When the Spanish explored the New World, their missionaries attempted to understand Native cultures in Old World terms, and the Franciscan missionary Toribio de Benavente decided that resemblances between Mexican religion and Christianity must have been due to the work of the St. Thomas, who legend said had traveled beyond the Ganges to evangelize. Because millenarian belief at the time held that the Natives were the Lost Tribes whose rediscovery heralded the final conversion of the Jews, the Spanish interpreted Native myths in that light, distorting any references to the color white (such as in directional color symbolism) as references to skin color in order to connect America back to Europe and the coming reign of the universal monarch and the return of Jesus. Native sources lack evidence of “white” skin color for the gods.
Such beliefs influenced the idea that the Toltecs had been white men, and that the Mound Builders of America had been a lost white race massacred by savage red men from Asia. It was from this stew of so-called evidence that Ignatius Donnelly derived his idea, in Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882), that the alleged white gods of the Americas were in fact memories of the Caucasian survivors of Atlantis, who spread around the world to civilize the planet. This was made possible because it was not yet known that the high cultures of Central and South America were thousands of years younger than their Bronze Age counterparts in Europe.
Although the belief that white and bearded Europeans or Atlanteans had civilized America never entirely vanished (James Churchward revived it with his Mu books of the 1920s and 1930s and A. Braghine did so again with Shadow of Atlantis in 1940), the persistent failure of archaeologists to uncover Old World artifacts in the Americas led academia to the conclusion that there had been no direct contact or influence from overseas. However, in the 1960s, the Victorian claims of diffusionism came back into vogue, and this time there was an even sharper focus on the specifically racial aspect of diffusionism, something that was present in the Victorian claims but simply accepted in its time as normal and obvious. In the 1960s, however, it needed stronger defense due to changing perceptions of race after World War II, and it isn’t hard to see a reflection of the era’s racial tensions, spawned from de-colonization and the Civil Rights movement, in these works.
What, after all, was the diffusionists’ tale of the ultimately unsuccessful effort of a small group of white men to impose European standards of civilization on the Third World than a reflection of the British and French colonial experience? Was it really a coincidence that the major periods of questing for ancient white gods coincided with the building of the European colonial empires and then with their dissolution? Rudyard Kipling had written of the “White Man’s Burden,” and here diffusionist authors seemed to find in the deep past a mirror for the colonial tensions of the 1960s.
In 1961, the French-German author Pierre Honoré, often described as an archaeologist (though I have not been able to confirm this), published In Quest of the White God in German (translated into English in Britain in 1961 and released by Putnam in America in 1964), in which he proposed that the high civilizations of the Americas were due to the influence and direct intervention of Caucasians from the area around Crete. According to Honoré, white Minoans interacted with Native Americans and “brought a system of science and engineering, gave them their legal codes, and helped them achieve a high level of civilization.” You will of course recognize this list of gifts as the same that the French claimed to bestow on the colonized peoples of Africa, Asia, and the Pacific even as their empire was falling to pieces.
For Honoré, accounts of light-skinned Native people proved the truth that white men had once ruled the Americas, and he declared the cyclopean masonry of Peru to be a perfect analogue to that of the Mycenaeans, at two millennia’s remove. I have previously explained how Honoré altered historical documents to rewrite them with an emphasis on whiteness in order to lend better support to his ideas. Much of his evidence was the same Victorian bric-a-brac used by Ignatius Donnelly and the Theosophists.
It didn’t hurt that his was one of two books on the same subject published in America at almost the same time.
Just before the English-language edition of In Quest of the White God hit American stores, the librarian and journalist Constance Irwin published Fair Gods and Stone Faces: Ancient Seafarers and the New World’s Most Intriguing Riddle (St. Martin’s Press, 1963), which was more of the same, resting its case on the supposed “fact” (refuted by genetics, ethnography, and photography) that Native peoples could not grow beards; therefore, their bearded idols must be white men. She proposed that these white civilizing gods were in fact the Phoenicians, who crossed the Atlantic between the western bulge of Africa and the eastern bulge of Brazil, probably in a windstorm. She took at face value Spanish accounts of “white” gods and apostles who had tried to Christianize the Natives in the early centuries CE. It was, in many respects, Donnelly all over again, but with the Atlanteans replaced by superficially more plausible Phoenicians.
Her book would eventually be read by Graham Hancock, who used it to form his own claim that white men from a lost civilization (rather than the Phoenicians) had civilized the Americas. In memory of the earlier books, Hancock referenced that lost race’s white skin at least twelve times in Fingerprints of the Gods (1995). On a more ridiculous extreme, Peter Kolosimo, in Timeless Earth (1977), married the idea of these white gods to the 1950s-era claim that the pilots of UFOs were white Nordic aliens and proposed that Nordic extraterrestrials colonized Atlantis, from which civilization defused as per Ignatius Donnelly.
The coincidence of both Honoré’s and Irwin’s books seeing English publications virtually simultaneously did not escape the notice of reviewers. Kirkus called each a “companion volume” for the other, and noting how much material the two shared in common. Three decades later, during the 1990s alternative history revival, this material was recycled yet again, largely without change. It is probably not a coincidence that the search for a far-flung group of ancient white civilizers began anew after the end of the Cold War and rise of globalization, when Western companies began expanding across the Third World and America claimed a global hegemony.
In 1992 Richard Marx published In Quest of the Great White Gods, which, if anything, was even more racially insensitive that Honoré’s title. However, he extricates himself from the quagmire of perceived racism by arguing that the Native Americans also viewed visiting Africans and Asians as “black” and “yellow” gods because they were all seen as culturally superior. However, his focus remained primarily on the “great white gods,” whom he identified as European visitors, the impetus for Native civilization: “White gods figure in almost every indigenous culture in the Americas,” he wrote. Marshalling the same old evidence hoary with age when Ignatius Donnelly used it in 1882, Marx purposely created a book designed to be a self-promotional tool of sensationalism, reveling in brandishing any number of “politically incorrect” (his words) ideas about why Native Americans needed European help to have a civilization. In 1995, Graham Hancock offered his lost white civilization on the same lines. Similarly, in 1997 Terry J. O’Brien published Fair Gods and Feathered Serpents: A Search for Ancient America’s Bearded White God, again making the same case for “bearded white visitors” who bequeathed civilization to benighted Native peoples.
But by the new millennium, the search for super-whites was looking a little more racist than it had during the 1990s. Honoré’s title, In Quest of the White God, must have seemed unnecessarily racist when David Childress reprinted it in 2007. He changed it to In Quest of Quetzalcoatl, which makes as good a case as any that fringe history figures have at least a partial recognition that their ideas can come across as racially insensitive. Nevertheless, Childress declared the book “a classic in the field of diffusionist arguments.”
This same quest for “White Gods” in the Americas, and a “white” civilizing force behind world civilization, continues to this day. However, it’s interesting to take a quick look at one of the competitors to Honoré and Irwin in their era and what we can learn from the failure of the even more explicitly race-based One White Race; or, Following the Gods by Joseph Sheban, published in 1963. Like the others, it came from a respected press: The Philosophical Library, publisher of Nobel Prize winners and major intellectuals. 1963-1964 was when Civil Rights tensions were at their height.
In his book, Sheban attempts to merge together three disparate theories: The Lost Tribes of Israel, Aryan migration, and Phoenician colonization of the Americas. He does so by proposing a single white master race that encompassed all three:
The issues in this book are:
Sheban was born in Syria according to Census records and operated a coal mining company with his brother before transitioning into operating rental real estate. It is not hard to see in his work a reflection of his immigrant experience, for his argument, if accepted at face value, makes his family “white” in a country that in 1963 still legally discriminated in many ways against the non-white, and it also makes him heir to the Phoenicians, whom he named the very first founders of America. In his book, he identifies the Indo-Europeans with the “white” Aryan race, placing their origins in the mountains east of the Mediterranean, coincidentally the place from which his family hailed. He sees this as the origin point of the white race, and from there he asserts that Indo-Europeans emerged as blond or black-haired Aryans who spread across Europe and much of Asia, taking their (white) gods with them wherever they went.
He views the Semitic peoples as a special case of Aryanism, and he works to fold them into the system to reconcile Judeo-Christian-Islamic faiths with Aryan polytheism. According to Sheban, the fact that Ur was once inhabited by Aryans was the key to proving the existence of a worldwide white master race. If the Sumerians were Aryans, then all of Mesopotamian and Near Eastern culture could also be attributed to an Aryan origin. Because Ur had Aryan inhabitants, “Therefore Abraham must have been of the same race of his city. If the inhabitants of Ur were Aryans, then Abraham must have been an Aryan boy.” Consequently, the original Jews were “really” white Aryans who venerated just one of the many Aryan gods above all others.
He goes on to argue that the Aryan Phoenicians discovered and colonized America, that they mined silver in the New World, and that they provided this silver to the Aryan king Solomon. He further claimed that Columbus was privy to the secret history of Aryans in America and purposely went out to rediscover the Phoenician settlements of the New World. In support of this, he introduces material from Pseudo-Aristotle and Diodorus that we have had occasion to examine several times before, the two passages referring to a (probably mythical) island found a few days’ sail from Africa and colonized by the Phoenicians. He reads this as America.
According to a review of One White Race in the Journal of Metaphysics in 1967 (vol. 20, no. 4), “the arguments in support of these points are unconvincing.” It was one of the few professional notices the book received despite Sheban’s and The Philosophical Library’s efforts to have copies sent to ever major magazine and academic journal. Many published brief listings under “Books Received,” but few sent it on for review.
So what was different about One White Race that wasn’t found in Fair Gods or In Quest of the White God? Not one of the books was a truly scholarly, and none utilized much evidence beyond Ignatius Donnelly’s old claims except for some more recent diffusionist oddities—allegations of Roman coins in Venezuela, etc.
I think the difference was in the title. The two successful volumes placed a fig leaf over the racial angle—both denied exploring whiteness as a concept and instead removed this by one step, exploring it only in the more limited question of what great things the White Gods had accomplished. Thus a question of race became a more socially-acceptable question of mystery and investigation; the heroes just happened to be white, providing readers with a buffer between the text and the subtext, allowing them to indulge in fantasy without acknowledging the deeper meaning. By contrast, Sheban’s book made its quest for Aryan unity far too plain. A middlebrow family could imagine placing In Quest of the White God on the coffee table, but One White Race was a bit too on-the-nose for the Civil Rights era. What would the neighbors think?
The book was consequently a flop with readers. When Sheban filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the disqualification of claimed tax deductions in connection with the book, the court reported in its 1970 decision that his income from book sales was $125 for 1964 and $500 for 1965, the latter of which included sales of both One White Race and a translated volume called Mirrors of the Soul by Khalil Gibran. Assuming that Sheban received the standard 10% royalty on the cover price of $6.00, he sold all of 250 copies of One White Race in the first year of sale.
The court also reported that he had spent $223.76 to market One White Race in 1964, incurring a business loss that he tried to claim as a tax deduction. The court granted his request to deduct the expenses from his taxes because it found that Sheban was legitimately trying to pursue writing as a business, but found no warrant for his grandiose claim that One White Race “had generated gross receipts in the amount of $250,000” or that the publisher was hiding the money from him. The court even denied him a deduction for a home office, finding that he did not use it solely for business.
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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