Last night National Geographic Channel launched its high-profile new series, Chasing UFOs, which it is scheduling directly opposite H2’s Ancient Aliens on Friday nights in an aggressive attempt to thwart the H2 show’s stranglehold on Friday evening alien-themed nonfiction programming.
I regret to say, however, that Chasing UFOs is perhaps the absolutely worst UFO/alien program I have ever had the misfortune of watching, Ancient Aliens included. At least Ancient Aliens remembers that it's supposed to entertain the audience.
(Full disclosure: I am scheduled to appear in an unrelated NatGeo UFO documentary later this year.)
This week the National Geographic Channel released a new poll, entitled "Aliens Among Us," that reported the American public's views on extraterrestrials. The news media, obsessed with the election cycle, eagerly reported the headline that more Americans feel Barack Obama is the better choice to handle an alien invasion as opposed to Mitt Romney. This was not, however, the most interesting finding.
According to the poll, 36% of Americans believe in UFOs (by which is presumably meant extraterrestrial spacecraft), while 77% believe aliens have visited the earth sometime in the past. How do the 41% who believe in alien visitation but not UFOs think they got here? Nibiru?
Additionally, 79% of Americans believe the government is hiding the truth about the UFOs that apparently at least half of those conspiracy theorists don't actually believe in.
The one question respondents answered in a way that would please scientists was about the likelihood of paranormal creatures actually existing. A majority (71%) correctly identified aliens as more plausible than superheroes, zombies, and vampires.
The poll was commissioned to promote NatGeo's new series, Chasing UFOs.
(Full disclosure: I am scheduled to appear in a different NatGeo documentary on the history of UFOs to air this fall.)
Now, these results are a little ambiguous. That 77% who believe in aliens visiting in the past probably includes at least some people who believe that Martian bacteria landed on earth in the early days of the planet, a good chunk who are thinking of UFOs from 1947-present, and the rest ancient astronaut theorists. Since we can't really break it down (I don't know the exact wording of the question), we can't say for certain what percentage answered the question because of what Ancient Aliens told them, but it's frightening to think that so many people are willing to accept beliefs that have no basis in evidence.
I've been asked more than once why I bother debunking Ancient Aliens, the ancient astronaut theory, and alternative archaeology. No one really believes that, many say. This shows just why debunking is needed.
The other day I wrote about a passage from Sanchuniathon, the questionably historical Phoenician author, that discussed the sacrifice of the chief god's "only begotten" son to save the people from ruin. The similarity of this passage to the sacrifice of Jesus, God's only begotten son, led the Bible-oriented mythologist Jacob Bryant to imagine that the passage prefigured Christ by a thousand years, one of those random events of ancient pagan life that was supposed to pave the way for the acceptance of the Christian message. What I didn't do was explain why this was not exactly the case. That story is almost as interesting as Sanchuniathon's material itself.
Last night, on the season finale of SyFy’s Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files (S03E12), the team of mostly competent (though often inexplicably credulous) investigators broke from their stated purpose of examining paranormal videos to take on instead the “mystery” of Stonehenge. Things started out badly but gradually got better as the episode wore on.
I'm working to see if it's feasible to produce a new, hardcover edition of Cory's Ancient Fragments, an important collection of Greco-Roman testimony about Egyptian and Near Eastern history and mythology that went through three editions between 1828 and 1876. Until the discovery of the cuneiform tablets of the Near East, these fragments were all that was known about Near Eastern history outside of the Bible.
The book is widely available for free online viewing, but if you want a printed copy (and I find it much easier to thumb through a reference work that way), the only choices seem to be overpriced, blurry photostat reprints or error-ridden OCR cut-and-paste jobs. I'm thinking that I'll reset the text, print it in an attractive hardcover, and quietly amend the final 1876 edition to correct the bizarre inconsistencies the final editor and/or typesetter let pass.
In reviewing the 1876 Ancient Fragments, I found this interesting passage from the questionably historical Phoenician writer Sanchuniathon, transliterated by modern scholars as Sakkunyaton, as preserved in Eusebius of Caesaria. The passage, if it truly reflected actual Phoenician belief in the early centuries BCE, seems to call into question the unique nature of Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. Note: The Greek writer whose translation of Sanchuniathon Eusebius used was a Euhemerist, and he has made the Phoenician gods mortal kings. In the original, Cronus (Il or El), would have been the chief god.
This passage has long attracted attention. Jacob Bryant, the brilliant but decidedly wrong-headed mythologist who believed the Bible to be the origin of mythologies, was so amazed by the coincidence of themes--the divine Father who gives his only begotten son, dressed in the emblems of royalty, in sacrifice to prevent the ruination of the people--could only sputter that this must have been a "prefiguration" of the story of Christ to come.
However, Sanchuniathon's other excerpts make plain that Cronus had many other children, male and female, so it isn't clear how this fragment relates to these others. It's also not entirely certain how much of this story is genuinely Phoenician and how much has been filtered through the lenses of the Hellenistic, Christian, and anti-Christian writers that report it. Some scholars, like Albert I. Baumgarten, believe that this particular passage was fabricated by Porphyry, an anti-Christian polemicist, to discredit the Christians, perhaps subtly altering a genuine, existing myth.
I've received some feedback and criticism for some of my recent blog posts, so today I'm going to go over some corrections and clarifications.
When George Smith uncovered the remains of the Epic of Gilgamesh in Babylon in the nineteenth century, it caused a sensation because the ancient tablets revealed a pagan account of Noah's Ark, complete in all its details. Some wondered whether this was independent confirmation of the truth of the Bible, while the more perceptive among the Victorians feared that the ancient cuneiform tablets contained an account that predated the Bible and undermined Scripture's claim to primacy.
The funny thing is, this never should have happened.
As I discussed yesterday, the Hebrew Bible contains many stories and passages that are clearly parallel to and most likely derived from pagan Near Eastern mythology. Although these parallels are well-reported in academic literature, they remain unfamiliar to most non-academics because of the popular media’s reluctance to discuss issues that call into question the fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. One of the most interesting parallels is the story of the creation of humanity from clay, which appears in both Genesis and in Babylonian myth.
Out of deference to religious sensibilities, it's relatively uncommon even today to find much discussion in popular media of the parallels between Near Eastern mythology and the Hebrew Bible. It's not surprising, for example, to see credulous discussions of Noah's Flood without mention of the fact that the Mesopotamian peoples had the same flood myth, right down to the Ark, at least 1,500 years before Biblical version was constructed. Similarly, the most prominent person to discuss in popular literature the clear linkage between the stories of the birth of Moses and that of Sargon of Akkad, who was born sometime around 2300 BCE, was Helena Blavatsky, the Theosophical fraud, who at least did the service of bringing to a wider audience the academic work of George Smith and others on the Mesopotamian origins of Genesis.
As my faithful readers know, one of the areas that most interests me is the intersection of fact and fantasy, which is why I am intrigued by the hypothesis that many of the monsters of world mythologies can trace their origins back to the discovery of fossil remains that ancient people misunderstood as the bones of gigantic humans, dragons, and sundry other creatures. The best-known advocate of this theory is Adrienne Mayor, the folklorist, whose books The First Fossil Hunters (2001) and Fossil Legends of the First Americans (2005) present this idea in great detail.
I don't agree with Mayor on every detail presented in her books, and I think she has in some places over-interpreted the evidence. For example, John Boardman, while agreeing in broad outline, made a compelling case in The Archaeology of Nostalgia (2002) that Mayor over-interpreted a skull on a vase as a fossil giraffe, mistaking a rock tossed at the skull for an anatomical feature. However, in general she made a clear and compelling case that fossils provided the skeleton (forgive the pun) on which the monsters of myth grew from generic conceptions to their specific details preserved in art and the later stages of Greco-Roman mythology. I'm not sure I agree that fossils were a prerequisite for myth; myth has always been with us. I think the fossils helped give shape to generalized, preexisting stories by providing physical proof of their reality for believers.
Mayor interprets the skull at right as a fossil giraffe, but the presence of a pile of black and white stones at Hesione's feet (center) proves some of the black spots on the skull are meant to be tossed rocks, not openings in the skull. It is thus at best a generalized skull, not a specific record of a particular fossil.
In The First Fossil Hunters Mayor mentions some of the other scholars who had worked to develop the theory that fossils inspired myth, especially Georges Cuvier and Othenio Abel. Unfortunately, the trail sort of stops there since Abel's discussion of the fossil origins of the Cyclops myth is in German and has never been translated. Cuvier's discussion of how elephant bones inspired the myth of giant humans is in French and according to Mayor had never been translated.
Well, do I have a treat for you. I've added to my site's Library both of these famous pieces. I found a rare 1806 translation of Cuvier from The Philosophical Magazine, and I have myself translated Abel from the German. Then, to round things out, I've also posted a fun little chapter from William D. Matthew about the close relationship between zoology and mythology in the pre-modern world.
[Click here for a correction of mistakes in this post.]
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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