Yesterday one of my students called another a ‘Philistine’. I know he meant to suggest that his friend was uncultured and ignorant, and that is what many understand the word to mean.
So, being the time-and-knowledge-generous history nerd that I am, I took a break from our study of World War I and explained to my class that what he meant to suggest is not what the Philistines were at all.
The Philistines were a cultured and wealthy civilisation that lived in Canaan between the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and the biblical kingdoms of Judah and Israel. They lived in and between five cities: Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath. The same region bears the name ‘Palestine’ today – a name derived from the Philistine civilisation. The ancient Philistines enjoyed enough military prowess to hold their own against Lebanon, Syria and Egypt at different times, fighting with spears, straight swords and shields. When not fighting wars, they lived in elaborate buildings and made their own pottery.
It doesn’t really seem consistent with the idea of ignorance, does it?
Sadly, this is not the only case of such name-calling being so ironic.
Barbarian is another term which is used quite wrongly. It’s used to suggest that someone is wild or uncivilised. Historically, the Barbarians were any number of Germanic tribes that moved throughout Europe in what many refer to as ‘The Dark Ages’, even though they weren’t so dark at all.
Really, if you look at them, they don’t look so incredibly different from one another, nor from the folk our history books tell us were our own ancestors. It may surprise you to know that the Barbarian tribes included the Angles, Saxons and Picts who set up shop in Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire and eventually became some of the most devotedly civilised people on earth. The Gauls became the French, the Geats became the Swedes, and the Danes went on to give us Hamlet, pastries and an Australian princess.
(Disclaimer: I don’t know if the part about the pastries is true, but they must be called danishes for a reason… right?)
The Vandals, for example, may have left a trail of destruction in Gaul and Iberia, but they only made a bit of a mess of Carthage before taking it as their capital and making extensive renovations. As a military power, they had skill and knowledge – you’ve actually got to hand it to anyone who could not only withstand the power of the Roman Empire, but also hold their own in so many battles over such a long period. And when they weren’t busy fighting the Romans, they were highly cultured, enjoying music and poetry. They conducted a lot of industry and trade in their North African kingdom. It really was not about breaking or ruining stuff at all.
The Goths, oddly enough, did not sit around in dark clothes wearing black makeup. The name “Goth” was derived from ‘Geats’, the tribe famous for its honour and pride in the Anglo-Saxon legend of Beowulf, as told in the oldest English poem in existence.
They actually had sophisticated architecture and beautiful mosaic art. They made and wore intricate gold jewellery. They were farmers, weavers, potters, blacksmiths. They followed intricate burial rites, making sure that the graves always pointed north.
Related to the Goths were the Visigoths, meaning “Goths of the west” who ruled Spain for a couple of centuries. They built churches that still stand today, decorated their buildings with intricate filigree art and stone arches. They were skillful metalworkers and jewellers.
It seems to me that we do history a disservice by misusing these terms in such a way. Connotations are not always the easiest things to track through history, but these seem quite unfair. I suspect that such practice grew out of the fear of anything or anyone different, foreign and/or pagan – a concept with which Western society is still painfully familiar.
By the end of all that, the kids’ eyes had glazed over a bit, and there was a fair bit of smiling and nodding going on. I don’t think they will be calling each other Philistines again, though. So… mission accomplished.
If you’d like to know more about Beowfulf and the Geats, you could listen to a fabulous episode from ‘The History of English’ podcast. It’s a great podcast, and if you’re interested in the development and history of the English language, or the relationships between language, people, and places, you should consider subscribing.