Yesterday Scott Wolter posted a new blog in which he attempted to make the case that he was shaken to his core by numerology when he discovered that the imaginary Megalithic Yard was almost but not quite the same number of American customary unit feet (2.72) as the York Rite Masonic sacred numbers 22 and 8 when divided arbitrarily one into the other (2.75). American customary unit feet are based on British feet that were not standardized until medieval times, and technically the current value only dates to 1959. Worse, the English foot was not recognized on the Continent, where Wolter’s French conspirators allegedly operated. But beyond this, earlier this week the bosom buddies behind Xplrr Media, LLC announced on social media that they were in the process of “vetting” an unspecified claim relating to the fringe theory that the Ark of the Covenant is hidden on Oak Island. In the process of reviewing this, I researched some of the previous fringe claims about the Ark on Oak Island and discovered a very strange claim that sort of gets at the heart of the failure of fringe types of think about challenges that come with dealing with real documents rather than pop culture fantasies.
My search for earlier claims about the Ark of the Covenant at Oak Island led me to the book Following the Ark of the Covenant: The Treasure of God by Kerry Ross Boren and Lisa Lee Boren. This turned out to have nothing helpful and instead reproduced verbatim a bit chunk of Steven Sora’s 1999 book The Lost Treasure of the Knights Templar. That book, however, offered a bizarre claim that tried to link Oak Island to the legend of the Golden Fleece and therefore to alchemy (which is, of course, the secret art of the Watchers—as Zosmius of Panoplis maintained).
To set this up, Sora is describing a conspiracy theory spun by David Tobias, the owner of Oak Island in 1990s. Tobias believed that the island was the secret hideaway of Sir Francis Drake, and Sora suggested that Sir Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth I conspired to make Oak Island England’s secret American spy base. Sora cites part of his analysis to the 1973 book The God-Kings and the Titans by James A. Bailey, which was a rewritten Atlantis: The Antediluvian World that dispensed with Atlantis and proposed wide-scale transoceanic voyages by blond Aryans who seeded the globe with their Master Race civilization en route to mining the components for bronze around the world. I have never read the book and do not know how much of the following is Bailey’s idea and how much is Sora’s. Here Sora is discussing the book Sir Walter Raleigh composed in 1614, a history of the world that King James suppressed for “being too saucy in censuring Princes,” but which influenced Milton in the writing of Paradise Lost. Sora thinks the book was a conspiracy:
In it he declared the sea god of the Philistines, Dagon, to be the same god as the Greek Triton. Just why this was so important to him is unknown, but the god of Greek mythology has some significance to the Oak Island mystery. Triton was the god who came to the aid of the Argonauts in their search for the Golden Fleece. Raleigh also wrote of his belief that the philosopher’s stone, the hypothetical substance that medieval alchemists believed would convert base metals to gold, was the Golden Fleece sought by Jason and his argonauts (sic). Both Raleigh and Drake had pushed Elizabeth to pursue her rights to land in the New World. Since the Elizabethan court included magicians and alchemists like Dr. Dee, was there a prevalent belief that the philosopher’s stone, or the Golden Fleece, was in America?
Wow. Where to begin in unpacking this dumpster fire of half-understood information?
I suppose we should begin with the premise: In his Historie of the World, Raleigh did indeed write of Dagon and Triton. In Part I, Book 2, Chapter 12, sec. 3, on the life of Semiramis, he describes the biblical account of the collapse of the statue of Dagon before the Ark of the Covenant (1 Samuel 5:1-5), and then Raleigh offers his interpretation of Dagon, who was widely believed to be a man with a fish body. In fact, Raleigh explains that he learned that Dagon was a fish-man (“a mans face, and a fishes body”) from several of the Church Fathers, who so described him. I transcribe from the first edition, but forgive me for regularizing the use of “u” and “v” so the words are readable:
For my selfe, I rather thinke, that this Dagon of the Philistines was an Idoll representing Triton, one of those imaginarie Sea gods under Neptune. For this Citie being maritimate (as all those of the Philistines were, and so were the best of Phoenicia) used all their devotions to Neptune, and the rest of the pettie gods which attended him.
Raleigh added this as an afterthought at the end of the section. It was neither essential to the chapter nor particularly important to Raleigh, much less a secret code. He was simply following the then-common practice of equating various pagan divinities with their Latin equivalents, operating under the then-common understanding that the Greeks and Romans had already asserted that Phoenician deities were “really” Greco-Roman ones in disguise, such as Melqart actually being Hercules. Indeed, much of the early sections of his Historie attempt to equate Classical and Hebraic history in order to try to harmonize the Bible with the Classical writers—just as countless Renaissance historians of the era routinely did.
But here is where the argument Sora implies falls apart. Triton does not function as a savior in the standard version of the Argonaut myth. In Apollonius’ Argonautica 4.1537ff., written in the Hellenistic period, the Argonauts find themselves in the fictional Lake Tritonis, believed to be in modern Tunisia, and the god Triton appears in the guise of Euryplus in order to hand Euphemus, one of the Argonauts, a clump of earth, which will foretell the future of Euphemus’ descendants, who will colonize Libya from where the clod eventually washes up, on Thera.
Here is where things get weird: First, the older version of the story recorded by Pindar does not feature Triton but gives his role to another of Poseidon’s sons, Euryplus. The clod of earth here connects to the city of Cyrene, which Pindar was writing to glorify. About three decades later, Herodotus (Histories 4.179) recorded a still different version of the story, where Triton utters a prophecy about the future of Greeks in Libya and then shows the Argonauts the way to escape Lake Tritonis. (Apollonius combined both versions for his.)
In none of these versions did Triton help the Argonauts find the Golden Fleece. They already had it and were on their way back home. Sora is probably thinking of the movie Jason and the Argonauts (1963), where the filmmakers assigned to Triton Athena’s role in helping them pass the Clashing Rocks on route to Colchis. The bottom line is that the myth recorded by Apollonius, Pindar, and Herodotus is part of the founding legend of Cyrene and is only incidentally connected to the Golden Fleece, being almost certainly a later addition to the myth, following the founding of Cyrene in 630 BCE by colonists from Thera. Since the Jason story is much older than Cyrene (appearing in Homer and Hesiod), this must be a newer tale grafted on to an old myth.
It is true, however, that Raleigh wrote of the Golden Fleece and the Philosopher’s Stone. In Part 1, Book 2, Chapter 13, Sec. 6, after summarizing the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes and that of Orpheus, both then new to Renaissance literature, Raleigh attempts to rationalize the story by providing a wide variety of explanations proposed by others. One of these involves the Philosopher’s Stone:
Some there are that by this iourney of Jason understand the mysterie of the Philosophers stone, called the golden Fleece, to which also, other super-fine Chymists draw the twelve labours of Hercules. Suidas thinkes that by the golden Fleece was meant a golden booke of Parchment, which is of sheepe-skin, and therefore called golden, because it was taught therein how other metals might be transmuted.
You have to love the phrase “super-fine Chemists.”
Raleigh did not endorse this idea himself, writing of his belief that most of the story is a “Fable” and an invention of the poets; nor was any of this a secret. The claims Raleigh writes of are exceedingly ancient. Teasing that out is too complex to go into here (I cover it in my book Jason and the Argonauts through the Ages in detail). Suffice it to say that the Byzantine Suda writes of the Fleece that “it was a book written on skins, concerning how it is necessary that gold comes about through alchemy. Therefore, the men of that time naturally called the skin "golden", because of the function which arose from it” (s.v. Deras, trans. Jennifer Benedict). But it was merely reporting a claim made by Charax of Pergamum before 147 CE and preserved in Eustathius of Thessalonica: “Charax says that the golden fleece is a method for writing in gold on parchment, because of which, according to him, the Argo expedition was launched” (trans. Antoine Favre). John of Antioch and Eudocia Augusta both repeated the same claim in the early Middle Ages. Raleigh was not conveying a secret but merely summarizing newly available Greek literature, brought to the West after the fall of Constantinople.
Is there any evidence that John Dee thought that the Philosopher’s Stone was the Golden Fleece? Not really. His diary for 1588 shows him visiting Thomas Sowthwell on August 17, and the latter showed him his “lump” of the philosopher’s stone “as big as his fist.” This certainly was not the Fleece. On August 6, 1600, he had a dream about working on the philosopher’s stone, and no Fleece was indicated. I was unable to find any reference to John Dee speaking of or referring to the Golden Fleece. Perhaps Sora is thinking of Cornelius Agrippa’s Golden Fleece, which was more clearly equated with the Philosopher’s Stone? At any rate, Dee did have a fascination with America, but he thought it was Atlantis and a colony of the Welsh Prince Madoc, not the repository of the Golden Fleece. He certainly wouldn’t have thought that the Golden Fleece was in America if he saw part of it at Sowthwell’s house and seemed certain that Sowthwell was correct that his philosopher friend held the rest.
If Sora were even a little bit better at researching beyond fringe books, he’d have discovered that there actually was a widespread belief that the Golden Fleece was in America, but it wasn’t John Dee’s, or even the English’s. The Spanish—the great rivals of Elizabethan England—routinely equated Peru with the Colchis of myth and speculated on whether Incan statues of llamas made of gold were the origin for Jason’s mythic Fleece. Since their bosses, the Habsburgs, used the Fleece as a symbol of their power, there was motivated reasoning for such claims. England, if anything, had every reason to ignore them. This is the background that led Raleigh to discuss the Continental alchemical literature on the Fleece as an interesting folly, one he considered wrong.
That which is most probable is the opinion of Dercilus, that the story of such a passage was true, and that Iason with the rest went indeede to rob Colchos, to which they might arrive by boate. For not farre from Caucasus there are certaine steepe falling torrents which wash downe many graines of gold, as in many other parts of the world; and the people there inhabiting use to set many fleeces of wooll in those descents of waters, in which the graines of gold remaine, and the water passeth through, which Strabo witnesseth to be true. (18.104.22.168)
And thus we see that Raleigh agreed with Strabo’s (wrong) belief (Geography 1.2.39; 11.2.19) that the Golden Fleece was a rag used to pan for gold. Anyway, Raleigh betrays no secret knowledge of a conspiracy to locate the Fleece in America, nor does he buy into the alchemical connection. Everything Sora thinks he knows about Raleigh is based on mistaken (probably secondhand) misunderstanding of Raleigh’s literature review and Renaissance rationalism.
Just because I am rather bothered by any reference that confuses me, I will finish up with a brief clarification on the weird name “Dercilus,” or rather Dercylus, presumably the historian and reviser of the Argolica of Agias cited by Callimachus, who also wrote about the Argonauts in a work that does not survive. Raleigh borrowed what he knew of Dercylus from Natale Conti’s Mythologiae 6.8: “Nor however do I disregard those who say, among them Dercylus, that the Argonauts set sail to capture the Golden Fleece, or alternately to rape the wealth of Scythia” (my trans.). Dercylus’ name appears close to a discussion of Jason in Book 1 of Clement’s Stromata, so we can assume that Dercylus might have had something to say about the time period in question. While I can find no surviving mention of Dercylus commenting on the Argonauts, it is not impossible that he is mentioned somewhere in the Greek scholia. But Conti is unreliable, and he may equally well have been mistaken.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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