Thalassa! Thalassa!

Staring at the sea this afternoon, it occurred to me that the urge to sail is not basic to human civilization. None of the various polities to leap to agricultural civilization (Sumeria, Egypt, Valley of Mexico, Papua, China, etc) were seafaring cultures. They were mostly riverine, enjoying the more predictable and useful fresh water. The Indians positively hated the “Black Water.” It’s not until we get to the Phoenicians, the Greeks, and the early Indonesian kingdoms that we see real maritime societies.

So people aren’t too quick to go down to the sea in ships. It takes some prepping first, to get used to the idea.

  1. This makes me think of the Romans, who had no material naval power before the First Punic War. They built their navy up from scratch, training legionaries in rowing with benches set out on sand. They did it because they had to, though, not because they wanted to.

    Also fascinating: living in a country whose language and culture are intimately tied to sailing. Even more fascinating: going to church in that country, listening to the clash between culture and language and the content of the Bible readings. Neither the Old Testament nor the New is written out of love for or comfort with the sea. This renders most oddly in Dutch.

  2. lysid said:

    Yes on all counts.

    I thought of the Roman Punic-War transformation as I wrote this. We speak of “Greco-Roman” civilization, but really they were thesis and antithesis. The land-based Romans never did entirely trust those slippery aquatic Greeks.

    And Israel didn’t trust the sea at all. The two exemplary instances of the sea in the Bible are Jonah and St Paul. In both cases, it’s AHHHH THE SEA WILL KILL YOU AHHHHHH.

    But the Dutch…there’s a civilization soaked in salt water. Amphibious, those wonderful Dutch.

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