Tonight the History channel debuts its newest fringe show, Search for the Lost Giants, in which gigantologist Jim Vieira and his brother reenact scenes from its companion series, Curse of Oak Island, substituting the Bible for Freemasonic mysteries. A+E Networks, the parent of History, felt so strongly that I shouldn’t be allowed to see the pilot for Search before it aired that they banned me from their press site the same day that they put up the show’s screener. What is A+E hiding? To judge from pre-air reviews from media outlets still in their good graces, they’re hiding yet another cynical exploitation program aimed solidly at the ignorant.
Newsday offered cogent and pointed review of the program: “…by all means watch this hilariously silly and overheated series about two guys who believe there must be giants. Just don’t expect to see any evidence of said giants.” I dissent form Verne Gay’s otherwise on-point review only in that Gay sees the show as “harmless” because it is so “unintentionally hilarious.” I know firsthand that there is harm anytime television presents the untrue as factual because a significant percentage of viewers are uncritical and cannot distinguish between assertions and conclusions, between opinions and facts. Gay believes that audiences can enjoy the show if they bring “critical” thought to the hour, but how many will do that?
The New York Daily News quotes Bill Viera, one of the show’s stars, as arguing that the complete lack of any scientific evidence for the 9-12 foot tall humanoids reported in old newspaper accounts is itself the mystery: “The lack of physical evidence makes this a compelling mystery,” he said. I challenge them to go search for unicorns; there is just as much “compelling” evidence.
I’ll be watching the pilot episode this evening, and I’ll post my thoughts on it tomorrow. But we already know that the show found no “giant” bones and no proof of said giants, or else History would have promoted the hell out of it.
So while we wait to be bombarded with rants about why we should believe Victorian newspaper articles about giants (but not man-eating plants, fairies, flying moon monsters, ectoplasm, Spring-Heeled Jack, and other Victorian staples) are true, let’s change the subject and spend some time thinking about skeptic Benjamin Radford’s Live Science article on the lost continent of Atlantis, which he published on Friday.
Regular readers know that I’ve had some differences with Radford over the years, particularly in terms of the chupacabra, whom Radford sees as being invented wholesale in the 1990s, while I prefer to see it as the most recent incarnation of traditional folklore associated with the night-jar, a bird whose popular name is the “goat-sucker,” or, in colloquial Spanish, chupacabra.
Anyway, in an updated version of a post that first ran in 2012, Radford has given a condensed but generally thoughtful overview of the Atlantis theme, though he has made a few errors that are worth pointing out.
After correctly noting that Atlantis was the invention of Plato, and no undisputed report of its existence can be found prior to or independent of Plato, he then makes a key error:
For most of the past two millennia, no one thought much about Atlantis; it was just what it appeared to be: a fictional place mentioned in a fable by the ancient Greek philosopher. The idea that Atlantis was an actual lost historical location is a very recent idea, first proposed by a writer named Ignatius Donnelly in 1881.
This is markedly untrue. While it is generally correct that most people discounted its existence, it was by no means universal, or was belief in Atlantis confined only to the lunatic fringe. To start at the beginning, Posidonius and Strabo both agreed that Atlantis was a real place (Strabo, Geography 2.3.6), as did Theophrastus and Philo. Cosmas Indicopleustes even argued that Atlantis was a corruption of the Biblical creation narrative. During the Middle Ages, Atlantis was much less of a going concern, but after European contact with the Americas, writers immediately turned to Atlantis as a Classical account of the Americas. Francisco López de Gómara, in the Historia general de las Indias (1552, ch. 220) most famously made the case for the Americas as the lost continent of Atlantis, and many followed his lead, including Dr. John Dee, who said “ancient Atlantis [is] now named America.” Athanasius Kircher—the seventeenth century Jesuit who tried to confirm the existence of the giant skeleton seen by Boccaccio—included Atlantis as a real continent in his Subterranean World, represented by the Azores and Canaries, the topmost portions of the sunken land. The eccentric scholar Alaus Rudbeck placed Atlantis in Scandinavia, conveniently near to his home.
The contention that Atlantis had a physical reality continued unabated, and relatively uncontroversial (in that it was recognized as an accepted mainstream view, if not the only possible one), into the modern era. Jean-Sylvain Bailly, the astronomer, placed Atlantis in Asia. Jean-Baptiste-Claude Delisle de Sales, in 1779, wrote a book on the History of the Atlantians, which formed the opening volume of his History of the World. This book claimed Atlantis was part of an ancient global mother-culture. John Lemprière’s famous Classical Dictionary said that it was “very plausible” that the islands from the Azores to Newfoundland are the uppermost reaches of what had once been a continent. Buffon, the great early French naturalist, considered it likely that Atlantis was a sunken landmass connecting America to the Azores (Proofs of the Earth’s Sphericity 19). The scientist Bory de St. Vincent claimed in 1803 to have found proof that an Atlantic continent had in fact vanished, as did Bishop Tollerat, who thought Atlantis was felled by Mediterranean waters flooding it when the Strait of Gibraltar, then an isthmus, broke open in an earthquake.
I could go on for dozens more, all predating Ignatius Donnelly. According to Sir Daniel Wilson, the ethnologist Hubert Howe Bancroft cited 42 different works on Atlantis in discussing the subject in 1875! (Bancroft noted, though, that in the preceding decades, Atlantis had been relegated again to the land of fable.)
This brings me to Radford’s next mistake: “Later writers elaborated on Donnelly's theories, adding their own opinions and speculations. These included mystic Madame Blavatsky (in her 1888 book, ‘The Secret Doctrine’) and famous psychic Edgar Cayce in the 1920s and 1930s.”
Here Radford is again over-simplifying. Blavatsky wrote about Atlantis before Donnelly, in Isis Unveiled (1877), where she identifies the Atlanteans as the children of Poseidon and thus also as the Sons of God from Genesis 6:1-4, in her view a special class of priests, the Sethites, with the destruction of Atlantis equating to the Noachian Flood. Her view of Atlantis changed after Donnelly (and not for the better), but Atlantis was still present in her thinking before him.
None of this changes the fact that there is no evidence that Atlantis ever existed, but it doesn’t do any good to over-simplify the narrative and pretend that a lone fringe thinker singlehandedly reversed two thousand years of science and reason. Donnelly succeeded because the groundwork had been laid, and thinkers of all stripes—from great scientists to religious leaders to quacks and cranks—had already concluded that there was more to Atlantis than myth. They were wrong, but in a world that valued Classical knowledge, accepting ancient texts at face value was par for the course.
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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