_Today, just for fun, I took down an ancient astronaut book from my shelf, and I opened it at random. This is the first passage I saw in William Bramley’s The Gods of Eden (1989):
When we look to see what sort of creature Ahura Mazda was, we discover good evidence that he was but another Custodian [= alien] pretending to be "God." Ahura Mazda is depicted in some places as a bearded human figure who stands in a stylized circular object. From the circular object protrude two stylized wings to indicate that it flies. The round flying object has two jutting struts underneath that resemble legs for landing. In other words, Ahura Mazda was a humanlike "God" who flew in a round flying object with landing pads.
Source: William Bramley, The Gods of Eden (New York: Avon Books, 1990), 114-115.
Let’s think about the logical problems with this. Bramley asks us to believe that depictions of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god, like the one below (known as a fahavahar—though some dispute whether Ahura Mazda is the being so indicated, with many modern scholars identifying it instead as “royal glory”), are representations of an alien in a spaceship. But he believes that the two legs—clearly meant to be bird’s legs in the relief below from Persepolis—are “jutting struts.” In other words, we are asked to believe that these legs are literal representations of the landing gear of a UFO while at the same time holding that the wings are merely decorative, symbolizing flight, and the circular craft itself is “stylized.” Needless to say, the alien himself is fully human in shape—down to the beard. Note that the wings are not alone—there is also a bird’s tail present.
So, the bottom line: Bramley wants us to believe that every single aspect of this relief is symbolic and stylized except for the “legs for landing” based on no other evidence than his own feeling that this aspect—and only this aspect—of the carving is a genuine observation of a UFO. The more logical explanation is that the legs agree with the wings and the tail, and all of these are parts of birds. The fahavahar derives from earlier Mesopotamian images of Assur and Shamash that featured a spread-eagle bird and a human figure riding within it.
Even if this were a depiction of a UFO, it isn’t a Zoroastrian one, but a copy of a copy of a copy dating back thousands of years earlier, to Sumer. As with all ancient astronaut theorists, Bramley is blind to cultural influence except where it suits his purposes in arguing for alien influence. The truth, however, is both more earthly and more interesting.
Two British geologists have located the spot in Wales where the rocks used for the original circle of Stonehenge originated. The site is more than 150 miles from Salisbury Plain, where the megalithic monument now stands. The stones were part of a now-destroyed circle believed to have stood on the Stonehenge site prior to the construction of the current monument some 5,000 years ago.
This announcement reignited speculation into how the stones were moved from Wales to Salisbury, including predictable reactions about the "impossibility" of carrying stones so far and th necessity of extraterrestrial or Atlantean intervention.
For me, however, the question of "how" the stones were moved is much less interesting than the question of "why" the stones were moved so far. What ideological or economic motive compelled ancient people to carry heavy stones from what must have then been close to the edge of the world? Surely, this discovery tells us something about ancient social networks and possibly something about the ideology of the early residents of the area.
It also calls to mind the corrupt medieval legend preserved in Geoffrey of Monmouth, which probably derives from an older story, that Merlin carried Stonehenge to Salisbury from Ireland:
_ _“If you are desirous,” said Merlin, “to honour the burying-place of these men with an everlasting monument, send for the Giant's Dance, which is in Killaraus, a mountain in Ireland. For there is a structure of stones there, which none of this age could raise, without a profound knowledge of the mechanical arts. They are stones of a vast magnitude and wonderful quality; and if they can be placed here, as they are there, round this spot of ground, they will stand for ever.”
At these words of Merlin, Aurelius burst into laughter, and said, “How is it possible to remove such vast stones from so distant a country, as if Britain was not furnished with stones fit for the work?” Merlin replied: “I entreat your majesty to forbear vain laughter; for what I say is without vanity. They are mystical stones, and of a medicinal virtue. The giants of old brought them from the farthest coasts of Africa, and placed them in Ireland, while they inhabited that country. Their design in this was to make baths in them, when they should be taken with any illness. For their method was to wash the stones, and put their sick into the water, which infallibly cured them. With the like success they cured wounds also, adding only the application of some herbs. There is not a stone there which has not some healing virtue.”
Source: Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae 8.10-11, translated in The British History of Geoffrey of Monmouth , trans. A. Thompson and J. A. Giles (London: James Bohn, 1842).
Corrupt and confused as this legend is, it does correctly preserve a memory that Stonehenge's stones came not from England but from the Celtic fringe beyond the control of Anglo-Saxon monarchs. Though I'm pretty sure Stonehenge was never used as a spa.
The Hollywood hype machine is attempting to generate publicity for Ridley Scott's new movie Prometheus, an outer space epic, by dribbling out "teasers" and trailers a little at a time. The first trailer hits iTunes on Thursday, but in a YouTube teaser, Scott explains that his film isn't just an epic space adventure but a provocative film about ideas:
“It’s about the very grand ideas and notions, the surprising things that will appear to be small yet will be enormous.”
And what are these grand ideas and notions? Why nothing else than the ancient astronaut theory, popularized recently by Ancient Aliens. As Scott told the Hollywood Reporter:
"NASA and the Vatican agree that is almost mathematically impossible that we can be where we are today without there being a little help along the way... That's what we're looking at (in the film), at some of Eric von Daniken's ideas of how did we humans come about."
Now this is disingenuous. NASA said no such thing, and the Vatican's idea of "help" comes in the form of angels and saints. But the disturbing thing here is not that Ridley Scott is using the ancient astronaut theory to make a movie--prehistoric aliens have been found in fiction everywhere from the Cthulhu Mythos to Stargate to Alien vs. Predator--but that Scott seems to believe that the ancient astronaut theory is true and intends to use the multimillion dollar promotional budget for his film to spread this pernicious lie far and wide across the media in the form of an inquiry into "grand ideas and notions."
The ancient astronaut theory might be a "grand idea," but so were communism, Prohibition, and eugenics. We'd all be better off if such "grand ideas" were confined only to movies.
Here's a fun "ancient text" that would seem to indicate that the medieval Japanese had a close encounter with a UFO. It comes from a tenth-century folk tale known as the Taketari Monogatari, or the "Tale of the Bamboo Cutter." Here is the key line:
In a short time the sky was entirely obscured, till at last the cloud lay over the dwelling only ten feet off the ground. In the midst of the cloud there stood a flying chariot, and in the chariot a band of luminous beings.
Well, this certainly seems like a standard UFO encounter. Except that assuming it is a true account of UFO poses an impossible problem. If we accept this line as genuine, we must accept that the text containing it is also literally true. This means that we must accept the folktale itself--that a princess of the Moon People came to earth and won the heart of the Japanese emperor before returning to her moon-city filled with many moon men. It also means we must ignore the tale's likely derivation from the Chinese legend of Chang'e, the goddess of the Moon who in myth lost her immortality and descended to earth.
Richard Adams Locke and Lucian notwithstanding, anyone with a telescope can see that there are no current or former moon cities. Well, you may say, maybe the Japanese were wrong about the heavenly body from which the UFO came. OK, fine. But if we get to say (purely on grounds of convenience) that some of the details of the ancient text are wrong, by what right do we claim any of the text to be true? Why is this line literally true but no other?
Unless and until ancient astronaut theorists can propose a coherent set of rules (beyond "it looks like it to me") to explain how and when to accept single lines or incidents from large, mythic texts, this type of evidence is nothing more than an interesting, but meaningless coinc
I had to laugh when I read the latest press release from Joel Klenck, a biblical archaeologist who has made a specialty of promoting the literal truth of the book of Genesis. According to Klenck, religious fundamentalists and secular archaeologists are both biased against him and doing everything in their combined power to discredit his alleged discovery of Noah's Ark on Turkey's Mt. Ararat. According to the press release:
“Several groups of ark enthusiasts are also trying to disparage the sites,” Klenck states, “because they assumed that Noah’s ark would have dinosaur bones, Early Stone Age tools, Neanderthals, be completely fossilized or had other expectations. That the large wood structure on Mount Ararat exhibits an assemblage that appears mostly from the Late Epipaleolithic Period (13,100-9,600 B.C.) is troubling to some since the data contradicts their views and beliefs.”
Further, he states some professional archaeologists have followed the critiques of ark enthusiasts and have ignored the Ararat discoveries. Klenck notes, “Professional archaeologists do not realize that the biggest critics of the Ararat sites either object to the scientific discipline of archaeology, acquire monies from meritless ark expeditions, or both.”
I suppose we can give Klenck credit for expanding the Biblical timeline back beyond the Paleolithic instead of the standard 6,000 years; however, even Klenck must see that there is no evidence whatsoever of a flood capable of raising enough water to deposit a ship high up on a mountain. Where, pray tell, did all that water go?
But more to the point is the fact that Noah's Ark is not an original story; it has been well-known since the nineteenth century that the tale, composed probably in the first millennium BCE, depends directly on the earlier Mesopotamian flood myths, dating back to the Sumerian flood tale of the earliest Gilgamesh stories, two or three thousand years earlier. A quick read of tablet XI of the standard Gilgamesh epic shows clearly the relationship between the earlier Mesopotamian text, with its Flood hero Utnapishtim, and the later Hebrew version.
So, even if Klenck found something on Ararat, it should by rights be Utnapishtim's boat, not Noah's. But that ark landed on Mt. Nishir (today's Pir Magrun in Iraq), not Ararat. (Funny, isn't it, that no one goes looking for Utnapishtim's ark?) Ah, well... when conducting pseudoscience logic doesn't really matter.
[Note: This post was edited to clarify that Klenck's timeline extends beyond the Paleolthic.]
Ancient astronauts were in the news this week. Here's a roundup of the best stories about our imaginary space gods:
I had an interesting conversation the other day with a producer for a well-known cable TV channel. She is working on a program about UFOs and ancient astronauts to air next year, and she had been talking with David (sometimes Hatcher) Childress about appearing on the show. According to the producer, Childress once more is claiming that he "doesn't say" extraterrestrials are responsible for the anomalies of the past but instead that human beings from an advanced civilization were responsible.
Well, this is news to me.
Childress appears weekly on a program called Ancient Aliens, where he speaks repeatedly of "the extraterrestrials." Here he is on October 26, 2011 asking how prehistoric people could resurrect the dead: "What kind of powers would you have to have to do that? The powers of an extraterrestrial?” Here he is again on September 27, 2011, speaking of Greco-Roman technology: "Ancient lasers were probably being used, and that technology probably came from extraterrestrials.” These are the first two quotes I pulled. I could easily fill a blog post just with Childress talking about "the extraterrestrials" he once again claims not to believe in.
No, he never advocates alien intervention.
It occurs to me that I have never posted the transcript of the segment of the 2009 Ancient Aliens pilot that attacked me by name. The segment was brief, but the visuals really sold the show's implication that I am the spawn of Satan. Here's the transcript and the screen captures:
“But in spite of the book’s enormous popularity—or perhaps because of it…”
(Here my name inverts from black text on white to an ominous white on deep black. Across my name appear the words—which I did not write—“Erich von Daniken rides on his creaky ‘Chariots’)
“…von Daniken’s theories were scorned by scientists, and jeered at by theologians.”
(Here superimposed over my name are the words—which I did not write—“Arrival of the Gods / Maybe Not” as my article and name turned deep blood red on an ebony background, with full Satanic implications.)
Von Daniken: “Of course it created a storm of controversy. I was completely attacked, especially by the scientific newspapers. They said, ‘Come on, he’s just telling stories, or he’s a liar, or he’s a fraud, or whatever.”
Scholars have argued for more than a century that the contemporary figure of Santa Claus derives at least some of his attributes from the old Norse/Germanic god Odin/Wotan, especially the long white beard, the midnight flight across the winter sky, etc. One of the more interesting sidelights into the Santa/Odin parallels is the case of the respective supernatural beings' steeds.
Santa, as everyone knows, drives a sleigh drawn by eight tiny reindeer. Interestingly, Odin rode a horse that had eight legs named Sleipnir. In old Germanic traditions, on the night of the Wild Hunt, when Odin rode Sleipnir across the winter sky to lead the souls of the dead to the underworld, children were said to leave out sugar and hay for Sleipnir in boots by the chimney, for which "Odin" would leave small gifts. In turn, this tradition derived from the folk practice of leaving a few stalks of wheat standing in the field at harvest time as an offering for Sleipnir. Eventually such traditions became the stockings in which Santa leaves presents in exchange for the cookies and milk left for him (and sometimes a carrot for the reindeer). (There was, of course, a great deal of Christian influence when St. Nicholas began to substitute for Odin.)
Since I have been covering Ancient Aliens for the past several months, I am unfortunately woefully behind in my other alternative/conspiracy programming. Today I turned on the Discovery Channel, and what should I behold but a day of programming devoted to the alleged 2012 apocalypse supposedly (but falsely) predicted by the Maya. In 2012 Apocalypse, multiple doomsday scenarios for next year were reviewed one after the other, including the supposed collision with Planet X, Charles Hapgood's earth crust displacement theory, the proposed Yellowstone super-volcano, etc. It seems the program was a movie tie in with last year's 2012, but I am not sure.
What set this particular documentary apart from others of its ilk is that all of the apocalyptic prophesies were presented by actual scientists, who described the effects of each scenario were it true before issuing a very short disclaimer at the end of each segment that the alternative theory is untrue. Strictly speaking, this documentary ought to have been perfect for me since it had a skeptical perspective on a very silly idea. (Quick: How many previous doomsday predictions have come true? Answer: We're still here, aren't we?) But it wasn't.
The problem is that by having actual astrophysicists, geologists, and other scientists explaining these false theories and describing their potential effects in great detail, the program ended up giving greater weight to these flights of fancy than they otherwise deserved. On Ancient Aliens, it's easy to separate fact from fiction (if one is so inclined) because the conspiracy theories are presented by very obvious conspiracy theorists whose wackiness and flying leaps of (il)logic make their silliness manifest.
By contrast, if the accidental viewer did not watch to the end of a segment in 2012 Apocalypse, that viewer would come away with the impression that serious scientists take the the theories very seriously--an impression reinforced when noticing that the scientific rebuttal was many times shorter than the drawn-out orgy of computer-generated illustrations of the devastation awaiting us in just twelve months' time.
I can hardly wait for Apocalypse 2012 Revelations tonight.
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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