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Savage Anxieties: The Invention of Western Civilization
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Savage Anxieties: The Invention of Western Civilization

by Robert A. Williams Jr.

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From one of the world's leading experts on Native American law and indigenous peoples' human rights comes an original and striking intellectual history of the tribe and Western civilization that sheds new light on how we understand ourselves and our contemporary society. Throughout the centuries, conquest, war, and unspeakable acts of violence and dispossession


From one of the world's leading experts on Native American law and indigenous peoples' human rights comes an original and striking intellectual history of the tribe and Western civilization that sheds new light on how we understand ourselves and our contemporary society. Throughout the centuries, conquest, war, and unspeakable acts of violence and dispossession have all been justified by citing civilization's opposition to these differences represented by the tribe. Robert Williams, award winning author, legal scholar, and member of the Lumbee Indian Tribe, proposes a wide-ranging reexamination of the history of the Western world, told from the perspective of civilization's war on tribalism as a way of life. Williams shows us how what we thought we knew about the rise of Western civilization over the tribe is in dire need of reappraisal.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Whether a group is defined by secret handshakes or restrictions, such behavior taken to the thoughtless extreme leads to misperceptions of individuals outside that group. The narrowed worldviews that result enhance the domineering group’s delusions of superiority: negative profiling, exclusionary behavior, and ultimately clashes of civilizations. Attorney and Native American Williams relentlessly searches through three millennia of Western stigmatizing and racism—with a concentration on the uncivilized, uncouth, destabilizing projection of the Wild Man or Noble Savage. Williams’s canvas is broad, his examples sweeping: Homeric xenia, or guest-friendship, a bond that separated the civilized from the savage, Hesiod’s account of the Golden Age and its Noble Savage; imperial Roman adaptations of the noble savage concept; and medieval Crusaders pitted against savage infidels; the Renaissance, the colonization of the new world, and Rousseau and the Enlightenment; and ending with the colonial-constructionist “Doctrine of Discovery,” which asserted into modern times that colonizers had superior rights to land occupied by native peoples. Although often breathless, conveniently selective and reductive, as well as inconsistently paced, this can be a provocative contribution to multicultural studies. 7 photos. Agent: Robert Williams, Trident Media Group. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
“Armed with guns, horses, and machines, European settlers relentlessly mowed down, pushed aside, and in some cases enslaved peaceful natives they found living in the new worlds they were overrunning. Reaching back to antiquity, they resurrected myths about one-eyed giants and other monsters to rationalize the harsh treatment they were visiting on Indians and Mexicans. Later, they would deploy very similar rhetorical strategies to justify extermination and enslavement in other parts of the world. The suspicion grows that Western agents are the savages and the peace-loving natives the superior race. Savage Anxieties explains how, like bad money driving out good, a savage society will win every time.” —Richard Delgado, professor, Seattle University School of Law and author of Critical Race Theory
Kirkus Reviews
A tidy academic survey of the savage, from the ancient centaurs to today's indigenous tribal peoples. Williams (Law/Univ. of Arizona; Like a Loaded Weapon: The Rehnquist Court, Indian Rights, and the Legal History of Racism in America, 2005, etc.) asserts that the West's obsession with the outsider, the alien, the barbarian--those living outside of the rule of law, presumed to be oppositional and subversive--has actually helped form by "counterexample and antithesis" the conventional forms of Western civilization. The first savages in ancient times were those depicted by Nestor in Homer's Iliad, who recounted the tale of the great warrior heroes who destroyed the mountain-dwelling centaurs. Homer's idea that these half-humans lived outside the inhabited, civilized world has been scripted down through history, allowing what evolved as Western civilization to justify the enslavement of other peoples, wage war against barbarians and stage crusades against the infidel. On the other hand, there has evolved the notion of the noble savage, thanks originally to Hesiod, who celebrated the virtuous, simple life of the yeoman farmer, far from the evils and corruption of civilization. These virtuous primitives can also be traced through Western philosophy in the works of the Sophists, Plato, Ovid and Rousseau. To the Enlightenment mind, the Indians of America acted as "an ideal stand-in for humanity's first, primitive, backward stage of social development," ripe for study yet never accorded actual humanity or equality with the white man. Williams demonstrates how colonizing nations continue to use the Doctrine of Discovery to justify their claim over indigenous people and their land. A straightforward scholarly study that concludes with a compelling look at the pervasive harm in stereotypical attitudes and language.

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Savage Anxieties

The Invention of Western Civilization

By Robert A. Williams Jr.

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2012 Robert A. Williams, Jr.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-11607-9



First Impressions

The idea of the savage is first encountered in Western civilization's first great written works of literature, the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer. In Book I of the Iliad, assumed by scholars to be the earlier of Homer's two epics, the aged Greek warlord Nestor, king of Pylos, attempts to unite the feuding Greeks in the darkest days of the Trojan War. Here, at the very beginnings of written civilization in the West, in the first book of the Iliad, Nestor invokes the names of the immortal Greek warrior-heroes who defeated the savage tribes of half-human, half-horse creatures, the centaurs, in the legendary battle of the Centauromachy. "Such warriors have I never since seen, nor shall I see, as Peirithous was and Dryas, shepherd of the people, and Caeneus and Exadius and godlike Polyphemus, and Theseus, son of Aegeus, a man like the immortals. Mightiest were these of men reared upon the earth; mightiest were they, and with the mightiest they fought, the mountain-dwelling centaurs, and they destroyed them terribly."

The Centauromachy was one of the Greeks' favorite and most oft-told stories of mythic warrior-heroes defeating a fierce tribe of savage, monstrous beings. The epic contest took place between the Lapiths of Thessaly, on the northern frontiers of ancient Greek civilization, and the mythical centaurs. Relief sculptures of the legendary battle were chiseled onto the south metopes of the Parthenon in Athens under the supervision of the greatest sculptor and architect of Greek antiquity, Pheidias (ca. 480–430 B.C.), in the fifth century B.C., following the Greeks' civilization-shaping victory over the Persian Empire in the Persian Wars. Western scholars have interpreted Pheidias's intent in featuring the Centauromachy atop the Parthenon as an effort to symbolize the Greeks' triumph over the Persians and their barbarian hordes. What survives of the sculptures can be seen today in the Elgin Marble Room in the British Museum in London.

Fierce, savage monsters are encountered by Homer's most famous mythic hero, Odysseus, in several anxiety-producing scenes in the epic companion piece to the Iliad, the Odyssey. The Lestrygonians, a rock-heaving tribe of giants, are featured in Book X. These savage monsters spear and devour all the men on eleven of Odysseus's twelve ships that had survived the battle at Troy, before our hero escapes with his life in his lone surviving ship along with its crew. In Book XII, Odysseus loses six of those crew members as he sails through the deadly straits guarded by the hideous sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis.

Homer's most enduring and influential tale of a mythic Greek warrior-hero engaged in life-and-death struggle (what the Greeks called agon) against a fierce, savage monster is found in Book IX, where Odysseus battles the giant, one- eyed, man-eating Cyclops, Polyphemus. The Odyssey's vivid description of the Cyclopes' primitive way of life indelibly inscribes the idea of the savage as a remote, lawless, and primitive enemy to civilized humanity on the West's written storytelling traditions at their earliest point of emergence in Homer's two epic poems. As noted by modern scholars, Odysseus's description of the land of the Cyclopes uses virtually the same stereotypes, images, and identifying markers of the savage that Christopher Columbus and other Renaissance-era discoverers later would use to describe their first anxious encounters with the Indians of the New World (see chapter 10).

Thence we sailed on, grieved at heart, and we came to the land of the Cyclopes, an overweening and lawless folk, who, trusting in the immortal gods, plant nothing with their hands nor plough; but all these things spring up for them without sowing or ploughing, wheat, and barley, and vines, which bear the rich clusters of wine, and the rain of Zeus gives them increase. Neither assemblies for council have they, nor appointed laws, but they dwell on the peaks of lofty mountains in hollow caves, and each one is lawgiver to his children and his wives, and they reck nothing one of another.

Homer's Iliad and Odyssey have long been regarded as important literary beginning points for the emergence of civilization in the West. The ancient Greeks' conception of the savage as a fierce, lawless, irreconcilable enemy to civilization traces its earliest written point of emergence to Homer's two epic poems as well.


Homer, of course, did not invent the notion of the savage for the Greeks. It had been around for a long time. The savage emerges out of ancient myths and legends dating back centuries prior to the appearance of Homer's epics, when the Greeks themselves were living as primitive, preliterate tribal peoples dispersed over their homeland on the Balkan Peninsula. The two poems bearing Homer's name are regarded by most Western scholars as the written end products of an ancient oral tradition, preserving the sacred myths and tribal legends of the Greeks from primeval times.

The Iliad and Odyssey are generally believed to have been set down in writing for the first time in the early part of what have been called the Greek "Renaissance" centuries (800–600 B.C.), perhaps around 750 to 700 B.C. That time period is probably not too long after writing was reintroduced to the Greeks by the Phoenicians. In any case, the poems were apparently written down long after the supposed occurrence of the events surrounding the Trojan War described by Homer. Scholars believe that event to have taken place, if it took place at all, perhaps in the twelfth or eleventh centuries B.C.

Most modern scholars tend to follow some version of Milman Parry's early-twentieth-century thesis that there was no single historic personality named Homer who authored the Iliad and Odyssey in their entirety. Rather, according to Parry's theory, the two poems were the result of a largely Ionian oral tradition.

The Ionians, according to Greek legends, were the ancient tribe descended from Ion, son of the god Apollo. They believed themselves to have been originally from Attica, on the Greek mainland, but were forced by a legendary invasion of Dorian tribes from the north (another group of fierce tribal savages as far as the Ionian Greeks were concerned) to migrate across the Aegean Sea. The Ionians went on to establish scores of colonies in Asia Minor on the Anatolian coast in modern-day Turkey. Many of these colonies, nourished by their extensive commercial contacts and close cultural connections with the great trading civilizations of Asia Minor and Egypt, became prosperous metropolitan urban centers. Greek learning, culture, and religious traditions flourished in Anatolia. So too did the art of storytelling.

According to Parry's theory, Homer's two poems are surviving examples of oral formulaic poetry, representing the collective inheritance of many generations of singing Ionian poet-bards, called aoidoi in Greek. Accompanied usually by a stringed instrument like the lyre, a skillful aoidos could make an honorable living entertaining the aristoi of the town — the nobles and aristocratic families, along with their frequent table guests, hangers-on, and retainers.

Collecting stories and songs from travelers and traders, going from town to town to ply his trade, a well-versed aoidos could draw from a large and diverse archive of myths, legends, and folktales that circulated throughout the ancient Greek world. As a professional storyteller, the skilled aoidos could seamlessly combine and reinvent such useful tropes and narrative snippets into fresh new stories or twists on an old theme as the occasion or audience demanded. The Greeks believed that the truly gifted aoidos was divinely inspired by the Muses, the goddesses of ancient Greek mythology who were the secret sources of the sacred knowledge contained in the poems and stories sung by the aoidos. The term "aoidos" in fact is used to describe one such honored bard, Demodocus, in Book VIII of Homer's Odyssey: "to him above all others has the god granted skill in song, to give delight in whatever way his spirit prompts him to sing."

Following Parry's thesis, with the reintroduction of writing and literacy among the Greeks in the early Renaissance period, the Iliad and the Odyssey were likely narrated to a scribe or scribes by some particularly well-regarded aoidos, perhaps eponymously named Homer. From this "Homeric" recitation of the two poems, Western civilization's first best-sellers were born, copied down on papyrus, and then recited word for word, book for book, at festivals and religious celebrations. Homer's beloved poems became the bible of the Greeks, closely read, studied, and memorized as sacred texts, often in their entirety.

Through such ancient methods of written transmission of varied snippets and pieces of mythic stories and songs, the two poems bearing Homer's name introduced the West's literary traditions to the idea of the savage as a fierce, irreconcilable enemy to an expansion-minded form of civilization. We can see that for Homer, the savage was a great storytelling device, used in antagonistic, scene-setting fashion to prove his heroes' virtues. But from these rather prosaic Homeric beginnings, we can begin to trace the origins of many of the identifying behaviors, clichés, and categorical markers that will be applied and adapted down through the ages to stereotype and imagine distant, strange lands inhabited by fierce savage races, irreconcilably opposed to Western civilization.


Homer's epic poem the Iliad focuses on the decade-long war between two such expansion-minded imperial civilizations, the Mycenaean Empire of the ancient Greeks (Homer calls them the Achaeans) and the Trojan Empire (Ilium). The war's legendary origins trace to the actions of the Trojan prince, Paris, who kidnapped the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. Menelaus also happened to be the brother of Agamemnon, king of the Mycenaean Greeks and their empire on the Peloponnese. The greedy Agamemnon had long desired to invade and plunder the imperial city of Troy across the Aegean Sea. With help from the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, Paris cuckolded Menelaus while a guest at his palace in Sparta. Compounding the offense, Paris seduced and absconded with Helen while Menelaus was away from his kingdom attending his grandfather's funeral.

For the ancient Greeks, such acts violated the sacred law of xenia, a form of higher law based on the sacred relationship of reciprocal respect and courtesy owed between guests and hosts. The god Zeus was specifically referred to as Zeus Xenios in the ancient genealogies, the divine protector of travelers and strangers (including singing bards like Homer).

Seeking to avenge his brother for Paris's crime in violating xenia, and further lured by the prospect of plundering the great imperial city of Troy, Agamemnon called on the other kings and warlords of Greece to defend the marriage of Helen to Menelaus. Launching a legendary force of more than a thousand Greek ships, immortally cataloged by Homer in Book II of the Iliad, Agamemnon leads the invasion across the Aegean Sea to conquer the Trojan Empire and take Helen back to Sparta, along with all the booty the Greeks could carry home with them following their anticipated victory.

After a near-decade long, failed siege of Troy's famed impenetrable walls, the Greeks finally win the war thanks to a cunning ploy devised by Odysseus. The "man of many ways" in Homer's epics has the Greeks pretend retreat and board their ships for home. Before this seeming departure, they leave the equestrian-loving Trojans a parting gift of seeming homage: a large wooden horse.

The horse was closely associated with notions savagery and wildness in ancient Greek mythology: an unruly beast of nature, roaming free and unrestrained. Pegasus, the winged white horse of divine origins, bringer of lightning and thunder from Olympus, was captured and ridden by the hero Bellerophon, who killed the Chimera, a savage fire-breathing monster with a lion's head, goat's body, and serpent's tail as described by Homer in the Iliad. Characteristic of Homer's method as a storyteller, the Trojan horse device quite effectively ties the Trojans' primitivistic fetish for a wild and savage beast of nature to their ultimate downfall at the hands of the civilized Greeks.

Led by brave Odysseus, the Greek soldiers inside the horse escape at night while the city is asleep and open the gates for their comrades in arms, now stealthily reassembled outside the city walls. The Trojans are quickly routed and the famed imperial city is sacked, pillaged, and burned to the ground by Agamemnon's marauding army. The rest is history, as they say in the West.


All of this is background material to the main story line of the Iliad. As the Roman poet Horace once famously noted, Homer jumps in media res, at a relatively late point in the war, to commence his story. It is the ninth year of the Greeks' siege of Troy, and Achilles, king of the fiercely loyal Myrmidon warriors, is furious at Agamemnon for claiming his captive slave girl, Briseis. Achilles vows that he will no longer fight against the Trojans and threatens to take his Myrmidon warriors with him and go home. Such a loss of Achilles and the Myrmidons would have been devastating for the Greeks' morale in continuing their fight against the Trojans.

Making a last desperate plea for Achilles and Agamemnon to reconcile their differences, Nestor, the aged Pylian king, invokes the names of the immortal heroes and demigods who fought by his side in defeating the savage tribes of centaurs in the great mythic battle called the Centauromachy by the Greeks:

Listen to me, for you are both younger than I. In earlier times I moved among men more warlike than you, and never did they despise me. Such warriors have I never since seen, nor shall I see, as Peirithous was and Dryas, shepherd of the people, and Caeneus and Exadius and godlike Polyphemus, and Theseus, son of Aegeus, a man like the immortals. Mightiest were these of men reared upon the earth; mightiest were they, and with the mightiest they fought, the mountain-dwelling centaurs, and they destroyed them terribly.

Nestor's invocation of the "mightiest" men ever "reared upon the earth" refers to the immortal roster of Greek warrior-heroes invited to the wedding feast of Peirithous, one of the great Lapith warrior-kings, and the horsewoman Hippodamia, "Tamer of horses" (hippos meaning "horse"; damazo, "to tame"). The centaurs, distant cousins to the Lapiths, proved to be most inhospitable guests, as they were unable to control the libertine effects of wine on their bestial natures. When Hippodamia is presented as the king's bride, the centaur Eurytion tries to rape her. The other centaurs then commence to mount and straddle the women and young boys in attendance at the royal celebration. The wedding feast erupts in riot over this most heinous offense against xenia, the Greeks' sacred law of ritualized guest- friendship.

Nestor and the other Greeks in attendance at the wedding respond by coming to the aid of the Lapiths. A great battle ensues, and the centaurs are roundly defeated. The victors cut off the ears and nose of Eurytion, the initial offender, as part of his sentence. To the Greeks, such mutilations were one of the most severe and humiliating forms of punishment imaginable for a crime, short of death. Eurytion and the rest of the centaurs then are expelled from Thessaly to the distant regions of the Eurasian steppe by the great mythic warrior-heroes of the Centauromachy, who have secured their immortal fame by enforcing a superior civilization's higher form of law against the monstrous savage.


Excerpted from Savage Anxieties by Robert A. Williams Jr.. Copyright © 2012 Robert A. Williams, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Robert A. Williams, Jr. is a member of the Lumbee Indian Tribe as well as the professor of law and director of the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program at the University of Arizona. He is the author of the classic work on Indian rights under US law, The American Indian in Western Legal Thought, which won the Gustavus Meyer human rights award recently. The recipient of awards from the MacArthur, Ford, and Soros foundations, Williams is also well known for his work defending tribal groups before the United Nations and the Supreme Court.

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