This past week’s new episode of the third (!) season of the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens, "Aliens and Monsters," proves that the quack science program is the gift that keeps on giving. On this episode, “ancient alien theorists” assert (I would say argue, but argument implies evidence) that the monsters of Greek mythology were in fact genetic experiments created by extraterrestrials. They assert this on the basis of two indisputable truths: First, in the real world, monsters combining traits of multiple animals, like the bull-man Minotaur, could only be created by genetic engineering. Second, no one in recorded history ever had an imagination until imagination was invented with Star Trek and Star Wars in the 1960s and 1970s.
On the basis of these two self-evident wonders of logic, we therefore are confident in viewing Medusa as an alien-created snake-human hybrid, the Minotaur as an alien-created bull-human hybrid, the griffin as an alien-created eagle-lion hybrid, etc. etc. ad nauseam.
But here’s the thing. The “ancient descriptions” the “ancient astronaut theorists” rely upon to “prove” that the ancients were describing real genetic experiments are remarkably inconsistent—almost as though they were completely, I don’t know, made up.
Let’s take a couple of examples from Greek mythology. (More after the jump.)
The first example will be the Minotaur. He seems familiar to us, the man with the bull’s head, as reported in pseudo-Apollodorus (3.1.4, trans. J. G. Frazier ): “He had the face of a bull, but the rest of him was human; and Minos, in compliance with certain oracles, shut him up and guarded him in the Labyrinth.” On the basis of such traditions (widely reported in many ancient authors), the ancient astronaut theorists declare him an alien hybrid.
But the fact is that the Minotaur did not exist in this form before 550 BCE, when he first appears in art with the bull head and human body. A hundred years earlier, he was very different, as reported by Karl Shefold in Gods and Heroes in Late Archaic Greek Art (1992): “On the relief amphora in Basel [from c. 650 BCE], […] the Minotaur was a powerful bull with a horned human head, and not yet a man with a bull’s head” (p. 164). It is only later that the Minotaur is given human form, so that art could more easily show Theseus wrestling with the creature, rather than the earlier version that shows Athenian youths merely pelting the bull with a human head with rocks.
The point, of course, is that any claims about a bull-headed human hybrid cannot be correct since the earliest myth shows this creature did not exist. As is likely, the human-headed bull form was probably derived from a still-earlier version that was merely a powerful bull, a sentient bull, or perhaps the well-known Cretan sun god in his bull form. There was no alien hybrid here.
A similar problem bedevils any attempt to see the Gorgon Medusa as a snake-human hybrid. At various times, the three mythic Gorgon sisters were depicted in literature and/or art as (1) an ugly woman with dragon scales in her hair, muscular thighs, boar’s tusks (or fangs), and feathered wings; (2) a snake-haired woman with the skin of a snake; (3) a beautiful woman with snake’s hair; etc. Worse, there is no evidence that Medusa and the Gorgon were originally one. In Homer (Iliad 5.735ff.; Odyssey 11.635) the Gorgon is singular and is an “awful monster” who eats souls in the underworld, but is not named Medusa. Some even believe that the Gorgon originates in Mesopotamian depictions of the giant Humbaba, whose face is made of coiled intestines, since early Greek depictions of Humbaba are heavily stylized and highly reminiscent of the reliefs representing the giant.
The point, again, is that if one wants to claim the Gorgon is an alien-human hybrid, you must first decide which version of the Gorgon you claim to be a first-hand report of alien genetic engineering, and you must explain why that version, alone among all others, is correct, and why there are versions that came before it.
But “ancient astronaut theorists” don’t think that way. For them, whatever they read in Bulfinch’s Mythology, or whatever their favorite source, is the first and last word on the subject, timeless, unchanging, subject to no historical process, no evolution, and certainly no imagination. To allow the possibility that myths grow and change through time is to devalue them as first-hand reports by mindless scribes of genuine extraterrestrial events. In other words, if ancient astronaut theorists concede that a myth had an earlier, different form, then they admit that myths cannot be taken as literal reports of alien intervention, and their theory vanishes like so much ice spilled across the hot sands of time.
But as we’ve seen, myths aren’t stable, and can’t be seen as prehistoric news reports. So what does this say about those who use them to “prove” alien intervention?
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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