In last Friday’s Ancient Aliens review I let pass a brief discussion of time travel in the Hebrew Bible because (a) I wasn’t familiar with the story and (b) assumed that the producers of the show would have done the minimal amount of research to quote the Bible correctly. The story concerned the prophet Jeremiah and what was essentially an early version of the Rip van Winkle story. I didn’t think this was really worth commenting on, but after discussing it with Mike Heiser on Twitter, I learned from Heiser that the story isn’t in the Bible at all. Naturally, I decided I had to investigate yet another case of Ancient Aliens fraud.
Until Ancient Aliens the other day, I can’t say I’d ever heard of Marshall Klarfeld. Apparently he is a familiar figure to listeners of Coast to Coast AM, where he has appears occasionally since 2005 to promote his theory that human beings were genetically engineered by an extraterrestrial race called the Annunaki 250,000 years ago. If that theory sounds familiar, it’s for a good reason: it’s Zecharia Sitchin’s theory from Twelfth Planet (1976), which Klarfeld has actively worked to prove true.
Here’s how Coast to Coast AM summarized Klarfeld’s argument:
Tonight on Ancient Aliens we discuss the question everyone has been asking: are ancient aliens really “humans coming from our own future” or “time traveling extraterrestrials”? After all, these are the only two possibilities.
We begin with Einstein and relativity to give a science-ish cover to the episode by relying on actual physicists who discuss Einstein’s theories and their relationship to time travel near the speed of light. Naturally, this leads directly to Hitler, just because no alien documentary is complete without Hitler. Einstein, the show claims, accidentally helped Hitler build a time machine in Poland between 1943 and 1945 by “revealing” relativity 40 years earlier. Whatever.
Conspiracy theorist Jim Marrs, author Rise of the Fourth Reich, has nothing very interesting to say, and Mike Bara, an alien theorist with very little connection to reality, then argues that the Nazis invented a time machine shaped like a bell and disappeared into an alternative time line. Could Bara join them? It would seem like the people who are so certain about these ideas ought to go and build one of these time machines they profess to know exactly how to make and leave this timeline in peace.
I don’t typically talk about politics on this blog, and my comments today focus not on the ideology of the individuals involved but on their claims about truth.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) apparently feels that he is entitled to reinvent the past to meet the needs of the present. Ryan has for many years been a proud acolyte of the Objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand. He once threw a party in Washington to celebrate her birth, and he told reporters that “I give out [Rand’s] ‘Atlas Shrugged’ as Christmas presents, and I make all my interns read it. Well… I try to make my interns read it.” In fact, he once said that “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.”
I’m continuing to skim through James A. O’Kon’s new book, The Lost Secrets of Maya Technology, and I’ve finally come to a straight-up wrongheaded section that flies in the face of facts. Finally! I was beginning to think that this so-called “alternative” book would never get zanier than arguing about the degree of Maya concrete usage.
In chapter 4, Kon begins ranting about blinkered archaeologists and how unfair they’ve been to the Maya for calling them Stone Age people simply because they had no metal tools and worked largely in stone. Don’t you know that this has been a conspiracy to suppress Maya genius?
Matt Cardin over at SF Signal has a fascinating post about Ridley Scott's upcoming ancient astronaut movie Prometheus. Cardin speculates on whether Prometheus will be a Lovecraftian answer to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Cardin uses my Cult of Alien Gods (2005) to explain the weird interconnections between Lovecraft, Erich von Daniken, and Ridley Scott (who draws on both) in terms of the ancient astronaut theory.
If you haven't done so yet, be sure to read the entire post, and also take a look at the comments section, where Cardin makes a great point that I've raised several times: namely, that using untrue or even hoax theories (like the ancient astronaut theory) in fiction isn't just acceptable but often necessary to create powerful science fiction and fantasy. The trouble comes when auteurs like Scott think their fiction embodies real-world truths and vow to use their fiction to promote false theories as a real alternative to science.
Special thanks to @wetblnkt for bringing Cardin's post to my attention.
I received yesterday a review copy of James A. O'Kon's new alternative history book The Lost Secrets of Maya Technology (New Page Books, 2012). I really had rather hoped it would be full-on crazy with claims about computers or airships or something wacky. Instead, it seems to be a relatively sober overview of Mayan construction techniques, and as such is actually a bit on the dry side. I've only read part way through, but I don't see much that wasn't previously known about the Maya, nor much that would interest general readers who aren't architects or engineers.
The book's claim to alternative status mostly revolves around a critique of outdated archaeological texts about the Maya and the author's effort to argue for placing the Maya among the most advanced premodern civilizations. O'Kon is especially dismissive of the idea that the Maya were "Neolithic" because he reads this as "primitive" rather than its more specialized meaning of lacking metal tools. This isn't terribly controversial, except perhaps where he trails off into speculation about whether the Maya's four-cornered mythic cosmos can be related to the modern space-time continuum of physics. He also seems more dismissive of the Olmec inheritance used by the Maya as a springboard for their culture, all the better to make the Maya seem as though their achievements were all the more astonishing for lacking clear antecedents.
The book's most sensational claim is that several Maya buildings, including the tallest towers, were cast in place from cement, a theory O'Kon has been researching and reporting on for decades. His discussions have appeared in the anthologies System-Based Vision for Strategic and Creative Design (2003), Environmental and Water Resources (2007), and J. Douglas Kenyon's Forbidden History (2005). I am not an expert in Maya construction, but this seems to be a bit of an exaggeration from the truth that Maya buildings had an external layer of fitted stone within which was a cement-like fill, which isn't quite the same as prefabricating a building wholesale from interchangeable parts. It is also unfair to call Maya pyramids "high rise" structures, since this implies that they had multistory living spaces; instead, they were large platforms built by accretion over time. In my cursory search about the cement, I can't find much information about cast-in-place Maya concrete except what O'Kon has himself written.
I'll try reading a bit more of the book, but it's looking like that's about the extent of its alternative claims.
In his Anti-Gravity Handbook, David Childress describes the imaginary aircraft of prehistoric India this way:
Does it surprise anyone at this point that there is little truth to this?
The vimana-as-UFO myth is a case of "alternative" scholars misunderstanding the development of Hindu mythology while accepting without question false texts as true. Discussed chronologically, the mystery of the vimanas vanishes.
The word vimana means "that which was measured out." The word was first applied to the palace of the monarch, and from that to temples. Because temples are the houses of the gods, the Hindu gods' palaces could also be called vimanas. Thus, the large, flying chariots of the Hindu gods could also be vimanas. In the oldest texts, the Vedas, these were drawn by flying horses, like the chariot of the sun god in most Indo-European cultures (see, for example, the myth of Phaethon). In later epics, beginning with the Ramayana (c. 500 BCE), the chariots lost their horses and were depicted as flying on their own. The very first of these is the flying chariot of the earthly king Ravana called Pushpaka. By the time of the Mahabharata (c. 400 BCE), these flying chariots had grown in size--one was now described as 12 cubits in circumference--but they never lost the large wheels that marked them as derived from earthly horse-drawn chariots.
The concept of these flying chariots as UFO-style airships originates in a fraud, the Vaimanika Shastra, allegedly an ancient Sanskrit epic, but one "channeled" from the astral realm by a Hindu psychic in 1918. No evidence of this text exists prior to 1952, and even the "translator" of the text makes explicit that it was channeled from the spirit world between 1918 and 1923. The fake text specifically compares the vimanas to modern aircraft, describing their propulsion systems and other modern technological achievements.
Alternative theorists and ancient astronaut theorists embraced the text as a genuine, ancient text and thus Childress, in his Vimana Aircraft of Ancient India & Atlantis take it for proof of ancient aeronautics. Careful scholar that he is, he also missed the fact that it was a "channeled" "astral" text and instead claimed that it "was first reported to have been found in 1918...the genuineness...cannot be ignored" (pp. 37-38). He dated the text to between 400 BCE and 1000 CE. For ancient astronaut theorists, this was pretty close. By the time of the Anti-Gravity Handbook (2003), cited above, this treatise had morphed into "a fourth century B.C. text" "rediscovered in a temple in India" in "1875" (p. 131).
As for that UFO from the quotation that started this blog post: Guess what? Childress says it's from the Ramayana, but it's actually a poor paraphrase derived from a 1914 summary of the Ramayana in Myths of the Hindus & Buddhists, as copied by James Churchward in The Children of Mu (1945)--one of Childress's favorite sources:
As always, reality is a little different. Here is one passage describing Pushpaka from the actual Ramayana in a standard translation:
Elsewhere it is described as being filled with fruit trees, and sometimes it is drawn by geese.
Do you know many UFOs with "plastered terraces" and red paint?
I watched The Cabin in the Woods, Joss Whedon's new movie sending up the conventions of the horror genre. It won't rank among Whedon's best works, but I was intrigued (though somewhat saddened) that Whedon returned to the Lovecraftian well in telling his story of the forces manipulating a group of college students at the title location.
The set up, of course, is a horror cliche--shades of The Evil Dead, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and any number of similar films. The trailer makes clear that something else is going on in a mysterious control room beneath the titular cabin. I won't give away the plot too much, but for those who haven't seen the movie consider this your **SPOILER ALERT**. Behind the goings on at the cabin is a cult of the "Ancient Ones," "evil gods" who wait beneath the earth to rise up and reclaim their domain should certain conditions not be met.
It takes little imagination to see in this the Old Ones of Lovecraft, who wait beneath the earth for the stars to come right again, though in their August Derleth-derived form as emissaries of evil. Nor is this the first time that Whedon has used this trope; in Buffy: The Vampire Slayer the Old Ones were the progenitors of the first vampires and also waited beneath the earth for the time when they could reign again, etc. In fact, the mixture of ancient ritual and modern technology had already been done in many permutations in Whedon's other work, especially Buffy and Angel. The movie's sketchy discussion of mind control and free will was also the dominant theme of Dollhouse.
Ultimately, Cabin in the Woods fails because its somewhat interesting idea isn't given enough time to develop and the situation is forced to an unnaturally abrupt conclusion; the other side of the coin, however, is that given more time (as in a TV series), there would be little to distinguish Cabin in the Woods from any random episode of Buffy or Angel or Dollhouse.
If I could sum up the movie in one line, it would be this: The Truman Show meets Rod Serling's Night Gallery.
In the current Skeptical Inquirer Keith Taylor reviews Richard Dawkins’s new children’s book The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True. In the review, Taylor quotes Dawkins on the origins of pagan mythology. Dawkins relates the story of how Odin created humanity out of tree trunks. The story runs thus in the Prose Edda:
Dawkins writes of this tale:
Since Dawkins feels (correctly) that mythology is prima facie false, he therefore presumes that it must be the result of falsehood and lies. I beg to differ with Dr. Dawkins. I don’t think anyone just “made up” or "came up" with intentional falsehoods. This happened occasionally in very late, literary myths, like that of Cupid and Psyche, but everyone knew those were poetic falsehoods. No, there weren’t ancient con artists sitting around telling people lies to watch them worship false idols for fun.
The very interesting work of David Lewis-Williams in The Mind in the Cave (2002) and Inside the Neolithic Mind (2005, with David Pearce) provide a plausible, evolutionary explanation that requires no con artists, liars, or frauds to explain the origins of myth. Mythic tropes emerged from the experiences of early shamans during altered states of consciousness, brought about by trance or drugs, in which the shaman believed he had visited a supernatural realm and encountered the gods. This realm is actually a product of the evolved neural pathways of the brain and accessible during altered states of consciousness. From these voyages, the shamans developed the kernels of stories about the origin of all things that persisted through time, accumulating gradual changes like in a game of Chinese telephone, where the story evolves without any one actor thinking he or she was responsible for a given change.
In other words, we would all benefit from taking Dawkins's own advice in The Magic of Reality and avoid “presuming” anything about the past, since presumptions only reflect back on us our own assumptions and biases.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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