Their enemies called them the Sea People, and for three millennia no human has known their origin or their language. The few scraps of their writing we possess has resisted all attempts at translation, although its glyphs are common with Linear B, a script we know well; assigning the same syllabary produces sounds that are mainly liquidly unintelligible, the exceptions being the ones that are throatily unpronounceable. Few people study so unrewarding a subject; the ones who do tend to invent gods and rituals unknown to any other culture, and find correspondences with languages ranging from Phoenician to Sanskrit (*).
To read what their enemies said of them is a little more fruitful; based on consonant resemblances in the Egyptian names “Shardana” and “Shekelesh”, their homeland has been placed in Sardinia and Sicily. Left unexplained is how these small islands are supposed to have supported enough fighting men to invade and topple the Great Powers of the Levant. For where the Sea People went, cities burned.
The Collapse of the Twelfth Century is, so far as we can tell, the first time that civilisation ceased to spread over a wide region, and a Dark Age descended on what had been the domain of thriving empires. Four hundred years later the Greeks invented a word, ‘cyclopean’, to explain how the ruined works of the previous Golden Age had come to be. They could not believe that mere humans had moved such immense blocks of stone to make buildings, and created instead a race of giants to be the builders. That is the nature of a Dark Age: When men lose not only the knowledge of how to do a thing, but also the knowledge that once it could be done. And the inscriptions and tablets that are closest to the layer of ash that marks the transition, those that were written in the years or months or days before the end, uniformly speak of “the ships of the enemy”.
It is currently fashionable to suggest that it was caused by climate change and a cascade of earthquakes, and that the Sea People were merely the final straw – or, in some accounts, not even a contributing cause of the collapse, but merely opportunists who moved into a power vacuum, perhaps fleeing similar troubles in their homelands. And it is true that the pollen deposits show a vast century-long drought all across the Fertile Crescent, and that there are many cities where pillars and walls lie tumbled in ways characteristic of the earth shaking rather than deliberate destruction. But as we shall see, these factors do not exculpate the Sea People.
Sea People captives.
For where, if not Sicily, did they come from? At Medinet Habu there was a relief, currently at the Oriental Institute in Chicago, which shows captives of the Sea People, their elbows tied together, kilted and wearing elaborate head-dresses. A typical Egyptian depiction of a defeated barbarian tribe. And yet, when we examine them more closely, there is something disquieting about these particular barbarians; a vague discomfort, which other reliefs are incapable of evoking. Are not their fingers a little too long? Their feet, too, seem out of proportion even to their elongated legs, almost as though the artist had intended to depict flippers. And the faces – they are flat-nosed, broad-lipped; the pupil-less eyes bulge whitely from the oddly narrow foreheads. The phrase was three thousand years in the future; but the unknown Egyptian artist has perfectly captured the thing itself, the “Innsmouth look”.
It all falls into place: The insistent identification of the invaders with the sea; the lack of an identifiable homeland; the alien gods; the inscrutable language, unrelated to any human tongue; above all, the utter fury of the destruction of the cities. At Ugarit the layer of ash is two meters deep; the very walls are reduced to piles of shapeless rubble. Why this complete devastation, far beyond what might have been caused by an attack, if not to deny beloved homes to an invader too cold, too inhuman, for his touch to be borne? Again and again we find the pattern: Cities systematically burned to the ground, sometimes with signs of fighting, sometimes not, but always destroyed with cold, relentless fury. These are not the acts of humans fighting human enemies, to whom submission (and hence survival) may be possible. The city burners acted in despair and horror, far beyond what could be caused by a mere conquest.
The drought and the earthquakes, too, fit into the pattern: The Hound is known thus to weaken its enemies long before armies clash. Its human pawns are the least of its powers; always, where its soldiers go, its servants have been there first, gnawing relentlessly at the walls of cities, spreading secret rot and corruption. A rash of earthquakes is simply what happens, when the fault lines are steadily weakened for a century beforehand.
The single remaining question is this: Why is it that the Levant, and indeed the world, is not ruled by these people of the sea? They drove all before them, all across the Fertile Crescent; and yet when the Greeks, the Medes, and the Persians arrived from their respective hinterlands, they expanded into near-empty lands, in which scattered farmers eked out a living where there had been thriving empires. We know what happened to the men who lived there; but what of their conquerors?
The answer must lie in Egypt, in the desert. There is an ancient temple there, where for uncounted centuries the Hound lay dreaming; somehow the Egyptians bound it there, and sealed the mortar with blood. It cost them dear: The Old Kingdom was never the same again. But the captives of Medinet Habu were the least of the human victories in this struggle.
From The Longer War: The First Victory,
Dr William Wilcox,
Miskatonic University Press, (C) 1992.
(*) I am not making this up.
I recently read “1177 BC: The Year Civilisation Collapsed”; I recommend it strongly, though you have to take into account that the author is a respectable academic and cannot afford to publish every truth that he might come across in his investigations. Obviously the facts are well known to people who actually study this sort of thing, but there are limits to what you can say in public; tenure is only so powerful.
There was a strong expectation that this week would be our last CK session; to almost everyone’s surprise, we did not get the required two-thirds majority for conversion, and will play the final seven years of CK as well. However, preparations for the conversion went on apace; most pertinently, England attempted to embargo Germany (in effect, Venice), interfering with the vital flow of spice all across the Mediterranean in order to gain a few thousand paltry ducats for last-minute buildings. There being little to be done about that, I moved my army out of the way and watched him stand about at 99% warscore for three years; then I declared independence from Germany, ending his war since the CB was no longer valid. (This is actually against the rules, but Fivoin was absent and the ruling had slipped my mind.) The game engine called it the Venetian War of Independence, but the “War of Trolling Baron” is clearly a better name. Baron immediately renewed his war, this time against Venice, which he would have won; however, he made a mistake by asking Khan to assassinate me. (It may be of note that I was studying forbidden knowledge at the time, and may have had the power to cloud men’s minds.) Khan has found some exploit that lets him reliably kill people in three months; when my Doge died, his independence war against Germany ended – and Baron’s war against independent Venice also disappeared. Some howls of laughter may have occurred.
Desperate times, desperate measures.
Baron, nothing if not optimistic, re-declared against Germany; once again I ran out the clock of the no-major-battles warscore cap and then DOWed for independence. Baron once again re-DOWed against me, but with a territory CB instead of the embargo – a misclick? However, since my independence shenanigans were, as noted, against the rules, we’ll likely edit this and he’ll get his money in the end.
Central Med, 1437. Alas, Africa is lost to an opportunistic assault by Dragoon; Venice is now much the smallest power in Europe.