Take a look at this stone Tiki statue from the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia. This modern Tiki follows the style of stone statues carved in the area for nearly a thousand years. What do you think this looks more like: A Lovecraftian Deep One, Tsathoggua the toad-god, or Jabba the Hutt?
Note: I have placed the picture after the jump because, like much non-Western art, it contains sexually explicit imagery.
Back in 1976, Zecharia Sitchin claimed that he had unique access to ancient tongues that gave him exclusive insight into the true, hidden history of the human race. Of course, he was completely wrong about both his own language skills (he conflated Sumerian and Akkadian, for example) as well as prehistory. But it's interesting to note just how frequently this trope about hidden secrets and lost languages comes up in alternative history.
In her Secret Doctrine, Helena Blavatsky claimed that she had unique access to ancient texts known as the Book of Dzyan. These texts were guarded by a dedicated brotherhood in Tibet, unknown to ethnology, and written in a language unknown to science--but not to Blavatsky!
[These are] the records of a people unknown to ethnology; it is claimed that they are written in a tongue absent from the nomenclature of languages and dialects with which philology is acquainted; they are said to emanate from a source (Occultism) repudiated by science; and, finally, they are offered through an agency, incessantly discredited before the world by all those who hate unwelcome truths, or have some special hobby of their own to defend.
Blavatsky, translator extraordinaire, managed to translate these secret texts and, what's more, reveal them to the book-buying public without a hint of protest from the secret brotherhood.
Ditto "Col." James Churchward. He claimed that he learned about the history of the lost continent of Mu from yet another secret brotherhood, this time in India, composed of the only three people who could still read the Muvian language of Naacal. One of these three gave lessons to Churchward, who then miraculously translated an entire history of the lost continent from the surviving fragments of the Naacal tablets.
But Churchward's lost continent and Blavatsky's spiritual poetry pale in comparison to the claims of Joseph Smith a century earlier. As is well known, the founder of Mormonism claimed that an angel named Moroni showed him gold tablets that Smith miraculously translated into the Book of Mormon, yet another half-baked pseudo-history of the ancient past.
In all three cases, curiously enough, the original tablets and texts disappeared and have never been found. (What a shock.) Therefore, it was no surprise when in the 1970s, in Gold of the Gods, Erich von Daniken claimed to have found a library of gold tablets on which the aliens had written their entire history in a lost language and then buried it in a cave in Ecuador. Of course every expedition to von Daniken's supposed cave turned up nothing and the author admitted he had made the whole thing up.
One recurring bit of pseudoscience is the assertion that Easter Island is something more than an outgrowth of Polynesian society. Robert Brown in his nineteenth-century Countries of the World (vol. 4, p. 43), for example, describes Easter Island as an outpost of the Inca:
But who made the great stone images (p. 44, &c.) which are now the chief attraction of the island to visitors no one knows. It is more than likely that they were here when the present inhabitants arrived, and it is a belief of various ethnographers that probably the race who formed them were the frequenters of the natives of Peru and other portions of South America. When the island was first discovered, the islanders possessed neither the means nor the knowledge to construct anything similar to these monuments, the workmanship of which is of a high order. Even at the date of Cook's visit, some of the statues, measuring twenty-seven feet in length, and eigbt feet across the shoulders, were lying overthrown, while others still standing appeared much larger. One of the latter was so lofty that the shade was sufficient to shelter a party of nearly thirty persons from the heat of the sun. The platforms on which these colossal images stood averaged from thirty to forty feet in length, twelve to sixteen feet broad, being from three to twelve feet long, all built of hewn stones in the Cyclopean style, very much like the walls of the Temple of Pachacamac, or the Ruins of Tia-Huanuco [i.e. Tiwanaku] in Peru…
H. P. Blavatsky, in The Secret Doctrine refers to this passage repeatedly (vol. 2, pp. 317, 337, etc.) but goes beyond Brown to suggest that the builders of Easter Island were not Peruvian (pace, Thor Heyerdahl) but rather the buildings of both Peru and the Pacific Islands were the work of Lemurians and Atlanteans, under the tutelage of aliens from Venus! (See specifically W. Scott-Elliott’s Lost Lemuria.)
But Blavatsky goes still further… not content merely to push a pseudoscientific doctrine (one derived from Donnely’s Atlantis)based on mere fact, Blavatsky, on the same page (317) went on to claim that the authors of speculative fiction were actually reporting the truth about Venusians and Lemurians in ancient history through psychic dreams that they turned into their books!
Our best modern novelists, who are neither Theosophists nor Spiritualists, begin to have, nevertheless, very psychological and suggestively Occult dreams: witness Mr. Louis Stephenson and his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, than which no grander psychological essay on Occult lines exists. Has the rising novelist, Mr. Rider Haggard, also had a prophetic or rather a retrospective clairvoyant dream before he wrote "She "? His imperial Kor, the great city of the dead, whose surviving living men sailed northwards after the plague had killed almost a whole nation, seems to step out in its general outlines from the imperishable pages of the old archaic records. Ayesha suggests " that those men who sailed north may have been the fathers of the first Egyptians "; and then seems to attempt a synopsis of certain letters of a Master quoted in "Esoteric Buddhism." For, she says, "Time after time have nations, ay, and rich and strong nations, learned in the arts, been, and passed away, and been forgotten, so that no memory of them remains. This (the nation of Kor) is but one of several; for time eats up the work of man unless, indeed, he digs in caves like the people of Kor, and then mayhap the sea swallows them, or the earthquake shakes them in. Yet were not these people utterly destroyed, as I think. Some few remained in the other cities, for their cities were many. But the barbarians. . . came down upon them, and took their women to wife, and the race of the Amahagger that is now is a bastard brood of the mighty sons of Kor, and behold it dwelleth in the tombs with its fathers' bones. . ." (pp. 180, 181.)
Here the clever novelist seems to repeat the history of all the now degraded and down-fallen races of humanity. The Geologists and Anthropologists would place at the head of humanity as descendants of Homo primigenius, the ape-man, of which " No Fossil Remains Are As Yet Known To us," but (which) "were Probably akin to the gorilla and orang of the present day" (Haeckel). In answer to whose "probably," occultists point to another and a greater probability--the one given in our text.
It is the singular genius of H. P. Lovecraft that he turned Blavatsky’s appropriation of speculative fiction as a proof of the occult on its head and instead made Blavatsky’s fraudulent mysteries “proof” of the Cthulhu Mythos, temporarily dragging Theosophy back across the divide between nonfiction and fiction. Those cyclopean stones of the Pacific, for example, now served Cthulhu in R’lyeh rather than Lemurians and Venus.
The problem, of course, is that Lovecraft did his job too well, and as a result new generations became exposed to Blavatsky’s interplanetary nonsense through the much more convincing versions Lovecraft produced as fiction. As a result, later writers Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier would take inspiration from Lovecraft, dig up the old Theosophical sources and begin creating the midcentury mystery-mongering movement, contributing exactly nothing that the Theosophists and Atlantis theorists of the Victorian era, and Lovecraft in the twentieth century, had not already invented. This material was reused a third time in the 1990s “alternative archaeology” craze.
Now, of course, more time has passed and new mystery-mongers on cable TV are digging up the old work and presenting it anew, repeating it for the fourth time as part of the new ancient astronaut fad.
And all of it came about because Victorian occultists tried to be “scientific” and ended up calcifying wrongheaded theories proposed by nineteenth century science to explain phenomena for which they did not have enough evidence to accurately judge. The Victorian scientists did their best, but they could not have known about continental drift (sorry, Lemuria) or the age of Easter Island (sorry, ancient alien theorists—late medieval times isn’t pre-human) or the ability for life to live on Venus (sorry, Theosophical Adepts). But these wrong theories became articles of faith for “alternative” historians because they were once proposed by scientists and so maintain a shadowy credibility long after the evidence left them behind. They’re in a book (no matter how old), so they have to be true. Right?
In his 1970 follow-up to Chariots of the Gods called Gods from Outer Space in the U.S. and Return to the Stars in Great Britain, Erich von Daniken writes credulously about the Book of Dzyan, which he describes as "older than the earth" and capable of instilling itself in its readers brains not through reading but through "rhythmically transmitted impulses" (p. 137). Von Daniken then goes on to quote from the book at great length, discussing how its seven stanzas of creation are a perfect account of alien visitation. "Mahabharata, Cabbala, Zohar, Dzyan. Identical as to facts that point in one direction. Are they accounts of things that really happened?" (p. 142).
No, they are not.
What von Daniken failed to tell his readers was the the Book of Dzyan is completely made up. It is the product of the imagination of Helena Blavatsky, the Theosophical fraud. Von Daniken merely acknowledges her as the "translator" of Dzyan. Blavatsky herself elliptically acknowledged the problem of authorship in the Secret Doctrine, where the fraudulent Dzyan stanzas appear:
"The Book of Dzyan is utterly unknown to our philologists, or at any rate was never heard of by them under its present name. This is, of course a great drawback to those who follow the methods of research prescribed by official science; but to the students of occultism, and to every genuine occultist, this will be of little moment."
In other words, Blavatsky admits the book doesn't exist except through the imaginary "astral vision" of one H. P. Blavatsky. That's good enough for Erich von Daniken!
As to von Daniken's question about the similarities among the Mahabharata, the Cabbala, the Zohar, and the Book of Dzyan: They seem to cover the same ground not because they are all reports of alien visitation but because Blavatsky used the first three as the source for the fourth, giving them a spurious connection via her fake ancient text.
In 1973 Gavin Souter asked von Daniken about the Book of Dzyan and Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine:
"It is true that in the first volume Madame Blavatsky said she had not seen the originals," said Mr. von Daniken. "In one of the later volumes, however, she said she had seen copies of the originals. No one has seen the originals, but there are copies in Hindu temples. The originals are in western China."
Of course there were but two volumes of the Secret Doctrine, but we can't very well expect someone who can't distinguish fact from fantasy to bother with details like that. (Though, for all I know, the German edition might have been divided differently.) But seriously: von Daniken's "proof" is a known fraud's assertion that she saw copies of copies of a non-existent work that had never been acknowledged or discussed anywhere outside Blavatsky's own work?
Incidentally, von Daniken's 1973 assertion that the original Book of Dzyan is "in western China" doesn't square with Gods from Outer Space, where he states that "it is not known if it still exists somewhere" (p. 137). One would think that the only text actually written by extraterrestrials would be so important that he'd have his story straight.
Today would have been Charles Addams' 100th birthday, and it's interesting to think about how drastically opinions about the Victorian period have changed since Addams began drawing his "Family" cartoons for the New Yorker in 1938. In that era, all things Victorian were considered hopelessly old-fashioned, out-of-date, stodgy, and tasteless.
When Addams placed his Family in an 1860s-style mansard-roofed mansion, he was purposely appropriating the disgust and loathing modern people felt for their grandparents' lifestyle. Such houses had become a locus of horror because they represented a Gilded Age elite whose wealth and privilege the reduced circumstances of the Depression could not match, a type of aristocratic aesthetic that modernism had reacted violently against, a world that had gone down in flames in the fires of World War I.
It is no coincidence that between the 1930s and the 1960s, Second Empire and Queen Anne houses ("Victorian" in the popular lexicon) became associated with horror not just in Addams' cartoons, but in classic films like The Uninvited and Psycho, as well as in the iconography of Halloween. Cities across the country, to "modernize," bulldozed Victorian building by the block, putting up buildings that we, removed from mid-century as far as mid-century was from the Victorians, now consider every bit as ugly as the urban renewal advocates considered the Victorian homes and businesses they razed.
Yet today when we look at the Addams Family (and here I purposely conflate the cartoons and 1960s series), a good chunk of the original bite of the old cartoons is lost because our attitudes have changed so greatly. The Addams' house would today be the envy of a gentrifying neighborhood, and who wouldn't pay thousands for their Victorian antiques--once seen as so gauche as to be worthless but now worth a fortune. Their love of exotic pets and Goth fashion is no more than that of any good hipster, and the strange foods they eat would today mark one as a gourmand, not a psycho. Even their family "witch-doctor" is commonplace today, under the name "alternative medicine" or "holistic care." Heck, the Family's beloved swamps, which in the twentieth century governments worked hard to drain, are today beloved again as "wetlands."
In sum, the strange, alien, unnerving aspects of the Addams universe are no longer the Family and their lives but the square, insular, fearful conformists who ran screaming from them.
Last night I watched National Geographic Channel's Diving into Noah's Flood, a program in which archaeologist Jeff Rose explored underwater sites in the Persian Gulf to see whether rising sea levels contributed to Near Eastern flood myths, including the Sumerian flood story from Gilgamesh and, of course, its derivative, Noah's flood.
I'm not sure what to think of the show. On the one hand, it had some interesting information about underwater archaeology in the Middle East, an area whose archaeology is not widely known in the U.S. On the other hand, the discussion of the myth and history of the Sumerians was rather superficial, and the program spent much more time on beefcake shots of a shirtless Rose than it did on the Sumerian flood myth he was attempting to elucidate. Rose also seemed unnervingly amazed that computers could be used to draw pictures of prehistoric landscapes.
Overall, my verdict is that Diving into Noah's Flood was a solid half-hour documentary stretched into a somewhat lazy hour, saved mostly by gorgeous HD photography of the sandy scenery.
I can't in good conscience give a bad review to any show that has the courage to admit that Noah's flood isn't the literal truth and that it is dependent on the earlier Babylonian and Sumerian flood myths. After all, we live in a world where Joel Klenck proclaims his discovery of Noah's Ark every three days, and creationists insist they've found geologic "evidence" of Noah's Flood in Washington State, all blissfully unaware or uncaring that Noah's flood was a mythic plagiarism of a flood story told a two thousand years or more before the Hebrew version was written.
Can you tell the difference between this passage from a letter in the 1906 Theosophical Quarterly and the current claims of ancient astronaut theorists? It's like they copied and pasted...
Theosophy traces man’s evolution through countless ages and many worlds, and tells us how that evolution has been guided by Elder Brothers who passed through the same experiences untold ages ago. It shows us, too, how during the present stages of evolution these Elder Brothers take an interest in us, and in different ways impart some of their wonderful knowledge to those who earnestly seek for it.
Oh, right... There is one difference. Ancient astronaut theorists don't believe in human evolution.
The ancient astronaut theory draws heavily on the spiritualist nonsense of the Theosophy. In 1906, a fake Hindu swami addressed something called the "Astral Camera Club," a group founded in 1895 to conduct psychical research through photography. The swami convinced the president of Stanford, David Starr Jordan, that he was lecturing on Hinduism, when in fact he was giving an account of Theosophy's belief in spirit beings that live on other worlds (we know this because the swami talks about Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine, with which Jordan was apparently unfamiliar, referring to the author as a "he." Here is how Jordan reported the swami's speech in 1906 edition of Popular Mechanics Monthly:
Still worse are the vampire and the were-wolf, which we of the Fifth Root Race now seldom encounter, but which, to Slavic and Germanic adepts of the earlier centuries were objects of fear and danger in the astral regions and even as high upward as Devachan. All these are human in their origin. Not so the fifth class, the occasional visitors from other planets. Of these wonderful creatures we know nothing, for only the highest of high adepts have the power of moving from planet to planet, and even I do not understand how it is performed. When these visitors appear, they choose a body temporarily created out of unused ethereal matter belonging to the earth. Over this they wear a distinctive badge, a ring indicating Saturn, a series of belts indicating Jupiter or a tiny flaming spear and shield for Mars and a silver mirror in a golden necklace for Venus. In Shushup, it is said, guests for all the signs of the zodiac are received—but of these I have seen but two, a charming young lady from Virgo and a mahatma from Sirius who bore the badge of a great dog or wolf.
Convenient that they wear badges corresponding to modern astrological/astronomical symbols so we can identify them more easily! These ancient astronauts think of everything.
When writing yesterday about who's getting rich off ancient astronaut theories, I neglected to include one other huge revenue stream that ancient astronaut theorists enjoy but that skeptics typically do not. Ancient astronaut theorists--especially those who appear on TV like Giorgio Tsoukalos, Erich von Daniken, David Childress, etc.--get to travel world on profitable lecture tours where believers pay good money to hear these "scholars" speak about ancient astronauts.
Businesses and organizations pay Tsoukalos, for example, to give lectures and presentations for profit at various events and seminars--meaning free travel expenses as well as the lecture fees. For many years Zecharia Sitchin ran "Sitchin Studies" seminars where believers would come from all over the world to take (i.e., pay for) "classes" from him to earn "Sitchin Studies Certificates" done up like fake diplomas. Needless to say, skeptics are not as in demand on the lecture circuit since they tend to prefer real diplomas.
Additionally, cable TV pays travel expenses for these so-called "scholars" to visit ancient sites to do on-camera bits for their various alternative archaeology shows. The theorists, in turn, use those jaunts to tourist attractions as grist for their next books, as "research." To be fair, skeptics can partake in this same perk, though the number of slots for skeptics on cable shows is far lower than the number of vacations provided for free to ancient astronaut theorists.
Today I'd like to address a topic that has come up repeatedly in the letters and comments I receive. Readers all too often suggest that ancient astronaut theorists and their skeptics are morally equivalent because both sides are simply spouting theories in exchange for money. Many readers have the impression that writing a skeptical book about a fringe topic is a ticket to a McMansion, a Humvee, and a gold-plated toilet.
I hate to disabuse anyone, but it simply isn't true.
Almost no one can earn a sustainable living off debunking ancient astronaut theorists. Most skeptics have one or more day jobs to pay the bills so they can devote their (limited) free time to writing about ancient history because they feel a genuine passion for history and feel deeply offended when self-proclaimed "theorists" do violence to the past through their unethical and untrue theories. A good number of skeptics are professors because they have the job security and the time off needed to write books and do research. Others, like me, are freelancers who have whole other lives that have nothing to do with archaeology or the occult or anything alien.
And we're not getting rich off it.
Prometheus Books, the publisher of my Cult of Alien Gods, pays royalties on a sliding scale based on format and wholesale price. I average $0.24 per copy sold. Trust me, twenty-four cents isn't really doing wonders for my bank account. (Other publishers pay more; my other publisher, McFarland, pays 10% of the cover price, for example. My horror genre books outpace my profits from Cult 10-to-1.) Unless one sells tens of thousands of books, or owns one's own publishing house, writing books is no gravy train. Similarly, skeptical journals like Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer do not pay for articles. I'm often asked why I don't publish more in those journals, and that's the answer: We all have to eat; I need to make money, and there are only so many hours in the day. Finally, TV and radio shows do not typically pay for interviews, so that is another prestigious but financially empty honor. Every interview a skeptic gives is a day away from the work where they actually make money.
But do you know who does make money off ancient astronaut theories? Let me tell you:
* This is why History is moving Ancient Aliens to H2. It's so cheap to produce that if it draws only a fraction of its 1.5 million weekly viewers on the smaller channel, it will produce massive profits for the struggling H2 channel.
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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