been based upon.  I can emphatically say after three weeks of being here that this is far, far from the truth.  Apart from noticing a distinct lack of witches in the vicinity, I have also come to see that Thessaly is much more than what the sources made it out to be. Through engaging with a multitude of the material culture, one begins to see that the complexity and refinement of the archaeological finds are deeply at odds with such claims of barbarism.  After seeing such a brevity of pottery, statuettes, and glassware, I find it hard to believe that such a people were as savage and simple as Simonedes says.  Through this I have seen that while written sources can be useful on many occasions, there are times when we can only get the best answers to our questions through seeing for ourselves – something that archaeology alone can confer within such a matter.  Thus, I can that say I now much more clearly appreciate and see the importance and more so, necessity of understanding the material record of a culture through archaeology.  Furthermore, I am now forced to say that I disagree with Lucan, as I know that if this land had never been created as the poets say, we would  not have been “spared” Thessaly, but instead have been robbed of so much beauty and culture.

– John

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