I've just learned that I've been referenced in the Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology (2010) by Kenneth L. Feder. Feder recommends my article on the alleged 1909 "Archaeological Coverup" of supposed Grand Canyon lost civilization, claimed to be a vast complex of underground caverns populated by people who wrote in Mayan hieroglyphs and worshiped the Buddha. As I showed, no evidence for the civilization or its supposed discoverer exists. Feder calls my article "a thorough debunking of the hoax." In Feder's opinion, "Belief in the lost Grand Canyon civilization by writers like David Hatcher Childress, who wrote Lost Cities in (sic) North and Central America, is in fact far more like a religion then (sic) a science-based hypothesis."
As an experiment, I've launched a Twitter account, @JasonColavito. You can view the feed on the right side of my blog page or on my homepage as well as at Twitter.com. I'm not quite sure where this is going to go, so we'll see how it turns out.
S. A. Paipetis’s recent The Unknown Technology in Homer (2005), now available in English (2010), purports to be a mechanical engineer’s evaluation of extraordinary and precocious technological knowledge embedded in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, two of the foundational texts of the Western tradition composed sometime around 700 BCE. According to the author, this anomalous knowledge demonstrates that the Mycenaeans, the ancient people of whom Homer’s poems sang, had advanced modern technology c. 1600-1200 BCE. The volume was published under the aegis of the academic publisher Springer’s History of Mechanism and Machine Science series, making it a somewhat higher grade of pseudoscience pretending toward legitimacy, but pseudoscience nonetheless.
The first third of the book is an incoherent set of digressions, most of which have no bearing on the subject of ancient technology. Instead, we are treated to works of Renaissance and modern art and discussions of the Greek-revival style vacation house built by the Austro-Hungarian empress Elisabeth, whose nickname is embarrassingly mistranslated as “Sissy” instead of “Sisi.” What does the existence of a nineteenth century vacation house have to do with Mycenaean technology? Unfortunately, this tendency toward digression and irrelevancy mars an already short book (200 pages) with about 50-75 pages of padding. Worse still, the translation from the author’s original (modern) Greek to English is stilted and awkward, with innumerable mistakes of grammar and spelling that are by turn humorous or obfuscating.
The author demonstrates a clear ignorance of the ancient material he purports to analyze. In Chapter 11, he follows a long-disproved idea that the so-called Orphic Argonautica (c. 450 CE) predated the Odyssey (c. 700 BCE). Earlier, the author assumes that the river Acheron in Epirus is the actual river Acheron flowing through Hades and to which Odysseus sails. While later Greeks identified the two, the location of the physical Acheron in western Greece hardly matches the description of the infernal Acheron flowing at the ends of the Ocean. His discussions of Greek mythology are everywhere tinged with a non-specialists over-simplification and ignorance of contemporary work in the field, especially complications and controversies that would undermine his simple thesis.
Relying on long-outdated studies of Greek myth and history (including the early twentieth century work of Arthur Evans and the Depression-era studies of Martin Nilsson largely to the exclusion of any modern work), Paipetis builds a house of cards whereby the presumption that the Myceaeans had advanced technology leads him to interpret mythological events as technological descriptions, thus “proving” the existence of the technology.
One example can stand for them all. In discussing Odysseus’ passage between Scylla and Charybdis, the author assumes that the description records a Greek discourse on the physics of vortexes. Thus, Homer’s phrase “drive ship by as fast as you can” should, in the author’s words, be translated as “move fast, to account [for] speed loss due to friction and remain in course instead of diving to the bottom.” This he compares to the “gravitational sling” used by NASA to launch spacecraft out of the solar system by utilizing Jupiter’s gravitational force. However, the “friction” is the author’s own interpolation, a scientific term hardly necessary for the Greeks to understand the concept of going fast to escape from a whirlpool.
The author also believes that Homer’s descriptions of the automata built by the smith god Hephaestus represent descriptions of real robots with artificial intelligence. However, it has long been known that the ancients had mechanical or clockwork animals. The Byzantine emperors were particularly famous for their mechanical lions and birds. A poetic exaggeration of these real-life marvels is likely all that lies behind Hephaestus’s “robots,” with no naively literal reading of the Odyssey or speculation about ancient electricity necessary. (The author backtracks some and does state that he cannot prove that electricity and computing technology was available to run the robots.)
The author’s claim that Hephaestus’ invisible net is evidence of manmade Kevlar or a related material is simply ridiculous:
Such materials are rather modern technological achievements, e.g., glass and carbon fibres, or even organic fibres such as Kevlar. If such materials were available in Homer’s era, undoubtedly that civilization was marked by this highly developed technology.
His identification of the Phaecians’ boats as “probably a high speed jet hydrofoil” is laughable. Homer sang that the Phaecians’ boats had no pilots but sailed according to projected thoughts. There is no reason to imagine magical boats as a thousand-year memory of Mycenaean-era technology if the only evidence for their existence is Homer’s own poem, a poem filled with all sorts of magic that no appeal to technology could ever sufficiently explain.
That this study was published by Springer (albeit in the mechanics rather than classics arena) has given it a false legitimacy that may deceive the unwary into assuming that this is a scholarly work on Greek history. Instead, it is a work of rank speculation masquerading as science, using false analogies and wishful thinking to recreate a lost world that never was.
I have received a number of questions and comments about the relationship between H. P. Lovecraft and Scientology after posting last week about Scientologist Tom Cruise’s interest in starring in an adaptation of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. As I wrote last week, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos has many similarities to Hubbard’s Operating Thetan Level III (OT-III), the alleged Scientology cosmology.
I should begin by stating that I have no special knowledge of the secret doctrines of Scientology, and I do not know what the group teaches its followers beyond the publicly available information that has been widely reported since its disclosure during legal proceedings in the 1980s. The New Yorker recently ran a major story about Scientology (Feb. 14, 2011), and reported what the court document and news accounts of the era had made public: that Hubbard claimed an ancient astronaut named Xenu came to earth 75 million years ago and buried a billion or more aliens beneath volcanoes and killed them with hydrogen bombs. Their souls (or thetans) are said to now infest human hosts, causing many problems.
There are some superficial similarities between Lovecraft’s and Hubbard’s visions of our alien past. Both wrote that extraterrestrials came to earth tens of millions of years ago, and both wrote that earth had been a part of a galactic system of inhabited worlds before a cataclysm caused the aliens to retreat. Both also wrote about buried evidence of alien civilizations (in Hubbard’s case, alien implant stations and Xenu’s prison), and both wrote about the ability of minds to travel millions or billions of years across time and millions or billions of miles across space for encounters with the aliens.
However, Hubbard’s vision is very different in detail and in tone. Lovecraft imagined a grand cosmos of aliens who were utterly inhuman and incomprehensible, who treat humans as elephants might treat earthworms. By contrast, Hubbard’s aliens are essentially human in all but name, possessed of human vices and motivations. Lovecraft’s cosmos is also much less dependent than Hubbard’s on the tropes of space opera and Golden Age science fiction (presuming, of course, you take Hubbard’s cosmology as a literary text rather than revelation).
It is a fact that Hubbard was a science fiction writer active in the same years that Lovecraft's stories were first published (the late 1930s—some Lovecraft tales were published posthumously) and writing for the same types of pulp magazines in which Lovecraft's stories appeared. However, the two authors’ outlets overlapped only at Astounding Stories (after 1938, Astounding Science-Fiction), the magazine that published At the Mountains of Madness in 1936. This story, however, includes the same type of cosmic sweep as Hubbard’s cosmology, though both approach the concept in very different ways. Hubbard developed Dianetics (the precursor of Scientology) for Astounding Science Fiction (1950), and science fiction luminaries such as L. Sprague de Camp and Astounding editor John W. Campbell were friends of Hubbard and also well-versed in Lovecraftian fiction.
It would go far beyond the evidence to suggest Hubbard borrowed his cosmology from Lovecraft, but the core concepts of ancient aliens, buried civilizations, and mental transfer across time are all ideas that Lovecraft wrote about in stories that Hubbard almost certainly would have read years before developing OT-III. Nevertheless, the reported revelations of OT-III are much more similar to Golden Age SF space opera influence than anything Lovecraft would have written.
I have previously established in The Cult of Alien Gods that Lovecraft was the primary force marrying Theosophy’s idea of planets inhabited by ascended masters and human souls waiting to be born (itself derived from medieval notions of planets as the seats of various ranks of angels) to science fiction's non-spiritual extraterrestrials in order to create the modern myth of ancient astronauts. In this limited sense, later works like Scientology’s OT-III (taken again as a literary text) can be thought of as influenced by the ancient astronaut myth Lovecraft developed in the 1920s and 1930s.
According to the Blastr news service, Tom Cruise is interested in taking the lead role in Guillermo del Toro's upcoming film version of At the Mountains of Madness. I can understand Cruise's attraction the role, since Lovecraft's extraterrestrials worshiped as humanity's oldest gods bears a striking resemblance to the doctrines L. Ron Hubbard created for Scientology two decades after Lovecraft's death, though with much greater subtlety and plausibility on Lovecraft's part. Nevertheless, my first reaction is: dear Lord, no. I find myself unable to imagine Tom Cruise stumbling about the ruins of the Old Ones' frozen city and reacting with appropriately Lovecraftian horror. Cruise is apparently Del Toro's first choice for the film, and if it comes to pass, the movie will need to be spectacular to overcome my skepticism.
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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