Alternative theories of the ancient past date back pretty much to Antiquity itself. In the eighteenth century, the rough equivalent of our modern ancient astronaut theory was Arkite worship, the theory first proposed by Jacob Bryant that all ancient mythologies and religions were distortions and perversions of the story of Noah’s Ark and the rest of Genesis. Just as ancient astronaut theorists interpreted (and misinterpreted) every shred of evidence through the lens of aliens, so too did Arkite believers force all of history into the shape of Noah’s Ark. However, in an important difference, Arkite worship was accepted by many scholars as a true interpretation of the ancient past for several decades surrounding 1800.
In the introduction to my translation of The Orphic Argonautica (OA), which I am adapting in this post, I describe one instance in which Bryant perverted a genuine ancient text to force it into his false system. Here are the genuine lines from the opening of the OA in my translation, in which Orpheus describes the formation of the cosmos according to Orphic theology, whereby chaos eventually gives rise to creation:
Here is how Jacob Bryant in his A New System; or, an Analysis of Antient Mythology of 1774-1776 mistranslated the passage to relate it to the Biblical narrative:
Bryant here misrepresents Orpheus’ description of the formation of the cosmos as instead the degradation of the antediluvian earth (Genesis 6:1-13) followed by a clear sky answering to the rainbow of Genesis 9:13 that God used to make his covenant with Noah. This incorrect version of the OA’s theogony was repeated uncritically for most of the nineteenth century by Christian apologists, who sometimes glossed “Eros” explicitly as “rainbow,” to “prove” the historicity of Genesis.
This is no different than the way modern ancient astronaut theorists intentionally distorted the Mahabharata to twist it into the story of prehistoric atomic warfare, as I detail here. Century after century, the same story unfolds: true believers, convinced their theory is more important than the evidence, and the facts get twisted beyond recognition.
I don't usually highlight the nasty, ugly comments and email I regularly receive from defenders of alternative theories, but today I'm making an exception because my faithful correspondent makes important points that I would like to discuss. In my review of Ancient Aliens S04E02, I noted that talking head Sean-David Morton was listed as a PhD, and on his website he claimed to hold that degree from a Canadian school whose name matches no institution in Canada. After doing some research, I discovered that the school he most likely attended, the International Institute of Integral Human Sciences, is not accredited in Canada to award doctorates. Therefore, I invited Mr. Morton to provide documentation of his degree, which, should it be real, is a relatively simple task.
Instead, I received a stream of invective from either Morton or his defenders, which, sadly enough, seems to be a regular occurrence when writing about Mr. Morton, the criminal fraud charges pending against him, and the failed lawsuit he launched against another of his critics.
Let's take a look at some of the comments. Warning: GRAPHIC language.
This week continues the trend of Ancient Aliens moving ever farther away from its core concept, largely because there is so little to the ancient astronaut theory that it quickly becomes repetitive. This episode focuses on whether NASA is engaged in a conspiracy to suppress evidence of UFOs, ancient astronauts, and alien monuments on the moon and Mars.
I’ll be frank: ufology is not my particular area of expertise, and I don’t particularly care much about evidence-free claims that since astronauts saw shiny lights in space they had to be alien spacecraft. Since there is almost nothing “ancient” in tonight’s Ancient Aliens, I’ll leave it to ufology skeptics to offer more substantive critiques of the program’s twisting of recent history. I will devote most of my comments to the occasional claims about ancient history.
Earlier this week, Ruth Franklin asked in The New Republic if Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was “really” about childbirth: “Could the novel—commonly understood as a fable of masculine reproduction, in which a man creates life asexually—also be a story about pregnancy?”
According to Franklin, since Shelley was pregnant while writing the novel and had also suffered the loss of a child, she viewed the reanimation of the Monster as reviving her dead child. The evidence, Franklin says, is that Victor Frankenstein twice refers to the effort as his “labor,” a term associated with childbirth. Thus the novel is actually a dramatic portrayal of the horrors of parturition.
I think this is a rather reductive reading.
The use of the word “labor” for childbirth is a relatively late meaning (1590s and after); in nineteenth century literature, the word labor is much more closely associated with work, even with science (“laboratory”). In the 1810s, “labor” was a refined word for “work,” and between 1790 and 1820, the two words appear in print with roughly equal frequency. I’m not sure that one could reasonably conclude that Shelley’s birthing trauma is implied in the word labor as much as Shelley explicitly likens the creation of the Monster to an irregular birth in general.
I also disagree that Shelley’s work was “extraordinary” “for a young woman,” as Franklin quotes from a biographer. The subtitle of Frankenstein pretty much makes clear that Shelley had at least one example of a similar creation story in mind. In Book 1 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a book well-loved by the Romantics of Shelley’s circle, Prometheus, the (male) Titan, creates man from clay (women came later) in a myth derived from a much older Mesopotamian original:
Shelley’s husband, Percy, was working on a play about Prometheus, and their friend Lord Byron was enamored of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. Suffice it to say, a precedent existed outside Shelley’s pregnancies.
I don’t doubt that Shelley’s personal experiences shaped the way she developed Frankenstein.(Shelley would, after all, use The Last Man to explore her sense of loss after the death of many of her friends.) Certainly the experience of birth and loss animates Victor’s relationship with the Monster. But to reduce the “real” meaning of the book to Shelley’s meditation on her own pregnancies seems to me far too reductive and far too dismissive of the author’s creativity and imagination. A text has a meaning independent of the author’s biography, and as I wrote in Knowing Fear, Frankenstein remains primarily a story about presumption and overreaching, not about fear of childbirth.
Alternative theories never die... they don't even fade away. Below is a quotation about the alleged connection between Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco) and Easter Island. Can you guess who said this?
Was it Helena Blavatsky? Ignatius Donnelly? Thor Heyerdahl? Erich von Daniken? Graham Hancock? All of them proposed the same theory, but this particular paragraph comes from Auguste Le Plongeon in the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society for 1875.
The point, of course, is that the complete lack of evidence for a direct connection between Easter Island and Tiwanaku hasn't stopped alternative theorists from repeating the same tropes over and over again for a century and a half. That it's impossible to tell the difference between the alternative history of 1875, 1955, 1975, or 2005 speaks volumes.
In the 1970s Hugh Harleston Jr. mapped Teotihuacan and declared that after identifying a standard unit of measurement equal to 1.059 m, he had found that selected monuments at Teotihuacan formed a precise scale model of the universe, including Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. (Pluto, of course, is no longer considered a planet, and other micro-planets have since been discovered that are larger than Pluto.) The key, though, was the “selected” set of monuments, selected to conform to a predetermined framework and which later work mapping the site has discredited. I wonder if he would have still noted the “Pluto” mound if he started his research after Pluto was no longer a planet. This is how our mental frameworks shape our ideas.
The screen grab below from Ancient Aliens illustrates how alternative theorists view the correlation.
It fascinates me how false claims, no matter how old, continue to be repeated endlessly, almost without change, century after century, even in the face of new evidence. Consider the case of Mexican statuary. The various human figure sculptures of Teotihuacan, the Maya, the Olmec, etc. are currently used as evidence for the following fringe theories:
Or, of course, they were just depicting the wide variety of facial features that can be found in any population. No, of course that can’t be it. Apparently many Victorians assumed all those brown people look too much alike for that. Not all Victorians were so blinded, though, especially those with ties to native cultures. Mexican historian Manuel Orozco y Berra wrote, for example, in 1880-1 that “it matters little […] that they should resemble Jews, Asiatics, or Egyptians; they are not such, in truth…” (Historia Antigua de Mexico, vol. 2, trans. Zelia Nuttall).
So, as we can see, the theory that peoples from all over the world were depicted in Mexican art is exceedingly old, and modern writers are merely emphasizing one aspect or another of this old theory. Never mind, of course, that the clay heads bear the closest resemblance to actual Mexicans rather than imaginary voyagers from continents once thought more worthy of providing a suitably noble prehistory for the New World.
Today I’m reaching back into the past for a classic wacky claim from ancient astronaut theorists. The ur-text of the ancient astronaut theory, Morning of the Magicians (1960) by Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels, contains innumerable unsupportable claims. Here’s just one:
A few days ago, I wrote about the origins of the “Gorgo, Mormo, thousand-faced moon” passage in H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook.” The lines come from Hippolytus’ Refutation of All Heresies, an early Christian work from the fourth century CE. The thirty-fifth chapter of book four, from which the incantation derives, contains an interesting bit of skeptical inquiry that’s worth looking at in full. In the chapter, Hippolytus describes how pagan priests use stagecraft and trickery to create the illusion of an appearance of the dread goddess Hecate.
Ancient Aliens has never been subtle, but in a week where tornadoes have killed dozens, having a bunch of ignorant know-nothings argue that aliens cause natural disasters, including the devastating Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011 and the Haitian earthquake of 2010, is just disgusting.
Episode S04E04 “Aliens and Mega-Disasters” argues that aliens “may” have had a hand in volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural cataclysms, including the asteroid strike that killed off the dinosaurs “on purpose.” How the aliens would know that the mammals that 65 million years later would give rise to humans would not also die, I can only imagine. Why the aliens waited 65 million years to create humans, I also could not possibly fathom.
Now, here I have to confess that geology is not my area, so I have a bit less to say this time around. Of course, geology isn’t the ancient astronaut theorists’ area either. No type of science is their area. As we shall see, by the end of this episode these theorists have once again misinterpreted and fabricated facts to create false “proof” that the aliens warned the Chinese about a meteoric impact in 3116 BCE. But more on that anon…
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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