In the annals of “alternative history,” there have been any number of strange theories invented out of little more than wishful thinking. Today, I thought I’d present one of the stranger sidelights in the world of alternative thinking, one that dates all the way back to 1774, with significant recurrences in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This theory held that Noah’s Ark, the Greek mythological ship Argo, and the box (or ark) in which Osiris was drowned were all one and the same—and all derived from the Biblical original. The entirety of the argument rests on the impossible idea that since the word “Argo” sounds like the word “Ark” they must be connected. In reality, “Argo” derives from a Greek word for “swift,” of completely separate Indo-European origin from Ark, which comes from the Latin word arca, or box. (Needless to say, the Hebrew bible does not use Latin terms--the original Hebrew name for the Ark, tebhath, is completely unrelated.)
This theory was presented by Jacob Bryant in his New System; Or, an Analysis of Ancient Mythology (1774-1776), one of many early works attempting to “prove” that all pagan mythology is merely a corruption of the Hebrew Bible. The following excerpt explains his “theory” about the Argo and the Ark. I have substituted an English translation for a line of Greek in the original for ease of reading.
From The New System (1807 ed.)
The Argo, however, that sacred ship, which was said to have been framed by divine wisdom, is to be found there; and was certainly no other than the ark. The Grecians supposed it to have been built at Pagasse in Thessaly, and thence navigated to Colchis. I shall hereafter shew the improbability of this story: and it is to be observed, that this very harbour, where it was supposed to have been constructed, was called the port of Deucalion. This alone would be a strong presumption, that in the history of the place there was a reference to the Deluge. The Grecians placed every antient record to their own account: their country was the scene of every action. The people of Thessaly maintained that Deucalion was exposed to a flood in their district, and saved upon mount Athos: the people of Phocis make him to be driven to Parnassus: the Dorians in Sicily say he landed upon mount Aetna. Lastly, the natives of Epirus suppose him to have been of their country, and to have founded the antient temple of Dodona. In consequence of this they likewise have laid claim to his history. In respect to the Argo, it was the same as the ship of Noah, of which the Baris of Egypt was a representation. It is called by Plutarch the ship of Osiris, who as I have mentioned, was exposed in an ark to avoid the fury of Typhon: “Having therefore privately taken the measure of Osiris’s body, and framed a curious ark, very finely beautified and just of the size of his body, he brought it to a certain banquet.” The vessel in the celestial sphere, which the Grecians call the Argo, is a representation of the ship of Osiris, which out of reverence has been placed in the heavens. The original therefore of it must be looked for in Egypt. The very name of the Argo shews, what it alluded to; for Argus, as it should be truly expressed, signified precisely an ark, and was synonymous to Theba. It is made use of in that sense by the priests and diviners of the Philistim; who, when the ark of God was to be restored to the Israelites, put the presents of atonement, which were to accompany it, into an Argus, or sacred receptacle. And as they were the Caphtorim, who made use of this term, to signify an holy vessel; we may presume that it was not unknown in Egypt, the region from whence they came. For this people were the children of Mizraim, as well as the native Egyptians, and their language must necessarily have been a dialect of that country. I have mentioned that many colonies went abroad under the title of Thebeans, or Arkites; and in consequence of this built cities called Theba. In like manner there were many cities built of the name of Argos; particularly in Thessaly, Boeotia, Epirus, and Sicily: whence it is that in all these places there is some tradition of Deucalion, and the ark; however it may have been misapplied. The whole Peloponnesus was once called both Apia, and Argos. As there were many temples called both Theba and Argus in memory of the ark, they had priests, which were denominated accordingly.
Source: Jacob Bryant, A New System: Or, an Analysis of Ancient Mythology, 3rd ed., vol. 3 (London: 1807), 54-58.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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