Last week, I cited a supposedly "ancient text" by the Renaissance scholar Sir Thomas Browne, the "Fragment on Mummies," that claimed the Egyptian pyramids to be Satanic. As it turns out, this text is a hoax. The "Fragment on Mummies" was forged by a lawyer and literary scholar named James Crossley in 1835. Despite the hoax being exposed in 1883, 1903, and 1933, the text continues to be reprinted as the legitimate work of the 17th century occultist.
I was fooled because the text appears without comment as to its apocryphal status on the University of Chicago's current Thomas Browne page, and it is still occasionally mentioned uncritically in several modern works discussing Browne. Incidentally, my citation also lists the fragment as deriving from Religio Medici, which is also wrong; it was published in an omnibus with that work under the collective title of Religio Medici.
However, my earlier point about Ancient Egypt being seen as Satanic is not without warrant. In Paradise Lost Milton expresses the common view that the pagan gods were originally demons, which God himself in Exodus 12:12 seems to confirm when he states that he will pass judgment on these gods. As enemies of Yahweh/Israel, Pharaoh and Satan become equivalent. The Jehovah's Witnesses, following this precedent, wrote in the Watch Tower for November 15, 1928 that the pyramids were built by Satan. Moreover, a persistent Arabic tradition holds that Sheddad Ben Ad built the pyramids; that his race was of giants (like those in Genesis); and that God destroyed the Adites for their presumption at rebelling against God (shades of Satan and the Tower of Babel). The point, of course, is that later people applying their own ethnocentric views (here, later religious views) to earlier cultures distort the earlier cultures' beliefs and recreate them in their own image.
One criticism I’ve received frequently is that I’m being negative by “attacking” ancient astronaut theorists and alternative historians. I don’t really think it is an “attack” to point out the difference between what these theorists say and what the historical record says, and it’s funny that so few think these alternative theorists are being negative despite their vitriolic furor directed at an imaginary conspiracy of scientists, historians, and journalists whom they imagine to be oppressing them. But, whatever; today I will be positive.
There is one thing that ancient astronaut theorists and alternative historians get right. They conjure up the glory and the grandeur of the past and inspire a wide audience to learn something about what came before World War II. In my talks with people who study and write about ancient history, a larger number than one would expect developed an abiding love for the past out of initial exposure via Chariots of the Gods or The Sirius Mystery or Morning of the Magicians. It’s certainly true for me.
Ancient astronaut and alternative history books fill, however imperfectly, an important gap in publishing. Thanks to longstanding trends in the book world, ancient history’s share of the book market has steadily declined. Today, most ancient history titles focus on a very few topics (imperial Rome, Egypt, religious history, early Britain) presumed to be of interest to a wide audience; most other topics instead are relegated to specialist academic texts or to broad, simplistic surveys. Ancient astronaut books delve into ancient cultures, no matter how wrong-headedly, in a way that would once have been called middlebrow. Their ideal reader falls somewhere between the For Dummies series and the Oxford University Press, and this middle ground is what publishing has largely surrendered. And let’s be honest; far too many mainstream books about history are incredibly boring. Not just a little dull—downright unreadable.
I wish there were more exciting, engaging books about ancient history that didn’t rely on Atlantis, Noah’s Ark, or aliens, but that isn’t the hand we’ve been dealt. So, there reigns an uneasy balance between the mystery-mongering books that whet appetites and spark interest and those who debunk their crazy theories and, with luck, inspire a love of the real ancient past rather than an imaginary version of it.
As faithful readers of this blog know, alternative historians and ancient astronaut theorists insist that "ancient texts" should be used as a primary source because their claims, no matter how outrageous, must be closer to the truth than modern, blinkered interpretations allow. But what happens when the "ancient texts" tell us that the modern interpretation is right?
Nothing fascinates alternative theorists more than Egypt, and the process of mummification has been attributed to a range of bizarre ideas, including but not limited to imitating cryogenic freezing and preserving DNA samples for the aliens to use in their experiments.
But the "ancient texts" make plain that the mummification issue was well-understood in Antiquity. Maurus Servius Honoratus, a fourth century grammarian, in his commentary on Vergil’s Aeneid at 3.67 writes:
“[T]he wise Egyptians took care to embalm their bodies, and deposit them in catacombs, in order that the soul might be preserved for a long time in connection with the body, and might not soon be alienated; while the Romans, with an opposite design, committed the remains of their dead to the funeral pile, intending that the vital spark might immediately be restored to the general element, or return to its pristine nature” (trans. James Crowles Prichard).
So, there you have it: The "ancient texts" so beloved of ancient astronaut theorists tell us that the standard explanation for mummies is in fact correct. Don't look for this ancient text on your favorite ancient astronaut/alternative history website anytime soon.
Charles Fort's Book of the Damned (1919) was an important inspiration for H. P. Lovecraft, and Fort followed the Theosophists in imagining ancient astronauts coming to earth. In the book, he presents a fascinating example of an early ancient astronaut claim that would find its way, almost wholesale, into Chariots of the Gods and dozens of other ancient astronaut books. In this passage Fort speculates on alien ("extra-mundane") visitors to ancient earth and the masks they would need to wear to visit our planet:
from The Book of the Damned (1919)
_If I say I conceive of another world that is now in secret communication with certain esoteric inhabitants of this earth, I say I conceive of still other worlds that are trying to establish communication with all the inhabitants of this earth. I fit my notions to the data I find. That is supposed to be the right and logical and scientific thing to do; but it is no way to approximate to form, system, organization. Then I think I conceive of other worlds and vast structures that pass us by, within a few miles, without the slightest desire to communicate, quite as tramp vessels pass many islands without particularizing one from another. Then I think I have data of a vast construction that has often come to this earth, dipped into an ocean, submerged there a while, then going away—Why? I'm not absolutely sure. How would an Eskimo explain a vessel, sending ashore for coal, which is plentiful upon some Arctic beaches, though of unknown use to the natives, then sailing away, with no interest in the natives?
A great difficulty in trying to understand vast constructions that show no interest in us:
The notion that we must be interesting.
I accept that, though we're usually avoided, probably for moral reasons, sometimes this earth has been visited by explorers. I think that the notion that there have been extra-mundane visitors to China, within what we call the historic period, will be only ordinarily absurd, when we come to that datum.
I accept that some of the other worlds are of conditions very similar to our own. I think of others that are very different—so that visitors from them could not live here—without artificial adaptations.
How some of them could breathe our attenuated air, if they came from a gelatinous atmosphere--
The masks that have been found in ancient deposits.
Most of them are of stone, and are said to have been ceremonial regalia of savages--
But the mask that was found in Sullivan County, Missouri, in 1879 (American Antiquarian, 3-336).
It is made of iron and silver.
If you didn't know better, you'd swear Erich von Daniken wrote this. Von Daniken makes the same claim that ancient people could not understand alien vessels, that the aliens explored the earth, and that they wore helmets of masks to breath our air, and that the ancient people imitated these astronaut suits in their art.
There is nothing original in the ancient astronaut theory as presented by its modern proponent, only reworkings of outdated old theories that few believed the first time around.
In this month’s London Review of Books there is an interesting review of Hugh Urban’s new book on Scientology. In the review, Rachel Aviv pulls out two quotes from L. Ron Hubbard that I had not heard before and which were doubly interesting. The first was Hubbard’s 1954 confession that he did not believe his own teachings about space federations and Xenu:
‘I’m just kidding you mostly,’ he said. ‘I don’t believe any of these things and I don’t want to be agreed with about them … All I’m asking is that we take a look at this information, and … let’s see if we can’t disagree with this universe, just a little bit.’
But I think most of us could have guessed that. The second I found even more interesting. In it, Hubbard claims that science fiction (especially his own early efforts) is a distorted ancestral memory of real, prehistoric events:
‘The science fiction writer’s memory is faulty, and he gets himself all restimulated and so forth, and he doesn’t remember straight. Some of them remember it quite well, but then they reverse their time … and put it all into the future.’
So, “long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away” and all that… But what is so fascinating here is that this is the same process Helena Blavatsky had used a 80 years earlier in developing Theosophy. She had claimed in the Secret Doctrine that
“Our best modern novelists, who are neither Theosophists nor Spiritualists, begin to have, nevertheless, very psychological and suggestively Occult dreams […] [T]he clever novelist seems to repeat the history of all the now degraded and down-fallen races of humanity.”
These races, of course, were Blavatsky’s invented Lemurians and Atlanteans, who, just like Hubbard’s early humans, were inhabited and possessed by extraterrestrial souls, mostly from the moon or Venus.
Blavatsky, like Hubbard, took science fiction and attempted to recast it as an occult truth. For her, it was Bulwer-Lytton’s free energy source vril, from The Coming Race, that was a secret occult truth masquerading as fiction. For Hubbard, it was the entirety of the alien agenda from pulp fiction space operas. Later, the Heaven’s Gate cult would take Star Trek as a documentary and commit mass suicide to meet the mother ship they imagined trailed behind the comet Hale-Bopp.
This contrasts markedly with what H. P. Lovecraft did with this same set of material. Instead of using speculative fiction as a springboard for fake science and spirituality, Lovecraft reversed the process and took Blavatsky’s fake science, including extraterrestrials, root races, and lost continents, and used it as a spurious support for his own fiction. But Lovecraft is certainly not alone in using pseudoscience as background for speculative fiction, as any quick glance at the SF section of a bookstore (presuming bookstores still exist) will attest. Even the pseudohistorian Graham Hancock took a crack at it, using his own failed theories about a lost ice age civilization as the grounding for his first novel, Entangled.
What fascinates me is the way speculative fiction and pseudoscience interpenetrate so deeply, each drawing on and building upon the other, in sort of a see-sawing ladder that rises ever higher. Today there are religious groups that claim science fiction stories are true, and several groups of Satanists and other occultists insist that Lovecraft’s space gods were real beings that impressed themselves into Lovecraft’s mind. What we need today is a new Lovecraft who can pull the whole sorry mess back across the porous membrane between fact and fiction and place space alien deities firmly on the side of fiction.
One of the most memorable factoids in Graham Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods (1996) is his claim on page 115 that a circular pyramid just south of Mexico City is more than 7,000 years old, and probably 8,500 years old. It certainly made an impression on me when I read the book more than 15 years go, and I always wanted to know more. It was a challenge though. The pyramid is named Cuicuilco, but Hancock won’t tell you that for reasons that will become clear later. According to Hancock, archaeologist Byron Cummings excavated the pyramid in the 1920s and discovered that it was buried beneath a layer of lava that geologists of the era dated to between 7,000 and 8,500 years ago. The pyramid, Cummings claimed, was the “oldest temple” in the Americas since any structure beneath the lava flow must be older than the eruption that buried it.
If true, this would be the best hard evidence ever found for Hancock’s imaginary lost civilization, which he believes spread around the world at the end of the last ice age. So, it was somewhat surprising when I first read Fingerprints that Hancock declined the opportunity to investigate this hard evidence further to provide proof positive of his lost civilization. Why did he stick with soft claims about myths and alignments when the geologic proof was staring him the face? How could science have missed a 7,000 year old lava flow that spread, according to Hancock, over more than 60 square miles?
In fact, Cuicuilco is the oldest pyramid in Mexico. But it dates back to 900 BCE, not 7,000 or more years ago. So, Hancock is partly right. But here’s the kicker: The lava that covered the pyramid came from an eruption that occurred between 300 and 400 CE. When Byron S. Cummings excavated in the 1920s, he did not have access to modern dating techniques. His outdated estimate cannot be relied upon in light of modern, more accurate dating. This same volcanic flow buried the nearby Copilco site, which radiocarbon dates place in the Preclassic period—about 5,000 years too late for Hancock’s faulty estimate.
Hancock claims Cuicuilco has been “ignored by historians and archaeologists, who do not believe that any civilization capable of building a pyramid could have existed in Mexico at such an early date” (p. 115). This site was so completely ignored, in fact, that archaeologist only excavated at the site in the 1920s, 1955, and most of the 1990s. All of these archaeological investigations, apparently, were in conspiracy to hide evidence of a lost civilization.
As it turns out, Hancock’s claims about the pyramid were second- or third-hand. His source was Charles Hapgood’s notorious Maps of the Ancient Sea-Kings, a work of colossal pseudoscience. Hapgood carefully noted (pp. 199-200) that the geologists who investigated the site estimated the age of the site by estimating how long it would take for the sediment atop it to gradually pile up. But Hapgood notes that this method is flawed and that early radiocarbon dates returned an age of 709 BCE to 414 CE, numbers Hancock fails to note in order to preserve the mystery. Given that Hancock’s own source understood the importance of the radiocarbon evidence, it is unconscionable that Hancock simply wished it away. Journalist that he was, Hancock should have understood the need to report the facts at least as fairly as Hapgood.
Hapgood attempted to rebut the radiocarbon dates with Cummings’ 1920s reports about earlier culture layers dating back 2000 years (c. 50 BCE) and 6500 years (c. 4450 BCE), but modern research has shown that the site was first occupied around 1200 BCE with the first phase of building around 800 BCE. These match Cummings’ culture layers. The discrepancy in dating is due to Cummings’ use of highly inaccurate sediment deposit rate estimates to guess dates. Modern radiocarbon dates are much more exact.
It seems Hancock left out the name of the pyramid so it would be harder to look up the information that contradicts his claims about it. There is one last thing Hancock didn’t tell his readers: Cuicuilco is open to the public. Anyone can go and visit and see for him- or herself the “evidence” for the 8,500-year-old pyramid. If there really was a conspiracy to suppress this site’s true history, running tours to the place seems like a weird way of doing it.
Oh, and here's a picture of the pyramid that archaeologists supposedly don't want you to see:
The shadow of Helena Blavatsky’s Theosophy fell heavily across the field of speculative fiction in the first third of the twentieth century. Talbot Mundy, Charles Howard Hinton, H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and more investigated and utilized Theosophical concepts in their science fiction and fantasy tales, and during the heyday of the pulps Theosophical myths about Lemuria, serpent people, parallel worlds, and Root Races could be found throughout the pages of Astounding, Argosy, Weird Tales, and more. One of the pulp fiction writers of this period, L. Ron Hubbard, went on to found his own religion, and it surprised me to see how closely Scientology’s alleged OT-III teachings parallel Theosophy’s more outlandish ideas.
As I have noted elsewhere, I have no special knowledge of Scientology beyond court records and other publicly-available materials. Scientology claimed in the case of Religious Technology Center v. F.A.C.T.Net, Inc., et al. (1995) that “the discussion of the -- of the volcanoes, the explosions, the Galactic confederation 75 million years ago, and a gentleman by the name Xemu there. Those are not trade secrets.” The following discussion is based on the public record.
Theosophy: The universe is inhabited by countless forms of intelligent life living on linked sets of seven worlds existing in parallel universes called “etheric planes.”
Scientology: The universe is controlled by a Galactic Confederation of 76 linked worlds.
Theosophy: Extraterrestrial visitors from Venus came to the ancient earth more than 16 million years ago.
Scientology: Extraterrestrial visitors from the Confederation came to the ancient earth more than 75 million years ago.
Theosophy: The Venusians traveled to earth through mind projection (according to W. Scott-Elliot), inhabiting the bodies of the root race of Lemuria, or through an armada of space ships (according to A. E. Powell).
Scientology: The extraterrestrials came to earth in an armada of space ships shaped like DC-8 airplanes.
Theosophy: Due to an “increase in fecundity” (Powell), the aliens had to come to earth in large numbers to spread out their population.
Scientology: Due to an overpopulation of 178 billion individuals per planet, the aliens had to come to earth to relieve overpopulation.
Theosophy: The Venusians projected their minds into primitive earth bodies and took over the Lemurian race. These Venusians became the leaders of the Lemurians and taught them culture and spirituality.
Scientology: The souls (“thetans”) of the aliens were distributed across the world when their leader, Xenu, blew up the aliens immigrants with hydrogen bombs. These thetans attached themselves to modern human souls, imparting false teachings about culture and religion.
Theosophy: The Venusians were responsible for creating or inspiring ancient works of architecture, especially the stone monuments of the Pacific.
Scientology: The aliens constructed buildings in the Pyrenees, Canary Islands, and elsewhere.
Theosophy: The aliens’ reign ended when Atlantis and Lemuria were destroyed by volcanic eruptions. Memories of this period form the basis of all human myth and religion.
Scientology: The aliens’ physical bodies are destroyed when Xenu detonates hydrogen bombs in the volcanoes where they are imprisoned. All human myth and religion are inculcated into the aliens’ now-disembodied souls, which they will transfer to human beings.
One of the key tenets of the ancient astronaut theory is that the ancient gods were "really" extraterrestrial beings. This is simply the latest in three thousand years of efforts to provide culturally-relevant explanations for the gods of an earlier age. The rational Greeks of the Classical and Hellenistic periods began the process by claiming that the gods worshiped in Archaic and Dark Age Greece were ancient kings and sea-captains.
The medieval Christians followed suit, interpreting other cultures' gods not as humans deified but as demons made divine. Following their cultural beliefs, medieval Christians assumed that every supernatural being not expressly serving Christ was (a) real and (b) Satanic. Today, we have dispensed with the devils and deified men and our fringe theorists instead combine the two classes into extraterrestrial beings, creatures who have the magic powers of demons ("technology") and the supposed flesh-and-blood reality of human beings.
So, it is no surprise that when we look at historical explanations for the evidence claimed for the ancient astronaut theory, we see the same processes at work. Herodotus explained the pyramids as the work of human beings, but by the time we get to Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) we see the full flowering of the occult belief in Satanic powers. For him, the pyramids of Egypt were built as the seat of Satan by demons masquerading as Egyptian gods:
Surely if true, these demons were Satan's emissaries, appearing in forms answerable unto Horus and Mompta, the old deities of Egypt, to delude unhappy men. For those dark caves and mummy repositories are Satan's abodes, wherein he speculates and rejoices on human vain-glory, and keeps those kings and conquerors, whom alive he bewitched, whole for that great day, when he will claim his own, and marshall the kings of Nilus and Thebes in sad procession unto the pit. (from Religio Medici, 1643)
Now, how is this really different from the ancient astronaut theorists' claims that the aliens freeze-dried (sorry, "cryogenically preserved") Egyptians to haul away on their spaceships? In both cases, this is a misinterpretation of actual Egyptian religious beliefs through the short-sighted, ethnocentric views of later cultures.
UPDATE 1/31/12: This post contains information that I later learned is not true. Please click here to read the correction.
Over the last two days I've been writing about the way the ancient Greeks attributed the ruins of the preceding Mycenaean culture to the Cyclopes because they could not imagine mere humans being able to build them. I thought I would mention another ancient site that received the same treatment from its successor population: Teotihuacan.
The central Mexican city of Teotihuacan was already in ruins when the Aztecs filtered down from the north and came across the massive pyramids that made up the city's center. When the Spanish conquered Mexico, the Aztecs informed them that the city was the "place of the gods," and they attributed its construction to their mythological deities.
Ancient astronaut theorists have seized upon this fact as "evidence" that Teotihuacan was built by space aliens, whom they take to be the originals of the gods. Erich von Daniken, for example, in Chariots of the Gods makes special note that the aliens/gods lived at Teotihuacan "even before homo sapiens existed" (p. 97). But as we have seen, it is common for later peoples to ascribe superhuman qualities to their predecessors. Additionally, it would be difficult to explain exactly how the aliens built three large pyramids and an avenue connecting them but not the vast city that surrounds them.
For a long time, it was thought that Teotihuacan was a "pyramid field," in von Daniken's words, because the houses were buried and invisible. But we know they are there now. The houses, elite and common, which make up Teotihuacan are less well-known than the pyramids, but they are built of the same materials in the same architectural styles. Did the aliens have an interest in constructing housing for 200,000 residents? If so, why did they choose to house most of the residents in small hovels without the benefits of alien technology, or even basic sanitation like running water? After all, the aliens were more generous to the roughly-contemporary Romans, who had running water. (Teotihuacan is believed to have been occupied between 100 and 700 CE.)
But here is the really interesting thing. Ancient astronaut theorists and alternative historians have made much hay out of the "mystery" of who built Teotihuacan, attributing the city to aliens, Atlanteans, a lost civilization, Phoenicians, and anyone other than native peoples. But as far back as the early nineteenth century, the native character of the place was well-known. Here is William H. Prescott in his monumental History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843):
But who were their builders? Was it the shadowy Olmecs, whose history, like that of the ancient Titans, is lost in the mists of fable? or, as commonly reported, the peaceful and industrious Toltecs, of whom all that we can glean rests on traditions hardly more secure? What has become of the races who built them? Did they remain on the soil, and mingle and become incorporated with the fierce Aztecs who succeeded them? Or did they pass on to the south, and find a wider field for the expansion of their civilization, as shown by the higher character of the architectural remains in the distant regions of Central America and Yucatan? It is all a mystery,—over which Time has thrown an impenetrable veil, that no mortal hand may raise. (vol. 2, p. 358)
Of course, on the other hand, Alexander von Humboldt, in his Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain (1811 English ed.) asserted that the pyramids of Teotihuacan and Cholula on the one hand and Giza and Dashur on the other shared an uncanny similarity in both size and geometry ("constructed on an analogous plan," he said), anticipating Graham Hancock's Fingerprints of the Gods by nearly two centuries:
[The pyramids' measurements] suffice also to prove the great analogy between these brick monuments erected by the most ancient inhabitants of Anahuac, the temple of Belus at Babylon, and the pyramids of Menschich-Dashour, near Sakhara in Egypt. (vol. 2, pp. 192-193, trans. John Black).
At least Humbolt assumed the builders were native Americans (the Toltec), immigrating to America from the "Mongol stock" of Asia (actually quite close to modern theories about the peopling of the Americas, if off by 10,000 or 20,000 years) rather than Aryans from Atlantis or space aliens.
Yesterday, I discussed the ancient Greek belief that the massive stone ruins left behind by the Mycenaeans were in fact the work of the Cyclopes and how this belief parallels the (early) ancient astronaut theory's refusal to attribute ancient buildings to mere human construction. (In the last few years, many ancient astronaut theorists have stopped claiming aliens were active builders rather than mere celestial architects.)
Interestingly, Pausanias' bit of myth-mongering about the Cyclopean origin of Mycenaean ruins has an interesting echo down the centuries that led directly to the ancient astronaut theory. In the nineteenth century, Theosophy asserted that aliens beings from Venus came to earth to rule over incipient humanity. According to Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater in Man: Whence, How, and Whither (1913), the Cyclopes were in fact the very aliens from Venus! Apparently, the souls of the aliens incarnated as the "fourth sub-race" of earth (they used mind-transference, of course) and had a "third eye" in their heads which gradually evolved away:
"The fourth sub-race continued, the very egg-headed one, with a stature of from twenty-four to twenty-seven feet in height, loosely and clumsily built, and black in colour; one whom we measured was twenty-five feet in height. [...] During the long period thus occupied, the physical appearance of the Lemurians was changing. The central eye at the top of the head was retreating, as it ceased to function, from the surface to the interior of the head, to form the pineal gland, while the two eyes—at first one on each side of it—were becoming active. The Greek legend of Cyclops is evidently a tradition from the early Lemurian age."
By a neat trick, Theosophists managed to transform Pausanias' ignorant attribution of ancient ruins to mythological beings as support for a grandious (and equally fictive) alien invasion.
And as should be obvious, the Theosophical claptrap about alien visitors, lost continents, and ancient ruins was appropriated wholesale by modern ancient astronaut theorists and alternative historians. However, by the time we get to Erich von Daniken's Odyssey of the Gods (2000), he chooses to read the Cyclopes not as primitive creatures controlled by the projected minds of Venusians but instead as genetically-engineered creatures (altered in their PAX-6 genes, no less!) made by the aliens. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.
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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