A special thanks to archaeologist John Hoopes of the University of Kansas for mentioning me in his excellent piece for Psychology Today on ancient astronauts and modern mythology. Be sure to check it out here.
On the New York Times' Arts Beat blog, author Glen Duncan responds to critics (presumably like me) who disagreed with his October 29 review (Oct. 30 in print) of Colson Whitehead's zombie novel Zone One. Duncan feels that his critics misunderstood the following paragraph:
Colson Whitehead is a literary novelist, but his latest book, “Zone One,” features zombies, which means horror junkies and gore gourmands will soon have him on their radar. He has my sympathy. I can see the disgruntled reviews on Amazon already: “I don’t get it. This book’s supposed to be about zombies, but the author spends pages and pages talking about all this other stuff I’m not interested in.” Broad-spectrum marketing will attract readers for whom having to look up “cathected” or “brisant” isn’t just an irritating chore but a moral affront.
_ Ancient astronaut theorists have a problem distinguishing fact from fantasy. But that’s a given. In this episode of Ancient Aliens, "Aliens Gods, and Heroes," the program attempts to make hay from the fact that the site on Crete traditionally associated with the birth of Zeus contains Minoan-era religious artifacts. This, supposedly, is amazing proof that Greek myths record real alien encounters. It does not cross the minds of the ancient alien theorists that the cave became associated with the Greek gods because it had been a sacred site under the preceding Mycenaean and Minoan civilizations. This is not dissimilar to the way early Christian churches were built atop pagan temples. The site was already holy, and it remained so even as ideologies and faiths changed.
Our quiet period without Ancient Aliens is over, unfortunately. Tonight is "Aliens, Gods, and Heroes," in which mythological figures are going to be associated with aliens. Sigh. In mythology such characters as Heracles and Gilgamesh are most likely composites that have exaggerated human beings into semi-divine figures, while others, like Medea or (possibly) Perseus are one-time gods who faded into or were assimilated with human heroes. The same thing happened in the Middle Ages when Catholic saints took over much of the deeds and powers of the Greco-Roman and Norse-German gods. It has been mentioned more than once that the composite figure of St. Nicholas (Santa Claus) includes elements of Odin and Artemis. There isn't really much room here for E.T., just fertile human imaginations.
I'm going to do something today that Bill O'Reilly (not to mention ancient astronaut theorists and alternative historians) will never do. I'm going to admit I got something wrong. Yesterday I said that the gift shop at Ford's Theater wasn't going to carry O'Reilly's book. It turns out I was wrong; I had forgotten that there is a separate bookstore at Ford's Theater (subject to National Parks Service quality standards) and a museum gift shop, which is not. The bookstore is refusing to carry his book; the gift shop is not. It's been some time since I was last at Ford's Theater, and it didn't immediately dawn on me that these were two different things.
Now, while I can admit when I've made a mistake, apparently Bill O'Reilly can't. Faithful readers will remember how alternative historians and ancient astronaut theorists become defensive when their views are challenged, often imagining conspiracies to suppress their views. They also use the fallacy of the argumentum ad populum, claiming that their readership (or television ratings, or website hits) justify their views in the face of know-it-all "experts" who are protecting their turf.
Here's O'Reilly sounding just like an ancient astronaut theorist on last night's O'Reilly Factor:
By the way there are now more than one million copies of Killing Lincoln in print and the book continues selling well. We well understand our enemies are full of rage of that success. We also know the media lies at will with no accountability. Killing Lincoln in an honest book that you will enjoy and learn from, and that every American student should read. And all the gutter sniping in the world is not going to change that.
Compare this to alternative historian Graham Hancock, writing about the reaction to his Fingerprints of the Gods:
To this day I am astonished by the response that Fingerprints [of the Gods] has generated amongst orthodox academics and their supporters. Some reacted with intense horror, like devout Catholics affronted by an act of blasphemy.
Or his frequent writing partner, Robert Bauval, whose theories about the Egyptian pyramids were criticized by "experts":
Eventually an uncoordinated campaign and pulling-ranks began to be seen [as] aimed against us, with CSICOP agents and science editors of journals and newspapers unleashing, on the one hand, systematic attacks and, on the other hand, forming a wall of fire to stop our work [from] entering the academic and scientific arena.
In all these cases--O'Reilly and the alternative authors both--their work was aimed a popular audience, relied on outdated secondary sources and conspiracy theories, and played a bit loose with the facts. And, when these problems were exposed, they all attacked historians and the media for pointing out these flaws as though it were a personal attack on them and their egos.
Over the weekend, political pundits had a field day with the news that Fox News host Bill O'Reilly's new book on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln would not be allowed in the Ford's Theater gift shop* (sorry, "Museum Store") because an independent reviewer found too many errors. Some of these errors, primarily misspellings, were extremely minor. No book is free of them, and I sympathize to an extent with O'Reilly because in today's bare-bones publishing world a simple typographical error on the writer's part far too often goes uncaught because copy editing and proofreading have been cut to the barest minimum. My books, too, have suffered from this. It's difficult to proofread one's own work, and with little help from publishers, typos happen.
But the other class of errors in O'Reilly's book are much more disturbing. He and his coauthor have made serious errors of fact because, as one reviewer noted, the two authors relied on poor-quality secondary sources in creating their book. This cuts to a fundamental truth about book publishing today: At some point, someone should have told O'Reilly that obsolete secondary sources were inappropriate for a supposedly serious book of history. But no one is willing to stand up for facts in the face of financial gain and fame. We have seen this just recently with another bestseller: a book about history's largest atrocities that relies entirely on secondary sources and media reports and yet is inexplicably the subject of media adulation.
It's just sad. There is a place for popular history that tells interesting stories by building on the work of scholars. But to do so requires two things O'Reilly can't bring himself to do: get the facts right, and give credit to those who did the real work of gathering those facts.
* Correction 11/15/11: The Ford's Theater museum gift shop offers O'Reilly's book. It is the Book Store at the site, subject to National Park Service quality standards, which refused to carry the book.
While I am on the subject of Faust from yesterday, I should also share this bit of wisdom from Konrad Muthian, the German humanist, who was a contemporary of the diabolical doctor. In a letter of October 3, 1513, he complained that the uneducated fell for Faust's fraudulent displays of supernatural power. Some things never change. I'm looking at you, Long Island Medium.
Eight days ago there came to Erfurt a Professor of Palmistry, named Georgius Faustus Hemitheus, Hedebergensis, a braggart and a fool. His art, as that of all diviners, is vain, and such physiognomic science lighter than a water-bug. The vulgar are lost in admiration. Let theologians rise against him. (Trans. William Chatterton Coupland)
How cool is this? In my readings, I discovered the following passage from the Protestant theologian Memel, quoting his teacher Melanchthon:
I know one by the name of Faust, from Kundling, a small town in the neighbourhood of my home. Whilst this man was a student at Cracow he learnt the art of Magic, which art indeed was aforetimes greatly in vogue there, and of it there were public professorial courses. He wandered far and wide and talked of mysterious things. (trans. Albert G. Latham)
I had no idea that the real figure behind the infamous Dr. Faust (or Faustus), who sold his soul to the devil for knowledge, studied and practiced for a time in Krakow, Poland. Some of my ancestors lived in and around Krakow for many centuries, which means that my ancestors may well have known--or at least seen perform--one of history's most notorious characters, that diabolical fraud and mountebank who became synonymous with the infernal price of scientific knowledge.
Today I thought I'd share a few interesting excerpts from "ancient texts" that present a "fact," believed in antiquity, and demonstrably wrong, which calls into question alternative authors' desire to take the stories at face value. Today's odd claim is the demonstrably false notion that the pyramids of Egypt cast no shadow.
Have you ever had one of those days when you just couldn't get everything done? Well, today I got buried under work and didn't manage to make it to blogging. Tune in tomorrow for a fresh blog.
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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