The Geek in History

One of the plagues of historical thought is what might be termed the arrogance of modernity. From our lofty aerie here, at the crest of the 21st century, we mistake our point on a line for the peak of a graph. As did every generation before us, we assume that we are not merely the latest in an endless sequence, but the realization of a goal, a culmination, a point that marks the end of all history rather than the beginning of a history not yet written. So it is, and given the arrogance of man, so shall it forever be. The study of the geek in history is no exception.

Living as we do in something of a golden time for geekery, we imagine that we have invented it. We look upon such modern developments as the Blu-Ray, the Internet and the dodecahedron, and flatter ourselves that surely, the expression of obsessive, time-wasting cultural observation must have sprung forth fully formed from the head of the 21th century, a nerdish Athena born afire from the fervid head of a hundred-year-tall Zeus. While it is true that the combination of consumerism, widespread literacy, and a global computer network that insures that no one ever need have an unvoiced opinion and no cultural expression need ever be forgotten has placed geekery on a mighty pinnacle, we must always remember what a long climb it faced to get there. It is instructive, as ever, to see where we have been so that we may more fully appreciated where we are.

The geek is surely one of the primeval archetypes of human civilization. Wherever there was the king, there was the peasant who kept a list of prior kings and ranked them in order of preference; wherever there was the priest or the merchant, there was the directionless nobody who spread rumors about what the priest and the merchant were going to to next; and wherever there was the poet or the shaman, there was the man who lived in the basement of his parents’ hut and wrote stories about what would happen if the priest and the shaman had a fight. But the earliest historical record of human geekery comes to us from ancient Egypt. When, at long last, the Rosetta Stone was deciphered, students of geekery received confirmation of what they had long suspected: much of the heiroglyphics thereupon were metatextual commentary. Indeed, the bulk of Tablet B was given over to what most scholars interpret as a lengthy critique of Tablet A, including an extended discursus on how the heiroglyphic craftsmen of today cannot compare to those of the First Kingdom. Subsequent discoveries from the same era make reference to other tablets, sadly lost to history, in which the commentaries are themselves commented on, with many of them apparently nothing more than savage criticisms of other peoples’ commentaries of the original material several removes away.

The earliest clay cuneiform tablets of the Sumerian and Akkadian people reveal the existence of a odd game played with primitive number-calculations in which citizens too weak and feeble to fight in wars would devise fantastic character for themselves, often based on the great figures of myth and legend, who would fight imaginary wars. Records of the Songhay people of western Sudan, passed on through oral tradtion, teach us much of what we know about their mastery of drumming, which gave them something of a unique monopoly on information technology; what is not so widely known is that many of the peculiar drum patterns — still played today, and inherited over thousands of years — are apparently rankings of drummers who played similar patterns over a millennium ago, and arguments about whether or not they were better or worse than previous drummers who did the same material. And as far away as Central and South America, it is widely believed that ‘possession’ of the most celebrated players of courtball and quoits was practiced in what amounts to an early version of sports fantasy leagues. In a scene eerily reminiscent of the Ecuadorian ‘Soccer War’ of the early 1970s, it is thought that the sudden demise of the Olmec people may have been triggered by a dispute over draft order in one of the early courtball fantasy leagues.

From the early ‘furries’ who dressed like yaks or goats and walked among the Mongol tribes, to the southeast Asian monks of Angkor Wat who named themselves after popular throat singers of the era, to the surprising preponderance of Heloise and Abelard slash fiction discovered in a recent opening of the Vatican archives, the geek has always been with is. It is the goal of this modest volume to explore these nerds, tools, dorks, melvins and wonks of history’s rich tapestry. We begin, in chapter 1, with the discovery in 1931 of ancient Farsi collectible card games.

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