First off, I’d like to talk a little bit about giants. Yesterday, a regular reader sent me an interesting passage from Helena Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine in which she seems to endorse the idea that the skeletons of giants were really those of Ice Age mammals.
If we turn to the New World, we have traditions of a race of giants at Tarija on the eastern slopes of the Andes and in Ecuador, who combated gods and men. These old beliefs, which term certain localities "Los campos de los gigantes" -- "the fields of giants," are always concomitant with the existence of pliocene mammalia and the occurrence of pliocene raised beaches.
This comes smack in the middle of a credulous discussion of the reality of giants, and it was fairly clear that Blavatsky was making reference to a source she only partially digested in appending it to her chapter. In this case, the source was pretty obvious: It seems likely that she was borrowing from Humboldt’s Kosmos or later works, or a discussion based thereon, one of the rare references to campo de los gigantes by (more or less) that name, from whose notes she surely consulted Garcilaso de la Vega (Royal Commentaries 9.9), who gives the history of the sodomite rapist giants from Pedro Cieza de Leon (First Part of the Chronicle of Peru ch. 52). Humboldt was the first to connect the famous Giant’s Field near Bogota with mastodon fossils, and before Blavatsky wrote, Clements Markham, who translated (give or take some sodomy) Cieza de Leon, made the same observation regarding the place where these giants supposedly lived and died. Blavatsky seemingly inserted the sentence without really thinking through the consequences.
This is interesting but unimportant, though it led me to a fascinating piece inspired by Humboldt. A traveler to Peru named Edmond Temple went to South America in 1825 in search of wealth and in 1827 ended up investigating the discovery of a “giant” skeleton in Bolivia, near the site, as he himself noted, where Pedro Cieza de Leon placed God’s massacre of the all-male giants during a gay orgy. His diaries, published in 1830, give the full account, which is much too long to paste here. I’ve posted it in the “Giants” section of my website for your enjoyment. His account has everything you could want in an investigation of giants: The corporation that he worked for found a giant skeleton and dreamed of selling it to a museum for $10,000 (approximately $240,000 today). Temple investigated and discovered that the skeleton had tusks, indicating it was a mastodon. True believers refused to accept his findings and denied the truth. Sound familiar? It’s a great read.
Now, let’s move on to another weird problem with fringe claims.
At this point, most readers recognize that Jacques Vallée and Chris Aubeck don’t understand the languages they claim to translate, but did you know they are also plagiarists? Today’s example shows how our authors have lifted material from an unacknowledged source and presented it as their own work, unaware that in so doing they were repeating century-old errors made by the amateur from whom they stole their work.
Our story begins with a claim, that the medieval Annales de Burton, a chronicle of history from England’s Burton Abbey, contains a passage in which frightened peasants fled in terror from a battle of UFOs in the evening sky. Here is how our authors present the material:
14 October 1253, England: A battle of stars
Let’s first dispense with the facts. The quotation is not accurate. The authors give the wrong date, and many of the details are incorrect. Here is the correct translation, which I verified against the original Latin (Annales de Burton, folio 41, entry for 1253):
In the same year (1253) on the 14th Kal. Oct. (18th Sept.) the sky being clear about the close of the evening, at the manor of Ailwaldeslon (Alvaston) near Derby, Sir Thomas Hanselin, very aged, lord of that manor, and Galfred his son, and many others, as well of the village as of their own family, standing by and beholding this matter, as also a certain freeman, by name Nicholas, of Findern, who also saw the occurrence and related it to us. Suddenly in a wide dark cloud there appeared a large bright star, like the radiant sun, and near it two small red stars, like sparkling candles, which instantly leaped fiercely towards the great star, and (as we may say) were attacking it, rushing upon it, and waging a desperate war with it; so that it seemed to those who were witnesses of this sight, that fiery particles descended from them. This combat lasted until the close of the evening, so that those who beheld it, ignorant of what it might portend, retired to their homes, struck with terror and astonishment. (trans. Stephen Glover)
In the longer version, it appears to be much more clearly a meteor breaking up in the sky. Obviously, the version quoted by Vallée and Aubeck misunderstood the Roman calendar and gave fourteen days before the Kalends (1st) of October as October 14 instead of September 18, and the details are all wrong, too, and the text is dramatically condensed.
But here Vallée and Aubeck are not the responsible parties—at least not entirely. They lifted the text verbatim from a 1906 book by Arthur William Davison called Derby: Its Rise and Progress. But when I quote Davison, notice where he puts the quotation marks:
In the thirteenth century records of Burton Abbey appear several detailed accounts of marvellous signs displayed in the heavens, all elaborately done into Latin by the Abbey scribe. On October 14th, 1253, according to this chronicle, a wonderful sight was witnessed at Alvaston, near Derby, by a large number of people, one of whom, Nicholas of Findern, duly reported it to the Abbey authorities. About the hour of vespers, the sky being clear, suddenly a large bright star appeared out of a black cloud, with two smaller stars in the vicinity. A battle royal soon commenced, the small stars charging into the great star again and again, so that it began to diminish in size, and sparks of fire fell from the combatants. This continued for a considerable time, and at last the spectators, “stupefied by fear and wonder, and ignorant of what it might portend, fled.”
We can debate the degree to which Davison was justified in translating recesserunt (go back, withdraw) as “fled,” but the larger point is clear: Davison was for the most part paraphrasing, and the authors stole his text verbatim and presented it as a translation of the Annales de Burton, when it bore only a partial resemblance to the original. They even repeat Davison’s misunderstanding of the calendar date. Once again, though, the authors gone back and found the correct passage in the Latin edition and cited it, and they must have seen that some of the words matched up and left it at that. Do either of them read Latin well? The authors omit any mention of Davison, whose work they have stolen, and instead lead the reader to believe that they have translated the Latin.
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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