Special Edition of National Geographic Promotes Atlantis, Curses, and Other Shopworn "Mysteries of History"
Bioarchaeologist Steph Halmhofer posted to Twitter an excerpt from National Geographic’s recent “special issue” on “Mysteries of History,” and the cover is a depressing look into what journalists think qualifies as “history,” and basically it’s mythology. The three stories teased on the cover are Atlantis, King Arthur, and the Curse of the Hope Diamond. Of the three, Atlantis is fictitious, King Arthur is a myth (or at best a composite legend), and the Hope Diamond curse is fictional. It’s good, I guess, that the magazine asks “What’s real, what’s fantasy, and what’s still a mystery,” but it’s sad that the only “history” on the cover is the picture of Stonehenge.
For the past week or so, I’ve been working on an interesting project that turned out to be much larger than I intended it to be. One of the unsolved questions surrounding the compendium of medieval legends about Egypt known variously as the Akhbar al-zaman (History of Time) and the Digest of Wonders is the question of who wrote it. The manuscripts of the book give two different authors with no great certainty that either is the actual author. The first attribution is to al-Mas‘udi, an early medieval historian who wrote a book called the Akhbar al-zaman, but which appears to have had almost completely different content. The second is Ibrahim ibn Wasif Shah, also known as al-Wasifi or in the West as Alguazif, about whom almost nothing is known except that he lived two centuries too late to have written the book that otherwise passes under his name. The situation has not changed since Baron Bernard Carra de Vaux translated the Akhbar al-zaman into French in 1898 and found himself unable to name an author:
"To the Stars" Downgrades Debris from "Extraterrestrial Metamaterials" to "Potential UFO Material," Warns Investigation Could Go "Nowhere"
This week Scottish television personality and sometime Ancient Aliens talking head Ashley Cowie attempted to explore the origins of vampires for Ancient Origins. It did not go particularly well, not least because Cowie frames his discussion around Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula without, apparently, having read the book and without understanding much about its origins. Probably everything you need to know can be summed up in the fact that he traces vampires in popular entertainment to Stoker and then focuses exclusively on movie and TV vampires, despite the fact that Stoker drew on decades of Gothic vampire fiction (Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” and Polidori’s “The Vampyre” most prominently), and vampire entertainments go back in European folklore at least to the stories told for titillation and sensation about the great vampire outbreak of the late 1600s and early 1700s.
Last Friday, Brent Swancer of Mysterious Universe posted an article discussing the famed Emerald Tablet, a medieval Arabic Hermetic text, perhaps of Late Antique origin, that gained fame in the West as a distillation of the secrets of Hermeticism and alchemy. But it was also pretty clear that he hadn’t done much research beyond Wikipedia for the Emerald Tablet, since his article betrayed little understanding of the text or its transmission across the centuries. He even refers to the extant text as a “section,” as though there were much more. It also doesn’t help that in places he conflates the medieval Emerald Tablet with the twentieth century “Emerald Tablets of Thoth the Atlantean,” a set of modern fakes cribbed from H. P. Lovecraft, Frank Belknap Long, and other weird fiction writers by Maurice Doreal. He also writes that the object is “referred to variously as the Smaragdine Table, Tabula Smaragdina, or more commonly simply the Emerald Tablet,” apparently without knowing that smaragdus is the Latin word for “emerald” (Greek: σμάραγδος) and the three titles of the tablet are simply the Latin original, an anglicization of the Latin, and an English translation of the Latin.
After a great deal of hard work, I completed my translation of the Hermetic history of the Giants given in Alfonso X of Castile’s General Estoria, composed in the late 1200s. This undertaking was more involved than I expected, both because I had to learn a new language—medieval Castilian, also known as Old Spanish—in order to read it, and because Alfonso’s writers used complex grammar, pointless repetition, and ambiguous vocabulary that made it difficult to understand exactly what was being said in some places. A few of the words used can’t be found in dictionaries of Old Spanish and only rarely appear in other medieval documents, making them quite challenging to decipher. As a result, I am a little less certain about the particulars of this translation than I am for most, but the overall meaning is clear.
In my review of the pilot episode of History’s revived In Search Of with Star Trek actor Zachary Quinto as host, I noted that the show seemed to stand with one foot in Leonard Nimoy’s shadow and another in the standard History channel mold of wallpapering the screen with nutjobs pretending to be experts. Over the course of its run, In Search Of has covered many topics of no interest to me, including high-concept ideas like life after death and mundane subjects like sinkholes, the subject of an entire episode. As the season comes to a close, not much has changed since the pilot, but the audience for the series never really grew beyond the spillover from its Ancient Aliens lead-in, nor did the series build much of an independent fan base. Last week’s episode, the first to air without a new Ancient Aliens as lead-in, fell to just one million viewers and a 0.17 share of the 18-49 audience. For comparison, the show’s primetime rating is the same share and fewer viewers than the noon Inside Politics newscast on CNN.
Later tonight, In Search Of will air its season finale, a two-hour search for the lost city of Atlantis. I am not overly enthusiastic about their hunt, and I can’t imagine how it is going to differ from all of the other two-hour Atlantis specials that have aired over the past five years. But in preparation for this, I thought it would be worth briefly mentioning a claim about Atlantis that has been cycling around the internet. A YouTube video claiming that Atlantis is located in Mauritania received a big push over the past two weeks after Russian propaganda site Sputnik picked it up, along with the online British tabloids that follow Sputnik’s lead with clockwork regularity. From there, the story spread to prominent “mystery” sites like Mysterious Universe as it continued its upward ascent to the mainstream
Giorgio Tsoukalos Likens the Ancient Astronaut Theory to an Unfinished Puzzle in New Newspaper Interview
Yesterday, the Philippines’ largest-circulation newspaper published an interview with Ancient Aliens star and co-executive producer Giorgio Tsoukalos. In the interview, Tsoukalos described Ancient Aliens as a “beautiful show” and encouraged the paper’s readers to watch it in order to learn about the world. To that end, he spoke about the criticism that the show has received and why he feels it is wrong. (I assume the spelling and grammar issues are due to the newspaper’s errors.)
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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