Graham Hancock’s Magicians of the Gods reached number 3 on the Sunday Times nonfiction bestseller list (it’s currently number 8), making it the most widely distributed fringe archaeology book in more than a decade in Great Britain, though one that strangely has failed to receive many reviews from people not directly acquainted with Graham Hancock. The exceptions are my review (which is currently the top Google match for a search for “Magicians of the Gods review”) and Kirkus Reviews, which called the book “risible” and “shameless.” However, if you look at the book’s press materials, Coronet (the publisher) has excerpted one word from Kirkus to market the book: “Ingenious,” taken from a passage that compares Hancock to L. Ron Hubbard before stating “Hancock’s tale is clunky but ingenious” in its use of “ersatz” discovery in “a mashup of Ignatius Donnelly and Dan Brown.” Kirkus and I are in almost complete agreement, except that their reviewer found the book’s prose more entertaining at a mechanical level than I did.
Anyway, the success of Magicians among fringe audiences creates a bit of problem for fringe types since they need to simultaneously embrace what is selling to audiences they want to reach but also separate themselves from Hancock’s ideas in order to market their own brand of revelation. Thus fellow fringe theorist Andrew Collins, who will be appearing with Hancock at the Origins 2015 conference November 7, delivers a weird, sometimes seemingly passive-aggressive review of Magicians of the Gods that tries to find the balance point between the two impulses.
Collins heaps praise on Hancock for the boldness and originality of his claims: “Magicians of the Gods is an extraordinary work of genius, delivering its poignant message well.” But he lards his praise with several reminders that he, Collins, has the superior understanding of prehistory. He even criticizes Hancock for something he didn’t quite do. Collins takes issue with the idea that the lost civilization was located in pre-Ice Age Indonesia, in an area known as Sundaland, whose traces Hancock claims to have seen in various architectural and artistic works.
He proposes a common origin for all this ancient art in pre-cataclysmic Sundaland, revealed, finally, as the true location of Plato’s Atlantis. It is a new and very bold theory, although one that does contradict what the Greek philosopher says about the geographical location of his Atlantic Island.
In so doing, Collins ends up giving Hancock far too much credit—and apparently on purpose. Indeed, Graham Hancock’s real genius lies in his ability to appropriate the work of other people (Collins included) and pass it off as his own revelation. Magicians of the Gods has two big claims, first that a comet hit the earth in the Younger Dryas and second that there was a lost civilization answering to Atlantis located in what is now Indonesia. Neither claim is Hancock’s own, yet the media is giving him credit for both claims, largely because he has repackaged recent material from Allen West (the force behind the comet hypothesis) and Danny Hilman Natawidjaja, the Indonesian geologist who literally wrote a book on why Indonesia was a perfect match for Plato’s Atlantis. (He also caused guffaws of laughter when he announced the discovery of a prehistoric “electrical device” supposedly used to generate hydroelectric power 25,000 years ago.) In short, the Atlantis claim is Natawidjaja’s, not Hancock’s, however much Hancock ran with it. But Collins knows this, and in a clever bit of rhetoric Collins undercuts Hancock’s self-presentation effectively by praising him primarily for “presenting the most dramatic, and most pressing, discoveries of the ancient mysteries community to a much wider audience.” Collins called the book a “work of genius” but attributes its claims to the “ancient mysteries community”; who then is the genius? This is, of course, Collins’s way of praising himself, since his are the “discoveries” he congratulates Hancock for publicizing.
Collins rightly dismisses Natawidjaja’s extremist claims about lost chambers and pre-Ice Age pyramids in Indonesia as nothing more than misidentified natural phenomena, though he generously wishes him “luck” in proving his ideas. But Collins isn’t entirely acting out of a love for scientific accuracy here. Natawidjaja’s and Hancock’s ideas about an Indonesian origin for world culture contradict his own highly profitable hypotheses about a lost European civilization that performed the same feats and were responsible for the same wonders, especially the Neolithic Turkish megalithic site of Göbekli Tepe. Since both claims can’t be true, Collins has an active and vital interest in discrediting his Indonesian rival.
As for Hancock, despite pouring cold water all over the ancient astronaut theory in general and Zecharia Sitchin in particular in Magicians of the Gods, somewhere between publishing the book and the end of September he seems to have realized that he remained famous over his long fallow period (of trying to become a novelist) largely because of his appearances on Ancient Aliens. In a Q-and-A session with readers of the Daily Record a week ago, Hancock backpedaled on his dismissal of ancient astronautics, claiming that “there are extraordinary anomalies on Mars” that could be the result of ancient aliens who also visited earth, or ancient humans who traveled to Mars, claims he made in The Mars Mystery (1998), backpedaled on somewhat, and then embraced again.
But don’t feel bad for the millionaire author, who has sold nine million copies of Fingerprints of the Gods alone, which at the standard 10% royalty rate would have netted him somewhere north of $10 million, and probably quite a bit more. Factor in his other books, and you’re looking at tens of millions of dollars. The Telegraph newspaper went to visit him in his “imposing slab” of a manse earlier this week, and the reporter, Rupert Hawksley, was goggle-eyed over the number of “expensive-looking curiosities” hiding behind the “imposing front door.”
Hancock’s latest money-grab—er, investigation—has left him embittered once again, telling the Telegraph that he is the most criticized person ever because he is too successful: “Because my books have been quite successful, I have been subjected to more of the scathing and withering attacks on the quality of my work, and on my qualities as a human being, by the academic community than anybody else.” I’d like to see him and Scott Wolter debate that.
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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